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Trekkers Guide to the Galaxy - Annapurna Sanctuary

Ahhhhhh, trekking, the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again. Reducing time to the rhythm of your body and letting your mind wander across an infinite landscape. You exchange your stress and worries for simpler needs- eating and sleeping and how far til we rest again. You learn to listen to your body, then exceed the limits you would normally post. Do something crazy like spend nine days trekking 150 miles, climbing up and down repeatedly until you have ascended to 15,000 feet and the air is so thin you can actually see the difference. Trekking forces you to confront your limitations and challenges you to blow them away. In short, it exceeded all our expectations.

Basics:

To begin trekking you must ...

 Get thee to Nepal ASAP! Do not pass go, do not try to arrange a trek from the US (unless you truly enjoy being fleeced) just hop a plane (roundtrip from Chicago as little as $900) and arrive in the big city of Kathmandu. Decide how long and where you want to go. As we already mentioned, Everest is big around here (must be something to do with being the tallest point on earth) but is also difficult and long. But what a lot of people forget is that here in Nepal, Everest doesn't look that big next to the second and third tallest mountains in the world, shorter by just a few hundred feet. So there is a lot of Himalaya and there will be an area just suited to you.  

We chose the Annapurna Sanctuary because it seemed to offer the biggest bang for your buck, meaning it is pretty much the most remarkable scenery and incredible terrain that you can get in only 8-10 days. The Sanctuary is so named because you climb up to a ring of some of the tallest mountains in the world, climb through a small gorge between two peaks and emerge in a valley (if you can call a plateau at 15,000 feet a valley) completely surrounded by majestic eternally snow-capped peaks. The trek up takes you through an incredible variety of terrain, from rice-covered hill terraces to heavy forested glades to tropical jungle and finally to a barren oxygen deprived no-mans land that is sacred and holy to the people of Nepal.  

View of Fishtail from within the Annapurna Sanctuary

The Sanctuary is an amazing place. Sacred, serene, barren, hostile, and just plain closer to God. No one lives there for any length of time, just a few lodge owners who vacate when the tourists do. While many stay at MBC and just hike up to the Sanctuary before dawn, snap a pic of the sun rising and make it back to MBC for breakfast, we wanted to spend some time breathing in the rarified air. Beyond base camp is a jumble of rock stupas, pile of rocks, large and small topped with prayer flags. Surely, God would hear these prayers, so close to his abode. I was struck by the silence. Just the snap of prayer flags as the wind whipped through them. And the occasional distant roar of a small avalanche moving down the face of Annapurna South. 

Arranging the trek:

First, a couple of decisions to make. Are you a do it yourselfer. If so, just buy a map and go. The trails are pretty cut and dry and locals along the way will certainly point you in the right direction (if only to get you out of their fields.) If you like to camp, better yet, carry your gear and then you can rest at your leisure anywhere along the trails. There are tons of people who do it this way every year and you will most certainly have company if you want it.

And even a few monkeys...

 

If you prefer a little bit of guidance, do as we did and hire a guide and a porter, or one or the other. We hired a porter because, while we did want to challenge ourselves, we didn't exactly want to give up on the first big hill, collapsing under the weight of our packs. Plus, it is very good for the local economy. Many of the people in Nepal, who have spent a lifetime climbing up and down the mountains, make good livings as porters. Just make sure you give him a humane decent-sized pack. The three of us packed all our gear into one backpack which we gave to Euro (he was our awesome porter) and then we each carried a more than managable daypack. But we saw so many porters along the trail burdened by an ungodly amount of stuff just because their clients were to cheap to just hire another porter. 

Nepalis are unused to carrying a back pack the way we do, with shoulder harness and waist straps. Instead they carry items using a harness or tumpline as they call it, that circles under the load and then around their forehead. They clutch the strap at either side of their face to keep it level and centered, as a slight twist to either side will violently wrench their neck. And the most amazing thing is that they carry loads of up to 120 lbs in this manner with nary a misstep. While us westerners prance around in all the latest hi-tech hiking paraphenalia, they do it in FLIP-FLOPS, yeah the flimsy foam rubber ones for the shower. We even saw some barefoot with soles harder than your hiking boot tread. More than a few porters we saw carried THREE large backpacks in this manner, two side by side and one across the top. It was completely disgusting and we wanted to shoot the foriegners who gave them the load. Because, these days the going rate for a porter is $8 a day.  

Doug, T Augustus and Devi taking a break

We also hired a guide because porters generally do not speak English (occasionally you will come across a combo guide/porter) and he shows you the way and can explain some things along the way. But a  good guide can point out the most interesting things, introduce you to the locals, teach you phrases in Nepali, share culture and festivals with you and otherwise enrich your experience and open Nepal to you like a flower. Devi, our guide was great. By the end of the trek, Ann could converse and hold a short conversation with nNpalis along the way. And he was just great company for ten days in the wilderness. We got lucky. Devi and Euro were incredible. Devi was hilarious, singing Nepali folk songs, teaching us crazy variations on gin rummy as well as Nepali swear words, and taunting us by telling us how long it would take a Nepali to climb the hill that we just spent all day climbing. And he was also invaluable, running ahead to secure lodging in smaller places with fewer beds available, when we knew we couldn't go step further. Helping with our daypacks when we needed the extra push, and even helping bandage feet, even though we protested vehemently. And always encouraging and staying with the slowest member of our group. 

Euro was a human metronome, his pace, an almost unreal rhythm that was as dependable as a timex. We would try to shake him up at times. T would drop his sunglasses and then take off running, but before he had taken three steps, Euro was next to him handing over his sunglasses. He's the main reason T made it up to ABC, not in words but in his reassuring presence. Solid as a rock, even when he is massaging the cramps out of T's legs. No...it was a great group and we had a lot of fun.

Details, details:  

Do you prefer the comfort of a bed, no matter how loose the term, rather than the good hard earth and a sleeping bag. Then you want a tea-house trek. Small lodges built at certain intervals along the trek. Some approach rustic lodge proportions, while others are merely a family home opened up to guests. There is always room (well, there may be no actual rooms but you are welcome to sleep on the floor in the main room by the fire.) They are like the inns of old, small un-heated, un-lighted closet-like rooms with beds adjoining the main common room with a big table, a fire to warm, and a kitchen off it. Everyone gathers there at night, talking, eating and drinking, playing cards and games, and generally getting along very well with the motley crew who happens to be tossed together. The higher you go, the colder and more rustic it gets, yet the people seem nicer and nicer. 

now that's got be a cold shower...

Oh, and there is nothing like bathing out of a bucket at 15,000 feet in an unheated outhouse when it is 20 degrees (inside the outhouse) with a wind-chill of ZERO! You have a bucket of boiling hot water and a faucet tap of bone-numbingly ice cold water and you try to somehow meld the two together into a body-tolerable concentration that you pour over yourself while trying not to splash and drown out your lone candle. But the best are those few seconds after you have poured the last bit of bathwater over yourself and you are frantically trying to dry off and put on your clothes before becoming hypothermic. I found actually standing in the bucket helps to recycle the water and keep your feet warm. Now that's a tip for ya!

I made all kinds of friend on the trail

Ahhhhhh, rustic.

Up in the mountains, you can get anything food and drink-wise as long as you are willing to pay. Up at the Annapurna Base Camp in the Sanctuary, you can get a snickers bar for $1.50. The higher you go, the prices quickly rise, as everything must be carried up on the backs of porters. We made the environmentally sound decision not to buy bottled water, as bottle garbage is becoming a big problem up there. Instead, we opted for the delicious taste of iodine-sanitized mountain stream-water. Even water that flows out of the mighty Himalayas might give you a bad case of runs when your system is not used to it. But when you're exhausted and thirsty, we promise, it tastes great!

In the Annapurna Area, all prices and menu are fixed for a certain area. There is no difference at any lodges, instead you look for quality, ambience, facilities etc and your guide has good recommendations, usually the best food, etc. All total, our daily expenditures came to about $17 a day. That's guide, porter, food & drink, and lodging along the way, per person (we split the cost of guide and porter among three people) Again, do not arrange from the US. The same thing will probably cost $100 a day. Don't worry about paying for guide/porter food and lodging. Lodging doesn't cost anything because they all stay in the common room or in special dorm style accommodations just for locals. And it is better to work out a deal ahead of time with then about food. If you are seen paying for their dhal bhat along the way, the lodges will charge the tourist price. Instead, it is generous to offer to reimburse them at the end of the trip. And also, don't forget to invite them to share in some continental food and beer, although that does go right on your bill (There is no local price for western food) It'll be a good time.

Timing:

Actually trekking has a small window of opportunity. Most come from september through november. September because it is just after the monsoon and the air is clean and crystal clear affording the most incredible views of the mountains. By december, it is just too cold up there and many places are unpassable because of snow and the chance of avalanches. Some people also come in March to May but by then, it has been dry for so long that the air is somewhat hazy and blocks views.  

Best of all, time it during a Nepali festival. We lucked out and arrived right at the start of the largest festival of the year, Dasain. it is devoted to the bloodthirtsy incarnation of Parvati, known affectionately as Kali. She demands blood sacrifices and the whole country is awash in blood, literally. There is a wholesale slaughter of goats and buffalos everywhere. When we started the trek, we saw herds and herds of goats being out of the mountains down into the towns to be sold. Every household must sacrifice a goat, and sprinkle all their stuff with blood for good luck in the new year. Many times we had to wade through endless number of goats, all bleeting madly seemingly sensing their fate. Along the way we saw villagers bustling about cleaning their homes in preparation and swinging on huge bamboo swings constructed just for the festival.  

One night at a lodge, we gathered around to watch the lodge owner and his family slaughter a goat. I realized I much rather pick up my goatmeat at Dominicks, fresh or not. Watching them skin the poor creature and separate out his guts into various pans for cooking. The whole scene was watched over by our poor friends head, sitting off to the side. Later,  remembering the great taste of goat meat at home, asked if I could join in, and have a taste. Well, the lodge owner was so delighted that a little while later, he proudly served us, a steaming plate of goat, well, actually goat parts. No sign of any muscle, but rather, an interesting assortment that probably included the kidneys, liver, heart, brain, tongue, intestines and other unmentionables. And because we were special guests, it was served plain, no spices or anything to get in the way, just lightly fried.  Everyone stood around to watch us eat it. YUM YUM. We did, because it's a mortal sin to offend.

But we won't talk about the taste. Later, the Nepalis sat down to a dinner of goat part curry. Devi gave me some and it was delicious. To make it last longer, they only use the parts to flavor a curry. That means our meal was all the more special. Now after getting up close and personal with a goat internals, we later recognized that some of the decorations at homes and around town were actually intestine streamers, blown up and strung out. We should try that on our Xmas tree.  

Last, but not least:

Many people wonder if they are fit enough to try a trek. Well, we have the answer. It is possible for anyone if they are willing to put up with a certain amount of pain for alot of gain. Seriously...being fit will make the journey a whole lot more enjoyable, but even if you don't fall into that classification, you should still think about it. Just go slow! Our friend T Augustus joined us on our RTW trip in India, about two weeks before we set off trekking. T liked to say he had a body by bohemia, sculpted through numerous rounds of drinking Mexican Bohemia Beer. Straight from a serious desk job to the highest peaks in the world, he had no idea what we had in store when he joined us. And I am happy to say, he made it to ABC with a maximum of pain. On the very first day on the very first hill just before lunch was when we had our first inkling of the type of journey it was to be. The steep climb was an hour straight up. But he plugged on, slow but sure, and poor Euro taking to massaging the grindingly painful leg cramps. This is, by all means, an extreme case, of someone who did not prepare one iota for a trek but made it anyway. And I know he would want to dedicate this  installment to Euro, who without his unflagging devotion to getting T's ass up the mountain, we would not be writing this installment.

Anyway, that's about wraps up Ann's & Doug's Guide to Trekking. Please email with questions and comments, and hopefully you will get up and JUST DO IT!

Next time: Hippidom meets the Himalayas in Kathmandu!

Over and out, good Buddies

Ann & Doug

 

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