Ghorepani to Tikhedunga; Trek day seventeen; No Poon Hill for us; A million stone steps; Goats and grannies

All our work and effort to get to Ghorepani had been pointless. The idea was to get up early and climb Poon Hill in the early morning - the view of the Annapurna Range at dawn is said to be breathtaking. I’d wanted to get to Ghorepani because we could leave the packs in the guesthouse there and climb the hill without them, and then collect them as we passed through Ghorepani again on the way down. But when we woke up in the morning it was to see a solid, impenetrable wall of cloud outside the window. There was absolutely no point in climbing up another four hundred meters and back down if there was nothing to see.

My stomach was badly upset again that morning - what started as food poisoning seems to be becoming a fully-fledged stomach infection. I gave up and went back to bed, intending to lie down for a few minutes, but I slept for two hours. We finally got moving around ten o’clock. It was at this point that we discovered that our stupid maps were wrong again and what they said would be about 11km to Naya Pul was really more like 19. Unfortunately, because I’d slept away so much of the morning, it blew our chances of getting out to Pokhara that evening. I felt very stupid for pushing so hard to get up to Ghorepani for what turned out to be no reason, and then turning around and wasting time myself.
The trail was a downhill version of yesterday’s climb - lots and lots of slick, steep stone steps through temperate rainforest. There was so much dripping green moss hanging from the trees that some of them were completely covered. As any hiker can tell you, going down is just as hard as going up, especially when the trail is slippery. My knees were not happy after even the first hour. It warmed up a lot when we got down out of the clouds, and became downright steamy after awhile.

We weren’t making very fast progress. We knew we were never going to make it to Naya Pul in time to catch the last bus to Pokhara, so it removed a lot of the incentive to hurry. I reckoned we’d just walk until we didn’t feel like it anymore - there were so many lodges and guesthouses sprinkled along this last and most populated section of the trail that it meant we had no need to plan a stopping place for the night. So we’d only covered four kilometres or so in the first couple of hours. The only thing I remember from that section of the trail is an old Nepali man lying jackknifed face-down over the bench of a table, head under the table, with his face and his feet resting on the ground. Sheryl and I and three porters headed the other direction spent a couple of puzzled minutes gathered around him trying to figure out if he was actually alive and if we should do anything about it if he wasn’t. Later, when we were stopped for tea, he came reeling boisterously along the path and had an amicable shouting match with the old woman who ran the teahouse. She sent him on his way with a boot to the arse, her granddaughters laughing the whole time.

That little teahouse was a better people-watching location than you’d think. Besides the old man we watched a party of four men and one woman escorting a small goat. He must have been tired because he was riding on one of the men’s shoulders, mehhh-ing all the while. We played leapfrog with them a few times on the trail. There must have been some sort of goat-fair on in the mountains that day, because we kept seeing families on the path, each leading a little goat on a string. The mouthy one was the only one getting a ride, though.

The afternoon was taken up with descending about ten million stone steps. Unlike the descending trail so far, which had featured short sections of stairs with long sections of forest trail, the path downward from the village of Ulleri was nothing but steps - thousands and thousands and thousands of them, winding back and forth across the side of the mountain. Our map said there were 3,280 steps, but that must have referred to only one section, because after counting a short segment I’d estimate that there were at least ten thousand. It took us easily two hours to get down them. There was only so much complaining I could do, though - we were going down the stairs, after all. We gave sympathetic grimaces to the few red-faced and unhappy people we passed who were going up, but nothing can really bridge the gap between someone hiking down and the poor bastards hiking up. At one point we passed a family coming up the stairs - two kids, a husband and wife, an uncle, and an aged grandmother or great-grandmother. It’s hard to tell the ages of old Nepali women. Life is hard in the mountains, and they age quickly. She could have been thirty for all I know. She looked ancient and frail, though, and the husband was carrying her up the stairs on his back. This made me realize two things - first, that it was probably the only way to get an aged grandmother up those stairs, and second that I should again stop complaining about the weight of my pack, because at least I wasn’t carrying my granny.

By the time we reached Tikhedunga at the bottom, our knees were screaming. It hurt too much, and it was too late to go any further anyway. We picked a likely guesthouse based solely on the fact that it was the one in front of us when we pooped out.

The guesthouse was run by a funny lady who showed us her marijuana tree and chortled over how big it was. I couldn’t blame her, the thing was at least two meters tall. She said she’d had to “prune” (read “harvest”) the year before because it had been nearly twice that height. As far as I can tell, Nepalis don’t bother smoking the stuff themselves - I think they just sell it to tourists in small batches and into India in big batches. The guesthouse itself felt like I was in an old wooden ship, with its crazily tilted floors and walls all made of thin plywood. Every step I took made the warped floorboards sway and creak. So much time switching back and forth going down all those stairs had left me with an inner ear that thought it was still walking, which added to the illusion. Tikhedunga was very quiet and peaceful, though - after dark we counted a grand total of 20 artificial lights on all the mountainsides as far as we could see.


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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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