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Annapurna Days 11-13: Group Dynamics and Automotives

After the highlight of the Thorong La Pass at nearly 18k feet and all the accompanying emotions, I figured things would change in my attitude towards the trip – and sure enough, they did.  I found myself no longer interested in trekking the slightly lower peaks of the Annapurna Sanctuary on my own in the likely case I had a repeat visit of AMS and I could feel the group dynamics of our 10-14 person “clique” slowly tearing itself apart.  Quite how spectacularly this would happen, however, I did not at all predict…

Day 11: Jewish Holiday in Muktinath

P1100385 (2) Today was another Jewish holiday, the reason the Israeli group was trying to get all the way to Jomsom as quickly as possible (Shabot or something that sounds similar).  Apparently on this day the rules included a proscription on handling money, which seriously complicates such things as trekking.  The way they typically handle this is by either pre paying at a location the day before or incurring a debt and paying the day after – personally I don’t really think this makes a lot of sense, but then there’s a reason I’m not religious.

After much consideration, I decided to stay with the group another day because Mickey (a gorgeous pint sized Israeli girl who reminds me of my friend Cat and whose real name sounds yucky to English speaking ears), Katrin, and Guy were all interested in Tatopani but did not want to yet leave the group – and by this time I had grown quite attached to everyone, so I didn’t mind staying the extra day.

We visited the temple at Muktinath (google it) which was quite cool, then basically spent the day chilling out.  Katrin, Guy, Mickey, Ishae (no idea how to spell his name), Yolan (ditto) and I went to have lunch where Yolan had pre-paid the day before and were given evil looks by the lady running the place as we went inside.  When we tried to order we were greeted with the response of “No vegetables” followed by “no noodles” followed by “no food.”  This was quite frustrating to Ishae and Yolan because Ishae could not handle money (as the only Orthodoxish Jew in this little subgroup), so we couldn’t easily go elsewhere.

Eventually we walked back to another hotel, by which point we were starving (my acidic low-blood-sugar commentary included such choice gems as “why exactly are we wandering around for nearly two hours in order to save 100 rupees [$1.5USD]?”).  Finally we settled on a place, but they wouldn’t allow Ishae to pay later, so we wrote up the order for the rest of the group and said we would pay for all of it now if they would let him pay later, otherwise we would leave.  They agreed and we had a pretty decent lunch (and did indeed save 100 rupees over the cost at our hotel).

P1100386 (2) Shortly after lunch Katrin and I went out to find the advertised internet cafe in the local town which turned out to be a plywood shack built onto a cliff face with stunning views and equally stunningly slow satellite internet.  After thirty minutes of trying to upload my blog and Katrin attempting to get Skype to work followed by my USB stick with pictures she was going to send her dad eating itself, we gave up.  She went off to try to phone her dad because it was his birthday while I went off to change my remaining $60USD in emergency funds into rupees in order to pay off my hotel/food bills and afford transportation to Jomson, the next big town with an ATM.  This involved an illegal transaction at a local hotel with a guy on a motorbike driving off to bring his “big boss” back to give me the 3900 rupees, but got me the cash I needed.

In the evening we found out the main Israeli group had chartered a special jeep starting at 6AM in order to attempt to make it all the way to Pokhara in one day (considered unreasonable by the locals).  Katrin, Mickey, Guy and I initially planned to take the normal public jeep at 9AM but over dinner I found out that Mickey really wanted to be in Pokhara by 5PM on Friday as that is when the Sabbath starts (even though she’s not Orthodox, she tries at times).  This complicated everything as we didn’t know when the hot springs in Tatopani opened/closed and expected to go Friday morning, but the trip from Tatopani to Pokhara would take 8+ hours…

Finally we decided over a few beers that we would wake up early and take the 6AM jeep to Jomsom with the others, then get to Tatopani on our own.  Everyone was happy that we would hang out with them for a bit longer and more importantly defray the 6,000 rupee cost of their chartered jeep.

The final drama of the day included an attempt to order breakfast for the next morning and pay all of our bills, but there was so much hemming and hawing that eventually the management said “no, we’re not getting up at 5AM to make one cup of mint tea, one cup of milk tea, blah blah blah.”  Sigh – no breakfast tomorrow.  Pete is grumpy with no breakfast.

Day 12: BOOM! Muktinath to Tatopani (~77km by jeep, bus, foot, and jeep)

P1100387 (2) This morning started early at 5AM and predictably degenerated fast – we had intended to have the entire group at the jeep spot by 5:30AM to be on the road to Jomsom by 6AM but only a few people were ready.  We did make it out by 5:50AM and showed up just past 6AM and entertained ourselves by messing around and enjoying the view while waiting for the jeep driver to show up.  There ended up being 11 of us including a Russian girl that joined us for the ride and we set off for an amazingly fun two hour drive to Jomsom along some crazy mountain roads with no idea at all of the drama about to unfold.

BOOM! goes the group.  It’s a measure of the entire situation that I have very few photos of the day, and quite a long story to tell about it…  curl up with a cup of coffee and a warm blanket, you may be here awhile.

Upon arriving in Jomsom, the four of us heading to Tatopani (Katrin, Mickey, Guy, and myself) decided that we would stay with the group, charter a jeep to Ghasa together, then a jeep to Beni (the next major town), and get dropped off in Tatopani while the others headed to Pokhara.  Easy peasy.  Katrin and I just needed to hit the ATM to get some cash…

Drama started when the entire group stopped at a tea house for what I thought was breakfast and I went to order some food because I was starving and I’m a crotchety old man if I haven’t eaten.  In short order I was yelled at by three different Israeli women telling me “there’s no time!” (am I Jack Bauer all of a sudden?), so I wandered off to find the ATM while everyone gulped tea and coffee.

Oh, joy, the only ATM in town is closed.  I have maybe 600 rupees.  The power is out in town and the ATM won’t be back on until it comes back, maybe after 9AM.  Okay, no problem – back to the original plan, I will just head off on my own to Tatopani and Pokhara the next day.  Sad sad parting to my Israeli friends, but I’ll see them Friday night in Pokhara and it’s all good.  Clean break, no drama, right?

Except Katrin feels the same as I do – she wants her own money, doesn’t feel comfortable borrowing (she already had been borrowing from Mickey for a couple days), and wants to hang with me and wait for the ATM to open.  No problem….  Except Mickey and Guy want to stick with us because we are the cool kids.  Okay, still no problem – the four of us will get breakfast and head out on our own while the remaining seven (plus an eighth, a wicked smart British girl named Kate who I had done some drinking with in Muktinath and separated from her little group on my genius plan to go to Tatopani by Israeli Jeep) would charter a jeep as planned.  Tearful goodbye, yadda yadda.

The four of us chilled out and had a great breakfast and were just about finished when two others from the Israeli group showed up at our restaurant!  Why are they even still here?  Well, simple – the jeeps don’t leave unless they are full or you pay for everyone.  A full jeep is twelve people.  With the group now down to eight, everyone would have to pay an extra hundred or so rupees to make the jeep leave and they didn’t want to because there were four more of us just waiting for the ATM!  And the power is on, they tell us, so why don’t we go to the ATM already?

Okay, we are finishing breakfast, we’ll hit the ATM in a few minutes and meet them if they are still there – no promises, don’t wait for us, feel free to leave, blah blah.  We head over to the ATM and find that it’s open and on, but are greeted with a message stating it’s not in service.  Inside the bank they tell me that due to the power outage, the “link is down” with Kathmandu and they can’t reset it until the Kathmandu office opens – at 10AM.  Hrm.

We go back to the restaurant to kill time until 10AM, figuring the others will fork up the extra money and leave at this point.  I do some yoga and practice some Muay Thai on the roof (much to the amusement of the local school kids) and watch the planes taking off from Jomsom airport (absolutely nuts) and sure enough, the Israeli girls come back asking us what’s going on and telling us they have given up on the jeep that is trying to rip them off and will be taking a bus.  We explain about the ATM, say our sad goodbyes again (for like the thousandth time now), and don’t think much of it.

Shortly after 10AM Katrin comes back from checking the ATM and tells me it won’t accept her Mastercard based ATM card and heads off to find a hotel that will give her cash using a credit card with a 10% charge.  I go and stick my card in the ATM and pull out some cash, only to be greeted by “Transaction successful” and no cash!  Inside the bank I explain the situation, the guy spends twenty minutes on the phone with Kathmandu and finally tells me “it’s a link problem again, will be fixed in one hour.”  I say “I’ve already been waiting for nearly three hours!”  He says “Okay, maybe thirty minutes.”  I said “wha…?”  He says “okay, maybe twenty minutes?”  I just laugh and walk out, expecting to take Katrin’s route for my cash.

Back to the restaurant, gather my gear, stick it in the street, head back to the ATM and holy crap!  It’s working!  Nearly 11AM and I’m able to pull out 10,000 rupees (the maximum for the ATM), but when I go for another 5,000 (to hit my maximum daily limit) the ATM crashes.  Okay, whatever, I have my cash!  I can make it to Pokhara!  WOO!  I did cartwheels in the street (literally) to celebrate.

Went down to meet the others and my gear and found the entire main Israeli group (minus the British girl Kate, who seemed to be missing but nobody could tell me where she went) waiting for a bus.  They had intended to leave by jeep around 8AM but instead waited three hours and it’s now our fault their plans fell apart.  But they have bus tickets to Ghasa so will finally be catching the next bus!  We also buy bus tickets to Ghasa, during which transaction we are told the bus won’t take us all the way, instead we will have to walk about an hour to the next bus station after it drops us off. 

A bunch of people hit the roof at this, complaining and freaking out and saying it’s bullshit, they want their money back, we’re getting ripped off, blah blah blah.  I manage to find out that the reason is a “bad road” and not Nepali laziness as the others seem to think and in a huff basically yell at everyone to shut up and grow up and deal with it.  Silence.  Hrm.  I am now constantly thinking about all the reasons I normally travel alone…

The bus arrives and we load up with a bunch of locals, the tension quite palpable at this point.  Unfortunately the bus pulled up right as I was going to buy some snacks, so we had no snacks for the ride and disgruntled Israeli girls for company.  The bus ride was, however, totally freaking awesome – for two hours we flew around, bounced off the ceiling, drove inches away from huge cliffs, across foot deep river fords, and generally nuts terrain for a bus.  I spent almost the entire trip cackling with glee and only in retrospect did I realize that perhaps this may have been annoying to the girls who sat white knuckled in fear of their lives the entire time. 

A couple times when the bus stopped, Katrin and I wandered off to find snacks and ended up delaying the bus as it went from no one aboard to all aboard and honking for us in like ten seconds.  I still don’t understand how quickly they loaded that thing up!  This got us more lectures and disdain, but it paid off the second time as Katrin came back with some cookies that tasted a few years old but took the edge off.  Oh, did I mention that this stop was to put a tarp over our bags on top of the bus because so much hail was coming down that it was covering the ground like snow?  Yeah, pretty sweet.  It was a little sadly hilarious to see two goats hanging out with a neat little covering of hail on their pelts down the road, poor bastards.

P1100388 (2) The awesome bus ride continued until we rounded a corner and saw a bunch of busses pulled up on a steep hill.  We pulled over and they kicked everyone off – this was the end!  We had to walk from here because the road was so muddy that they couldn’t get any further safely and somewhere ahead was the dreaded “bad road.”  It went from dripping to raining buckets during the time we unloaded our gear, so we suited up and made to head on out, then some of the more delicate flowers wanted to wait out the rain in the lee of a huge cliff.  I entertained myself with dancing in the rain for a bit before sitting on the rocks with the others, but eventually the rain slowed down and we were off!

P1100392 (2) The big group took off pretty fast and left the four of us behind and the entire situation sort of turned into a bunch of frustrated grumbling, mostly because Katrin and Mickey felt pretty bad about it.  We shrugged it off and finally caught up to the others at a spot where the road was submerged under a river – the reason the busses couldn’t go all the way.  I was in bare feet anyway by this time so while everyone took off their boots to ford it I ran across and went clambering up the rocks for both a bit of fun and to understand why the river was taking over the road.  It turned out it had been dammed and re-routed on purpose to go over the road instead of under the bridge so that people could work on rebuilding the bridge, a sensible if seemingly inefficient solution.

 

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Katrin, Mickey and Guy all saw me clambering around the rocks and decided to join me – can you see why we were hanging out together?  As we all climbed higher the others left, yelling at us to come down and come with them but we told them to go ahead.  We finished up and started walking again, finally catching up with the group a bit later as they were on a bus headed towards Beni that was pulling out as we came around a corner.

We ran up to the bus and asked if it could take us to Tatopani and the driver said no problem, so we started to get on when all sorts of drama broke out – Nepalese yelling at each other, people on the bus yelling, some other guys coming up from nearby and yelling….  We had no idea what was going on but one of the big group’s guides explained that apparently the “local bus to Beni” is only allowed to stop in Tatopani for local people and foreigners have to take a jeep to Tatopani.  After a lot of back and forth I wandered off and asked the jeep driver how much it would cost to go to Tatopani and he said 200 rupees each, but we’d have to wait for the jeep to be full (12 people).  Sound familiar?

I, on the other hand, handled the situation a bit differently than the big Israeli group of the day before – I simply asked the driver how many rupees it’s going to take to get him moving NOW.  2500 rupees later (just over $30USD – a long cab ride) I have chartered a jeep to take us to Tatopani…   except Katrin and Mickey start pitching a ruckus about me paying for it and Guy suddenly decides he wants to go with the others to Beni.  I just started laughing at everyone and said “I just hired a jeep to take me to Tatopani.  If you guys want to come with, cool, if not, cool – but I’m going to Tatopani and my jeep leaves in a few minutes!”  Then I loaded up and got ready to go.

This is why Pete doesn’t do so well in groups at times – all the hemming and hawing about what to do drives me nuts.  After a bit Katrin and Mickey joined me and Katrin browbeat Guy into coming with us and soon enough we were rocking the jeep ride to Tatopani!  Woo!  We arrived in the early afternoon and laughed as the local bus we originally tried to take stopped behind us as we unloaded and let a bunch of locals off…  then headed up to the town in search of the mystical hot springs to soak away all the troubles of the day.

Tatopani is a cool town built on the walls of a very deep tropical valley, lush and full of life – a nice change from the high altitude towns of the last few days.  As we strolled down the main strip I ran into Kate sitting in a little restaurant and found out she had hitched a ride with a guy on a motorcycle because of the whole messed up jeep hire situation.  It was cool to talk with her for a bit while a teeny baby kitty nestled up on my tummy and purred constantly.

Then I went next door and found the Aussie Group staying in the hotel that Kate had recommended, so we checked in and changed and went down to order food – except Guy was feeling a bit antisocial at this point I suppose and decided to go to another hotel.  I can totally understand that.  While the girls freshened up (if that’s possible while trekking) I hung out with the Aussies and ate, catching up on all their travels.  They actually walked the entire way and had been just a few days ahead of us, with intent to keep going.  Well done on their part.

Finally the four of us had eaten, unwound a little bit, got the scoop on the hot springs (they open at 5AM and close at 9PM so all that rush had been for nothing), and headed down through the village.  Luxurious warm soaking ensued – the hot springs were actually small concrete pools with natural hot water piped in, but it was decadent and amazing.  Leaning back in the burning water, feeling the aches float away, staring up at a beautiful sky and the lush green walls of the valley around us…  made it all worthwhile.

I ended up sharing a beer with Mickey as we chilled out, laughing about the locals who kept staring at the two beautiful foreign women (even though we were all dressed quite moderately in shorts and shirts while the locals were just wearing briefs).  As the sun went down we finished the evening in the spring floating on our backs watching the moon high in the sky above us and the entire trek behind us began to fade into memory.

Day 13:  Return to Pokhara (~107km by bus)

In spite of being up until 2AM writing and thinking, I woke up at 5AM and went down to the hot springs by myself for a relaxed morning soak during the sunrise.  It was quite peaceful, with the springs being a bit cooler and easy to sit in for a good half hour before I had to rush back to the hostel to pack my gear and get breakfast before the 7AM local bus to Beni.  Mickey, Katrin and I enjoyed a typical but delicious breakfast while watching the empty bus stop (with a bus and two jeeps waiting, but no people except Guy waiting for us) wondering if it would be so easy to get to Beni.  The other three paid for my bill to thank me for buying the jeep the day before, which I thought was quite sweet.

P1100397 (2) We wandered down around 7:30AM and found out that the bus was the next in line to leave to Beni and, as you’ve heard before, it wouldn’t leave until it was mostly full.  There was once again much hemming and hawing between my little group of friends and a few other trekkers also looking to share the bus when I finally repeated yesterday’s simple action of leveraging the power of cash-money.  One lesson I have definitely learned well is that a trip like this is certainly much less complicated when you are in your 30’s with a good career behind you and plenty of money, rather than in your early 20’s on a strict budget.

P1100399 (2) The others felt bad about allowing me to pay for the bus, so I charged them each a few hundred rupees to assuage their consciences and Pete’s Party Bus hit the road to Beni.  I sat in front and enjoyed the trip immensely, and a few easy hours later we rolled into Beni, the last major town before Pokhara.  The four of us stopped for tea and snacks (sadly scarfing a few bags of potato chips, cookies, snickers, and more before Katrin had the genius idea to purchase some mangos and a gigantic cucumber), then grabbed a local bus to Pokhara at 11:15AM – one that was full enough that I didn’t have to buy the entire thing! 

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The day of traveling ended with us happily ensconced in a cheap but nice hotel room in Pokhara with no more drama.  I went out and bought new pants and a shirt so I’d have something actually clean to wear for the first time in a couple weeks and we all took long showers.  When Mickey and Katrin came out of their room wearing skirts my jaw dropped (hot), then it dropped again when I noticed that Mickey had even put on a bit of make-up.  The rigors of the trail were definitely behind us for now!

We met Yolan and Ishae for dinner and had pizza, beer, margaritas, and a bottle of wine we had brought from a local store, forcing a few guys to stay late and clean up after us well after the restaurant had closed and everyone went home.  It felt so good to be back in civilization!  I bought everyone’s dinner to thank them for the unexpected but highly appreciated friendship and company and honestly had to hold back a bit of a tear at the joy of the moment.

There was, however, a small undertone of sadness as we all know we are splitting to the four corners of the earth shortly – Guy will be flying to Thailand, Mickey to India, Ishae and Yolan to Kathmandu and India, etc.  I need to determine when I will leave myself, if I can get my plane tickets changed or if I will need to wait out the strike and potential violence coming in four days…

A mixed pleasure, to be sure. 

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