As time moves forward on the Annapurna Circuit, I find myself climbing higher into this mountain valley. The lush green slopes of the mountains around me have slowly turned into white snow-capped peaks and brown rock, the air is becoming harder to breather, and Acute Mountain Sickness is now a topic of regular conversation and self inspection. It only gets tougher in the days ahead…
Day 4: Chame to Upper Pisang (14.5km, 6.5hrs, end at 3270m)
In spite of some excitement at the idea of uploading my first blog post and photos in Chame, I was unable to do so because the “connection not available” the entire time I was there. I was woken up earlier than I desired by the Israeli crowd from the night before tromping around and getting ready, packing my gear and heading down for breakfast just as they were finishing and about to leave. One of their group was a German woman (Katherine) whose birthday was this day, so in the spirit of sharing I gifted her with one of my precious granola bars. They left for the day and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of eggs and coffee, finally hitting the trail around 9:30AM.
The trail started warm and beautiful, the cloudless sky highlighting the lush green pine forest on the hills around us. The smell of pine filled the air, while the ever-present pony dung was considerably less prevalent than the previous days. In the beginning it was a simple walk, only slightly uphill with much of the trail next to the river, but as the day passed I climbed higher and higher. Within a couple hours I had caught up to the Israeli’s and a group of Aussies as they took breaks, but they leapt past me as I enjoyed a mid-morning snack on a huge rock staring down the valley.
Shortly after this snack, the trail came around a corner and spread out before me was a massive slab of rock, hundreds of meters high and wide, completely barren and reaching towards the sky. The locals believe that the spirits of the dead ascend this wall to heaven, and it’s easy to understand why it carries such a role in their culture. I walked next to it for many kilometers, climbing again through a bright sunlit forest on a trail that at times was quite steep. I caught up to the Israeli group again as they were having lunch and enjoyed a snack myself as they set off.
The rest of the afternoon turned into a strange blur of trail and mountains as the day wore on, every few minutes I only had to look around to see the giant flat rock face behind me and the huge snow covered peaks beside and in front of me. A lush green valley with cultivated fields eventually spread out before me and by two o’clock in the afternoon I found myself wandering into the town of lower Pissang, a picturesque place spread out across the wide flat valley floor next to the river. From here I could see the small cluster of buildings up the mountainside to the east known as Upper Pissang and decided to haul myself up the ~200m of nearly vertical stairs to spend the night with better views.
It seemed like everyone on the entire trail was staying at the hotel there, and between the Israeli group, a group of Russians, and a new group of two Brits, an Irishman, and a Frenchman (who switched from the Israeli group) that I will now refer to as the “Yoga” group (because they all did many months of Yoga in India) the entire hotel was full. I really wanted to hang out with this diverse crowd and was able to talk myself into a bunk in the porter’s hut which ended up being perfectly fine.
The evening was excellent as you can imagine, and ended late at night with a few of us sitting around pondering life. One of the things I rarely go into detail about on my blog is the people I meet, I’m not sure why I don’t but maybe it feels too personal. Regardless, I really enjoyed spending time with all of these people and I hadn’t yet met anyone I didn’t get along with on the trail here in Nepal.
Day 5: Upper Pisang to Manang (20.2km, 8.5hrs, end at 3530m)
I woke up to the sound of the Israeli group leaving at 7:45AM and realized I had slept through my alarm. Knowing there was a very long day ahead, I quickly got dressed and packed my gear and was able to make it out on the road by around 8:30AM. From Pisang to Manang there are two routes, one is low and flat and easy while the other climbs very high and is very hard. Of course, you can guess which one I chose…
As I headed up the hill on the intense 500m climb, I quickly started to second guess my decision – the trail was basically around 20 meters one way, followed by a switchback and another 20 meters, repeatedly. For hours. I started to stop for the slow count of ten at every switchback and turn around and look at the amazing views of the mountains behind me and it reminded me why I had chosen this route and encouraged me to keep going. It was staggering, each climb showing more and more of the huge snow covered mountains around me.
I caught up to the Yoga group who was also taking this route near the top and we chatted for a bit before I headed off because I was clearly much slower (they had stopped for tea). Within a bit they caught me up again, and we found a pace where I eventually started to walk with them. This felt very strange at first because it was the first time I had walked with anyone on the trail, but I found that after the long climb it felt nice to have someone to talk to and take my mind off the remaining hours of slow descent towards Manang.
We stopped for lunch at a little guesthouse well up in the mountains, eating tons of food in a glass room with beautiful views and shelter from the wind. All too soon we were moving again, slowly descending towards Manang. As the hours dragged on, I started to wonder again if this had been the right choice – rain clouds fighting the mountain were slowly making it over the peaks and I knew it was only a matter of time before the cold mountain rain began. Luckily, we arrived in town only minutes after a light patter of rain, feeling a great sense of accomplishment from both the route and the incredible mountains we had walked amongst.
As I walked through the town I found the Israeli group’s guide and figured out which hotel they were staying out, then wandered around for a bit to look at the other hotels. We had a hard time finding a hotel with anyone there to respond (since it’s off season) and I stopped into a bakery to get a fresh chocolate roll (the first bakeries we had seen on the entire trail that actually had baked goods ready to eat). As I asked for my roll I heard someone say “Peter!” and turned around to see Katherine (the German whose birthday was the day before) there, so I talked to her for a bit and finally decided to shack up with the Israeli group.
Once again the evening was spent in an entertaining manner, with the Israeli girls teaching me a simple card game called “Yaniv” and a generally great relaxing time. We all agreed we would be spending the next two days in Manang to help acclimatize to the altitude (highly recommended) so I went to bed early looking forward to a genuine “rest” day of not hiking miles through the mountains with many pounds on my back.
Day 6: Rest in Manang, Happy Birthday to Me!
Today was my birthday! It’s hard to imagine a better way to spend such a momentous day than sitting in a lodge in the Himalayan mountains. I woke up at seven and headed up for breakfast to find the Aussie group (who had passed me a few times and vice versa but I had never spoken with) hanging out. It was cool to meet them and talk with them for awhile, then they left me alone to go out for an acclimatization trek. I sat there eating my “Tibetan Breakfast” of bread, curry potato cake, and eggs pondering the incredible experience I was going through and another year of life when suddenly Katherine comes in carrying a lit candle and a cinnamon roll singing Happy Birthday to me in German!
It’s weird to describe the morning that followed, but we spent the entire morning talking and it was simply amazing. This was the longest single conversation I’ve had with a woman since I left the US in very early February, and I appreciated it so much. I had a few long talks with Tak in India and those were amazing, and it was really awesome to hang out with Jau and Sanil in Amsterdam, but let’s face it, there’s something special about talking with a beautiful woman even if you’re not looking for anything out of it.
Around lunch the rest of the Israeli’s joined us and the Aussie group came back and before I knew it, I was looking at my watch and realizing it was nearly 10PM and time to go to bed. I spent almost the entire day at the lodge aside from a brief shopping spree and washing clothes, and almost all of it talking with the wonderful people around me.
Oh, and I forgot to mention – in the evening it snowed about an inch. Absolutely beautiful. I think it may have been the most incredible birthday of my life!