Finally on the Annapurna Circuit
There was an ambient sound of water that seemed to fill the air all the same as a haze. It’s a continuous white noise, changing only in decibel and never disappearing. The water seemed to appear as if from nowhere. Long, white ribbons draped over the edges of jungle laden cliffsides. Only these waterfalls and rivers are exempt from the tyranny that is the jungle. It grows everywhere, buildings left long enough are swallowed by its reigning creep. Steep, massive walls of granite extend to the sky, shrouded in a shag of green like a blanket of photosynthetic snow.
A gaze upwards revealed amazing feats of agriculture. Nestled high on the steep jungle slopes were small huts, built of stone and mortar hand quarried from the surrounding cliffs. Hundreds of vertical feet of the steep 50-60 degree slopes have been terraced into flat steps to make room for crops. Acres of rice, buckwheat, bananas, lemons, and many other crops grow thousands of feet above the river side, above supply lines. These tiny villages represent what society used to be there. Subsistence farming communities cutoff from the rest of the world. Until the road was carved into the mountains and the western culture was Jeeped in.
The road has created a magnificent new community in the high himalaya. It has allowed for plumbing, for concrete, for currugated roofing, for electectricity and has reduced the number of porters carrying massive basketed loads up the steep trails with their foreheads. It’s still mindblowing to see how far up from the river these villagers have to carry their supplies if necessary. Porters still snake along the trail amongst us, carrying loads of up to 70kg in a hand-made masket wrapped in a braided rope which loops around to a padded strap on their forehead. Many of the porters are elderly men and women, over the age of 60. They wear only flip flops, and some are barefoot, and they’ll carry loads for days on end to reach their village.
We hiked through the small village of Taal and had lunch there. We saw wild marijuana plants growing along the trail, which is really common to see here. The second night on the trek we stopped at the village of Danaque. I started having stomach issues right away in the first few days. I would have overwhelming stomach cramps that rendered no results over the squat toilets. I wasn’t sleeping much for the first few nights as a result.
The day after we left Danaque I was climbing up a steep jungle trail, using roots to help pull myself up. A long line of porters were in front and behind me and at one point I heard some yelling from behind. I looked back and a group of the porters were looking at me but I wasn’t sure why. I stopped with my friends at a small resting place a few minutes later and as the group of porters came up they were shouting at Santosh (our good friend and local guide) and gesturing towards me. Santosh translated that I had apparently dislodged a rock during the steep section and it had fallen past them. I never even realized it and felt really bad that I hadn’t been able to yell a warning. I asked Santosh how to apologize in Nepalese, which I did. They stared at me unresponsive, awkwardly quiet, so we left.
We had lunch in the village of Temang where we could eat food while enjoying a clear view of Manaslu, the third tallest mountain in the world. It’s pretty amazing to see such a daunting piece of geography, something of signifcantly greater pride than Everest. We passed through a few more villages throughout the day. One of them, Thanchock, remained my favorite from the entire trek. A perfect set of stone steps wound through the entire village. The huts were close knit, and little wisps of smoke drifted up through the jungle and granite back drop. Dogs chased each other down the stone steps in front of me, and the villagers smiled and waved at me. It seemed a place of home, somewhere I feel I could almost fit in. I sat near a Buddhist stupa alone and watched a beautiful rock face drift in and out of the clouds. Two men walked by with stone slabs used for steps strapped to their foreheads with tension, the load resting against their backs.
Past Thanchock, the trail descended into a grove of pines. The pines extended high up the slope towards the ridgeline. It was beginning to remind me of the Black Hills back home, the nostalgia was overwhelming. The smell of apples filled the air as we passed small orchards planted into the flatlands of the narrow valley. A couple of sweet old ladies were selling apples out of a basket on the side of the trail. I bought a few in hopes that fruit would sort out my stomach issues.
That night, the seven of us sat around the black iron stove of our hotel in Chame. Chame was the first major village we had been to since we left Besisahar five days prior. It was incredible to think how much human effort went into the level of infrastructure that existed there. The road leading to Chame was a feat in and of itself, but to comprehend the amounnt of struggle these people went through to create Chame is inspring. My brother, Ryan, and I wandered the dusty streets of Chame and bought some Samosas, potato and curry filled dough, and walked up into the farther uphill reaches of the village. We continued up through the village and came upon a bunch of school kids playing soccer in a patch of dirt. We watched them play, some with cleats, some with tennis shoes.
The following day was a short day. In the morings, we would wander down to the dining area in the guest house to a bustling kitchen. The menu consisted of fried eggs, soups, pancakes, omelettes, gurung bread or “tibetan bread” which is similar to a doughnut with less sugar, or meusli and porrdige. The menu is similar in almost every guest house of the entire circuit. We would hike to a small village called Upper Pisang that day. Along the way we passed through pine groves reminiscent of Wyoming. The trail split through the sap bearing trunks, carving a brown line through the monotony of a bed of pine needles. Only the pines grew together, all other plant life choked out by the acidity of the needles. The pine trunks meld together like the stripes of a zebra, becoming a mosaic of vertical lines as far as you can see until just a wall of brown closes out the light. The smell of the needles and the sap was a quick flight home, a teleportation of the senses.
That day I would see the most incredible rock face I have ever seen. It’s called “Heaven’s Gate” and it’s a massive curving bowl of granite extending 4,000 feet from the road to the ridgeline. I stood in awe of the endless possibilities of multipitch slab routes. The climber in me was incredibly inspired and I spent a long time drooling over the face while my friends continued on. We ate lunch with a view of Heaven’s Gate. I studied its intricacies, tracing crack systems and dihedrals of beautiful dark granite for 4,000 feet until the wall disappeared into the swirling clouds, as if to actually take us to Heaven.
In Upper Pisang we walked into the beautfiul monestary that makes the village so famous. Looking out through the door, it becomes a frame for the summit of Annapurna II. A young monk joined us in the monestary and began to tell us what the paintings meant. He explained to us the five things inside of us that we must overcome in order to understand the way of Buddha. We must overcome Attachment, Anger, Ego, Ignornace of the religion, and Jealousy. These are things that harm our conscious and we must banish them in order to achieve enlightenment. Another young monk walked up the stairs and picked up a carved stick with a rounded end and stood in front of a giant gong for a few minutes before he struck it. The sound echoed down through the village and seemed to swirl around the summit of Annapurna II and back to us, filling the valley with the summons to prayer. Monks came out of the buildings around us, young teenagers, they ran up the steps and sat cross legged behind scrolls on a long low table against the wall.
They began to chant in low voices that were moving so fast you couldn’t make out the individual words. One young boy began to rock forward and aft as he chanted, staring down at the scroll. One boy began to slowly beat on a large drum and was joined by another monk with symbols. The voices of the chanters rose to be heard above the drum and symbols. We sat quietly looking at each other in awe, us five westerners gettting to sit in on a Buddhist prayer service way up in the Himalayas. I startred to notice a striking similarity to these young monks and kids back home, they sniffled and coughed between chants, wiping their nose and continuing in cadence. They appeared almost to be carrying out their duties in angst, like a kid pulled from their video games to sweep the kitchen. Suddenly a smoke began to waft into the monestary carried by the mountain breeze and illuminated by the fading light of dusk. It drifted across the floor until the young chanting kids were merely voices in the smoke.
Another monk walked in carrying a lantern with the smoke drifting up from whatever was burning inside. He placed it on the altar in front of the large Buddha statue encased in glass. He added some oils and a few herbs to a bowl and took a few steps back from Buddha. He paused as if to be staring into the eyes of the statue, waiting for confirmation to begin. Then he slowly lifted the bowl into the air and bowed his head in prayer. The smoke swirled around him and the drum beat, vibrating the floor while the symbols rang loud, the sound of the chanting now barely audible. I had to leave for the restroom, but as I walked down the long flight of stairs back into the village, the chanting, drumming and symbols followed me back to our guest house. Annapurna II, now shrouded in clouds as if the smoke had made its way up to the summit, was listening all the same.