By Michael Lanza
The old school bus rumbles to life with a painful metallic grinding and we roll forward, our chariot rocking side to side down a rutted, muddy street of a small crossroads town called Dumre in central Nepal. Angling down a hillside, the bus lists heavily to starboard and moves too slowly to escape its own cloud of choking exhaust, which drifts in through the open windows.
As we round a bend, an excited murmur rises among the Western trekkers on board. The bus, still inching forward and lurching violently, is heading straight for a swiftly running, rock-strewn creek. I glance at the Nepalis on the bus, searching for concern in the faces of those who have taken this ride before. They look bored.
Moments later, the bus drops with a vertebrae-fusing thud into the creek. Its submerged wheels churn up brown water. Slowly, the bus claws up onto the opposite bank. It shudders as if to shake the water from its body, eliciting a spontaneous outburst of relieved laughter from the Western passengers.
Then it stalls out.
After more engine grinding, the driver gets the bus moving forward again. Finally, after several hours on two different buses from Kathmandu, we arrive in the dusty burg of Besi Sahar, quite literally the end of the road, but very much the beginning of a larger journey.
My fiancée Penny and I are on a premature honeymoon, having hacked almost a month out of my work schedule and her medical training for this trip. After 35 hours on four flights spanning three continents and half the planet’s time zones, we landed in this small country with the world’s tallest mountains, addled but eager to embark on one of the world’s greatest treks: around the Annapurna Range of the Himalaya.
Carrying our gear and clothing in backpacks, we will walk about 150 miles from village to village through two roadless valleys where the Industrial Revolution is still largely science fiction, eat and stay in “teahouses” run by locals, and follow an ancient trade route over a mountain pass higher than any established trek in the world except for Mount Kilimanjaro. We’ve planned 17 days, the minimum time needed to do it, according to the two guidebooks we’ve pored over.
But despite the books, we have little idea what to expect—including whether 17 days will be enough time, whether we’ll get sick from contaminated water or food, or how much trouble we’ll have just communicating with locals. Our biggest concern, though, is whether we’ll make it across the Thorung La, a mountain pass at 17,769 feet—where, we have been warned, “people die every year.”
Marsyangdi River Valley
With buildings of stone and brick and corrugated-tin roofs standing shoulder-to-shoulder along the dirt main road, Besi Sahar evokes exactly what it is: a frontier trading post. At the best hotel in town, 120 rupees—about $2, what will turn out to be one of our most expensive nights on the trek—gets Penny and me a room where we lay sleeping bags on the thin mattresses of twin beds. Our bathroom features the standard Nepal toilet: a hole in the floor.
The next morning dawns clear and warm for the start of our long walk. It’s late October, post-monsoon, which here, almost within shouting distance of the Tropic of Cancer, mimics September in New England or the Pacific Northwest: t-shirt days, fleece-jacket nights. Penny and I weave among mules, people, and merchants standing before open storefronts on Besi Sahar’s main street; then, beyond town, follow a dirt track the width of a country road. Lush forest and rice terraces like endless staircases climb high up precipitous valley walls. The Marsyangdi River, which we will follow upstream for 10 days, roils murky with glacial runoff. Far off, framed by the bookend walls of the valley, the world’s eighth-highest mountain, 26,760-foot Manaslu, pastes daunting walls of snow and ice against the sky.
A few other Western trekkers share the road, but mostly we see Nepalis walking between villages, including porters carrying huge loads on their backs. From wooden shacks, small children call out, “Namaste!”—the standard greeting among Nepalis, which translates literally as “I salute the god within you.”
In the village of Khudi, we cross the first of innumerable suspension bridges spanning the Marsyangdi, a structure of steel cables, bamboo and wood that sways under its constant human traffic. In Bhul Bhule, we stop at a hotel for a typical Nepali lunch of garlic soup and daal bhaat, a staple consisting of white rice, lentils, and vegetables.
Later that afternoon, in Bahudanda, a village where chickens, goats, and cattle roam dirt streets and fires flicker on stone floors inside one-room homes, we get a room whose window shutters open onto a view of mud-and-thatch huts and rice terraces cascading far down the valley. I take a frigid shower in a cell-like outbuilding where faint daylight filters in through a tiny window. A sign unnecessarily pleads: “Please conserve water. It is carried up here.”
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That evening in our hotel’s “restaurant,” we sit around one of three picnic tables with four companions we met today and will hike with for the remainder of the trek: Mikael, Tom and Charlie, all from Seattle, and Gorazd, who is from Slovenia. While we trade travel stories, the innkeeper’s wife periodically bursts from the kitchen, calling out in words vaguely English the name of the dish in her hands. Each time, we exchange puzzled looks with the guests at the other two tables. It’s hard to say whether the confusion is lessened or exacerbated by the fact that the fare varies little: daal bhaat, garlic soup, fried potatoes, or fried macaroni and vegetables.
The lights go out during dinner, throwing us into complete blackness. The innkeeper quickly lights candles for each table, explaining that Bahudanda just got electricity a month ago, and service is sporadic. In fact, only a few buildings have power; for most villagers, it might as well be the formula for atomic weapons for all their means to access the technology.
Joined by our four new friends the next morning, Penny and I walk up a valley whose constricting walls squeeze the turbulent river through a rock gorge. Streams tumble hundreds of feet off sheer cliffs. High above the Marsyangdi, we walk along a catwalk blasted out of the cliffs—rural Nepal’s version of an interstate highway. Villages of a few dozen mud or wood homes perch improbably on steep mountainsides, surrounded by rice terraces which impose tiny, cashew-shaped islands of flatness upon terrain defiantly non-horizontal—one of many vivid symbols of the people’s struggle not so much to tame the land as subsist marginally on it.
Trains of pack mules announce their approach with the clanging of bells. Porters plod along, bent beneath unfathomable loads hanging from a cloth sling over their foreheads. One man, his face lined with age and grimacing with pain, leans on a walking stick beneath four burlap sacks of grain and three cases of Coke and Sprite bottles, his back-breaking cargo on its way to tourist hotels farther up valley.
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In this stretch of the valley, the trail gets periodically relocated to whichever side of the river has suffered the fewest landslides. We traverse scars as wide as the length of a football field, where the ground has turned inside-out, coughing up boulders and gravel. In Bagarchap, we walk solemnly past disquieting memorials to 20 people killed by one such landslide just two years ago.
But the landslides are just one commuting hazard in rural Nepal.
Hiking up a hill along the trail, I’m startled by the sudden thunder of hooves. I look up into the wild eyes of a beefy ram, horns lowered, charging. There’s no time to react. But the ram dodges us and disappears around the next bend. Moments later, a teenage boy appears, pauses, looks around. I put my forefingers to my forehead, mimicking horns, and point down the trail; he sprints off.
Chame to Pisang
On our fourth day, in Chame, a town of several hundred people, government offices, and numerous shops along its cobblestone streets, several children approach me. Using my few memorized Nepali phrases, I tell them my name and that I’m from America—and a crowd of adults and children suddenly materializes to hear the foreigner speaking in their tongue. The children babble excitedly, their words completely unintelligible to me. I don’t even know the Nepali phrase for “I do not understand.” Lost in confusion, I sheepishly wave and shout, “Namaste!” and walk on.
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Looming above Chame, twice again as high as the ground where we stand, the white faces of Annapurna II and Lamjung Himal wear the dawn hours before its light finds Chame’s stone buildings. And here in town, at 8,000 feet, those mountain walls extinguish the day early: When the sun fizzles behind Lamjung Himal at 3 p.m., an icy wind appears with the stealth of bats, foreshadowing the days ahead.
Several days into our trek, at 10,000 feet above sea level, my own labored breathing fills my ears as we walk uphill. I pause and look up. Just ahead, the blockish, dirt-and-fieldstone homes of Upper Pisang, which from a distance virtually disappear into the bleak, brown mountainside beyond, look as ancient and lifeless as ruins.
Then the village children rush out to greet the six of us, and pandemonium breaks loose.