Circling the Abode of Snow
20 Days Trekking in the Himalayas
OCT. 2007 • TEXT & PHOTOS BY AUSTIN PICK
Gradually, and feeling very much relieved, we rose from the dirty yellow-grey late-monsoon haze of Kathmandu by cranking, ratchety bus, jostling along thru the crowded market city on an ever narrowing road that terminated, finally, before the gates of a national park at the Valley's puckered green lip. Dhammashringa, Nepal's most well-established Vipassana Meditation center, is perched there too, a terraced garden of peace and quiet hovering serenely above the mad city below, which lay before us at night like a bed of murmuring embers, seemingly calm, aflicker with the glow of inconstant electricity.
Shauna and I have sat several Vipassana courses together, but these 10 days proved particularly trying; I had intermittent fevers and night sweats for the first three days, and Shauna, just recovering from the same fever flu, was beset by cluster headaches, migraine-like brain-bombs she'd once suffered from several years ago. The return of these headaches at the start of the course was somewhat suspicious because Vipassana Meditation is known to bring to light the tension-tightened parts of both mind and body, but we can't say anything definitive about this. It is enough to say that we —Shauna especially— successfully endured another challenging and insightful dip in the fast-flowing rivers of our intertwining lives...
As it happened, after a few restive days around the great stupa at Bodhnath, we set off again on what proved to be a challenging and insightful course of another kind: to hike a crooked mandala thru the high mountains, the Himalayas, crowning the Indian subcontinent's diamond and defining the upper reaches of Nepal. To pass circuitously thru the Abode (alaya) of Snow (hima)...
By bus again, this time west to Nepal's only other actual city, Pokhara, we left the Kathmandu Valley at the start of the fuel shortages that continue even now, hundreds of motorbikes crowding the roads like so many wingless bees before withered petrol pumps, the air blackened by the exhaust of engine-stripping adulterated fuel, low-grade oils cut with stuff even cheaper, like a dirty drug. Our seat reservations had been given to others, so we sat in the cab along with the driver and his friends as the tourist bus slammed haltingly thru Kathmandu, the city scrolling by with its hand-dug roadwork and heaps of construction rubble and half-finished buildings bristling with rebar, the city itself looking stunned, bomb-blown, collapsible.
Outside the Valley, however, Nepal was perhaps truly revealed to us for the first time. As the road arced out into the already sheer folds of foothills falling away into morning mist, I began to understand what I'd read but couldn't grasp in the city: that the vast majority of Nepal's population lives a largely subsistence existence in small scattered villages. The brilliant green of terraced rice illuminated the broad river valley, sheltering thatched roof villages and scaling sharp contrast to the gaping rock quarries, dams and new electric projects that loom around the bends of the precarious narrow highway, along which dozens of women, hunched under lean-tos, crush river rocks to gravel by hand -- strange subsistence indeed, at the fringes...
For six hours, we passed the many places where landslides had eaten back at the highway, and gazed silently at truck husks in the rainy gloom, shadowing our own rumbling passage along that thin thread, but we arrived safely —and quite happily despite our discomforts in the cab— after all. Pokhara is quite literally a cow town: the sacred animals wander the streets, eating the sacred trash. Relaxed in the lowland along a lake, and framed by our first tentative glimpses of the high mountains, Pokhara was an excellent place for us to wait out the rains and make preparations for the trek we'd eventually chosen to attempt: the Annapurna Circuit, a well-established 200-odd-mile loop that follows ancient trade routes towards Tibet, circling the Annapurna massif and crossing at its apex one of the highest mountain passes in the world.
Though we'd climbed Mt. Fuji together, this venture was to be Shauna's first experience of multi-day trekking, and one of my most difficult, requiring real endurance to complete the circuit, which takes a minimum of about 17 days. We elected to carry our own packs, which is necessary for all the trekking I've done previously, whereas about 80% of the people we met had hired porters and/or guides to take their loads. And because the trek is so well established, passing thru villages where food and lodging is readily available, it's not necessary to carry sleeping bags, tents, food, or cooking gear. That put our packs at about 30-35 lbs., very real but also quite reasonable, in my estimation. Shauna, however, would perhaps disagree...
A few days after arriving in Pokhara, the monsoon finished its unexpected encore, bowing out to the breaking sun, and the weather finally held. Saddled and psyched, we set off on a morning bus ride which took us several hours further into the foothills, and by day's end were hiking along a crude road with school children on their way home from one village to another. For the next three days we journeyed thru the sub-tropical midlands, terraced rice and languid banana trees improbably presided over by the great white bulks of distant peaks, drawing ever closer as we followed the Marsyangdi River deeper into the labyrinthine folds of the range.
Despite its precipitous scale, the Annapurna Conservation Area isn't exactly wilderness, as least what we're able to see of it; the river courses and trail networks are all actively inhabited, the hills terraced for rice and, where it's too steep and cold in the higher reaches, for maize. We pass thru dozens of various-sized villages, and see more secreted away, almost invisible among the high recesses of rock and frond. And the Circuit trail we follow isn't merely a hiking trail, but a high mountains highway in a land where all goods must be carried in and out by porters, or more commonly pack-mules, which pass us in long trains, littering the track with dung that dries and grinds to scattering dust in the hot slog of our first several days hard hiking.
Our own difficulties are put into a certain perspective by the weathered porters who pass us, often only in flip-flops, with absurd loads carried by a tump-line across the forehead: we see a man carrying several sheets of 8'x4' corrugated tin; several with cages full of chickens; a teenager, porting for a hiking group, with three folding metal tables; a group of local boys walking, each casually carrying a freshly-severed cow's leg; and one old man, tidily dressed, carrying his invalid wife in a plastic deck chair on his back.
Culture informs much of our experience during the trek, and we receive a rather strange reception in the sooty Hindu villages in the midlands, where people often regard us unsmilingly, with a look of faint curiosity shading into something like envy, even disdain. But the people seem to grow warmer as the mountains grow colder and we ascend in altitude, crossing into the Tibetan-influenced lands of the alpine and high desert regions, where Buddhist chortens and prayer walls dot the landscape, offering us safe passage.
As we climb to these heights through the paced rhythm of our long days, the trail criss-crossing and leading us ever deeper into the rushing river's narrowing course, we feel the increasingly sheer and mountainous landscape enfolding around us, an embrace of stoic boulder and reaching foliage wherever the land is too steep for cultivation, rangy, thin-leafed marijuana growing everywhere wild, weed in the true sense. Though the weather is often clear the great white pinnacles of the Himalayas remain illusive, disappearing behind cloud and crag, suggesting that despite their incredible size, one must seek them out along proper pathways before meeting them in their fullness...
There is something of the Wild West here too, especially in Chame, where we arrive in time to witness an annual horse competition, Tibetan cowboys flying down the main street on half-wild ponies. And in the high twisted-juniper deserts above 10,000 feet, in landscapes that remind me of the American Southwest, we pass thru medieval villages of stone and mud, strikingly similar to Pueblo complexes but still inhabited, pervaded by the sense of hearty domesticity we find throughout these Tibetan settlements. It is harvest time here, and villagers thrash their wheat, buckwheat and barley by hand, leaving grains and great stacks of firewood to dry on flat rooftops.
We rest here in the Manang Valley, giving ourselves a few days to acclimatize to the increasing altitude, and hike up to a small hermitage high in the cliff side, home to Lama Teshi, a 91-year-old monk known as the 100-Rupee-Lama because —for 100 Rupees— he will offer blessings to trekkers for safe travels and long life. Others come and go, but at Lama Teshi's behest we stay seated, his small room decorated with ancient faded Tibetan paintings, photos of the Dalai Lama, and the spare passport pictures of hundreds who've come before us. Shauna is radiant with the simple joy of this man as we share tea and watch him rather fastidiously count his money, childlike and unflinchingly kind...
The landscape here is beautiful but imposing, the valley ribbed with enormous fins of jagged rock. The days are short and the nights cold, and the air is increasingly thin. Alpine forests and high desert scrub give way to low, resilient ground cover as we pass above the tree line and enter the domain of yak, herded by Tibetans and making the slow move down now to wintering grounds at lower elevations. The shaggy animals seem well suited for these lonely, desolate expanses, but humans are not meant to dwell long in such high places, and we, feeling increasingly alien, are thankful for Lama Teshi's benediction.
We need such blessings, because snow begins to fall as we approach the Thorong La, the high pass that we must cross to complete the Circuit. Even in normal conditions the pass is a fairly serious mountaineering proposition, requiring at least 6 hours to reach the village on the far side, and when we wake before dawn the next morning to steady wet snow we're torn with a difficult decision: if we go, we risk worsening conditions and dangerous temperatures, not to mention the possibility of altitude sickness. But if we wait another day, we risk worsening conditions and the possibility of the pass closing, or of being snowed in here at the very basic accommodation of Thorong Phedi, one of two base camps for the pass. We are ill-equipped for such conditions, and the snow is two wet, visibility too poor. Though most at Thorong Phedi decide to go over in the snow, we wait.
Our decision turned out to be an excellent one; the snow broke at about 2pm, and the next morning we awoke to a glittering net of stars and crystal clarity. We set off at about 5am, climbing into the sunrise, the narrow track quickly packed to ice by those proceeding us, dark shadows against the glowing crest of fresh snow. We suffer little from the altitude, but with full packs the going is slow, our pace deliberately measured as we cross through the frosted other-worldly expanses of the abode of snow, the sky deepening to an impossible richness of darkest blue, peaks piling to the heavens and with our own heads afloat, I find myself suddenly emotional, overcome with a sense of something equally deep within, a sense of relief at having chosen well, but something more too, something more than altitude or exertion, but connected to this breath, gratitude for breath, for breathing, for being alive... After a challenging initial ascent, the pass is a long rolling white oblivion where distance is impossible to judge, where everything seems to stretch and reach and lengthen, an oasis for ice giants. We are strung along to the extent of our endurance by a series of false summits, high gnolls that only show us we've got farther to go until, at last, we find that the height is beneath our feet, standing on top of the world. At its height the Thorong La is 17,769 ft. (5416m.), higher than Everest Base Camp, higher than any peak in the continental United States. There is, unbelievably, a small, crouching teahouse there at the top, serving (at about a $1.50 a cup) the most expensive tea in Nepal, a little thimble of fire for frozen hands in that cold void, strong stuff for spirits already flying. We hang for a moment in the thin air, and then begin the long, icy, treacherous descent, step by careful, sliding step...
With so much ice and slush the descent from the pass is arduous and exhausting, requiring continuous awareness, patience and a steady step. The track is so slick and sheer that we're required to slide down sections crabwise, careful to keep our weight balanced so that our packs don't send us pitching over ravines. It takes us about four hours to reach Muktinath, the holy Hindu city on the other side, and by the time we arrive we could care less about the temples there, and settle in for a much needed day of rest.
For the next week we descend again from high desert thru the alpine regions south of Marpha and eventually back into sub-tropical rice-lands, following the great Kali Gandaki River on its journey to India. But there is a road being built along this entire stretch, already continuous from Muktinath to Lete and frequented by motorcycles and jeeps. In a few years this place, these agrarian villages and expansive landscapes will be openly accessible and inevitably changed. The trek itself may cease to exist.
Still, when we watch the sunrise from Poon Hill on our last morning, shy sunrise plotting points for the day's rotation and kissing the broad faces of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri with first light, those great and ancient mountains seem utterly beyond the bustle of morning hikers and distant highways, enduring and ever-white. The sun too circles the abode of snow, or rather...
We met and traveled with some amazing people during our weeks in the Himalayas, including an Australian couple whose house I'd actually visited while wwoofing a few years ago! We are thankful for having so many kind and supportive souls to make this journey with, to share in this task of testing ourselves against one of the world's wild places, to open ourselves, a little more, to the fullness of being. I hope this finds every one of you very well as your own adventures continue...
Challenged and changed, we returned in good time to what passes for civilization in Nepal...
Yours with Love, A