Trekking, gritty and grand

Ten people – weary and cheery, some sick, some wet – crowded around the 55-gallon drum barrel stove.  The sad little fire inside was wet wood and fizzle; it kicked out a nearly useless combination of soot and meager heat.  Smoke billowed from unsealed cracks around the stovepipe.  I watched it collide with the ceiling to form an acrid upper layer to the room’s atmosphere,  Slowly, some seeped into the rafters above and an unseen exit.   Outside, nature was providing a cataclysmic concert – rat-a-tat hail like a snaredrum, deep rumbling base of thunder, an incessant applause of rain on tin roof. Every few moments the stage was lit up by a great flash of lighting.

Regardless, we huddled low and near to the stove, for physical comfort and companionship.  Our Nepalese hosts, Didi (sister) and her daughter bundled in thick sweaters of wool, spoke in soft, gentle voices of their lives in the mountains.  A couple wet, but cheery Germans sipped tea and debated carrying on in the storm.   Our guides, Bajendra, Rammesh and Uumesh, played cards, seemingly unfazed by our predicament – “take it as it comes” seems much the mentality of Himalayan trekking.

My arms were a little achy from carrying Mia the last kilometer or so due to increasing stomach pain.  I looked over at her, squeezed small under a thick blanket.  She was staring blankly into the space before the fire, looking a little better.  A good vomit will often help.  I was shivering, mostly from laziness at not putting on another layer, or was it my belly?  Uh oh.

“How are you doing?”  My question was not only for her, but also me, as my own stomach gurgled with anxiety, foreshadowing my evening entertainment.

“Um, a little better I think.”  She responded, with an admirably cheery tone.  I hoped my own was faking it at least as well.

Porter sat at a stool across from us, both knees drawn tightly to his chest, and a look of empathy in his eyes.  His gut was finally settling down, two days after his own vomit episode, though he still wasn’t eating.  Regardless, he had toughed out the day’s hike without complaint.  We were a little worried about Porter, he had no appetite, not even for snickers or trail bars.

BAM!  A strong flash of light in the corner of the room popped from the outlets.  We all leaped to our feet.

“Oh my god!” Bajendra exclaimed, hands to heart. He had felt the electric arc course through his body.  He checked if we were ok, then retreated deeper into the kitchen to give thanks for life.

Welcome to our low point at our high point in the Himalaya, in the village of Deurali, at nearly 3000 m elevation.  We were halfway through our six-day, 55-km trek.  At that moment, as I felt my own belly protest stirring, as I watched both my kids sick in a world where they could not (would not?) eat, as I knew we still needed to walk about 25 km out, I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt so far from home.

Yet, that is exactly part of the reason we went traveling.  To encounter difficulty and challenge. To be affected.  To come out the other side.  Oh yeah, also, to be wowed by people and places.  We were, we did.

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With our guides (Uumesh in back, Bajendra with Adidas shirt, Rammesh seated)

Day 1 – Pokhara to Ulleri (1,960 m)

On our first day, we awoke to the bane of the fair-weather hiker:  a low-slung cloud cover with a persistent drizzle that would bring joy only to a walrus.  We boarded the jeep, and stopped a few times to look for good old giant plastic bags.  Yet, in this part of the world where plastic is an apparently limitless resource, we could find only one decently strong bag.  The boy scouts would be unimpressed.

Off we drove into the clouds, literally.  At the top of the pass outside of Pokhara, we could not see fifteen feet in front of the truck.  Rammesh told us that he had once walked through this blind mist for four days straight.  No one was complaining yet, but faces showed concern.

As we descended into the village of Nayapul, where we were to start, the weather let up to just overcast skies.  We started our trek at 1,070 m (about 3,500 ft).  The beginning of the trail was a steady march upwards on roads, with only an occasional local truck passing us.  After several hours, we turned off the road onto a trekking only path and the pretty little village of Tikhedhungga.  Bajendra asked if we wanted to stay for the night, or push on up another 500 m climb (about 1,500 feet) to the village of Ulleri, which could offer mountain views if the weather broke.  The kids led the charge, “Let’s climb!”

Up we went.  Each wide step was paved by thick slate slabs, no doubt carved, carried and set by hand.  The sturdy path made the steps easy, but altitude can’t be paved away.  One step, two, five, ten, one-hundred, five-hundred, one-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand….  3,781 steps up to Ulleri!

Bajendra suggested we take some breaks along the way, “take it easy, no rush.”  But Porter and Mia were on a mission.   Bajendra, rubbing his belly and slightly out of breath, told the kids that we had climbed the stairs in record time.

We stayed at a nice little tea house, with a simple two-bed room, plywood walls, real slate roof.  We took cold showers, as the electricity had been out for the last week.  Amy and I ate Dahl Bat, the Nepalese staple food.  A simple, but hearty dish of lentils, rice, a vegetable curry and some type of sour pickled relish.  It was good, filling and hot.  “Hots and Lots” as our friend Ant describes his favorite trail food.  Bajendra surprised us with a beautiful fresh fruit and nut plate, yum!

A thunderstorm moved in, but we were dry, warm, with full stomachs.  We played cards with headlamps, enjoying a good-sprited game of bullsh*t with the guides.  BS is a great game for learning numbers so we alternated Engish and Nepali.  (Tashi?) We went to bed around 9, tired and content.

Day 2 – Unintended layover in Ulleri (1,960 m).

04:00:00 am.  Porter woke me up, “Dad, I don’t feel good.”

4:00:10 AM – I searched frantically for my headlight in the dark.  No luck.

4:01:00 AM – Bleah!  Bleah!  Bleah!

4:05 until 4:30 AM – clean-up, and more stomach violence.

5:45 AM – a new day dawned bright and clear.  Annapurna sheared upwards through the blue sky.  We all gasped in wonder.

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Our view from the deck in Ulleri

We waited around in the morning, letting Porter finally sleep.  By 11, he still was in no condition to hike, so we decided to stay put.  We took turns wandering the steps through the village.  Even though the trek receives thousands of visitors each year, the locals were still engaging and cheery.  Especially if I started out greetings with a quick Nepalese pleasantry – “Namaste kati!”  (Greetings auntie!), peoples faces cracked open in smile and warmth.  I love cultures where people refer to each other by familial pronouns – sister, brother, uncle or auntie.  It just seems kind, embracing, respectful.

 

On day 2 we enjoyed a few new friends at the teahouse.  Michelle from Hong Kong and a young Nepalese doctor who strongly advised that we make Porter eat and then assess next steps for treatment.  I followed his advice and forced Porter to eat some rice and apples before bed then again later in the night.  The night ended with a foreboding ripper of a thunderstorm.  Our teahouse shook.

Day 3 – Ulleri up to Ghorepani (2,860 m)

We woke up again to blue skies, and Porter seemed much better.  He hadn’t eaten much, and still was not hungry, but he thought he could hike.  Fortunately after only a mile or so, we ran into a British family with two boys Porter’s age – Ollie (age 11) and Ben (age 10), and an older daughter, Emily (age 13).  Porter quickly found that these boys were good fun, and a bit “cheeky” (in a good way).  The family spent most of their school holidays traveling somewhere, usually in Asia, and their list of countries was impressive.  The boys hiked together, sharing stories of life.    At one point, Amy overheard Porter asking Ben what Tibet was like, if the Chinese rule could be felt, and if the people seemed free or not.  Ben had answers from experience.  Is our son gaining some world perspective?  Check that yes.

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We hiked quickly through beautiful forests and streams.  The trees were Oak and Rhodedendron.  The Rhodies were trees, not bushes, many over two hundred years old, and in the bloom of Spring.  Beautiful walking.  We arrived at our destination, Ghorepani, before noon.  We ate Dal Baht (well, Porter only pushed around his rice), then met up with the family (dad Mark and mom Sam), to look for some afternoon sport.  We found a basketball court, but no ball.  We found a store, and Mark asked about a ball, no chance up here.  So, he bought the next best thing – a plastic-wrapped roll of toilet paper.

Really?

Back to the court.  We created a game – NepaBall, kind of a cross between netball, basketball and ultimate frisbee, with some elements of rugby when the boys got a little fired up.  Basically, the game was to pass the ball (toilet paper roll) player to player, then try to score a basket.  If the ball was dropped, turnover.  It was, of course, absurd, and so by definition enthralling to boys age 9 to 11.  After falling behind 4-1, the three boys staged an amazing comeback under darkening skies and forced a “penalty free-throw shootoff.”  They won 4-3.  The victors went wild.  Christiano Ronaldo has not put on a greater display of braggadaccio victory dance than the one put on that afternoon.

After NepaBall, we all played some cards, the Brits suggested “Cheat,” of course a much more properly named game than Bullsh*t even though the rules are identical.  Good fun.

For dinner, we had the pizza, Porter gummed a bite or two of cheese-bread-sauce.  Amy ate Dal Bhat.  Dal Bhat Power – 24 hour as they say.  She claimed to enjoy it each time, savoring each variation – slightly different curry, pickle or even the traditional metal plate that it was served on.  I, on the other hand, craved a bit of variation.

The evening was beautiful with dynamic clouds and peakaboo mountain views.

 

Day 4 – Up to Poonhill (3210 m), down to Deurali (2990 m)

 

On day 4, we awoke early (4:30 AM), for an early one-hour hike up to Poonhill and a view of the sun rising over the Dhauligiri and Annapurna ranges.  We snaked up the 200 m climb in about 45 minutes, and experienced the joy of needing a down coat.  Delicious frosty air!  However, so did another 150 people or so.  Solo wilderness experience, this trek was not.  But no matter, we knew that coming in.  Plus, there’s something nice about being able to buy a cup of hot, masala tea in the mountains!

We enjoyed the views of sunrise, with Dhaulagiri (8,167 m) and Annapurna South (7,219m) dominating the horizons.  We lingered long up there, and eventually saw a side hill to hike out to and have some quiet solo time and hear the birds.

We hiked down, had breakfast, and got going towards our next destination of Tadopani around 9:30 AM.antonio,

Along the trail, we ran into a lovely man from Brazil, Antonio, on his way up to Annapurna base camp.  His face was filled with smile lines, and warm blacks-in-brown.  He was strong, powerfully built, but he walked with a slow, deliberate trail pace.  “I’ll get there, no hurry!”  He had no guide, no porter to carry his things.  Turns out he is 70 years old, a retired banker from Brazil.  His secret?  “vegetarian for twenty years, and two liters of home brew every day!”  Good idea I think.

By 10:30 AM, Mia’s stomach was tied in knots, and she couldn’t walk any further.  I carried her to Deurali, and laid her down on a bench while we ordered lunch.  I decided not to eat, as I felt something brewing down deep.

The thunderstorm hit an hour later.  My own journey of exodus began just after trying to stomach a spoonful or two of garlic soup around 7 PM.  Amy and Bajendra put us all to bed, Good night.

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Day 5 – Deurali to Ghandruk (1,940 m)

The morning dawned bright and blue, despite a tumultuous night.  I hadn’t slept a minute, neither had Amy.  Despite removing the upper 80% of my stomach fillings, I still felt an uneasy mass stuck lower in my system.  It protested its predicament, and I tried to give it freedom several times (“Never trust a fart!” was some advice I’ve heard about aging, that also applied to GI distress in a developing country).  Amy packed us up before 7, while I migrated back-and-forth between the outhouse and our room.  No exodus until later that morning though (and luckily while I was ready for it).

Despite the fact that Porter still hadn’t eaten, and Mia was empty bellied as well, we made the five hour hike in reasonable time, stopping for some enjoyable rock-stacking in a creek, and mountain gawking from the village of Tadopani.  From there, we could see Machapuchare, or Fishtail.  It has beautiful vertical relief, sweeping up to 6,947 m (22,793 ft) from the “low” surrounding foothills.  It’s summit is twin peaked, so the mountain appears like the end of a fish diving down towards the innards of the Earth.  It is considered a sacred mountain (where Shiva resides), and climbers are not allowed up.  Allegedly, it has never been climbed.  I hope that is true.

We hiked well, under blue skies all day.  We arrived in the charming mountain village of Ghandruk around mid-afternoon.  Ghandruk is beautiful – with homes, teahouses, temples, a school and a hospital all spilling across a terraced hillside.  The town is etched by a few stone pathways that wind between buildings and across slopes.  Despite being one of the most popular trekking stop-offs in the Himalaya, the people were gracious, friendly and inquisitive.  We loved it there.

The evening brought another kicker of a thunderstorm.  I still couldn’t eat, and neither could Mia and Porter.  But now at least, we were within an hours walk of a road, and only 4-5 hours from the end of our trek.

Day 6 – The hike back to Nayapul

Blue skies again, and what a view from Ghandruk!  Porter and I woke early, and decided to go explore the village.  We walked around and found a “German bakery” with french press coffee.  Halleluja, and bad stomach be damned!  We ordered a cinammon roll and a doughnut.  Both were a bit bready, but a welcome change in flavor.  We were both able to stash away a few Calories.  Plus, the views from our perch were tremendous.

An “Amma” waddled over to share our breakfast time with us.  “Namaste Amma!” I said.  That’s as much Nepali as I know, but it was enough.  She seemed appreciative and sat down at our table.  The owner brought her some tea and porridge.  She could not speak any English, but it didn’t matter.   She smiled, said a few things which I repeated poorly, and we hooted with laughter together.  Have I mentioned that I really grew to love the Nepalese people?

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We hiked up, and were back in Nayapul by mid-afternoon.  A lovely trip.  Since we’ve been back, I’ve had the chance to see several people’s photos of longer trips – the Annapurna Circuit, smaller peaks, and base camps.  I am already dreaming of seeing more of this place.

 

 

Author: johnchesbrough

I am a dad from Bellingham, WA, excited to share our family adventure through Asia. I like to play in the mountains and wood, with my family, my dog, and with numbers.

2 thoughts on “Trekking, gritty and grand”

  1. As usual, stunning writing John. Can’t wait to hear more! Your kids are impressive. The pic of Po gaining world perspective is such a great one.

    Like

  2. Weather that would only make a hippo happy! Genius bro! Again I am impressed and inspired by your positivity amist difficulty. Hugs in t- 7 days!

    Like

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