Chulu East, Chulu West and Chulu Central as seen along the way to Yak Kharka(December 2003).
There were twelve of us in the team and on the day of departure, ten were strangers. This was a nineteen days trip and the Annapurna Circuit was no easy trek. Uncertainties abound, about the trek, about the ability of the team, about how well the team would gel et cetera. Questions were many and the answers would be found during the nineteen days.
Differences in the team were immediately apparent, there were Chinese, Malay and Caucasian; those in their twenties, thirties, forties and a teenager. But members of the team click so well that outsiders would think that we know each other long before the trek. First night of the trek and we were already reluctant to go to our bed.
For a Nepal trek, to have everything ran smoothly was unheard of. Reaching the starting point of the trek itself was a problem. A supposed conflict between the army and some locals caused a traffic jam along the only road to Besisahar delayed us by four hours. Traveling into the dark was inevitable but before we could reach Besisahar, there was a roadblock that forbade any vehicle to pass at night. Thus the Sirdar (Chief Guide) had to make impromptu arrangements for our accommodation in the nearest town.
For this trek, the distance to be covered between the villages that we were staying was often long. On days when we were lucky, we manage to reach the next village before night falls. A far cry from my past Nepali treks where there were a few hours of rest in the warm sunshine. However, it was amazing how the morale of the team remains high even after a long day of trek.
It was the off-peak season and there were few trekkers on the road. We were the biggest group in the circuit. The tranquility of the trek was appreciated although we were often the guilty ones who broke the peace. As there were few visitors, some of the teahouses were closed for the season and we were forced to move on to the next village for lunch. There was electrical supply for the lodges along the way. However, some nights were spent without any lights in the rooms due to few occupants.
Sad to say, the popularity of this trek had some negative impact on the local villagers. The giving out of sweets to the children may be a kind gesture, however, this had prompt the children to ask for sweets when they see visitors. Even some adults would raise their hand for food when they saw them.
On the forth day of the trek, the snow peaks began to show themselves, white giants standing against the deep blue sky. We would often inquire about the name of the peak from our guides. Funny thing was, the answers did not always agree with the map and some names did not even exist on the map.
For most treks in Nepal, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is always a threat due to the high altitude. Unfortunately, AMS may strikes regardless of fitness, age or even experience. Experienced individuals could tell the seriousness the AMS and the steps to take to reduce its effect. For first timers, it would be the leader’s responsibility to make the call. At Thorong Phedi, three of our team members were down with AMS and to proceed any higher would be dangerous. The leader made the tough decision to send them down.
Valley that leads to Jomsom. Strong wind in the valley picks up sand that lashes at any exposed skin (December 2003).
The Thorong La Pass was the highlight of the trek. Starting out at three in the morning meant that we did not have much sleep. This was to ensure that we could cross the high pass before the sun brings strong wind across it. The air was dry and freezing cold. Water in bottles with inadequate insulation quickly froze. Thorong La Pass at 5400m was a challenge and the high altitude and cold was taking its toil on the team. There was some confusion when there was strong advice from another trekker to bring one of our team members down as he was having some difficulty coping with the climb. The high mountain was no place for long debates, right or wrong, the leader had to make a decision and that decision should be respected. The final decision by our leader was to get everybody over the high pass as soon as possible. It was less than an hour of trek away.
After crossing the pass, the effect of the high altitude subsided and the land was warming up under the sun. AMS was no longer a threat but the rest of the journey was no walk in the park. The trek towards Jomsom brought us through the Kali Gandakhi Gorge with its strong wind picking up sand and lashing at us. We were supposed to be descending but the trip from Tatopani to Ghorapani was a full day of ascent. On the last day of trek and a final episode before completing the tour, we met the Maoist separatists where there were compulsory “donations”.
Despite the difficulties, the Annapurna Circuit showed us its charm that drew people to it. Magnificent mountains and beautiful terraces can be seen all year round. Unique to this time of the year, trees were shedding their leaves and grasses were shedding their feathery seeds in preparation for the winter. Poinsettas splashes brilliant red blooms in the otherwise dull background. Oranges on the trees hung like decorations for the coming Christmas. Apples clung onto the branches while the leaves had all fallen from the trees.
The wonderful people we met on the trek. On the first night, the teahouse owner who had worked in Singapore and Malaysia was so excited to see us that he kept talking to us in Malay. But most of us did not understand Malay and even those who knew had difficulty understanding his Malay dialect. Polite smiles were exchanged as he offered us oranges picked from his backyard. There were the children who sang the local folk song and followed us halfway to the next village. The dancing and singing at Ghorapani and not to mention the mother who nearly betrothed her beautiful daughter to a fellow team member.
Huffing and puffing, headaches and teary eyes, things went wrong but at the end of the day, all these were just part of a beautiful memory. The wounds healed and the hardships fade away. It made me wonder what was it that made eleven strangers to put aside their differences and enjoyed each others company for nineteen days of their lives? Someday, we might have a chance to trek together again as friends on the day of departure.