Himalayan Blue

Round Annapurna (Bhul Bhule to Manang – 7 days)

Despite having lived in Nepal earlier for a total of almost four years, I had never done the famous Annapurna Circuit. So here goes!

The pre-trip journey was a numbing drive on minibus from Kathmandu to Beshisahar, with the constant mental message to the driver … “don’t do it!” That is, don’t overtake, which of course he ignores. The driving, the state of the roads, the motorbikes … it all makes one want to fly to Pokhara in the future. Except that flying is also risky in Nepal, which has a poor safety record.

Then another bus from Beshisahar crawled along a dirt road across fresh landslides, sounding one of those ear splitting Nepali bus horns. But here, it is part of the etiquette, since if another vehicle is coming, it will stop to let the horn blaster through. And so to Bhulbule and a lodge beside the rushing Marsyangdi River.

Day 1: 19km Bhulbule to Jagat. About 550m ascent

The breakfast view was encouraging. Distant snow covered mountains now revealed and free of the cloud of the day before.

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The promise of things to come – breakfast view from Bhul Bhule

A lot has been said about how the new roads carrying vehicles all the way to Manang in the depth of the mountains have removed the pristine nature of the trek. But most of the time you are looking up to the rice terraces, now ripe for harvesting, and shapes of the mountains, and the peaks that keep coming into view.

Also in evidence are the landslides, suddenly carrying away arable land or provoked by new roads over unsuitably steep terrain. Even without thinking of climate change, fire, water and air must wear away and destroy what earth cycles throw up, so perhaps we should not lament those gashes in the hills.

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Early trek view

Today there were a couple of steep ascents, one section on the old trail above the river, and the final section on the road towards Jagat, which has some sections with freshly added drainage channels. The lower part has plentiful rice fields and there is a sense of the great forests above, which are surviving in verdant glory.

Now the valley is narrowing, and tomorrow we step further into the fastness.

Day 2:  Jagat to Bhagarchhap

There’s no doubt that the new road must have opened up this area and made life more convenient, but still it’s not easy to walk on with a constant procession of jeeps and motorbikes with all the attendant noise and dust. The original trail still exists on the opposite side of the river, winding up and down, and sections of this we can use. A group of cylists is heading over the Thorung La pass, and for some reason had chosen to come on the old trail this morning. But most of the way they had to carry the bikes. Was this just a masochistic search for authenticity?

We are heading up the Marsyangi river valley, and it is closing its perpendicular walls together, as well as providing a series of spectacular and very high waterfalls. We can see the road on the other side, and it has been gouged out of a vast monolithic bed of stone, quite a feat of engineering. Suddenly as we complete a steep climb the valley opens out, the river becomes much more tranquil, and we can see the lunch stop village of Tal in the middle distance.

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The new road has been blasted across this rock

There is something strange, and perhaps sad, about Tal. When the trail really began in Beshisahar, then perhaps Tal was a logical stopping place, but now, with the road going in to Bhul Bhule, it seems Tal has been superseded by other villages which fit the rhythm of the trek now. There is a profusion of lodges, but they have little custom. Opposite the village, beyond the river, seethes a vast sinous ocean of bamboo, which ripples and writhes in the wind, now risen to quite a strong fresh breeze. And the clouds are thickening and boiling around the peaks, and the Himalayan blue is losing its brilliance.

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Suddenly the valley opens out before the village of Tal, now rather neglected

Approaching the village of Dharapani, we meet groups of trekkers who have completed the Manaslu circuit which joins the Annapurna trail here. One group of seven, had a support team of 15 as it was a camping trek. The Dharapani lodges are full so we continue to B …. where we find a rather bleak looking place has space, and others following also find their way here. The river is smaller and quieter, and the hills are forested with pines. The first full glimpse of the summit pyramid of a snowy peak can be seen. 

It’s suddenly colder, as we are at 1850m and the sun has gone. Into the sleeping bag tonight.

Day 3: Bhagarchhap to Chame 12.6 km. 

Another bright morning. Tractors towing trailers trundle down the road; more signs of modernisation. We are in a narrow valley whose forested slopes climb to cathedrals of rock, leaping upwards into the blue, whose tops are hidden by the drifting morning clouds. A steep climb though richly green and dark woodland, then we can see the complex massif of Manaslu in the morning sunshine, clouds again conspiring to cover the snowfields. 

The houses in this area are made from blocks of stone, arranged without cement, about 18 inches thick. Usually one storey contruction, they are earthquake safe. Inside, thick pine beams support a wooden ceiling. There are wooden floors and also walls. Bright blue metal roofs top the house. Beside the road we can see neatly arranged piles of the newly cut stones. The walls of the steep sides of the valley contain signs that show the vast slabs of stone that have sometime fallen off.

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Local stone industry

Lunchtime sunshine is appreciated, as we are steadily rising in height, and when in the shade it feels chilly. The village is surrounded by arable fields, where they grow onions, potatoes, garlic, beans. And the area is famous for apples, though the samples offered don’t look tempting. However, at least in this area fertilizers and insecticides are not used. 

At Koto we can see a perpendicular wall of rock in the valley that leads to the Nar-Phu trail, a path into hidden Buddhist valleys, that are free of motorbikes. It is a demanding high trek into an even more austere and bleak landscape. We’ll touch on its end point, when we reach the village of Nawal, the day after tomorrow. 

It is chilly at Chame even by 2.00pm, the sun disappearing. Time for the thermal undies. But we are now at 2670m, so no wonder. But it makes me consider what it’ll be like sleeping at 4,000m. 

Day 4: Chame to Upper Pisang 3330m. 12.7km. 630m ascent.

A trek settles into its rhythm. It’s a cleansing experience, as you are only concerned with movement, rest, nourishment, and sleep, as a background to the absorption of the geometric brilliance of the landscape, the clearer air, the sense of remotenes. It comes as a challenge and a privilege. There are different forms of pain, but the pain of exertion disappears upon the cessation of the exertion. As we go higher, we go slower, but try to keep the pace steady. 

It is good to have a very encouraging, kind and responsive guide. His name is Madhu, from Far Above the Clouds Trekking http://www.farabovetheclouds.com. I keep arguing that I don’t really need lunch, but he insists that I need the energy. He manages all the communication needed, and provides commentary on what we are passing through. 

While walking along a lower section of the trail, he mentioned that aggressive wasps are sometimes found there. If you attack them, they attack back. Ten stings and you’re a gonner. I know from experience what one sting was like. Maybe the body has an allergic reaction. On another section of the trail, he said, be careful here, Ian Sir, it is slippery – only yesterday someone fell off the trail, and was no more. And indeed, the trail perched above the roaring Marsyangdi.

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Madhu – keeping me on the straight and narrow way

Today we passed through the impressive swathes of orchards producing lucious looking apples. There’s quite a posh hotel here, and a small cafe is serving perfect coffee and hot apple pies. But after this, we finally leave the road and its dust and traffic and wander up through forest land. The valley has converged and now diverged again. After lunch we walk though open grassland with scattered pines. We might be in Montana, or again parts of Canada. 

Above the ramparts of the Annapurna massif reveal themselves. How can some people spend such dedicated time scaling those ramparts? It doesn’t seem feasible. But the long ridge approaching the summit looks like a possible route. And though we are told that the glaciers here are melting, the snow fields look ample.

We’ve got a newly built tea house in Upper Pisang to stay in. The upper part of the building is built of wood and there’s a little terrace outside my room. The sun is warm in spite of the fresh nippy wind, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, as the warmth from these rooms evaporates as soon as the sun dips below the massif at 4.00pm. And the forecast is minus three by 5.00am which might just be right, as we had a ground frost last night at the lower altitude. 

The building here is different, once again. A long log is used at regular intervals, as they build up the stone walls of the houses. This is fixed to a framework to tether the stone structure, perhaps in case of earthquakes; but can we assume the country was earthquake conscious in recent times? There are some flat roofs, and even odder, some sloping roofs that consist of panels of wood. Madhu mentions that they get less rain here, but that they do get snow. The snow will be from the west, from as far as the Atlantic, all the way through the Mediterranean in the winter. But this is still not in the rain shadow of the Himalaya, which affects Mustang most of all, and further north, Tibet.

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Upper Pisang house, with wood and stone construction

We walk up to the small Buddhist monastery, and prayer hall. For such an austere religion, the prayer halls are a riot of colour. But did the Buddha intend to be treated as a deity? Hinduism, rather than be in conflict with the new religion, tried to absorb and co-opt the Buddha as an additional avatar in the great Hindu tradition. 

I preferred the philosophical tradition of Hinduism, and never felt very attracted to Buddhism at a younger age, when searching for the perfect path, which included a form of spiritual practice and teachings that explain life the universe and everything, or more importantly, our own divine nature. But I did like the story about Buddha, that on his deathbed, he said: Man is a composite entity – work out your own salvation.

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Buddhism is an outdoor religion

Day 5: Upper Pisang to Ngawal

At breakfast very large, bold Tibetan crows land outside the dining room to see if there are any rich pickings.

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Tibetan crow on recce

 

The trail initially winds through sparse woodland, where cows pick at almost bare ground; but they don´t seem undernourished. Up climbs the trail, in measured zig-zags, and it is now tough at this altitude.  Tea in the village. Large crowd of trekkers round the immaculate stupa.

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The climb has brought us up higher in the brighter, thinner air

Pisang Peak visible, one of the trekking peaks. Round the village lie a whole series of fields, now fallow. They grow buckwheat, barley, potatoes and wheat. The path gloriously contours without losing height, and we come into a view of the Manang valley, with views of Annapurnas 2, 3 and 4. The village of Ngawal is at 3600m, and this is usually the highest that people live at these latitudes – it is higher nearer the equator in the Andes.

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Briefly in shelter, in sunshine it is warm: afternoon brew in Ngawal

Day 6: Ngwal to Manang. 8km

Walking up the river valley and seeking the mysterious sources of the still-rushing river. Who dares to live in this rarified air and accepts the challenge of making a living from the thinning soil, the colder air?

The route through thinner pine woods is lined with the extraordinary outcrops of rain-eroded soil, a different response to the rains than that of the landslides. But they are still present, beside the river, showing the inexorable movement of the wearing down of the landscape through time.

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Approaching Manang – into the wild places

Buddhist Monasteries dot the upper hillsides on the left of the track. While sharing the searing sun and the thinning air with the farmers and dwellers, they need to look down and beckon, as well as look up and aspire.

But how easy it is to stride on the path today! And how quickly this changes if the gradient increases.

Manang is somewhere round this corner. But it is rather dispersed over the valley. Now we are in the thickly clustered area of the tea houses. And beyond is the original, narrow-laned village, built of stone piled on stone.

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Sheep in old Manang wait to gain entry to quarters after the day´s foraging

We have passed a herd of yaks. They are noble beasts, bells ringing out. That long hair on their flanks, and that extraordinary hair on their tails, is never cut, as they need it in this world. Great rounds of yak cheese are on sale.

The animals all know where their resting place is for the night, so a small herd of sheep is waiting patiently, quietly, for entry to their nocturnal quarters. How elegant the sheep look in their luxuriant coats. The stocky Himalayan cattle look hard, tough, and strong.

The Gangapurna glacier falls down to a shallow and diminished lake. It does look like a retreating glacier in the lower reaches, all grey solidified ice. Now we can see part of the path to Tilicho Lake, as it crosses a steep dark slope, at a consistent angle. Despite the pain of the ascent, it promises entry into a rarefied world, as above looms a steep and snow covered slope.

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Gangapurna, looking a bit tarnished in the lower part, typical of retreating glaciers

Brilliant morning sunshine. Then sudden clouds form a net over the sky by early afternoon. The wind is not as fierce as yesterday. It is calm. The river can just be heard far off now, so much smaller. It has a clarity and a special blueness to it.

Day 7: Rest and acclimatization in Manang

Though a rest day, we are climbing up in the brilliant morning sunshine to Praken Gomba which means a climb of about 350m, so this will take us almost to 4000m. This is a good tactic for getting used to the altitude. It’s a steep climb, but today I am free of my rucksac. We pass horses, practically statues in the still air, reminding me of a poem by Ted Hughes.

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Patient beasts

Someone has enterprisingly constructed a very small tea house just below the Gompa. We enjoy tea and then the owner brings freshly boiled Manang potatoes, which we peel and dip in a very hot dark red sauce. One crop a year … planted in March, and harvested in September.

The story of this Gompa, is that the lama who lived there was called the 100 Rupee Lama, since he would dispense blessings for safe ascent of the Thorung La Pass, with garlands or the traditional tikka, of course for the fee of 100 rupees. Now desceased, his daughter is said to continue to live there, though she was not in residence today.

Nestled beneath a cliff, with a stupendous view of the Annapurna massif, the Gompa looks very peaceful, pure and simple. What would it be like to live up here? Does getting away from the human traffic of the everyday world really make you more spiritual?

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The lama has gone, but his daughter still tends this spot

While this idea of withdrawal from human commerce and family life and obligations is certainly part of the historical repertoire of spiritual searching, it can also be said that such isolation confers no special quality of spirituality, and indeed there are stories of the desert fathers or other isolationists, suffering the usual mental lusts and passions, perhaps in an even more intense form. Perhaps the best advice is to be in the world, but not of it.

Descending we see below the same horses, but also a large and widely dispersed flock of the blue sheep, indigenous to these parts. Madhu insists that they know where to go each late afternoon on their return to safety in the town. Above Manang there is a whole system of terraced land, now completely fallow, where the crops are grown. The horses, cows, yaks and sheep have to find what they can on the brown, impoverished land. Piles of buckwheat fibres are seen on the flat roofs of the traditional houses.

The nights are long, and for some reason I can only sleep a few hours, then oblivion eludes. It’s cold, with temperatures going below freezing. Yet, briefly, the sun is very warm. It’s cold again by about 4.00pm.

This evening porters warm themselves around an open fire in the courtyard. In the dining room, there is a massive, crudely built, stove that is effective.

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