Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Nepal - entry 8

May 5th

Morning view from Shree Kharka towards Khangsar; imagine waking up to this every day?

The recent weather patterns, more concerning of which were the snow falls, led to a slight change to our original plans. If you'll remember, we were about to set out towards Tilicho Lake; to that end, we had reserved this day to travel from Shree Kharka to Tilicho Basecamp, a trip no longer than four hours, with the rest of the day spent resting, followed the next day by an ascent to the lake and return to the basecamp and then back the Shree Kharka. You'll also remember perhaps that I mentioned the area between Shree Kharka and the basecamp was slightly at risk for landslides; the snow increased the risk - more so at noon than in the morning, as the sun softens the hard, frozen soil and as wild animals roam more often in the higher regions, increasing the likelihood of rocks being sent downhill. So, in the interest of minimising exposure, we decided (well, Dawa did) to push the lake ascent into the first day so we could traverse the problematic area, in both directions, as early in the morning as possible.
Of the people we'd spent the previous evening chatting with, the German, Ukrainians and Canadians had been to and were returning from Tilicho, so they briefed us in what to expect, having caught most of the last day's snowfall up there. Warnings all taken into consideration (they'd apparently had some rather high snow to walk through), we left Shree Kharka the next morning, after the mandatory morning post-breakfast last-second packing delays we'd got quite used to by that point.
A look back towards Shree Kharka as we were trudging through to muddy path towards Tilicho Basecamp; Manaslu in the far distance

The first part of the journey included a fairly moderate climb (made nonetheless demanding by the increasingly lower concentration of atmospheric oxygen) with the river valley far down to our left, ending with a slightly steeper ascent right after a high bridge crossing, followed by the dreaded landslide area. The weather was definitely on our side, the brightly-shining sun having melted all the snow on our path - we had to waddle through quite a bit of mud to begin with, but by the time we'd reached the problematic portion, all was dry.
Adriana, Adrian and Nicu taking in the sights

I can never tell the difference between crows and ravens, though my gut tells me this is the latter.

I cannot remember the name of the peaks - one of them might be Pisang, but I'm not sure

Now, full disclosure, for a mountain-loving guy, I have a fairly intense fear - not of heights, strictly speaking, but of walking across narrow, exposed paths with abrupt falls and of very steep descents; it all stems from an exciting (if I'm being generous), stupidly, recklessly dangerous (if I'm being honest) experience I had in a short, ill-equipped winter trip through the Bucegi Mountains some six years ago. With that in mind, I was understandably apprehensive when we approached the "LANDSLIDE AREA" marker, and seeing the long path winding along the steep, gravelly slope did little to soothe my unease. Thankfully, that portion of the path had very few ups and downs so, urged on by both Dawa and our own reluctance to spend more time than necessary under potential rockfalls, we managed to traverse it reasonably quickly.
I'm fully aware of how unfocused this photo is, but at that time, "shit shit don't slide down a rocky, rivery death" was a bit higher on my mental priority list than "pay attention to focus!"

Hazardous as it was, the path offered some great sights

Though I'll admit I breathed a great sigh of relief when we got past this sign

Of course, this was AFTER the landslide area, and in all honesty, I didn't feel entirely safe yet
The basecamp would become visible right around the bend, while the path to the lake can be seen going off into the distance towards the center-left

With that part behind us, we soon approached the Tilicho Basecamp, a small settlement consisting of a few, recently built teahouses and, considering the remoteness of the place, it all looked very neat. We had a short, light lunch, enjoyed a few minutes under the warm sun and, borrowing a small backpack from the teahouse staff to stuff a few snacks, some water and an outer layer of clothes, started up the path towards Tilicho Lake. Important side note, a few entries ago I mentioned how we'd all, save Adriana, suffered illness or injury of some sort; well, it seemed that her turn had come and, coming down with a fairly strong cold, having fought through the headache, shortness of breath and, perhaps less serious, but no less irritating - running nose - the whole trip from Shree Kharka, decided to skip Tilicho Lake and spend the rest of the day resting at the basecamp.
Adrian, Nicu and I, together with Dawa, started towards the lake with renewed strength and progressed quickly, fueled by the warm meals in our bellies and unhampered by the heavy packs on our backs. Daniel, the Israeli we'd met in Shree Kharka, who'd made the same journey as us that day, would also make the trip to the lake, though our pace was a bit quicker than his, so we didn't share company for very long. The path climbed gradually for a good while, and, under the thankfully still blue sky, we were blessed with a stunning view of the entire valley, being able to see as far as Manaslu in the far distance, a most impressive sight. 
Multiple glacial streams flowed downhill around the basecamp

Though this was the main one. Nilgiri peak, a jagged, rocky protrusion stood proudly in the middle of the ice-covered ridge

As we continued upwards, Manaslu started once again becoming visible in the distance behind us

And for some reason I figured this would be an artistic way to capture it. Without of focus grass in the foreground. Hey, who am I to doubt my own hypoxia-induced decisions?

Though, just to be safe, here's one with Manaslu unobstructed by fucking yellow grass.
We also saw some interesting rock formations overlooking the path.

Eventually, the climb steepened, as Dawa warned us it would, a for the next hundred or so meters we zig-zagged up the sharp slope as grass was replaced by gravel which, in turn, become covered in increasingly thicker layer of snow as we moved up. Eventually, after arduously pushing up for more than a half hour of steep ascension, we reached a bit of a plateau and I was instantly awe-struck, both visually and aurally, as our surroundings had turned  pure white, glittering blindingly under the sunlight, with Nilgiri's rocky shape towering mightily nearby, and, in the absence of any wind (the plateau was somehow sheltered) or nearby people (as I'd distanced myself very slightly from the group), all noise had died down to complete silence, broken only by my footsteps and my deep breaths as I struggled, thirsty for oxygen, to push on.

 I know, I'll stick to still shots, but this was the only way I could impress upon you the stillness and absolute silence of the place. Also, kindly ignore the heavy breathing.
Long way behind us, hopefully not much longer to the lake

The rest of the climb, from the plateau to the lake, was decidedly more gentle than what we'd done the past half hour or so, though the snow added an extra layer of difficulty to our already weary steps (albeit not a terribly high one, as a path had already been established by earlier trekkers). Despite the less demanding inclination, the last leg of the journey proved to be the most difficult one, as we'd nearly spent the last of our energy (which, looking back, perhaps hadn't been fully refilled by the short lunch) on the steep climb before.
Dawa moving forward, with typical stoicism. A few clouds starting to gather behind us.

Eventually though, dragging, rather than moving our feet to move forward, we reached Tilicho Lake, which at the altitude of 4919 m was, at that point, the highest I'd ever been.
A bit less wet than we'd hoped

Our sense of accomplishment was ever so slightly diminished by the fact that, predictably, considering the previous days' weather, the lake was completely frozen over, and while a frozen lake makes for a grand sight in many situations, in that particular spot, surrounded by snow and icy peaks, we were rather hoping to see the clear, deep (85 m!) water. It didn't disappoint regardless, between Nilgiri behind us and clouds rising above some peaks whose name I do not know in the far distance behind Tilicho, the views were nothing short of spectacular. We spent a good quarter hour taking it all in, as well as recharging our batteries with whatever snacks we'd brought with, before, just as the clouds were starting to gather above us (fortuitously enough right after we'd reached our destination!), starting back towards the basecamp.
The lake, in all its frozen magnificence, clouds rising from and around tall peaks behind it. 

As well as from the tall ridge beside it

Looking back, we'd walked quite a bit through the snow

I've given up posting the de rigueur blue sheep photos, but I can't give up the moon shots quite yet.

Adrian, Dawa and Nicu, whose legs I had to cut off to fit a bit of the lake in; the alternative of walking tens of meters back did not appeal to me

And a close-up of the peaks behind them and behind the lake

Travelling downhill proved to be much less demanding; we ran into Daniel somewhere before the steep descent that preceded the plateau and wished him the best as he continued towards the lake, unintimidated by the gathering clouds, then made good time the rest of the way back. Even the steeper portions, which I'd been a bit worried about climbing down because a sizeable part was rather wet from the melting snow and I feared the evening's rapid fall in temperature might have frozen some of that area (a fear which, I might add, proved to be no entirely unfounded!) went by without incident and, soon enough, we were back at the basecamp, famished, exhausted and thoroughly excited about the trip we'd finished.
After starting the descent, looking back towards Nilgiri showed a slightly less welcoming sight

Though Manaslu shone on, despite clouds gathering around it as well

A final look back, while nearing the basecamp. Quite a different sight from what we'd seen on the way up.

We spent the evening around the stove, joined by Daniel (who made it back about an hour later) and a group of Dutch who'd been trekking the Annapurna range for about two weeks (if I remember correctly) and were nearing the end of their trip: the classical circuit crossed from the Manang to the Mustang region through Thorong La ("la" meaning pass in Nepali, calling it "Thorong La pass" would be redundant); alternatively, on could pursue the Tilicho Pass, continuing past the lake and descending on the other side, eventually reaching the city of Jomson (the major hub of the area, having an airport and all). This approach however required more preparation and, more importantly, tents and food, as there were no teahouses after the basecamp and at the very least one night spent in a tent was needed if such a crossing was to be attempted. The Dutch group was about to do just that, then finish their trip by flying away from Jomson, and while I envied the excitement the prospect of sleeping away from any settlement, under the, if you're lucky, starry sky, surrounded by towering peaks and, not least of all, above 5000 meters, I was more than happy that my own trip still had nearly two more weeks before we'd leave the mountains.
It was around that time (according to my journal) that I realised that, willfully isolated from most common means of communication (or, more to the point, not bothering to use the wireless connections most teahouses along the way made available), tracking the passage of days had become a challenge that, had it not been for the daily markings in the journal (or, failing that, asking somebody more in touch with the time's passing), I would likely have failed. Speaking of connectivity, one of the things that stuck in my mind was the evening conversation with Daniel, who, doing the Annapurna Circuit for the third time in 10 or more years, was commenting on how, among other things, the ease with which one now has access to the Internet across pretty much the whole trip partially ruined his ability to enjoy it by completely detaching himself from the mundane world back home. I couldn't help but wonder how something that's completely optional and open to people who actively seek it could possibly hamper one's, I don't know, feeling of solitude or whatever, when one is free to just completely ignore the availability of said connection and just enjoy the trip the same way one would if never presented the opportunity to go online in the first place. Going offline is never more than an "airplane mode" or, better yet, "turn off" button press away and, judgmental as I realise it may sound, why people would complain that they're given the choice of being online is beyond me. For my part, like I said, were it not for the fact that I was writing down the date each day, I'd never have realised that I'd already been trekking through the Himalayas for a whole week and, difficult as it sometimes got (and that day was the most laborious one yet), I was nowhere near thinking I'd rather be back home to my regular life.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

2nd Intermission - A short trip through the Cindrel Mountains

As I've said, I'm going to try things slightly more interesting (or needlessly prolonged, depending on where your interests lie) by mixing in accounts of my more recent trips between the Annapurna trek journal entries. One such trip's undertaking was spontaneously decided upon around a few pints of stout beer, and then very nearly forgotten about in terms of any preparation whatsoever until the very last day, as such things tend to happen when any sort of responsibility falls on the shoulders of the irresponsible. What we lacked in planning and preparation we more than made up in enthusiasm, and come the weekend, we were on the way.

June 25th

We'd managed to at least formulate the logistical part of the plan - Andra would pick up Simona, Călin and myself from Cluj in the morning, we'd drive to Alba Iulia, where Tudor had been on call Friday. The five of us would continue from there together towards Păltiniş, where the trek would begin. Things largely went according to plan, though we'd intended to arrive in Păltiniş a bit earlier than we did (around 12 o'clock), which didn't leave us time for any ambitiously long trip, as we were planning on returning the same day.
The drive itself towards Păltiniş merits mention, as the road winds uphill in hairpin turns, surrounded by trees on both sides, before eventually reaching a clear area outside the for rest with a great view of the lands bellow. Though we only stopped where the road stopped and the trail began, the sense I got from passing through was that Păltiniş makes for a fairly lovely destination, especially for families looking to introduce their children to mountaineering. Its proximity to Sibiu increases its touristic value.
Boots on our feet, light packs on our backs, breath of excitement in our lungs, we were soon on our way through the forested trail. 
Getting ready to embark on the trek. Left to right, Andra, Tudor, Simona and Călin. Car prominently in the middle.
The Cindrel Mountains, going as high as 2244 m in the namesake peak, offer gentle climbs and soft, grassy earth to tread upon, in sharp contrast to the Retezat Mountains I'd been to two weeks prior. Being somewhat pressed by time, we decided that reaching Cindrel Peak was an option only if we felt like it as we got closer, otherwise we'd take our time leisurely enjoying the sights.
The trail crosses through the forest for about an hour before reaching the alpine clearing. 
The path goes on through the forest at very gentle incline

Rolling, thickly forested hills.

While there were no jagged, rocky peaks piercing the skies in an impressive display of defiance, no massive waterfalls thundering in front of us, no glacial lakes reflecting icy peaks in perfect symmetry, what we were treated to were some of the most lush, verdant rolling hills set up against the wonderfully blue sky I'd seen in a  long time.
Before reaching the ridge, the path went by a sheepfold; while the sheep were away grazing, the dogs were not, and while I'm something of a dog lover, getting swiftly surrounded by 5 or more specimens, growling and barking, did put me a bit on edge. Thankfully Tudor, a fast thinker and even faster acter, sacrificed a couple of the sandwiches he'd prepared to temporarily appease the pack; the effect would perhaps have been more durable, had he removed the tinfoil wrapping from around said sandwiches. Andra on the other hand, a more avid dog lover, attempted a different strategy to befriend them, by crouching and trying to pet the closest ones; considering we were able to eventually continue unhindered and she still had all five fingers attached, I'd say it was successful.
A solitary fir tree, out in the clearing, with a fallen trunk right beside it.

The green, white and blue combination looked stunning.

While we didn't see any rhododendrons as we'd originally hoped, these jolly little guys filled the gap quite nicely.

The ridge, which we soon reached, is traversed by a dirt road, usable by 4x4's and dirt bikes (both of which we saw continuing up). The road's quite circulated by tourists, which is to be expected, given its accessibility. We followed it for a while, up to one of the nearer "peaks" (the term doesn't feel appropriate, given how gentle the rise had been and the general feeling of softness all around), where we decided to take a quick lunch break.

Simona, stoically climbing the last portion before lunch. Tudor, a bit more nonchalantly, in the background.

Road going straight towards the clouds
 Lying down on the soft, if somewhat branchy undergrowth, seconds quickly turned to minutes and, seeing what time it was, we all decided against continuing towards the Cindrel Peak, opting instead to continue lying down there for a while more, enjoying the beautiful sight, the warm sun and the tasty food.
A soft and comfortable bed, fit for an afternoon nap.

Thick bush, covered by sof clouds, with a tiny insect hell bent on getting in the way.

Eventually we started back, and though the original plan was to take a different return route, in the end we stuck to the same path we'd taken up, deciding the extra time needed wasn't worth it. 
We did have a bit of wind, both on the way up and back down.

Different sheepfold, more silent a guarding than the ones who'd swarmed us earlier.

Obligatory group photo with the vast forests behind.

Fluffy sheep with fluffy clouds above.
It turned out to be worth it, as going back at a different hour meant seeing the forest in a different, arguably more impressive light.
Same forest as earlier, different light.

We reached the car fairly quickly, emboldened by another decision we'd taken on the way, to stop in Sibiu for a beer before heading back to Cluj. This turned out to be the perfect ending for a pretty great day, proving once again that, while awe-inspiringly impressive, you need not only reach high, rocky peaks in week-long treks through mountainous wilderness to appreciate and enjoy the beauties that nature offers. Special mentions of the day go to Simona, for doing the whole trip with a dislocated elbow, carrying her pack and refusing any help in that regard, Andra, for being our group's dog whisperer, and Tudor, for his sharp, non-whispering dog negotiation skills. 
The Large Square in Sibiu.

The tower of the Council -  Hermannstädter Ratsturm

Me trying to be artistic; Liar's Bridge

Not an overly impressive shot, though it's worth mentioning it was taken on the highway at some 140 km/hour.