Upper Pisang to Manang; Trek days five and six; Annapurna at dawn; In which I sunburn my eyeballs; Rest day in Manang

Any morning that begins with a stunning view of the snow-capped peak of the world’s tenth-highest mountain is a good day, as far as I’m concerned. We were up at dawn and saw the huge jagged point of Annapurna rearing above the river, close enough to touch. Huge plumes of cloud and snow streamed out from the peak, burning away as the sun rose. It was the first time that any of us had seen the mountain from which the trek takes its name, and we couldn’t take our eyes off it. Even as we set out on the trail - facing away from the mountain - I still couldn’t stop looking back at it and stopping to take photos. I have officially declared it the best-looking mountain anywhere, ever.

The trail was mostly flat for a few kilometres, winding up and down a bit above and below the tree line through scrubby pines and pasture populated by shaggy cows. Still no yaks, though. Our first goal was Gyaru village, perched atop a very, very high hill. At the bottom of the very, very high hill was a gorgeous old wall of prayer-wheels, stone carvings and paintings, with chorten (Tibetan Buddhist stone cairns) at each end. It was an incredible sight, bathed in gorgeous yellow light, with Annapurna in the background. It was achingly, perfectly beautiful. This is the Nepal I came for, and it’s worth every uphill step of the trek so far. Ben, Sheryl and I must have spent close to an hour there.

We may also have been avoiding the punishingly steep uphill climb to Gyaru. Incredible views through the clear air over the valley to the mountain, but brutal climbing. We gained 400m of altitude in three-quarters of an hour, on switchback after switchback of 45-degree sloped trail. At least the surface of the trail was even, packed dirt and pebbles, so it made trudging easier. We finally reached the top to find the other three having tea.

Gyaru is another strange little wasp-nest village. The houses are all joined together and the alleys are claustrophobically narrow. It’s incredibly exposed and windy at the top of the hill and every roof bristles with prayer-flags, making us shout over the flapping. The village gateways and chortens were all decorated with sheep and goat skulls.

Gyaru was the highest point of the day at 3,730m. Sheryl and I continue to be excited at breaking our altitude records, but we’ll have to give that up soon, because after tomorrow it’s all upward so every step will break the record. And anyway we have to ration the Victory Chocolate or it will be gone too soon. The trail was flat from Gyaru to Ngawal, but flat only in the special Nepali sense of the word flat, where you finish at the same altitude you started at regardless of the amount of up and down in between. The views looking back on Gyaru were alien and fascinating. Brown, rounded, sloping fields sliding down the steep slopes with the paper-wasp village above and the snow-peaks of Annapurna and Pisang in the background.

The weather started to get cold and ugly around then. The wind picked up and blew very strongly. The trail was completely exposed and my rain-jacket was flapping like a prayer-flag. It seemed to take forever to reach Ngawal and I was nearly blown off the mountain a couple of times - the only times I’ve been grateful for the weight of my pack.

Ngawal is another windswept wasp-nest village, with a huge yellow-roofed gompa (monastery) looming above. We approached through horse pastures. The horses were of an odd breed, with big heads, bunchy bodies and very rough, shaggy coats. None of them were friendly, though - I tried. Still no yaks.

We stopped in Ngawal for lunch. When we came back out the weather was perfect again, with high, white fluffy clouds and blue, blue sky. The first half of the eight-kilometre stretch from Ngawal to Mugje was a long, steep descent. As any hiker will tell you, steep descents are often more trouble and pain than steep ascents - certainly harder on the knees. Sheryl and I both slipped a lot. Picking our way down the loose rock trail got annoying and boring and anytime there was a longer stretch of dirt, we ran instead. This was a bad idea, and had me favouring my left knee and Sheryl her right hip for the rest of the day. Ben is becoming frustrated with our pace, I think. Our short legs and my heavy load are too slow for him, but Christian is too fast, so he’s stuck.

After we’d lost all the altitude we’d so painfully gained earlier in the day there was a long flat-ish stretch through scrub over a low saddle and down to Mugje. The landscape on the right changed as we walked, to jagged sandstone peaks in fantastic shapes. The beautiful yellow stone had eroded into twisted spikes, columns and canyons. It looked gritty and I thought it would feel good under my hands, if we’d taken a detour to climb around in it.

At Mugje we stopped to get water and were forced to fight with our stupid ultraviolet-light water-purifying device. The thing’s worked like a charm all through Europe, Africa and India, but here on the trek it’s given us nothing but grief. We were later to discover that it doesn’t like cold water, which is something I wish we’d known before we’d bought it. Ben got bored waiting and we sent him on alone. He’s trying to quit smoking on the trek and is consequently a bit cranky, and we were tired of running after him anyway. It’s an important trekking rule never to hike alone, but the trail was straight and clear and well-populated from here on so I figured he’d be fine by himself.

Two more kilometres on to Bhraga along a wide, flat valley floor. The sun was getting very low at this point and directly in our faces. Since the air is thinner here, the UV from the sun is much stronger and our noses and ears were sunburnt despite the sunscreen we’d been using all day. Our cheap knockoff Kathmandu sunglasses, surprise surprise, don’t block any UV, and so my eyeballs feel like they’ve been boiled in my skull. I could have spent a lot more money than the Rs250 (CAD$3.75), but without any more guarantee of UV-filtering it didn’t seem like a worthwhile expense.

The river is tiny now, more of a stream than the torrent of white water it was a couple of days ago. Past its trickle on our left were beautiful green pastures that were probably a lot less fertile than they looked, and to our right more crazily sculpted sandstone rose in twisted spires like speleotherms. Bhraga looked like a nice little village, with its massive monastery perched on a cliff wall above, looking like a train station after an earthquake. It would have been nice to stop there, but Manang was the agreed-upon goal and I didn’t want anyone worrying about us and looking for us. So on another two kilometres to Manang we went, following a brown, much stream oozing over rocky fields and pastures and past more monasteries.

Manang is on a little hill, which after a long day felt like a mountain. Christian was the first person we saw as we came in - he’d been there for hours. Manang is full of trekkers, I don’t know where they all came from. We hadn’t seen more than ten or twelve others on the trail so far. We took the easy option and followed Christian to his lodge. It was massive - at 40 or so rooms it dwarfed any other we’d seen so far, none of which had had more than eight or ten rooms and most less. Manang was full of these huge places. There was no hot water, so it was another stinky day for us. We’re beginning to get used to smelling like goats.

We rested and warmed up and then went for some of Manang’s ubiquitous apple crumble (not a traditional Nepali delicacy, but they try to please their foreign guests and indulge their strange culinary requests. It’s pretty hit-or-miss, but the apple crumble, they get right). Afterward we slept for a couple of hours and woke very sore. Sheryl’s legs were cramping up. It had been a very long day. 20km distance, a huge steep ascent and an equally steep descent, plus lots of smaller ups and downs. At least the pack will start getting lighter now that we’re high enough to justify eating some of the food. We were supposed to cook our lunch today, but didn’t, and we should have cooked dinner when we woke up too late for dinner, but neither of us were hungry enough to bother. Our soreness came with a certain satisfaction, though - we’d accomplished a lot and seen the best views of the trek so far. Still no yaks, but some of the shops were selling yak cheese. It’s really good, like a strong, smoky, oatmeal-coloured Swiss without the holes.

Manang is at 3,540m altitude - well above the height at which you need to be concerned about altitude sickness. None of us had shown any signs of it so far, but we decided to play it safe and take an acclimatization day here at Manang, which is a traditional place for it and so has a few amenities that the smaller villages higher up lack.

I myself was pretty glad of the rest-day. My whole body was aching. My eyes felt terrible and burnt, and hurt all morning and afternoon. Obviously I won’t be able to wear those cheap sunglasses any more, which is a problem since the UV just gets stronger and stronger the higher up you go, and I really don’t want to risk snow-blindness. I’m going to have to keep a scarf wrapped around my eyes, or something.

The weather was miserably cold and wet, and we couldn’t warm up all day. None of the lodge rooms are heated, so they’re freezing. I’m beginning to understand why no one does this trek in the monsoon season. There’s no hot water because the water-heating is all solar - very environmentally-friendly but when it’s chilly and cloudy that means (ice-) cold showers. We broke down and ordered a Rs100 bucket of hot water so that we could wash. It was expensive, but there are no sources of firewood anywhere near Manang and it all has to be carried up the mountains. I wish I could say it was worth it, but I froze my ass off in the cold air, standing on a frigid concrete floor. And naturally we had to put our stinky clothes right back on again because they’re all we have, so it defeated the purpose of washing.

It wasn’t all miserable. We got to explore the village a bit. Most of the buildings are made of wood-timber and stone walls with little narrow alleys in between. There are lots of prayer-flags and walls of prayer-wheels. Two or three monasteries dot the area around Manang, and there’s one right inside the village. Chanting came from it all day. The village was deserted all day long because everyone was at the monastery - it was a significant religious day. Everyone trickled back through the evening and the village was full of Buddhist monks in saffron robes, sandals and wooly sweaters. Apparently an important lama had been flown in by helicopter - we’d seen it fly over a couple of days before - but all the other monks had to walk.

Still no yaks. But I did find a yak tooth in what, judging from the bits of bone scattered around, used to be the village’s slaughtering ground a long time ago.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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