Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

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 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

Feb 22

February 24th, 2016

Feb 22

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An early morning gong booming, the singing of prayers by my friend, and the crowing of roosters stirred me out of bed. Today’s goal was Kakani, which should have made for a short walk, though I was having trouble reconciling my GPS device with the published Helambu map. On the map, Kakani is a town with full amenities (school, monastery, and a guest house), but it does not even appear on my GPS, nor does the trail for this section. Not worried about getting the Helambu merit badge, I plotted a route to get me generally in the place I needed to be. The Helambu track is basically a hike up and down a river valley (the Melamchi River). Starting on the western side, it follows high ridges until Thadepati, then drops down to Melamchigaol which is at the headwaters, so today’s trek would be down the eastern side of the river valley. I lounged in my cot for a while before starting to pack and then was called to breakfast which definitely included “free range” eggs as they were from the yesterday’s rice-eating chicken. Couple that with a pancake covered with honey and two cups of black tea, and I was ready for the day. Not anticipating a long day’s walk, I roamed the village a bit, peering into the wreck of the monastery. One room not completely destroyed had a huge prayer wheel, still there but tilted and unspinnable.

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There was a Buddhist monk in robes and some high tech running shoes- such is the modernity of Melanchigaon. After saying warm goodbyes to my hosts, I turned my head south. The descent out of the highlands was not easy. The path was clear, but the way was steep. Just below Tarkeghyang there were two routes south according to my map. I chose the one to the right hoping it would lead to Kakani. It was a well-formed road that was no longer used by vehicles because of rockslides. On the way out I stopped by a stream for water. Many of the people living here will make a small pool in a falling stream, four or five inches deep, and then punch holes in the base of a half-liter plastic soda bottle and attach a hose coupling to the top. Place it in the pool and run the hose to the house and, voila, instant plumbing. Taking care not to disturb anyone’s water supply, I filled my Nalgene and then steri-penned it, missing those days on the South Island of New Zealand where you could scoop a liter of icy water from a stream and drink it down without concern. On the road, I soon passed a very old, slow-moving man who was partially deaf. I startled him as I passed giving the traditional “namaste.” He then smiled and asked “where?” I replied “Timbu” as it was the primary place-name on both maps. He nodded, saying he was going there too. We walked together briefly, but clearly our paces did not align, so bidding him goodbye I went ahead. The roads have many switchbacks sometimes cut short by footpaths. Very soon after parting, I heard a sharp whistle, and the man stood there gesturing toward the footpath just in front of me instead of the road. I smiled, bowed, and thanked him as best I could from the distance. He saved me a kilometer or more, and it was a path well-worth walking, going through a series of recently cultivated terraced fields, including some full grown with winter wheat. Still, most of the day was a long road walk and the dust was inches deep. There were wide flat spots, but when slides occurred, it became steep and narrow, requiring serious concentration. I lost altitude all day, and one point found myself going down a steep switchback just behind some teenagers. There was a youth camp nearby and they were on their way to a ceremony dressed in their absolute best Nepali clothes but still goofing the way a group of teenagers does. As the day wore on, I considered going straight to Timbu which was clearly a decent sized village, but my map did not show lodging there. It did indicate a small trail heading up to Kakani from the road, so at a cluster of houses I asked about the town. According to my GPS I was only about 2 km from Timbu, but it was midday, plenty of time to find Kakani. Some men pointed toward a steep path which I followed for more than a half hour. Walking was difficult because they were preparing the fields and the dirt was soft. Halfway up were a number of women with short heavy hoes working their way through the narrow terraces. They waved, signaling I should continue climbing. Near the top, the path gave out, and I made my way to the edge of a set of freshly planted terraces. With some difficulty I climbed up (they are an unwieldy height) and found myself at the back side of a village. Walking around, the entrance to Kakani (or maybe Gangyul? It is unclear as the maps conflict) was a stupa and a school on a hill. A sign for a hotel and cold drinks greeted me, but walking up the path revealed only rubble. At a nearby house, a young mother said there were no guest houses in town, but she sold me a cold Mountain Dew. I’m fairly certain its been at least 45 years since having one of those. I shared a little with her young son who drank with a frowning seriousness, then set off for Timbu which now was over six km by the road. My choice was to go back the way I came, or hoof it hard down the road. Putting on my seven-league boots, I took off, descending rapidly. Down lower the plants became tropical, including what looked like banana trees. Just outside a house near town, an elderly woman walked out as I passed giving me a very loud and happy “namaste,” and then said “Timbu!” pointing down the slope. It seems the only words I share with the Nepalese are greetings and place names. Another kilometer brought Timbu with only one hotel that had no rooms available. They offered to let me sleep outside on a small patch of grass next to a pen with some large black Nepalese cows (they made a strange grunting sound all night).

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After pitching my tent, I opted not to hang out with the cattle and instead returned to the hotel for drinks and dinner, starting with a large cold beer which just then was indescribably delicious. I sat in the setting sun watching a crew of men hand-hewing beams for floor joists. They only flattened two sides and didn’t worry if the log was crooked as long as the two flattened sides were in the same plane. It was fascinating work, reminding me of hewing beams with broad axes on the Thoreau House Project some years ago. The hotel had a large kitchen garden and the owners had many children. The older ones were harvesting large roots they called taro while the younger ones whooped, hollered, and fist bumped me while I tried to write. An uncle showed up with a freshly caught fish–looked like a Nepalese catfish–which he cleaned with a large cleaver sharpened on the concrete curb while, on the hill above, an old woman sat cross-legged winnowing grain with a large flat basket. There was too much to see. They offered fish for dinner, but the younger children were so excited about it, I had dal bhat instead (again). The sun set and I made my way to the barnyard, now joined by some stray dogs, and crawled into my tent content.

T. Hugh Crawford

Feb 19

February 23rd, 2016

Feb 19

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The combination of a upper respiratory infection, being out of shape, and altitude changes made for a short hiking day. I took a car from the center of Kathmandu to Sunjarijal, a small town out on the edge of the big city’s sprawl. It was a national holiday, and the traffic was bumper to bumper the whole way out, my driver zigging in and out of his lane. Actually “bumper to bumper” sounds much more orderly than it was. There were lines at the gas pumps, hundreds of motorcycles filling the street looking like the start of a long distance race. There was garbage being burned in the gutters, and even a dead cow on the side of the road along with a number of live ones lying in the gutters on top the garbage–quite the scene. The Helambu Trek is in the northeastern part of the Kathmandu Valley, an area hit very hard by last year’s earthquake. I was grateful to be outside the city finally, though it does go on for miles. The trail today was up through the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park starting out around 1200 meters and topping out at 2430 before descending down into Chisipani (that is 7972 feet which is a good bit higher than all the East Coast mountains). The path was not so much a nature trail as it was the path that people living in these mountains use to get around. It passes through a number of settlements which are primarily subsistence farming, growing winter wheat and then corn on terraced hillsides. Many goats and some cows are tethered by the buildings, most now eating corn stalks or forage cut from beech trees. After the first long set of steps, I was stopped at a military installation to buy the permit to hike an Eco center. It was a little intimidating at first since the soldiers carried automatic weapons and frowned the way you would expect them to. I talked to several and all were surprised I was hiking without a guide. They asked if I had children (a very common question) and soon one young man wanted to come along. We all laughed a bit stumbling through language. After the ticket agent finished his mid-morning meal, I got my pass which was immediately checked by the military man I had just finished talking to. The nature preserve is supposed to have leopards, monkeys, Ghoral, Himalayan Black Bear, and wild boar. Listening intently and watching carefully, the only thing I heard was a large animal moving through the jungle at a pace more closely resembling a domestic farm animal. On my way out of the park I did see a cow in the woods chewing beech leaves. The forest included oak and rhododendron, so parts resembled the “green tunnel” of the Appalachian Trail. In Mulkharka, a small village, I sat for a while at a “tea room” front porch. It was a stone building with a lot of packaged drinks in the window and some plastic chairs out under the porch. Across the way a woman was boiling water in a huge kettle over an open fire to wash clothes. The proprietor of the tea room, who only spoke Nepalese, was cooking over an open fire in the front yard. Her cousin, who lives in the city, was visiting for the holiday, and we talked about the many dialects spoken across the country. A handsome young man whose phone would go off occasionally but still he seemed right at home in this distant place. Like the others, he asked why I walked alone. I told him I liked the solitude, and he said “solitude makes for thinking.” By noon, after climbing what my phone said were 250 floors, I was unusually exhausted and found myself taking breaks every couple kilometers. The last two into Chisipani were downhill, but I was still feeling it. The town has several large masonry hotels but the earthquake hit hard, completely destroying several of them. Two were still intact, but had moved off their foundations and were sitting crooked in a field.

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I went to the Hotel Annapurna Mountain View–Annapurna was nowhere to be seen given the smoke and haze. The proprietor, a nice 22 year old man with a beautiful 2 year old daughter named Sima, showed me to my room which was bare concrete with a few very hard beds– exactly what I expected. I got out my sleeping bag, put my sleeping mat down and immediately fell asleep from mid-afternoon until six. They called me for dinner — Dal Bhat (Nepalese lentil curry)– and brought many extra helpings. After a quiet meal I went straight back to bed. This altitude is kicking my ass.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

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