Trekking, hiking, tramping… whatever you want to call it, I’ve done a lot of it. And it’s a love/hate kind of thing. If, every morning for two years, you strap on your backpack over a damp shirt and head off into the morning chill, steadily climbing into the cold greyness of the mountains, it becomes just another job, albeit one with a more scenic commute than most. Like anything it can start to get old. But what you get out of it… that stays with you for life. You might remember the discomfort, but it becomes less of an issue in retrospect. You remember the views, the isolation, the self-reliance. I spent month after month living in a mountain range in Southern Africa, on the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. I remember watching a herd of elephants moving up a valley far below us and hearing their distant rumbling to each other; the flickering firelight in a cave picking out San Bushman cave paintings, some as recent as 150 years old; the timeless passage of the torn clouds across the jagged outline of the peaks in the ever-changing mountains. In these experiences I belatedly recognise that I was extraordinarily privileged to have lived them, and that they changed me. You remember the inner resources that you didn’t know you had, and which you drew on again and again, training your will in just the same way that you train your muscles. “We are all capable of more than we realise,” said the inevitable motivational poster at Outward Bound Zimbabwe, quoting the founder Kurt Hahn. “If only we can be brought to realise this, we may never be prepared to settle for anything less.”
Dilmaya Treks came highly recommended by an old friend, so I gave them a call and got through to Bikash. He proposed a four day itinerary, hiking into the Annapurna Conservation Area, staying in small village homestays overnight. As treks go in Nepal this was a short one – the full Annapurna circuit takes around three weeks, and crosses high passes (several trekkers had died along with their Nepali guides on the Thorung La at 5,400 metres the previous year when a storm blew in) – but we felt it was enough for us. The Siklis Trek saw a fraction of the visitor numbers of other short treks in the region, and promised spectacular scenery, if the weather held.
At 8.30 the next morning we were collected by a jeep and driven through the suburbs of Pokhara to a bus stand in the village of Chansu, where we met our guide Mana – a smiling, wiry 26-year-old in an Arsenal shirt, who came from the village of Siklis, where we would be heading. I wondered if the local bus was part of the ‘cultural experience’ which would add colour to the tales of western tourists heading to Nepal for the first time. As a veteran of countless local bus rides in India I wasn’t looking forward to it, but it wasn’t too bad – although all the seats were taken there was no livestock in evidence, there was no parade of the horribly afflicted down the aisle at every stop in search of alms, and nobody was sick on the floor. The road was rough, though – the passengers’ heads jerked back and forth as the bus lurched from side to side, and due to the misplaced sense of civic duty at Pokhara’s roads department, we were catapulted out of our seats every few seconds by speed bumps for several minutes. Eventually we left the road altogether and drove up a river, which was considerably smoother, before grinding our way up an escarpment, the tyres slipping in large muddy puddles. “Too much mood,” said Mana, whose English had an idiosyncratic charm. “After raining, sleep.” We had a brief English lesson on the sounds of “uh”, “ah” , and “ooh”, which was brought to a premature halt by the appearance of another oncoming bus. After a brief standoff with much carolling of airhorns the two vehicles somehow squeezed past each other with around a centimetre to spare, and we resumed our merry journey, periodically being flung out of our seats again to a wailing club mix version of a Nepali song which had been constructed by twiddling the autotune as far as it would go in every direction.
Eventually we came to the end of the road, pulling up in what looked like a building site – just across the road was what looked like a barracks with a large sign in Chinese over the entrance. It was a Chinese work camp for a dam they were constructing. To the sound of jackhammers and a digger truck nosing at piles of earth we disembarked from the bus, hoisted the backpacks onto our shoulders and set off along a path up the hillside, following two local Gurung ladies who carried large bamboo baskets full of provisions on their backs by means of a strap around their foreheads. Both were in their 50s, wearing headscarves, traditional dress and slip-on shoes (I later saw a granny wearing an enormous pair of tweed Marks and Spencer-style slippers on a mountain trail), and they carried on a spirited conversation as they climbed, while I stumbled after them, adjusting waist belt and shoulder straps, already short of breath.
After about quarter of an hour walking up a road with a significant incline, Mana abruptly halted next to a track that veered off up the bank of the hill. “End of road,” he announced. I looked up at the track with a mild sense of foreboding, knowing the all too familiar sensations. I’d brought far too much stuff, and was carrying the 70 litre orange rucksack which comes with wheels nattily attached for wheeling it through airports and suchlike. Unfortunately this meant that the rucksack already weighed three-and-a-half kilos when empty. I tightened the waistbelt as far as it would go and started trudging upwards. Soon the sound of the jackhammer in the valley below faded away, replaced by birdsong, the trickle of water and occasional fragments of conversation from the Gurung women ahead of us.
After about 40 minutes we approached a small collection of huts. “You want tea?” Mana asked. “Last tea before tonight.” We did. Inside a small shack a couple of charpoy beds made of woven bamboo were just visible in the darkness. We decided instead to sit outside in the sunshine, and little wicker stools were brought which we crouched upon, while a small boy chased baby goats from a pen next to the tea shack. After corralling a few together, a wicker basket like the ones carried by the Gurung women were placed over them, and they huddled inside bleating feebly. The boy picked up the smallest goat which had escaped, and cradling it in his arms, kissed it on the head, before his mother abruptly seized it and deposited it back under the basket. Tea arrived, served without milk – all the tea we had in the mountains was black – and I ate a Mountain Man muesli bar, while Sal had one of the oranges she’d bought from a vendor in Pokhara. The only one, as it turned out – the rest were still back at the hotel in Pokhara, perfuming the store-room.
There’s an old Buddhist saying which has regained currency in myriad self-help books, about being in the present moment. You can’t change the past, no-one can predict the future – just be here, present in the moment right now. I’ve found climbing a mountain to be the best way of achieving this state of mind. With your view constrained to the path just a few yards ahead of you, with only the occasional glance upwards to take in the view, your mind begins to turn in on itself as you trudge along. Past conversations replay themselves, you hear songs in your head that you haven’t heard for years (I had Radio Gaga by Queen playing on a loop for a while, which I think featured on Now 4 in about 1984). Sections of film dialogue replay themselves; most of mine seemed to be from the kind of stiff-upper-lip black and white British films of the 40s and 50s – John Mills as a Naval Officer addressing a group of British PoWs who had escaped through Scandinavia (was it Sink the Bismark?) “Well, now that you chaps are back from your winter sports holiday in Sweden, perhaps we can get some work done!” Sheepish laughter. You think about how far you have to go, which is depressing (another two hours at least), then focus on getting to the top of the next ten steps instead. Then, suddenly, you snap out of it and realise you’ve been drifting, and you come back to the present moment, until you find yourself thinking of nothing at all – just one foot in front of the other, and you forget you are even thinking. But nagging discomforts intruded. My shirt was soaked in sweat, my left shoulder strap was rubbing, and I had a hot spot on the underside of my big toe, which did not bode well. I remembered a documentary on the Royal Marines where the Commanding Officer said: “What we’re looking for essentially is someone who is able to overlook discomfort and maintain a high level of alertness in spite of considerable amounts of it”. Considerable amounts of discomfort – sounds about right. Then, arriving at a kind of stone plinth with an inscription in Nepali, Mana stopped. It was a memorial to the royal family, killed in a massacre by Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001, which led to political turmoil, coinciding as it did with an increasingly violent Maoist insurgency, and the eventual abolition of the monarchy entirely. At the memorial we rested for a while, sucking at water bottles, taking in the view of the valley below, and the distant snowcapped peaks towards which we were heading.
The triangular peak of Machhapuchhare, ‘Fishtail Mountain’, is visible from all over Pokhara on a clear day, puncturing the skyline like a parodic Swiss Alp on a muesli packet. But from here it was a giant. Above us stretched the Annapurna Range: Annapurna I, II, III and IV, Lamjung Himal, then more gigantic peaks disappearing into the clouds which billowed up from the valley. The hillside opposite was terraced almost all the way down into the gorge, and in the distance we could see the roofs of the village of Siklis – perhaps 3 kilometres as the crow flies, but the wrong side of the valley as the human trudges. We set off once more, onwards and upwards, the path snaking round the folds of the hillside. I resumed my mental playlist of old movies, somewhere on a rainy afternoon in England in my mind.
(“What the devil do you mean by coming in here dressed like that!” “He likes your lemonade.” “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” “Tea, sir? It’s jolly cold tonight. Thank you, number one.”)
Then, suddenly, a building came into view ahead. “Tangting”, proclaimed Mana. It was our halt for the night. The entrance to the village was marked by a stone archway, in which we posed for a picture, and then a sign caught my eye: “Welcome to Tangting, twinned with Debden and Wimbish, Essex, UK.” It was bizarre. I once worked in Debden, one of the large post-war housing estates surrounding London, constructed to accommodate Eastenders who had been bombed out during the Blitz. There could be no greater contrast with Tangting. Small houses of rough stone with carved wooden window frames lined the terraces, and we walked through the village, occasionally halting while Mana conversed with women wearing shawls. It didn’t sound like Nepali – these were Gurung villages, a Tibeto-Burmese people who had originated in western Tibet, and the language was full of ‘dz’ sounds, spoken almost through clenched teeth, making sound rather like Tibetan. “Ah la la,” we heard a lot. I never did find out what it meant, but later, when I asked Mana the word for “let’s go”, I couldn’t make out if he said “jam jam”, “cham cham”, or “dzam dzam”. It was a kind of combination of all three.
Having walked almost the entire length of the village we clambered over a few wooden poles that acted as a gate and descended onto a long terrace of bare earth set before a whitewashed building. There was a small thatched hut with open sides, in which red plastic chairs were stacked, and three were brought and set out upon the terrace. Before us the view fell away as stone-walled terraces descended steeply down the hillside, mirroring those across the valley. Some were lying fallow, others full of crops: wheat that was an almost luminous green, millet, potatoes and spinach. Black tea was brought in handled glasses, with sugar in a small copper bowl – something which was replicated in every village we stayed in. In the corner of the terrace a tap with a short length of hosepipe dribbled continuously over a pile of metal dishes. We were offered noodle soup for lunch, which turned out to be Maggi noodles – spicy masala flavour – and which, after our hike, tasted wonderful. Exhausted by the unaccustomed exertion, we retired to our room, which had rough clay walls, a couple of beds with very thin mattresses and thick kapok quilts, and both passed out.
Emerging again onto the terrace at dusk, it seemed that preparations for dinner were underway. Two figures bowed under bamboo baskets clambered down the steps and deposited their loads on the terrace – the woman carried vegetables, and the man’s basket was full of firewood. He wore green Wellington boots and army fatigues, and having stacked the wood he retired to the tap, slipped off his boots, and carefully washed his feet. The kitchen was next door to a stable in which a large buffalo lay on a bed of straw, endlessly chewing the cud. As I approached it ceased chewing momentarily and swivelled its head to watch me for a while, before its jaws resumed their mechanical side-to-side rotation once more. Dinner was to be dal bhat, which Nepalis eat twice a day: a bowl of lentil soup which is tipped over a mound of rice, a leafy green vegetable such as spinach or kale, spicy tomato chutney, and some kind of vegetable curry. This was accompanied by a plate of raw carrots, although sometimes ‘moola’, a large radish, is used instead. It’s a remarkably healthy diet, supplying all the vitamins and protein one requires, but it does take some getting used to.
The bathroom was a dank, concrete floored room with a hole in the ground, which had another cold tap with hose attachment that dribbled into a bucket. It did not look especially inviting. In consequence I zipped myself into my sleeping bag still feeling sticky after the day’s walk, shivering in the chill air at 1,700 metres – we had climbed nearly a kilometre from Pokhara. I was glad of the rented sleeping bag though – after a bout of bedbugs in Ladakh I regarded the quilt with some suspicion, and spent the first few minutes imagining itches all over me. Many of the shops selling trekking gear in Pokhara also rent equipment, and rates are standardised – 80 rupees a day for a used sleeping bag, 100 rupees for a new one. But the first place we went to wanted 10,000 rupees deposit – $100, an outrageous amount for a $20 used sleeping bag. We walked out. In the second place we tried, despite extensive haggling, the shopkeeper wouldn’t go below 4000 rupees each. “What can I do?” she said. “I have to follow orders.” Clearly they were making money out of the fact that many travellers seemed to not bother returning the bags, and I imagined the elaborate dissembling when it came to claiming your deposit back. Oh, the owner is not here but will be back later. Come again this evening at 7. Come tomorrow. There’s a tear in the bag that wasn’t there before. The average western tourist, not known for their patience on an Asian timescale, and quite possibly with a bus or plane to catch, might well just throw in the towel and consider the deposit lost.
We thought we’d try one last place. Four Seasons Trekking Equipment, next to the Hotel Tropicana, had a nice array of neon-coloured bags hanging outside. Two pouting princesses behind the counter who were both deeply engrossed in their phones detached themselves long enough to fetch two bags down. They were North Face copies, claiming to be good to -10C, and seemed in good condition. And the deposit, we enquired?
“One thousand rupees each.”
We hid our surprise well, and handed over the cash. We’d gone from being offered two ratty-looking sleeping bags for $100 deposit to two nice condition ones for just $10. And as it turned out, the bags were great – warm, comfortable and clean. So, as good service should be acknowledged, Four Seasons Trekking in Pokhara. Highly recommended.
Despite the bed being as hard as a board, we were worn out, and waking in the dark and peering blearily at my phone I was surprised to see it was half past seven in the morning. The room was pitch black due to the heavy wooden shutters – there was no glass in the windows. Emerging onto the terrace I encountered Mana who was strolling up and down while brushing his teeth. “Good sleep?” he enquired. Yes. Very. Breakfast was two hardboiled eggs with a couple of chapattis, and more black tea with sugar. We underwent the tedious business of packing up the bags again, and by 8.30am we were ready. But there was a small ceremony to be undergone: the lady of the house appeared with a large metal plate containing what looked like some kind of lumpy white paste. She dabbed a pinch of it onto our foreheads and placed a white scarf around our necks. Blessings for the road ahead. With a blob of cold rice pudding stuck between my eyes, my shirt still damp from the day before and sun cream smearing my glasses, I felt particularly unpleasant, and as I started walking, clumps of the stuff began to detach, leaving a small trail of gruel down my nose. Round the first bend I discretely wiped it off with the handy scarf I had just acquired, hoping I wasn’t removing any kind of spiritual protection as a result.
We followed the contours of the hill for a while, traversing across it; there were a few sharp ascents up rough-hewn stone steps, but mostly we were on the level. Then we began to descend, down to a wire suspension bridge perhaps 150 metres long, which swayed and thrummed to our footsteps. We entered woodland, and the descent steepened – it was hard on the knees, and I found that I became even hotter than I had going uphill the day before; sweat was pouring off me. By the time we reached the river at the bottom of the gorge my legs were like jelly. And now we had to go up the other side, a climb that lasted two-and-a-half hours. It was like ascending a steep spiral staircase that never seemed to end – we zigzagged back and forth across the hillside, pausing periodically to let our racing heart-rates slow down to more manageable levels. I remembered all this only too well. I thought of times that I had undergone vigorous exercise: on a rowing machine, or cycling up a hill, and how my heart would thump until it felt like it would burst. But that had been for only a few minutes at a time; here it was more or less continuous, hour after hour. My throat was parched from breathing through my mouth in an attempt to get enough oxygen, and I forced myself to slow down and pause more often, trying to keep breathing steadily through my nose.
“Slowly slowly,” said Mana with a grin, as he stepped effortlessly upwards. This was a guy who had undergone the famously difficult selection for the Gurkhas twice, but had failed to qualify. The Gurkhas have served in the British Army since 1815, and most of their recruits are Gurungs, from the Annapurna region. With the salary of a regular British soldier being many times that of the average Nepalese, competition for places is fierce. The selection, held in Pokhara each year, involves a series of gruelling physical tests, one of which is a 5km run uphill carrying a 25kg load in a bamboo basket. And it’s not some gentle incline – uphill here means painfully steep. There are accounts of prospective recruits being so determined to pass that they continue running even with broken bones.
But, for whatever reason, despite his phenomenal fitness, Mana had failed to qualify. Now, at 26, he was too old, and despite having a good job with Himalayan Encounters, a large trekking firm, and the expeditions with Dilmaya, he still carried the disappointment with him. He had friends who had made it, who were now in the British Army, and others who had joined the Singapore Police, which also uses Gurkhas. Still, he loved his job, as it took him into the wild places, away from the pollution and noise of the city. “Here is clean,” he said. “Food is clean, water pure. Not getting sick.” Then he made a joke. “In village of Siklis, you get sick less.” It was quite good, really, and deserved a better response than the feeble laugh I gave as I was struggling up the hill under my enormous backpack. I had covertly picked up his pack at Tangting and discovered that it weighed about half what mine did. Although he offered to swap, I was determined to carry on with it, telling myself that I used to carry twice as much weight – 20kg or more. Admittedly that had been 20 years or more ago, but still. Onwards and upwards. Jam jam. Ah la la.