We were both a little nervous about crossing Thorung La pass. But we decided to heed the advice of the porter we had dinner with the night before to head over the top a day earlier than we had planned.
Day 13: We woke up at 4:00 AM. It was beautiful and clear, just as the kind porter had predicted. Because it’s a long day, most people rise even earlier, at 3:00 AM, to start hiking at 4:00. But we felt that wasn’t necessary. We pre-ordered our breakfast for 5:00 and pre-paid our bill the evening before. Getting up so early wasn’t much of a hardship. You sleep rather light anyway at high altitude, although we were freezing and damp from the cold night, we didn’t feel too bad. We packed our bags, then headed to the dining hall for porridge and much-needed coffee. As the sun was just lightening the sky, we started at 5:15 am with a brutally steep climb.
For some reason, every village we’ve stayed in along the Annapurna Trek sits in a bowl. After gaining so much elevation during the day, inevitably you must hike back down to get into the village where you’re staying for the night. Of course, that means you face a steep climb back out of the bowl first thing in the morning. It’s awful. But it gets the blood flowing — especially when your heart is pounding away like a giant clock before you even start moving.
Surprisingly, the first hour of our climb after Thorung Phedi went quite smoothly. We made it to High Camp (5000 m.) in half the time we expected. We saw one older German man get carried up on the back of a pony (he hadn’t looked that good when we first saw him two days before). And we saw another couple of women go back down after giving it a try. People just don’t take the challenge of altitude seriously enough. They don’t allow enough time for the body to adjust. So they get sick. At least they know enough to turn back. Unlike the Korean tourist back in Manang.
Because we reached High Camp in relatively good time, and because we felt rather good despite the altitude, we were feeling very optimistic about the day. Since almost all of the trekkers have never climbed the Annapurna Circuit before, there is a lot of speculation about the terrain. Since the first hour was so steep it was felt by many that we had accomplished the hardest part for the day. The rest of the way to the top would surely only be switchbacks up the remaining 400 meters. Relatively easy, no? To celebrate our success, we had a very large pot of black tea and chatted with a nice Israeli couple who didn’t believe us when we told them how old we were. Silly kids! However, the feeling of excitement and optimism we all shared would soon be shattered….
After High Camp, reality set in. We had about a two hour climb over trails of packed snow and ice, up and over about 14 false summits before we reached the actual pass. Only it didn’t take two hours. It took us twice that long. Karen really started feeling the altitude in her legs. They were really sluggish and it was hard to keep lifting each one up the mountain. Scott’s ears started ringing, and he had a headache, but his body worked as well as it could. It was pretty tough. You go very slowly. Putting one foot just in front of the other. Go for about ten or fifteen steps, then stop and rest for another five minutes. It’s a strange feeling. Your body just doesn’t work the way you know it’s supposed to.
The real problem is that darn summit never seems to get any nearer. You struggle slowly, heaving your way up a steep rise to what you hope will finally be “the View.” But upon reaching the top, you just see another demoralizing traverse rising steeply immediately ahead. No rest for the wicked. What makes it all worse is the worry that settles in your mind. “Why is it so hard to breathe? Am I pushing things too much? Is this just the beginning of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)?” Up there, you’re a long way from help, so you have to get yourself back down if you get into trouble. The mind plays tricks. You have to know the difference between what is normal (feeling terrible, breathless like you’re suffocating) and what are symptoms of things really going bad (your breath won’t return to normal, even after resting for 10 minutes, mild headaches turn to blinding, throbbing pain in the back of your head, you can’t walk straight or you start to slur your words). But because the mild symptoms are so similar to the more serious ones, you can’t help but worry a little. Brain fog doesn’t help you think clearly about it all, either.
Two days back, when we were leaving Manang and making for Yak Kharka, we ran into an Australian couple we met in Chame. They looked worried. They had porters now carrying their packs down the mountain back toward Manang. They stopped to chat and told us they got 20 minutes out of Yak Kharka on the way to Thorung Phedi when one of them just couldn’t go any further. Her body just stopped moving forward. She had felt a little breathless the day before, so started taking Diamox to help the acclimatization. When she felt tingling in her limbs, she freaked out. That started a little panic. When we explained that the tingling wasn’t altitude, but the effects of the Diamox, and that it was perfectly normal, safe, she was surprised and you could see she felt a little relief.
But the mind does play tricks like this. We were feeling like we’d never get there. Then we came across the kind porter from the evening before. He was waiting at the top of a rise. He turned to one of the girls whose bags he was carrying, as she struggled up behind him, and pointed ahead to the next rise. He said the pass was just over the next ridge, a 12 minute walk. We were there! We then started hearing cheering from other trekkers who had made it to the pass. Suddenly, we felt a lot better. We made it to the pass in about 8 minutes.
After we put our packs down to drink some water and snap some photos (and pee) our symptoms of AMS were all gone. It felt really great to have made it to this point. Karen had thought she’d never make it. Scott knew she would. Karen’s tough. She may find nature challenging, but she’d never let it beat her.
We didn’t stay too long at the top. Clouds were already coming in fast over the mountains that surrounded us on all sides. It was incredibly beautiful and a little eerie being at the top of the pass. You feel quite isolated. It’s almost as though you were in the middle of nowhere, at the top of a super high mountain, several hours away from the nearest settlement. Oh, wait….
By mid-morning, very high winds pick up in the pass here. The gorgeous, clear, calm views of the Annapurnas and surrounding peaks change to menace and the pass becomes a cold and lonely place very quickly. The wind is wicked. It bites and has such force it moves your pack around on your back, and you with it. We were done here. Time to make for Muktinath and our hot shower. God, please let them have hot showers somewhere in Muktinath… So we started the journey down the other side.
In many ways, the descent is worse than the climb up. It’s a relentlessly steep, icy, hike down the mountain. The wind blows 80 – 90 km/h straight into your face. The descent is almost as slow as the way up. Our headaches were back. After a couple of hours, the snow disappeared and turned to scree slopes and boulders. Your quads and knees take such a beating, especially with the extra weight of your back pack. The good news is that, because it’s so steep on the way down, you lose elevation incredibly fast. We climbed up just under 1000 m in about 5 hours to the top, from 4500 m. to 5416 m. On the way down, we would lose over 1.6 km in vertical elevation in just four hours. This means that any symptoms of mild AMS disappear very quickly. But the way was so physically miserable that we hardly bothered taking photos. We didn’t care anymore. It was just the same landscape hour after hour beating on our bodies relentlessly. We imagined the landscape on the Moon would be similar to this.
Down… down… down… Man, when does this end? We stopped frequently, trying not to rest too long lest we delay our destiny that was the hot shower. But our legs and feet were hurting badly. All the while, though, we’d pause and remember our recent accomplishment. We made it over the pass. This thought would make us feel a little better. Plus, we knew it was ending relatively soon. Nothing lasts forever, after all. Not even this rocky punishment.
Finally, we came to a couple of tea lodges at the base of the pass, about four hours later. We were ravenously hungry. And hot. Now that we were at much lower elevation, the heat was back with a vengeance. We stopped for lunch and a rest. Then continued the long 90-minute descent that remained.
We met a couple of older men resting by a long suspension bridge. One of them said it was only an hour to Muktinath. An hour, we thought? But we’ve been going an hour and a half already since we stopped for lunch! We sighed, accepted the fact we were slow and started to continue. About 15 minutes later we rounded a steep corner to the left and there was the temple of Muktinath! An hour! Pshaw! We were there! Showers! More food! Yay!
Passing the famous Muktinath temple, we dragged ourselves to the hotel we had chosen: The Mona Lisa. It sounded classy. We took a room after confirming that they had a shower with genuinely hot water. They did. They used a gas heater for hot water. First one we’d seen like that. Oh, boy! We had done it. We were incredibly tired. All told, it had taken us about 10 hours with breaks and a stop for lunch. We had showers, then had an early dinner and went to bed.
Day 14. Muktinath has been an important pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus for centuries. There are still thousands of pilgrims who make the journey to Muktinath from India and it’s this that keeps the town going economically. We spent two nights there to rest. The day after our crossing, our legs were so sore we had a tough time negotiating any downward slope, let alone face a flight of stairs. To get into our toilet, there was one steep step down. It was so painful we used the bathroom only when it became urgent. The rest of the time we watched re-runs of Downton Abbey that we had on iTunes on our laptop, and slept. Yes, you read that right… Karen actually carried a laptop in her pack, on top of everything else, up and over the pass. Go ahead and judge. At least it was a MacBook Air, thanks to Scott’s mom Fern.
Day 15, we left Muktinath early and headed a very short way to Jarkhot where we had decided to stay the night. It is a charming village with a very medieval feel to it. And it was very quiet. So, after a 40-minute hike down the mountain, it was all we could bear…. We checked in to the Hotel New Plaza and rested for the remainder of the day.
Day 16 would be another short day, we decided. A two-hour hike to Kagbeni. Lex and Li had stayed here and recommended it highly. It’s beautiful. The nicest village we saw on the entire trek. A green oasis in a valley that forms the beginning of the Upper Mustang.
You need a special permit to enter the Upper Mustang, but you get a spectacular view of the restricted valley from the north end of Kagbeni. We’ll admit that after being on the trek for almost three weeks, a bit of “scenic village fatigue” had set in. “Look, another picturesque medieval Tibetan village. Yawn. What I need to know is do they have espresso?” As a matter of fact, what made Kagbeni very interesting to both of us was a little place called The Green Kitchen. In the window was the most beautiful thing we’d seen in a long time. Illy Cafe. And free WiFi! Fearing Scott would want to do his usual comparisons of the local lodging, she mewled in desperation, “Honey, lets just stay here. Okay?”
We had to check out the food at least. It was a very small place that made the best sandwiches we’d had so far. And the apple pie was delicious. So we took one of the four rooms they had for guests upstairs. The coffee was amazing. They must have about four or five espresso machines, and really knew how to use them. Delicious. It was a study in contrasts. Drinking an amazing Americano in one of the most traditional stone villages in the region.
We happily accepted the contradiction and chatted with the owner as he typed away on his MacBook Air. Unfortunately, like everywhere else, the internet wasn’t working. But the espresso machine was. Thankfully. The only trouble with Kagbeni was the howling wind. We were told that the winds get pretty vicious by 10 or 11 am up the Kali Gandaki valley, down which we were headed. However, lately the winds were actually picking up around 8:30 am.
Our walk down from Jarkhot was like what we imagined hiking in Afghanistan would be like. It was a windy desert, with trucks and jeeps passing you on the rough road. The wind was so strong it picks up rocks and dirt, flinging them into your face. Awful. So we decided to get a jeep to Jomosom instead of walking. We’d go to the jeep stand early the next day…
Day 16 we woke early at 5:00, ate breakfast, packed, and headed to the jeep station by about 6:30 am. We waited around for a while looking puzzled but feeling hopeful. It was closed. Finally a young man walked by and told us the jeep should go by around 7:00.
There was a mobile number on the stand, so we called it to ask about a jeep. The man who answered told us it would leave at 9:00 am. That would mean getting to Jomosom perhaps too late to catch a bus or jeep to Beni and Pokhara. So we decided, reluctantly, to walk to Jomosom. It was early enough that we hoped to miss the vicious winds. But we didn’t. We started walking along the river bed, instead of the road.
This is a very wide, flat and ancient river bed. Actually a moraine field left by glaciers millions of years ago. All of this was once the bottom of the ocean, as unbelievable as that is, and there is quite a business in hunting ammonite fossils here in the pebble-strewn river bed. We followed a young ammonite hunter for a while until it became obvious that he was not going to Jomosom. He shouted back to us to go a different way and pointed to the far right bank where we saw that the river bed met up with the road, and we made for the bank.
After some time the walk got pretty monotonous and miserable along the road. It was really the high winds that make it so uncomfortable. We had begun to think maybe a flight from Jomosom to Pokhara would be doable, despite Karen’s strong preference for keeping her feet firmly on the ground, even if the ground was steep, rough, and long…
Then we met a very chipper young German man. He was whistling along as he hiked toward us. Scott asked how far away Jomosom was. He told us it was about an hour. We had been staring at the town for quite a while, but it never seemed to get any closer, really. At least now we had a time frame for reaching it.
We had mused about a flight instead of a jeep or a bus. A flight would be about 30 minutes to Pokhara, whereas it could be about 12 hours by vehicle. The young man brought up the subject by asking us if we planned to fly out of Jomosom? “No, we think we’ll take a jeep.” “Oh,” he said. “I flew yesterday. It was incredible. Once in a lifetime experience.” “Oh, really?” Scott asked. “Yes,” he said. “The plane is very small, so you see and feel everything! At times, when it passes between the mountains, it has to bank a little and you feel like the wings will not fit in between! Very exciting!” That did it. Karen’s face was blanching, and she just looked at Scott and said quietly, “No. You can take the plane, but I’d rather walk down than get in to one of those planes.” ‘Nuff said. Our friends Carole J. and Helen can relate to Karen’s aversion to this particular kind of airborne ‘excitement.’ These planes are no bigger than the one we had to fly in during the BC provincial election campaign in ’05. They look like toy planes as they careen along the valley, not that high off the floor, with snowy mountains close on either side. Terrifying and not too good for the tummy, either. After our German friend’s explicit description of the flight up the mountain, all fantasies of flying were officially dead. We’d be taking the bus. No matter how long or bumpy the ride…
We arrived in Jomosom, walked through town to the other side and found the jeep/bus stand. We had to check in with the police and with the ACAP office to check our permits and entry receipts. There, we were told there are no public jeeps anymore, and a private jeep would cost around $800 to $1000 USD – an outrage clearly deign to discourage asking for one. Things have changed a lot since the road-building has continued apace. Jeeps are less common and they use public buses more regularly. Very few people trek down this side of the AC anymore. The road has brought trucks, buses, and jeeps, and the terrible dust that goes along with the traffic. Not the scenic, natural trekking experience most trekkers are looking for. Unfortunately, this means many of the lodges in the villages along the way down are now shut, or about to shut. Economically, the road is hurting the tourist industry on this side. But, on the positive side, goods are more easy to get to and from these towns. Still, from the point of view of trekking this side of the Annapurna, the road is terrible. So most people skip it and fly out. But of course, there will be no flying for us.
Now in Jomosom, we spoke to the people at the jeep/bus stand and established that it was possible to travel by bus from Jomosom to Pokhara in one day if we took a morning bus. It was settled. We would stay the night in Jomosom and take the 7 am bus the next morning. We promptly walked to the guest house across the street to have some lunch. When we entered the restaurant there was an American tourist eating there already. He greeted us with a big smile and a friendly hello. “We just arrived by plane from Pokhara” he stated. “It was a great flight, but my wife didn’t like it very much.”
“Oh?” said Karen. “Where is she?”
“She’s in the bathroom getting sick,” he said sheepishly. We told him about our trip and how we were heading to Pokhara after having crossed the pass. Not long after, his wife emerged.
“Are you feeling a bit better honey?” Ron asked.
His wife, Kay gave him a half smile…. “not really.”
Scott offered her some Gravol, and Karen took the opportunity to gather more information…
“Not a good flight, huh?” Karen asked.
“No. I was terrified. The woman behind me actually screamed most of the way. At one point, the flight attendant could see the look of terror on my face as the plane banked around the mountain and she told me not to worry… that the plane is supposed to do this, as if to say that the plane wasn’t going to crash as it aerobatically flew through the valleys. It wasn’t reassuring.”
But Karen was officially validated. She looked at Scott. He knew we were NEVER going to get on that tiny plane. EVER.
We stayed a night at the hotel in Jomosom, then caught a 7 am public bus to Beni, where we’d have to catch another bus to Pokhara. We hoped to be in Beni by 3 pm, and then in Pokhara by 7 or 8 pm.
The bus was an adventure in itself. We took some videos, but Scott did something wrong and they didn’t work out. We have some pics but they don’t capture this fantastic ride. They put us up front in the cab with the driver, so we had a first hand view of everything. At times it was pretty hairy. When we talk about the ‘road’ from Jomosom to Beni, we should make it clear that what we’re actually talking about is a very long, wide bumpy ditch carved into the side of the mountain. Sometimes the bus left this ‘road’ to cruise along the river bed (as you would), because although the river bed is a large carpet of boulders, this was at times much smoother – and safer – than the man-made road. But most of the time, we were treated to driving about 20 km/h down the road. Of course, when we say it was wide, it was not wide enough for two vehicles, so some of the most exciting moments were when we’d meet another bus, or truck, or jeep coming up the other way. We will say that our young driver definitely knew what he was doing.
We were most impressed when he left the road before we hit a bridge that had washed out, and instead drove the bus right under and through a giant waterfall… without missing a beat. It was pretty cool, and totally disconcerting at the same time. The whole bus journey was like this, all the way down. We were lucky we had front seats because we had experienced the back seats on the way up the mountain to Besi Sahar. You get really bounced around back there and there’s no leg room if you’re taller than 5’ 0”. Up front, there isn’t much more leg room, but you don’t feel the bumps. After about six hours, with a 30 minute stop for lunch in Tatopani, we arrived in Beni.
We got off the bus and saw the other bus that would take us the rest of the way to Pokhara… another five hours. Our hearts sank a little. Then a young man asked if we wanted a taxi. Scott asked which car was his? He pointed out a smart little Suzuki; the exact kind of car we had laughed at on the way down thinking there was no way such a little car could handle the ‘road’. Now, looking forlornly at the torture bus that stared back at us, we asked him how much? The price was the same as we had paid from Jomosom to Beni on the bus, so we just said, “yes, please,” loaded our packs into the little car and took off.
He was a great driver, but super fast. We zoomed along until we got to a point where an earlier bus was just parked and there was no way around it. It was just standing there before a bridge. Our young driver yelled out a question to someone standing on a pile of dirt nearby. Whatever the reply was, our driver then went off to the left up a smaller road that approached a tiny wooden bridge. He then stopped and got out. We just watched from the car as he seemed to inspect the whole bridge, looking closely at every wooden plank, adjusting this one and then that one. When he got to the other side, he just stared for a while and scratched his shirt as he thought about what to do. Then he started shifting large boulders. He’d grab a big one out of the river and haul it over to the end of the bridge and throw it down, then get a big stick, another log, and like this seemed to be building an extension… He got back in the car and zoomed forward up to the very end, asking Scott to tell him how far he was on the left side. Scott told him he was fine, but he stopped the car and got out again. It was clear that something was wrong. A big bus pulled up behind us, then a jeep stopped in the other direction before the bridge. We couldn’t go forward or back now. More vehicles began lining up in both directions. He just kept on shifting rocks and getting more. After some time, he had a crew of about 26 people helping him shift rocks, bring logs, etc. He was like a foreman. Clearly he was the first one to think of repairing this route as a work-around the other bridge, which was also destroyed.
After about 30 minutes, he got in the car and, with the help of all the others to guide him, he expertly navigated the little Suzuki up and over whatever it was that was making the crossing difficult. We landed with a thud on the other side of the bridge. Free at last! Except now there was a huge traffic jam. In India, this jam would have taken a very long time to sort out with a lot of honking. Here in Nepal, it’s different. Everyone helps everyone else. Our driver now became a traffic director, running from vehicle to vehicle asking them to move this way and that. Finally he backed up to let a big truck come forward, then moved the car along until he could get a bus blocking our way to move forward and around us. Then we just zoomed along. We were back on our way. It was a two and a half hour drive up and down mountain valleys at very high speed, listening to Indian and Nepali pop music. It was enjoyable. Especially since we knew the bus would have taken twice as long. He got us to Pokhara and to our hotel in one piece and in record time. Snug as a bug in our Pokhara Hotel – the Hotel Nirvana, a sister hotel to the Sacred Valley Inn, where we plan to rest for about a week and half.
Today marks two months since we left Canada. Having been in Asia now for two months, doubts can arise, sometimes, about our decision to quit our jobs, take a break from our careers, and travel. But then the world throws you a bone. While having lunch at a lovely place on Phewa lake here in Pokhara, we met another American couple who live in Mexico.
We chatted with them about current events, travel in Nepal, and life in general. They were in their sixties, although they looked much younger.
Nearing the end of our conversation the husband asked how long our trip was, noting that we seem to travel a lot. We explained that we are trying to live a life where we work for 4 or 5 years and then take a year or two off to travel. He smiled from ear to ear, and said, “that’s a smart way to live.”
Since we had been feeling that pang of doubt the last few days, we then went in to explaining our case…. “We live cheaply at home and don’t spend all our savings when we travel. Sometimes we feel like we made the wrong choice… to take a break from working. What if it doesn’t work out? What if we can’t find work when we return?” All our familiar explanations.
He continued to smile at us as we told him our story…. When we paused he said, “I did exactly the same thing with my life, taking a year off after working a few years…. I always felt that you just never know if you’ll make it to retirement. I’d tell people I was taking my retirement early throughout my life, one year at a time.”
“I’m in my sixties now.” And then he turned to look us both right in the eye, and said with a serious voice, “You’ll never regret it. You won’t miss having fancy cars. You’re doing the right thing. I couldn’t be happier.”
Thank you nice American couple!… we never got your names, but we’ll gratefully accept your encouragement.