Sue Lebrecht home

Hiking in the Himalayas

Published in The Globe and Mail Newspaper

I remember sitting on the hotel rooftop wishing I had a tape recorder. Imagine listening to the sounds too many people can make in a saturated valley of small single shops. Combine that with the noise of rush hour traffic and long distance dog communications. Remove all harsh, impatient, angry and upset tones and you have Kathmandu.

I ran around the city for three days getting last minute necessities before beginning my much-anticipated trek through the Himalayan Mountains. I was amazed at the organization of the Nepalese shops amid the chaos of the streets. All trekking equipment supply shops bought, sold and rented at similar prices. The Nepalese unity was impressive; I rarely witnessed a shop owner lower his price to a bargaining tourist for the sake of a sale.

I had decided on the Annapurna route departing from Pokhara and continuing north following the Kali Gandak River. I got to Pokhara on the most thrilling bus ride I’e ever had. I sat with a group of people on the roof, praying the driver would slow down. It was a single-lane road with sharp turns and unprotected sheer edges.

Indian disco music blared from two small speakers hooked up in the back of the bus. It sounded fuzzy and distorted but no one seemed to mind. We stopped often for tea, “glucose cookies” and “nature calls”. It was always at a tea stall operated by one of the driver’s brothers or friends. Not surprisingly, when we arrived in Pokhara after six hours, he parked in front of his father’s hotel.

In the morning, I woke to a scene I’ll never forget: majestic snowcapped peaks dominating a cloudless world. I sat on the hotel rooftop with my camera and snapped an entire roll.

I had toast and eggs for breakfast and enjoyed a final hot shower before starting my trek. I was led along the correct path by youngsters, and many strong young men offered to be my porter and carry my pack. They asked questions which became only too familiar: “Where are you from? Where are you going? How old are you? What is your name? Have you medicine?” And from the children: “Give me pen. Give me rupee.”

Soon I faced an initial long uphill. Fortunately, stone steps placed for short legs ran the entire way to the top and allowed for sporadic rest stops. It was a grueling hill that took three hours and all my reserve energy.

I stopped at the first hotel sign and met friendly non-English-speaking Nepalese family. We exchanged smiles and they showed me a couple of straw bunks in their attic. I don’t know why Nepalese homes don’t have chimneys; the small attic was thick with smoke. Finding relief with my head stuck out of the single window, I noticed the Big Dipper was upside down.

The morning after: unavoidable muscle awareness. Most of the pain dissipated during my morning descent, which passed rich terraced farm fields and small waterfalls.

I was astounded at the endurance and strength of the Nepalese. They hurried by carrying tremendous loads, some men bearing as much as 100 kilograms.

Generally wheat, barley, rice and lentils are brought down from the mountains into Kathmandu or Pokhara. These are bartered forpop, beer, biscuits and bricks, which are brought back to the villages. Men transport goods on their back in large straw baskets. They don’t use supporting shoulder straps, only a single leather band which presses against their forehead.

Imagine carrying a 20-kg backpack; sweat is dripping off your sunburned face, your clothes are drenched, the sun is beating down, your body is aching – knees, shoulders, calves and back. Your breathing is heavy and each step brings you a little higher. Finally, you reach the top of the largest hill you’ve ever climbed and you stand absorbed by the outstanding view. Impressive peaks, a deep colorful gorge and massive soaring birds. You pull out your camera and shoot some frames. And then continue down, slowly, one step at a time. You meet other travelers, you stop at teahouses; four hours and six teas later you’re standing in the lush green valley bottom. Enjoying a natural high, you cross the rope-bridge, enter an outdoor cafe and order an ice-cold beer.

Conversations with fellow trekkers revolve around three main topics: places to see, places to stay and bowel movements. The latter subject is discussed quite naturally since the majority of travelers experience bouts of diarrhea.

Tatopani had a good reputation. It was a small village situated in a valley at 1,000 metres. When I arrived there on the sixth day of my trek, I indulged – freshly squeezed orange juice, apple pancakes smothered with apricot jam, and soothing soaks in the hot springs. I relished the luxury for three days.

Huge oranges hung abundantly on the trees in the valley. I picked one to sample and was shocked to find it extremely bitter. I soon discovered that the Nepalese eat only the thick white which lies just underneath the outer skin. The sweet oranges area much smaller and grow on different trees.

After Tatopani the terrain completely changed. Within two days I was at 3,000 metres walking on dry barren land, wearing my winter jacket. Thorn bushes and large misplaced rocks decorated the colorless landscape. I went through a ghost town and past isolate stone houses. Vultures along the way were tearing at a carcass.
The following day I was walking along the dry Kali Gandak River bottom. For six hours I leaned into a ferocious wind. Frequently it would dwindle and then resume with such force that I would be thrown off balance. A couple of streams remained in the rive bed and logs had been thrown over them where the path crossed. The wind made walking on the logs extremely difficult; one couple I met told me they cross on hands and knees.

We met on February 20, on the 10th day of my trek, in Jomson. I fell in love with him. I named him Frodo. He was an extremely cute, short, fluffy dog. His only known history was that he had traveled with four French girls to Tatopani, and then with two Australians to Jomsom. I had decided to attempt the Throng La Pass at 5,000 metres, in order to go back south on the other side of the Annapurna mountain range. When I left, Frodo followed.

Huge wind-carved sandstone pillars bordered our way to Kagbeni, one of two old Tibetan villages near the pass. It was almost deserted, since most Nepalese migrate at this cold time of year to their second home farther south where they tend their crops.

In the village, among a network of stone houses, I came across a house owned by three Nepalese sisters. They took me in and gave me dinner of the usual rice and lentils. Afterward, we sat around a cow dung fire and sang. They taught me one of their native songs and I taught them Frere Jacques and Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

Frodo’s spunky companionship was delightful. He proved himself affectionate and well behaved. It wasn’t long before we become very protective of me and my belongings.

Muktinath, at almost 4,000 metres, was the last village before the pass. It’s considered to be a very holy place. The main temple has been built over a stream around a particular rock. From the top of the rock comes a flame. Interesting to see a natural resource worshipped rather than extracted.

I stayed in Muktinath for three days to adjust to the higher altitude. Acclimatization is extremely important in order to avoid altitude sickness which can cause headaches, nausea, incoherence, and death.

I hired a porter to guide me and carry my pack to the top of the pass. The stars were still out at 5 a.m. when we set out. I thought I’d never make it. Close to the top, I couldn’t walk more than 10 steps before I was forced to stop and breathe for a couple of minutes. It was a long seven hours before we reached the summit. At one point, I heard a loud rumble; I turned just in time to witness a fantastic avalanche that uncovered a vertical cliff of sheer ice.

At the top of the pass, Frodo cut his paw badly. I was too fond of him to simply leave him, so I put him on top of my pack and carried him to the first rest house for hours away.

We had many encounters with other dogs in the next few days during which I had to protect Frodo with stones and my walking stick. I became aware that I was nearing the end of my trek and that I’d soon have to desert him.

The path south ran beside the Marsyandi Khola River and provided a well-deserved gradual decent. With the lower altitude came warmer temperatures. The mountainous view seemed even more spectacular on this side and there were many beautiful stretches through soft long-needled pine trees.

Walking had become ver comfortable. I felt extremely healthy and fit. I had lost some weight and was convinced that trekking in the Himalayan Mountains offered a great, eat-all-you-want, scenic diet.

Upper Pisang will always mean something speail to me. Down the hill from the village I was met by a wide-eyed Nepalese girl. She indicated eating and sleeping with here hands and motioned me to follow. She led me to her stone house. Inside, I met her mother and grandmother who were spinning yak wool. There was also a French girl there, with whom I was to share the hayloft. The ladder leading to the hayloft was a log with notches for steps. I dropped off my pack and ventured out to explore the village. Frodo had difficulty come down the ladder; I could hear him whining as I left the house. When I returned, the French girl approached me. She said, “Your dog, he run outside, he stop, a man, he stop, they look, and dog he run and jump jump jump and man he cry, he say ‘My dog! My dog!’ and dog he cry and man he go and dog he go too, and they very happy.”

I never saw Frodo again, and I never met the man, but I was so touched I sat and cried.

The trek ended at Dumre, on a washed-out road where I hitched a bumpy ride in a jeep. It broke down seven times on the way to Kathmandu. Fortunately the jeep came equipped with two mechanics.

I was dark when I arrived in Kathmandu. My friendly hotel manager warmly welcomed me. “Namaste,” he said; translated: “I greet the God in you.”