Existential Panic World Tour Part 7: Annapurna-a-go-go

Well, its my last night in Kathmandu, and what did I do? Look at some sites of cultural significance? Regal my fellow travelers with bawdy tales? No, I watched in rapt disgust as Clinton tried to parse what sexual relations meant on CNN (Clinton’s Nob Network). The crowds of Europeans watched and cackled at this stupid spectacle that only America could produce. The Americans muttered, shook their heads and skulked away. I’m looking into Canadian citizenship.

Anyway, back to my story…

I arrived in Pokhara and checked into my pre-arranged hotel wedged between a newly opened Benetton and a shack selling counterfeit North Face gear. Soon afterwards my guide Kamal (he took pains to emphasize that his name was pronounced ‘kaMAL’ and not ‘camel’). He was a quiet easy-going sort who resembled Jim Varney (the star of the dreaded Ernest series) with a gap-toothed grin. We talked some about my hiking equipment and arranged a starting time for the next day.

Trekking has become a major industry in Nepal. In Thamel, the tourist ghetto of Kathmandu, virtually every shop that isn’t selling embroidered T-shirts offers trekking services–and that doesn’t mention the countless number of freelance guides hawking their services in the streets. The two most popular trekking routes are the Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna Circuit near Pokhara. The draw of the former is obvious–Everest, the roof of the world, the tallest mountain on the planet. The Annapurna Circuit also boasts some significant peaks but its also includes a rich variety of cultural attraction–particularly sites like Mukitinath which is a major temple for Tibetan Buddhism. The other draw of the Annapurna route is sheer logistics. The Everest trek takes at least three week and requires either a long bumpy bus ride or an expensive and potentially dangerous helicopter ride to the trailhead. The amount of time required for the Annapurna region is much more flexible (treks can be two days or two months) and one only needs a short cab ride to get trekking. Because of that blighted cheese sandwich and general indecision I had only about a week to kill. Thus Annapurna.

The plan was to spend six days hiking from scenic mountain village Dampus to scenic mountain village Ghandruk then over a ridge and down to scenic mountain village Ghorepani. After a brief hike up scenic vista site Poon hill its then literally down hill to Pokhara.

The first day was absolutely lovely. Terraced rice fields, quaint stone houses, snow capped mountains, women in traditional garb hauling baskets of grain up and down the mountain. The scene was so idyllic that, like my visit to Beijing some years back, I had remind myself that this was real and that the setting wasn’t some diabolical Disney recreation of a scenic mountain village. As with Chitwan, the tourist literature played up the exoticness of the setting. See a ‘real Nepali village.’ Of course I had other reservations about how ‘real’ the experience was. Each village seemed more a loose collection of guest houses than anything else. Moreover, the government–apparently fearing injury to the trekking business if legions of tourists keeled over from food poisoning–standardized guest house menus and licensed their cooks. Thus on top of the ubiquitous Nepali rice and lentil combo Dhal Bhat, every menu also had spaghetti, pizza, apple pie and for some reason Tibetan cuisine (ah, but I will discuss this more later). True enough, the valleys and mountains did seem to support a viable rural economy, and true traditional cultures and beliefs seemed to maintain an upper-hand over the encroaching 20th century and true there was nary a motorized vehicle nor paved road for miles of most of these scenic villages. (Trade and commerce was carried out by either mule caravan or by stout legged porters have the agility of mountain goats.) But it was also true that when the government threatened to build roads to some of the larger communities, the villagers loudly protested, arguing that such a construction would kill the tourist industry. It’s a fine line between cultural self-consciousness and simulacrum. Nonetheless the first day was lovely.

On the second day, however, things started getting tough. Indeed, I wasn’t tramping around any old mountain range…I was hiking the Himalayas. After a pleasant, leisurely six hour hike, the trail abruptly descends into a deep deep gorge. Without exaggerating the trail descended roughly 800 vertical meters almost straight down on loose, uneven and slippery steps. Having grown up in the flatlands of America, my mountain descending muscles were woefully underdeveloped, especially with the added weight of a 10 kilo pack (I don’t know why I decided to bring my espresso maker). Top-heavy as I was, waves of vertigo washed over me as did torrents of sweat. Few things focus the mind and hone the senses like the prospect of plunging head-long off a Himalaya. At the bottom of the gorge, sweaty and my legs feeling weak and rubbery, I was leaning up against a rock when Kamal, my gap-tooth guide, cheerfully informed me that the day’s final destination was perched on the opposite side of the valley about a kilometer up. Needless to say I crawled into town barely ambulatory–more physically exhausted than I have been since the day I struck a sheep with my bike (but that’s another story). Fortunately, our guest house–the Sakura Inn–had a hot solar powered shower and good food. After cleansing myself and devouring some Tibetan momo my diminished spirits were restored some.

The following day was supposed to be easy but the monsoon season was a real bitch these parts and much of the usually well-tended trails were washed away. Much of that day and the next was spent stumbling through rock slides and mud slips.

On the fourth day, we arrived at Ghorepani (literal translation–‘horse water’) just after noon so I spent much of the day reading, playing cards with a boisterous couple from Hong Kong and wandering about the town. At one point, I poked my head into what I thought was my guest house’s shop, but instead turned out to be the owner’s private quarters. There in a starkly decorated room (only a single yellowed poster of an Indian movie star adorned the walls) I saw my guide, two turbaned old women with gnarled hands and large gold nose rings and a pair of half naked children sitting around a Sony entertainment system watching a Chinese bootleg of Titanic.

Mind you, this was a village that was miles away from any road, had only intermittent electricity, and only one (broken) phone. The copy was terrible and I’d already seen the flick too many times, nevertheless I sat next to Kamal and absorbed the weirdness of the moment. Was this merely a rude insertion of the 20th century in a place that has otherwise not changed in generations? Or was this in fact be some Nepali Disneyland and I had stumbled into some canteen for actors on break from playing quaint villagers? Was this some bizarre ruse or merely the dizzying clash of cultures that are worlds apart? Kamal, for one, was suspiciously tight-lipped about the whole thing. (He was, however, impressed with Titanic, though he seemed more moved by was Kate Winslet’s nudity than the flick’s much ballyhooed special effects. Indian cinema may shove a dizzying array of genres into one movie but they are notoriously prudish.)

The next morning we woke before dawn and climbed Poon Hill–one of the best vantage points in Nepal to see the Himalayas. “Poon Hill” is actually a few meters shy of being the same altitude as Mount Fuji. Mountains don’t get much respect around here unless they’re in the ballpark of 7000 meters. (For comparison, Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak is a mere 6200m) The view was positively sublime. There the sixth and tenth highest peaks in the world tower before you. Like many things on this trip, this defies easy description outside from the over-used, and thus meaningless, words like “stunning”, “awesome” and “overwhelming.” But indeed I was stunned, left in awe and overwhelmed.

Two days later, I boarded the first motorized vehicle I had seen in two days and checked into another motel in Pokhara. In an effort to reacquaint myself with the world, I thumbed through a Time magazine–the Starr report issue. My first reaction was to hop on another cab, head for the hills and not come down until this whole miserable affair is over. “Real” or not, Annapurna proved to be much more enjoyable and less deadening than the show playing currently on TVs around the world.

Next stop, Prague. I’m not sure about the internet situation there.
Stay tuned.

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