Monday, May 05, 2008

In the Annapurnas

This is not a plea.

I went to Pokhara because the Kathmandu Valley was starting to get to me: the incessant, insistent honk of car and motorcycle horns, the mobile-to-mobile outages, the fuel shortages, the water rationing—indeed, in my apartment at current there is no municipal water; not to mention the stray dogs barking and howling and fighting through the night, the isolation of language, the persistent 8 pm coughing spell known as the Kathmandu Hack. I can't say that I expected Pokhara to be much more than different, but that was alright; it was problem-solving by distance, perhaps. Pokhara, now, borders Phewa (or Fewa) Tal, the second-largest lake in Nepal. The tourist district is Lakeside; old Pokhara is farther inland. Lakeside more resembles a resort town than it does Thamel, its Kathmandu counterpart: Here there is little traffic; the taxi drivers solicit fares more quietly, motors off; a small herd of gray-brown buffalo wanders lazily through the streets and then laces between beached, colorful tourist and laundry boats to drink from the lake. In the early morning it's crows and roosters that rouse you, and the streets and yards are bright and green. It was in this Pokhara that I slept through the night for the first time, perhaps, since I left home.

Nevertheless I left for the Annapurna Conservation Area almost as soon as I arrived. I wanted to see Himalayas, for from Kathmandu all I had gotten was one cloud-shrouded morning of Ganesh Himal; I wanted isolation of my choosing; I wanted trail companionship and megafauna.

Endurance exertion plays funny tricks on your moods, on your hormones, and even at low elevation, taxing yourself can make you moody, drastically: elation, hope, contempt, resolve at whatsoever your mind might cleave to, sometimes all within a lone and lonely hour. You feel angry, but at what? Nothing, nothing at all, and it evaporates to leave only a residue of itself, a memorial.

Everyone, I think, is a little different, but I tend to get competitive—with requisite frustrations about minor injustices and bad luck—and then calm and calculating and confident, and the first day, from the town of Lumle at about 1600 meters elevation down to Birethanti (1050 m) and up to Naya Thanti (2400 m) was this not quite in epitome, but close to it: revolving feelings of sports-cliche determination to make towns along the trail said to be much too far, and anger at the Nepalis who said a 30 minute walk would take an hour and a half.

This is actually commonplace in the Annapurna region, but even by the end of the first day I hadn't quite learned this lesson yet. I made Naya Thanti, after five different settlements calling themselves Ban Thanti, at about 6:15 and spent the night there, the only town I went through on the way to Ghorepani without electricity. A sign upon entering said Ghorepani was an hour and a half away, so I estimated an actual hour and when night came swiftly just after 7 went to bed thinking I had made a good decision.

It took me 34 minutes to reach Ghorepani the next morning. At dusk, even with the surity of the small flashlight I packed with me, it would have been a trying and worrisome 34 minutes. Still, that was perhaps the second genesis—the eukaryotic (?) moment of my realization of the depersonalization of the Annapurnas; I began to feel that here I was and am still not a person but a wallet. When frustrated, my frustrations bloomed: I hated, hated the culture and circumstance1 that values more the 30 rupees' profit to be made by deceiving travelers into stopping for a spell and buying a Frooti or a Mars bar than one that values cooperation and trust, the honest exchange of information.

For that second day, even with its tribulations, I was in a good mood. Or, more accurately: for the most part, I was in a good mood. The day started cool, overcast with cloud cover high above even the Himals, and the ridge out of Ghorepani had a soft, welcome breeze from the north. Indeed, other than the climb out, the first three hours were a clean downhill path through the twisting trunks of rhododendron trees blooming pink and red, and then alongside the waters of a gurgling, growing Himalayan stream of huge boulders of striated granite and glacial shist.

Two times, however, I was again angry at little, or nothing other than Nepal itself. The first, just a few minutes after a hill blocked the pickup-stick pile of homes and guest houses of Ghorepani from view, came at more or less a five-way trail junction, totally unsigned. The irregular dirt-covered stone steps I had been climbing paused for a dry and eroded streambed, then six feet higher continued again to the right; just before the steps swung to the right again high above, an unlikely trail covered by fallen leaves and discarded and discolored rhododendron blooms branched away to a wash opposite the steps. Back at the first intersection, a hard-packed, smoothed dirt trail branched left, then split again into two equally likely paths. Three good choices, then, a poor choice, and the way I came. I went right, following the stairs, though this was only a marginally more likely path than that to the left. For all my indecision—and severe annoyance at so much as posting a simple sign—the paths met later, near the crest of the hill.

Worse, though, was the descent from Tadapani—a dozen stone houses on the nose of a hill 6500 feet above sea level—towards Chhomrong, a walk that by signage was to be five hours. When I left Tadapani, hurtling down the step stone stairway at the town's retaining wall, I had five hours of daylight left. Almost immediately the path became leaf-covered and hidden, twisting between oaks and more, flowerless rhododendrons, sometimes hustling down cowpaths and then disappearing altogether. Every once in a long while I looked down into the loose, chalky-textured dirt to see the partial imprint of a hiker's book: proof, at least, that some else had been lost this way before.

But four paths converged in a meadow where three black cows lazily grazed, three paths trickling down from the hill and the fourth hopping a knoll, passing a pair of ragged, person-sized banana trees, and coming squarely to a solid, closed gate—two posts, two runners and a crossbeam, and beyond a house with a sizeable yard and large picture-windows.

So: the wrong path. And yet I traced the two new paths from the meadow and returned, at different points, to the path I came down the hill on.

It was at this point that I became aware of my own helplessness, my Nepali limited to daal bhaat and dhoka, the words for lentils with rice and door.2 I had seen no one since leaving Tadapani an hour and a half before, with easily a half-dozen significant possible trails I had passed over; and I had no way to ask for help. Even the map I had was Nepali and poorly surveyed, missing some settlements and misplacing others by far enough, in distance or altitude, that I wouldn't be able to located myself without a compass, the hills next to and behind me obscuring the Annapurna Himals.

And all this completely unnecessary. These were not-insignificant trails, and a minimum of signage seems common-sensical—unless keeping people from getting lost would discourage the hiring of guides.3 And indeed: A Dutch woman named Rihanna I lunched with in Tadapani told me that the other trail out, to Ghandruk, was equally confusing and difficult. So: more trails than I could walk down all of in the rest of the afternoon, two days of shopkepers calling out, “Sit down, look at menu?” or innkeepers telling me I couldn't get as far as even the next town, a nearly-worthless Nepali-made map, needless difficulty, and no communication ability past gestures and drawings.


Here I am going to summarize, to compress (or re-compress) time. I climbed over the gate and trespassed to a path skirting a low stone wall on the other side of the yard; saw a Western tourist far down the hill; descended to find yet another closed gate, but this one with a painted sign pointing to Tadapani one way—not the way I came—and Chhomrong the other, over the gate; walked through an eerie, abandoned settlement with half-fallen brick huts and collapsed thatch roofs, with only a couple of goats bleeting from the dark, cool spaces within; and treaded downwards until I found the tourist and his guide cheerfully resting at a guesthouse—at which I did learn the Nepali word for help, tagaro.4 I made Chhomrong in a very slight rain around 5, woke up the next morning to see Annapurna South from my bedroom window, then made a long, exposed, humid, nearly windless trudge—on a major trail not on my map, no less, and only told to me by a Tibetan refugee I made friends with in Chhomrong—to the standard bus and tourist drop at Naya Pul, where I immediately caught a bus and tired, sweatly, and still on my feet, was quoted twice the Nepali rate for the bus ride. And then, in Pokhara, went from the buspark to Lakeside in a cab with a crooked meter.


As I said, endurance exertion plays tricks with your moods. I went to sleep in Chhomrong looking forward to coming back to Pokhara, taking a warm shower, and—to be honest—listening to the Mountain Goats and Billy Bragg, to being relaxed in the guest house room, to finding three days' worth of messages from friends and family, to a small measure of peace and calm and relaxation before another cramped and twisting bus trip back to Kathmandu. Even though the walk to Naya Pul was physically trying I had a goal, something to look forward to; as well as good memories of the Annapurnas and of rhododendron forests—of goals accomplished.

Somehow the bus ride—sitting on a bench near the open door and smoking driver as we climbed and descended in turn—changed my mood. It was hot and cramped, I was unable to sit up straight because of some piece of padded machinery in a padded gray box above my head, and because the only place for my feet was right over the engine, I had to hold one shoe off the floor, then the other, to keep from burning my feet through two pairs of socks. At one point the bus stopped for the busboy—the conductor, more or less—to add more oil, at another point, the bus overheated briefly—or we stopped to keep it from overheating, I'm not sure which—and at another so that the driver and passengers could get out to pee, and smoke. And as we came over a little rise near Kande dutifully honking, hurtling towards us was another overstuffed passenger bus, and as both swerved my stomach dropped, for for that moment I expected we would go off the road, past the stone barricades and somersaulting down the hill.

Back in Pokhara, and alive, I got some of what I wanted on the trek from Chhomrong: a hot shower, yes, and music, but still little companionship. I washed a shirt in the wastepaper basket of the Noble Inn and went out.

My email had one personal message, about Wrench Nepal.

1 I am of course part of that “circumstance” by perpetuating a Western-tourist-based economy in ACAP, but I don't have to like it.

2 Ok, not really. But the others, except for ek (one) are all loan words: avatar, chakra, internet, lama, namaste, etc. None of these were going to help me.

3 Just to be explicit, this should be read not as a grounded accusation but the description of a state of mind. Even if true, the fairness of this requires an analysis not within my scope here.

4 There may be some aspirations in there I didn't pick up, so the word might actually be thagaro or tagharo or something else altogether.

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