Happy February Farmgirl friends! I hope you all had a lovely “Love Day” as Ava calls it. We’ve been plastering hearts on things for awhile now in anticipation of the holiday, but I’m afraid it passed without much fanfare. Heart-shaped pancakes are very good though!
The last month has been extra busy. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions: we have celebrated many birthdays (both of my kids included!); remembered my brother who we lost far too early; and are presently grieving the loss of Evan’s gentle, intelligent and patient grandpa Clayton, who passed last week. It’s been a whirlwind of activity: we marched, traveled to Seattle, put on a couple birthday parties, have been making many phone calls to representatives, and have tried to get outside as much as possible. It’s been a whirlwind of tissues: everyone (EVERYONE—friends, family, strangers) has been sick off and on (mostly on) since Halloween. Luckily, I think we are escaping that cycle with the growing daylight.
As all of this activity and emotion and illness continues to flurry, I find myself (when time allows) drifting off into globe-trotting, escapist ideations. The wanderlust in me is always strong, but is piqued during times of high stress—probably a common affliction! One of my amazingly brave and strong mountaineering-avalanche-preventing-trail-building girlfriends is embarking on a South American expedition in a few weeks where she will climb above 18,000 feet. And she got me thinking: to many, this sounds utterly terrible, no-good, awful and silly. For me, all I think is, “Mmmmm, Altitude.” It brings me back to Nepal…
(insert wavy graphics and music that makes you realize this is a flashback…dodododoooo)
I traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal from Incheon, South Korea in March of 2010. I had just finished 18 months of teaching ESL to middle school students in rural South Korea; I was in the first few months of falling in love with Evan; and I was ready for an adventure! I was to set off on a solo trek around the Annapurna Circuit—a 180 mile hike around the Annapurna Massif. It was an incredible trip that brought me into beautiful villages, through forests of rhododendrons and over incredible braided rivers. The apex of the trek was crossing the Thorung La pass at over 17,700 feet.
This was a few years before I became MaryJaneFarm’s Rural Farmgirl, but I was still acutely aware of the rural nature of these villages. Many of the villages aren’t accessible by road. Villagers trek between the villages with their goods and most people live a subsistence lifesytle. Electricity is scarce and the internet is scarcer. The people are poor, but not devastatingly so. I often wondered if they would think of themselves as poor if privileged people like me didn’t continuously tromp through their towns. And the roads that were creeping higher and higher up into the region—were the welcome or not? They would bring economic opportunity, but probably crime and pollution as well. I found that I met many different opinions on their way of life, but mostly people were happy with the way things were and had little yearning to move away. This was immersion into rural living and concerns at its finest.
Even getting to the start of the trek was an eye-opening experience. I took a small bus through winding mountain roads to the starting point. There were chickens in cages and goats on the bus as well as one man in a suit and gold chains named Ramesh. He told me that many years ago, before the Maoist invasions, Nepal was heaven. The busses honk their horns before going around sharp turns to signal their approach, but the horns aren’t a normal “honk, honk” they are seconds-long jingles. I tried to make some rhyme or reason to the songs, but never came up with any pattern.
I have been looking through my journals and e-mails that I sent on my trip, and it brings back a flood of memories. While I feel like I could easily write a novel about my travels in Nepal (I nearly have right here!), there are a few scenes that consistently come to mind when thinking of that adventure : children asking for “sweets” or “one pen”; chickens everywhere; turquoise rivers; rhododendron forests; bent over old women carrying huge loads of produce on their backs; a mule that had fallen off of the trail and into the rocks below, providing sustenance for buzzards; a helipad made from white rocks; prayer flags, gompas and yaks, oh my!; storms rolling in over the mountains; and steaming plates of dhal bhaat and curry (every meal! The locals all say it is their favorite food).
The Annapurna Circuit is a “teahouse trek.” Hikers sleep in bunkhouses along the way instead of camping. There were 20-25 villages along the trek that have teahouses to stay in, so the trek that takes most people 12-18 days has plenty of options for sleeping. My first day of hiking brought with it some mild heatstroke. As I hiked over beautiful swinging bridges, past banana trees and buckwheat fields, I felt a massive headache growing, as well as the telltale dry skin that comes with heatstroke. I stopped in the village of Lampata (sp? no teahouses in the village) but still had about 1500 feet of elevation to climb before I would get to the next village. I felt awful and sat on a shaded stone wall to chug water.
The village of Lampata has no motor vehicles. The “road” through the village is a rough stone sidewalk with stone walls lining it and small houses scattered among huge terraced fields of buckwheat, lentils, rice and potatoes. A young man named Yuba stopped and chatted with me for a bit. He noticed that I looked unwell and insisted that I stay in his home with his wife and toddler! There was another trekker staying there who was Dutch, if I remember correctly, and he had already been there for a week! I wonder if he ever continued on the trek….I ended up staying with this lovely family for two days. They had several goats and a pretty large potato field. I exchanged English/Nepali lessons with the couple’s niece and ate delicious food cooked in their rudimentary “kitchen.” What an amazing welcome into one of the most formative trips of my life. This really opened up my eyes to the amazing diversity of the world—diversity in cultures, wealth, abilities and lifestyles. I hope one day to go back and see how that little nursing toddler has grown up (he must be a “tween” now)!
Of course, each village I trekked through and each person I met has their own amazing story, but I figured I’d give you a glimpse into my journals and emails from my time on the circuit. I love reading people’s personal journals and diaries, and maybe you do, too! Here is a very small sampling of the pages and pages of writing I did while on the circuit. I’ve honed in on some of the passages that mention altitude and scenery:
3/11/10 Bhulbhule (still low): I love how much time I have! This must be one of these rare, beautiful moments in life where I just have too much time. I wouldn’t be surprised if the trek takes me 31 days…
3/12/10 Between Bahudanda and Ghermu: (after asking a man for directions) He was adorable and helpful. It all reminded me of a children’s book about times long past.
3/13/10 Jagat, 2100 meters (6900 ft.): My pace is slowing down now, which is totally fine. I am presently at 2100 meters, and I can tell the air is a bit thinner here. It will just get harder from here, and I am excited for that. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a much higher elevation than this.
3/15/10 Thangchowk 11:15 a.m., 2400 meters (7800 ft): I met a group descending this side of the circuit due to altitude sickness. I hope I am fine up there. Getting sick is my greatest fear. The snow covered peaks are a constant sight now! So beautiful and exciting.
3/15/10 On a rock by the river 3:15, Chame 2770 meters (9000 ft): A puppy in the grass, a chocolate bar in my belly, a rock by a river and a hat on my head—it doesn’t get much better than this…Oh wait, it does—Annapurna III and IV loom overhead.
3/16/10 Pisang 4:40 p.m.: The elevation is above 3000 meters now, and I feel pretty good! I do notice that I lose my breath quickly on the uphills, but I also get it back very quickly. My feet are pretty sore from the weight I’m carrying. I gave in today and bought a Twix (i bought a Bounty bar yesterday, too…). Chocolate is so addictive! It is so good when exerting energy. I love Hemlocks…one of my favorite trees. They look like wise old wizards in the mountains.
3/19/10 Manang 3540 meters (11,600 ft) 6:00 p.m.: I’ve been living the high life the last few days with amazing food and even better views. I love altitude so far—I feel really happy and good up here in the thin air. I will be trekking across the pass in ~55 hours. The people I’ve liked the most on this trek are the porters and guides. They are interesting and friendly. Some of them have pretty cool stories—mostly they are from lower castes (as indicated by their last names, I’ve met mostly Rai’s and Giri’s)—and do this to make money for their families.
3/20/10 Yak Karka 2:00 p.m. 4100 meters (13,500 ft): I’m still feeling great, even after gaining ~500 meters. I think altitude and I go together well, and I’m surprised.
3/21/10 First day of spring! Thorung Phedi 4:00 p.m. 4540 meters (14,900 ft): Today was a rough day. I think this is my “critical point.” Yesterday we hit Olga’s (a young Ukrainian woman I met on the trek, also trekking solo) at ~4100 meters. Tomorrow, we’ll do the pass! We’ll be leaving in ~13 hrs. It will be amazing, even if we feel and look like s#!t sitting at more than 17,000 feet above the sea…
3/22/10 Muktinath 3800 meters: Today we passed the Thorung La! it took us a looooooong time, ~5.5 hrs. But it was great! We had tea on the top, took some pics and peaced out because it was freaking cold. The wind was out of control! The horizon was dotted with 7000 and 8000 meter peaks all around….a very surreal and proud moment. AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) started to settle in on the descent for me. My head hurt sooooo badly. All I wanted to do was lay down and puke and die which was unfortunate considering how beautiful the views were. The Great Barrier and Dhaulagiri loomed ahead of us while the immediate landscape was dry and wild west-esque. Huge canyons were all around and I felt like Cowboys and Indians could have started shooting it out at any moment.
3/23 Kagbeni, 2800 meters: We left Muktinath…We continued west along the Kali Gandaki (river) to Kagbeni. We were in the restricted Mustang area! No one stopped us, in fact we didn’t see any other people. It was awesome and beautiful. Tibet was just over some barrier mountains and we walked through salt from the bottom of an ancient ocean and found fossils from millennia ago. *The restricted Mustang area is off limits to unaccompanied tourists…we just walked under a gate and were ready to play stupid if anyone stopped us…probably not the best decision!*
3/24 Jomsom 4:15 p.m. 2760 meters: Today is brother Evan’s 24th birthday—his golden birthday. I wonder what he would be like now, seven years after his death. Would he be a banjo playing wandering hippie? A college student? Stuck at a dead end job? A souz chef at a prestigious organic restaurant? Working on a salmon boat in Alaska? I don’t know and I guess I will never know. I do know he lives on in our memories, however skewed they are…..I am homesick and Evansick (my now partner Evan! not brother Evan! it’s confusing…). I want whiskey and Skype and everything nice. I love altitude. Maybe that’s why I’m crabby—too much pressure down here.
3/25 Tukuche 5:20 p.m. 2580 meters: We took routes through villages in the hills away from the annoying dusty main road. Chimang has to be one of the best villages I’ve ever seen. It had the air of a hobbit village or some other fairy-tale place. I will have to return.
3/26 Lete 5:10 p.m. 2480 meters: I am alone now and surprised at the altitude still! Today was a tough day. I got a little lost in a village called Konjo (sp?). An old, old, old coughing lady helped me get back on track. I followed her for a good 200 meters, her speaking Nepali the whole time. The people here are so helpful and genuine. I pushed myself too hard, but I’m so excited to get to internet and a backpack-less day that I got ahead of myself. I bet it will take another four days to finish. I need to relax one day or I will do something dumb like roll my ankle. According to my map I went about eleven miles today in six hours. Is that correct? It seems crazy but maybe I did. My legs are sore, my feet are sore, my eyes burn from the wind and my period is relentless. I spent most of the day traversing the Kali Gandaki Riverbed. It was great avoiding those dust spewing, clown-horned mini buses.
3/27 Tatopani 6:15 p.m. ~1100 meters: I stopped for lunch in Racchu Chuchare (sp??) and it took forever for the food to come while a storm brewed to the north. I ran from the storm for the rest of the road to Tatopoani. That part of the trail is slated to be 2.5 hours but I did it in 1, ha! Tatopani (it means hot water—there is a hot spring here) is nice. I may stay tomorrow for a rest day. The next part of the trek is a 1750 meter climb….I don’t think my legs are ready.
3/28 Tatopani: Today has been very nice. I woke up at six and sat watching the sun light up Nilgiri while reading and writing. Breakfast was leisurely followed by a nice stroll of buying some essentials—TP, sunscreen, chocolate. A rest day is very necessary! I found a secluded spot and lazed away in my skivvies, dipping in the river, eating chocolate and reading.
3/29 Shika, Lunch ~2000 meters: A large group of Chinese trekkers just passed singing Blink 182. Weird.
3/31: Tukhedenga, 1540 meters, 7:10 a.m.: This is the latest I’ve slept in yet! The rhododendrons between Shika and Ghorepani are gorgeous—way more than I expected. Golf ball sized hail fell yesterday. It was the second time hail had fallen and it (thankfully) slowed me down. I’m glad to spend one more night before finishing up.
4/1 Pokhara, 4 p.m. I have finished the trek and am in Pokhara drinking Masala tea and eating a veggie burrito. What an experience! I rode on the top of a mini bus from Birethani to Pokhara. It was exhilarating to see the mountains and villages rushing by from the top of the bus! Super cool. And cheap.
(This one is from an e-mail to my family) 4/1/10 I finished the Annapurna Circuit yesterday after three weeks on the trail. It is one of the biggest accomplishments I have ever done…and it leaves me craving more! I guess that’s what happens, we always want to go harder and higher and farther…and a lot of people want to go faster, not me though. I liked being mostly solo, the ability to choose my pace was very liberating. Many people complete the circuit (or cut it short) after about 12 days. That is great, and all the more power to them; but I found amazing solace in walking slowly, arriving in villages early and writing often.
Yesterday had a tinge of sadness to it, as my last days in natural areas often do. I have barely any yearning to return to the city (although reliable internet and bathrooms with toilet paper are a plus) after almost wholly escaping the roar of traffic and aggressive sales pitches of hotel touts… All good things must end, I guess…and the next month and a half will be full of other events that will be grieved when finished.
Props to you if you have read this far! What a trip down memory lane…It’s interesting for me to see how much my perspective, writing style and experiences have changed. It seems like that kind of experience will never come again in my life, so I’m glad I embarked on it while I could! What would my journal entries look like now? Something like this:
Opal made it one mile before freaking out. What a great girl! Cleaning these diapers is going to be interesting…
Ava thinks yaks should eat grass, but there isn’t a lot of grass here. Hm, what could they eat?
Ha! Kids and time change all things. Here’s to enjoying the present, fondly remembering the past and looking forward to future adventures! Spring is in the air and with it the hubbub of seeding, prepping fields, birthing baby animals and getting ready for the long days of summer. Let’s daydream while we can!
Sending you peace, love and never-ending wanderlust,
Alex, The Rural Farmgirl