Nepal: Walking to the top of the world

In the Annapurna range of the Himalayas, among the world's loftiest mountains. ST. JOHN BARNED-SMITH
In the Annapurna range of the Himalayas, among the world's loftiest mountains. ST. JOHN BARNED-SMITH
Posted: July 01, 2012

After an hour of steep switchbacks, aching legs, and sweat, I arrived in the small village of Ghyaru and the welcome Yak Ru hotel. But it was the view behind me that took my breath away.

Amid the mighty Annapurna Mountains, a thin river slithered through the landscape below. Only three days into my 14-day trek, I was high in the Himalayas of northern Nepal, and a week's climb lay ahead before I crossed Thorung La pass (elevation 17,769 feet) and began the descent back to civilization.

Despite my lack of experience, the chance to enjoy one of the world's most famous and beautiful treks had been too good to ignore. I trekked with a friend who is a native Nepali, and we both carried all of our gear. Thamel, the tourist quarter of Kathmandu, has lots of agencies, gear shops, transportation, and other resources to help you design your own trek or find a tour. And on the trail itself, dozens of guest houses offer hot water and surprisingly elaborate menus, with French onion soup, enchiladas, imported beer, even Snickers. The trail is long and steep, but affordable and accessible, and rest stops and assistance are never too far away.

To reach the mountains required a day's bus ride from Kathmandu, and four hours the next morning in a spine-rattling jeep, before I arrived in Chamje. My friend Yuvash and I strapped on our backpacks and scrambled up and down the trail, to the tinkle of harness bells on a tour's pack horses.

What a visual feast — villages with stone walkways and Tibetan architecture, laughing children, flowering apple orchards, buffalo and yak herds, and everywhere the cloud-cloaked mountains, the tallest an airplane-scraping 26,247 feet high, redefining our sense of scale.

The Annapurna Mountains, which sit in the middle of a horseshoe circuit, have an august pedigree. They were the first Himalayan peaks of that height that Westerners conquered — Everest before Everest. Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal made the successful ascent in 1950, in finger-chewing cold.

The next day we continued on toward Bhratang, a small village nestled between the high peaks. That night was frigid (we'd passed 8,200 feet), and the landscape was changing, from twisting bamboo-lined trails above verdant river gorges to a widening landscape of khaki-mustard. We made a steep hike through a forest with views of the Swargadwari Danda, a long curving ridge scraped smooth by eons of glacial erosion. Supposedly, locals believe that they ascend to heaven from its top.

Bhratang was the last point before the serious hiking began. From there, we could take two routes to Manang (the last major town before the pass). The lower route had Internet and better food, the upper route dazzling views and the benefits of acclimatization. (Above 6,500 to 10,000 feet, altitude sickness is a concern.)

The high road, then.

After some determined scrambling, we arrived in Upper Pisang, with its sun-baked stone houses, where we ate, then set off again. Eventually the trail snaked through a forest of firs and pines, ending at a cable bridge.

Serpentine switchbacks crawled up an immense crag. At the top, I could just make out a gleaming white Buddhist monastery — a ghompa. An hour later, we stumbled through the gate to Ghyaru, at 12,200 feet.

At the Yak Ru Mount View Lodge, the owner, Tamindo, was waiting. Her son, Dorje, sat with me over tea and biscuits. The town of 60 inhabitants used to have as many as 800, he said, but people have moved to the cities to find work. The village is almost 1,200 years old. A long time ago, Dorje said, a Tibetan monk's yak died nearby. The monk filled the yak's horns with wheat and buried them.

"In seven days, if it grows, it will be a good place to stay," he supposedly said. "If not, I'll leave."

Five days later the wheat sprouted, and the village of Yak Ru, or "Yak-horn," was born. (Later a surveyor mistakenly dubbed the place Ghya-ru.)

The next day we pushed on to Manang, a city filled with hotels, a small museum, a health post, and shops. Trekkers have to keep adjusting to the higher mountain air and prepare for the challenge to come. (Once you pass 10,000 feet, you're not supposed to climb more than 1,600 feet a day, so your body can rest a little. So each day, the difficulty seemed to increase a little even though we weren't hiking as much as on earlier days.)

Thorung-La loomed large, filling me with excitement and dread. Yuvash and I made slow progress in the thin air. Climbing or moving too quickly left us gasping. A raptor soared over the canyons as yaks nibbled on whatever they could find.

After a few days in Manang (I was recovering from a nasty chest cold), we set out for Thorung Phedi (14,600 feet), where melting piles of snow first appeared, and the surrounding palette devolved to brown, white, gray, and blue. We continued on to High Camp for the night before hiking to the pass.

The hotel at High Camp, planted high above the river, was a compound of low-slung buildings surrounded by huge piles of shale. I scaled one, crowned by rock towers other trekkers had built for luck.

Mountains on my left looked like craggy stalagmites. In front, clouds wreathed a shelf of peaks. The brown and black scree looked like coffee beans.

We headed for the pass early the next morning to avoid the blasting winds that pick up around noon. The air was startlingly clear, the peaks haloed with light from the sun that had yet to rise above them.

A tea shop appeared out of nowhere, a way station for the weary. Two ponies passed by, steam blowing from their nostrils, their riders whooping as they charged up the mountain.

And then, puncturing the icy chill, the sun crested the peaks.

In one long last climb, we arrived at the summit. After 10 days of glorious struggle, it was hard to believe. Amid the trek's silence, my everyday worries had faded. And the visual spectacle surrounding me was almost defiant, a reminder of how small we are.

A teahouse (the world's highest?) was selling tea at 150 rupees a cup (about $1.75). So I exchanged my sodden shirt for a new one, gulped down some tea, chocolate, and ibuprofen (for my altitude headache) and commemorated the moment with my camera.

And then, lured by a hot shower, we made a three-hour descent to Hotel Bob Marley, in Ranipauwa, a town adjacent to the holy shrine of Muktinath. Muktinath is one of the holiest sites of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Vaishnava religions. Tibetan prayer flags cover the hill above the shrine like mullticolored spider webbing. I found a natural gas jet tucked behind a small spring, and a wall of 108 fountains pouring out of sculpted animal heads. Devotees believe Muktinath sits at the intersection of the five elements — fire, water, earth, sky, and air — and I felt I'd savored every one.

The barren trail to Kagbeni passed long, brown hills curving into a deep canyon. Gusting wind threatened to lift me off the ground. Everywhere were gnarled mounds of stratified rock, the putty sculptures of some infant god.

Finally, we came to a long line of bluffs overlooking a huge riverbed. Nepal is a tiny country, but the natural hugeness is disconcerting. North, the canyons opened into Upper Mustang, while below in Kagbeni, an oasis of barley and wheat fields was surrounded by barren salt flats, sand, and a gravel riverbed.

The village felt impossibly old, a maze of twisting corridors, mangy yaks, and high walls. We stopped at "the Red House." The 350-year-old structure's original paintings adorned the walls.

Tucked around the corner was owner Tenjin Thakuri's personal temple, a hidden room sheathed in red curtains and rugs, with flickering gold lamps and a 10-foot-tall Golden Buddha.

Thakuri said the road came to Kagbeni four years ago, bringing with it the tastes of the outside world.

"And the types of tourists have changed," he said. "Before, we had people on long treks. Now these people come for short treks," usually by flying from Jomsom and walking for just a few days.

I wished I could stay to explore Kagbeni and talk longer to Tenjin. On the new road, civilization elbowed into my consciousness as motorcycles and buses zipped by. In the town of Marpha, I hopped aboard one myself, and skidded to Pokhara far below. But my mind was still in the clouds above.

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