Crossing Thorong La- the worlds highest navigable mountain pass

Despite getting into my sleeping bag at 7pm, my Fitbit registered that when the alarm sounded at 3.30am, I had slept for a total of 1.5 hours. Liam and I had heard that you don’t sleep very well at high camp because of the lack of oxygen, the cold and the excitement, but I had always hoped that I wouldn’t be affected. No such luck! Even Liam who usually sleeps like a log only slept for the same as me.

I had spent most of the night intermittently worrying about the first 30 minute dangerous section, tossing and turning because I was too warm wearing all my clothes (so I could avoid getting dressed in -10!) wrestling with light nausea and worrying about whether it was altitude sickness. My fear was that if I set off and ascended past the dangerous section, if I got poorly, I would have to descend the section in the unideal melty conditions. I pushed fear to the back of my brain and told myself that I would be OK. I was going to do it!

I leapt out my bag, dressed for action, and packed the room in the dark. The stars were twinkling in the sky which reassured me we wouldn’t be walking into a cloud- the conditions looked great. Ski gloves, gaiters, plastic bags over my socks (my boots aren’t waterproof), cheap plastic crampons bought in Manang, thermal leggings under my trousers, polar buff… check! Buzzing with excitement, we were ready!

Liam and I had bought some Tibetan breads the night before to eat before setting off, but they were frozen and too hard to eat. We forced a little into our mouths, and then made a discovery regarding a rookie error. The camel backs (hydration bladders) we had filled with water had frozen. Just the tubes- but it meant we couldn’t drink. Not ideal for a huge walk. There was nothing we could do, it was 4am, it was time to go.

The camp was buzzing with energy, head torches flashing and twinkling with the stars, each star a person setting off on their journey to the pass. We located the footprint path cut into the snow, and set off, headtorches fixed on the ground.

You needed all your energy and determination for the first section- it was a narrow path with one foot in front of the other. I was flanked between a menacing black void to the right, and an unforgiving steep snow slope to the left. It was safe enough if you placed each foot right, but one mistake could force you to discover how steep the ominous drop was. I was grateful I couldn’t see and I certainly didn’t reflect on it at the time (or it may have been game over!) but the snow line was over safety rails. Usually this part of the path has safety rails- and it’s rare any Nepali path has safety rails. We moved quickly past the section.

The stars continued to shine, and we followed the train of headtorches. On certain parts of the path, probably where the sun hits hard, there was no snow and it was lovely to feel the reassuring crunch of gravel. We trudged upwards, as the sun began to rise, until we reached a teashop (can’t believe they have them at 5250m!) Desperately thirsty, we stopped for a tea, along with about 15 people who were already there.

When we stopped for tea, I suddenly noticed how incredibly sick I felt. It was impossible to identify the root cause- it could have been exhaustion, nerves, hunger, something I ate, hormones, lack of hygiene… but I was worried it was the altitude. Liam kindly got me a tea, queuing in -10 didn’t look fun or even possible for me, and we sat inside. I asked the owner of the shop if I should descend because I felt sick. He asked me if I had a headache, and I said no, and then asked if I had been sick, which I hadn’t. He motioned if I could breath properly, and I was actually breathing really well (relatively!), so he said “no problem”. Feeling sick is normal at this altitude, it seems. Relieved, we decided to continue. Just 300 more metres!

After the break, we were able to cast aside the head-torches as the sun rose, and trudge onwards to the path. Completely surrounded by snow capped mountains, walking through a snow field, I was in awe of this once in a lifetime experience. Not being a mountaineer, and having no interest in being a mountaineer (I’m realistic about the limiting consequences of my fear threshold!) this was probably the only time in my life I would experience what it felt like to be in the snow line, closer to the roof of the world than to the ground. The mountain tops glowed red, and in the next valley, we could see a lightening storm illuminating snow capped peaks in the distance.

At this point, we joined a line of merry porters carrying bags and supplies over Thorong La. Whilst some porters are adequately dressed, many are not. These guys were in their teens or early twenties, carrying huge loads, and wearing trainers with crampons on, or just trainers, and the friendliest of the bunch was wearing fashion jeans with rips in them (he was wearing leggings underneath fortunately!). We had heavy bags also, so we were about the same pace as the porters- we had already been overtaken by some people with lighter packs – presumably the porters we were walking with had their bags.

The walk to the top was long and exhausting, although not steep. Even a 1km walk feels unachievable at 5350m. We managed to hydrate ourselves by removing the hydration bladders from our bags, and pouring water from the reservoir, to bypass the frozen tubes. In this manner, taking regular breaks, commiserating with the porters, and eating snickers bars, we eventually realised the pass was around the corner. I was overcome with emotion, utterly exhausted, breathless, nauseated, relieved, blissful, proud, humbled, in disbelief. I had doubted myself so much, and been so afraid, and yet, here we were.

We tuned the corner, and up one more “up”, we could see the Thorong La sign and Nepali prayer flags, a teashop and crowds of people already celebrating their achievement. I tried to suppress tears to avoid steaming up my sunglasses! On arriving at the pass, we broke our rule about no affection in public (Nepali culture) to share a big hug. Then, we posed for the obligatory photos with Spiker.

It was so lovely to see so many happy smiling people, many of whom we had seen or chatted to over the previous few days. The prayer flags flapped in the breeze, the sun was now out in full force. We had made it. I couldn’t take it all in… and then I realised how sick I felt.

Liam got me some tea, and I sat down to try and combat the nausea. I forced another snickers down me, my third of the morning, but it didn’t help. Although we had taken three weeks to get there, I wanted to get down immediately. Everything in my mind and body was screaming, get down, get down, get down. Liam was fine, and I’m so grateful for him looking after me! We quickly prepared ourselves for the 1700metre descent.

The first half an hour was horrible as I battled with nausea and felt like I was going to throw up any moment. To help me, Liam took my sleeping bag onto his bag and he was probably carrying as much as one of the porters! When we reached about 5300m, the nausea subsided and I felt normal again.

The rest of the descent was one of the highlights for me. The snow, which had made our trek so hard in places, was actually in our favour for this one occasion! Usually the path is steep, rocky and icy- a nightmare to descend. However, today it was covered in frozen snow, easy to race down in crampons. The views were stunning, of a totally new landscape, the other side of the mountains we had been staring at for three weeks. We looked hungrily at the snowless ground a 1000 metres below and trudged on.

After an exhausting four hours we made it down to Muktinath, a religious site of pilgrimage for Hindus and Buddhists. Unbeknown to us, it was Nepali new year and a religious festival. Consequently, there were crowds hundreds thick of Nepali and Indian people streaming up the path towards us, on foot and pony, blocking our way to the hot shower, food and rest in the village below. Beyond fatigued, dehydrated, delirious, we were consumed by a culture shock, the only westerners in a sea of religious festivities, it was definitely the most people we had seen since Kathmandu!

We somehow made friends with a local Nepali teenager, who helped us find our way through the maze of paths and people to the town. On the way, we made conversation about Prince Harry and Megan Markle, family planning in Nepal (?!!) and England. The first hotel that said hot shower and WiFi, we took a room, and collapsed.

We had done Thorong La Pass!

Journey to Thorong La High Camp

Writing this from other other side of Thorong La in Muktinath. We finally crossed the pass yesterday after 23 days on the Annapurna Circuit. Most people seem to be spending between 10-21 days in total trekking and we are about half way through our trek! This is because lots of people shorten the trek, and also we’ve done lots of side trails, have very heavy bags, had rest days and do not want to rush. Having said that, we were so ready to be over the pass and trekking on the other side! This is the first part of our story of making it happen- getting to Thorong La High Camp.

Day 20- Manang (3550m) to Churi Ledar (4200m)

We packed our lovely room in Alpine Homes in Manang, a place which really seems like home after spending five nights in total across two stays, and had a leisurely breakfast. It was time to get back on the road and away from the Manang Valley where we had spent 9 days because of injury, needing to acclimatise, doing side treks and then recover from the side trek. Our excitement at being back on the road was only mildly tapered by the weight of our rucksacks! We hadn’t carried them fully loaded for a while- better get used to them as we had nearly 2000m to climb in three days.

The trepidation that I had been feeling about crossing Thorong La the previous few days seemed to have dissipated. Seeing the injured man after Tilicho Lake, and being so scared for several days had affected me quite severely and I had spent much of the previous day very tearful and afraid, questioning what I was doing trekking in Nepal, and wondering if I was brave enough/had the motivation to push through my heightened anxiety. Liam and I had long conversations about potentially sending some of our stuff over the pass with a porter to reduce the weight of the bags therefore making us faster. Liam initially really did not want to do this, and we had some heated exchanges. We also discussed simply not attempting it, mostly because of my state of mind. I felt very low, but resolved to spend the day sorting out my head, doing washing, resting, talking to family and, eventually, it worked. The cloud lifted and I felt like Ruth again.

So we started walking out of Manang with our heavy bags and immediately encountered a train of trekkers traipsing up the hillside. Despite my protests to Liam the day before about how slow we would be with our heavy bags and the theoretical dangers this may cause, we spent much of the morning overtaking, including large groups who had their bags carried for them! Both this, and seeing just how many people were in their way to Thorong La, boosted my mood and morale. Also, after the sketchy crumbling paths of Tilicho, the nice wide solid path was amazing to walk on.

The sun beat down on us as we made good time, and we chatted to an English woman and an American man along the way. Eventually we stopped in the village of Yak Kharka at 4000m and had a lovely lunch before pushing on to Churi Ledar, at 4200m. Arriving by 1pm, we had made excellent progress and spirits were sky high. Our room was triple aspect with amazing views of mountains on three sides, the food was lovely and we spent all afternoon reading and lazing in the sun lounge. Preparing for the next big day…

Day 22 – Churi Ledar (4200m) to High Camp (4850m)

We woke up really early knowing we had to face another landslide area today and so wanted to reach it before the sun hit the slopes. Everything was frozen and the mountainside was turned into a magical ice paradise, we took great delight in crunching ice puddles with our boots and cracking them with our sticks. We were the first ones on the trail and walked for two hours without seeing a soul, despite how busy this section seems to be!

On the way we saw the sun rise over the mountains illuminating them in a red. We saw icicles forming on the path banks. We were treated to three Himalayan Blue Sheep running directly in front of us. It was a glorious walk, one of my favourite sections, I really enjoyed watching the mountain scenery change suddenly from green and fertile to black, brown, white and barren.

When we reached the landslide area I was very nervous, but, it was absolutely nothing compared to Tilicho Lake. There was no snow loosening rocks, the slopes were on a friendlier incline, there was a path, and there were a lot more rock defences to protect you. As it went, we saw no rocks, and after a tense 20 minutes we arrived in Thorong Pedi at 4450m.

At Thorong Pedi, I developed light nausea and we decided to rest for a few hours and have lunch. I couldn’t work out whether the nausea was from exhaustion (the altitude affects your sleep), hunger, or whether it could be altitude sickness. I desperately didn’t want it to be altitude sickness as the recommended advice is that if you get even mild symptoms you should stay where you are until they go. Going higher could cause serious life threatening problems. I was so desperate to be over Thorong La and into more hospitable altitudes of less than 3000m, I tried to suppress the nausea.

Liam and I enjoyed omelette and chips and amused the teashop owner by having lunch at 9am. We rested for a while watching all the trekkers from where we stayed make their way up and also have a rest in the teahouse. One of the nice things about this part of the trail is that you made friends/acquaintances with so many groups of people as you were all doing the same three day itinerary.

Eventually my nausea subsided and so we decided to make the gruelling 400m steep climb to High Camp at 4850m. The climb was straight up, through snow covered slippy switchbacks, and over crumbling rock paths where you sometimes had to grab onto rocks to haul yourself up the ascent. Gasping for breath due to the altitude, we slogged upwards, pausing for breath every 10 minutes. It took us a painful two hours, but we made it!

High Camp at 4850m was unlike any other place we stayed in- it was built for a sole purpose – people passing through on their way over Thorong La. It was spread over five blocks of brick terraced rooms, around a central hub that contained three dining rooms. The owners organised it like a military operation, catering for the up-to 500 people who can stay there during peak season in Autumn. The rooms were fully booked out by early afternoon, we reckoned there must have been about 150 people. In high season, rooms turn into dormitories and people sleep in the dining rooms! The food service was efficient as the big team delivered a continuous flow of food to hungry trekkers. The rooms were very basic, cleaning not a priority as the -10 degrees temperatures probably staves off any fetidness.

The recent snow meant the whole camp was still dealing with the affects of being buried. I encountered one of the worst toilets I have ever seen. People had just defecated all over the floor around the squat toilets and no one had cleaned it. There were no lights, so that sort of explains it, but it was horrendous. And it was whilst I was in this fetid human excrement chamber that I discovered – I had started my period.

Days early. And I had missed all the signs probably chalking them up to trekking! My emotional, doubting myself, tearful day in Manang suddenly made more sense to me now. I couldn’t believe it. During hormonal times I usually can’t be bothered to get off the sofa, and here I was, doing one of the hardest walks of my life. Brilliant. Dealing with all of that whilst trekking and staying in a very unhygienic place- brilliant. I had to find it funny, which I did. And discussed the horrors with the other female trekkers.

Despite the human factory style to High Camp, Liam and I shared a lovely afternoon appreciating the amazing panoramic mountain views, celebrating our achievement to reach this high. We sat on a veranda watching people climb up to High Camp, birds flying, yaks resting and clouds swirling above the mountain tops, feeling very fortunate to be there. We also made some new friends and caught up with old trekking friends in the crowded, cosy dining rooms, sharing travel stories and menu recommendations. It was a very special feeling, knowing we would all be going over the pass the next day and the atmosphere was electric with excitement and tension.

Liam and I retired to bed at 7pm knowing we would have to get up at 3.30am to be away by 4am. One of guides of the groups we had been keeping the same itinerary as told us that it was important to leave at 4am as the melting snow made the path dangerous. The section of the path he was referring to was the part shortly after high camp where the snow was higher than the safety rails, and there was a sharp drop off the side of a cliff. Fortunately this section would only last 30 minutes until you were on a much easier section crossing snow fields with no steep drops! The snow being frozen would make it much safer, so we resolved to take the guides advice. With nervous anticipation we dove in our sleeping bags to protect ourselves from the -10 temperatures.

To be continued….

Always use your eyes, ears and mind.

Writing this back in the safety of Manang in the lovely beach hut cabins. We’ve had quite an experience whilst trekking to Tilicho Lake since the last post, and I warn you now, it hasn’t all been nice. So, without further ado….

The first guests of the season!

We left Manang in high spirits, back on the road again following Liam’s injury. We had been informed by the Annapurna Circuit Office that the Tilicho Lake Side Trek, a three day excursion to the worlds highest lake at 5000m, was now open after being closed due to the unseasonal snow. We felt good and strong so walked for four to five hours to a lovely teahouse at 4200m and were informed that we were the first guests of the year!

The owners were still preparing the teahouse and trying to get their electricity system (car battery/solar panel rig) to work. However, after months of snow and cold, the battery was entirely drained. They asked Liam to help work it all out, and Liam wished he had the phone a friend option to his colleagues at the Electrical firm he works for at home! They also enlisted Liam’s help to board up a window that had been broken by the heavy snow fall. They took great delight in telling us there has been 7ft of snow, and the evidence was all around in gigantic snow piles.

We loved being back in the basic huts again, but saw the difficult life of the owners as they struggled to fix their business after the snow. There was also no running water as all the pipes had frozen, so all the water had to be collected from a a steam by the younger family members in gigantic containers. This meant the place wasn’t exactly clean as they couldn’t clean it. Also it meant you couldn’t really ask for water and had to get it from the stream yourself.

Despite all the technical teething difficulties of being the first guests, we had amazing food, were kept warm by a Yak dung fire, and had lovely company. It also snowed that night and because there was no electricity, it got very dark. The hillsides and mountains were covered with a thin layer of powdery snow, which as the sun went down cast the mountains in thousands of shades of whites, greys and blacks. It was so beautiful Liam and I went out into the freezing cold and looked around in awe and childlike wonder. No photo could capture the magic.

Out of our depth

The following day we set off to Tilicho Lake Base Camp after hearing from a local guide that the trail was “OK”. We were a bit dubious as the porter seemed very scared of the trail and said it was “dangerous”. Initially the porter was going to stay at the teahouse all day and wait for a group to do a day trip to the lake, but when the guide told him to take a client to the base camp and back, he did not look happy. When we left the teahouse, the owner wished us luck. Luck. Reflecting back, maybe we should have read the signs. The road ahead wasn’t going to be easy.

We knew that to get to the base camp we had to cross a landslide area where there was risk of rock fall, especially in the afternoon. We played safe, and left early in the morning, and agreed we would turn back if we didn’t like the look of it. Initially, the path was really beautiful, joyful even. We snaked up high on the snow crisp path. And then we hit the landslide area.

What is a landslide area? Well, it’s basically an enormous landslide with a “path” built into the middle of it. The “path” is sometimes solid, sometimes a bit crumbly and sometimes just missing. For extra adrenaline, the “path” drops ominously into the river below down a vast steep scree slope. It looks mightily intimidating, and is made worse by the occasional rock rolling dramatically and noisily into the river below, triggering off several friends to join it.

Despite our initial impression, the first few sections were not so bad- the path was stable and we saw no rocks. We even stopped to take some photos. However, an hour across the area, we reached our first dangerous section. There were rocks falling down a steep landslip and in the middle of the path was a man made rock shelter. We had to move quickly to the rock shelter, watch for rocks, and then move off again quickly and carefully avoiding any rock fall. Basically dodging the falling rocks.

After we safely passed this section, there was no respite. Instead we came across sections of the “path” which were actually just sand. And sometimes there was a gap in the path that you had to step over. The river far below us peeped up menacingly.

My least favourite part was in a zone that was usually considered safe after the signposted landslide danger area. This part of the path was where the snow had not melted, and you had to walk along a snow path carved into a steep snowy path. An avid reader of mountaineering books, I was terrified it would avalanche. However, in reality, the risk was small. I was just starting to lose the capacity to contain my fear after the landslips.

For some added excitement though, the snow on the slopes above was actually melting and as it did so it brought down some small and some huge rocks. Usually these particular slopes were pretty stable and not even considered dangerous, but they were more treacherous than what we had faced previously. In addition to dodging rocks, you also had to descend along a tiny snow path and not slide down a scree slope into the river. I was so petrified, drained and exhausted I started to cry, and Liam offered that we turn back. However, we could see Tilicho Base Camp in the distance and I wanted to push on to safety. I had no desire to retrace our steps along the landslides which were getting worse in the rising sunshine.

Tilicho Lake

After an eventful three hours we made it to Tilicho Base Camp and collapsed in our room. There was only one hotel open out of the usual three, and it was experiencing some of the same frozen pipes and just opened issues. Many of the other trekkers seemed less bothered by the danger we had perceived, and it made me question myself as to whether I was right to be as scared as I was by the walk I had just done. Liam said he did not find it that scary either.

Later on, we spoke to an English and German couple who were even more scared than me! They had crossed later in the afternoon and had been pelted by rocks. The German man was so scared he even asked the price of a helicopter to get back across! Turns out it was prohibitive!

Despite the fear, Liam and I decided to stay another day and try to reach Tilicho Lake at 5000m. We had spent the day lazing at base camp and watched at least 40 people go there and back and considered it must be safe. So, we made plans at leave at 6am!

The trek to Tilicho Lake was in winter condition. The initial path was basically one enormous steep skiable slope that many people slid down on their bums rather than try to walk down. You then walked along a snowy ridge to a path… which turned into walking along yet another snow covered landslide area. I didn’t like the look of it at all, I hadn’t realised that the path was yet more landslides. However, everyone else seemed to be doing it, so we carried on.

Half way along the landslide area, we saw huge rocks hurtling down. What made it worse was that unlike the rocky slopes, the rocks made no sound on the snow covered slopes. You couldn’t hear them, and had to be constantly vigilant. We made it past the slip and started climbing some extremely steep snow covered switchbacks.

Liam and I soldiered on, exhausted by the steep terrain and altitude, to the top of the switchbacks, and then discussed with each other how dangerous we thought the path was. We had made it to 4850m and the lake was only 100m ascent away. We had done the hardest part… and now the walk was an hour of slow gentle climb. However, we both agreed we wanted to abort the walk and get down quickly before the afternoon sun warmed up the landslips anymore.

The views we had were incredible- panoramic mountain views. However, I realised I just wasn’t appreciating them as I was so anxious about the descent. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy getting to a lake with the knowledge that I had to come down the landslides.

We were the only ones to turn around, and many asked us why on our way down. They seemed to accept our reasons as sensible, but carried on themselves. Again, I was questioning my judgement!! Why was I so afraid? What was I seeing that no one else did?

About 10 minutes after choosing to descend, we came across a couple who told us there had been an accident below and we should avoid the area. There was a lot of blood- a man had been hit on the head by a rock and was awaiting helicopter rescue. I was immediately petrified, and had no desire to wait around on the landslide area for the rescue. I chose to descend even though it meant walking past the injured man, and I walked extremely quickly and carefully, eager to get out of the way before the helicopter arrived. Selfishly I was concerned about the rock fall due to turbine blades. Survival instinct kicked in.

In the end, there was no need to rush as the helicopter took two hours to reach him.

As we passed the man, we passed a huge rock the size of a brick covered in blood, and several items of discarded clothes also bloodied. He was being cared for by a small group of people, and they had moved him slightly off the path, although it was difficult as the path was so crumbly and narrow with a steep drop into a ravine. I did not look at him for long other than to avoid stepping on him, but he was clearly unconscious with a huge head injury. I felt sick, sad and terrified. I knew I couldn’t help the man as people were already with him- but I still felt terrible for walking past the scene.

Liam and I somehow made it down – a long silent scary descent through melting snow. I started to really question myself as to why I had come to this area and attempted this trek. Seeing this man lying on the floor having to wait hours for a helicopter rescue. My worst fear had happened. I usually manage my fear by saying it is not rational, it’s not likely, it’s unlucky, it won’t happen… but it has happened.

I spent the rest of the day trying to deal with what I had seen, by avoiding dealing with it, and reading an entire book. I wanted to deal with it, but I had the knowledge that to get back to safety I had to walk out of base camp and through another landslide area. Dealing with the events of the day would have to be delayed so that I could remain calm, focussed and manage my fear.

The other trekkers, who had carried onto the lake, made it down safely one by one. They had been spared seeing the injured man, and many had no idea what had happened. They all agreed the path was very dangerous and Liam and I had not missed much by turning back when we did. Everyone was emotionally drained by getting down safely.

We sat with the English and German couple for the rest of the afternoon and tried to not talk about our fears for going back across the path, but inevitably it was most of what we talked about. In the end, we agreed to walk together at 5.30am before the sun warmed the slips, and to help keep each other safe.

So. We made it safely back with a mostly uneventful morning other than some goats walking across the landslip and sending rocks down onto us even when the sun couldn’t …. and now we are resting in Manang. Again. A little bit traumatised and a lot exhausted.

What have we learnt?

Liam and I have talked a lot over the past few days. I want to emphasise Liam was not as scared as me, and many many trekkers crossed safely at all times of day. However, the trek was basically playing chicken/fate with falling rocks. It was a risk too far for me to stomach. I didn’t come to Nepal to take such risks.

The night before we crossed the landslide area again for the return, I laid awake battling intrusive thoughts about what would happen if I got hit. How would my family feel. I also couldn’t get the man out of my head, and I thought about him and his family. Out of respect to him, and his family, I won’t share any details I’ve learnt subsequently, but I will say he is currently in a coma in Bangkok hospital. I am sending him all the luck for recovery.

On the way down from Tilicho, we warned everyone about what had happened… but no one turned back. The risks are acceptable to most people, it seems. Many were a lot more experienced than ourselves. Some I considered many be naive. But… I do understand… you come to Nepal once, you want to do the best treks, you are told it’s safe, loads of people go, guided groups go… and you think… it must be safe! Or… maybe… it won’t happen to me!

I’ve learnt that Nepal “safe” is not the same as Europe safe. I know that’s probably obvious, but actually it’s a whole shift in state of mind. In Europe, we are so used to having everything risk assessed for us that we forget how to risk assess ourselves. We are deskilled. We leave decisions about maintaining our safety to government committees. If guided groups are going in Europe, it probably is safe! In Nepal, guides need the money, clients are pushy, and consequently quite large risks may be seen as acceptable.

As a tea house owner told us in the aftermath, always use your eyes, ears and your mind. Something that maybe I’ve never really learnt to do to the degree needed in Nepal. Better start now.

What’s next?

We are recovering emotionally and physically in Manang, and then we are off to have a go at this pass that we have been putting off. However, if we don’t like the look of it, using our eyes, ears and mind, we will turn back. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean we have to. We’ve had enough adrenaline. So that was Tilicho Lake. Can’t say I would want to go back in the same snow conditions.

Resting in Manang

Writing this (6th April) from a teahouse at 4200m – the first time it has been open this year! We are the first guests! They are still making repairs on the windows which were very recently under a lot of snow, and cracked. It is now Day 16… and we are not on the Annapurna Circuit, but a side trek to Tilicho Lake. But let me start from the beginning! Last time I posted Liam was recovering from his injury and we were resting in Manang.

Manang times

Manang is a town on the midway point of the Annapurna Circuit and the last point of road and “civilisation” before passing Thorong La Pass. Liam and I had heard it was big and developed, so initially avoided it. However, we found it a very lovely place to pass three days! It really was still very small, guest houses and trekking shops scattered along one road. We were able to buy supplies, pay someone to do our laundry, post postcards, go to the cinema twice, have a latte (!) and lounge with good WiFi and a comfortable lodge.

It still wasn’t exactly a busy modern town however. The “post office” was located by walking through a dingy shed filled with unwell cows recuperating, and then climbing a ladder to a room where a man with a tin box reassured you the card would be delivered. The “cinema” was in a cold outbuilding in the hosts yard space, with a projector screen and a selection of DVDs. You had to choose one between the people who turned up. You had to press play on the player yourself, sort out any technical issues and sit on plastic chairs. However, you did get free tea and popcorn!! It was the best cinema experience I’ve ever had!

I was looking forward to some luxury and ordered a latte made on a proper coffee machine! However, as soon as I ordered it, I regretted it. I noticed a flurry in the kitchen and it took 3 people to work out the machine, and over 40 minutes for it to arrive. Amazingly, when it did arrive, it was complete with frothy milk and foam art work!

The Gompa

After a day of rest in Manang, Liam’s ankle felt better so we decided to do a “small” test walk up to a Gompa (Buddhist Temple/Monastery) at 3950m. We took a small bag between us and made it up there with no problems. It was amazing to think that a week before we had been gasping for breath at the same altitude- it seems we are acclimatising!

When we reached the temple, we were greeted by a lama or a Buddhist monk, who invited us in for a blessing. The monk wished us luck for Thorang La Pass, and told us she had been at the Gompa for 36 years! She also made a joke that I was the strong one because I carried the bag.

After we finished with the blessing, we burnt a plant that a man in Mathilo Chilpo, a town we visited two weeks before, told us to take to Manang. This plant seems to be something that is burnt at all the religious sites. Liam used the embers of the monks recent fire to burn the plant that we had carried all this way.

The Ice Lake

Seeing as Liam’s ankle had held up well, we decided to test it out by doing one of the toughest walks in the area, a walk to an ice lake at 4600m. This involved a gruelling 1100m ascent and then descent from Braka, the town we had stayed previously…. just gently easing Liam back in…

We knew from watching the trains of people trudging up the path at Braka that this walk is very popular- it is a perfect acclimatisation day for Thorong La Pass. Always wanting to avoid the crowds, we decided to set off super early at 5.30am. However, this meant getting out of bed to freezing cold -3 temperatures. I slept in the clothes I wanted to walk in to avoid having to get changed in the morning.

As we walked out of a freezing cold Manang, we collected three dogs who followed us all the way to the Ice Lake! They enjoyed the views as much as us and ran ten times as far as they played in the hills and snow. At one point, they ran up a mountainside to chase a pack of what we think were deer.

The walk up to the Ice lake was a brutal and enormous ascent up switch backs and steep gravel slopes that tested my fear of slipping. The views were absolutely ridiculous and kept us going. At about 4200metres, we were clambering up snow, and gasping for breath. We made it to 4500metres before we reached a point in the path where the sun had melted the footprints from the trekkers of yesterday. We took one look at the slippery snow/ice slope and decided that we would not try to carve the path.

So, it turns out there are advantages and disadvantages of leaving early and arriving first. We spent the whole time ascending completely on our own, not a sound to be heard. However, we could not reach the Ice lake because we weren’t confident of the path and no one had cut steps in it yet. We both agreed the serenity and calm was worth it – we nearly made it and the views were stunning! Even more appreciated in the silence.

We descended from the Ice lake after a moment of me panicking that we were lost, and bumped into hoards of people trudging up in the baking midday sun. One even had a mini rig and was blasting out music. Each to their own, but we were very glad of our quiet walk!

so… that was our lovely three days in Manang. Next stop we are going on a four day expedition to Tilicho Lake at 4800m and back! It is supposed to be very beautiful, but the path has only recently been opened after heavy snow. So, we will see how far we can get!

Mountain WiFi

A brief note on WiFi connection in the Himalayas. When you ask your lodge if they have WiFi, they reply “mountain WiFi”.

This means: works for about a total of two hours a day, sometimes very well, but only in spurts of about 10 minutes. Power is often out in the Himalaya, and so this also cuts the router.

Sometimes the WiFi is painfully slow as you share it with 30 other lodge guests.

Still can’t believe we get WiFi!

Final note- apologies for typos, grammatical errors and any lack of fluency in the blog posts. I write them on the notes section of my iPhone, and this makes it quite difficult to write and edit! Often when I notice the mistakes, the mountain WiFi has ceased to work to correct them!

Highs and Lows

It’s our day 13 on the Annapurna Circuit and we are currently sat in the glorious sunshine in our lodgings ‘Alpine Homes’, which consists of 10 beach hut rooms built around a glorious sun trap sheltered courtyard. It’s kind of Bridlington Sea Front meets the Himalayas, and it is making us feel very at home!

The past 4 days have been a series of altitude and emotional ups and downs, and we are now resting in relative Nepal luxury in Manang to recover from both.

The ridiculous views and a Puffin related near disaster

After Upper Pisang we left to climb from 3300m to 3670m to our tea house for the evening. The initial climb was absolutely brutal up a series of switchbacks on crumbly slippery steep path. There were a lot of people snaking up the hillside, and we made many temporary Annapurna friends as we rested with them and remarked on the climb through gasped breaths.

After climbing up the hill, we were rewarded with the most ridiculous panoramas of Annapurna II, IV and V, in addition to Pisang Peak and Gangapurna. We really felt in the middle of the Himalayas now! We had tea with a lovely Nepalese woman who recommended her sisters guesthouse in the next village, and told us about her brother who had a shop in London selling Nepalese clothes and trinkets!

On the way to the next village,

trying to get a good Spiker the Puffin photo posing at a view point, we had a near disaster. I carelessly knocked him from his precarious perch and watched in horror as he fell off the side of the cliff and rolled down a series of ledges in slow motion. His whole life flashed before my eyes as I accepted his loss to the mountain, until he finally came to rest on an icy outcrop, the last resting place before a fall down a perilous cliffside! Without hesitation, Liam leapt to his rescue, and scooped him up! He survived and we joked he must be the One Chosen Puffin.

We finally arrived at our guest house and collapsed into the glorious room, with panoramic mountain views on two sides, utterly content. Life couldn’t get any better, we spent the evening chatting with fellow teahouse guests, eating delicious food and gazing at the scenery.

To crown the whole experience off, the night sky was brilliant with stars and we were treated to a spectacular phenomenon. Over in the next valley there was an enormous thunderstorm (we couldn’t see or hear it) and every time lightening struck, the mountain range visible from our window glowed reds and pinks. It was probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen- but sadly it was this same beauty that was causing the deaths of people in Southern Nepal as their homes were battered by the same storm.

Life feels very precious and precarious in the mountains, and not just for Spiker! Towered over by the colossal giants of the Himalayas, you feel very vulnerable to the weather. Unlike safely maintained European trails, often Nepali trails can succumb to landslips, avalanches, or the trail just crumbling into the ravine below. You have to be constantly assessing the risks and take nothing for granted, especially the weather. Storms above 3000m are no picnic!

We followed a Guide and got lost!

That evening, in the guest house, we made friends with a German woman called Gabriela and her guide, whose name I shamefully can’t pronounce or spell! We decided to walk with them the next day, and it culminated in our only time getting remotely lost. As it turned out, we couldn’t keep up with the duo, and also they took a route off the main track. This route had some hair raising descents and I’ve learnt something about myself this trip – I’m terrified of very steep descents! I start panicking very easily and can’t do it! So, Liam and I went our separate ways after an hour, but found ourselves lost on the hillside in a myriad of goat tracks, Jeep tracks and pine forest.

Morale sank a little, as Liam was feeling really exhausted and I was annoyed with myself for succumbing to my fear of steep descents. It turns out that even the most stunning mountain scenery in the world cannot immunise you from moments of misery.

We slowly and silently made our way to the next village Braka (pronounced Braga) and collapsed in the room! We’d finally made it to the middle of the trail, a huge achievement and something we’ve been looking forward to. However, we were not feeling very celebratory.

Injury strikes.

So it turns out that Liam is now injured. Ever since our (not so) jolly up to the Pisang viewpoint, his Achilles’ tendon has been niggling him, and it got to a low point on Day 11. Even though the pain is not very bad, it is quite concerning because of the brutality of the Himalayan terrain. There aren’t any gentle flat walks, and out packs are heavy and strain our bodies. As a result, we’ve decided to take some rest days to give the tendon the best chance of recovery.

Liam has been using the unmelted ice from the paths to make ice packs and regularly plunging his foot into buckets of ice cold water. This is no easy task considering that the first night we arrived in Braka it was snowing, and ever since then it’s barely got above zero.

Something I knew about myself, an unattractive quality, is also coming out. I get quite miserable when I can’t do anything. I have been trying to remain upbeat, especially as Liam is the one who is suffering the most, but I’ve been feeling pretty downhearted about resting as we are both really eager to explore the amazing mountains and push on with the walk. This terrain is also quite difficult to relax in- it’s roasting in the sun but freezing in the shade, the rooms are freezing at night, good hygiene is difficult to maintain, and the altitude also affects you.

However, we’ve worked it out between us and are now very content. We moved from Braka, where there was nothing to do but hike, to Manang (30 mins away), where the are lots of shops, bars, little walks and even three cinemas (projector screens) showing loads of our favourite mountain movies such as Everest and Into Thin Air.

We’ve also treated ourselves to a beer, laundering all of our clothes and a really hot shower. We’ve even washed Spiker! After a difficult day of low spirits, we feel very good now relaxing in our lovely new lodge in the sun.

What’s next?

Liam and I are planning to remain in Manang for at least three days. It is really stunning here, and we will be very comfy. We will see how his ankle heals, and then decide if we want to carry on. From this place begins the hardest, coldest and most remote trekking, so we need to be fit to attempt it. However, even if Liam doesn’t heal, we can still go a bit further and do a few smaller walks without bags. We may even hire a porter to help with the bags if it means we can continue on the next hardest part.

A positive of the injury- it’s absolutely gorgeous weather now for a week, and every day that passes means more snow has melted on Thorong La Pass. Every passing day means more people walk the trail and create a better path through the snow. Ultimately, it makes our walk onwards easier!

And I am learning to rest and be still… and Spiker is clean. We’ve made it half way on the Annapurna Circuit!

Day 9 on the Annapurna Circuit

Currently having a rest day watching the clouds descend on the Annapurna II (7937m) in the stunning village of Upper Pisang (3300m) We’ve had two hard days followed by two easy days, and are making the most of sitting, eating and resting before we trek onwards (and upwards) tomorrow.

The views

After the torrential rain ceased and the sun melted the clouds, we began our climb onwards and have been absolutely blown away by the scenery. We are now firmly dabbling our toes in the outskirts of the Annapurna Massif Mountain range, home to the 10th highest Mountain in the world, Annapurna I (8091m) and an assortment of her smaller but nonetheless gigantic relatives, Annapurna II-IV. Apologies for the cliches, but the views are absolutely breathtaking, words can’t do it justice, and Liam and I agree it creates sensory overload- you just can’t take it all in. Just when we think it can’t get any more beautiful, it somehow manages to. We feel utterly privileged and are in no hurry to leave this area… hence our two restful-ish days.

Never ending ups

No pleasure without pain, the beautiful views come from the struggles. The first half of this trek constitutes never ending up hills. Despite knowing this, it is always vaguely surprising to spend the whole day slogging with our 12-16kg packs on accents of often quite steep slopes, switchbacks and staircases/staircase-ladder hybrids. Frequently whilst climbing these gigantic beasts, I have moments (usually just before the hill ends) where I lose all hope and start dramatically declaring “will it ever end!!!” And of course, it does, often with the reward of a ridiculous view.

In addition to the ups, there are also the up-down-ups. These are ups which are immediately followed by a down to lose all your altitude, very quickly followed by a steep up to regain it. These are not my favourite moments of walking.

So far we have ascended 2500m (not including the up-down-ups) and so we have another 2100m of ups to go! So, I better get used to it!

Dealing with altitude

Neither Liam and I have ever spent much time at higher than 3000m, and consequently, we have never experienced the effects of altitude. Over 3000m, your body starts to struggle with the limited oxygen and it has to adapt. If the body doesn’t adapt, you get quite ill, and you have to go down. I knew very little about altitude sickness before this trip, but being slightly paranoid, I am now a google scholar. We are taking the trek very slow now that we are over 3000metres, making sure that we never sleep more than the recommended 300-500 metres higher a night.

We have both felt the altitude, it’s incredible just how breathless you get at this height. We did a side trip today and even without the bag, it was the most exhausted either of us have been! We’ve both been reading Into Thin Air (book about Everest disaster) and completely understand why people turn back 100 metres from the top (we did ourselves from a meagre 4000m ascent!). I am not trying to compare myself to anyone attempting Everest- but at 3700metres, I got a very very small decorative teaspoon of insight into the three day feast of altitude problems on bigger mountains. I can confirm what I already knew, I have absolutely zero interest in being a mountaineer.

Dogs

One of the highlights of the trip so far has been the dogs, who like to follow you for sometimes very long sections. They don’t ask for much but adopt you as a walking companion and provide endless entertainment as they jump around in front of you, wait for you and become fiercely loyal for as long as they choose to follow. We have been careful not to stroke or feed them, as we realise they are wild and probably hosts to creatures that we would prefer not to host. However, it has been very hard to resist!

The downside to doggy tag alongs is when they encounter another dog or stray into another dogs territory. Our first dog simply backed down as soon as it was challenged and we lost it… but one of our dogs seemed to be using us a safety net to venture into other dogs territory. All of a sudden we were in the middle of dog war fare, with some mean hardy little mountain dogs snapping viciously at our dog that was trying to take shelter between my legs. With visions of rabies and blood born diseases, Liam and I walked very quickly back the way we came, and our dog followed. Hilariously, we were afraid to carry on down the trail as our dog kept insisting on joining us which was really pissing off the pack of mountain dogs!

Trail life

Liam and I are still loving trail life where all you have to do is eat, sleep, walk and plan your walk. We’ve also been washing our clothes by hand, enjoying the delights of cold showers, and playing toilet roulette (is the toilet going to be rancid or not!?).

We have two sets of clothes- ones for day and one for night- and have probably have reached a point now where we smell fairly fetid despite our attempts at cold showers and hand washing clothes. Fortunately, we can’t tell. Spiker, the stuffed toy Puffin that we brought with us, is also starting to look trail weathered. His once white puffin belly is turning trail coloured.

As we’ve reached the part of the trail where many people get jeeps to, the trail is busier, but still there are barely any people at all! Maybe three small groups at most in any lodges we have stayed in.

Some of the lodges have been pretty basic, but now that we are getting higher up and in the busier part of the trail, some of them have been luxurious- akin to Alpine Ski Chalets (albeit with squat toilets and cold showers). And you normally pay nothing to sleep there, as long as you eat at least two meals.

Onwards…

So after two rest days (sort of) we are heading on tomorrow. Looking outside at the cold clouds I am hoping the sun comes back out in the morning. It is now absolutely freezing outside (literally) until the sun comes out. We have about five days planned before we reach Manang, which is where we will try to go over Thorung La Pass (5400m). The people at the last village we stayed in have told us that it’s been the worst and longest winter in memory, and as a result, the pass is under a lot of snow and may be difficult. This time last year, people were doing it in shorts!!

Liam and I have decided to have a go as long as the weather and advice of the locals seems to suggest it’s possible. Many fellow trekkers are rushing to get to the pass but we are taking it slow, letting the spring sun melt the snow! We have the luxury of time.

Trekking begins!

Currently on Day 5 of the Annapurna Circuit and having a very wet and cold “rest day” which officially began at 10.00 after having walked for two hours from our last accommodation. Good wifi, warm, and little walking to do… So, time for a blog post!

The “Road”

When we decided to do the Annapurna Circuit (a 130 mile walk around the foothills of the Annapurna mountains) we were well aware it was Nepal’s second most popular trek after the Everest Base Camp Trek, and was rumoured on the internet and beyond to be very crowded, and also quite spoiled by a busy new road which had either obliterated or ran near to the trekking trail. Consequently we were expecting hoards of people akin to the Lakes on a Bank Holiday Monday walking down a dusty Nepali style motorway.

Five days in, this has not been our experience! The “road” looks more like a typical UK Forestry Trail, and is only accessible by motorbike or jeep- we count maybe one or two an hour. Also, it is very rare you have to walk along the road as usually the path avoids it. Liam pointed out that even walking along the road was one of the most beautiful walks he had ever done!

Many people have criticised the road for spoiling the walk and bemoan the development of the area. For this reason, many people skip out the first sections of the Circuit and get a Jeep to higher sections (ironically driving on the troublesome item in question). Liam and I are completionists and wanted to have the full experience, so have chosen to walk the whole Circuit. And, we are very glad that we have done so!

Whilst the road must be very different to the original trails, it has helped develop the area to benefit a lot of Nepali people. Many Nepalese people wanted the road- others didn’t of course. We were pleased to walk through the areas many choose not to, as we wanted to face the perceived negative aspects of trekking. We didn’t want to skip out the road sections and pretend there wasn’t now a road. The road is a consequence of trekking and we wanted to acknowledge that.

Indeed, we were extremely glad of “the road” yesterday when we could avoid the path which had become a slippery death trap. We chose to walk quickly and more safely to the next town… although even on the road we had to Ford a river which was caused by a nice mountain lightening storm road waterfall. We survived though Liam took a souvenir of a boot full of water!

Roads can be exciting too.

Teahouse Life

We’ve been very much enjoying staying in teahouses on the Annapurna Circuit. Unlike walks we usually do in then UK which involve camping outside, on this walk you stay each evening in a lovely teahouse. Most are basic, you get two single beds in a small wooden room and a communal Asian style squat toilet and cold shower. Many of them so far even have a jenky gas powered communal hot shower and very slow WiFi. In the bigger towns you can have more luxury if you want- maybe homes made out of concrete and your own bathroom.

You stay in the tea-houses for a very small sum, or even for free, as long as you eat all your meals at your teahouse. The food has been delicious! We’ve been eating a lot of curry, Tibetan Bread and fried rice. Basically carbs surrounded by carbs. Essential fuel for the hills!

The rumours of the teahouses being overrun have also proved false- we have barely seen any other trekkers! It may be busier up higher as many of the trekkers start past the road now. It may also be quiet because of the bad weather and because two of the mountain passes have been closed. Either way, it’s been nice to feel like we’ve got the trek to ourselves a lot of the time!

A wander up high

Our most wonderful day so far has been when we decided to take a long seven hour route over to the next village rather than walk quickly in two hours on the road (ha!).

It was a glorious day (I can’t imagine that was even possible with the weather that is currently flexing around us) and we ascended over 1000 metres and descended nearly the same as we walked up and down the hillside to take in two villages and a spectacular view.

I’ve walked in mountains before but some of the ascents and descents were punishing. We were reminded of Frodo in Mordor as we walked up “stair cases” using our hands as well as our feet. Endless switchbacks of rock stairs with seemingly no end in the baking sunshine!

At the top, when we were beginning to doubt the end would arrive, we met a Nepalese man walking up the same staircase/ladder wearing suit trousers, a shirt and office shoes. He was a school teacher using the same path we were to get to a school in the next village to invigilate at exam at their primary school! He was very impressed with us (as we were him) and wanted to try to lift our bags, talk to us about football and take our photo. We were happy to oblige and we walked the final stairs with him and had a quick rest at his school.

After getting lost and a few painful, unnecessary but ultimately rewarding ascents later, we came back down and were stopped by a small group of locals who invited us to take some rest with them in their garden. The head of the family, a man in his 50s, provided us with some upturned metal drums and asked his wife to make us tea. He had little English but we managed to have a conversation of sorts- mainly establishing that he didn’t like Thailand and thought England was a good country. He found Liam’s beard very amusing and insisted on touching Liam to see how muscly he was. He took great delight in showing Liam that he had bigger biceps than him.

He then decorated Liam’s cap with some local fauna – we still aren’t certain why – but think maybe he was giving Liam some hair as he found baldness interesting also. Whatever he was doing, everyone found it hilarious, and we were very happy to provide entertainment in exchange for the shade, the tea and the conversation.

After a gruelling and soul destroying descent we were stopped by yet another Nepalese man near the bottom and invited to sit down, which of course we did. He wanted to know how old we were, how much our shoes cost and if we were married. After providing him with this information he offered us a bottle of coke and then told us he would never forget us! It boosted our spirits high enough to make it to the lovely village of Jagat for a good rest and sleep.

Rain

We had been so spoiled and not realised it- and we had even been cursing the heat. Our fourth day brought us rain! It started well enough, having breakfast and good conversation with a lovely American man (who worked as a Yosemite Park Ranger!!!), and walking quickly to the next town. Today was meant to be our rest day after the previous exhausting ascents and descents, but we failed miserably at resting and ended up having the longest day yet!

Half way through the day, it clouded over and started to rain. Innocent at first, it ended up being a torrential never ending downpour complete with thunder booming around the valley and frequent flashes of lightening. I kept eying the cliffs and river banks warily knowing that landslides can be common with heavy rain. We sloshed and slogged our way through, regretting not having our rest day, and ended up utterly soaked at a small town with a very basic teahouse. For the first time I longed for heating, thick fluffy duvets, a bath and warm dry clean clothes. Instead, I had to accept the reality of a dirty squat toilet, no shower, and a mouldy dusty room.

It wasn’t all bad, the mattress was comfy, the food delicious and most importantly, it kept us dry!

Ever since yesterday afternoon, it’s been raining, we have been slightly damp and unable to dry our clothes. In the mountains above us, the rain is of course, snow. This means that the high pass we aim to cross later in the walk is now under several feet of snow and has been closed! The snow line is now about 2200 metres rather than the usual 4800 for this time of year. If we get some good weather, it may melt, but the unseasonal storms may prevent us from completing the circuit! This is of course entirely usual in mountain weather- anything can happen in the Himalaya!

As Liam has just read in his book about Everest, the mountains decide! We are going to carry on walking and see what happens. We’ve checked the forecast and it looks like two good weather days. Many people try to do this walk in 10-15 days, but we have enough money and time for 40. If it means lazing in teahouses reading books and sheltering in the rain, so be it!

… the barking dogs of Kathmandu seem a long way away. Now I lay here listening to the rain on the tin roof of the teahouse, the jingle of mules making their way down the mountain and the roar of the raging waterfall behind us.

Travelling is not all rainbows and unicorns

The past few days have been spent participating in a local festival, buying lots of stuff and travelling to the start of the Annapurna Circuit. A few tales!

Holi Festival

Holi Festival is a Hindu/Indian festival that celebrates the start of spring – the visible way to mark the festival is by throwing colourful paint and water over everyone. We were told by our guesthouse owner to wear something we didn’t mind ruining, and to put all electronics inside watertight bags. We thought we had been well prepared by buying white Holi t-shirts, but actually this had the adverse affect of making us open targets.

The main demographic of people who participated in the paint throwing and soaking festivities appeared to be young boys, groups of teenagers of both genders, and young men. The three groups had three distinct methods.

The young boys waited in the networks of alleyways and when you were trapped, you would face a barrage of water bombs with the aim and velocity that would shame a professional cricket team.

Out in the streets, you would be enveloped by gangs of smiling assassin teenagers all keen to smear paint on both your cheeks, hair, and if they were feeling suitably cheeky, your body. Being someone who has issues with personal space, having a constant stream of Nepali teenagers rubbing their hands all over me left me wrestling with horror.

Worst of all, was the young men, who would sit high in the buildings and then throw vats of water on your head from height.

In theory, and if you were of a certain temperament, I suspect it could be quite exciting and fun to be covered in paint and water. My reality- was that it turned Kathmandu into a real live Call of Duty game. The most fun target for all was the tourists. Especially those wearing white Holi t-shirts.

Liam and I initially embraced it, although afterwards agreed neither of us particularly enjoyed it. After a while, it was tiring. We turned blind corners in alleyways with anticipation of being pelted, or chased by small boys. We avoided shoals of teenagers, and stepped round water tipping zones by avoiding wet patches on the floor.

I know I sound like a grumpy old woman, but I suspect no one likes to feel like a helpless foreign target. The Nepali newspapers seemed to concord with my feeling of trepidation as the local news articles on Holi included a warning that it counted as assault to touch someone without their permission. Police were driving around, making sure that only those who wanted to be were soaked or painted…. the tourists who didn’t wear Holi t-shirts were mostly unscathed… so we were probably a bit stupid!

Also in the article, there was a comment about how the festival article had lost its religious meaning. Instead, it had become only about throwing paint on each other, and engaging in raucous street festivities. The quiet family times have been replaced by partying. Liam and I got into judgey tourist mode and questioned to what extent this was being influenced by tourism. Many of the tourist areas were capitisiling on the festival by having boozy parties. Backpackers were walking around with beers in their hands- no locals were. Yet.

All that being said- I am glad I took part. There was a lot of positivity and smiles and I felt that the paint and water attacks were well intentioned. Me not enjoying it probably says more about me and my personal space issues than the festival!

Buses and bartering

The day after we took two buses to get from Kathmandu to Besisahar, the start of the Annapurna Circuit walk. We learnt that the bus drivers like to put tourists and questionable locals on the back seats, because they are worst being the hottest and bounciest. Liam and I shared the back row with three very drunk Nepalese men, who spent the time waiting for the bus to start arguing with other bus passengers, arguing with each other and trying to communicate with us by slurring Nepalese (god knows what) at us. Other bus passengers found this very amusing. When the bus started, they fell asleep, one with his head on Liam’s shoulder, generously sharing his sweat and dribble.

I was envious of their tactics of a drunken coma though because the buses were so bouncy on the pot holed dirt roads, that I was regularly thrown clear from the seat. Our fit-bits went into melt down- thinking we had done 40,000 steps when really we did nothing other than providing pillows and entertainment for the locals. We couldn’t even play our plague game as the bus bounced so much we couldn’t focus on the screen.

On the bus, we learnt more of the Nepali driving custom, including the special advanced bus skills of overtaking other buses going seemingly the same speed, on blind corners, with huge sheer cliff drops on one side. The trick here seems to be just to beep your horn a lot as you do so, with an advanced dose of the previously mentioned skill of assuming that you will never crash.

We also learnt that a bus is never full. There is always room even if you sit on someone else’s knee. Kind of like UK trains in rush hour. Oh, and tourists are charged four times the amount for the same seat. Which, other than also being given the worst seats, we really don’t mind. And that’s a problem generally… Liam and I both lack the assertiveness for the Nepali custom of haggling. As well as being targets for Holi Festival, we are primed for being charged way more than we should be, and often politely thank people who have just mildly exploited us. Despite repeatedly making earnest pacts after these occasions to try and haggle, we have epically failed and now admit surrender. It’s so cheap anyway, we have decided that £1 here or there is a small price to pay compared to the personal costs of challenging our combined (high) social anxiety.

Himalayan Breaking Bad

Seven hours of bone rattling bus experience later, we arrived at a town which is the start of the Annapurna Circuit, and attempted to pack our bags for the trek in our hotel room. Of course, we realised that we have way too much stuff, we don’t need it all and we can’t carry it. Most people hire porters to carry their bags round the trail, but we love being independent. The locals think this strange and we were called “typical English” to not accept help- I have no idea what this means – and it made me feel like I voted Brexit.

Fortunately, we asked the help of the Air B&B owner who we stayed with in Kathmandu, and have arranged a driver to take our surplus 8kg bag to the end of the trail, leaving us with a meagre 25kg between us to carry the 130 miles.

The B&B owner looks very much like and has all the calm, helpful, all powerful mannerisms as Gus from Breaking Bad. His efficient use of local networks to help us has heightened my suspicions. Happily for us, the mere use of his name seemed to immediately resolve our luggage crisis, with a hotel owner in a town 60km away being happy to receive and look after our random bag until an unspecified date in April (no fear of terrorism here). Fingers crossed we get it back, will be an interesting feeling handing it to a random driver tomorrow!

So, that’s us for now! Its been an exhausting couple of days filled with cultural experiences and challenges… but we are happy and full of Nepali Beer, and grateful to Himalayan Gus, and all of the Nepali people today who helped us get here, fed us, drove us, housed us, and despite our fears at times, didn’t try to attacks us or rip us off more than we deserved! Liam has had to add a new column on our budget spreadsheet called ‘stupidity’ and we have accepted a 10% surcharge on our trip for lack of bartering skills!

Tomorrow- we begin the trail!

First few days!

Passing out in plane toilets

We are three days into our trip, so time for a blog post. I’ve already done two but they seem to have disappeared in the ether of terrible internet connection. I was unsure whether to be devastated/relieved about one of them because I wrote it following a lethal combination of three beers, excitement and exhaustion, and I cannot remember it’s content – though at the time I thought it to be work of hilarious genius. The reliability of that judgement is tempered by the fact that shortly after writing it I passed out in the plane toilet, and on stirring thought I had been out for four hours, though Liam informed me I was only gone for four minutes- phew! So, maybe it’s a good thing that the post was lost.

Airport Dramas

Earlier in the day, feelings of smugness at arriving in the airport with plenty of time for a relaxed check in were hastily tempered with panic at realising that we needed to withdraw loads of cash to change in Kathmandu (Nepal has few ATMs). A flurry of forgotten passwords, pins, uncleared cheques, withdrawal limits and bank transfers later, we attempted to check in only to be told that we couldn’t, because there was a problem with our return flight. Anxiety levels raised- we had to hastily rearrange our return flight and have a new ticket issued BEFORE we could check in to fly out! Fortunately, it wasn’t as difficult as it sounded, but it certainly added some excitement to the day and our smugness was taught a lesson!

Beers, pandemics and Oman

After all that, we felt we deserved some celebratory pints and then felt pretty drunk and exhausted and played on Liam’s pandemic/plague game trying to keep quiet conversations about how to mutate the infectious virus and destroy the entire world. The flight to Oman passed by in a sleepy haze, with a failed attempt to watch Bohemian Rhapsody- which had been edited beyond watchability to rewrite Freddie Mercury as a heterosexual with marriage problems.

We had another sleep in some glorious chaise longs in Oman airport, and I got a taste of some of the gender inequality with men feeling like they could push in front of me and grimace at me, whereas they were -only- indifferent to Liam. Many of the women glared also, and I felt very self conscious I did not have my hair covered. On the connecting flight to Nepal there were only 3 women, all of whom were Western! There were about 8 Western men.

Nepal! Finally!

Finally we arrived in Kathmandu and immediately noticed the poverty with an airport that was more Hull Paragon Station than the Sultan of Oman. We bought our visas with no problems and met our prepaid taxi to our Air B&B. The taxi journey was our first experience of Nepali driving, overseen by the three golden rules of: be assertive, go very fast and assume that you will never crash. You can also overtake and turn anywhere, especially when traffic is oncoming; this will seemingly assert your dominance over the oncoming driver which is an important skill in becoming an advanced vehicle operative . There were no seatbelts in the back, yet the only worry we really faced was when 20 minutes into our hair raising journey, the driver decided to put his seat belt on. Liam and I shared a glance- what horrors awaited us if this driver was now considering his safety?!

Fortunately, nothing happened and we arrived safe at our Air B&B with hot showers, free tea and a comfy bed and promptly slept for 10 hours happy in the knowledge that our most serious problem at this time was how to kill the population of the world in our pandemic/plague game, where a fungus has been proving difficult to evolve.

Today we had our first day in Kathmandu and we’ve had a great day. We’ve bought everything that we need for the Annapurna Circuit Trek which involved walking across Kathmandu through turbulent rivers of people mixed in with motorbikes, following maps to islands of government buildings. Roundabouts don’t exist and junctions are war zones of driver/pedestrian assertiveness. When attempting to cross never ending streams of traffic on roads our tactic has been to wait for a local to cross, stick next to them like glue, retain focus only on the person and try to blank out what’s happening around you lest you freeze with fear at the oncoming unpredictable traffic, and follow them!

We’ve also navigated Nepalese pharmacies to buy altitude sickness medication- and most importantly, we defeated the fungus level on the plague game. Liam blitzed through parasite and now he is onto Prion.

Tomorrow is Holi festival! We’ve bought some white t shirts in preparation for getting covered in paint for a day! We have also been introduced to a Nepali custom- spitting, which is seemingly something that one must do very frequently. At one point, whilst buying our t-shirts from a street vendor, a man spat at my feet and then in quick succession smiled and offered me a place in the queue. Interpreting this conflicting presentation, I was confused at whether to be offended or thankful!

In two days time we start our trek… for now… it’s sleep time. Happy in Kathmandu, in our bed listening to the orchestra of barking dogs and hacking spits in the street below.