Friday, February 10, 2017

Nepal ~ Trekking the Annapurnas: Part II

Day X: Muktinath, Dec 26th, 2014

Descending into the setting sun towards the town of Muktinath, Thule and I follow our own pace and soon I am walking alone, stopping often to contemplate the stunning world that is unfolding before me. Here, a glimpse of blue, running water and a familiar sound of babbling brook. Here an earthen red wall that spans the length of Muktinath's ancient Buddhist-Hindu temple. And here, and old man, faces as weathered as the rock he sits on, covered in the red ochre and orange of buddhist monks. I slow and contemplate the sunset with him. We smile at each other and speak in languages that the other does not understand.

After some ten days trekking into increasingly remote mountain-scape, Thorung-La Pass marks a wall between two worlds. While the Mustang Kingdom into which we descend extends into nearby Tibet and is in itself a token of an ancient world, it has one defining feature that connects it inescapably to the modern day world: roads.

And with roads, the world is changed.

Walking into Muktinath is walking into a border-place. Like the edge of the fields where the woods begin, the end of the sidewalk, the shores of islands, this is a meeting place. Muktinath is known for its homespun wool, all yak wool, often spun from the softest fur deep down: the duck-down of wool. And on every street corner is a woman sitting at her hand loom, spinning the stuff away. Next to each of these old mountain sweethearts is a stunning display of their work: shawls, blankets and scarves. Some are dyed using chemicals. Many are dyed in the old method, using the same crops that grow here in the mountains and sustain life: barley, rhubarb and the like.

But this is not all that Muktinath is known for. Amongst trekkers, it is the site of a holy land, a long awaited resting place known throughout the land: the Bob Marley Hotel, where we will stay for the night. Here, life is easy. The showers run hot, the fireplace is always burning and the kitchen is open late. I slip away from the group and head down to the common room where a dozen young trekkers are gathered around a huge circular fireplace that is working hard to dry more than a dozen pairs of socks. I sit down and soon realize I am amongst familiar faces--at first unrecognizable outside of the hats, headlamps and scarves that I have seen them in.

Here is Rowan, the tall, pale Aussi who dislocated his knee--and relocated it himself--on his way down from the Pass, using his hiking poles as crutches until they bent double under the weight. Here is Rick, who, having hiked from Thorung Phedi base camp the same day, lost all his force mid-way through the Pass, as well as his way. In the intense cold, and low on oxygen, he took off his pack and began to call for help. Familiar motions to the dozens of souls who have perished on this very pass. Rick, who finally found his way again and met us at the summit. I hugged him, not knowing it was the first hug he had had since thinking he might not make it off the mountain. And Aliso, whose porter--hiking in a sweatshirt--fell oddly quiet, and was discovered to have blue lips. Aliso described a conversation between him and the co-porter, which ended with both men in tears. Only after waiting for some ten other trekkers to catch them up and huddle around the cold porter, did the collective warmth get him speaking again. And finally Deu, the porter who grabbed my arm when I fell at 5am and nearly slipped down the steep darkness into a starlight expanse. When we see each other now, we exchange eye contact, with meaning. Here, huddled around a roaring fire, we all share the stories that several hours before were too haunting to give voice to.

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And so with Thorung-La behind us, our group shape-shifts from hard, trained, obstinate to melty, lazy, limp-bodied things. It is 13.00h and we haven't budged from the Bob Marley Hotel. And this is fine by me. Having crossed the pass, we are now in full view of one of the Annapurna's tallest peaks: Daulaghiri, the 7th tallest mountain in the world, lies before us, serenely blanketed in snow. The trek ahead is a simple return, descending out from the mountains. As the group decides what to do with the days ahead, I notice that I feel anxious, suddenly confronted with unplanned days and the need to discern what I actually want out of my time here. My worries relax as I talk with Aliso, a gem of a man from East Timor. He reminds me of the freedom of unplanned travel and the unexpected joy that often comes from this.

And so we set off, one on of our last days of trekking in the Himalayas. Soon we will be in Pokhara for New Years, then back to Kathmandu, to Delhi and finally Mumbai.

Back to the flat land,
back to the noise and heat,

And before I will know what is what,
back to UWC MC, my daily routine, coffees with Oscar,
and dreams of what next Great Adventure

will paint this canvass of life that I am

In these last days, may I release and truly, deeply, be here.
Here in this place that I have read of, dreamt of, for so long.
May I soak it all up, knowing that--for all points and purposes--I will never again trek these mountains, this white land of sky-spirits and prayers that float on the wind, touching all those ready to hear and feel them.

And when I do return to that land, to the plains, the city, may I return sunburnt, weary and wild eyed.

Day XI: Muktinath to Kagbeni, December 27th, 2014

After the life and death confines of the mountains, bordered indisputably by sheer blue, grey and white, the walk to Kagbeni is a Great Opening. The whole world opens, the horizon receded and before you is a vast, barren landscape--a high altitude desert of giant scree hillsides backed by a new range of mountains, climaxing with Daulagiri, unparalleled and stoic.

This sense of opening reflects where I am in this trek: after a long, arduous haul, I am relaxed and newly awake to this world before me--a world unlike any I have ever seen. Yet while we have left the pass behind, we have carried along with us a company of fellow trekkers, all heading on the same route towards Pkhara, each bearing their own tale of the mountains behind. As I walk, I marvel at the colours around my neck. Finally seduced by the gorgeous weaving of Muktinath, I have bought a shawl the colours of green, brown rust. It melts into my body, my eyes, my mood. Feeling the hit on my diminishing rupees, I eat a simple bowl of veg noodles before we set out trekking. Nine hours later, I feel the gentle weakness, as well as clarity of mind that often comes with a skipped meal--a gentle fast. But now, sitting in a guest house in Kagbeni, warmed by a bucket of hot coals and the body heat of eighteen other trekkers and porters--old friends now--I happily await my veg fried rice.

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Tomorrow we make for Marpha, a significant step back into the 21st century and Western world. From there we jeep to Tato Pani--hot springs--and finally to Pokhara, where our group will dispand and head our own ways, to meet back in Pune in a new year, and, as Sara wrote to me, to find our own Himalaya to climb back at UWC MC.

Day XII: The Last Walk: Kagbeni to Marpha via. Jomsom, December 28th, 2014

Today we left Old Nepal behind. We set out from Kagbeni--an outright medieval village--and trekked along the delta flood plain of the great Kali Gandaki River as it traces thin, blue fingerlings of ice-cold water across a wide delta that divides two lands. We walk back into green pastures, a less hostile and less recklessly beautiful world, that has allowed us humans to tame it, just a little bit. Cultivated land stirs me deeply as we trek past paddie fields and see garden walls connecting homes, puffing smoke out their chimneys like contented hobbits at day's end.

Now as we approach the end of this trek,

we do not know what is in front,
only what is behind.

Trekking before the snow melts of spring, the Kali Gandaki River bed is mostly dry and contains countless fossils of ancient once-upon-a-time sea creatures.
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This trek, looking back, has been a walk through time and worlds.

From summer to autumn to winter and back. From urban modernity to rural antiquity. From ease and grace to challenge too great for some--remembering the torn jeans found in the rubble of ThorungLa and the landslide that claimed lives just seasons previous. It has been a walk through a reality I know, and a reality decidedly more mysterious, evasive and one that refuses to be dictated by the changing world around it.

Nepal, and the Annapurnas, are a doorway.

And like all these doors that lead us softly and quietly into life changing places,
all one has to do, 

is walk

through it.


Photo credit to: Ula, MJ, Arvin and the Internets.