From Pokhara to the Annapurna Circuit
The morning we left Pokhara, the six of us took two cabs to the bus station from the Lakeside area. Our friend and guide, Santosh, met us at the bus station where we loaded our bags on the roof of a small bus and ate some street peddled pastries for breakfast. We all had a good laugh at the size of Santosh’s pack. He carried a pack the size of most university student’s school pack. Suddenly we were all too aware of the excess of stuff we carried in our large packs.
The bus was gray with purple accents. The word “Sports” was printed on the bumper with a large “Adidas” sticker centered on the rear window. Every seat on the bus was filled with mostly white tourists all on the same mission to the start of the Annapurna Circuit. Two french girls sat two rows behind us across the aisle. One of them red headed with shoulder length wavy hair and the other was blonde with a pony tail of dreadlocks. The blond girl seemed confident and unwaivered by the coming trek but the redhead was nervous and interrupted our conversation to ask if they could trek with our group.
The bus pulled out of the bus station with a rip on the horn “doodlee doo doodle doo doodlee doo!” A short, wild mile through Pokhara and we stopped again. A long market of corrugated roofs and tree trunk supported shacks was packed already. Buyers were sellers and sellers were buyers while people wandered around with chickens, fruits, large sacks of rice, goats, dried fish and even textiles in their arms or in baskets held firmly to their back by a rope draped around the top of their forehead. A crowd of people started to load the bus. The aisles filled swiftly and legs shot by the windows while people climbed onto the roof. The bus sat stationary for what seemed like hours in the stifling heat and cramped quarters in the bus. My right shoulder pressed firm against the bus window, my left stickily sat on Kouver’s shoulder. When I was leaning forward, he was leaning backward, in an attempt to keep from leaning on each other.
With the rooftop full of people and the aisles crammed like a down sleeping bag in a compression sack, we finally started making our way out of the city. People beat on the rooftop to let the bus driver know it was okay to go and we wove our way through the wild morning streets, “doodlee doo doodlee doo” parting the waters of traffic ahead of us. Just barely on the outskirts of Pokhara we drove into a police checkpoint. Men in blue/gray camoflauge uniforms with maroon berets stopped the bus, one man spoke to the driver while another yelled and waved his arms at the passengers on the roof. The passengers bailed off the roof and the bus was waved forward.
“Whoa, we’re just leaving them here?!”
The bus drove forward about 100 yards and stopped again. Looking out the back window of the bus I could see the rooftop passengers sprinting down the road. They jumped up to the ladder and soon all had scrambled back onto the roof and a few beats of the hand signaled the driver forward once again. The six of us laughed, looking at each other in disbelief.
A few rows up, a lady standing in the aisle holding a toddler handed her baby to the white tourist woman sitting in front of her. She was tired of holding her little girl and so the little girl rode the rest of the way in the tourist’s lap. The older lady next to us handed me her bag, tired of holding it, it found a new home in my lap for the entire trip. The bus started winding down small roads with jungle hills lurching skyward on either side. The low plateaus of Pokhara receded behind us, and white capped peaks created the horizon in front: green jungle, to white caps, and a bright blue sky. A few more checkpoints kicked our rooftop passengers off, the bus moving forward, the sprint, the scramble, the beats of the hand and we kept moving. We started to near our destination, Besisahar, and Santosh suggested we find a few other trekkers interested in splitting a jeep ride into the small village of Jagat where we would start walking for a month. The redhead was all over it.
In Besisahar we checked into the trekkers booth with an organization called TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) that keeps track of the tourists moving through trekking areas in Nepal. After that we grabbed a bite to eat and negotiated a jeep ride price. 800 rupees per person, or $8. That was too rich for the French girl’s blood. The six of us, Santosh, and two other Korean tourists crammed into a four door pickup with a five foot bed with a driver and his son and started making our way up the steep, bumpy, dusty and sometimes terrifying road to Jagat. We waved out the back of the truck as we passed the French girls walking out of town.
The bus ride was three and a half hours, and now we lurched side to side in the back end of the truck trying not to hit our heads and bouncing uncontrollably on top of our packs stacked underneath us. This was the next three hours. We took turns cramming into the cab and I even rode on top of the roof for a while. The truck stopped and we all jumped out to find that a leaf spring on the front left tire had snapped. We stood around on the side of the one lane road, looking down a thousand feet to the raging glacial river parting the jungle below. Terraced rice paddies spread skyward through the jungle across the valley. We waited for twenty minutes while the young kid and driver used old brake pads and some U-Bolts to clamp across the break in the leaf spring and just like that we were back on the road.
A few times I glanced over the edge of the truck rail to stare straight down a couple thousand feet of sheer drop through the jungle and over boulders to the river. The road a tiny cutout in the mountain walls. Soon the leaf spring failed again. The driver called on a friend in a village and we unloaded the other truck’s cargo of grain, rice, salt and sugar into their home and then we piled into this newer truck and drove on, leaving the broken one behind.
Jagat was a tiny village. The truck stopped in the middle of the road in front of a small snack stand. We piled out and waved him away. We stood shoulder to shoulder, all seven of us, and took a picture. We walked away from the picture, heading up the road into the Himalayas. There would be no more jeeps, no more buses with packed rooftops. From there on out, it was just our legs bearing the weight of our packs and we were finally trekking.