17 June 2008

Nepal: towards Annapurna (Part II)

Cloud forest near Doban

If the Himalaya hotel is, in a sense, abandoned, it will be only for a matter of hours. On the way down we meet several trekkers coming up the the trail. One asks whether we've been to ABC. No, I tell him, bad weather, too much snow, too dangerous because of the avalanches.
“F**k!” he says. A New Zealand accent [1].
We chat briefly, then Kamal and I continue hurrying on down, passing all the trekkers we recognise—the Korean woman with the great, cheerful sense of humour; the young Korean couple; the woman from the US and her guide; the two young Japanese men from Kyoto—and others who must have stayed elsewhere at Himalaya or lower down in Doban or Bamboo. At Sinuwa where we stop for lunch, a French woman and man arrive. I remember meeting them somewhere but can't recall where, and although I don't know it now, I'll meet them again later in Pokhara. They, too, stop for lunch. They're on their way up to Himalaya; they're good company, as is the little boy who lives here. He's about two years old, I'd guess. I'd photographed him the previous day as he practised breaking rocks with a hammer, but today, with the rain falling outside, he collects the squabs from the bench seating, piles them in one corner, climbs on top, and takes great delight in deliberately falling off. If he grows up to be a mountain guide, I don't think I'll hire him.

The rain, which has become heavy and persistent after we left Bamboo, eases as we finish lunch, and we Rufous sibia at Chhomronghaven't been gone long before I can fold my umbrella. It's worked far more effectively than a parka, but even so, because we're moving fast and the sun comes out for the last section, I arrive at Chhomrong substantially damp from sweat.

In the evening I chat with Zack, a thoughtful, quietly spoken young man from the US Virgin Islands. He and his guide plan to go to Doban the next day and eventually on to ABC. The prospects for getting even as far as Macchapuchare Base Camp appear slight, but Zack's philosophical. As far as possible, he says, he'll be trying to enjoy whatever happens. Just focusing on where he is; appreciating the present. We sit outside while the weather tries to decide what it'll do, and we talk about many things, finding we share similar attitudes to almost everything we discuss, from photography to Buddhism, and tourism to the weirdness of subatomic physics. Conversations like this, and meeting people like Zack, I think, are among the delights of travelling.

Wednesday 14 March 2007
Today will take us from Chhomrong to Tadapani [2]. I've slept, warm and undisturbed, although I woke often. But the waking merely gave me the opportunity to enjoy the knowledge I was warm and undisturbed, and I knew the walk from Chhomrong to Tadapani wouldn't be a big day, so we didn't need an early start. Even the sound of rain on the roof hadn't worried me.

At breakfast the woman from the US joins Zack and me in the dining room. She seems more communicative than she'd been here and at Himalaya. I ask where she's been on her trek.
“Jonsom,” she says.
I ask if she'd flown there to start the trek.
“Oh yeah,” she says. Apparently it's one of the most amazing things she's ever done. “We flew really close to the mountains. My dad's a pilot and he'd have loved it.”
She and her Brahmin guide are walking out today, returning to Pokhara. Zack and his guide are leaving for Doban; Kamal and I heading for Tadapani. The only other trekkers at the guest house are a Korean couple, but I don't know where, or even in which direction, they're going. I say goodbye to Zack and we set off soon after.

“Pani”, in “Tadapani” means water. It's the same word in India.

Here in the dining hall at Tadapani it's warm and noisy, with the largest contingent of trekkers I've encountered in one place so far. Kamal and I have arrived early in the afternoon before the crowds; after showering I settle down in the dining hall to write. A man from Holland reads a book in English about Putin's Russia. Four other trekkers settle in at the other Ridge to Annapurna Southend of the table, three from Britain, the other apparently of mixed European/American origin. He and one of the Englishmen are experienced travellers. The Englishman tries to bargain with the woman manager over the price of a pot of tea, and then points out with some amusement that the menu clearly states, “Please do not bargain.”

Late in the afternoon rain arrives, then a brief shower of hail. The cloud begins to break. Annapurna South gleams, glimpsed through gaps; then it comes more into view behind ragged wisps of cloud. The mountain shines, immense in the evening light, draped with its khata [3] of cloud, framed above by a patchy blue sky and fluttering prayer flags, below by rhododendron forest, a rusted corrugated iron roof, and a faintly smoking chimney. I stay outside in the cold, photographing, changing lenses, watching the changing light, seeing Macchapuchare finally come into view. A long way downriver, over the lower country, brilliant white thundercloud rises in a black sky. Evening develops, and the sky and clouds in the distance begin to take on colour, a faint tinge of orange washing the big mountains around the Sanctuary. As the last sunlight slips up and away, leaving Tadapani in fading light and encroaching cold, I return to the dining hall to try to warm up.

I talk with the young Dutch guy who's been reading the book about Putin. Several other conversations occupy the table—at the far end, a middle aged, long haired man from Holland chats with the older couple from Kenya; a British couple at my end of the table talk with each other, and the experienced travellers talk with their friends and advise another young Englishman about his travels.
“You've got to go to Laos,” one experienced traveller says, and begins listing other places the young man has to go.
The other Englishman wants to know how big the pizzas are. The woman taking his order thinks for a moment.
“Enough for one person,” she says.

After my dahl baht I order a cup of hot chocolate, then return to my room. I sleep comfortably but fitfully, with strange dreams, and wake to a clear sky.

Thursday 15 March 2007
We arrive at Ghorapani soon after 11 a.m., having left Tadapani at 7:30. The plan had been to stop for lunch along the way, but we've made good time. Evening over the Kali Gandaki valleyIt's comfortable here; the room's warm, with big windows looking out over the valley. Earlier I could look down to the Kali Gandaki Valley, the gradually fading slopes leading eventually to Dhaulagiri; on in the direction of Jonsom, and Mustang. Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom. Now, a heavy snow shower begins to ease and the slopes on the far side of the valley reappear, tentatively, as if shy. Here and there, a patch of weak sunlight. A wonderful sense of height and distance, yet here the mountainsides are less steep than some parts of the Ruahine Range—higher, of course, but no more fierce and perhaps less wild. Certainly less remote, because I'm in what amounts to a small town—there's even a police checkpost, as I discovered when I wandered around earlier and came upon the sign and a group of men in their grey and slate-blue camouflage-patterned uniforms.

Three crows glide across an ominous sky, tilting and soaring, banking to turn down towards the rhododendron forest. A fourth crow sweeps in to join them. The dark birds seem like products of the weather, the sky, the immense landscape, rather than separate beings.

The gleam of battered, wet, corrugated iron; the texture of ancient, weathered wood; a pile of angular, broken rocks which might be the remains of a shed or its potential. Everyone seems to hope for clear weather.
“In the morning, maybe it will be clear.”
I try to explain that this weather's great for photographs but they just nod and say nothing. To attempt to explain how a glimpse of a mountain beyond wild cloud might reveal the mountain better than an unimpeded view under a clear sky would be even more futile.
“In the morning, maybe it will be clear, and we will see the mountains.”

But I see them now.

The stove in the middle of the massive dining room throws out enough heat to keep me comfortable even though I'm sitting right next to the window. Kamal understands the implications.
“Ghorapani has many guest houses,” he says. “They have these,” he says, gesturing at the stove. “They use a lot of wood.”
At Tadapani the heating in the dining hall comprised pans of glowing coals placed under the big table, with blankets suspended from the edges of the table. Effective, and far more efficient than here, but still contributing to deforestation. At Chhomrong and Himalaya, the same under-the-table system used a kerosene cooker.

Snow begins to fall again, gradually getting heavier. A crow sits in the naked branches of a small tree about 10 metres away, then drops like a springboard diver. Two white fowls climb a line of stone steps, the snow falling on hens, stone, a blue tarpaulin.

So much depends upon
a blue tarpaulin glazed with snow
beside the white chickens

Friday 16 March 2007
Up at 5 a.m., we're on the way to Poon Hill about a quarter of an hour later. Kamal and I walk steadily, passing almost everyone as we ascend, to arrive as the sky begins to colour in the East. A steady stream of people arrives; scraps of cloud around Macchapuchare turn orange. The cloud over Dhaulagiri turns salmon-pink, then the summit of that great mountain turns the same orange-pink and everything—the early Beasts of burden, Ghorapanirise, the knifing, bitterly cold wind, the lack of solitude as people everywhere mill around photographing each other and the sunrise and the mountains—becomes worthwhile. My fingers, exposed by my old, tattered, well-worn, fingerless gloves, begin to turn numb; my face pinches with cold; my nose starts to drip. When the dawn colour fades into the flat light of morning I call it quits and we descend for breakfast.

Then the long walk from Ghorapani to Naya Pul; about 6 hours, give or take half an hour, and including generous stops for lunch and tea. The middle section comprises a long descent, down stone steps that seem never-ending, and I feel a hot spot developing on my left big toe. I've been lucky with the boots, but when we stop for lunch I change back into the running shoes I wore for the first 3 days, apologising to Kamal as I do so, because the boots will weigh his pack down. He grins and seems not to mind. I guess it's a light pack anyway—I've carried all my camera equipment and a few odds and ends, so even with his astonishingly light and small bag added, his load's hardly heavier than my own.

On the descent, a lammergeier soars past, low and close, the best view I've had of these gorgeous birds, huge and powerful. I point it out to Kamal.

“It is looking for chicken,” he says.

Two strong young German men stride past as I'm enjoying lunch, and soon after, a tall, dark haired young woman walks past. I say hello; she replies, then asks if I've seen 2 men go past.
“German guys?”
“Yes!” she says, and sets off after them.
I meet her again at Naya Pul, with the slower of the 2 men. All 3, with 2 guides/porters have just completed the Annapurna Circuit. I'd met the men at Ghorapani yesterday afternoon and laughed with them as they told me how they were running out of money.
“We've spent 40,000 rupees on beer!” one of them said gleefully.
No wonder they were running out of money. They'd claimed to have been still hungover from the previous night, but their wonderful enthusiasm and cheerfulness impressed me nevertheless.

At Naya Pul I negotiate a taxi down to 700 rupees for the 40 km trip back to Pokhara—a much better deal than the 500 I'd paid to get us to Phedi. Our journey among mountains draws to a close; I realise how, the closer we'd got to Naya Pul the more reserved the local people had seemed—slower to smile, more reticent, less willing to let me catch an eye. Commercialism more overt; more stalls lining the path. Perhaps I've been expecting this. At Ghorapani yesterday evening I'd felt strangely low. Quiet, reserved, lacking the energy to be sociable, although Chooks at GhorapaniI'd sat around the woodstove with the other trekkers and guides. The feeling wasn't bad, just enough to be noticeable. I remembered Matthiessen's depression towards the end of his journey. He'd attributed it, possibly, to the descent to lower altitudes, but perhaps for him, and for me also, the primary cause might have been the realisation that time among mountains was coming to an end. For me, Ghorapani, although ostensibly still a mountain environment, was like a return to so-called civilisation, with shops and street vendors trying to sell woven belts and hats and necklaces and miniature prayer wheels and other tourist paraphernalia. You could even phone home from Ghorapani. Yet, if I'd bought up large, if I'd spent freely on material things I didn't want, perhaps I'd have been a far better tourist; I'd have contributed more to the economy. This is one of the paradoxes of travelling in places like this—those for whom the larger environment means most—and “stuff” means least—are those who are least suited to supporting those who live there. When it comes to supporting local lives, stuff and the buying of it is more important than empathy for the place and its people.


Strange dreams. I'm entrusted with 2 gorgeous kittens; in another I'm hugged hard by a small woman I seem to have known but can't recognise. There's joy in these dreams. But in another, I'm responsible for a shed full of fowls and I've neglected them; they're dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. A vivid image of one bird breathing heavily and laboriously through a grotesquely swollen face; a bird struggling to live just a little longer. Birds dying—yet in the midst of this suffering, for which I alone am completely responsible, eggs are hatching, chicks are born into this world where there is nothing to eat, no water to drink, and where they will soon die among the squalid straw and dung and diseased corpses of other fowls. The cruelty of my neglect appalls and horrifies me.

I realise I've had this dream before, several times. What does it mean?

What, or who, am I neglecting?


Annapurna South from Tadapani

1. I met him twice later—in Kathmandu, and at Kathmandu airport on the return to Delhi.
2. Tadapani is pronounced “Tarapani”.
3. Khata are ceremonial scarves.
4. Inspired by William Carlos Williams' famous Red Wheelbarrow.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Forest in rain, near Doban on the return from Himalaya to Chhomrong.
2. Rufous sibia, Heterophasia capistrata, on rhododendron at Chhomrong. The white flecks on its head are pollen.
3. Ridge to Annapurna South, from Tadapani.
4. Evening over the valley of the Kali Gandaki, looking in the direction of Jonsom and Mustang.
5. Pack ponies, Ghorapani.
6. Chooks at Ghorapani. This breaks almost every rule of composition but I still like it.
7. Annapurna South in clearing weather.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor

07 June 2008

Nepal: towards Annapurna

I suppose I should continue writing up my notes from my overseas travel in 2006–7. So, here, in much abbreviated form, are sketches from my time in Nepal.Chook at Tolka

Thursday 8 March 2007
At Kanti Path bus stand the hawker tries hard to sell me things I've already bought from someone else. He drops his price for a Snickers bar to 80 Nepalese rupees.
“You have 100?” he asks. “I give you change.”
Of course, he doesn't have 20 rupees.
“Okay,” I say, “I give you back the Snickers and you give me back my 100 rupees.”
Immediately, he discovers a 20 rupee note folded and slipped in among the larger denominations.
“Oh, look! I find 20.”
The bus journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes about 7 hours. I look out the window, at a dark brown face in a dark doorway; thePhewa Lake, Pokhara brilliant white of even, gleaming teeth, almost disembodied. A woman nurses her child in the morning sun; another raises her arms to drape a shawl across her shoulders. Moments transformed into memories. Like all moments—gone the instant they happen, but existing eternally. For us, they're gone until we remember them.
A ute drives past the other way, “UN” in large letters on the bonnet, “Human Rights” on the side. Buses overtake us, Maoist flags thrashing in the slipstreams. Vermillion, with a simple white hammer-and-sickle—the tools so common here; women wielding sickles and carrying giant loads of cut foliage; men breaking rock or cutting iron rod with sledgehammer and steel cutter. At Pokhara a huge collection of buses crowds the stand, the vermillion-and-white flags everywhere; some distance away, around a corner and out of view, a squad of police sits, waiting. Flak jackets, batons, riot shields emblazoned with “Armed Police”. Grim faces.
The Dutch woman with dark hair and sea-green eyes looks at me.
“I think you are a lucky man to live in New Zealand,” she says.

Friday 9 March 2007
Perhaps memory is an act of recreation—re-creation. If something, someone, some event, has been forgotten by everyone and everything, can it be said it still exists? The thought strikes me as strongly resembling Berkeley's philosophy, which says nothing exists unless perceived; perhaps also, because we seldom if ever know Kamal & friend at Tolkawhat we're about to remember, it might be one interpretation of the Russian saying, “The past is unpredictable.”
I go walking at 6:30 in the morning and see the legendary peaks for the first time. Annapurna; Macchapuchare, still tinged with pink, rising from the morning haze, behind the town, behind the power lines, the rooftops, the signs advertising pizza and trekking equipment and adventures. Down at the boats, rafts of ducks float on faintly wrinkled water beyond the coloured craft. A reflected fragment of Annapurna near the shore. Already the North end of the lake has begun to fade, the haze conferring an exaggerated sense of distance. By the time I return to the hotel, Macchapuchare has almost disappeared and turbulent cloud has begun to form.

Saturday 10 March 2007
At Tolka the day darkens; clouds turn from white to grey to the colour of portent. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Finally the first drops arrive, heavy and deliberate, and everything scurries for cover—the fowls, the women clutching laundry, the trekkers. Now the rain's steady on the iron roof and for the first time in ages I'm cold. Well, I was, and my fingers are still numb as I write, but I'm warming up now the fire's going in the dining hall. We walked for roughly five and a half to six hours, stopping some time Rain arriving; Tolkabetween 2:30 and 3:00 p.m. The shower was just warm enough to splash over important areas, and I relaxed afterwards with a cup of milky tea. Soon after, the rain arrived.
I speak with the big, young Japanese guy returning after having reached Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). I ask him where he's from.
“Sapporo,” he says.
I remember Ino's Place and those few days in Sapporo; the time at Abashiri; the evening at Sawa after which I'd walked back to my hotel utterly unable to think of anything that could have added to the joy I felt, everything perfect, even the enormous distance between me and my friends and family in Aotearoa something to be relished because it conferred the delight of expectation, of eventual reunion. Now, here, high in the Himalaya, this Japanese man from Sapporo with his marvellous sense of humour and almost no English links me to those places where I might never return but hope I will. He looks as if he could be a son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and his journal's a work of art—a beautifully hand-drawn map of the Sanctuary Trail, in several colours, the lettering clear and exact. We talk, stumbling over our lack of shared language, communicating mostly by intonation and place names and laughter. Later in the evening, after the rain had arrived and the deep cold had enveloped everything but the room where we gathered around the stove, he nods off to sleep in a chair, his feet propped on the lukewarm fireplace. But someone stokes it. I smell burning rubber and we Toilet block at the Himalaya Hotelwake him—he checks the soles of his shoes and yelps when he touches the hot spot. Then he laughs with us.
A delightful little dog, small and healthy followed us for some distance along the last section of trail. Now it sleeps curled up on the lap of a young Scottish woman, each warming the other.

Sunday 11 March 2007
Breakfast comprises excellent porridge with milk, Tibetan bread with honey, a cup of tea, and marvellous views of the Annapurna massif and Hiunchuli. Clear sky, clouds moving fast over the summits. We leave at 8 o'clock. The walking begins easily, mostly a gentle downhill which eventually takes us to the river, a river strongly reminiscent of New Zealand—in fact, the whole environment resembles parts of New Zealand except in three respects: the vegetation, which here is more sparse and lacks the southern beech I'd associate with this kind of landscape; the terraced hillsides; and, of course, the settlements. In New Zealand, no one lives in this kind of country; while many of us feel at home there high on huge mountainsides, in wild country far from roads, no one makes of those places a permanent home; no one is born there, no one grows up, lives, and raises a family there, and one dies there as a visitor, not as a resident.
Soon after starting out, we stop for tea. A pint of it in a big glass handle; the best tea I've had for a very long time. Kamal seems very much at ease with the woman, as if he knows her well. I suppose the guides get to know all the locals along the trail, and Kamal seems always to be well received wherever we stop. Is it just a matter of bringing customers? Certainly that would be part of it, but not all — he seems to be welcomed because of who he is, and the more I get to know him, the more I understand how this is entirely to be expected. Something about his quiet, almost slightly shy manner seems to encourage those he meets to relax and enjoy his company. Perhaps people like this allow you to be yourself At the Himalaya Hotelbecause their gentle manner presents no threat, particularly to the ego; free from the lurking fear of being somehow considered of inferior status, competitiveness simply vanishes and is replaced by simple enjoyment of your friend's company.

Monday 12 March 2007
Two things surprise me about this region—the number of people who look more Indian than Nepali, and the apparent dominance of Hinduism over Buddhism. Other than the faded, fluttering prayer flags, I've seen no obvious signs of Buddhist influence. The British women at the guesthouse in Chomrong had also noticed it, and the thin young British man points out how different this is from the Everest Base Camp trek, where stupas and Buddhist monasteries abound. The women are from Bristol; the young man has, or is doing, a degree in marine biology and flies remote-controlled sailplanes for fun. Buzzards often check out his planes, he says, and sometimes crows attack them.
Andy and Rachel from Australia, the other guests at our hotel, have reunited after Rachel had been forced to descend from higher along the trail because she'd suffered Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Andy had carried on to ABC. They've visited Nepal several times, but this is proving to be the trip from hell. Apart from Rachel's AMS, they've been dogged by misadventure: Andy's well-worn boots have blistered his heels, they've miscalculated the amount of money needed for the trek Himalaya Hoteland must watch their expenditure carefully; things like that. Still, they seem able to joke about it, able to shrug and, if not enjoy it, at least accept that sometimes things don't go the way you wish.
We leave at 7:30 and make good time, stopping for lunch at Bamboo—an omelette on gurung (Tibetan bread); a big cup of hot lemon and another of milk tea. As we leave, I stroke the affectionate cat and it leans against my hand; I scratch its chin and it rolls its head around in ecstasy.
Beyond Bamboo the rain begins. Kamal quickens his pace and we reach the Himalaya Hotel at 1:45, as a large contingent of trekkers from ABC set off downhill. Soon after, heavy snow begins to fall.

Tuesday 13 March 2007
Lightning—a flash of brilliance through closed eyes in the middle of the night; seconds later the huge roar of thunder reverberating from immense mountainsides. It continues for much of the night, and once I hear rain on the roof. When I step outside in the morning I see snow falling—big, wet, heavy flakes—and a Himalayan forestlayer a couple of inches thick over everything. Annapurna Base Camp is out of the question, and, like all the other trekkers, we decide to head back down the valley.
One of the guides comes in to the dining room.
“Avalanche,” he says, nodding in the direction of the downhill trail.
I follow him and stand with several other guides, trying to locate the sound. Finally the guide who'd alerted us points at the nearby mountainside and I see a river of snow pouring steadily over a bluff and down towards the trail—the trail we'll have to cross on our way down. Still, I think, I'd rather it avalanched now than while we were crossing.
Kamal and I leave last, mostly because I've been busy photographing rather than packing. Monochrome patterns of bare foliage; a crow sitting hunched in a tree; backdrops of mountainsides, rock and snow, disappearing into cloud. A line of footprints in snow.
The staff at the Himalaya Hotel remain, of course, but as we, the last of the visitors, leave, I'm struck by an air of strangeness; as if nothing exists beyond the small area around the hotel, beyond the enveloping snow, the drifting mist. An air of abandonment, of emptiness; all that remains are the mountains and the snow. And, perhaps the staff who remain are, in one sense, mountains and snow.

Looking towards the entrance to the Annapurna Sanctuary

... to be continued...
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Chook at Tolka.
2. Boats at Phewa Tal (lake), Pokhara.
3. Kamal, my guide/porter (seated), and one of the other guides at Tolka.
4. Rain arriving; Tolka.
5. The toilet block at the Himalaya.
6. Kamal, the Korean woman with a wicked sense of humour, and another guide lark about in the snow just before we headed back down the valley.
7. Morning at the Himalaya Hotel.
8. The way into the Annapurna Sanctuary. Not a safe route in this kind of weather.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor