#18 A walk in the country

Sent: Friday, November 30, 2001 12:35 PM Subject:

Pokhara is Nepal's second city and is unlike Birmingham as it is possible for a second city to be. For a start it isn't a city at all by just about any measure you care to mention. It has the feel of a medium to large country town, light, airy and laid back. We are staying in Lakeside a jonny-come-lately part of town hastily constructed when it became apparent that those strange Western people would pay good money to sleep on the lakeside meadows which had previously only been useful as grazing land .

Consequently Lakeside has the feel of a clapboard, one-dimensional western film set, all Heath Robinson rickety shop fronts and a broad main street where pedestrians are safer than usual because nothing dares exceed 3mph for fear of the deep hole that may lie beyond the next huge hump in the uneven road. The more longstanding parts of town are a kilometre away and possess a slightly greater degree of permanence .

In Kathmandu the variety of sizes, shapes and different looks amongst the Nepalese people we met was amazing and surprising until you take into account that Nepal has more than 50 distinct peoples living within its' boundaries .

The singularity of each of the different peoples is striking, stocky, broad-faced Tibetans with a hint of Mongolia in the corner of their eyes, tall slender Indian looking people from the Southern plains, round faced tubby men from the Western hills and onwards through a dizzying variety of builds and facial characteristics. We guessed from the very distinct differences between groups that inter-marriage was rare and this was confirmed by a couple of people we talked to. The Western ethnic melting pot is not found in Nepalese kitchens .

A similar coming together is found in Pokhara, but on a smaller scale. Kathmandu is the urban magnet that pulls people from all over the country with its' economic power, Pokhara is filled with a mix of Nepal's Western peoples who have traded here for centuries and remain today to make the most of the tourist dollar .

Our first morning in Pokhara starts as every morning in Nepal starts with the town coughing, spluttering, hawking and spitting slowly and noisily into life. In India the pavements looked like the losers in a paintball game, splattered everywhere with the red expectorations of paan chewers whose bundles of tobacco, herbs and leaves had reached the end of their usefulness. In Nepal people spit for entirely different reasons. Nepal makes India look rich, their Gross Domestic Products per head are dramatically different and you can hear the effect of the poverty in the deeply entrenched cough, excruciating hawking and mucous paint-balling with which almost every Nepali starts each morning, a process repeated frequently throughout the day. Children, adults, the elderly, all have chests that rattle with the echo of years of poor diet. The dawn chorus is a daily ritual to which I do not look forward .

After a couple of days rest we rise early and set off in a taxi with Jodie and Stuart to start our trek. For some strange reason Nepal's taxis are almost all 30 year old Toyotas which shake rattle and roll from point to point many of them, like our taxi this morning, with all their internal door panels removed and replaced with garish plasticised posters of scenes from nature which always clash horrendously with the swirly, grandma's-curtains-on-acid ceiling vinyl .

We were fortunate to meet Olly and Shiela when we were in Goa who had just trekked independently in Nepal and had no problems at all and it was their experience that gave us the confidence to go our own way in the face of all the advice to take a porter and a guide. There is a strong economic case for hiring a porter and it would have been pleasant not to have to carry all our stuff, which only consisted of a change of clothes and some bits and pieces but still managed to expand to fill 60 litres spread unevenly across two rucksacks (Sausage will kill me if I don't tell you that she had the bigger sac!). But the frequent stories we heard of problems with guides and porters left us with the clear impression that if we ever return and did want a porter we would go through someone like the Himalayan Mountain Club who maintain a list of porters who come complete with verified references. We heard too many stories of porters leaving treks halfway through, sexual harassment of women, having to fit in around the porters perception of a daily schedule and other problems that we were quite pleased not have the added degree of complexity on our first trek, though our shoulders would beg to differ over the days to come .

I approached trekking with a little experience of hillwalking in the UK, albeit a number of years ago, and simply scaled up my expectations of everything, the size of the mountains, the risks, the complexity. But there are such differences between hillwalking at home and in Nepal as to make them two completely separate disciplines. In Nepal you don't walk through any wilderness, all the terrain you cover, whatever the altitude (mountaineering aside) is terrain that has been inhabited, cultivated or traversed by trade routes for thousands of years. Whilst you might find yourself isolated and a long way from a metalled road or telephone you will not be in as profound a wilderness as can easily be found in the Scottish Highlands. This is not to say that the risks are less, rather they are different, altitude sickness above 3000m can kill the ignorant and a twisted ankle 8 days walk from a road is a real problem. On the other hand the paths are easy to follow and generally in good condition being the only 'roads' that connect communities and the network of villages cater to every need that a trekker can imagine. > > We drop Jodie and Stuart off at their starting point and by 8.30am we are stood at the bottom of a very tall wooded slope. Sausage looks up at the first climb apprehensively not having hillwalked before. I'm not apprehensive, I know it's going to hurt like hell and leaving me gasping for breath like I've been punched in the stomach by Mike Tyson, but I expect the pain to be worth it, it always has in the past .

Then a very strange thing happens. Sausage and I ascend 1000 metres, chatting to each other as we climb, hardly stopping and reach the top a little tired, sweating, but not at all out of breath. We have climbed the equivalent of Snowdon in North Wales with no problems at all. We stand at the highest point beaming at each other, almost refusing to believe that it could be this easy .

The secret of our initial success lies in the coming together of three things. Firstly, the Mountaineers Rest Step. We have to thank out trekking guidebook for this little beauty .

All of the climb is straight up a very steep stone staircase, perfect for the Rest Step which involves swinging your leading leg up onto a higher step, locking your back leg, pausing for a beat to rest, then bringing your back leg up on to a higher step and repeating the process ad-nauseum. You look very strange indeed, a bit like a person with two rather stiff prosthetic legs making their way slowly and carefully up the slope, but you never get out of breath and you can plod steadily onwards without taking frequent stops required by those who walk normally. Over the course of the climb we catch and pass porters and other walkers .

The second factor is our freshness, tomorrow will be a different test of our hillwalking credentials. Lastly, out naivetey is probably our greatest ally. Sausage is an appalling judge of distance, I could tell her we had just climbed 12 inches or 12 miles and she'd smile blankly, with no comprehension of the implications of the measurements, so 1000 metres would neither have phased nor excited her before we set off. If I'd bothered to think about it I'd have been very worried indeed about climbing Snowdon on our first day, but I was so caught up with taking everything in and, just as importantly, trying not to look under too much strain in order to allow Sausage to concentrate on getting herself up the hill that I also hadn't given any thought to the scale of what we were taking on .

The climb is up through scratty woodland, short small-leaved trees that have given up on reaching for the sky after no more than 5 metres and the path, up a near vertical slope, is a major feat of civil engineering. Big flat stones have been arranged into a stable secure staircase. Along the path at frequent intervals are rest stations. These consist of an oblong stone platform on which you sit together with a further low wall against which you lean your pack. The rest stations are not here for the benefit of Westerners with daypacks, though we are welcome to use them, they are here for the locals to use as they tramp back and forth carrying loads. We later learn that the rest stations are often built and maintained by families in the memory of family members who have died, which explains why every single example we come across is in prime condition .

If there is one thing you expect to read in any account of walking in the Himalayas it is a hyperbolic tribute to the load carrying capabilities of the local people. I'd love to offer something different but the only alternative to what follows would be to say nothing, because words can not do justice to what these people are capable of .

The path we are following today, from our starting point at Phedi to Tolka is a route used by locals as well as trekkers so we see three kinds of traffic, other trekkers, their porters and guides and local porters .

The porters carry their loads in one of two ways. Many carry a wicker basket, conical in shape with a broad strap attached halfway down each side of the basket which runs from just above their hips across their shoulder blades and up over their heads where they bear the entire load across their foreheads. Alternatively, if a load won't fit into a basket then, whatever it is, it is simply roped together, a carrying strap attached, and stuck on someone's back, again with the strap across the forehead bearing all the load. This applies to camping tables, mattresses, chairs, anything. For expedition porters their basket might contain anything pertaining to a campsite, a mountain of kitchen equipment, an entire larder of food or bag after bag of tents. A local porters basket will contain either whatever he has been asked to bring back to his village or alternatively what he thinks he can sell speculatively .

I always look at the very biggest holdalls that you see in luggage shops and wonder who on earth buys them. I now realise that they exist mainly for the benefit of trekking companies who fill them with gear, tie THREE or FOUR of them together, and stick them on the back of a poorly paid porter. I can hardly comprehend what the metabolism of these guys, and occasionally women, must be like. With each passing day the sense of wonderment diminishes not one little bit, every time you pass another group of porters toiling upwards, or RUNNING downhill, under 60 kilos, in FLIP-FLOPS, the effect is the same. What they do is such an outlandish achievement that it is undimmed by repetition .

It is hard to convey how much these men and women carry. A standard load for a porter is 60 kilograms. This is the basic load for which they will receive a standard days pay. Those who can will sometimes split three loads between two people and those at the top of their trade can carry two full loads, 120 kilograms, entirely borne on their foreheads and necks. The lucky ones have been bequeathed a pair of boots by a trekker, the less lucky wear either green canvas boots to, more likely, flip flops, making a complete mockery of the expensively clad and shod trekking fraternity .

At the top of our first climb we pass through the village of Dhampus and out along a ridge, the Annapurna range shrouded from view in cotton-wool clouds, before a gentle ascent through overgrazed woodlands brings us to the top of our first descent, 400 metres of twisting, turning, calf-aching, ankle-stressing, not-now-thank-you-I've-realised-I-am-a-bit-tired, hard work .

All along the way are bhattis, literally "teahouses" which predate tourists by hundreds of years and originally existed to serve passing local traffic with very basic food and shelter. When the tourists started to arrive the bhattis started to upgrade to serve them. Despite the landscape it is unusual to walk for more than an hour or two without passing a teahouse. Each is an example of the pragmatism that goes with an inaccessible location. Most are made primarily of wood, wooden floors, ceilings and internal walls which make for very limited privacy and plenty of draughts. The food is simple but filling and we take to having noodle soup for breakfast and a curry at night. On the days we finish early we almost invariably treat ourselves to omelette and chips. In a worrying outbreak of comfy-old-codgerism Sausage and I repeatedly scan menus nowadays and either pick exactly the same thing or accurately predict what the other will want, before you know it our travelling days will be over and we'll replace them with pensioners weekends away called Mistletoe and Turkey, at crumbling hotels in Bognor, in October. But I digress .

With the daytime light reaching the end of it's shift we slowly plod into Tolka after 8 hours of walking and look at a couple of bhatti's, selecting one eventually, not on the grounds of quality, but because our legs refuse to carry us either forward to inspect another or back to ones we had already seen .

We drop our rucksacks on the bed and discover that every muscle in our upper backs is rigid with tension. After an early supper, eaten as the night quickly closes in we painfully fall into bed at 7.15pm .

As I undress my teeth start chattering, not because of the cold but simply because my body is close to it's city-dwelling, poorly exercised limits. Within 15 minutes of getting into bed I am running a raging temperature as my over-worked metabolism crashes from one extreme to another. A very disturbed nights sleep follows .

We rise early the next morning, even in our knackered state there is a limit to how much sleep you want or need, and walk out into fresh morning air and morning light that is still thick with the hazy remnants of darkness that will be burned off in seconds by the first shards of sunlight .

Our bhatti is perched at 1100 metres on a steep valley side. If we look up the valley the Annurpurna range rises before us, steep striated foothills in pale brown rock giving way to thickly snow covered higher slopes. As the sun rises the snow glints, yellow in the first rays, then startling white, there being no clouds to soften the palette. The magnitude and the clarity of the moment are breathtaking .

The Himalaya is the most vertiginous mountain range in the world, a fact our legs will learn all too well. Our destination today is a village called Ghandruk and we can see it from Tolka, just on the other side of the valley, maybe 2km as the crow flies. Despite our complaining shoulders and aching legs we set off knowing our target and stupidly thinking of a short jaunt and restful afternoon .

I had calculated the descent and climb involved in day 2 the previous evening, 600m down, 800m up, but day 1 had gone so well that the figures had glided past my eyes with the horrors they contain hidden by a veil of self-congratulation .

The descent is awful, very steep and the cause of much moaning from hamstrings and achilles tendons tight as guitar strings from the previous days walking. The ascent is worse, naivety and fuel reserves both stripped away by yesterdays efforts we drag ourselves upwards looking like two belisha beacons and both utterly failing to see the funny side. I had known that day 2 would be bad, something to be got through rather than enjoyed, but the completely unremitting slopes prove to be a complete nightmare. Sausage overheats badly and we crawl into Ghandruk after 5 1/2 hours and into the first decent bhatti, to look at another would involve a further 20 metre climb and is therefore out of the question .

In a repeat of the first evening we shower and eat by 7 pm and collapse into bed each with the same questions ringing in our ears, am I up to it? Is the pain worth it? How steep is tomorrow?

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages