After nine months in Asia, we’re getting ready to move on.
The past few weeks in Nepal have been nice. We never intended to come to here. However, a few weeks ago, wanting to escape India, we headed north from Varanasi to the Nepali border, where we visited Lumbini, the site of Buddha’s birth. Although a lovely place, it was still hot so we continued on to the relative coolness of the Himalayas.
After nine hours of mountain switchbacks in a crowded yet colorful bus, we arrived in Pokhara, the jumping off point for trekking in the Annapurna range. Due to the fact that Mark had to check in weekly via email for grad school funding, we chose a six day trek. I’d hoped we would be able to do the full 20 day trek around the entire Annapurna massif, but it wasn’t in the cards for us. Perhaps we’ll return as a graduation present to ourselves.
The trek was incredible… and exhausting. We found out quickly that the mountains of the region are crisscrossed with stone pathways. However, since this is the highest mountain range in the world, the pathways are basically very, very, very long sets of stairs.
Luckily, there are some advantages to climbing the equivalent of 200 flights of steps in the Annapurnas. The most obvious is the scenery. Sadly, the area is experiencing a severe drought, possibly due to global warming, and because of rampant forest fires, views of the mountains were hidden behind a veil of smoky haze. But the mornings were pretty clear and we would rise for sunrise to watch the first rays hit the snowy peaks of the gigantic mountains and turn the snow a vibrant pink.
The towns that are littered all over the mountains are right out of a postcard. Most structures are stone farmhouses with slate roofs, often with crops laying out on stone terraces nearby, drying in the sun. We were trekking during the wheat harvest, so we’d have to pull over to the side of the trail for farmers carrying bundles of wheat so massive that the people carrying them seemed to be lost inside. It was as if the bundles had sprouted legs and were lumbering up the mountain themselves.
Crops aren’t the only thing being carried up and down these mountains. As there are no roads, everything must be brought by porter or pack mule. The pack mules were my favorite, of course, with the lead mule honored by extra decoration, usually an ornamental fabric headpiece. All of the animals had bells, which gave us the warning we’d need to get out of their way. A dozen mules loaded with huge sacks of grains are not something you want to impede, especially if they’re moving downhill.
Human power also moves goods up the mountains. We saw porters carrying trekking equipment (everything from typical camping gear to ridiculous things like metal camping tables so that tea time at high camp is “civilized”), food and even construction materials. The most astounding load we saw, carried by a young man in flip flops (few porters have adequate footwear), was three massive timbers about 10-12’ long. I don’t know exactly what they weighed, but I do know that I’d be lucky to lift just one!
We also met some interesting people. Our guide, for one, was a pleasant woman named Niramala who grew up in the mountainous region south of Mt Everest. We hired her through a female-owned trekking outfit, a rarity in Nepal. There aren’t many employment opportunities for women, and from the little we’ve read and heard, life is pretty difficult for them. It was sad to hear from Niramala that people often pray for male sons as daughters are seen as a burden and considered bad luck. We met a guide from the same trekking company who has completed the full Annapurna circuit a whopping 18 times. Yet she was still heckled by young male guides who doubted she could do it even once. We’d often hear men mutter things to Niramala as they walked past, and when we asked for a translation, she’d laugh it off as a comment about trail conditions or the weather. But we knew from the tone of voice and the sometimes unfriendly looks that Niramala was putting a happy face on everything we saw. Those comments, along with passing young male guides blaring awful Bollywood tunes on their cell phones or hollering to friends up and down the trail made us all the more grateful that we’d chosen a female guide for this trip.
After six days, when my legs were finally starting to get used to the abuse, the trek ended. It was too bad we weren’t able to go for longer. The good news is that we leave for Africa tomorrow. Not wanting to miss an opportunity for another stamp in our passport, we’re extending the layover in Dubai, UAE from 6 hours to 36 hours. After that, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are in store for us. I can’t wait.