Photo Courtesy: Urszula Agnieszka Adamska
2014 has been the year of highest highs and lowest lows — I started it diving down to 26m, and ended it having risen up to above 5000m twice. Doing the Annapurna Circuit over winter break with 5 exceptional young people and 3 reassuringly present adults was a tremendous challenge and opportunity. We trekked for 12 days, starting in Chame and ending in Marpha, staying in teahouses along the way and being welcomed into nearly every kitchen by our generous hosts. We covered some 100km in knee-deep snow, through two valleys in the Lamjung, Manang, and Mustang regions, all the while surrounded by the astounding vistas of the world’s highest mountains. We braved the cold, clinging ever closer around coal fires and cow-dung stoves in the evenings and snuggling with Nalgene babies in our sleeping bags at night. We looked after one another — shared weight, water and worries, applied sunscreen and lipbalm, gave backrubs, pats on the back, and encouragement. We also met wonderful strangers and lone trekkers, touched and turned them into friends — most notably an art festival director from East Timor who taught us a war song in a language spoken by fewer than 20,000 people, and a German events manager who channeled Santa Claus on Christmas eve and shared with us the crumbles of his mom’s homemade winter holiday cookies that he carried all the way.
Between Upper Pisang and Manang, we went off for an acclimatization detour to the villages of Ghyaru and Ngawal. There is a stupa that sits above Ghyaru that we hiked up to twice — trailblazing the first time up, through an abandoned settlement, and rushing back down before nightfall. On offer from the top is a breathtaking view of Annapurna II — an imposing near-8-thousander — the eastern anchor of the Annapurna Massif. There was a tranquil humility to our silent appreciation of the elements as we stood in the shadow of the mountain, that decidedly inhospitable and life-unsustaining domain into which humans are only temporarily allowed to venture and with great risk at that. Waking up to Annapurna II bathed in the gleam of sunrise, seen from our teahouse bedroom in Ghyaru was a profoundly moving moment. Only later that day would we witness not one but two savage avalanches on the face of the giant, hearing their subtle and distant yet terrifying rumble and roar. A once in a lifetime experience.
The day of the pass starts before sunrise — it takes you from High Camp at 4880m, through Thorung La pass at 5416m, and down to Muktinath at 3710m. As we headed out, headlamps illuminated the glossy ice, and we put one foot in front of the other in perfect steps on the narrow path. To our right was an exposed slope that would send you sliding down for a couple of hundred meters — “it won’t kill you, it will just be a pain to climb back up” we were told, which was hardly reassuring. It helped to not look down. Perfect steps. Focus on your breathing. Mountain breath we called it, the rhythmical incantation of full, sharp exhales with each stride. Breathing at 5000m takes conscious effort — we were slow on the ascent, but the combination of backpack, uphill and mountain breath sends your heart racing as if you were sprinting a mad incline back home. The wind was intermittent but vicious, and carved the snow into endless rolling dune ridges that appeared perfectly smooth to the eye in the early morning light. Our second group reached the pass at around 11 am. It was beautifully calm at the top and everything shone with a glow we ever only see, if we are lucky, in hope, innocence, and new beginnings. What a way to bring in the New Year.
Coming down from the pass was cathartic, and as we would soon realize, excruciatingly long. It is one of the reasons most trekkers do the Annapurna circuit counterclockwise — doing it the other way would mean that the day of the pass you looking at a 1700m elevation gain. (There are regular checkpoints along the trek, and the offices give you information of all the nationalities that did the trek, per month. I found out that only one other Macedonian did the trek, last year, and they did it clockwise — hats off!). The descent is also somber and eerie in light of the realization that this is where 40 trekkers lost their lives during the sudden blizzard of October 2013. Some of their bodies were never retrieved and they rested beneath our feet as we made our way down for what was beginning to seem like forever. Our steps became heavier, as did our thoughts.
The other side of the pass opens up to a new valley, almost a new world. Resting in rain shadow, the “other side” is arid and decidedly more barren than the landscapes our eyes had so far been feasting on. Dramatic hills rise on both sides of the riverbed, and the afternoon haze made them look convincingly like they were made of coffee grounds. Arriving to Muktinath felt like coming home. We saw people and signs of their extraordinary activity. But it was not until we had jeeped from Marpha to Tatopani, and had tangerine trees growing in the backyard of our guesthouse that I felt like I had come down from the great heights into someplace nourishing, and safe, and abundant.
New Year’s day saw our arrival to the lakeside town of Pokhara and its buzzing street festival. Our afternoon plan was to see the sunset from the World Peace Pagoda, a view made popular by postcards — all the great mountains lined up one next to the other. It is a truly unique sight, mountains so high glimpsed from so low. It drives home the point, attributed to Maurice Herzog, that the Himalaya march strict single file through Nepal, but when they get to India they throw a party — I think back on the views from my Delhi-Leh airplane window where the humongous mountains of the Hindu Kush were all crowded next to one another stretching all the way to distant horizons. We took little boats to the other side of lake and hiked up at a hurried pace in order to see the tips of the rooftop of the world dipped in the gold of sunset. Arriving at the top 25 minutes after closing time, we were rather rudely refused entrance and found the World Peace Pagoda disconcertingly fenced off with barbed wire and heavy gates. It seemed more cognitively dissonant that anyone should be disallowed into such a place due to opening hours and walls than to sneak into it, and so we did — climbing up to the Pagoda from between the landslide prevention sheets — and I winked to the immaculately lit and kitchily adorned Buddha in apology, supposing he would not have been too pleased about the circumstances of his abode either. The streets of Pokhara were invitingly bustling with sparkles and sounds on the eve of the new year and we felt compelled to oblige. Overlooking the twinkling city lights, cradled in the foothills of the world’s rooftop it felt like one adventure has come to an appropriate end and a new and glorious one was about to begin. We shuffled down in the dark, paddled across the lake, and walked confidently and excitedly into 2015.
Photo Courtesy: Urszula Agnieszka Adamska
– Marija Uzunova
(Teacher of PNC and EE Coordinator)