Unceremoniously, we begin. Fourty-five minutes in the air through the Himalayan foothills in a 20-seater to Pokhara, and then a 90-minute drive to Nayapul. Our guide and porter load up the gear on their backs and we commence the trek.
Meandering along the riverside trail as the noon heat beats down, eagles soar along with us, wings spread wide and spirits high.
After lunch and later tea, the sky darkened. One drop, two drops – then nothing. We debated whether we should start prepping our rain gear… and then – the downpour. We made a mad dash to the nearest shelter, a roofed outdoor teahouse, which luckily, was right around the bend. The torrential sideways rain lasted nearly an hour. A little village child, no more than four, sat on a table wrapped tightly in the raincoat my wife gave to her. The wind blew away anything loose and despite the size of the shelter, little stayed dry. Water rushed down the mountain, flooding portions of the trail, pooling everywhere. The child just sat, and pearls of rain glittering in some far-above light slowly subsided. The temperature dropped ten degrees.
Thus began days of flux in the weather, just like the terrain. Sunny uphill strides into the clouds of rolling fog leaving overcast skies in the wake, and again clearing – the same speed which steam leaves a hot shower when the door opens – all within three hours. Microclimate defined.
I take in views of rice patties nestled into the verdant terraced hills creasing into rocky rolling rivers and stepped waterfalls flowing downstream. The agriculture is beautiful and expansive, but pales in comparison to the display nature puts on her own. How do you weigh man’s accomplished sewing against that seeded by nature, lush and green with hundreds of species of trees and shrubs, gently veiling a million beautiful secrets on every branch or blade of grass?
On the second day, we hiked to Ghorepani. Up all day, down some, but mostly up. Through villages and hamlets onward. Groves of moss covered aged trees, rhododendrons, and silvery boulders paint the path of endless ascent. Small human settlements pop up every few kilometers – villages marked by prayer flags, fresh gardens surrounded by ganja plants and small monuments to Shiva. My mind becomes lost while walking the way it does when I drive on the highway. Going home… changes in my life… and then I wander off and follow a butterfly. The butterflies multiply in size and color, looking more like small birds now. Everywhere floating in their fullest expression of metamorphosis. I am far ahead now.
Following the final bend around to Ghorepani (9,429 ft.). Bittersweet feelings of this constant process of actualizing impermanence, the change, the detaching – all the suffering of loss. Why is it so hard to change perspective and see all that has been gained, all the beauty and love of life? I turn around and look back.
Where am I that I have gone ahead on my own again? Am I escaping or letting go? Sometimes, I force myself to stop and return to the group. There they are, observing. Wild orchids populating a tree, bamboo shoots picked for dinner, a tree entering into final petrification. Letting go is also a way of giving back. It is all part of the exchange of life, giving and taking.
The guide and porter help my son up the last steps before town. His dramatics are amusing, but his exhaustion is real. He started strong and fast, and now his legs were failing at end of 3,000 feet of ascending steps. It reminds me of how I felt 15 years back on my first trek into Namchee Bazaar and on through to Tengboche. I remember barely being able to move, my legs like jelly. Every step forward was another step into the sky. The thin mountain air, breathe in, deeply….
The fire in the guesthouse slowly lost its warmth. Our shower towels hung on a clothesline, barely drying to a damp state in front of the stove. Dusk nears, and I notice a clearing in the rapidly rolling clouds. I stepped outside past the village square and around the corner beyond a local garden on the other side of the pass. For the first time, the Annapurnas peer down on me as if I had been under a blanket. I stared in wonderment at these giants in the way a baby looks up at its parents. My arm hair tingles, and I desperately want to share this with someone or take the feeling into full nirvana. Breathe out…
We set off at 4:45 am for Poon Hill (10,531 ft.). My son was exhausted and crabby, but he dug deep and makes the additional 1,000-foot climb. Steps all the way. The path winds through groves of more rhododendrons and pines, and opens wide at the rounded apex. The sky is clear, the air is cool, and the mountain gods smile on us. Any view from the night before was dwarfed now by the full glory of the entire range in clear sunrise sky. The sun peeks above the snowcaps, its rays splay out into eternity and cast a prism rainbow of shadow and light. I realize if I look any longer than these few seconds, I would be blind.
Over breakfast, our guide suggests if we are to keep our modest schedule, it will be best to get my son a pony for the first part of the day, which will carry him until we begin the great steep and slippery descent. And so we set off with a quick pace, reach another beautiful vista past the mountain monkeys and water buffalo. The porter who guides the horse moves effortlessly along the trail whether up or down like he is floating along clouds. My son begs for a break, as this mode of transportation leads to motion sickness. After the ridge, we head into the jungle towards Banthanti. He becomes weak and develops diarrhea. We are in too far to stop. His mother begins to tire also. I cease to question what the more glorious treks to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) and beyond would hold for us. I am content with the mountains glimpsing at us through small clearings in the trees, and pray that the weather and my sons condition holds until we reach Tadapani for our evening rest.
I make silent offerings of gratitude and love to the universe, the only true gift we can return to that which created us. The steps are still steep and the gorges cut deep. The ground drops out and water plummets past the fiddlehead ferns and bamboo shoots. Up again (maathi, maathi in Nepali) past the aqueducts, steeply into the mist at our destination.
That evening there was a village wedding. The noise made it hard to sleep. The walls of our guest house were a loosely assembled tin. Every time I rolled over and banged into the wall, a metallic sound reverberated throughout the entire room. Every whisper and breath in the adjoining rooms could be heard. The celebration may as well have been in our room. I laid awake into the early morning listening to a loudspeaker blasting a playlist of partially complete Nepali songs and drunken conversations in local tongue. What would village life hold for the young bride and groom?
The next morning we woke, ate breakfast, squatted over our Nepal toilet and got on the trail. Pleasantly with plenty of energy we made our way into more open lower land, while snow caps still towered over us. Onward to the old British Army outpost, Ghandruk. I left the group at a teahouse while they took an extended rest and went on my way to a place on the trail where the road split. I was not sure which way to go, so I sat and waited in the late morning sun. An ancient lady, 4 feet tall, hobbled towards me at the fork. She was carrying some branches and a wicker basket on her back. She was barefoot and her fingers were fat and strong. She was mute, but when she mouthed words her single lower tooth protruded from her lip. Every aspect of her was either over or under-exaggerated. She must have been 100 years old. I handed her 1,000 rupees, not because she asked for it, but because I wanted to give her a reprieve from her endless toiling. She curiously examined the bill, put it away, and smiled from her eyes – although I could not see beyond the dark slits of her thick eyelids. We sat in silence and a few times we tried to converse, she kept pointing at me and I kept trying to explain that I was waiting for my group. I asked her (by showing her my phone) if I could take a picture. She leaned her head into mine and we smiled. Soon after, she pulled a small machete from the basket, stood up (for some reason I was slightly alarmed), and carried on with her work.
As we entered into more populous lower elevations, forests gave way again to cultivated land. A dog going the same route joined me. Rain on the other side of the narrow valley became more visible — no longer just an isolated mist cloud. Further down, three village children were playing with a giant dead frog. They tossed it at my leg and I scolded them. They ran down the hill and met us, holding a ribbon across the steps and demanding rupees. But with the rain approaching, the recent frog attack, and general curmudgeonery — I walked through without acknowledging their game.
Then the rain came. Again. The ponchos went back on and we quickened our descent. I kept ahead of the group because every time I stopped to let them catch up – precisely at the moment they reached me – my son would use that as an opportunity to take a break. In regular weather it was tolerable, but in the rain I wanted shelter and to be free from the suffocating poncho. Finally, at the riverside teahouse at the bottom of the hill, I dropped my bag and ran back up the hill to escort them the remaining way down. The dog playfully met up with his pack. There we watched local porters ferrying loads on their backs, far too heavy for the imagination. Still they went on, undeterred by rain or by exhaustion.
We departed when the rain subsided into a muggy afternoon stew. We crossed the raging river and began the final ascent of the day. The family of dogs who followed us down from Ghandruk left behind their playing to ensure our continued safety. My son, inspired to avoid leeches, began a sprinting climb. I was sure he would run out of energy. I lagged behind to take photos, but noticed he had gone far ahead and even our guide was left in his dust. I picked up my pace and slowly began to gain ground. Eventually, seriously out of breath, dripping in sweat, heart pounding out of my chest, on the edge of collapse, I almost reached him, just close enough to yell (or wheeze) “STOP!”
He did stop, but wanted to keep going. I was amazed at his speed. Where did all of this energy and motivation come from? We reached the top with two dogs at our side, flicked leeches from our shoes and waited fifteen minutes for the rest of the group. I bought overpriced yak cheese as a ‘thank you’ for the dogs. We prepared to settle in for our last night as the lodge owners’ three daughters performed a traditional dance for us… I think. Before sleep we checked for leeches and found one on the floor. I tossed it past our remaining guide (now guard) dog, faithfully lying outside our door.
I awoke with an itching foot. Scratching with my other foot, I felt it, sticky and wet. Eventually, I was conscious enough to hop out of the bed and switch the light on. LEECH!!!
There was the 6” moth we saw that morning. There was the 8” spider in the bathroom two days back. But no creature was as menacing as this 2” leech. Blood all over the foot of the bed, the comforter… and wherever I stepped on the floor… bloody footprints. The now fattened Hershey kiss shaped blood sucker stood at attention and swayed on the floor. I cleaned and bandaged myself, grabbed and tossed him out the window.
The horror… the horror.
We set out early for Kande, the point where we rendezvous with our van that will return us to Pokhara. Civilization. We took in the final views and ascents throughout the comparatively mild trek… with the exception of MORE leeches. Everywhere. Always hitching a free ride and meal if they can get it. We hit our last high point and began the gentlest descent of the entire trip. The terrain changed as we reached the Australian Camp and Kande came into view as we rounded the bend. Goodbye, vistas. Good bye, porters, carrying their loads strapped to the foreheads steadily up the mountain.
The challenges, peaks and valleys, and everything else that makes a journey a journey will quickly be a memory. Days in Nepal will soon be replaced by days in Baltimore. What is now will soon feel like a dream. In the seed of every beginning is its end. Now, that end has arrived… welcoming another beginning.
Thank you, Nepal.
Check out Peter’s other adventures in Nepal here.