Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
“Uno, anyone?” Suman, our soft spoken guide, asked us to explain the rules as he put aside the book he was reading. Our porters, Sajan and Amrit, who did not speak English as well as Suman, declined initially but observed our every move and soon joined in. Every night for the rest of the trek the six of us, three traveling American girls and three Nepali boys, played Uno in the lamp-lit common rooms of assorted teahouses. This simple card game became our nightly entertainment, our ice-breaker and a perfect excuse to hang out together when other trekkers retreated to their bunks.
I spent a week last October trekking in the Himalaya on a small part of the beautiful Annapurna Circuit. Even for a blackberry-addicted workaholic, getting into the rhythm of trekking was easy. The satisfaction of waking every morning to soul-filling vistas, stretching out the legs and challenging the lungs is undeniable. Trekking can be a solitary pursuit, the repetitive movement allows the mind to wander and provides quiet time for reflection. At the same time, it is a wonderful experience to share with others and the colorful characters with whom we shared the trail quickly became our friends.
When we first met Suman, a shy young man of twenty-two with a sweet smile and a head of curly dark hair, he was so quiet we had trouble hearing him as he guided us around the temples of old Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. A few days and a few hands of Uno later he was more relaxed and chatty and while walking we drifted between topics as diverse as love and religion, Bob Marley and Bollywood. Although his work as a guide takes him all over Nepal during the busy tourist season, he loves nothing more than to be at home in Bhaktapur with his parents, brothers and cousin brothers.
Like many of his countrymen, his culinary desires are simple: Nepali set, twice a day, every day. Sitting with the other guides and porters in the tea house kitchens, he deftly scooped up the vegetable curry, lentils and rice of his nightly meal with a few fingers of his right hand. When I asked Suman whether the quality of the dal bhat, the staple lentil soup of a Nepali set meal, varied widely among tea houses and whether he had a favorite style, with a smile he answered that of course his mother’s always tasted the best.
After acclimating to the altitude for a couple of days in the chilled out hippie trekker town of Pokhara, we set out from the tiny nearby settlement of Naya Pul at 1070 meters. We peeled off layers and mopped sweat from our brows as we ascended that first morning. The pebbly mountain trail passed by open rice fields and through little villages which sprouted up unexpectedly between the paddies. Kids on their way to school skipped next to us and waved, all smiles and namastes. In the distance on a ridge, a row of aluminum and thatched-roof farm houses with bright blue trim winked at us and demanded to be photographed. To our right, freshly laundered jeans and t-shirts made odd neighbors for yak pelts drying on a clothesline.
The next day we almost doubled our altitude climbing from 1540 to 2874 meters, tackling 3300 stone stairs which we were warned would make for the toughest day of trekking on the route. We huffed and puffed our way up the unforgiving steps, yearning for the tea break we had been promised in the town of Ulleri at the top. As we climbed we kept crossing paths with a string of ponies hauling goods up the mountain at the insistence of a cranky old woman armed with a long stick. At her insistence, the ponies trundled along carrying everything from propane tanks to wire mesh crates full of live chickens, bringing supplies to the otherwise isolated tea houses and farms at higher altitudes.
Our slight and wiry young porters, Sajan and Amrit, always moved faster than us despite the fact that they were carrying their own kit plus our three bags. When we arrived at our next guest house in Ghorepani they were already in the middle of a game of pick-up basketball with some local boys. In spite of the teeth-chattering temperatures at this altitude, some of the boys were playing in bare feet and others were wearing threadbare t-shirts. In the middle of this hearty bunch, twenty-one year old Sajan was, as usual, the center of attention hamming it up on the court.
Originally from the mountains of eastern Nepal, Sajan and his brothers followed the opportunities provided by the tourist industry to Pokhara and found work as porters. Sajan is a bundle of energy, the class clown, the court jester. “Hello dahhling!” he would call out in a comical high pitched voice when he came to collect our bags each morning. There were always a few words of Korean scribbled in pen on his left palm, he was teaching himself the language so that he could expand his client base to the growing number of Korean tourist groups. He understood just enough English to be dangerous but he broke through any language barrier easily with his larger than life personality. During our nightly games of Uno he was in his element, singing out the commands on each play and making us roar with laughter at his enthusiasm for his favorite card in the deck, triumphantly calling out “SKEEEP!” each time it appeared.
Shortly after 5:00 a.m. we set out for a pre-sunrise hike along with all of the other temporary residents of Ghorepani. Despite the full autumn moon, the small beam of my torch barely made a dent in the darkness so I used my hiking pole like a cane to feel my way up the stone steps, keeping pace with Suman as best I could. During the previous evening’s basketball game the jagged peaks of the Annapurna range had been obscured by clouds, but as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see Orion and the Big Dipper twinkling above me, hinting at the fabulous clear views that would greet us at the top. After hiking up a punishingly steep grade for forty minutes we reached the famous viewpoint of Poon Hill and our highest altitude of the trek at 3210 meters. As expected, there was not a cloud in the sky as the flaming red ball of sun broke over the horizon and glinted off the mountains, flooding the peaks with sunlight. Photos were snapped and tin cups of warm and milky Nepali tea were passed around. The rising sun and full moon faced each other on opposite sides of the magnificent mountain range we had come to see.
Our youngest porter, Amrit, a lad of nineteen who was even quieter than Suman, joined us for the hike that morning. It was his first time hiking up to Poon Hill despite having ferried trekkers’ bags on the Ghorepani route many times. Amrit was a boy of few words but his smile that morning as he posed for photos with us at the top said it all. As quiet as he was during our Uno sessions, when the other boys weren’t around Amrit would come out of his shell a bit and sit with us, asking us to show him the photos on our cameras.
Two days’ hike from Poon Hill, when my knees and ankles were beginning to complain and my quadriceps were downright begging for mercy, salvation was on offer in the form of a hot springs in the town of Jhinu. A large square stone tub had been built under the spring next to a river swelled by recent monsoons. After easing into the natural hot tub and soaking for a bit, Suman challenged me to leave the comfortable warm water and clamber across the rocks to a small sheltered pool in the middle of the full to bursting, fast flowing, cold as ice river. The idea is to submerge yourself as far as you can bear (I made it up to my ankles, Suman was in up to his chin) and then to scramble back over to the hot pool. The contrast between hot and cold is meant to relax the muscles and the mind; a therapy not dissimilar to a Turkish bath. The springs certainly drew a crowd. By 3:00 p.m. every trekker within striking distance was enjoying a welcome social soak.
Our final two days of trekking were some of the best. We were seldom out of view of my favorite peak of the Annapurna range, the immediately recognizable Machapuchare or Fish Tail. We were feeling fit and the pace of life was gentle. The boys entertained themselves with trail songs and taught us Nepali words. Farmers were drying millet on straw mats and tilling their fields with simple plows pulled by pairs of bulls. Geraniums and marigolds were in full bloom, casting a bright orange and yellow glow on the sunny hillsides. Smack dab in the middle of this unbelievable and vast landscape, like tiny ants we navigated over wooden fences and along the narrow dirt track which snaked between mountains above and terraced paddy fields below.
On our longest day of walking we followed the Madi Khola river south for nearly seven hours. The mighty peaks of Hiunchuli and Annapurna South were at our backs. For most of the trek the sky was clear, the sun was high and the temperature was perfect. I coated myself in SPF 30 every morning but even when I was wearing long sleeves the powerful mountain sun managed to ferret out tender patches of fair skin and flame them red.
Saying goodbye to the boys at the end of the trek was difficult. Back in Pokhara we met up with Suman for a farewell dinner at his favorite local eatery. We each had a Nepali set with orders of wai wai sandekho and deep fried buffalo jerky for the table washed down with cold Everest beers and raxi, which tastes like a cross between sake and tequila and is served warm with crunchy buttered rice. A fitting feast to celebrate the end of a wonderful week. The three of us girls barely needed to discuss what to give Suman as a parting gift. Along with a well-earned tip we presented him with something that we hoped he would enjoy and remember us by, a well-worn deck of Uno cards.
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