April 10, 2014 by lucyhames
As Sarah (my lovely friend I met in Peru) and I fly over the Himalayas on our way from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Nepal, the nerves start to set in. We are beginning our trek tomorrow and we are apprehensive. We have both trained for this but our preparation has been entirely physical. We have completed zero hours of research. We don’t know what the weather will be like, or how tough it will be, basically we just don’t know what to expect. We head to our 5pm briefing at the Intrepid office ready to meet our group and guide. The office is not what we expect, it’s a run down office front filled with guys. ‘Namaste namaste’ everyone calls and as we explain why we are here, they look at us in bewilderment. Maybe it’s the skirts and the long hair, or maybe this is badly organised. Eventually Taklal our guide comes to greet us and takes us out into the garden with a map. We very quickly realise its just us on this trek, no group. At first we are dubious but Taklal talks us through two options. We can trek to Poon Hill which is supposed to be amazing but very touristy or we can trek via Sikles which is supposed to be the road less travelled and have very few tourists. We choose Sikles and hope we haven’t made a mistake. We leave the briefing and head for dinner eating our approx. 10th curry in the 3 days we have been in Nepal. Well we need to be strong for this.
Day 1 – 5 hours trekking
After very little sleep (more for me than for Sarah) and breakfast in our room, we head to our 8am meeting point. We hire sleeping bags and make the decision of whether we should take a porter. Sarah being the stubborn beast that she is says no, me being me says a big YES. Our porter Umesh (pronounced Umiss) introduces himself, we imagine he is 16 or so. His English isn’t great and it’s a quiet drive out of the town and up to approx. 500m, our starting point.
We begin our walk on a dusty road and within 30 mins get our first view of the snow capped Annapurna Mountain range. I am already stunned by the beauty of the area even at this far away from the mountains. I can’t imagine how much better this view can be, and this type of environment is newish to me, I have never trekked near so much white. As soon as we start walking the fear and trepidation in the run up to this disappears, we can do this, I know we can, now we just need to enjoy it and take it all in. We begin our first climb up into the hills, the view of the tiered fields for farming and the huge backdrop of the mountains is inspiring which is needed because things start to heat up quite quickly. The steps at least are better than many I have taken on previous treks, more suited to a 29″ leg than the Inca Trail for example (why people with and average leg of 26″s make steps fit for a giraffe will never cease to baffle me). We stride on and it’s thirsty work until we stop for lunch on an isolated farm. We are taken to the roof and fed noodles and egg. It’s pretty tasty (mito) but also I now imagine the cause of what was later going to hit me reaaaaaaaal bad. It’s lunch with a great view of the river and green lush mountains. It’s a short break and we are off again to reach our camp in 3 hours.
This is an ease us into it kind of day and we are feeling pretty strong. Taklal gives us snippets of info on the way and points out the Nepal flower, the Rhodedendrum. He also teaches us some Nepali including my fave ‘zam zam’ meaning ‘lets go’. It’s and undulating last stretch and the views seem to get more and more beautiful the further we go. By the time we arrive at our first camp the mountains are in good view and its glorious. We don’t know what to expect in terms of accommodation except for that it is basic. Confirmed. Basic it is, but the family greet us ‘Namaste’ and we are shown to our room. No hot water of course, just a bucket of cold, outside where the dish washing is also done, so we wet wipe and change ready for dinner. Dinner is a Dahl baht. It’s a Nepal dish that consists of rice, lentil soup, potato aloo, pickle and in this case random western fries.
We eat outside and in the excitement for food I knock the table and the soup everywhere. Burnt leg and full tummy later we play Nepali Rummy (same as ours but with 10 cards) with Taklal and Umesh and wile the night away. The toilet here is a squat one in a stone outbuilding with a sheet metal door, right near the eating area….I become very familiar with it later. We hit the hay around 7.30pm as we are getting up for sunrise at 6am the next morning. It’s freezing and I am wearing everything. Around 2am I wake with a start grab my headlamp and leg it outside to the bathroom, it takes me just long enough to recognise the incredible night sky, stars twinkling brightly, silence enveloping camp until….oh for the love of treks! Why does this always happen to me. Of all the places I have been hit with the Dahly belly. I am in bits. It lasts most of the night, in this freezing pit of hell.
Day 2 – 7 hours trekking
At 6am we get our wake up call and head to the viewpoint. It’s a clear crisp morning and there’s no doubt about it, it’s a stunning view of the Annapurnas. I however am in a whole world of trouble and have no choice but to explain my predicament to Taklal. Eventually I have to run back to camp and somehow manage to get lost on the way until Umesh finds me and takes me shaking back to camp. Once again I am stuck in the toilet aware of everyone eating breakfast 2m from me and I find myself laughing out loud. What can you do?! I collapse back in bed whilst discussions are had. The only thing I can think about is that the camp on day 2 is supposed to be better and I want a helicopter to take me there. This apparently is not an option so with sweaty palms I pack up and without food I head off with the others on what will be a challenging days trek.
The first part of the trek is beautiful, it reminds me of a mixture of the treks I have completed in the past, the rolling hills of Columbia Lost City, the tiered farm lands of the Inca’s, the shire like villages of Colca Canyon. It’s so pretty it takes my mind off my stomach but its really hot, maybe mid-20’s and its early doors. We form a single line when we trek, I insist on being at the back, just incase. I am keeping a positive frame of mind but I am weak so nibble on an energy bar to keep me going, just tiny pieces at a time so’s not to set anything off. We start to climb down rocky steps. Steps become our enemy over the next few days but at this early stage we are coping well. We arrive at the river which we have to cross and step stone our way over.
This is when it gets unexpectedly tough, and I mean really tough. By now it’s 30 degrees and we are in the valley of rocks, no cover from the blazing sun. We have to walk on these rocks for an hour. It’s without doubt the most challenging stretch so far. We step from one to the next to the next without it seems ever hitting flat earth. The sun beats down on us and sweat is pouring. Poor Sarah is also carrying her pack. No one speaks, we don’t even look up to say ‘Namaste’ to the few locals that pass us. I am feeling weaker and weaker, dehydrated and sick. I decide its time for emergency music. Of Monsters and Men keeps me going (thanks Lucy B) until both Sarah and I feel we can go no more. It feels like torture. Several things run through my mind. Imagining what it would be like to be lost out here, walking for days like this, and randomly I think of Nelson Mandela on Robin Island chipping away at rocks all day moving them from one side to the other for no other reason than punishment. My mind it seems is in a dark place. We come to another crossing and Sarah decides to remove the lower leg of her stunning North Face beauties and sits on a rock. Taklal tries to help and almost gets a kick in the head. I still don’t speak. When they’re off I hear her say ‘zam zam before I kill myself’ Taklal says ‘what’s that’?….. ‘Nothing, zam zam’ she says through gritted teeth. After the last crossing we escape the rocks and arrive at our lunch stop.
Obviously the first thing I need to do is use the toilet. Taklal takes me straight there and then I have to wait what feels like an hour whilst he runs up and down the hill to get water for it. By the time he comes back for the last time I am bent double and absolutely fuming!!! Both Sarah and I can’t eat anything. We feel bad as these stops are places that are forewarned and prepare for our arrival with food which we obviously give money for. The most I can handle is a coke. Sarah and I are finally able to converse enough to swear solidly for 10 minutes about the rock situation and I feel better for it. As a team we have to decide what to do now. Whether to head to our camp another 4 hours uphill away or stay here until I am better. Only the boys know what’s ahead so I ask them – do you think I can make it? Taklal says no, that its a tough uphill trek and that we should stay here. I look around at this tiny tiny place and all I can think is no bloody way mate. Taklal shakes his head, I pop another pill and we skedaddle, there is no time to lose if we are going to do this ‘zam zam’!
We hit the up within minutes of leaving camp, 3.5 – 4 hours of climbing steps. We catch a glimpse of where we are heading, the village of Sikles at 2300m. Yeah it’s up alright. I am so aware of the fact that the boys think we can’t do this that my mind is made up, Sarah’s too. There is absolutely no way we aren’t making this, and anyone that knows us, knows that me and Sarah combined are a twin engined machine. We are off like rockets, energy burning at the rate of triple spin. We stop only for water and a boiled potato. At these moments, the still warm potatoes and paper held salt are the best bloody things I have ever tasted. It’s gives us what we need to fly into Sikles in 3 hours with Taklal and Umesh at our heels.
We arrive at Namaste Lodge and take in the surroundings. It is absolutely breathtaking. The village spreads up into the hill with the Annapurna mountains looming over it. It’s awesome, so beautiful, serene and idyllic. We meet Mylo who runs the lodge and are shown to our room. I am in heaven. The room is lovely the view of the green mountains out front and the snow mountains behind it. It’s a mountain sandwich of gloriousness. We have hot…yes hot showers and there is a western toilet…stop it!! All our Christmases have come at once. We play Carrom, kind of like pool but not at all. We are clean and happy. We meet all of the family and the kids watch us apprehensively. We play rummy and are fed a delish meal. I can only handle soup and a chipatti but its lovely. I crash and burn then, Taklal brings me a plastic bottle as a hot water bottle and some pills and wrapped up against the cold I fall into a deep sleep.
Day 3 – rest day
Today is our day of rest. We wake up at 5am but its not too bad as we were asleep so early. The hours out here are basically 4am wake up and 8pm bed. There’s a lot going on outside so we head out for coffee. Unfortunately the weather has come in and it’s so cloudy there is no view. It’s hard to imagine that the Annapurnas are so close behind us when all we can see is clouds. I sit with my coffee looking across the green mountains and watch the golden eagles in the valley thermals. I wonder what Sarah and I will do with our day off considering we had talked about nothing but sunbathing all day which obviously isn’t going to happen. As the morning wears on we meet more and more locals. As its a Saturday the kids are at home and it seems like 2 families live in the lodge. The boys play volleyball so I step up. It doesn’t occur to me until later how strange for them it must be to see a woman playing sport, especially one this good. As I am playing I turn to see that Sarah has been swarmed on by the kids. She is surrounded by them, they play with her hair and before you know it she is playing every children’s game under the sun with them. The kids are sooooo sweet. Jianna is about 7 and so bright. She speaks good English and is so beautiful. Her younger sister Sopha is the comedian and speaks zero English. She is probably one of the most hilarious kids I have ever met. Then there’s Mika about 2 years old, I literally cannot describe how cute she is. Sarah is playing cricket with the girls and Sopha cant hit it to save her life. I comment that she is more of a bowler and Taklal and Umesh look at me sharply, I ask what’s wrong and I am told that bowler means mad in Nepali…hmmmm. We play all morning, volleyball, cricket, football, skipping, clapping, rhyming and it’s heaps and heaps of fun.
After lunch we head off on a village tour. A man opens the museum just for us and we are struck by how proud the Gurung people are of their history, their land, and their work towards a sustainable and economic future. ACAP works here (link below) identifying the issues that the tribes face in this area and working with locals to create resolutions. They are currently building a hydro-plant to reduce the amount of other natural resources used. We are also struck by how few people have stumbled upon this village. In 2012 only approx 800 people visited this area 128 Brits and 1 Irish. We are the only outsiders in this village, it’s obvious that tourists do not come along very often, although we are treated with respect and welcomed by everyone that we pass. The greeting here is to press your hands together and say Namaste, which means ‘the light in me honours the light in you’. It’s such a lovely greeting and every child we pass greets us this way.
We witness how this village with 500 homes and 4000 people works. The men and women carrying heavy loads on their backs with a strap over their foreheads (called a doka). The children herding cattle through the streets. The layers and layers of farm land of wheat and barley crops, corn and vegetables. The cleaning of the streets and homes with thick brushes. The washing in the street. It’s amazing to watch and take it all in. There are so many moments when I wish we could take photos like when I sit on a wall and a few minutes later are joined by 4 men in their 80’s, saying nothing, or when Sarah has Jianna on her back and kids from everywhere come to see (Angelina eat your heart out) but we are so aware of respecting this tribe that we can’t bear to risk offence by taking a pic. Instead I save these moments along with many others from previous travels, as a picture in my mind which won’t fade. In the evening we have an amazing Dahl Baht. We see a poster on the wall and ask Taklal about it. It shows a photo of a 23 year old Australian man who went missing in November last year whilst trekking here. He left to climb the pass and has never been seen since. It’s a sad and stark reminder of the power of these mountains and we realise what we are doing here is no joke. We discuss the next days trek with Taklal. He says he hopes we enjoyed today’s rest, because we are going to need full power for the next climb.
Day 4 – 8 hours trekking
We wake early for coffee. Sarah and I are absolutely gutted that we have to leave Sikles. We don’t want to go. We say goodbye to our host family and as they line up to wish us on our way Jianna gives us a red tika and a flower. The red tika is the red dot on the forehead and its a sign of respect. As we say thank you ‘Dandibahd’ and our goodbyes I am hit with a wave of emotion, blinking away the tears we march on. I consider my emotions as we start our climb. It’s different to some of my previous experiences where I have been choked by feeling sorry for some of the people and especially children I have met on my journeys. Here in Sikles I am emotional because I have witnessed something so simple, so uplifting, so humbling. I have seen a way of life which has filled me with joy. The way that the family is central to everything, the pride that the Gurung tribe have of not only their past but of the future they are set to create. There has been so much laughter, hard work, respect, community and love that it has overwhelmed me. Sikles is without doubt the most special place that I have visited and none of the above does it any kind of justice. I should also note that at this stage of the trek we are yet to see a single tourist.
We walk up and up step after step ‘bistari, bistari,’ slowly slowly. Visibility is poor and when we enter the forests it’s so misty you can barely see the end of your outstretched arm. It’s cold as well and our hearts are pumping. We are also hitting altitude. We are climbing to over 3000m and we can feel it in our heads and chest. We stop halfway and I share my last energy bar between the 4 of us. We see a sign for Tara Hilltop where we are heading. There’s still 2.5 hours up to go.
The higher we climb the colder it gets, step after step after step until we finally reach what should be the most incredible view of the trek. Unfortunately we are not in luck and a wall of white greets us as the top. We also arrive at a camp being set up on the hilltop for another Intrepid group heading up from the opposite direction. I don’t fancy theirs, it’s chuffing freezing up here. All of the local porters are there and we are spoken about and stared at for 5 mins before we find a space under cover and on the straw to have our lunch. Sarah and I are beside ourselves about lunch we are ravenous! We are given our packed lunches, it’s Tibetan bread, potato aloo and 2 boiled eggs. The most delish lunch ever! As we sit, the conversation turns to boyfriends. It’s obvious that Umesh is in love with Sarah. We chuckle at how much older she is than him only to find out that he is in fact 22! We are so shocked he seemed so much younger with his slight frame. Taklal informs us that the smallest chillies are the most powerful. Sarah chokes on a potato. Either way I don’t think Sean has anything to worry about.
We don’t stop for long there is nothing to see and Sarah and I have both lost the feeling in our hands. Taklal uses a machete to cut sticks for us. We are going ‘ dola’ from now on, down. Take the Inca steps, the Gringo Killers and times it by 20. That’s the next phase of the trek, it’s painful. A mix of the effects of altitude and weary legs makes it difficult and both Sarah and I fall. On the way down we pass our first non-locals, the intrepid group heading up. We are both immediately overwhelmed with gratitude that we took the route less travelled. The fact that its just been us has made this experience so much richer. We don’t speak to them but Umesh stops to talk to a few of the porters carrying heavy loads and explains that one is his brother, one his uncle and later on his sister. He exchanges only a few words and some huge smiles and we are off again. I wonder how often he see’s them and realise its not often at all, yet they are all working so a few words is all they will speak. I can’t imagine seeing my brother or sisters like this and the wrench it would be to leave them again so soon.
My legs aren’t working properly anymore. My brain tells them to do something but the delay in the motor function is such that I stumble time and time again. I am also starting to feel delirious. Few words are spoken but when my legs are on their last legs rather than cry which apparently so many people do at this stage, Sarah and I get the giggles. The giggles of delirium. Taklal and Umesh are bewildered. We come to a clearing a break in the steps, Taklal tells us 2 more hours, Sarah and I collapse, we can’t make it.
We sit on the edge of the platform and see the next village below us. Umesh tells us it’s camp and only 30 mins away. Sarah punches Taklal and we realise we can make it, just a few more hundred steps to go and the hardest part of the trek is over. Taklal can see we are over this, and takes us over the fields as a shortcut. It means that we have to slide down muddy banks to get there but we are so filthy anyway it makes little difference. We make it to our final camp and turn to see Tara Hilltop way in the distance (in the pic below, its the furthest mountain you can see). Pleased with how far we have come today. Once again we have done it in record time, it should be around 5pm when we hit camp but its only 3.30pm, man we are machines!
This camp is basic, the toilet has an open window at the back and a ‘bowler’ old man resides there watching as we pee, it’s most disconcerting. It’s cold here and after having our last Dahl Baht of the trek we just can’t wait to get back to our hotel. Sarah does not sleep and instead hallucinates all night. I remember the altitude hallucinations from Bolivia, it’s grim.
Day 5 – 1.5 hours trekking
We cannot wait to get out of here, it’s been like a horror film, this last night, the crazy old man, the sounds, the strange house, we are over it! We leave earlier than planned as we want to get back. The last trek is easy and pretty and we are grateful. We are picked up and transported back to Pokhara. We say our goodbyes to Taklal and a heartbroken Umesh and we are back in our lovely hotel room with hot water and wifi, it’s heavenly and I collapse.
This trek in the Himalayas has been my best yet. Probably the most physically challenging but not horribly so and definitely the most rewarding. It is the most off the beaten track thing that I have ever done. The vistas have been awesome, the culture and people beautiful, and trekking with Sarah, the most perfect trekking companion I could ever wish for. Our giggles have kept us going, our competitiveness made us complete it in record time and our shared appreciation for other cultures gave me the opportunity to express my emotions to someone who I know fully understands. The Himalayas are stunning, I feel so wonderfully lucky and I am already thinking two things, one I am coming back to Nepal and two, what challenge is next?