Travels 1



While we were in New Caledonia, Vicky sent a casual email to our friends Viv and John, who have raced with us in the waters of five continents. Vicky knew that they were hoping some day to do some trekking in Nepal, so she asked that Viv and John let her know any time they might plan such a trip. To her surprise and some shock, Viv came back almost immediately to say that they were planning to trek the Annapurna Circuit in October. The upshot was that with the very able assistance of our travel agent, Shane, back in Auckland, Vicky was soon booked to join the fun, if hiking at over 5000 metres altitude deserves that description. What is more, some internet research in Noumea revealed that it was actually slightly cheaper to fly round the world than to Kathmandu and back, so Vicky's flight included a stop in London to see her sisters, Annabel and Fiona, followed by a stop in New York to rejoin Tom for Thanksgiving with Tom's family in New York.





Thus, after a few hurried weeks in Auckland to prepare, practically, physically and mentally, Vicky set off to join John and Viv (right), as well as their friends, Paul, Elaine, Liz and Michael (left) in Kathmandu. A day of sight-seeing in Nepal's capital was all that time allowed before they headed off to the start of the Annapurna Circuit.





Nepal is famous for its exotically decorated Buddhist temples of which there are numerous examples in Kathmandu. They seem havens of peace in an otherwise bustling and apparently chaotic city.






Though there are numerous hikers on the Annapurna Circuit, basically you are walking the same paths used by the villagers who live along the route and some aspects of the track might not pass muster with a health and safety inspector! This is a particularly sturdy example of bridge construction.


For the first three days the trail meanders through agricultural areas full of rice paddies and lush vegetation. We were gaining altitude slowly which helped with acclimatisation.But there were some steep climbs even on the first few days. It was made considerably easier for us by the fact that our porters were carrying most of our gear. Our guide Prem even carried his guitar in hand, though he later strapped it to his rucksack as we got higher.










Even more impressive was the casual way in which the local villagers carried heavy loads up steep slopes. Of course, there is really no other way. Even the sick boy below was dependent on a human ambulance to carry him to the nearest clinic. All other loads, from household goods to food and fodder are carried on human backs, steadied by the distinctive head straps used by the Nepalese.



We climbed steadily every day, walking for six to seven hours, sometimes along the paths above steep gorges, at other times along the slopes of the increasingly mountainous terrain. Toward the end of the first week we had snowy peaks in view most of the time, looming above us in the clear air. We were lucky with the weather, but the trip had been planned to coincide with the usually good weather after the end of the monsoon. As we climbed the scenery and vegetation changed to dry alpine and though the days were generally quite warm the nights were distinctly cool.





As we passed through the villages on our way up, we stayed each night in 'tea-houses', small guest houses which cater for travellers, these days, mostly tourists like us, hiking the track. The tea-houses varied from the rustic and quite rough to simple accommodation at the level of a 'backpackers' in New Zealand or Australia. The food was simple, nutritious, but not very varied. The locals eat 'dal bhatt' for every meal of the day. This is a soupy mixture of lentils, with rice, vegetables and pickles, scooped up with the fingers. We had a slightly more varied menu if we wished, but mostly rice, pasta or potato dishes.




A village woman grades rice with a mesh grader. (Left)


One of the innumerable and ubiquitous prayer wheels. (Below)


Everywhere in Nepal you are greeted with 'Namaste' � like the little boy at the right.





By the beginning of the second week, both the scale and the grandeur of the scenery were spectacular, with colossal glaciated valleys and craggy snow-capped peaks.


By contrast in even quite small villages there were beautiful temples with intricate, colourful decoration of geometric simplicity and detail � in complete contrast to the rugged, irregular and massive scenery outside.






The villages in these high mountainous areas mostly seem to grow out of the barren rock on which they sit. The climate up here is much drier than in the lowlands, in rain shadow from the monsoon, and good land must be used to grow food, so the villages are often on otherwise unusable slopes.


Increasingly our path led along the edges of sheer slopes and we were getting high enough so that our breathing was laboured. At the end of each day Prem would take us somewhat above and beyond our stopping point to give us a touch of acclimatisation to the next days altitude, before we dropped back down to our stopping place for the night.













Of course amid all this amazing and timeless scenery it was not quite possible to escape some facets of modern life! Manang is a larger village with two film 'theatres'.





On day 11, we finally made it to the Thorung La Pass, the high point, both literally and figuratively of our trek at 5,416 metres. Though still far below the peaks that tower above it, this height was quite enough for us. One of our party found it very tough going, having fallen ill, with the cold that had afflicted all of us, the previous day. It was a long 12 hour day. From here it was all � or mostly - downhill.





As we moved lower, we returned to more populated areas. Here John experiments with a village solar water heater, while the farmer below continues to use centuries old technology.


We also hiked along a stretch of the controversial new road which is being built to link many of the high villages to the towns lower down. Some criticise the building of the road, for infringing on the natural beauty of the area. However, the road will improve the life of the villagers immensely. It seems more than hard to expect these villagers to live in isolation and in many cases deprivation so that western tourists can fly in to admire the scenery and the 'rustic simplicity' of the villagers' lives.








Once away from the road we were again in splendid scenery, though our trail was at times rather more daunting! The peaks around which we had been circling throughout our trek remained as spectacular and the delicate mountain dawns in the clear, cold air were beautiful.




The end point of our trek was the second town of Nepal, Pokhara, from where we took a short internal flight back to Kathmandu, whose crowded, chaotic streets and ramshackle, tottering housing contrasted sharply with the scenery and villages through which we had been hiking for the previous two weeks.