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On the Way to Annapurna

In this second extract from his inspirational memoirs about trekking in the Himalaya, Abode of the Gods, Kev Reynolds describes his first few days on the Annapurna Circuit, from Besisahar to the ascent of the mighty Thorong La.


Annapurna is an obvious choice – its reputation for dramatic scenery and cultural diversity make it one of the most prized of all Himalayan trekking regions. Mountains apart, the landscape varies from sub-tropical forest and lush foothill terraces in the south to frosted barren wastes on the northern side of the Himalayan divide, and from a trekkers’ pass at almost 5500 metres to the deepest river valley on Earth. Within this land of extremes live an assortment of ethnic groups – Magar, Newar, Gurung, Chhetri, Brahmin, Thakali and Bhotiya – many of whom have abandoned traditional farming practices to become lodge- or teahouse-owners, converting the family home to accommodate foreign trekkers, thereby making it easy for independent travellers to trek here without the need to backpack heavy camping equipment and food supplies.

No wonder it’s popular.

Beginning our counter-clockwise circuit Alan and I follow the Marsyangdi upstream, crossing tributaries on a variety of bridges and, in one case, wading through the water aided by a self-appointed river guide all of 10 years old. We share the trail with porters carrying crates of bottled drinks; others are laden with four metre wooden planks, sheets of corrugated iron, shiny metal trunks or dokos filled with pasta and tins of coffee. Western voices are heard in wayside bhattis, and some of our fellow trekkers on the early, humid stages of the route are dressed as though heading for a Mediterranean beach.

Wandering among terraces of rice and millet, we catch sight of snow peaks balanced upon clouds – Himalchuli, Ngadi Chuli and Manaslu rise from the east bank of the Marsyangdi, while hills west of the river belong to the unseen Annapurnas.

So far these are just big hills, nameless hills, and we must trek for several days before we discover the mountains we’ve been dreaming about.

Unlike the Kangchenjunga region, every village has its lodges, and between villages teahouses ply a trade in tea and biscuits, bottles of Coke and Fanta, and bars of Cadbury’s chocolate made in India. Lodges have fanciful names on brightly painted boards – Hotel Himalaya and Lodge, Hotel Mountain View, Hotel Dorchester. Despite the pretentious titles, they’re just simple lodgings with smoky dining areas and bare rooms for sleeping in. Most have dormitories, while some have twin-bedded rooms furnished with wooden sleeping platforms, a thin foam mattress and a greasy pillow; sometimes there’s a small table and a candle and, if we’re lucky, a nail in the wall on which to hang clothes. Toilets are usually found outside in the yard – a narrow cubicle with a hole in the floor – the bathroom is just a standpipe, and when showers are advertised they turn out to be another cubicle next to the chaarpi with a hosepipe dribbling tepid water...

Machhapuchhare (far right) from Annapurna Base Camp

The valley is little more than a gorge now, the scenery wild, intimidating, and the way ahead apparently blocked by boulders that swallow the river. But when we top another steep rise, before us lies a broad, flat plateau, on the far side of which the toy-like houses of Tal are dwarfed by soaring mountains, as alluring as Shangri-La. This is Buddhist country, and as if to emphasise the fact peace settles over us. A crow barks as it circles overhead, making only a brief intrusion. In the breeze comes the far-off boom of a waterfall, but the breeze is inconsistent, the sound falters, then shuts off completely. Peace settles once more.

Tal’s wide street is lined with shops and lodges, and with ponies tethered to a rail the place has a Wild West appearance – externally, at least – but once we book into a lodge all that changes. We’re back in a medieval world that attempts to ape the 20th century.

A bright-faced woman in a wrap-around chuba entices me across the street to study the bangles, earrings and pocket-sized mani stones on display in her tiny sentry-box of a shop. Her hair is coal black and glossy and hangs halfway down her back. Teasing me for my grey beard she calls me ‘Baje’, so I show her photographs of my wife and daughters and assure her I can wait a while before becoming a grandfather. Calling softly behind her, a beautiful little girl presents herself. She’s gorgeous, like her mother, and smiling sweetly returns my ‘Namaste’.

In Pisang, a spartan village of stone-walled houses at well over 3000 metres, there’s a long mani wall fitted with a row of prayer wheels, each stone in the wall carved with the Buddhist mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’ (‘Hail to the jewel in the lotus’). Cylindrical prayer wheels are likewise etched with manis, and as each wheel is spun it scatters the prayers contained within it, ‘Om mani padme hum’. Strips of cloth bearing the mani imprint hang from long wooden poles, and as we pass through archways, known as kanis, a gallery of Buddhas fades in the shadows of time. The faith lingers on...‘Om mani padme hum’.

Here in the Himalayan rain shadow the Buddha’s timeless prayer is like an electrical charge – unseen, unheard, but felt in every stirring breeze.

Our journey adopts a deeper meaning. It’s more than a walk through an ever-changing landscape – a pilgrimage, perhaps? There’s a cultural intensity as we slip into a very different world that works on our emotions. Alan senses the change too. Having known each other for so long, we have no need to articulate what we feel about the places we explore. Often we’ll wander at our own pace with thoughts undisturbed. Only later will a word or phrase be spoken that conjures a moment in time or a place spirited from memory...

In the rain shadow of the Himalaya, the Jhong Khola valley is like a high-altitude desert

It’s cold in our Pisang lodge when evening falls, but the table where we sit eating daal bhaat is located over a shallow pit in which a brazier of hot coals warms us while we eat. Mahdri squats beside the cooking fire with the didi, his hands held in the smoke, fingers splayed, but a Danish couple in their early 30s who share our table complain about the cold. In a thick Icelandic sweater the woman looks mournful and gives an involuntary shudder. ‘Boy,’ she says in near-perfect English. ‘If this is autumn, how bad is it in winter?’

‘Why don’t you put some more clothes on?’ I ask.

‘I’m wearing everything I have.’

‘Really? No down jacket?’

She shakes her head. ‘We did not know it would be cold like this. We have never been to 3000 metres before.’

I wonder then how far they intend to go, but the boyfriend answers my unspoken question. ‘We want to cross the Thorong La,’ he says. ‘Will it be cold like this?’

Almost 2000 metres higher than Pisang, the Thorong La is the pass which leads to the Kali Gandaki. ‘No,’ I say. ‘It’ll be much, much colder than this.’...

With Annapurna South as a backdrop, weary trekkers capture the magic of the Sanctuary
Overlooking the timeless village of Jharkot after crossing the Thorong La

Braga is the next village down the trail from Manang. Built in tiers against steep outcrops in a shallow amphitheatre of crags, in the snow it looks like a multi-layered wedding cake in danger of collapse. When we’d passed below it a couple of days ago it had attracted our attention, desert brown against rust-coloured rocks, but we’d been unwilling to stop then as the afternoon was fading and Manang beckoned. Now, with time to explore, we shuffle our way through neglected drifts up to the gompa at the top of the village. The caretaker appears, rattling a bunch of ancient keys, and lets us in.

Innocent of Buddhist culture, I can only feel a reverence I do not understand in this dusty place of nine hundred Himalayan winters, lit as it is by butter lamps with a faltering orange glow. My wandering eyes drift across racks of rectangular manuscripts – scriptures borne down the ages by followers of the Buddha, whose words took shape hundreds of years before Christ began his own ministry. I’m aware of how little I know.

More than a hundred terracotta statues appear as my eyes grow accustomed to the moody light; there are coloured banners hanging from the ceiling, a gong, a drum and smaller instruments used in times of prayer. A large bronze Buddha watches every movement until the caretaker directs us to an upper building where yet more Buddhas gather dust, and in an ante-room we find a collection of archaic knives, swords and rusted muskets, then return to the lower room where silk scarves are placed around our necks with a blessing.

We’ll need that blessing when the snow stops, if we’re to cross the Thorong La..

The dining area of our so-called lodge has no roof. As night falls we sit in what appears to be an inner courtyard with a starry sky in place of a ceiling, ankle-deep in snow – adding new meaning to ‘alfresco’ as we fight a way into plates of daal bhaat. The primus stove which serves as the cooking range is only a couple of paces behind us, and the food is hot and steaming when scooped onto plates, but by the time it reaches our table – seconds only – it’s just luke warm. Luke-warm rice quickly solidifies and is difficult to swallow.

It takes only a couple of hours to reach Thorong Phedi, at the foot of the pass, where soaring cliffs form an amphitheatre round a bed of snow-carpeted meadowland. Alan and I sit with our backs against the lodge and gaze up at the steep slope that leads to the Thorong La. It looks as formidable as the North Face of the Eiger, and a very unhappy Dutch woman confirms that it feels like it. She’d set off for the pass early this morning, but halfway there was affected by the altitude and had to be brought down by her friend. Now she clutches her head in misery and wonders whether she’ll make it tomorrow. I tell her she should descend further, but she and her friend refuse to listen.

Since the Thorong La is the high point of the Annapurna Circuit, tension among our fellow trekkers vibrates like the build-up to an electrical storm. Almost everyone feels the altitude, and none can be certain how they’ll be affected by tomorrow’s climb of almost 1000 metres. Some have grown irritable, others have gone to lie down, while yet more sit in the sunshine and grow fearful of tomorrow...

As soon as the sun dips behind the mountains the temperature drops like a stone. Shadows bring frost, and in moments the scene is transformed as everyone rushes indoors, where orders for hot drinks are shouted across the room. Appetites are diminished by the altitude, yet mine remains as strong as ever, so I tuck into a large plate of boiled potatoes almost explosive with chilli sauce, then retire to bed. It’s only 6 o’clock, but I’m one of the last to go...

At 4.30 we breakfast on porridge and three cups of tea each, fill our bottles, then step out into the pre-dawn grey at 5.15. The thermometer reads minus 16 and my feet soon lose feeling – how do the porters cope, I wonder? Dawn will flood the hills in another 30 minutes or so, but for now the route is picked out by the head-torches of trekkers who’ve beaten us to it. But we’re in no hurry; this is not a race; so Alan and I settle to our own steady rhythm with the porter from Manang kicking in behind. Ahead of us a string of heavily laden men zigzags slowly under loads belonging to a group; we leapfrog a shape losing his breakfast in the snow; and a little later, just before the sky brightens, we pass a couple standing face to face, one sobbing and clutching her head, the other no doubt battling with indecision. I’m thankful just to feel old, and am aware of the privilege of tackling the route on this day of all days.

Night makes way for the briefest transition to a morning of sparkling brilliance. Around us moraine ribs hang on to their snows, while ice gleams and flashes minute diamonds from cliffs that capture the first sunlight.