Sunday, November 23, 2014
One of my greatest adventures so far - the Annapurna Base Camp Trek in the Nepali Himalayan mountains.
I've been dreaming about this particular trek since 2008 when I first heard about it while backpacking through South America. Lush green jungle, ice-cold mountain currents and snow-capped peaks, all in a 10 day trek. The Annapurna Base Camp trek is a quite popular trek among backpackers and hikers alike since it is easily accessible and offers a lot of teahouses and lodges en route, so one does not need to carry any tent or food supplies. With the Base Camp at 4100 m of altitude, it has a reasonable altitude profile for beginners like my brother and me, so we decided to hit the road without any porter or guide, carrying our 10 kg backpacks all to the top ourselves.
We started from Pokhara early in the morning and were faced with what seemed like a million stone steps to mount to conquer the first 1000 m of altitude. We all wished we had packed lighter and we were more than happy when those unfortunate steps finally turned into small trails though some dense forest. On the first days of our trek, it was a constant up and down, every few hundred meters we gained in altitude we lost in the next valley, only to face a steep climb the next morning again. So, in total, we made between 1000 and 2000 cumulative meters of altitude in a day.
On a normal trekking day, we would get up at 6 a.m., have a quick breakfast with porridge or tasty Gurung bread with honey and then start our 6 to 8 hour hike to the next destination. Usually, we would hike for a couple of hours, stopping for an occasional picture-taking session or some water refill, and then have lunch at one of the lodges along the way. We quickly learned that you better order something easy for lunch, like fried rice or noodles, if you don't want to spend hours waiting for your food, and then continued our way for the last climb of the day to arrive early enough at the village to find a room at one of the lodges. Upon arrival, we would order dinner to make sure we got food in time and not be starving for hours while they prepare everything from scratch.
The evenings were usually spent journaling or playing cards and everybody fell asleep by 9 p.m. at the latest, exhausted and eager to move on the next day.
We met a lot of nice and interesting people on the way, over lunch and card games. While everybody had his or her own pace on the trek, we always caught up with the people at the lodges, reunited over a cup of tea or a game of tarot.
The views got more and more breathtaking with the days and I don't think the pictures do them justice. Early in the morning the skies were usually clear in the brisk morning air and we had a 360° panorama of snow-capped mountain peaks while we were, at least on the first days, still hiking in lush jungle. On the trek, we often passed the Nepali porters who carried all the supplies for the lodges on their backs - everything from gas to heat the showers, toilet paper, pasta and rice and beers and coke (which explains why a hot shower on the top was about 3 USD and a beer about 6 USD). It was incredible, Nepali men are so small and skinny and they carry those loads in a basket strapped to their head. I was glad I carried my luggage myself, although most of the Nepali porters might feel different about this, since being a porter is a good source of employment there.
When I finally reached Annapurna Base Camp, I found myself surrounded by the various peaks of the Annapurna mountain range which is why the base camp is also called Annapurna Sanctuary. At sunrise the peaks are glowing in a pinkish red light, the sharp peak of the Machhapuchhare being particularly impressive.
With the prayer flags flowing in the wind in the early morning light, you perfectly understand why these mountains are so sacred to the Nepali people. Wherever you look, you are impressed by the majesty of the nature.
It was a great accomplishment having made it to the top carrying my backpack all on my own without any bigger injuries or concerns. With the blizzard covering the top in snow and causing the avalanches and killing so many trekkers on the Annapurna circuit just 20 kilometers away, it made me all the more realize how powerful nature is and how grateful I have to be to have made it back down safely.
It was certainly one of my greatest adventures - and hopefully it wasn't the last of its likes....
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Arriving in Bhaktapur felt like traveling back in time. In order to avoid the ridiculous 15 USD entrance fee to the Unesco World Heritage site that the city of Bhaktapur represents we walked past the main entrance and entered town through little alleys that took us into small courtyards and we continued to zigzag through even smaller passages until we arrived in the center of Bhaktapur.
Whilst the main squares are lined with tourist shops and restaurants, you discover a true glimpse of Nepali life once you walk down a little alley away from the tourist hub.
You find women tending to the their children, doing laundry, stitching or turning over the grains to let them dry. Old men sit together to chat or play games in the shade. Children are running around, laughing. A peaceful atmosphere reigns, no car horns, no engines.
The red brick houses are covered in a layer of dust, giving the whole place a touch of antiqueness, like a living-history museum of long past decades. However, you witness true Newari culture and tradition in this old city of kings and princes.
It was one of my last days in Nepal but some of the most inspiring and humble encounters took place in this beautiful town. While walking around Durbar square, I spotted a group of women peeling some fruit that looked very similar to a pomelo. When asking about the fruit, they gestured to me to sit down to join them and they handed me a few slices of the freshly peeled fruit. Some of them spoke a little English so I asked what they were doing with all the fruit and they explained they were preparing a dish involving chili and custard. At first, I didn't quite understand it, but they made me stay until they had prepared the meal and then served me the mouth-burningly spicy dish on a little piece of newspaper. I tried my very best to finish my portion, drinking about a liter of water to get it down, attracting a lot of attention and laughter of a big crowd of Nepali people.
It was such a nice moment though, to just sit with them, eat and laugh.