Everyone had left by the time we awoke in Dharapani in the morning: BJ, the guys, even our four-footed friend had disappeared. Suddenly I felt utterly alone, alone and tired at the end of the world. I realised I was tired of being alone, tired of being cold, tired of being sick, tired even of walking. I know that I wasn’t all by myself: PJ and Marylene were there too. Nonetheless the three of us are cut off from the outside world for most of the time. All the struggles and all the experiences we have are individual and far apart at times. “You think you are a team, but in the end you will be out there by yourself” Robin once told us. He was right.
I couldn’t hold back the tears so I was forced to tell the others what was going on. To my dismay they suggested I’d quit. Quit? No, I could cry every day if it need be, but I couldn’t quit. I thought about Losing Sight of Shore, a documentary about 4 women rowing across the Pacific. One of them had been a rower all of her life and loved nothing more. Yet at some point she started hating it: every minute at the oars became a struggle. She didn’t quit: maybe she cried and cursed and wished it was all over, but she rowed across that Pacific all the same. She never rowed again after. I had massive respect for the character she’d shown pushing on.
Her team mates had kept cheering her on, but for a moment it seemed mine wouldn’t be supportive at all. “So what then, you’ll hate hiking and never do it again?” asked Marylene. “It doesn’t make sense pushing on with this if you don’t enjoy it anymore” PJ agreed. “It’s like those people who stay married just for the kids” Marylene continued. “It’s ridiculous.” I protested: that wasn’t the same at all, this had an end date, I can do lots of other things if it turns out that way. It didn’t matter: the rower and I, we were both ridiculous, so with nothing left to say I walked out of the room.
At that time I realised I was utterly alone. Shortly after Marylene walked into my room. “I’m sorry”, she said, “you were right. I’m sure that all those people who did amazing things at times wanted to quit too. I’ve been feeling low sometimes as well. It’s not about enjoying the good times, it’s about getting through the bad. We’ll make it to the end, sister.” For a little while we sat together and cried.
We all called friends and family that afternoon, which brought relief to everyone. Six days we had left to the end of round II and a break in Pokhara. I expected six cold and miserable days, but they were only six after all. We left Dharapani the next morning.
PJ won the food poisoning lottery and it was soon obvious he wouldn’t get far. The road on the Annapurna circuit served us well: we waved down the one jeep heading up and got a ride to our destination of the day: Chame. Bouncing around in between the luggage on the back of the jeep was another interesting experience: unfortunately for me I was at the cliff-side of the car. I decided then and there that we for sure would be flying out of Jomsom.
By the time we arrived PJ was really sick. I was happy I chose to accompany him. Marylene is a strong woman, she’d be alright on the way there. After the puking was done and PJ stopped shaking in his sleeping bag I left him alone to rest. That jeep ride had actually been beautiful, I reflected: great views over Manaslu and Annapurna II. We were in a nice teahouse now. And I could count the days left on one hand. It wasn’t the worse place to be sick nor have a mental breakdown.
Long distance trails are far from always about fun and good views: they are about persistence, mental strength and determination, the Great Himalaya Trail testing each of these to more limits than I have ever known. I needed to justify to myself why I was here, and define why it was so hard.
Marylene arrived early in the afternoon. We both got ourselves a lot of tea and talked over our experiences. There is no comfort in this trail we concluded. In New Zealand we would bump into a town once a week, have lots of fresh food, a warm hostel to stay at with a warm shower. All we have here is hot food, which I am still grateful for, but there is little variety in it: little fibers, little proteins and vitamins. We have a roof over our heads but little warmth save for the two hours when the stove is lit. We have taken 4 showers since starting the trail, 3 of which in Kathmandu.
Unless we are in Kathmandu or Pokhara, rest is not truly rest. On days off such as in Dharapani, we stay in a concrete building receiving 4 hours of sunlight where room temperature falls below 10 degrees by mid afternoon. We rest, but we do not recover. Slowly but steady we grow evermore exhausted.
PJ insisted on continuing the next morning even though he was not feeling 100% yet. The day we would cross Thorong La was predicted to be the warmest out of many days in December and he didn’t want to miss that. I can’t stop that stubborn Norwegian so off we went. Even with strong winds and at 3000 meters of altitude it was a warm day. Once we reached the plateau above the lower river valley the landscape suddenly changed: here in the shadows of Annapurna the monsoons don’t hit and suddenly we were walking in a desert. Annapurna North, Mustang, Dolpa and the Tibetan plateau alike are all arid areas.
Before we knew it we arrived at Upper Pisang. Such a nice and yet easy day, could it be? The icy walls of Annapurna had loomed dramatically to the south all day. Annapurna II towered high above the village while four large griffins soared through the blue sky. Suddenly I felt curious, I felt an urge to continue up: I should need to see for myself what those barren mountains to the west looked like. Maybe we should try our luck in Dolpa after all.
There was peace on the Annapurna circuit, a peace that made me forget about the cold and everything else alike. I’ve known that peace before: in the mountains of New Zealand I reached what was the closest I’d ever been to a state of grace. I was truly happy then: content with myself, with my life. But in the mess that Kiruna became I lost it, so I ventured out into these mountains in hope of finding that state of mind again.
The Himalayas didn’t bring solace: they’ve broken me into a million pieces, they left me the feeling of being a fragile and mortal being. But maybe the state of grace is not in the walk itself, like it was in New Zealand, but after the finish line, after I’ve seen it through. Maybe I have to finish it, to become whole again. For the sake of curiosity and peace of mind, I must go on.
The cold was much more manageable in the heights of Annapurna North: there was no humidity in those barren mountains. Only the mornings remained hard: the biting early hours between getting out of the sleeping bag, starting to walk and the appearance of the sun. But the days remained surprisingly warm all the way up to 4000m. That was relieving. Between Upper Pisang and Manang the landscape became evermore alien: in this mountain desert thousands of sandstone spikes rose like castle towers from the valley floor. Above the spikes high slopes pushed up towards Mustang in the north and the Annapurnas in the south. A hurricane was battering the peaks non-stop. The only vegetation left was a scattering of pine trees and some dry bushes. The jungle we once started in seemed to be in a different world now.
From Upper Pisang to Manang the walk was again nice and easy. I reminded myself that there were quite some advantages to walking in wintertime: the crowds had left Annapurna, the trails were nice and quiet. The sky was as clear as she could be so the views over the mountains were stunning. The views had been good for all of the past month actually: we had experienced very few cloudy days. Sometimes we didn’t have to pay for our room but only for food and drinks, while free wifi and free charging were suddenly available everywhere.
That day to Manang went by like a dream. We found a place where they sold cheese: real hard yak cheese. That is one of the rarest things to come by in Nepal, so I had to get some to treat myself. The hotel we found in Manang had amazing fresh vegi burgers and fresh juices. Every shop in Manang was stuffed with chocolate cookies – where had they been all along? There was more flat ground during the past two days than on the rest of the trail combined. Was this still the GHT? Someone slap me, I must be dreaming.
Annapurna was all about type I fun: the type of fun that is actually fun. Most of the trail had been type II fun, the kind of fun that is mostly fun afterwards but not necessarily in the moment. And some had been type III fun, or not fun at all. Annapurna was the right track at the right time: I was truly enjoying this, a little holiday along the trail. My thoughts slowly brightened again.
PJ never really got rid of his stomach issues. In Manang he became sick again during the night. Manang was the last town from where he could take a jeep back, he decided in the morning that would be for the best. He couldn’t hold any food and he wasn’t sure he had the energy to cross the pass. For the first time the group split up. I felt sad for not being able to go with him but at the same time I really wanted to push on. Anyhow, there was only one place available in the jeep. Marylene and I accompanied him to the car to make sure he would get out of there. After he drove off we continued up towards Thorong La.
It was 10.30 by the time we left Manang so we cut the long day we’d planned in half. It was really warm by then: we crossed the 4000m line in t shirt, a not unpleasant surprise. Only one teahouse was open at Yak Kharka and it actually got pretty crowded there.
From Yak Kharka the way out to Muktinath was like a dream. We met some amazing people on that stretch: there was Owen who had been filming kayaking trips for two months, Sam the Egyptian who carried his guitar and played us songs, Ryan who must be the most relaxed person in all of Nevada, Tom from Perth braving the cold, and Blaise the mad mountain guide from Switzerland. We got our reputation as the crazy girls walking the length of Nepal.
I did not get altitude sick. Neither while we ascended towards High Camp at 4900m nor the next day crossing Thorong La at 5400. I wish I knew what made the difference, but I have no idea. I enjoyed the 8 high passes we crossed previously mostly in retrospect, after the head ache and nausea disappeared on the descent. Now I finally realised how it must have been for Marylene and PJ all along. I wish we could continue high into Dolpo but the snow beat us to it. Thorong La was most likely our last point above 5000m.
On the way to High Camp we had stunning views over the Annapurnas and the surrounding peaks. When the sun set that night the horizon became one of the most stunning paintings I had ever seen. I knew then that my friends had been right when I called upon them from Dharapani: I told them I wanted comfort and I longed to go home. They said I’ll have all of that soon enough: soon I’ll be home, I’ll be warm and I’ll be resting, and then I’ll think back and miss the quiet evenings high up in the mountains, I’ll miss the Himalayas, I’ll miss the trail.
The pass was an easy ascent to the top. It was less cold than it had been on Larkye so we could hang around for a bit and take photos. Marylene cut one of her remaining two dreads and hung it between the prayer flags as an offering to the mountains. The scenery made a dramatic change once again on the descent: even the pine trees and the dry bushes disappeared. As far as we could see Mustang was a sea of barren rocks, a desert of red sandstone and glacier clad peaks. In the shadows of the Annapurnas lies a Nepal entirely different and far away from the rest of the country. We could not go into the Forbidden Kingdom as we didn’t have a permit for it, but just venturing there on its edge was more than spectacular.
Our destination for the day was Muktinath, the second holiest town in Nepal after Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha. We payed a visit to a monastery that was a pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists. One big golden and one big black Buddha statue towers over the town and its desert mountains. Horses were trotting along freely, while women weaved scarfs out of yak wool and sold Tibetan handicrafts in the streets.
In that holy town we walked past the Bob Marley hotel. Marylene vaguely remembered someone talking about it and I thought it sounded pretty funny after all the Namaste and Peaceful lodges. We spent the night there. One by one all of the other hikers walked in, all of them had known about it: Bob Marley was the place to be on the Annapurna Circuit and rightfully so. The food was awesome, the atmosphere great. It was so different from any other hotel in Nepal and so out of place in this pilgrimage place. We had a small party in the evening eating vegi burgers and drinking beer around the fireplace. I don’t even remember the last time I had been so relaxed.
It all seemed like a dream when I woke up the next morning and strapped on my boots to continue the GHT. Our plan was to walk to Jomsom, book a flight there, fly out the following morning and reunite with PJ in Pokhara. Rumour went the flights were full. We checked and there was not a ticket to be found. Three of the guys had already decided to take a jeep to make it as close to Pokhara as possible that day. We joined them, thinking it made more sense to split the cost than to try by ourselves the next day.
The dream was not over yet. We found a jeep that we hired privately for the 5 of us all the way to Pokhara (normally a jeep takes 12 people). The driver had a Bluetooth connection so we could play music all the way. We stopped at Tatopani that evening and sat in the hot springs with a beer. It was a good gang of people: everyone was relaxed and having a good time, even though we spent two full days driving on dusty Nepali roads from Muktinath to Jomsom.
Road or air travel, any kind of travel has the promise of being an interesting trip in Nepal. On the way we saw a guy driving a tractor in a purple suit, saw road works halted for passing sheep, stopped by a pop up curry shop where the road was closed off for an hour. In the West everyone would be screaming murder and pulling their hair out if they’d have to wait for an hour, but in Nepal they buy curry, chapati and tea while smoking a cigarette and listening to Sam’s guitar. One guy was pumping up his car tires with a bicycle pump.
I arrived in Pokhara with shoes about to fall apart, socks that had more holes than I have fingers, shattered feet and a raging appetite. But I was motivated again: I was hungry for more. Round II had been successfully concluded, now only round III remained. We celebrated by going out for beers in Pokhara. It seems unreal, but we’re on the home run to the finish now: 45 days remain to Hilsa.
“There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for reason. […]
And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.”
Total ascent: 44940 m
Total descent: 43490 m
Total distance: 795 km