The panoramic Himalayan landscape offers tourists a diverse range of spectacular trekking expeditions, so it’s little wonder most visitors to Nepal end up taking an unforgettable hike
I feared my head was about to implode but mercifully the moving colours turned out not to be the hallucinations of advanced AMS but prayer flags marking the summit
TRAVELLING AND TREKKING TIPS
When to go Nepal has a monsoonal, two-season year. March to May and September to November are the best times to visit. Early dry season (October to May) features good conditions as well as colourful festivals, such as February’s paint-smearing, water-squirting Holi Festival, and good conditions. Mid-June to September, when the monsoon arrives, is best avoided. Costs Trekking registration certificates and
Annapurna conservation fees: $35 per person. Accommodation is around $10 per room and meals $10 to $15. Local English-speaking guide: $15 per day. Porters: $10 per day. Ethical considerations Rubbish is either packed out on foot or dumped on village outskirts. Trekkers are advised to eat local food to help slow deforestation. See Leave No Trace (www.lnt.org) for more information. Also, try not to give gifts to pestering children.
We were filing along a skinny trail that cut through an expansive Himalayan gorge when a sudden commotion hooked my peripheral vision. I looked up to see a wild yak hurtling recklessly down the mountainside, hoofing up an angry cloud of dust in its wake.
We halted as the horned beast came skidding onto the path, blocking our way. The huffing yak faced us down for a beat, eyes boggling, looking as unhinged as a revolving door.
It then stamped, bowed its head – and charged.
Time froze – as did we.
While we cowered, our Nepali guide, DB, mercifully sprang to action, somehow finding a brick-sized rock to hurl while issuing a hearty war cry for good measure. His aim was wayward, but, at the last second, the snorting bovine veered off and went skittering down a slope into the valley below.
So much for the joys of Mother Nature and her glorious offspring – one of the bitch’s prime specimens had almost rammed me into an abyss, leaving me as a tragic footnote on an episode of When Animals Attack.
Despite the hazards foisted by demented quadrupeds, half a million people flocked to Nepal last year – when tourist numbers jumped 64 percent on the previous year. And up to 90 percent of these went hiking among eight of the world’s 10 highest peaks.
“After travelling on and off for 10 years, Nepal is still the standout trip,” says Australian Chiquita Mitchell.
This is no piddling walk in the national park. Granted, most treks don’t call for technical climbing skills, but trails are often rough, steep and precarious, and conditions can swing dramatically.
You don’t need to be Indiana Jones, but, as Jo Pretsell says: “If you did some training beforehand I think it would make the trek more enjoyable.”
One could spend months planning an expedition, but it’s also possible to sort everything on the fly. Those who book organised treks with reputable companies get everything cosily pre-arranged, from airport transfers to “four seasons” sleeping bags.
An inexpensive option is to join a trek as a last-minute “walk-in”. A yet cheaper way is to negotiate, often over glasses of steaming chiya (spiced tea), in the shops around Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker ghetto. Trekking independently is popular with budget travellers, who lug their own bags in their own sweet time.
The Nepal Mountaineering Association has designated 18 summits as trekking peaks. Everest lords over them all like a mythical white tidal wave, challenging the brave and foolhardy with the prospect of its death-or-glory slog. But more than half of all trekkers head to the Annapurna Himal, despite snobs who deride its supposed commercialism compared to less-trodden paths.
The Annapurna region offers the nation’s richest variety of scenery, straddling four climatic zones hosting everything from two-day trots to month-long, Tolkien-esque odysseys.
“I loved the contrast going from lush micro-systems into the mountains then through barren, arid landscapes close to the Tibetan plateau,” says James Levene.
Of the three major treks, we chose the odyssey: the Annapurna Circuit – a challenging three-week affair with the greatest available vertical net gain.
The circuit begins in a subtropical valley fringed with coniferous forests. We passed orchards, bisected fields of trembling wild marijuana, and crossed churning white rapids on swaying suspension bridges.
The landscape gradually opened up, revealing a natural canvas almost too gigantic, too panoramic to comprehend.
We walked five to seven scenic hours per day, stopping off at teahouses en route. Trekkers don’t need to bring food or camping gear. Similarly, guides aren’t necessary, but, as Alan Pretsell acknowledges, “we felt safer knowing we had a local guide with us, who cost next to nothing and was great entertainment as well”.
Teahouses are simple wooden constructions. “Don’t expect a hot shower at the end of the day,” warns Pretsell. Facilities get increasingly spartan at higher elevations.
Stopovers present opportunities to mix with foreigners and locals – often over a restorative fix of daal baat, the national dish: rice with lentil soup and vegetable curry, dished up on a metal tray. For a nightcap, raksi, the local firewater, is most memorably sipped round a log-fired stove in a lamp-lit kitchen.
Our teahouse encounters engendered a growing trepidation about the climactic 5,416 metre Thorung La summit pass. Those who had done it before luxuriated within their tales of endurance. DB told us that the vertiginous 1,600m descent would be even tougher than the 1,000m dawn ascent. Neither sounded much fun.
Onwards and ominously upwards we went. Most locals we encountered along the way seemed pleased to see us. Will Gilroy recalls receiving enthusiastic greetings of “Namaste” (I salute you!) from passing porters “who were half my height, wearing old flip-flops and carrying massive cages of live chickens on their heads”.
Children and old women also hauled the kind of backbreaking loads that would make bodybuilders cringe. As they overtook us.
To trek Nepal is to step back in time. The trappings of modernity evaporate. Farmers in medieval villages drive ox-drawn ploughs. Women lay out trays of chillies to dry on the doorsteps of boxy stone houses, firewood stacked higgledy-piggledy on their flat roofs.
The scenery is so cinematic, it’s like taking a walking tour of the highlights of National Geographic exotica. Easy to forget that, far from being some fabled Shangri-La, Nepal is one of the poorest countries per capita in the world.
None of us managed a wink of sleep the one groaning night we spent above 4,000 metres, as the three of us struggled to catch breath. The seconds ticked down to 4:30am, when we emerged, trembling and bleary, to start the trudging ascent.
The first hour hurt. The climb to Thorung La is wholly unforgiving. Initial exchanges of snatched, monosyllabic quips soon gave way to staring at our feet, gasping in the thin air.
I paused risibly often, whispering self-pitying curses, a dull ache growing in my lungs. My heart rate accelerated. I saw a Nepali porter slip into a waste-deep snowdrift but could hardly summon the energy to acknowledge him, let alone offer help.
“I ended up vomiting most of the way up,” admits Chiquita Mitchell.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can strike anyone, regardless of age, experience, or health. If symptoms persist the only option is to descend – which usually brings immediate relief.
I started to see a blur of moving colours peeking over the brow of the cliff above – and feared my head was about to implode – but, mercifully, these turned out not to be psychedelic hallucinations signalling the onset of advanced AMS but fluttering prayer flags marking the Thorung La summit!
We posed triumphantly for photos in a spot where the surrounding mountains appeared to be at eye level or below.
Our glory was fleeting. The sunrise ascent had been tough, but the weary descent presented an altogether different level of hell; one boasting a new line in slow torture.
As we edged tentatively down the steep, slushy, rock-strewn slope, the cartilage in my knees concertinaed, the tendons in my shins went into spasms, and my digits were brutally crushed against the toes of my walking boots. It was sheer agony.
By the time we got down, we were hobbling like geriatrics with hip replacements attempting to boogie to the theme tune of Steptoe & Son – but as Nepalis say: “Ke garne? (What to do?)”. We had to laugh.
Yaks, aches and pains be damned, it was worth every minute.