Apologies for the length of this. Basically, this is what I wrote over 3 days while trekking through Nepal. I forgot to take a book, so writing was about the only entertainment I had. I'll probably crap on a lot. You have been warned.
I made an interesting discovery today. I found that there is actually something worse than climbing three or four hundred stairs. That type of climb's pretty bad - but it's worse when you get to the top, and realise that the next set of stairs actually go down.
It's the type of mentality I find myself taking on, when trekking in Nepal. Every metre of altitude's been hard won - I sweated to gain it, my legs are screaming, and I'm wondering just why the hell I'm doing this - indeed, why I paid good money for the priviledge of torturing myself. Stairs going down are not a welcome sight, contrary to everything I would have believed before setting out this morning. Heading down, I'm simply further from my ultimate destination. And that goal's the only thing that stops me turning around, heading back to Pokhara, and enjoying a cold beer.
Poon Hill's where I'm headed. It's strange - if you'd asked me two weeks ago where I would be today, trekking through the mountains of Nepal would not have been a possible answer. But since then, the chaos, pollution and intense nature of India wore me and my travelling companions down, and the more we'd talk about making a dash for Nepal, the better the idea sounded. Somehow, the plan came together flawlessly - departing Varanasi in India a little past midnight, then checking into our hotel in Pokhara - a little city in the shadow of the Annapurna mountain range - that afternoon. Almost unbelievable that it was so easy to change country like that - particularly when one is wracked by so much trouble right now.
There's an eerie feeling around Pokhara right now. Outside of Kathmandu, it's Nepal's second most popular tourist destination. It's a major trekking destination - the Annapurnas offer some of the finest, and most convenient and spectacular trekking in the world. Yet, it's practically deserted. You could count the tourists on your hands. The reason's all the turmoil caused by the Maoist uprising here. Evidence of the problems plauging Nepal exist just outside of our hotel, in the Lake Palace. It's not open right now, as it appears to have been converted into a base for the security forces. Bunkers surround it, manned by soldiers with M-16's and shotguns, machine guns and sub-machineguns that look to have been ripped straight out of a scene from The Dirty Dozen.
So the tourists don't come, and I wonder how Lakeside, Pokhara, manages to survive. Hotels by the dozen, at least as many restaurants, supported by an army of trekking shops, art and craft stores, CD and bookshops, and a horde of Tibetan women wandering along wearing backpacks stuffed with handicrafts, hoping you'll take a look. It's like someone's arranged a huge party, stocked up on masses of food and drink, sent hundreds of invitations, then when the big night's rolled around only a handful of people have showed up.
But here I am, heading for Poon Hill, and hoping like hell that this cloud will clear. I'm constantly told that the monsoon's over, yet it's rained in the afternoon almost every day since we got here, and cloud covers the Annapurnas almost constantly - only small glimpses have been possible. From Poon Hill, the view is uninterrupted, and looks supurb...as long as the could lifts. I think I've got everything crossed...
8.30pm and I'm in bed. Think it's the earliest I've been in bed for years.
Day 2 - Part 1
Warning - Rant ahead.
Let's say you were to walk up to me right now, and say 'Hello. You probably wouldn't recognise my name, but I'm actually the person who invented stairs!' I would likely fucking kill you. Actually, I'm pretty sure I would. Right now, I hate the things with a passion. It's the combined effect of 2 days in which I walked up thousands of stairs. That's no exaggeration either - there have literally been thousands of them. I've climbed a couple of thousands metres from my starting point, and most of the altitude I've gained has been up stairs. The guide, the trekking company, conveniently forget to mention this fact. In the description of this trek, they talk about a fairly easy walk, mainly following ridge lines. I guess it might be bad for business to describe the trek as 'hours of stair climbing, followed by more stairs. By the end of day 2, you'll be ready to scream out loud, as you round another corner, and more stairs face you. The flat sections are simply leadups for more stairs'. By the end of it, I couldn't walk up any more stairs. The only thing that got me up the stairs in the lodge to my room, was the promise of a hot shower, and dry clothes.
Day 2, Part 2
The more rational and balanced description.
One of Nepal's growing industries is hydro-electricity. They're building new plants all the time, some with foreign funds from China and India, keen to draw on the power available (after a few weeks in India, you realise that they need all the power they can get). Today, it feels like there's enough water in Nepal's rivers to power the world - because it's damn wet. I woke at around 4am, and it was pouring outside. So much for hopes of a clear morning, and views to the Annapurnas. For the rest of today, while it hasn't rained too much, we've been walking through cloud. The mountains have a completely different sort of beauty in conditions like this. Everything is damp. More often than not, your path doubles as a creek. Cloud whips past, and one minute you see nothing but white - the next, a hole opens and you get a glimpse of just how high the mountains around you really are.
The sound of rushing, tumbling water is constant, waterfalls abound, and even the smallest of them would contain the energy to power a small village. Which is what they do - most of the villages on the mountain in this area have electricity, provided by small, local hydro-electricity plants. While it does take away some of the mystique, it can only be a good thing - every electric hotplate or water heater is saving mountain forests, in this area where fire is still the main cooking and heating method.
It's quite amazing to see just how developed this area is. In a region where donkeys transport just about everything to the villages, you'll see a satellite dish. Stone is still the traditional building method - and it is abundant - however more and more places are constructed from sheet metal. And for a trekker, all the comforts of home can be had for the right price - from soft drinks, to chocolate, to beer.
And now, I'm the only guest in a mountain top guest house. There have been a few more trekkers on the trail today, but all heading in the opposite direction. Apparantly there are Maoists in the area - 1,000 Rupees is the current ask for a 'donation' (receipt and all). And call me a selfish white boy, too spoiled for his own good - or simply too tired to be all that tolerant right now - but my only wish is that the Nepalise family who runs this place would be quiet. I've had it with screaming kids right now (they're absolutely beautiful kids...just loud).
It'd be nice if the cloud would go away for a bit too. It's a long way to walk for a view of the fog.
Day 2 - Part 3
The cloud cleared. Beyond all expectation, beyond all hope, the mountain range showed itself. You simply can't describe it. Sitting at just under 3,000m, I feel dwarfed. These peaks tower above us, and I can't imagine the effort required to reach the top. Thousands of steps seems like nothing any more - hell, that's childs play. Try playing with the big boys, and then see how you like it.
Night is rapidly falling, cloud has descended again, and dinner has been ordered. Some more trekkers have arrived - it's nice not being here alone. Especially seeing as everyone's saying that tonight, the Maoists are coming. Right now though, there's a fire burning in the centre of the room, some kids playing with a ball (tollerance has returned), some Japanese people playing a game of cards...and everything's pretty ok. Amazing how quickly physical pain can be forgotten, when sights barely imagined make themselves real.
Day 2, Part 4
This has been one long day.
The Maoists just came, and I'm now holding a receipt for my 'Tourist Fee'. All the foreigners in the place how hold one of these. Now, the Maoists have more money to buy guns, bombs, and equipment to terrorise the population they claim to represent. Their form of liberation includes closing schools for months, and sweeping through villages, taking people to train to fight for them. Proudly at the top of their receipt - 'Long live Marxism - Leninism - Maoism and Prachandapath!!' Another guest in the hotel, an English guy over here as a volunteer teacher, argued with them long and hard. In some ways, I admire his convictions - he's seen first hand the effect of Maoist activity on the villagers. On the other, I think he's a fucking idiot - no matter how strong his feelings, or genuine his concern and caring, this isn't his fight. At the end of his time here, he will fly home to England. I'm sure his care is real - but he doesn't live here. If these Maoists take offence, if they have burnt into their minds the difficult man at the Snowland Hotel, it will not be him who will bear the brunt of their anger.
Knowing that you're funding the purchase of guns and explosives is bad enough.
Thinking that your actions could possibly decide the next target...well, that's just fucked.
Day 2, Part 5
Seriously, the last part was supposed to be the final entry for today. There wasn't supposed to be anything after that, save a head on a pillow, and some well deserved sleep. Things don't always turn out how you expect though.
I'd just assumed that with the setting of the sun, the Annapurnas had finished their show for today. What I hadn't counted on, was the rising of the moon.
Right now, there is not a cloud in the sky. It is clearer than it has been for a week - the stars are visible, the valleys and hills clear, naked without the blanket of cloud that has been constant.
Then, the mountain range, white in the moon's reflected light, clear against the silouhette of the hills lacking the snow to catch this light, topped by a blanket of stars, and quite simply one of the most beautiful and unexpected sights I have ever seen.
This, I didn't expect.
Nothing I can say can possibly describe this properly. Words can't do this justice. This is the reward for thousands of stairs, and a world of pain. Midday today, I was asking myself just why the fuck I was doing this.
Now, I know.
So, just when I think it can't get any better, it does.
5am, and the mountains are still visible, a pale white glow in the morning. It wasn't that unexpected beauty that excited this morning though - it was the fact that if I could see the mountains, there was no cloud. The walk up Poon Hill would be worth the effort and pain.
After waking my guide, who was still sleeping quite soundly, we started off. At first, by torchlight, before the early morning light made vision possible.
All of a sudden, the path was crowded with trekkers. For the previous two days, it had felt like there couldn't be more than a handfull in the mountains. Now, there were dozens. I suppose it's to be expected - when nature puts on a show at first light, and today's the first day in five that the show's been visible, everyone's going to show up. It was strangely comforting actually - while the tourist industry in the region is certainly struggling, it has life in it yet.
We got to the top, and the view...well, it's something you can't describe properly. Photo's give you an idea, but can't give you the full picture. You simply have to see it for yourself. It's not just seeing the mountains unobstructed, but seeing them change in the shifting sunrise light. It's watchin as clouds form above the highest peaks, and the foothills move from shadow to light. As time passes, different faces start to catch the light, show brightly reflecting, a dazzling white. You can look away for 2 minutes, and when you look back everything's slightly changed. This view never gets boring, is never static. I could have stood there for hours.
Unfortunately, reality told me that I had to walk back today - backtracking and doing the distance we'd covered in two days in one. So we left - meeting the Maoists on the way back down. We learnt later that they closed the gate at the top of the hill, and inspected everyone's receipts before they were allowed to leave. Either that, or pay their 'tourist fee'. They would have collected a good $US750 from everyone in that area today...
The walk back - well, we were in a taxi on our way home by 1pm, including a stop for lunch. Makes a difference when it's almost all downhill - two days walking done in about 4 1/2 hours. By the end of it, I think the guide was more exhausted than me - it was hot and sunny, conditions I think me coming from India was more used to than him!
So was it worth it? Hell yes. I'm actually writing this part a day later, in Kathmandu, and my legs are killing me. My calves feel like they could be stretched and stretched, yet still wouldn't be stretched enough. I've also got a wicked dose of sunburn. But I'd do it all again. If anyone asked me whether they should do it, the answer would always be yes. I met a few people on the trail yesterday, who were just starting their treks - moving up up up. One English lady said she felt shattered. An American man looked ready to die. A day beforehand, I'm pretty sure I looked much the same. So I said the only thing I could - 'keep going - it's worth it'.