mardi 11 janvier 2011

5416 meters high in the Annapurnas

Flying from Hong Kong I had the opportunity to fly with Jet Airways, an Indian company, which is probably the best airline I ever flew with… Unfortunately, it also gave me the opportunity to spend more than 14 hours in New Delhi’s airport as I had a stopover during the night there. As I could not really sleep in the airport I took this opportunity to finish the summaries of the interviews performed in Beijing. It was therefore a long and uncomfortable night, but at least it was a rather productive one!

Flying to Kathmandu is really worth the price of the ticket, as it offers you a breathtaking view on the Himalaya. You have to imagine that the plane is above clouds level, and still you can see mountains in basically any directions… something I will not forget, which made me really impatient to go trekking!

After bargaining for a taxi and a cheap room in a guesthouse, I arrived in the crowded district of Thamel in Kathmandu, which is the equivalent of Kao San Road in Bangkok (i.e. full of tourists and hundreds of similar tourist shops selling handcrafts, massages and fake North Face equipment for trekking). The good news was that my guesthouse was well located and allowed me to escape quickly from these streets to reach the dusty streets of Kathmandu. I joined Yann on the next morning at the Indian embassy in order to fill in the application form: the visa should be ready in one week! The next thing to do was to decide where to go and how to go trekking in the timeframe of roughly 2 or 3 weeks we had set. Discussing with an agency, we decided to allow ourselves an extra by taking a guide for an 18 days tour around the Annapurnas (aka Annapurna circuit trek). As none of us had ever been this high and as we expected to have detailed information on the mountains we were visiting and in Nepal in general, we thought at that point that this money was wisely spent from both a safety and a cultural perspective. The last duty of the day was to purchase food, water (both are VERY expensive in the mountains for reasons which will be explained a little bit further) and prepare the backpack to go on this long trek. For a quick overview of the trek, please check this: Summary of the trek


Day 1 (BashiSahar): We woke up around 5 am in order to catch a local bus for a 7 hours drive to the first village in the mountains. This drive was a good opportunity to discover a little bit Nepal and get to know our guide: Prakass (quickly renamed Captain or Fracassé). The last hour of bus to reach the village was spent on the rooftop of the bus, with many luggages and all kind of merchandises. It requires to hold on very tightly to the strings and to pay extra attention to the bumpy road, but it is actually quite funny! The guesthouse is far from being comfortable and we quickly understand that we will have to more or less forget about showering for the next three weeks, but we slept quite well to be ready for our first day of walk.

Day 2 (Bulbule): First walking day. We woke up around 7 am and after a quick breakfast (almost the same everyday during the whole trek: biscuits and black tea as this was the best value for money we found) we started our 7 hours walk of the day from BeshiSahar to Bulbule. As it was the first time of the trip we had to walk long hours with our big backpack, this day was overall quite painful. As we arrived to our final stop for the day, we realized that we had bruises on the bottom of our back. Around my hips, I could see that the skin was beginning to fall off with a little bit of blood, but overall, I was surprisingly feeling okay. On the next morning I would however realized that my collarbone was very painful for reasons I could not picture at that time (day after day we learnt how to properly set our backpack not to injure ourselves stupidly).

Day 3 (Danyaqu): This day could have been called Race against the donkeys day. One the one hand we have one 25 years auditor who barely practices sport once a week and is carrying 20% of his bodyweight on his shoulders. On the other, a crowd of over trained donkeys (if you are reading, I’m not talking about you Doug ;-)) who have been walking the rocky roads of Nepal for years. The referee role was played by our stupid guide who decided that it was absolutely necessary to overtake every single donkey which was on the trail. That would be easy if it was not for the fact that they travel by pack of at least 20 and are encouraged to go faster by their masters who are permanently throwing rocks at them. The only way to achieve our goal is therefore to take shortcuts by climbing the mountain directly up and not following the trail. Exhausting (especially with such a big backpack to carry). We however overtook 9 convoys which gives us victory over the former champions! (These donkeys are used to carry heavy loads of food and other necessary products in the mountains as there are no roads –only trails- and air transportation is far too expensive to be used). We met on this evening a couple of Chinese people (Lu and Han) and their guide with whom we would eventually become friends as we met almost every evening in the guesthouse until Jomson.

Day 4 (Chamé, 2670m)): Probably the shortest stage of all, as we reached Chamé before lunchtime after walking for only 4 hours. As we got pretty bored and cold for the whole afternoon then, we promised ourselves not to do this again. What we would do instead is take a long lunch break on a sunny terrace and take advantage of the best part of the day. Indeed, as there was no heating device in any of the bedrooms we slept in and most of the time no electricity, we would most of the time try to hang in the room that (sometimes) had a fireplace so that we could read in a “warm” (around 10 degrees Celsius maximum)environment before going to bed. Worst case scenario, it was so cold and so dark that we would have to be in our sleeping bag around 7 pm right after dinner. I know it does not sound like the most fascinating evening, but for one thing we did not have much choice, and it allowed myself enough time to move forward on my readings .

Day 5 (Lower Pisang, 3200m): The way to lower Pisang was a nice one. The highlight of this day would eventually been reached once we hit Upper Pisang in the evening (which was half an hour walking from the lower one where our guesthouse as). We got an incredible view on the Gangapurna with a marvelous sunset on top of this. We were unfortunately and unpurposefully awaken by our guide around 3 am as a dramatic event had occurred during the night. Around midnight, a crazy peasant set on fire 4 houses which eventually burnt very quickly. The poor villagers had to get water from the frozen river, which turned out to be a challenge. No one died, but the economic damage for the families were massive. When we woke up, everyone was tired, and we left Lower Pisang

Day 6 and 7 (Manang, 3500m): Manang was known to us as “the city with hot shower”. As we arrived, we figured out that it was too late to expect a hot shower and that we would have to wait until the next day which was to the least disappointing. Instead of doing nothing during our day of acclimation, we went up to 4.000 m to appreciate the magnificent view on the Annapurnas, including a small lake which is right above the village of Manang. The first night was rough, as I could not fall back asleep after a while. Headache grew stronger, and I eventually had to force myself in drinking 0.75L of freeze cold water straight. A rather unpleasant moment, but the trick worked. My stomach felt pretty strange for a while and I struggled getting warm again, but the pain soared and I could sleep again. I slept like a baby on the second night.

Day 8 (Leddar, 4200m): Probably one if not the most beautiful day of the trek. The view on the mountains is like a living dream. The main disappointment arose from a strong wind which not only raised a lot of snow on the top of the mountains around us, but also blew a lot of dust in the whole valley. As a consequence, the mountains were slightly hidden and the pictures a little bit less net than usually (not to mention the fact that we ate a lot of dust). We saw our first actual first yaks in the afternoon (as compared with the cows hanging out in Manang which were mistakenly qualified as yaks by Prakass two days earlier.

Day 9 (High Camp, 4900m): Two main highlights on this day. After walking for a bit more than a couple of hours, we had to face one difficulty on the way. The path was covered with an iceslide which was at least 5 meters long. Our guide carefully stepped on the ice and crossed it. Considering our previous experience with ice, it seemed to us that it was unreasonably dangerous to cross this way, especially when one faux pas would lead us to fall down 20 meters below in the river (not to mention we would have had several parts of our body broken in the best case scenario). I climbed down a little bit before the ice part, pretty confident that I would succeed, while Yann tried to go over it. I quickly realized that walking down on a very steep cliff with a big backpack was certainly a stupid thing to do as the backpack does not allow you to put your own bodyweight on the back and hence makes you fall. As I heard Yann found a way up, I joined him and we quite easily passed overcame the difficulty. It was however more difficult for our Chinese friends that we eventually had to help to go down as they were terrified of falling down. We lost one hour on the way, but were very glad that Lu and Han were able to join us later in the evening for dinner. As we passed Thorong Phedi and walked to the High camp (this last part was pretty tiring as we gained 500 meters of altitude in a bit less than one hours, which gives a good indication of how steep the trail was. Altitude also gave us a very short breath that we had never felt as much until that point), where we were supposed to sleep before taking our chance to cross the pass on the next day, we witnessed a pitiful spectacle. We had noticed as we climbed up that many huge birds were flying over our heads. Right before we could actually see the High camp, we saw around 15 of these birds that we had mistakenly considered as eagles while they were in the air (they appeared to be vultures) which were standing on the ground, ready to fly. As we approached, we saw a dead horse emerging from the rocks, being eaten by the remaining birds. All of them finally went back in the air, and we would understand later on that the poor horse had died the previous night from a disease. Altitude disease stroke hard for the first time. Yann was mainly impacted, barely able to eat his Dal Bat, suffering from massive headaches and very close to puke. For my side, I felt that the medication (Diamox) made me feel much dizzier than I was before. It was the night before Xmas as well as my 25th birthday, and therefore nothing could really take me down. This event was properly celebrated, as I received a nice candle to blow from Han (I had to put in on my spaghettis due to a shortage of cakes in the neighborhood) and happy birthday songs in 5 different languages. I would never have thought one year before that I would spend this particular birthday at almost 5.000 meters, in a dark room with no electricity and no heating, eating spaghettis and rice with complete strangers from all over the world. In the end I guess that was just the perfect birthday, at least one I will remember!

Day 10 (Muktinath, 3700m): We woke up at 5 am after a very short night. Fortunately both of us had slept pretty well, disregarding the coldness outside (around -20 degrees celcius). After a quick breakfast, we started our journey to the highest point of our trek. Beside the fact that if was supposed to be our longest stage, the main reason why we woke up so early was to avoid facing the terrible wind-chill that we were told starts around 8.30 am. After that time, coldness would be unbearable. It appeared it was actually windy almost all the way to the top, as we were quietly walking under a full moon night. Our breath was shorter than ever, and our hands and face started to freeze very quickly. Every time we thought the top was near, we were unpleasantly surprised by yet another part of the mountain to climb. After 2 and a half hour of efforts, we finally made it to 5.416 meters on the Thorong La Pass! What a relief to finally think that the forthcoming days should finally become warmer! After a few photos, we started the way down, which was in the end not as easy as we thought. Climbing down a mountain irremediably leads to putting a high pressure on your knees, which gave us great pain. Being faster than planned by our guide, we had our actual Xmas lunch, allowing ourselves for this time only to taste expensive and delicious yak dishes and alcohol (two beers for me: one for my birthday and one for Xmas!) on the terrace of our hotel! The reward was highly appreciated, and the best had to come with an actual gas shower providing real HOT water offered by the manager of the hotel! We both called quickly home to send our wishes (I also learnt that I would be an uncle soon…) and went to bed early as it got colder to conclude an amazing day.

Day 11 (Marpha, 2200m): We knew this would be a rather long day even before we started it. After a quick but moving goodbye to our Chinese friends, we started the second half of the trek on the side of the path. There are two main differences between bore and after the pass. The first one (the most unfortunate) is that we would now have to follow big roads most of the day, which is definitely less charming than walking on narrow trails and following the river. This also meant that we would have to pay attention to the jeeps and buses which were also using these roads, blowing dust all over us. The second difference is a direct consequence of these roads: food became affordable again! We could now enjoy other meals than the usual vegetable fried rice or vegetable macaronis. After a walk that felt endless to Jompson (we were walking in a dry river bed most of the time, which is quite uncomfortable as many rocks come out of the dust), we had to cross the damn city to enjoy a rather pleasant lunch and read the news for the first time in 10 days. The second part of the walk was rather short and pleasant, if it was not for a very strong wind which forced us to close partly our eyes. In the evening, we heard some French voices in the restaurant, and met two other 25 years old French guys, also on a trip around the world!! You can check Adrien and Julien’s adventures on, they are very interesting guys and I am pretty sure you will enjoy reading their blog disclaimer: if Adrien has put there a picture of his feet, don’t look!).

Day 12 (Dana, 1400m): Our longest day of walk ever until now. 33 kilometers on one single stage. We knew Adrien and Julien were planning to do this (and thought they were insane to be honest), but we had plan to go only until Ghasa which was already 24 kilometers from Marpha. As we could not find a suitable accommodation in Ghasa (thanks to our “dear” guide), we decided to push “a bit” further to Dana, where we luckily ended up in the same guesthouse as our two French friends, with whom we would travel from that point on. We all arrived absolutely exhausted, having knees highly in pains, blisters and mushrooms on the sole of our feet for some of us (I do not have words to describe Adrien’s feet on this evening), and big feeling that our stomachs would need great comfort.

Day 13 (Chitre, 2400m): As we had moved much further than expected on the previous day, we could stop for 2 long hours in the tatopanis (hot springs: literally hot water in Nepalese) with Adrien and Julien. It was delicious to relax in this big bath of hot water and we felt our muscles and knees (and feet in Adrien’s case) in much better condition. We improvised a Russian banya by jumping quickly into the frozen river which was running along the tatopani, before running back to a much more welcoming environment. We unfortunately had to hit the road again to reach our final destination of the day: Chitre. As the night felt down quickly, we had to stop half an hour before reaching this town, to sleep in the first guesthouse we found on the way when it was not possible to see no more.

Day 14 (Tirkedhunga): We had a quite ambitious plan on this day to climb up to Poon Hill (people usually climb there to attend to the spectacular sunrise over the Annapurnas. We were unfortunately a bit too far to do that and only reached the top around 12) and then to go down to NayaPul, our final destination. Even though we did make it to Poon Hill (800 meters up from Chitre) to admire the magnificent view (fortunately we did not listen to our dumb guide who told us the view was the same as 300 meters below), we could not reach Naya Pul, as the way down was far too long for our knees (we would have had to go almost 2.000 meters down, walking mainly on steep stairs). Julien was suffering a lot from one of his knees which slowed us down a bit, but also allowed us to stop in a very nice and friendly lodge. As a reward for this painful walk, we ordered some yak cheese (actually some niak, as the niak is the female and the yak the male) which is a surprisingly excellent cheese! On this day more than any other we felt where the true wealth of Nepal lies. Not only they had wonderful landscapes, but they seem to have all different types of them. Looking back on the previous ten days, we realized that we went from a near tropical climate at first, with a luxurious vegetation, to spending nights in a below zero environment and alps-like sceneries. We had been shivering from cold wind for days and were now sweating every remaining drop of water in our body, in the humid yet no so warm environment on the way down from Poon Hill. We had seen deserts, we had seen rivers, and we had lived a true Himalayan experience and were thankful to Nepal for all of this.

Day 15 (NayaPul/Pokhara, 800m): We only had to walk a couple of hours on this day to reach NayaPul, final destination of our trek. From there we took a public bus to reach Pokhara, second city of the country… We had reach our obejective to make it for New Year 2011 and could therefore get ready to enjoy the festival thrown out for the tourists (it turned out it was not like the best party ever…).


All for now… we are now in India (Varanasi)!!


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