Trekking in the Shadow of Annapurna (2): Tuesday (Day 2) and Wednesday (Day 3):
The trekking started in all earnest on Tuesday. Monday was a mere warm-up, just a little, deceptive flavour of things to expect. I had been warned by Bish, an almost-40 Nepali who had been drowning his sorrows at the table next to mine on Sunday evening: ‘There are a lot of steps on the way to Goripani and Poon Hill,’ he elaborated, ‘I was there only last week…’ ‘ Do you need a guide?’ he wanted to know. Everyone in Pokhara, the gateway to the Annapurna mountain range, is a guide cum porter and keen to take the weight of your shoulders whilst chaperoning you along the many trekking routes criss-crossing the surrounding mountains. Even the vendor whose sleeping bag I bought was only too happy to shut up shop and lead the way. But many Nepali people depend on tourism for their income and it has not been a good year, what with the earthquake followed by the monsoon and many, many tourists cancelling their trips for October and November, the main trekking season. The future looks bleak and at the moment there is probably more money to be made by playing guide than selling trekking gear.
So I was mentally prepared for the steps on Tuesday and spent about five hours navigating roughly hewn stairs to heaven, accompanied by the whispers of the wind, the kiss of the sun, the rush of the water forging a path down the mountain side and the clanking bells of the mules carrying provisions up and down the slopes. We crossed tumultuous rivers over mostly sturdy suspension bridges; and to reach the other side of gentler waters, we balanced gingerly (at least I do…) on slippery rocks or waded through the water. and all the while, we were on the look-out for unwelcome passengers as leeches were on the prowl in the damper, shady areas on the walk.
But as we were steadily climbing towards Goripani, my Table Mountain experiences came to mind: the endless massive steps up, followed by the dread of realisation that as the cable cars were not running, we had to get back down. Just the mere thought of what was lying in wait, seized up our leg muscles… So I asked my guide, ‘Are there this many steps on the way down??’ His answer remained vague, ‘Tomorrow, the trek will be undulating.’ ‘So, many ups and downs? And will there be steps down or will it be a gentle path?’ Somehow, I did not want to hear his reply; sometimes it is best not to know too much of what lies ahead… We made it to Goripani before the heavens opened. ‘This is good,’ my guide reassured me. ‘Heavy rain in the afternoon spells clear skies in the morning, exactly what we need to watch the sunrise on Poon Hill.’
We had an early start, 5.00am, on what promised to be the longest and most arduous day of my trek as we climbed to the top of Poon Hill before breakfast and before the day’s real long walk. Only another ‘few’ steps up, but as the higher altitude took its toll, the way up was more of a struggle than I had anticipated. But we were rewarded with the most breathtaking view as the clouds leisurely lifted to reveal the snow capped peaks of some of the highest mountains on earth. A dense layer of stubborn mist drew a mysterious veil over the valley below as the sun unhurriedly lit up each mountain in turn, adorning them with glistening gold and sparkling diamonds. No photographs can ever do justice to this.
After breakfast we set off, on the long seven hour slog to Ghandruk, our next port of call. And indeed, there was no respite from the steps as we followed the rise and fall of the path, meandering through ancient forests where gnarly roots embraced in lovers’ knots and the shade of the trees offered an escape from the merciless sun. And all the while we were treated to glimpses of the snowcapped mountains in the distance. Towards the end I forgot to be charmed by the beauty of the surroundings as my knees kicked up a mutiny and my calf muscles ached with every step. We hastened as the day moved on to be ahead of the inevitable rainclouds which had been steadily building in the afternoon. And we almost made it but were caught in the last dregs of the dying Monsoon which pelted us mercilessly in the final moments of today’s exhausting trek. In the space of just five minutes, I was soaked to the bone, and the Nepali rain was cold, England cold!
Luckily, when we arrived I had the luxury of my own bathroom in the tea house, with bath, which clearly stated NO USE, so the shower it had to be! ‘Maybe there will be hot water, or maybe not,’ my guide explained, ‘depends upon whether the solar powered heater has had enough sun today…’ I groaned! I did not need a cold shower; I had just had one. Yesterday, in Goripani, I had been fortunate enough to be the only guest in the tea house to have a warm ‘shower’. I liked setting off early, whilst the sun was still in snoozing mode and had not yet reached its full peak of heat, so we tended to beat the other trekkers to our destination. So it was that yesterday, Tuesday, I hit the jackpot and instead of the promised hot shower, which evaporated with the longest power cut ever, the guesthouse owner offered to heat up water and I could wash the familiar Indian way, with bucket and measuring jug. But there was no hardship in that, I am used to it although the room temperature in my Kerala home is several degrees warmer than my Nepali bathroom. And the Trekkers who arrived later? They missed out on any kind of hot water altogether… As they say, the early bird catches the hot shower!
But after my very long day and very tiring walk to Ghandruk, the Gods were looking down on me favourably and I was blessed with a soothingly warm and refreshing shower. I could rest my sore limbs and feet and watch the rain obscure what would have been a most spectacular view of the Annapurna mountain range. I curled up in my sleeping bag with a book and my iPad and the world was rosy… A just reward after a hard day’s work.