AFTER Everest, I headed for the area of Manaslu and Annapurna, west of Kathmandu. My itinerary was hectic. It would take me from Gorkha to Namrung, Sama to Dharmasala, then the Larkya La (Larke Pass: La means pass in Tibetan and Sherpa), Bimthang and on to Pisang and the Lower Mustang district. After that would tackle the Thorong La Pass and finished up with Ghorepani, Annapurna and Poon Hill, in a locality known as Ghore Pani, or Ghorepani.
It was to be twenty-five days of straight trekking, including two very high passes in the form of the Larkya La or Larke Pass at 5,160 metres and the even higher Thorong La at 5,416 metres — an adventure like one I had never had before. It is an adventure that many people take on without any training, which is unwise in view of those hefty altitudes, nearly 17,000 feet at the Larkya La and 17,769 feet at the Thorong La.
To put things in perspective, the air pressure at these passes is barely over half what it would be at sea level. Apart from that, it also goes without saying that the environment is alpine, with some risk of avalanches.
And it also says something about the Himalayas that these are passes, between the actual mountains nearby!
In spite of what I’ve just said about Karma’s Sunwise Mills, this hike is normally done anticlockwise. This is because the terrain slowly gets higher in the anticlockwise direction, whereas anyone who does it clockwise has to climb straight out of Jomsom, which lies in the deep gorge of the Kali Gandaki River, and go over the highest point, the Thorong La, straight away.
Everything’s bigger in the Himalayas, and the Kali Gandaki Gorge is no exception: it is one and a half times as deep as America’s Grand Canyon. That’s why climbing up from Jomsom, clockwise, would be such a bad idea. You would have to go up the walls of the gorge by a vertical kilometer from Jomsom, which is itself at a textbook height for the onset of altitude sickness (2,743 m), to get to Muktinath; and more than a vertical mile after Muktinath to get to the Thorong La. Such a gut-busting ascent would make altitude sickness a near certainty, unless you were a fully acclimatized mountaineer who had been high up in the Himalayas for a while. The rule of thumb is that even a fit person should not ascend to a higher altitude by more than 300 metres a day once above 2,500 metres, if they haven’t spent time at the higher altitude very recently.
At Thorong La, where there is only half as much oxygen as at sea level; the risk of serious altitude sickness for anyone coming up too fast is very real. On the other hand, no-one ever got altitude sickness by going rapidly down the hill.
Interestingly enough, Muktinath is a site of pilgrimage to which the trekker is slowly peregrinating for most of the journey, even if it is anticlockwise. And the hot springs of Tatopani are better enjoyed after most of the trek has been done, rather than at its beginning.
I was told Pokhara was a lovely lakeside town. I was also told that there had been only four guest houses as late as 1994. But by the time I visited, there were countless places to stay, including campsites that only cost one dollar a night.
Pokhara is sometimes referred to as Nepal’s Phuket. Although it wasn’t completely pristine and unspoilt, it was a handy base for place for a tourist or a traveller. I was able to get good food, a good hotel, and plan my upcoming adventure. I went searching, straight away, for a travel agency that could give me what I wanted: more than three weeks of hard trekking.
I quickly found what I wanted. Tasi from Upper Mustang Treks and Expeditions was from the remote Mustang region himself, and I instantly trusted him. As compared to someone from one the agencies in Kathmandu where they had sales reps, Tasi seemed trustworthy and had an instant vibe of genuineness. He ran his own buses, so was an independent operator and I preferred that.
Mustang is a former mountain kingdom on the Tibetan border in the Annapurna region, mainly inhabited by Tibetans, though long independent of Tibet. Founded in the 1380s, and known historically as the Kingdom of Lo, Mustang collected customs duties from travellers between India and Tibet.
The historic capital of the Kingdom of Lo was Lo Manthang: a walled city north of Annapurna which remains pretty much the same as it was in the 1400s, its walls intact, today. We did not visit Lo Manthang as it is off the trekking path, but I would like to do so one day.
Mustang was taken over by Nepal around 1800 but retained its own monarchy: an arrangement known as suzerainty. In 2008, the last king of Mustang lost his job under the same reforms by which the Nepali monarchy was abolished.
When Tibet reverted to Chinese control in the 1950s, Mustang was cut off from the north and became isolated, with the result that Mustang became the last hold-out of really old-fashioned Tibetan culture. Upper Mustang remains the most strictly Tibetan part today.
(The name Mustang has nothing to do with the wild horses known as mustangs, which are from America. Yaks are more the thing in Mustang, Nepal.)
With Upper Mustang Treks I would be exploring the Manaslu Restricted Area, Larkya La, Annapurna and Thorong La. The Manaslu Restricted Area is one of the no-lone-zones I mentioned earlier, where you need a group of at least two and a guide. People say that Manaslu is restricted because you are only a few kilometres from the Tibetan (or Chinese) border for a good part of the trek.
After discussing the trip with Tasi, I met my guide for this part of Nepal, a man named Sampo, who was Tasi’s cousin. I paid Tasi $750 and was given our itinerary and a permit for the Manaslu Restricted Area.
A mixed picture of words comes to my mind when I attempt to describe the next twenty-five days: poverty, happiness, hard work, beautiful mountains, good trekking, different food, no veggies, meat, oily fried food, sustainability amidst the poverty, solar, water tanks, and village hydro stations. I had not been to a Third World country in years before this trip to Nepal, but as a single woman with a guide I definitely felt safe. Being out of my comfort zone was not even a question.
On the first day of the adventure, we travelled by a rickety bus to Gorkha. From Gorkha we caught another bus to Soti Khola, driving through three districts in one day. It was 32 degrees Celsius — a really hot day for non-air-conditioned bus rides!
After the first bus, we caught a taxi and then had a real Nepalese experience on the second bus. It was called The Titanic. On this bus there were two people sitting on plastic barrels of petrol. Other cargo included sacks of rice, cement and goats. We travelled on the bus for three hours, with many people getting on and off. These people from the remote region of Manaslu were poor; it is a region that has only recently become a tourist destination. I saw dirt floors and canopy roofs on the houses. We crossed over bridges and drove along riverbanks. I was impatient for the mountains, but I knew it was a five-hour journey. Deforestation and the constant haze rising from the burning fields and the wood fires which the locals used for cooking meant there would be poor visibility until we got to the mountains where there were fewer people.
Here’s a video I made of one of our bus rides, I’m not sure which one. It was a fairly musical trip. The sound track is live, either from the PA or from somebody’s ghetto blaster!
Sampo was educated at the Pokhara Tibetan Refugee School, and he spoke and read Tibetan. I was very fortunate, as he understood the language which was written on the Stupas and the prayer wheels which were present on entering and leaving every village.
Like Tasi, Sampo was from Mustang.
It was generally expected that when you hired a guide, you became responsible for them, and you had to look after them too. It was a terrible state of affairs, because they couldn’t even afford to purchase equipment for themselves to do the treks properly — they worked hard for such little pay.
That night we stayed at one of the many new guest houses that were springing up in every town. These are not always owned by local people, which is a shame. The guest house was on the river at Soti Khola, at 700 metres elevation. The second night we stayed in Machhakhola, a town which had only one tap with running water for the whole town. I sat beside the tap for a while and the water was always running and always being used — for drinking, the brushing of teeth, and taken in buckets for the kitchen.
When I was there, Machhakhola was a Communist-ruled town, with red flags flying everywhere. According to Sampo, a lot of people had voted for a Communist party five years before, then after one year there had been a leadership change, but no change on the ground. The problem in Nepal was, apparently, that half of the political groups supported the Chinese government and the other half, the Indian government. Both parties were constantly debating Nepal’s constitution and its borders, and nothing ever got done. Corruption was everywhere, with frequent power cuts and no industry or infrastructure development. As I’ve mentioned, most companies in the area tended to run from one a.m. to seven a.m. because that is when there were fewer people using the power supply.
I found that some of the younger generations in Nepal were finding it hard to get careers. Even educated people would struggle to earn more than $5,000 a year. Many have a child or two and often have to leave the country to make a living. Tourism is an answer to some of these problems. Outside of the tourism industry, the average wage is $80 per month.
In Machhakhola, I became acquainted with the people who would be my travelling companions over the next few weeks along with Sampo and the other guides; for we were now being combined into a larger group for safety’s sake. I met an Irish couple called Mary and John, and two Israeli guys, Daniel and Jacob. These two were in their twenties and had no previous trekking experience. They just did it anyway. The next morning, we all left around the same time — 6.30 a.m., as by eleven a.m. the heat was sweltering. Most days were to consist of six hours of trekking along trails and over bridges that spanned assorted chasms along the way. Fortunately, though one of the bridges we crossed was horrendous, most had been rebuilt.
Machhakhola to Jagat was only a 500-metre gradual climb, but really hot. The track was rugged and undeveloped, and you needed good trekking boots that went higher than the ankles, as it was so easy to trip and sprain them. We walked along rocky river banks and climbed up quaint, sculptured ladders. Basically, you had to be prepared for anything. Jagat was the official entry point to the restricted area, with a police post to pass through. In Jagat, we stayed at a lovely place just out of town between two high valleys. The guides had a light-hearted conversation about which Manaslu routes they had climbed, and which ones were where. Sampo had great English and always told me what was being said.
We left Jagat and travelled on to Nyak. The Irish thought we had a 700-metre climb, but there were two Nyaks, one high and one low! That night we stayed in Dyang, the next village along, also known as Deng and listed under that name on Google Maps. If you did not stay at the Hotel Sangrila in Dyang (or Deng), then you could not stay anywhere apart from in your own tent, as the Sangrila was the only accommodation available. The village of Dyang barely existed, and the remarkable thing was that there was a hotel there at all.
At Dyang, a large French group of fifteen or so turned up as well. Some were quite unfit and already exhausted, even though they did not have to carry their own packs. I met a woman named Aldona who was part of this group. She was a French singer. I thought she was more of a French screamer after I heard her sing!
Sampo only got paid 1,200 Nepali rupees per day and his cousin, who actually owned the business, only got 1,000 rupees per day. This is from the 2,200 rupees per day I paid Tasi and is quite the norm. A Nepali rupee is officially worth just under one US cent, though of course it buys more locally. I won’t bother making conversions in this book unless it’s for emphasis, as you can just divide by a hundred to get a rough US dollar conversion, or by ninety to get a more accurate one.
Guides can eat for free in some of the teahouses and accommodations of the Himalayas after travellers are served, which can sometimes be as late as ten p.m. But in the Annapurna region, guides were charged 200 rupees per night at the teahouses, so the guides there rely all the more on tips.
Many of the guides have worked as chefs in top hotels in Europe and cook for their clients in order to make their meals more pleasant. When Mary’s guide was around, our food was tastier. Sampo started cooking for me, beginning with French fries — a start! Dal bhat is the staple food in Nepal. It consists of boiled rice, steamed veggies or meat at times and a lentil soup — a great meal for dinner! Fried food tended to aggravate the cough I had caught at Everest Base Camp, producing mucus and phlegm, so I was trying to stop all fried food, as well as eggs and cheese where possible.
The availability of other food such as large spring rolls, pizza or pasta varied from town to town. There was no English breakfast here, and I ate chapatti and an egg for breakfast on most days. There was also momo, either fried or steamed (they are similar to Chinese dumplings), as well as tuna. When I considered eating chicken, I started inspecting freezers before I ordered. In fact, this was the case for any food with meat in it. Eggs or omelettes with Tibetan bread or toast were great. The only problem was that fruit got scarcer the higher you went.
After leaving Dyang, we had lunch in Ghap, a small town with just a school and a small restaurant next to a historic monastery. We left our bags out on the edge of the path. I tried to put mine inside the café, but it was too big, so I put it outside again and kept an eye on it.
In Ghap, we saw a French woman cleaning a Nepali child’s cut finger. We sat there — me, the two Israelis and the two Irish — and simply admired her. Other children came around, as did the mothers, and the child marvelled at all the attention. When the French woman had finished, she noticed that she had been robbed. All her money, amounting to 20,000 rupees, was gone as was her credit card. She was very distraught. I gave her $50 and before long, she had more money than she did when she had started; she went from tears of sorrow to being filled with joy.
Further along, in Namrung, we had reliable wi-fi at last. However, the power did not on come on until 5.00 p.m. Sampo had commented that all the monasteries in this area were empty and that all the monks had left for a better life in Kathmandu. The area was very poor, and we both agreed the people needed help. In Namrung we encountered government people and witnessed their meeting with the townspeople where they were learning how to build proper toilets. Namrung, at 2,630 metres elevation, was a larger town where there was a lot of construction going on cope with the increase in tourism.
Then we stopped at the town of Lho Bazar. It was at Lho Bazar that I caught my first sight of the mountain named Manaslu, which is 8,163 metres high and the eighth-highest mountain in the world.
A friend of mine named Victor was climbing Manaslu at that moment. Manaslu has a reputation for being extra-dangerous even by the standards of high Himalayan peaks, because almost no part of Manaslu above its base camp is safe from avalanches. Dozens of climbers have perished in avalanches on Manaslu. So, I was hoping for Victor’s safe return. Readers will be glad to know he did get back, though without having made it to the top.
We should have stayed in Lho Bazar, which was a beautiful town, but we went on to Sama, at 3,520 metres. This was six hours of very steep trekking, often travelling straight up via sculpted ladders. After this, there was 300 metres of relatively flat land which provided a view of Manaslu Camp One, a camp for those ascending to the peak of the mountain.
Just before Sama, we saw a field of marmots, a kind of large squirrel which reminded me of puppies. Mary had a cough and I told her to get antibiotics before it became any worse.
In the hotels I always used my own inner thermal liner and sleeping bag to sleep in. At Sama, Sampo and I argued over hotels, and I ended up picking my own two-storey hotel; a beautiful place compared to the prison he wanted me to stay in. The food at the hotel I had chosen was wonderful, but Sampo wanted me to stay at the same hotel as the others. I put my foot down and refused.
I could not believe how some people treated their guides; some clients were completely oblivious to whether their guide had eaten in the morning or not. The services provided by guides also differed dramatically. The Irish couple’s guide did not take any packs whatsoever; whereas Sampo took my medical kit with him and, as we got higher, also took on a few heavier things. Some guides did not have the right gear for the snow, and one enterprising guide charged commission on the jeep rides he organised. Sampo would not do this, but after we had a discussion as to why he refused, he agreed he would start charging commission.
Sama was our home for two nights as we were acclimatising to the altitude. We went on a day trip and visited the beautiful Birendra Lake and the Nubri Pema Decho Ling Monastery, which is nestled in the rocks halfway between the Birendra Lake and Sama.
Our next destination was Samdo at 3,875 metres. This took only three hours and was all uphill. Samdo was one only day’s trek from the Tibetan (Chinese) frontier at the Gya La or ‘Large Pass’. The Gya La is open for three months of the year: May, June and July. During this time, it is nearly impossible to pass as it is also the wet season. One of the guides did say it was easy to sneak through to China, however. Locals also said that people used to come over from the Chinese side, but they do not do that any longer as they have enough food nowadays and are not so poor. The Nepalese are not allowed to buy from China. Instead, the food must come up on mules from Nepali towns, which makes things very difficult. Samdo had its own hydro station, as did many small villages. Solar panels were also used everywhere.
In Samdo, we stayed in a large, cold lodge. It was horrid — Sampo’s choice, of course! The kerosene fire did not come on until five p.m. and so we were all shivering. Aldona and the French trekkers stayed in small lodges and ate in the kitchen by the fire where the locals were cooking, which seemed much nicer and friendlier. I met a Dutch couple there who managed an up-market lodge in Tanzania. They had climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa at 5,895 metres. We also discussed the illegal ivory trade.
I had homemade yak butter, which was very delicious and watched the pregnant mares and other horses gallop around the fields. It had snowed, and everything looked very beautiful. At this elevation, one of the Israeli guys, Daniel, got dizzy and was helicoptered out. He said he had lost a lot of weight and was breathless and could not move. I suggested Diamox, two lots of 250 mg per day, but he wisely took a helicopter out before it got any worse; he was taking no chances.
Later that day on the way to Dharmasala (which is at an elevation of 4,460 metres, and not to be confused with the Dalai Lama’s abode of Dharamshala in northern India), I saw a Chinese girl being carried out. She was completely unconscious. She had left that morning from Dharmasala and climbed 300 metres towards Larke Pass, but then could not move anymore. One porter for the Americans also had to leave because of altitude sickness.
I was alert to altitude sickness, because my bedtime reading was Into Thin Air! Krakauer talks about the prevalence of altitude sickness and also the prevalence of its denial among visitors keen to bag a peak, and even among some Sherpas as a matter of pride. But anyone is susceptible to this illness, including experienced Sherpas who had not had it in 10 years of climbing Everest.
I had been warned about Dharmasala but had not realised how bad it was. I would be staying in a windy tent with four other beds. Sampo was on the floor with just a mattress in the guides’ tent. There was a dining room with an attached kitchen, twelve rooms for sleeping and about eight tents. The operation could house ninety-nine people in total. Aldona and Ian (another member of the group) were in the tent next to mine, meaning I could hear everything (which was not that great). The dining room had a very muddy floor, and your feet were pretty much sitting in water underneath a flimsy wooden table that could seat about sixty people. This was in a stone building which had no insulation and boards where the windows used to be. It was closed when the food ran out which could be anytime, but was usually during the wet months of June, July and August.
It was amazing what they produced in that kitchen: chapatti, eggs and Tibetan bread with eggs or jam. It is basic, hearty food, badly needed by weary travellers with symptoms of altitude sickness. On the morning we were there they ran out of eggs and were closing the next day.
To be able to build the hotel, the owner had been required to build a dam for the town. Otherwise, they would not have let him build even this rather basic complex.
There was some other accommodation in the town. But those huts were very basic and booked out most of the time. When we were there, a group of Czechs had booked them out. However, despite the basic accommodation, the views from Dharmasala were amazing, with the ranges forming a beautiful backdrop to the town.
The next morning, we started at 4.30 a.m. in order to see the first light. It was not as cold as I had expected it to be, and I was glad I did not wear my thickest thermals — just my light ones. I needed everything else, however. I also carried my own bag, which was another challenge, but I would have it no other way.
Sampo tried to get me to go faster, but on my earlier trip to Everest Base Camp the Sherpa guides had taught me to go slow and steady. I knew that I find it very hard to breathe while trekking higher than 4,800 metres. It annoyed me that he tried to push me, and we argued, as we always did, but only on the top of passes. We mostly worked it out.
One issue was that we needed crampons for the trek. I had left mine in New Zealand but could have purchased some in Kathmandu. However, we were never told that we would need them, so, of course, I had not bought any. Some of the guides were going to recommend that in the future, their companies made sure to remind their clients about the need for crampons.
Apart from my group of six making the ascent to the Larke Pass, there were six Polish tourists, ten French, ten Czech, six Russians, four Americans, as well as all the porters and guides.
We got to the top of the pass at about eleven a.m. There were some icy tracks, rocks and soft snow with long drops into crevasses. Before the descent, we had our lunch, and sitting there I realised there are so many near-Everests in this country of countless high mountains and amazing glaciers.
The descent was to Bimthang at 3,590 metres, so there was a drop of 1,500 metres. It was a very steep, rocky and icy descent. I went slowly, saving my knees, and we got to Bimthang at four p.m. There we stayed in the Himalayan Cottage. It had yellow cabins and an exquisitely carved lounge. I ate French fries and canned pineapple, which felt like Nirvana, and I washed all my clothes which I had worn for four days.
From Bimthang, we had a great view of the back of Manaslu. I tried to buy meat there, but I could not get any. The local people only ate superannuated yak — and that was way too tough for me.
In Bimthang, I overheard a huge argument. A Czech doctor was criticising the French group for leaving a woman on the pass. This was at five p.m. However, I had passed her earlier and she was with a porter. The other people in her group were fitter than her, so they had gone on ahead. She made it down in the end and arrived in Bimthang at ten p.m.
Earlier on, Sampo had pointed out sandalwood trees to me. These plants grew as small shrubs back in Namrung but here, they were tall trees. The wood from these trees is highly fragrant and used to make incense. It is burnt in the mornings in Nepal, as an offering to the gods. So too is the wood of juniper trees, which is also very fragrant.
The additional descent to Tilche was beautiful, with pink, red, and white rhododendrons in bloom — just amazing!
The descent from Bimthang revealed many new guesthouses. There were beautiful fields, but major deforestation was underway to cope with all the new buildings. Tilche was a jumble of hasty tourist developments and most people I met were staying in Dharapani and then taking jeeps out to Besisahar (another town full of motels!) and getting a bus to Kathmandu. We stayed one kilometre before the town at the Gorkha Guesthouse, which had beautiful views.
Sampo told me about the rather stressed lessee of this abode. The locals owed her a lot of money — six guys each owing six months’ rent. Furthermore, she taught the cultural dances for which the tourism operators who owned the hotel were paid, but she received no money. The Czechs who were also staying at the Gorkha Guesthouse had brought their own beer, and on top of this, their guide argued with the hotel manager, saying he would not stay at a hotel where he could not hire a jeep.
I felt very sorry for the poor woman. Her husband had found a job in construction, but she still paid 60,000 rupees a month in rent, and I only paid 400 rupees for the night. While I was there, I had a hot shower and did some more washing.
We were now heading on to the Annapurna Trail, which passes through Tilche at 2,300 m, then Timang, Chame at 2,670 m, Pisang at 3,200 m, Manang, and then up again to Yak Kharka at 4,050 m, and finally, the Thorong La (Thorong Pass) at 5,416 metres. After that we would descend to Muktinath, which is a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists and has been a holy place for 4,000 years. We would then trek through Jomsom, Tatopani and Gorepani — an area which was deforested and disappointing. You did not need a guide there, really.
At Pisang, we stayed at the Lower Pisang Eco Lodge. On the way, we passed through two monasteries which were being built. It was the off-season and I thought I was the only one staying at the lodge for the night. Then eighty women arrived, including a nun, who were going to help with the renovations. They all burnt juniper wood in the morning.
We visited Upper Pisang, which was beautiful. It was a change of 300 metres in altitude from Lower Pisang. There were many hotels, and we encountered a lovely monk who gave us lemon tea and didn’t ask for money in return.
At Manang we had beautiful views of the mountains — of the Annapurna massif — as well as of gardens and garlic. It was a tourist town, really. It was in Manang that I saw six posters of missing men — tourists in their twenties. They had all gone missing in the last six months and their families were offering rewards. Here, I also met an Irish guy who worked for orphanages in Kathmandu, and we discussed the expansion of poverty, professional begging and NGOs.
Along the way there were views of Hiunchuli, which I wanted to climb.
Before Thorong La High Camp there is a small settlement known as Base Camp. I stopped for a cuppa and was charged 200 rupees! That’s about $1.80, which sounds reasonable, but it is very expensive for a country where a cup of tea in a teahouse normally costs one-tenth of that price. Of course, there’s not so much competition at this altitude, and the customers are mostly from wealthier countries than Nepal.
We then walked on to High Camp at 4,880 metres. I was climbing 800 metres in a day to get there, but the very high altitudes on the trail so far had prepared me for that. Otherwise, the Thorong La would be a killer, from either direction.
Bad weather is also a major risk here. In October 2014, there was a devastating snowstorm in the area that left 43 people dead from exposure and avalanches, while 518 people had to be rescued. It was one of Nepal’s worst trekking disasters, with several local people and 21 foreign trekkers killed on the Annapurna circuit alone. Such a tragedy shows that you have to be prepared for anything.
The accommodation at High Camp was all booked out and I ended up sharing a room with a Chinese guy from New York who got his porters to pack his backpack in the morning. To be honest, I was not very comfortable having strange men in my room. The next morning, we left early and went up and over the Thorong La, and then down to Muktinath. It takes about three hours to get up to the top of the pass (another 600 metres) from High Camp. This means going up by twice the recommended 300 metres to an altitude you have not yet attained, whether you have put in a big day of climbing the day before or not. Also, high winds often pick up mid-morning even in the absence of a lethal blizzard. So, you are in the danger zone, and you can’t linger. In fact, I remember hurrying through parts of the Thorong La, thinking that I was in an avalanche danger zone. That was in May 2014, five months before the October avalanches.
Having said that, rather incredibly, there is another tea shop right at the top, open for four months of the year. Imagine living at the top of the Thorong La; that must be very close to being the world’s strangest address. The hardest part of this section of the trek is perhaps the knee-killing descent (1,800 metres) to Muktinath, which definitely requires climbing poles.
Although some occasionally through-routes and military roads in the Himalayas, are, apparently, up to four hundred metres higher, the Thorong La is said to be the highest mountain pass in regular use anywhere. It is an intrepid journey in itself!
At Muktinath, near the village of Ranipauwa, I visited the historic temple. The temple is 4,000 years old and is sacred to Hindus. There is also a Buddhist temple next door. Here Sampo collected holy water for his family, and I encountered naked yogis, or baba, who were talking to westerners about the meaning of life. I was not meant to go into the temple, but I did have a quick look.
The following day we left Muktinath and Ranipauwa, travelling along a road that used to be a walking track. We descended the hill to the caves of Kagbeni, near the Kali Gandaki River where we saw ancient fossils. Sampo told me how his father used to take him there when he was ten to look for fossils embedded in rocks. People used to live in the caves, but deforestation in the area had meant there was no longer enough water to make them habitable. Statues of Buddha remained, however — a relic of the former inhabitants.
We hired a taxi for $150 from Jomsom to Tatopani, as I had had enough of trekking beside dusty roads and needed a break. There was no way of taking a local bus, as it would just not make it on those roads. Along the way we saw a truck that had overturned, and then the axle of our own taxi broke. Sampo had to cut the tie off his pack for the driver to tie up the wheel rack which was connected to the axle.
In Tatopani, I stayed in a beautiful hotel. It was divine, and I relaxed by the river and went to the hot pools where I was the only woman. I also had my first clear view of the great mountain that is simply known as Annapurna.
After Tatopani, I began the climb to Chitre via Shikha — an ascent from 1,200 to 2,800 metres. It was a nine-hour day, as it was hellishly hot.
In Chitre, I met volunteer workers working with a local association. In 1995, a Dutch philanthropist named Jan Laan decided to help start an association which was to build a health care centre, help a local school and sponsor children. With the support of the United Nations, the local people also established a community enterprise called the Ghandruk Pure Water Factory, which draws its water from a high mountain spring and filters it to make doubly sure that it is safe.
The factory mainly sells the water in bulk to trekker hotels for ten rupees a litre. One of the motivations for starting the business was to solve a waste- disposal and littering problem. The idea was that with a supply of spring-water that was guaranteed safe, trekkers, wary of what came out of local taps, would no longer feel forced to keep buying bottles of drinking water that they could not refill and therefore had to keep throwing away, once empty, as they went along.
Given that hardly anything is more ideal for the supply of pure drinking water than a mountain spring, dragging commercially bottled water up from the city must surely have seemed like an exercise in hauling coals to Newcastle, in any case!
After Chitre, we went on to Ghorepani. This is a small town that is dominated by about twenty hotels as well as numerous restaurants. It is a good spot for honeymooners. There were seventy other people gathered at the Poonhill sunrise lookout, or perhaps even more. All the trees were gone, but the people there were not poor. From there, it was a final day’s trek back to Pokhara, where I had a few days rest before my flight home.
While I was resting in Pokhara, I met Sampo’s wife and daughter in the suburb of Riverside. They lived with Sampo’s parents and brother. Sampo’s parents did not want him to have more children — no money. They wanted him to go abroad for a job. His elder sister’s children were with his grandparents in Mustang. His sister and brother-in-law work in France.
I met this guy who was a director of an orphanage, and who said many Nepalese families could not afford to have more than one child because of things like the cost of education, so they give them away to dodgy orphanages that got them to beg on the streets and more sinister things. He worked for an organisation that tried to reunite these children with their families and provided financial support.
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