Thursday, 20 July 2017

Nepal - entry 11

Chapter 5 - The Grand Push

May 8th

I close my eyes at 10, hoping to fall asleep quickly and only wake up when the alarm sounds at 4 o'clock. All's quiet around, save for my occasional deep breaths and Adriana's stuffed nose (she's nearing the apex of her cold, which seems appropriate, as we're nearing the apex of our trip, as far as altitude's concerned).
Five minutes. Ten minutes. Can't keep lying down still like that, have to adjust my position, I turn to one side. Better, this will do it, I'll be out in no time.
Another five minutes. Ugh, getting uncomfortable, have to readjust, perhaps turning to the other side. Yes, it feels better, won't be long now. No need to get anxious, it's only been what, half an hour, I still have a good 5 hours and a half of restful sleep to go.
How long has it been? Is this bed getting stiffer? Why's my right side getting numb? Damn sleeping bag, I can't properly lie belly-down, it cuts down my possible sleeping positions by a quarter!
Have I fallen asleep yet? It seems brighter outside, is it bright out? I wish I had access to some sort of device that could help with the tracking of time, perhaps something small, hand-held, the lights up, you know, so you can see it in the dark?
Relax, you're just a little tense because you have a big day tomorrow and because, you know, you're getting nearly half as much oxygen as you're used to back home (actually checked that fact up!). Just take it easy, try counting down, surely you'll fall asleep!
One, two, three, four.. Why are my arms shivering? Come to think about it, my feet are pretty cold too. Did I not take out the sleeping back specifically to avoid being cold?! I'm sure it just takes a while for my body to produce enough heat, the bag will insulate me, once I've warmed myself up properly it'll be fine.
Okay, let's try again. Six, seven, eight.. I wonder how tomorrow'll be? Climbing here wasn't a cakewalk, but I'm sure it won't be too much harder, right? And the stuff posted at Thorong Phedi, about the dangers of altitude sickness, pulmonary or cerebral oedema, emergency evacuations, that's all just to make people extra-cautious, nobody ever gets those, right? Plus, I've properly acclimatised, I'm sure I've nothing to worry about. Still, having to inhale deeply every other breath, even when lying still, that's not great, is it?
What are you doing, don't think about all that! Don't think about anything, just focus on falling asleep, it's what, eleven thirty? Come on, four hours of sleep, that's reasonable, just go to sleep.
All right, let's try again. One, two, three.. What kind of a dumb thing to say is that, just focus on falling asleep? Who the fuck ever voluntarily struggles to fall asleep? There's not a fucking off switch available, you know!
All right, all right, just, you know, try not to think about anything, like they do in the movies, the ones with any sort of eastern spirituality or meditation or, more exciting, martial arts. Clear your mind! Never mind what time it is or how much is left, what'll happen tomorrow or how the entire Nepal experience will be hard to top, just focus on your breaths and you'll fall asleep.
Yeah, I can do that, in, out, in, out.. Nepal experience hard to top, why would you bring that up, it's not even halfway done and there's so much else to do, is this really a top priority thought to keep me up at night? And why am I still shivering?! That's it, time to put some more clothes on. Smart thinking, by the way - go to sleep scantily clad and supplement clothing as I get progressively colder (rather than say, the other way around), brilliantly constructed plan.
All right, you're better (one might say smarter) dressed now, getting warm and comfortable, surely it's only a small matter of time before you fall asleep. It's probably no later than midnight, you have a whole 4 hours of sleep, enjoy!
Have I fallen asleep yet? I don't feel fully rested, is it time to wake up yet? I can't keep staying in the bag any longer! It's too much of a pain forcing myself to fall asleep, maybe it's already been four hours, maybe the alarm's just about to go off.. I could check I guess, haven't opened the phone since I started the trek, it must have a nearly full battery.
Yes, I suppose it's preferable to wondering whether or not it's time to wake up, you could check the time. I'm sure it's nearly 4 though, it seems so bright outside.
How the fuck can it only be 11:45?! God damn it, I am not going through another four hours of this. Come on, fall asleep, fall asleeeeeeep!
Adriana seems to be sleeping. Her breathing's pretty regular at any rate. Yeah, she's probably asleep. I wonder if Nicu and Adrian are. Or any of the other tens of people here for the night. Surely I'm not the only one having trouble sleeping? I wonder if there's anybody outside. Do people smoke this high? Can they? I can't imagine surviving here with a lungfull of smoke.
Stop thinking about useless, stupid shit and fall asleep already! Between dozing in and out and pontificating the feasibility of peoples' smoking habits, you might have got past another half hour. You don't want 4 o'clock to come without a wink of sleep.
 Yes, well, not only have the attempts so far failed to yield results, I think I may have put too many clothes on, I'm starting to get too warm. Also, that last tea before bed might have been a bad idea, bladder's starting to feel a bit full.
Nuh-huh, no way, you've only a couple more hours to go, just hold it in. Do you really want to be going out into the freezing cold and the stinking toilet? Morning's almost here, just keep your eyes closed for a while more.
All right, I can do that, just need to take another look at the phone, see exactly how much time's left.
1 o'clock. Are you happy now? Does this make the next three hours more bearable? Do you now rest easily, assured that you're basically halfway through your allotted sleep time?
I can't hold it in anymore, cold and stench be damned, I need to go. Just put a couple of extra layers on, go out quietly and.. whoa, what an amazingly clear sky and bright, full moon! So that's why it felt like morning kept getting closer. This is a perfect photo opportunity, I should really go back inside and get my camera.
It's quite cold though.. and rummaging through the room's sure to wake Adriana up.. Plus you didn't bring your tripod, you'd have to spend way too much time finding a suitable spot to put the camera on.. This isn't the best opportunity, surely there'll be plenty of chances along the road, you need to get some shut eye tonight so stop getting distracted by pointless, if beautiful, sights and thoughts!
Fine, but I'm taking some more clothes off, it's too damn hot in that bag!
Now there isn't enough wiggle room!
Now it's too tight!
Now it's too wide!
It's still too hot, I'm going to open the side!
It's getting cold.. not too cold, but definitely cold!
What time is it?
2:15. 2:45. 3. 3:20. 3:45. 3:50. 3:51. 3:52. 3:53. You get the picture.
Finally, time to get up!
Eager to finally and definitively get out of bed, I rush to put on my down jacket and start stuffing the sleeping bag into the backpack. There's already plenty of activity outside, people hurrying to get breakfast and start their climb before the sun rises. I take a few moments to look around the camp that's quickly becoming an anthill before heading towards the main hall with the rest of the group.
When you get used having meals at relatively regular times, your stomach kind of begrudges you shoving down breakfast 3-4 hours earlier than it's used, so I go for what I figure is a light breakfast: a chocolate pancake - enough carbs to hopefully see me through to lunch, in an easily digestible form, not to mention tasty as hell. I wash it down with an extra large mug of tea - must keep hydrated, no?
After breakfast, we head back to finish packing, whereupon I quickly realise, hastily and, I hope, inconspicuously, walking away from the room to behind a more secluded corner of the building, as I throw up the entirety of the tea I'd had, that hydration's best done gradually. Breathlessness and nausea so far, slowly starting to tick off the whole list. Thankfully the pancake stubbornly stayed in.
We finish packing with the sun already up and trekkers reaching the camp from Thorong Phedi, where they'd spent the night, and we start to trudge our way up the path. It quickly becomes abundantly clear that today's climb would be a struggle, as it takes no more than 10 steps to get me gasping for air. 
Morning view of the high camp, before the sun's risen, and the people starting their way up.

Overall fitness plays a great role, no doubt, and I see people who look to be in better shape than me (as much as you can tell how good a shape somebody's in beneath a winter jacket) walking past us or taking fewer breaks, but there's also a level of physical strain that you can't very well train for that, predictably, comes from the altitude. However much you train at home, assuming you home's not high in the mountains, you're still training at 21% atmospheric oxygen; it's doubtful you'll reach the same level of performance when you're nearing 10%.
Having said that, you know, to put things into a perhaps slightly overdramatic perspective, back to the climb!            
And another look back, from slightly higher up, as the sun starts to shine upon the distant peaks. Line of people forming down before a frozen portion of the trail.

Not long after leaving the high camp, we come across a frozen portion of path that's clearly too slippery to cross safely, so we have to deviate slightly to avoid it. The trail goes through various degrees of inclination, but even the most gentle ones are a challenge and I have to constantly remind myself to breathe with each step. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Each step forward, a small battle fought and won, and battle by battle, victory would soon be within reach.
Makes me feel tiny.

It's all so well worth the effort, though. I need only raise my eyes slightly and look around to be rewarded with some pretty damn amazing sights. Rocky slopes blending seamlessly with snowy peaks, the constant, jagged mountain line constantly behind us in the distance and the never ending climb always in front of us.
Adriana, with Dawa right behind her, coming up a slightly steeper portion.

The trek's highly circulated, we must have gone past or been passed by tens of tourists. For the first time, I envy those who travel lightly with the brunt of their weight carried by porters or, remarkably, horses. Some are even carried themselves by horses. My envy fades away when I imagine reaching the final, high point, knowing I'd done it on my own. Stupid, useless, arrogant pride, but it served as added incentive to push on.

I take few photos, far too few to fully capture the beauty around us. I mainly focus on catching my breath and drinking bits of water whenever we stop. Eventually, the rocky slopes that lead us out of the high camp give more and more way to the snow that's starting to slowly cover the surroundings in their entirety in sparkling white.
Sturdy horses.

The path's thankfully well beaten, so we don't have to add "stepping through meter-deep snow" to the list of obstacles to overcome. One more battle. And then another one.
We hear it before we see it. Climbing from behind a bend, fairly gentle slope, there's celebratory shouting coming from ahead. No doubt people excited about reaching the pass. A few more steps later and we can see the colours - Buddhist prayer flags, just like we'd seen in the photos - we're here!
The final push.

We close the distance easily, enheartened by the sight ahead, welled up with unexpected energy from unknown springs. Twenty steps away. Then ten. Then five. We've done it! We have reached the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit, Thorong La. The place is full of people happily taking photos, congratulating themselves and enjoying a justifiably overpriced tea from the tiny cabin selling them. 
Success indeed. Note the couple to the left.

We, too, savour these moments. We rest our legs and our hearts, we take vanity pictures in front of the large post marking the pass, we take photos of the lovely scenery around or we just sit for a bit and do nothing but enjoy being there. I gather a few tiny rocks to bring back home - surely pebbles brought from 5416 meters make for better gifts than souvenirs bought in tourist traps? We say goodbye to the district of Manang, which we leave behind us, to the east, and look enthusiastically westwards towards new adventures in the district of Mustang. In front of us a grand valley opens, with distant mountain peaks at the horizon.
I'd be remiss not to add a full group photo, all of us slav squatting it up there. Second photo on the blog not taken by me, thanks kind stranger!
Mustang lay ahead. I don't know the two people from above, but if you know a couple who traveled the Annapurna Circuit this spring and crossed the Thorong pass on May 8th 2017, maybe they'd like to have this photo.

After basking in the glory of our achievement and the warm, late morning sun for about half an hour, we move forward on the trail, beginning our long descent. While tiring in its own way, especially considering the strain it puts on the knees, going down is a bit less taxing on the heart and lungs, so we're able to go down with fewer pauses and make decent time.
The pass quickly falls from view as we descend.

At first, the landscape seems unchanged from what we'd seen before the pass, as for the first couple of hundred meters or so everything's pretty much entirely covered in snow. As we progress though, I begin to notice something I can't quite put my finger on that's different to what we left behind, in the Manang district. 
And the Mustang valley opens wide before us.

It's the colour of the mountains around us, it's somehow different, and looking closely I'm unable to tell what it is, but as I glance in the distance, to the faraway hills bellow us, I realise - everything's brown, where, given how low they were, it should have been green! No trees, no grass, no signs of vegetation anywhere on the slopes ahead of us, only dry, arid, rolling hills as far as the eye can see.
In all its aridity. The green patches far down are isolated. Many people going down.

Beautiful, long valley view in front of us notwithstanding, the descent is rather dull. Once again, we pass or get passed by several groups, but nothing noteworthy happens as we make our way down the nearly 1500 m difference in altitude before stopping for lunch at a nice, small teahouse at the base of the climb, probably the last place to sleep for tourists daring enough to attempt the circuit clockwise.
The place where we stop for lunch is right in front of us.

 On that note, the Annapurna Circuit is traditionally done counter-clockwise, starting in Besishahar in the east and ending in Birethani in the west. There are several reasons for this approach, most important of which it offers more time for acclimatisation and the climb from Thorong Phedi to Thorong La is less demanding than the one from Muktinath. However, for whichever reason (mostly to challenge themselves, I suppose), people sometimes choose to try it clockwise, in which case they cross the pass starting from Muktinath (at 3710 m altitude), or maybe the tea house I've mentioned above, two hundred meters at most higher, putting a 1500+ steep climb between them and the other side of the pass which, as you can easily imagine, can be a bit of a struggle, especially if not properly acclimatised.

Lunch turns out as great as can be expected after a long, hard climb and an even longer descent, but what impresses me (and everybody else too, I think) most is the freshly squeezed rhubarb and sea buckthorn juice, a refreshing drink that completely revitalises me.
The last bend and small climb before reaching Muktinath.

From here it's only about an hour more to Muktinath, our destination for the night, and already the trail is becoming more and more crowded, mostly with people who had crossed the path, but also a few tourists going the other way. The aridity of the hills around us becomes even more obvious as we continue going down.
A hill covered in prayer flags, right before Muktinath

The village within sight.

As we reach the outskirts of Muktinath, I'm surprised, expecting to see a village similar to the ones before, to walk upon a fairly wide, if dusty, road, with several story tall buildings, some even made out of concrete around it and plenty of cars on it. Muktinath is a major touristic and, more importantly, religious centre, with several important Buddhist and Hindu temples visited by both tourists and pilgrims, but more on that tomorrow. 

We cross the main village road towards our hotel (yes, a hotel, not a tea house), walking by small stalls with locals selling souvenirs, looking somewhat surprise at unexpectedly tall hotels before eventually reaching our own accommodations for the night. 

View from atop the hotel; the pass, now completely enshrouded in clouds.
We get there early enough to be able to do some laundry, have an early dinner, enjoy a cold beer (now that we were past the high altitude portion of our trek) and a hot shower and go to bed still looking back with excitement at the wonderful, if demanding road that brought us here.

Father (I assume) helping child get dressed. Voyeuristically taken from our hotel rooftop.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Photo break

Seeing as how I'm lazily taking my time with the next entry, here's a very short entry with a few photos I've taken on short bike trips around Cluj; the shots are essentially taken in the same spot, on different occasions. 

C─âlin and Radu, my two companions for the last trip.

My bike. Might call her Sara.

A flock of sheep about to call it a day.

And their shepherd dog, vigilant over them.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Nepal - entry 10

May 7th

I awoke in Yak Kharka refreshed after a good night's sleep, if a bit ruffled from the previous day's long trip, the shortness of breath which was starting the become more frequent and the, I'll admit, funny injury I'd given myself the night before by stupidly swinging my head nose-first into the surprisingly rigid clothes line. The sun was already shining brightly, thawing the water that had frozen overnight around the spring outside, and I took a few moments enjoying the warm sunlight before breakfast.
Pigeons seemed to rise and shine a bit earlier than the sparrows in Ngawal

The way up from Yak Kharka

We once again had a somewhat challenging day ahead of us, aiming the reach and sleep at the Thorong High Camp, the closest settlement to the Pass, before attempting to cross it the next day. After a full breakfast we left Yak Kharka behind us, namesake bovides busily grazing on the hills around. The path went up a reasonably gentle climb for a good while and, although we'd pretty much got used to the weight of the backpacks by now, the altitude did make things more difficult and we were forced to take breaks a lot more frequently than we'd been used to. Which, to be honest, wasn't the worst thing, as the scenery was as breathtaking as you'd expect. Annapurna III and Gangapurna were still in sight, probably for the last time for the foreseeable future. One might imagine it would get repetitive, even boring, to walk for more than a week with what might be considered to be the same thing around, but one would be wrong - those (or any, for that matter) mountains have a timeless majesty that I doubt I'd get tired of seeing after months of walking though them.
Adriana pushing on, Annapurna III and Gangapurna behind her.

At a certain point we came to another halt on the winding path and our attention was drawn (by Dawa's keen eye) to some movement on the other side of the deep, wide ravine through which the river flowed. Peering curiously, we saw one, then two, then more birds of prey flying low near the hill's surface before eventually landing in the thick grass. There were at least two difference species, as well as a couple of crows or ravens circling around, which I assume meant there must have been an animal carcass lying there, hidden by the vegetation from our sight. 

Soft landing. Potential rivals to the left?

The vultures (?) seem undisturbed by the newcomers to the feast - numeric superiority?

Their wingspan is quite impressive.

This is the last bird photo of the entry, I promise!
As imperial as those awe-inspiring birds were, knowing that they fed on carrion did somehow detract slightly from their grandeur.
Catching our breaths with this break, as with all the others before, we trudged on upwards, pushing through the pain and sweat and breathlessness (I'm being a bit overdramatic perhaps) as the climb steepened and the steps became harder. We passed a large group of tourists who, much to my satisfaction, seemed to be going slower than us, despite being helped by porters; as I've mentioned in a previous post, much of that satisfaction evaporated upon noticing many of them were probably twice my age. Will I be able to trek through the Himalayas when I'm 60 years old, given how I was gasping for air doing it when I wasn't even 30?
Though are plenty of animals other than birds to show!

A small, partially frozen waterfall.

The path continued up with fairly large variations in inclination, making for a pretty inconstant, if overall slower pace, compared to previous days. We also passed through another landslide area with a steep slope going down towards a widened river valley. 

Birds and butterflies weren't the only animals living this high!

A final look down the valley towards Gangapurna

Eventually, and much to our relief, we saw the distant walls of Thorong Phedi closing in. 

And how great it felt knowing we were nearly there!
Our expectations for this place were already high, as Nicu, who'd been through there two years earlier, told us how quaint and nice he found the establishment. Of course, tired as we were, we'd have settled for anything that provided walls against the wind, something to sit on and any sort of warm food and tea to fill us up. The place ended up meeting and exceeding expectations - not only did they serve delicious Nepali food, they also had freshly baked cinnamon rolls and, my favourite - apple pie. In addition to the great food, the general feel of the place was great, a sort of east meets west hippie atmosphere, with classic rock playing softly in the background as a mishmash of languages could be heard, interrupted by occasional bouts of laughter. We decided to enjoy the place for a while longer, even contemplated staying there for the night and adding the extra 1-1:30 hour climb to the High Camp to the next day's ordeal, or - even more audaciously - relax there for one or two more days  before continuing on the rest of the circuit; the purpose of the whole trip was, after all, enjoying ourselves, and if staying there felt enjoyable, what was the rush? In the end though, after sharing some pleasantries with a group of Americans/Canadians/one German, nudged onwards by Dawa, who noticed the weather taking a turn for the worse, we decided to stick with the original plan and left the comfort and enjoyment of Thorong Phedi for the arduous climb to the High Camp.
Baby yak protectively sheltered by the mother

The entrance to Thorong Phedi. Apple pie advertisement was well deserved.

It may not look as glorious as I described it, but it certainly felt so.

I don't use that term lightly - we'd had difficult, steep climbs before, either with our backpacks on, at lower altitudes, or without the backpacks, going on side trips, as was the case with Tilicho, at higher altitudes, but this was the first steep, sustained climb burdened by both the weight on our shoulders and the paucity of oxygen in the atmosphere - Thorong Phedi lay at 4538 m, while the High Camp was at  4880 m, making neither the altitude nor the difference between the two negligible obstacles to overcome. But we persevered, pushed on, stopped when we needed to and, a bit more than an hour after leaving the comfort of the base camp, stepped into the decidedly more austere dormitories of the high camp.
I didn't take any photos on the actual climb to high camp, this is what we saw once we got there.

The weather had, predictably, worsened, though only to the point that clouds covered the sky entirely - apart from a few flakes of snow that followed us at the beginning from the climb, it seemed it would remain dry for the rest of the evening. Very close to camp was a nameless (I think) peak half an hour climb's away that served for both acclimatisation and enjoying a last view of the Marshyangdi valley, so Nicu, Adriana and myself took advantage of the slowly fading daylight to follow Dawa up there, while Adrian, coming down with a bit of a cold himself, stayed back at camp to rest and try to reach his daughter over the phone/Internet. The climb up was certainly more bearable without the packs, and there were many groups going up and down, both from the high and low camp (a common practice was to stop at Thorong Phedi, climb up to this peak for acclimatisation then back down to sleep there before continuing towards the pass the next day), and while the clouds prevented us from having a truly amazing view of the surroundings, it was still just great sitting up there at roughly 5000 m altitude (first time going that high for Adriana and myself!), so we took our time contemplating the landscape in silence before turning back to camp.
View from the peak, Thorong Phedi down in the middle.

Upon a voyeuristic closer view, it seemed people were playing badminton down there!

Another, this time larger, but still partially frozen, waterfall.

The actual nameless peak, with Annapurna III and Gangapurna (I think) behind it.

A look down from the peak to the high camp.
Both people and horses heading towards where dinner was served
As dusk fell over, people crowded into the main hall for warmth and dinner, with seats around the stove naturally being the first to be filled. While the place didn't have the same comfort, hippie vibe or great music as Thorong Phedi, it made up for it with good food and the feeling you got, looking at the many strange faces (it was certainly the most crowded place we'd been to so far), a feeling of unity and fraternity between all the people in there, because we were all equally ambitious in our desire to cross the pass the next day and equally vulnerable in the face of the elements that might hamper our attempt. And that sense of camaraderie transcended, I think (or rather, I hope), cultural and linguistic borders, making us all, as I might have said before, brothers on the same path.

It was a rather small stove for so many people, but it did the job.

That night was the first one I'd take my sleeping back out in quite a while, and seeing as how breakfast was scheduled for 04:30 and presumably the most difficult day of the entire circuit lay ahead, I tucked myself in not long after dinner, hoping for a restful night.