Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

March 13

March 14th, 2016

March 13 day 13 Jomson to Kalopani

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The western half of the trek commenced today. Started with a heavy breakfast including what the Xanadu Hotel calls hash browns. Instead of some processed potato product, they were big chunks cooked in chile oil and lots of garlic– carried me through a long day’s hike. Early on the weather cooperated though I was still in high winds with dust that made me stop and turn to avoid the sting. Walked through Marpha, a village of orchards, primarily apple and cherry. I stopped at a house with a sign indicating they sold juice, but on walking in, I felt I was in someone’s dining room. A very nice older man sold me a bottle of world famous natural Marpha apple juice– fully organic, no added anything, and repackaged in an old Tuborg beer bottle. We spoke a bit–as best we could– and he gave me one of his apples, small and tart. As I drank the juice I remembered growing up in apple country, spending my days running around the orchards that surrounded my house, and going to Beecher Bowers’s roadside stand. On route 11 just north of Woodstock VA, it was an open shed with gallon bottles of cider and all sorts of in-season produce. I remember getting our Halloween pumpkins there, and how he had huge glass containers of bubble gum, penny a piece. One interesting architectural feature all over Nepal but pronounced here are the boxes of rocks they put up on the corrugated roofs to hold them down in the wind. The people who live in houses with flat roofs stack firewood high around the edges. I’m not sure if that also holds down the roof, or if it is just convenient to keep it there. All along the paths there are piles of carefully split and stacked wood, always ready to hand for the kitchen. Part of the walk was through a pine forest where they were hauling out many more of those hand-hewn beams. Some I saw measured 16×16 and were hewn with a broad axe from full trees. On crossing the river to the eastern side, I came upon a Tibetan gompa being restored through some international agencies. A man emerged from small concrete building on the edge of the site, a Tibetan monk who had fled his country when it was occupied. We attempted to talk a bit, but ended up with a few place names and a mutual admiration for the gompa. The architecture in this area is slightly different, with the houses a little lower, flat roofs, and built with smaller, flatter stones. They often put a band of herringbone patterned thin stones across the face of the building, then paint the whole side white (usually just the side facing the street. There were also some smaller structures that had been sided with peeled, flattened bark in the manner common in the mountains of North Carolina. The path ran along the river’s edge– it really is a gravel braided river just like the New Zealand South Island– and often went up steep hills to avoid slips and rockslides. As the day progressed, the weather really deteriorated and I got my first rainy day trekking in Nepal–more often it was hail. Had to get out the foul weather gear, the thunder rolled in but, given the high mountains it was difficult to tell how close the lightening strikes were. I was hesitant to cross the steel swinging bridges that span the river at strategic points, but finally had to cross, getting to Kalopani, a town with large, comfortable but cold hotels. Decided to call it a day on arrival which was a good move as the rain intensified. Still cannot understand why, in such a cold climate, everyone leaves the door open when they enter a room. I hate to be the cranky old man, but damn, it’s cold enough without making it worse. I guess I showed my concern because Ram, the man running the hotel, went across the street and came back with a large pan of coals which he put in a metal container under the table in the dining room. It had a heavy rug over it, so when I sat, it draped over my knees, keeping the heat in, it was an amazing gesture which I completely appreciated. Then he sprinkled incense over the coals so all smelled so good. It was brilliant. Had a great, heavy dinner and will recommence the trek south toward Pokhara tomorrow.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 12

March 14th, 2016

March 12 Day 12 Kagbeni to Jomson

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Breakfast at YacDonalds included good coffee and some horses just strolling down the street outside my window. A short walk today to Jomson, so lingered a bit, then went to the Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling monastery. On the way I passed a pile of wooden beams. Not sure what they are for (there is a large concrete building being constructed nearby), but they are hand-hewn and some were at least 10×10. Very likely they are bridge timbers. The monastery is also a school, so the compound is a group of dormitories with lots of kids running around. It is a free school for those who get in, taught in a traditional Buddhist way. The gompa itself is 585 years old with an uneven brick or stone exterior–can’t distinguish the material because of layers of red paint. The interior walls were frescos of various Buddhas, including one with many arms which I believe is the Buddha of compassion. At one end were large golden and silver statues of seated Buddhas and more of the cloth wrapped manuscripts. While I walked about, above somewhere in the gallery sthe monks were praying and making music– a strange and wild sound. The day’s walk was uneventful, following the Kali Gandaki Nadi River downstream. It has a wide gravel bed resembling the braided rivers of New Zealand’s South Island. This area is famous for its strong winds, and rightly so. Toward the end of the walk, it was howling directly in my face, bringing a veritable dust storm with it. As part of erosion control, there are a number of newly planted willow trees along the banks. Where they are older and more established, they have also been pollarded. I imagine willow baskets are useful. On the outskirts of old Jomson, there were three women at the foot of a large rockslide. Each was seated on a pile of rocks–at least 5 tons–making gravel. They sit cross legged, pile large rocks into short cylinders about 1 foot across, and pound away with rock hammers until they get the required size. A brutal way to make a living. Jomson itself is an airport town with many hotels lining the area by the landing strip, though horses wander about the streets along with the people. It does have a military base and many soldiers were training. Not sure if these are the famous Gurkha troops whose fitness levels are legendary since many grew up at altitudes higher than 4000 m. I bumped into Marty, the Los Angeles native who crossed the pass the same day I did. He has an infected toe and is calling off his trek, but is happy he made it over Thorung La. This is the Marpha region so there are a lot of apple products–dried, bottled juice, brandy. I had a two dollar flask of apple brandy with my yak steak dinner, tasty and slept very well a included good coffee and some horses just strolling down the street outside my window. A short walk today to Jomson, so lingered a bit, then went to the Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling monastery. On the way I passed a pile of wooden beams. Not sure what they are for (there is a large concrete building being constructed nearby), but they are hand-hewn and some were at least 10×10. Very likely they are bridge timbers. The monastery is also a school, so the compound is a group of dormitories with lots of kids running around. It is a free school for those who get in, taught in a traditional Buddhist way. The gompa itself is 585 years old with an uneven brick or stone exterior–can’t distinguish the material because of layers of red paint. The interior walls were frescos of various Buddhas, including one with many arms which I believe is the Buddha of compassion. At one end were large golden and silver statues of seated Buddhas and more of the cloth wrapped manuscripts. While I walked about, above somewhere in the gallery sthe monks were praying and making music– a strange and wild sound. The day’s walk was uneventful, following the Kali Gandaki Nadi River downstream. It has a wide gravel bed resembling the braided rivers of New Zealand’s South Island. This area is famous for its strong winds, and rightly so. Toward the end of the walk, it was howling directly in my face, bringing a veritable dust storm with it. As part of erosion control, there are a number of newly planted willow trees along the banks. Where they are older and more established, they have also been pollarded. I imagine willow baskets are useful. On the outskirts of old Jomson, there were three women at the foot of a large rockslide. Each was seated on a pile of rocks–at least 5 tons–making gravel. They sit cross legged, pile large rocks into short cylinders about 1 foot across, and pound away with rock hammers until they get the required size. A brutal way to make a living. Jomson itself is an airport town with many hotels lining the area by the landing strip, though horses wander about the streets along with the people. It does have a military base and many soldiers were training. Not sure if these are the famous Gurkha troops whose fitness levels are legendary since many grew up at altitudes higher than 4000 m. I bumped into Marty, the Los Angeles native who crossed the pass the same day I did. He has an infected toe and is calling off his trek, but is happy he made it over Thorung La. This is the Marpha region so there are a lot of apple products–dried, bottled juice, brandy. I had a two dollar flask of apple brandy with my yak steak dinner, tasty and slept very well at the Xanadu Hotel.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 11

March 11th, 2016

March 11 Day 11 Muktinath to Kagbeni

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Even with an altitude drop from 5416m down to 3800m, I still found myself waking up in the middle of the night panting, almost as if I had just run a race. Slept in then spent a pleasant morning drinking coffee and talking with two Aussies and two Italians. Said goodbye to Kyle and Will, my recent hiking companions who are pressing on further, then set off for Kagbeni, a town I was looking forward to seeing as it is in the Mustang province and one of the few towns in that area you can visit without an expensive permit. Mustang is a region close to Tibet and one of the few places open today where you can get a sense of what old Tibet must have been like. I am also curious about the name and whether it relates to the horses we have in the US. This is definitely horse country. They are used for transportation and cartage. Kumar from the Base Camp Hotel rides them up and over the Thorung Pass, and I regularly encountered riders on the trails in Mustang as well as passing many grazing up in the pastures. It is planting time here so the first half of my walk to Kagbeni was accompanied by the strange mixture of yelling and singing that goes will plowing the fields by a yoke of small oxen and a wooden plow. I wish I could capture the sound– a sharp yell followed by a strange song and the team pulls away. Along with annual crops, this area is also full of fruit trees– primarily apple. The older ones have twisted trunks and remind me of the orchards where I grew up in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia. Here they paint the tree trunks light blue, I assume to ward off some pests, though there may be another explanation. The area has beech trees, and the older ones are pollarded (a practice that seems to be continued today). From that, the farmers can get thin branches for weaving and larger ones for what amounts to round dimensional lumber or firewood. Passing through Khinghar, I met a woman selling woolen scarfs who had set up her loom at the edge of the road beside her display. A basket full of brightly dyed yak wool and a very simple but beautiful loom. She wove away masterfully. The last bit of the walk took me across a high plateau and into the powerful winds this area is famous for–the prayers were pouring out of the flags. Dust and desolation accompanied me into Kagbeni, a town with an old gompa I hope to visit tomorrow, some high buildings, winding streets, and a hotel called YakDonalds complete with bright red and yellow decor– how could I resist?

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 10

March 11th, 2016

March 10 Day 10 High Camp to Muktinath

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A long cold night — the beds had huge blankets stuffed with something lumpy, heavy and hard like kapok, though they were absolutely necessary as it had to be around 15 degrees Fahrenheit in the room. Obviously I didn’t sleep well because of the temperature but also because it is difficult to sleep well at high altitude. We were all up at 5:30 to start the trek over Thorung La which at 17769′ is higher than any peak in the USA’s lower 48. Slow and steady was what was required and as we got higher the steps were almost a shuffle, like the figures in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I did not have proper gloves, coat, or hat, so I was very cold until the sun got up high. My sense of the Annapurna Circuit is as a circumambulation of the massif, but most the the crowd I find myself among see this particular pass as something to be conquered, more of that bucket list stupidity. It was rigorous, both up and down, and I was pleased to cross, but was more pleased to arrive at a warmer place where the conversation could shift to the rest of the trek. As we crossed in the morning, the wind had not yet picked up, so the only sound was the squeaking of the dry, crystalline snow beneath feet, and a strange creaking that came as the trekking poles shifted position during a stride. It was an eerie yet rhythmic sound that carried me up the steep. A quick moment at the top posing for pictures as if it were Katahdin and I was standing on a sign instead of in front of a huge mass of prayer flags, then a long descent to Muktinath for a warm shower that turned out to be cold, and an afternoon sitting on a warm deck in the sun relaxing and feeling grateful that part of the circuit was now behind me. The streets of Muktinath are lined with people selling woolen hats, slippers, and scarves. The man in the booth just across the street from my decktop perch was praying softly all afternoon: om mani padme hum. High above on a steep hill were three white horses playing games. That evening we went to the famous Bob Marley cafe for an incredible yak steak and “Himalayan Sunrise” cocktails (vodka and local juices). There we saw Kris and her porter (wonderful man who always laughs and embraces me when we meet) along with an Israeli couple we met at Lake Tilicho, and Marty, a Los Angeles native we have encountered most of the trip. A number of us sat by a large open fire talking quietly as the evening descended.

T. Hugh Crawford

March 9

March 10th, 2016

March 9 Day 9 Thorung Phedi to High Camp

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My room was 20 degrees F this morning, so maybe it is time to explain the guest houses on the circuit. Most are built of stone, many are three stories, with the rooms opening out onto wooden galleries. The rooms are not heated, usually they have wood or concrete floors that are sometimes swept. The bunks have thin mattresses that remind me of camp, and in higher altitudes they also have large blankets of varying cleanliness. The beds have linens but they do not change them– carrying a sleeping bag is a good idea. Usually the toilet is down the gallery and it the usual porcelain footprint over a hole. You flush with a bucket of water. The kitchens are often on the second floor, very dark, low and covered with soot as they usually cook on wood stoves. All hotels have a large dining area, usually with benches or plain chairs and bare tables (though some are covered with rugs). Those rooms have a lot of windows, though like the ones in the rooms, they are single paned wood sashes, usually with a lot of air blowing through. The windows tend to be covered with stickers advertising various trekking agencies and the like. People tend to gather in these big common rooms though they are also unheated and usually freezing until late afternoon when they light the stove for a few hours. The higher the altitude, the lower the buildings tend to be, and the less heat as there is less wood and animal dung, and of course higher altitudes are also much colder. I’m looking forward to crossing Thorung pass and heading back down to warmer altitudes. Spent the morning at Base Camp Hotel talking to Kumar and Kit and watching last night’s snow melt. The trekkers who had stayed one town downhill started rolling in mid-morning, many familiar faces. Will, Kyle, and I left about noon for a short hour’s hike up to High Camp, which gave us another 500 meters acclimatization before crossing Thorung La tomorrow. A long cold afternoon in the common room with, at 4:00, a press of people huddled around a small, smoky woodstove. Early dinner and early to bed just to get warm. Also very tired of the lengthy, detailed discussions of how to get over a 5400 meter pass without suffering from altitude sickness. The height is making me dizzy, tired, and cold, but I will be glad to be back to quiet trekking away from such anxiety.
Milarepa seems appropriate today:

From the Songs of Milarepa:
Cool mountain water
Heals the body’s ills
It only the grouse and mountain
Birds can reach it
Beasts of the valley have no
Chance to drink it

March 8

March 10th, 2016

March 8 Day 8 Blue Sheep Hotel to Thorung Phedi

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Didn’t see any blue sheep at the Blue Sheep Hotel. I kept thinking of Peter Matthiesson’s Snow Leopard and their search for blue sheep in the Dolpo region. All I saw were a lot of yaks on the high pastures. Today was supposed to be a short, relatively high but level trek over to Yak Karka. Still hiking with Will and Kyle and regularly bumping into other trekkers I have met on the trail. As we hiked out of the Tilicho valley, even though we more or less kept the same altitude, the snow began to disappear and we slowly ended up in a birch forest. I think it has more to do with the amount of sunlight in this part than with altitude. All the way down the valley the eagles circled, riding the thermals. I watched a pair flying closely together in perfect coordination, one shadowing the other, feeling the movement of the air between them. It was a magical dance between bird, bird and air. One flew directly overhead and I could hear the sound of the air as it ran through its feathers, something I’ve never heard. On the way down to the river, the birch thickened though still not forest-like. They had a twisted, tortured look’ and are shedding bark –reminded me of home. Getting to Yak Karka at noon, we decided to press on after lunch to Thorung Phedi, another 5 km and a higher altitude. Tomorrow will then be just a short hike up to High Camp for final acclimatization and a rest day. The Base Camp Hotel in Phedi (not at the High Camp) is a great guest house. The proprietors, a Nepali musician with long dreadlocks and a generous personality and his partner, a woman from South Africa — Kumar and Kit– were a lot of fun, good conversation. By 5:00 they built a dung fire in the woodstove and we all gathered around. Some young Nepalis on the circuit whom we had met yesterday, a Dutchman from Zwolle just finishing a three month teaching gig, and the British and Dutch pair we had met at the lake. Kumar played the guitar to the music on the stereo, while we all kept warm within the circle of heat made by the stove and the snow swirled down outside. The younger Dutchman was also a musician, so they broke out several guitars and played around the stove for the rest of the evening.

T. Hugh Crawford

March 7

March 10th, 2016

March 7 Day 7 Tilicho Base Camp up to Tilicho Lake then to Blue Sheep Hotel

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The room in the Hotel Moonlight was very cold, but they had huge blankets which, along with my down bag, kept everything but my nose warm. When I went to bed, it was fully misted over and the snow was coming down. In the middle of the night, I went outside to piss. The weather had cleared and the stars were innumerable. In the morning, I got up with Kyle and Will, had “rice pudding” for breakfast (rice, milk, sugar), and off we set, going from 4150 m to 5200 m on our way up to Tilicho Lake (one of the highest lakes in the world). Down where we started there was about an inch of snow and the flowing stream was partially frozen. Right away we were climbing hard– it was one of those crystalline days much like I had in the Richmond Range in New Zealand. The snow had cleared all the dust and moisture from the air, so the ridges, rocks, glaciers all stood out with stark shadows. It took almost three hours to reach the lake even though it was only about 5 km. We were walking slowly because of altitude gain but also because we were trekking into high mountains with blue-green glaciers — more blue than green– and occasionally a piece would break off and the avalanche would start. Near the top, a large chunk rumbled and soon a river of snow flowed and spread down the mountainside, hitting the valley and bursting into a cloud which swept across the trail. Some people in front of us started running back. Even though there was a large valley between us, it seemed as if it would come all the way to our ridge. The last kilometer was through a flat area with the snow about 8 inches, though the trail was packed tight. The avalanche cloud crossed and recrossed the valley, so when we got to the lake turning point, a sudden rush of snow and mist enveloped and soaked us (it melted on contact). I was glad I had on my wind shell–quickly pulled up my hood and ducked against the wind. It soon settled, and I took in the view, remembering Maurice Herzog’s description of leading the 1950 expedition across this frozen lake on their way to the summit of Annapurna. The hike down was fast, and by lunchtime we were back at base camp having Dal Bhat. The camp is an odd spot as it is completely isolated– no roads in–and, unlike the previous villages, there is no indigenous economy–no gardens or animals. In many ways, it resembles an outpost in a Star Wars movie. Isolated but full of people. After lunch we made our way across many scree fields back the trail to the Blue Sheep Hotel which put us in a good position to get back onto the Annapurna circuit in prep for the Thorung Pass. Another cold evening huddled around the wood stove with the hotel dining area and an early night to sleep.

T. Hugh Crawford

March 6

March 10th, 2016

March 6 Day 6 Manang to Lake Tilicho Base Camp

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At 7:15 the chocolate pastries came out of the oven and I was there for the first one, along with a cappuccino which made for a decidedly cosmopolitan breakfast. It also led to an early start. Had 15 km with a fair amount of altitude gain, so thought I better head out early, but while lingering over my coffee I watched as the Manang locals going off to work, many carrying the now familiar back baskets equipped with shoulder straps and the tump (forehead) band. They carry everything in them– firewood, tools, compost–wonderfully utilitarian objects in a place where everyone must always be involved with moving goods from here to there. The woodcutters could bring a load in with a truck, but often there are no trucks, so they each shoulder a large log (not in the basket) and carry them where they need to be. I found my way out of the town through a series of gates and twisting alleys. Everyone I passed was praying, some fingering prayer beads. Soon I was on my way climbing to a path that leads up the river eventually to the lake. Parts were narrow and steep, some were on a narrow dirt road. Just outside Khangsar a man was driving cattle down the path and greeted me with a loud “namaste.” He had a smile missing some teeth but full of affection and asked if I was walking to the base camp. I replied yes. He pointed toward the village and said “tea,” then pointed to his red coat. I looked at the town and could see a red hotel building. We both laughed at our effective communication, and I walked on, disappointed to find the hotel closed. My march continued up some steep slopes then past an old closed gompa. Most of it was corrugated steel, but it was strangely beautiful, fading yellow and red paint. Just past were two large closed hotels near a cliff and two magnificent birds. Too big for hawks, at first I thought they were vultures, but one swooped down and I could see clearly its feathered head and hooked bill. When one landed I saw its feathered legs– they were eagles. The latter part of the trail crossed a series of scree fields which reminded me of trekking on New Zealand’s South Island. Much of it was narrow and loose but I was still confident from my long trek. Nearing base camp I hiked with Kyle and Will, an American and an Englishman, for the last stretch. There were two hotels. I had lunch in one and tried to get a room, but because there was a large influx of trekkers the proprietor wanted to overcharge me for a bad room. When I protested he just laughed. I ended up joining Kyle and Will in their three bunk room and spent the afternoon in the dining room talking with them as the temperature dropped and it started to snow. We wondered if the trail will be open tomorrow but the locals say it should not be a problem. My plan is to hike up to the lake then head back to the one hotel that was open back past the scree fields which should put me in a good position to make it to Yak Karka the following day. Finally they made a fire in the wood stove to heat the dining room. In went some rotten chunks squirted with kerosene which did not really catch. He reached into a large bag for dried cow dung which soon warmed the room, a circle of people around the stove: seven Nepalis, one Chinese, three Americans, one Belgian, two Brits, and a Dutchman– a veritable UN.

T. Hugh Crawford

March 4

March 10th, 2016

March 4 Day 4 Upper Pisang to Ngawal

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In the middle of the night I heard a roar. My first thought was thunder, but the sky was clear. It was an avalanche in the glacier bowl on Annapurna II. It faces Upper Pisang across the river valley and so is a natural amplifier. I rolled over and slept until 6:00 when the whole crew started stomping around. Plain wood floors and walls make for noisy neighbors. Frost was on the deck on the way to the dining area. A pot of black tea and some oatmeal started the day and soon I was making my way down the trail. A cold morning– and they will become increasingly cold. A little concerned that my foul weather gear won’t be enough, but I’ll just put on everything I have when crossing Thorung La. No road walking today as the path is high above the river and the road is on the other side. It is a day to get serious about acclimatization, so on the steep grades I do a lot of short rest stops to get breath. Each day’s distance will be quite short until I get over the pass. There is a lot of anxiety amongst the trekkers here about altitude edema– pretty much a constant in conversation. All I can do is to inventory my physical state constantly, rest a lot, and be willing to turn back if necessary. Although much of Nepal is Buddhist, the deeper into the mountains I go, the more mani walls, shrines, stupas, and gompas I pass. Yesterday I saw trimmed ends of juniper drying on the hotel deck looking almost as if they were making wreaths. In the mornings they make a small fire on a pedestal, usually near a mani wall, with the smoky juniper twigs in order to wake up Buddha. Most of the morning was on a high path looking back at Annapurna II while looking toward Annapurna III. After crossing a long swinging bridge I began to make my way up a long incline, probably gaining about 400 meters of altitude in a short stretch. At about the third switchback I heard that same rumble and turned to see a wall of snow and ice crashing down the Annapurna glacier bowl. It turned into a cloud filling the whole area, then settled back down covering the rocks that had previously been exposed. The sun was shining brightly through it all– no words for that scene. Not long after I passed men driving two horses that were wearing brightly colored saddles, would love to have seen them riding across the countryside. The rest of the morning was a long climb involving a lot of stopping to breath. This is perhaps an obvious observation, but I understand better one of the reasons Buddhist meditation practices focus on the breath. Here where the religion began, focusing on your breathing is a away of life. Even the guides who walk these mountains constantly have to acclimatize. On the ascents, you can see their careful breathing patterns, something I’ve never been so aware of. Ngawal also is home to a large gompa though older than the one at Upper Pisang. The complex had several older buildings including one housing a large colorful prayer wheel, and a mani wall that had very old, cloth covered prayer wheels. You could see the handwritten script of the prayers on the tatters, beautiful. Later dined on yak Dal Bhat, then early to bed.

T. Hugh Crawford

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