I didn’t sleep well the last night before climbing the pass. I was suffering from mild altitude sickness, it was freezing cold in the small room that resembled a prison cell, and I had drunk too much tea the night before. Outside, in the “toilet”, the wind and minus twenty C. What else can you expect at an altitude of 4,800 meters somewhere on the way around the massive Annapurna mountain range?
A week before, after a short altitude and conditioning preparation on the native Limbar mountain, I arrived in the chaotic Nepalese Kathmandu with a small group of hikers. Then the first stage of the long journey to the Anapurna range began in Besisahar. And how! Imagine a middle-aged gentleman lying rather than sitting among the luggage on the roof of a local bus… I clung to the low railing with one hand convulsively, but I preferred not to look in the direction of the river. I pushed the age-old fear of the deep into the subconscious (although at home I can barely change the light bulb due to vertigo). The bus is small and dirty, and the rutted road wouldn’t even be called a cart in our country. We therefore, understandably, needed two hours to cover thirty kilometers. At the end of the route, just before evening, walk across the wobbly suspension bridge. Adrenaline in full measure…
And the walk begins…
The next morning, the sandals were replaced by hiking boots. Excess luggage was in carrier bags and hired porters took over.
We climbed slowly for a few days and successfully adapted to the altitude. We walked most of the way along the Marsyangdi River. At our first stop we had a modest lunch of dal bhat, rice with lentils served on a tray with curry and vegetables. Magnificent terraces of rice fields all around us, and cannabis for old hippies along the way. In the gardens, something turnip-like and ginger. Full apple trees at an altitude of three thousand meters and buckwheat fields at four thousand. As this side of the Himalayas is open to the south, where the moisture comes from, there is enough rainfall up to two thousand meters above sea level, and enough sun higher up, that the vegetation is much more luxuriant than you would expect.
In the hands of the Maoists
But the natural idyll can also get in the way. In order to fully experience remote Nepal, we were captured by Maoists at the pass before Tal.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) declared a people’s war in the spring of 1996 after parliament rejected their demands – the abolition of the monarchy, the adoption of a new constitution and an end to dependence on India for drinking water and electricity. They control three quarters of the country, especially the countryside. They follows Mao Zedong’s thoughts that political power grows from the barrel of a gun. Over ten thousand people were killed during the ten years of the civil war. On the basis of the peace agreement, they entered the parliament in January 2007; they even got five ministries. When in the autumn the parliament did not accept their renewed demands for the declaration of a republic, they are on the verge of a general election exited the government and parliament in the elections scheduled for November. So, after a year of relative peace, they started stopping foreigners and collecting money again.
Now they stood before us. Young people with automatic machines in their hands, a table with a steel cash register and with a party flag on a pole. Photographing was strictly forbidden. We, foreigners, were allowed to continue, but our guide Prkash had to stay. After a long period of political teaching and reprimanding of pandering to capitalist pigs, after negotiations and the payment of a “voluntary contribution”, he was able to come after us.
After the New Year, the Maoists again concluded a ceasefire with the Nepalese government; the latter finally agreed to abolish the monarchy and hold general elections, which were held at the beginning of April this year.
In the evening, we poured rakshi in the kitchen to songs of struggle and work with the locals. Since the “hotel” ran out of rooms, I, as the eldest, got a special room. I slept in the most beautiful room, Didi’s older daughter’s room, in a small wooden shack at the end of the yard. On the wall are photographs of the Terminator, the King of Nepal and Buddha.
The houses here are made of stone, with small windows without glass, covered with cardboard or animal skins – just enough to keep the wind from blowing through them. The houses are lined with stacks of firewood, ready for the winter. But since there is not enough wood, they also burn animal excrement, which is dried during the summer, and they cook with gas or kerosene. I’d rather not talk about safety and smoke in the eyes.
We went to Manang via Pisang along the upper path, on which the precipitous meadows follow one after the other, and in Manang we used the extra rest day to adjust to the altitude. We climbed a good four hundred meters into the hill above the village and then descended back into the valley. Below the peak, we reached a cave where an old hermit lives. Everyone gave him their photo and some change. I can understood the money, but what does he do with the photo? “A piece of your soul is trapped on it, and the priest protects you for a while, and then he ritually burns it and scatters the ashes in the wind,” our guide Prkash tells me.
After praying prayers, anointing with holy oil, incantation and other things, he tied a cord around our necks. We were ready for a big adventure.
Way to the end
In the morning, still in the dark and without sleep, I put on double socks, T-shirt, fleece, windbreaker, down jacket, long underwear and windbreaker pants. We slowly made our way to the last stage of our ascent to Thorung La (5416 m). The consequences of the “clothing” cover were logical – even before the summit, I put half of my clothes in my backpack. Although we were walking on a narrow track of snow, it was getting warmer with the sun. Not a cloud in the sky, and the wind has calmed down. Despite the fact that I forgot the gloves deep in the transport bag, it did not bother me. Fortunately, at least I didn’t forget my glacier goggles, because the light reflecting off the snow is really blinding and very dangerous.
When I was struggling to move my legs somewhere halfway, a local man came from somewhere with a horse on a leash. He would take me over the pass for a mere thousand five hundred rupees. In an instant, I was experiencing all the possible symptoms of altitude sickness, from disorganized thinking and brain edema to euphoric reactions. I scolded the poor fellow: “I’ll be on the pass, even if I crawl to the top!” The horseman went on with a long face, and after five minutes I was already begging him to come back. Fortunately, he didn’t. I can’t imagine the embarrassment if my dozen female companions saw me? It is necessary to suffer for honor. And when I just pulled myself to the pass, all the pains were endlessly repaid. View of the Annapurna range, glistening snow and blue-black sky. I sat down behind the hut and, realizing the majesty of the moment, burst into tears.
The cave hermit’s intercessions apparently worked, because we all made it across Torung La. On the other side, there was only an endlessly long descent into the valley and civilization. A warm shower and clean socks.
If I had known what awaited me, I would have gone on this journey a long time ago!
Text and photos: Brane Žalar
First published in GEA Magazine, June 2008