The Trek (Part Une)

Just as Drew and I were falling asleep the night before our trek was to begin, we woke to a ringing cell phone. It was Dorche calling from his room – the transportation bandh was over! Problems solved! Hooray!

Just a few hours earlier at dinner, we were discussing how to go about getting to Nayapol, the planned starting destination of our trek (about a 30 minute drive up into the mountains from our hotel). Of course a taxi was the best way, but could we find a driver willing to take us during the bandh? By the time we said goodnight and headed to our room, Dorche (the miracle worker) had found us a taxi, but for double the normal price (the driver had to “get while the gettin’ was good,” right?). We weren’t thrilled, but it was a ride up the mountain, so we accepted – what choice did we have? (And let’s face it, this is Nepal – even the doubled price was still relatively cheap). However, with the bandh ended, the price plummeted back to its normal rate, and all was well again. Phew. Good riddance, transportation bandh! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out! (If you are confused at this point, read the previous post “The Road to Pokhara / “Nepal Este Ho””).

The next morning, we ate a hearty breakfast at the hotel and jumped into the taxi for our ride up the mountain. More winding roads, more beautiful views (you know, just another day in Nepal)…

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Sitting in the back seat with Drew, I couldn’t help but laugh at our profound dorkiness. We had bought the exact same trekking pants in Kathmandu two days before (but in different colors, OF COURSE!). It seemed like a good idea when we bought them – we were in a hurry to make it to a lunch date and were dealing with Day 1 of the ridiculous transportation bandh. But sitting there side by side on the way up the mountain, this time-saving decision seemed just… well… ridiculous. And a bit embarrassing. I was reminded of tourist couples who wear matching t-shirts and hats when they travel. Sheesh. But no matter – it made me laugh, and who doesn’t love to laugh?

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We arrived in Nayapol, bought some water for our big journey, and headed through the village…

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Here we spotted our first mule train (of many more to come) and an awesome naag shrine (remember about naags? Snakes! See the “Naag Panchami and the Krishna Festival” post)…

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We stopped at the registration office and continued on along the river for about 30 minutes to the next village, Birethanti…

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Drew grabbing the opportunity for some preemptive rest at the registration office…

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We saw this scene many times throughout our trek – corn and grains strewn out in the sun to dry (I assume they are eventually pounded into various flours, cornmeal, etc)…

Once through Birethanti, we made our way on a road that ran alongside the river for an hour or so. It was blazing hot and a bit crowded – many other trekkers seemed to be starting their journey that day as well. But the river was gorgeous and the sound of the water rushing by just lovely – I wanted so badly to jump in for a swim!

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And I got my wish – well, sort of. We came to a point in the road where a waterfall was cutting across on its way down to the river. The water was quite deep, so we had no other choice but to take off our boots and wade. And what an excellent way to cool down it was…

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Aaaahhhh! Cool feet and legs… a little splash on my face and the back of my neck, a sprinkle on top of my head. So refreshing!  Drew took this a bit farther than me, of course (not surprising for those of you who know the both of us well!)…

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We headed on, drying quickly in the hot sun, moving downhill towards the bottom of the valley. We walked past small houses, rice paddies, and villages.  Eventually, we found ourselves right alongside the river itself…

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Happy me amidst it all…

Of course, I was so wrapped up in all of the beauty, I didn’t think about the fact that we were at the BOTTOM of the valley. And you know what that means: We would soon be headed up, up, up!  And UP we went…

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Looking back on the road we had just climbed…

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After close to an hour of steady and relatively steep uphill trail, I’ll admit I began to panic. I had never backpacked like this before. ‘Car camping’ and day hikes? Sure – no problem! But carrying everything on your back while tackling hills like this for several days in a row is another story altogether. I worried, “Can I really do this?,” “Will the next four days be absolutely miserable?” Luckily, we stopped for lunch shortly after these thoughts began to appear and refueling helped calm my anxieties immensely…

Drew checking on me, as I lagged behind on our way to the village where we planned to eat – we’re almost there, keep going!  Good man…

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Fried rice never tasted SOOOO good…

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At lunch we met another pair of trekkers, also from the States. The couple (we never caught their names unfortunately) lived in California, a Spanish teacher and construction worker. They were touring Nepal on their honeymoon and were headed the opposite direction to Nayapol, finishing their trek of several days. We had a lovely conversation with them over our meal and became fast friends. As we finished, the woman offered me the trekking pole she had bought in Pokhara and no longer needed. We discussed how great it would be for me to use it and then pass it on to yet another trekker, keeping it on the Annapurna circuit forever. I was charmed by this idea, so I accepted – happy for the extra help on my walk and happy to be a link in this chain of goodwill amongst trekkers.

I also encountered an adorable young toddler who lived in the guest house where we were eating – he was learning to walk in the room adjacent to us, crawling and stumbling about. I bent down to his level and he immediately jumped into my arms – no hesitation, no fear of me, a stranger. Of course, this made my day – I wish I had gotten a better picture of this cute little fellow…

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We left lunch with a bit more energy, lifted spirits, and now… a trekking pole – huzzah! (I had no idea then how much I would come to rely on that pole in the days to come).  We walked on, through more small villages, past waterfalls, and over suspended bridges….

 

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Clever firewood storage…

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On one such bridge, Drew was in the lead, with Dorche and I following behind him. At this point, I didn’t know Dorche very well, and I was still unclear about how much English he could speak and understand (turns out he knows much more than he initially lets on). I wasn’t quite sure how to act around him, and wondered if we would spend the entire trek being overly-polite (the way you are when you don’t know a person very well), awkwardly tiptoeing around each other.

When we reached the middle of the bridge, Dorche turned, gave me the warm and slightly mischievous smile I would come to know so well over the next few days, and asked, “Ready?” He began jumping up and down like a little kid, the suspended bridge swaying and undulating under our feet. Of course, I joined him and we shared a good laugh. It was in this moment that I knew Dorche was “my kind of people,” and that we would get along just fine…

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And then it was time for the stairs. Oh, the stairs….

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A (much needed) resting place along the route – there are several of these throughout the Annapurna circuit.  Many of them are also memorials to deceased loved ones of the families who built them…

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We walked for about four hours that day, the last TWO of which were spent climbing straight up the side of the ‘hill’ on those stairs (and again, it’s not actually a ‘hill’ – it’s a MOUNTAIN!). Luckily, we saw some beautiful things along the way…

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If you look closely, you can see the river at the bottom of the valley where we were walking just a few hours before…

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A small restaurant/guest house where we took our last break before finishing the final leg of our hike, its ceiling covered with hanging corn.  (We saw this sort of thing many times during our trek.  I’ve included a few similar photos from other spots here as well – I just loved this, especially against the royal blue paint that seems so prevalent in this area)…

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Needless to say, I was utterly exhausted by the time we made it to the guest house in the small village of Ulleri.

(I should stop here to explain that we were on a “teahouse trek.” This means that we hiked from village to village, staying at ‘guest houses’ along the way – very small and VERY rustic ‘hotels’ run by village families almost exclusively for trekking clientele. They provide rooms, showers, and food so you don’t have to carry everything with you – life savers!)

In my state of exhaustion I forgot to take pictures of the exterior of our guest house in Ulleri, but here’s a shot of Drew in our room, resting his tired soles after our first long day of trekking…

 

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After we showered (with surprisingly hot water, I might add), we spent our evening relaxing in the cozy, low-ceilinged ‘dining room’ area – reading, writing, drinking tea, watching uniformed children come home from school and mule trains make their way slowly up the steps with full loads…

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This area is not accesible by car, so mule trains are used to bring supplies from larger towns down below up to the villages…

Eventually, the monsoon clouds rolled in and heavy rain poured down, turning the steps into a waterfall…

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I also spent a lot of time admiring the charmingly strange decorative elements of this little room…

 

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Just before dinner, I befriended the young boy living there who was about three years old. We played a game together that went something like this: He came to our table to deliver some imaginary item (tea, food, what have you), I said “dhanyabad!” (“thank you”) with a big smile, he ran out of the room giggling. Repeat. MANY times. A simple game of course, but so much fun – it really made me miss my kiddos at school! I wish I had taken his picture…

Our game ended when our dinner of dal bhat and mango juice arrived. We ate, and turned in early because…well…we were TIRED! And we planned to begin trekking early the next morning because the monsoon rains tend to hit later in the afternoon. Needless to say, I slept like a rock that night!

We woke early the next morning, had another hearty ‘trekker’s breakfast’ (pancakes, eggs, tea) and set off, back to climbing those stairs. Luckily it was only about an hour to the top of the ridge, and this was at the beginning of our day rather than the end – much less torturous than the day before!

We walked through early morning mist and fog (oh, monsoon!), through the rest of Ulleri and a few other small villages…

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Oh, and this cute little kiddo – peering at us using the cassette tape like glasses (or a mask?) as we passed…

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Shortly after reaching the top of the ridge, we entered a densely wooded jungle. If the day before was ‘The Day of Stairs,’ this was to be ‘The Day of Jungle Trails and Waterfalls.’ We walked through quietly, taking in our new surroundings. The vegetation, brilliant shades of green, was lush and magnificent. The leaves of the trees blocked the sunlight from above, leaving us to walk in the cool shade. The air was thick with moisture, the ground covered with wet leaves, and moss grew just about everywhere. The trees were huge and old, twisted and gnarly – I have a particular love of trees and these were simply sublime. We listened to the chorus of insect life, the crunch of earth under our feet, and the sound of rushing water. We passed so many waterfalls (large and small) that I couldn’t keep count!

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For my friend, Ana B. Hernandez – artist and lover of fungi… :- )

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This little jungle flower reminded me of a shrimp… teehee…

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Drew and Dorche building a ‘bridge’ across one of the many waterfalls crossing our path…

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After several hours walking in the jungle, we found our way out and through a few more small villages…

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Around four hours after we began our day, we arrived in Ghorepani – our destination for the night…

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Dorche took us to a guest house where he knows the family well and often stays when guiding treks…

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I loved this early family portrait on the wall…

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Our dal bhat lunch was warm and waiting for us when we arrived – the brilliant Dorche had called on his cell phone while we were still hiking to pre-order… Good man!

 

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After lunch, we went to our room to shower and change. Here I was met by a very unwelcome visitor: LAND LEECH!

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We had been warned about “jugas” (land leeches) when we set off on our trek. They live in these mountains during monsoon season, but aren’t confined to water like most leeches – oh no! They hang around right there on the ground and will hop onto your body to hitch a ride and have a bite to eat (the jerks). BLEGH! (In fact, earlier that day we saw a mule who’s body was bleeding all over from where it had been bitten by these leeches. A truly gruesome sight, but apparently it wasn’t all that harmful to the mule – it looked worse than it actually was, I was told).

Now, I had mentally prepared to find a land leech on my foot, ankle, or leg during the this trek – but my stomach!? What a shock to see it there! We guessed that the leech had crawled onto the hip belt of my pack when I took it off during a break, and then somehow found its way under my t-shirt and onto my skin. ICK, ICK, ICK!

Full disclosure: I was a total ‘girl’ about the situation. I’m ashamed to admit this, but it’s true. I just screamed, looked at Drew and said, “Help! Help! Help!”  Lucky for me, Drew leapt into action (overcoming his own phobia of leeches brought on by a traumatic childhood experience in a Minnesotan lake). He doused the leech with salt (which we had packed for precisely this reason) and then pulled it off using a tissue in one swift motion. Wow. I have to say, I was impressed. A leech-killing ninja! My hero!

There was a small red bump on the site of the leech bite for several days afterwards – jokes were made about eggs, gestation periods, etc., and scenes from the movie “Aliens” came to mind. Of course, there were no eggs, BUT I do have a scar marking the spot to this day. Needless to say, I became very good about inspecting my pack carefully each time I took it on and off for the rest of the trek!

After the trauma of my leech encounter passed, we spent the rest of the day reading by the fire in the common area of the guest house (it was now rainy and surprisingly cold – we were at a higher elevation by this point, after all). The family there was watching over one of two infant twins from the family next door, Prang. He was adorable, and I loved watching the three sisters of the house coo over him. I even got a chance to do a little cooing myself…

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After the rain stopped, Drew and I were itching for a change of scenery, so we walked down the path a moment to where a small store was located. We bought some pens, candy bars (yay!), and a post card of Poon Hill. Poon Hill is a ‘hill’ (small mountain) a short walk from Ghorepani that is famous for its amazing Himalayan views. The weather wasn’t very promising, and we were told that monsoon clouds had blocked the views at sunrise there for the past two days – I decided that if our sunrise plans for the following morning didn’t work out, I would jokingly use the post card picture for my blog instead…

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As we were leaving the store, we noticed another small business just next to it, set back into the building a bit. It was dark, but there was a small sliver of light and music was playing, so we investigated further. And then we saw it: a pool table. Yes, a pool table. Now remember, we were in a remote mountain village in Nepal that is not accessible by car. Everything you’ll find in Ghorepani was either made there or hauled in on foot by porter and/or mule train. And here we were standing in front of a POOL TABLE. We were told it took 10 men to haul it up to the village, piece by piece…

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So here we were, two bideshi in a small mountain-top village at the foot of the Himalayans, in….well… a bar. Pool table? Check. Music? Check. Beer? Check! This was a bar! Barebones, yes, but a bar nevertheless – how surreal! There was a small group of young Nepali men there, six or so, smoking cigarettes and playing pool. We ordered a beer and asked if we could play the next game. They graciously allowed us a turn, but I think they regretted it eventually. Not because we were rude or took advantage of their kindness, but because neither Drew nor I are known to be pool ‘sharks,’ and it took us quite a while to finish our game (which I won, for the record. But I can’t take all of the credit, one of the young Nepalis appointed himself as my ‘coach,’ suggesting which shots I should take, and well… he was a good ‘coach’). This was pretty embarrassing for Drew and I, especially once we started watching these young Nepalis play after we finished our game – they all played VERY well. But then again, of course they did! It’s not like there is much else to do up there!

And I must note that all this time, we were listening to loud American pop music like Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” and a dance remix of “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5. I’ll repeat that again: we were in a remote mountain-top village in Nepal listening to Lady GaGa songs in a bar….. !!! One of the more surreal and entertaining experiences of my travels, that’s for sure!

After our big adventure at the ‘pool hall’ (HA!), we headed back to the guest house for more reading by the fire and dinner. We were off to bed early once again because our plan was to attempt climbing Poon Hill for sunrise the next morning. Of course, this plan wasn’t set in stone – we were at the mercy of the monsoon, and had to wait and see if we would be blessed with a clear morning sky. Dorche (the sweet, sweet man that he is) told us he would wake several times in the early morning hours to check the sky and assess whether or not it would be worth making the climb. If it was, he would knock on our door around 4:30 a.m. If not, our alarms were set for 6:30 a.m., and we would rise to start our day then. So we went to sleep, hoping for that pre-dawn knock on the door…

And I think I’ll stop there – this post is long enough already. (Oooohhhh! So suspenseful, no?! Will they get their Himalayan sunrise? Or will they be terribly disappointed? Not telling yet! Muuuwahahaha!)….I’ll be back with “Part Deux” soon! Until then, namaste and au revoir!

 

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