Official business over, we couldn’t leave Nepal without visiting the Himalayas..
The drive from Pokhara to the start of our trek was along one of those mountain roads that I’d only previously ever seen on TV. Our tiny local taxi clung precariously to the edge of the mountain whilst local buses and trucks plowed down towards us. Suspension didn’t feature and as a result when we arrived one and a half hours later we poured out of the taxi like the contents of a cocktail shaker.
The start point was in a small village called Nayapul, a common entry point to the Annapurna region. Hikers, climbers and kayakers were dotted around either excitedly readying themselves for the adventure ahead or in various states of disarray and undress having returned from a few days or weeks in the wilderness. On return most looked relatively ferrel however so did a fair few before they started, the one thing no one could ignore was the difference in smell between the two groups. Fortunately for now we were occupying the less offensive smelling party however things were soon about to change.
Stepping out of the car the first thing that hit me was the heat. Those of you who have been following my story will know that regulating my body temperature is now a bit of a challenge and I don’t cope too well when it’s hot, and it was hot! If, like me, you assumed that the Himalayas are cold you would only be half right. The largest mountain range on earth is not actually that far from the equator so the ice and snow you see is only as a result of altitude and nothing to do with its location. Here in the foothills at the start of our trek it was still 30 degrees and we were in jungle.
Our guide for the three days was Bigraj who was joined by his brother in law who was porting, or maybe keeping an eye on him… Bigraj comes from a small village high up in the Everest region and is about as authentic Nepalese mountain man as you get. From the age of 4 or 5 like so many other kids in Nepal Bigraj was walking an hours worth of stairs to school and back every day. By the age of 13 he was acting as porter on expeditions and in his own words was inspired by the sense of adventure that the westerners were coming over with. Fuelled by intrigue he would engage regularly with the climbers and hikers and as a result soon started to pick up the language. It wasn’t long before he was promoted to guiding English speaking groups and has never looked back. Bigraj has been walking these mountains for nearly 30 years, we were in good hands..small hands, but good hands.
Bigraj showed our permits and we set off into the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. The road we were following meandered up the valley, every now and again crossing the white water below via a precarious bridge. I say road but it wouldn’t qualify as such by western standards, in fact probably not by many standards but fortunately we were out of the cocktail shaker and on foot. After a couple of hours we stopped at a little homestay come restaurant for lunch. All of these villages seem to be run by the same character; a smiling yet authoritative older woman who I will just call Grandma. As you can imagine all of the locals up here are incredibly fit with not an ounce of fat to share between them…well most of them. Grandma is undoubtably the top of the food chain. Whilst the others work the fields or carry huge loads thousands of vertical meters between villages, grandma is in the kitchen feeding the whole operation. Judging by Grandmas physique she is clearly taking liberties on rations but rightfully so as the entire place would collapse without her. Besides, like grandmas the world over, the food she is producing is delicious. The local speciality is Dahl Bat, which is basically different combinations of rice, lentils and pickles with a small meat curry on the side if you’re lucky. There are other options but grandma seems to role her eyes if you order anything else, confirming her distain by coming out and offering anyone who ordered Dahl Bat more food whilst ignoring everyone else. This was the case everywhere we went so it wasn’t long before it was Dahl Bat 24/7.
After we had finishing refuelling we thanked grandma, crossed the road and set off up a stone staircase that literally disappeared into the clouds. All of the villages up here are linked by stone staircases and beautiful ones at that. The paths need to remain passable in the winter and because of the gradient staircases are the only option. I didn’t know it yet but the next four hours was going to be a mental and physical battle like I had rarely experienced before.
Step by step I worked my way up the side of the mountain, concentrating hard on each movement. One miss placed foot or pole could have nasty consequences and considering the isolation its not a great place to get injured. The problem I have is lifting my left leg, I can clear the ground and swing it through ok so steep paths are not a problem but I struggle to fire my hamstring and hip flexor so picking it up vertically is difficult. This makes stairs a real issue and believe me there were a lot of stairs, in fact more stairs than I’ve ever seen in my life. My right side has to work twice as hard to compensate for the weaker left and the whole process wouldn’t be possible without poles as I also use my upper body during every movement. This total body effort combined with the relentless heat meant that my heart rate was sitting between 160-175 bpm for 5 hours. Just to put that into some context; the average persons heart rate during a marathon is 160 bpm over 4 hours. The physical battle is hard enough but the real challenge is a mental one. Believe me there are large parts of the process that I hate, the pain, the frustration, the negative thoughts but the rewards are always worth it… and this time was no exception.
The village of Ghandruk is perched on a ridge high in the foothills of Annapurna South, the largest mountain in the region. It’s quite a large village for the area with a population of over 4 thousand. The picturesque cobbled streets and drystone walls have a Cotswold feel to them and combined with its location its easy to see why its become a popular destination for hikers and trekkers.
The tea house we were staying in was positively luxurious compared to what I was expecting, we even had our own room. The best thing about it was access to the roof area where there was a table and a few chairs. We dumped the bags and hobbled outside for a well earned sit down. It wasn’t until I looked up from taking my shoes off that it really hit me where we were. The giant peaks of Annapurna South and the fishtail mountain that had seemed a world away in the morning were now looming large over head. It’s tough to describe the feeling they induce but I couldn’t believe just how big they were. If you have been to the Himalayas then you will know what I’m talking about but if you haven’t; some of these mountains are so much bigger than anything you have ever seen in your life that you can’t quite believe they’re real. They make you feel completely insignificant but in the best possible way. All of a sudden you and all of your problems are a tiny dot on the side of a giant, completely irrelevant, and it feels amazing.
We just sat and stared in awe until Bigraj interrupted the peace with two cold Gorkha beers. Just for the record I was fine with him disturbing the peace. There’s nothing better than a well earned beer and the fact we got to drink it watching the sun set over the Himalayas… well. I’m not sure it was the dehydration or the altitude but Lois was dancing and singing after just half a bottle which believe me is bad news for everyone. It was however definitely the altitude that had effected the temperature and as the sun set the layers had to go on. After the customary Dahl Bat and a good chat with a young German couple we retired to bed but not before heading back to the roof for one of the most amazing night skies I had ever seen.
I woke early and headed downstairs to use the hole in the floor, which by the way is a challenge in itself but ill spare you the details! Grandma was already up and hooked me up with a coffee which I returned to the roof with to watch the sunrise. First the highest peaks lit up like bright red candles then I watched as morning chased night down the side of the mountain, it was another beautiful day.
After breakfast we gathered our things and followed Bigraj back out of the village and down an equally steep staircase. It took me a while to get in to the swing of things and I could definitely feel yesterdays effort in my legs but at least now we were heading down the stairs rather than up.
After about an hour we hit the oncoming school run. Smartly dressed kids of all ages smiled, stared and then often looked scared by the big unstable white person wobbling his way towards them. A quick namaste usually put them at ease and they carried on up the hill murmuring to each other. It’s vary rare that they see anyone with a physical disability up in the mountains, especially not voluntarily anyway. Such is the harshness of the terrain and the physical nature of the labour, any of the locals with a physical impairment will be sent to the cities where they might be able to find more suitable work and aren’t just another mouth to feed… sad but true.
The Nepali people in particular find it really hard coming to terms with a) what is actually wrong with me and b) why I’m up the mountain. Their considerate nature makes them naturally inquisitive so everyone stops, stares and asks what happened and if I’m ok. I understand that they’re just interested but the one thing that I struggle to deal well with is sympathy. Every where I go its; ‘are you sure you’re ok’, ‘can I help you with that’, or I’m so sorry fo your injury. I know its coming from a good place but I still find it hard to take. I don’t want to be treated differently, to be looked after or helped. Sympathy comes from a good place but the fact is that you are still looking down on someone when you are feeling sympathy for them, you feel sorry for them. People who know me don’t feel sorry for me anymore because they know how happy I am. People who don’t know me on the other hand often do feel sorry for me and although I understand where they’re coming from, its not right because I’m actually very fortunate… Anyway I digress, maybe something to talk about another day.
After an hour and a half we reached the bottom of the gorge and another precarious rope bridge. From this point you could see down the length of the valley and the extent of the rice paddies. As well as being an incredible feat of agricultural engineering they shine golden in the sun and really add to the majesty of the place. We sat and took it in for a bit feeling particularly more chirpy today as we had just covered a lot of ground, albeit downhill. I turned to Bigraj, ‘what’s the plan mate?’ I asked. ‘We walk two more hours, then lunch,’ he replied. ‘Happy days more Dahl Bat, which way?’ To which he just pointed almost directly upwards. I followed the line of his gaze and could see the unmistakable multi coloured roof tops of a village that was about the same height as the one we had just walked an hour and a half down from but on the other side of the valley…. What I was thinking and what I said were two different things because ‘f*** off’ sounds nothing like ‘sweet lets go’ when said out loud. Show no weakness and all that.
After two more strenuous hours of sweating and soul searching the path flattened out and we were finally on the approach to the village in the sky. There it was, 50 meters away I could almost smell the curry and its all I could think about which resulted in me not thinking about where I was putting my poles. All of a sudden I went to lean on a pole that wasn’t on the floor, I had just missed the edge of the path and was very quickly on my way over the edge. Without time to think I tried to swivel round and grab the ledge but it was too late and I fell backwards off the path. I didn’t have time to see what was below and for a second I thought; ’oh no not again you tit’, but fortunately a hedge about 6ft below broke my fall. I lay there for a couple of seconds trying to asses if there was any damage and then I noticed a bamboo stick poking into the back of my right leg. A quick burst of panic as I have no sensation there so it may well have just gone straight through into the back of my knee. Fortunately however it was blunt so I shifted it and started trying to wriggle back on to my feet. By this stage a few worried faces had appeared above me and Bigraj soon hopped down to help me out. I couldn’t help but find it funny, Lois on the other hand wasn’t so impressed and I think I had given both her and Bigraj a bit of a scare. They were in front of me when it happened so all they heard was a shout and I was gone!
Anyway no harm done but just a sign how dangerous this can be, all it took was for me to switch off for one second because I thought I was safe. I had just had first hand experience why there is such a need for SCI rehabilitation over here, I’m putting it down to research.
After lunch we had an amazing walk along the valley where we hardly bumped into a soul for 4 hours. We had re entered the jungle so I was sweating again but I didn’t mind because we were joined by a raft of multi coloured birds and a family of monkeys. Finally a stretch of the trek where I wasn’t close to heart failure and I could take it all in. At 5pm we reached the village of Pothana where we would be stopping before our final descent tomorrow. Another amazing sunset, a couple more beers and one final Dahl Bat before heading off for an early night. How tired we were and my ruined shoes were testament to the challenge of the last two days. A rock solid bed, a bloke snoring like a train next door and a freezing room weren’t going to have any impact on getting to sleep tonight.
The next day we just had three hours to descend to the pick up point. The path wound around to the next valley which gave us some amazing views of Machapuchare before we met the cocktail shaker back at the main road.
The trek was put together by Trek Nepal International who I couldn’t recommend more highly. They didn’t just sort the trek out they have looked after almost all of our admin since we landed. Discussions are about to start around planing the big challenge over here in a years time to raise money for the spinal unit and I will definitely be using them again. Bigraj made our trip for us, he didn’t just know where we were going (which was handy) he really helped immerse us in the culture along the way.
It had been an amazing three days and it was great to share it with Lois. I think it can be a bit disconcerting for her sometimes watching me climb as it certainly isn’t pretty and I’m sure the fall didn’t help her worries about future trips but there’s no one I would rather do it with. As far as Himalayan treks go this has been about as entry level as it comes and obviously we are going a lot higher and more importantly a lot colder for the challenges so she’s gracefully opting out in favour of Egyptian cotton sheets and silk pyjamas.
Im not sure I’ve been on a more eye opening and inspiring trip in my life. The places I’ve been and the people I’ve met have been unforgettable. Im so excited to be involved with setting up the new spinal unit, especially after meeting everyone and seeing the difference it could make. I can’t wait to come back already. Im well and truly hooked on Nepal!