By Ethan Maurice | April 30th, 2019
Nepal and its Himalayas are a place I have long wanted to experience. A poor country rich in culture, the birthplace of Buddha, site of Peter Matthiessen’s excursion in The Snow Leopard, and home to the world's highest mountains, many an aspect might draw one there. Not unlike my aforementioned author/hero, both a cultural pull and a curiosity for the Himalayas themselves drew me in. I wondered what might I find in the Himalayas, in my experience of the mountains and the people who live in the foot of the their grandeur.
I also had some questions which required space. Space I knew I would find out there. I’ve struggled with this clash of eastern and western values lately, especially since a ten-day Vipassana meditation course last October. Values of riches and rising to the top that I largely bought into back in high school have eroded in me over the years with exposure to Buddhism, Taoism, and understandings gleaned from a stroke I had at sixteen. While mountains were the primary pull, I wanted a sense of eastern culture — of everyday life in this Hindu and Buddhist land to compare with culture back home in the United States.
On March 16th, I touched down at 10pm in the window seat at the rear of a Boeing 747 in Kathmandu. It was the middle of the spring dry season, a time when you can both see the mountains and snow still graces much of the higher elevations. I was to walk the Annapurna Circuit, a trek up one massive valley and down another, connected by the 17,769ft Thong La Pass amounting to a sublime circumnavigation of the goliath Annapurna Range. The Annapurnas contain thirteen chunks of earth that reach over 7,000m (22,965ft). Their magnum opus, Annapurna I, climbs to a stupendous to 8,091m (26,545ft) in height.
Rather than paint a general picture and tell you all the ins and outs of the Annapurna Circuit, as essentially every other blogger who hiked the trail already has, here's a dozen photographs from my experience with some words about them for a deeper, less logistical dive into the experience.
* After, we’ll get into a couple of other aspects and I’ll explain how I flew from the USA to Nepal without paying so much as a penny.
Around midnight, Thamel, the epicenter of Kathmandu, was closed when I arrived. But when I stepped out on the street the following morning around nine-thirty, this was no longer the case. “Chaos” might be a good word to describe my initial impression. Tourists, pedestrians, salesman, motorcycles, scooters, cars, dogs, cats, pigeons, ten thousand storefronts, a thousand shrines to a thousand Hindu gods, and golden Buddhist temples crowded and swirled among narrow street canyons seven stories deep. Where I'm from, we strive to separate and space the aspects of our lives, but in the heart of Kathmandu, all was one.
My arrival in Kathmandu coincidentally aligned with the Hindu Holi Festival. A day of city-wide colorful chalk and water fights, dancing, and utter togetherness, I’ve never felt so welcome and a part of such a faraway place. I didn’t catch the names of these two, but won't forget the bond we forged under color and water siege, fighting our way block by block to the party in Durbar Square. When I woke up the following morning, I blew purple chalk from my nose.
I wore my dad's old gloves on the Annapurna Circuit. He used to wear them skiing when he was my age. The stitching of a few fingertips had frayed. I brought a thread and needle and sewed them back together on the flight into Kathmandu. They'll probably last another twenty years.
To this, we'd all usually reply, “they don't make em' like they used to” and chalk that loss up to paying for five pairs of gloves throughout our lives instead of one – surely a good business move for glove manufacturers, we'd think.
But the real loss is that future generations won't have experiences like pulling on their father's gloves. Surely they're almost entirely on the way out. How one marvels at time and generations and being but the most recent part of an ancestral thread that runs endlessly into the past.
There’s something about the moon in the day. To see the star our planet rolls around and the rock that rolls around our planet, simultaneously in the sky… it has a way of chucking my mind into space, into awe of the celestial universality of it all and into grandiose gratitude that I get to take part in this strange miracle, being a conscious being for a bit on planet Earth.
The moon hung in the sky many mornings as I walked the Annapurna. This was a fine thing for one’s spirit.
When the Clouds Parted
Thanks (or curses, depending on your perspective) be to satellites, the internet reaches everywhere along the trail these days. A gift in this case, aware of an approaching snowstorm, all the people three photos below this one (including me) only walked half a typical day’s distance to the village of Ngawal to hunker down and hopefully see what we’d been told was one of the most beautiful sights of the entire trek.
A good call and a golden afternoon it was. Low-lying clouds began to thin and part, teasing us with views of the above mountain before a final, triumphant, big reveal of the biggest backlit peak any of us had ever seen.
Boom! Awe!! The grandeur!!!
Today, much of the Annapurna Circuit parallels jeep roads. The route doesn't feel as remote as I imagine it once did (I might suggest a less populated route if you’re looking for pure mountain experience and fewer people). However, after the town of Manang, the route rises fast, ditching the road for a foot wide path. Higher up still, the path is lost to snow. One finds themselves navigating by the footprints of others, often conscious that any misstep might mean a long slide down a steep valley wall into a river of ice-melt. The higher and higher you go, the crazier and crazier it becomes.
The snap of a shutter worth of light from High Camp, above 16,000ft in elevation at five o’clock in the morning. These are the moments I feel most alive, even when half-asleep because sleeping becomes a challenge due to lack of oxygen this high up. Stillness and anticipation, a mix of excitement and nerves, was thick in the thin air. This was the morning we were to cross to the pass.
Pictured from left to right: Michal (Czech Republic), Tom & Vicky (England), Me (USA), Max (Netherlands), Andrea & Alejandro (Chile), and Elia (Italy).
While I took a few days to walk alone for clear conference with the mountains, I hiked a majority of the Annapurna with these people and enjoyed them dearly.
Travel is odd for social beings. At the end of the time you share, you all swap contact info very well aware that you may never see each other again. “Goodbye” is always harder than “see you later.”
Way, Way Out There
A photo from day two of descending from the pass into the bone dry Mustang Region. A valley sandwiched between two mammoth mountain ranges, virtually no rain falls here. Walking with such adventurous venturers as Michal (who has thrice raced the Mongol Rally) and Elia (an Italian who lives in Spain and has been many, many a place), dropping into a Himalayan desert clear on the other side of the globe, I couldn’t help but think this was the most “how did I get here?” of all of Nepal’s “How Did I Get Here?” Moments.
After reaching the Mustang valley floor, everyone jumped in a Jeep bound for Pokhara (Nepal's second largest city). I had time to spare and opted to take a bus only part of the way down to a quaint, tropical town with a lovely hot spring called Tatopani – the start of the Poon Hill Trek.
The next day, I climbed 6,000ft out of the valley in one go to Ghorepani, a bustling tourist town on a ridge overlooking a massive section of the Annapurna Range. A journey solo through many a village, I suppose I was particularly approachable this day and felt a bit more approachable than usual to those who call Nepal home. For half an hour, these two walked with me on their way to school. They tried out my trekking poles, which were quite comically taller than them and also asked to have their picture taken. Though I had no way of giving them a copy, they didn’t like how the first one turned out and asked to take another, the above shot, which they clearly brought intent to and totally nailed. Most charismatic kids I ever did see.
The top of Poon Hill was visible from my nearby teahouse in Ghorepani. Barely any higher, I couldn't grasp why hundreds of people pay to clump together at sunrise another fifty meters higher with a view virtually the same as the one from town. I opted for a pot of black tea instead and sat alone on the porch of the teahouse as clouds tumbled over the ridge and light reds and oranges danced on the mountains celebrating the beginning of another day.
I had to wait six days to begin the Annapurna Circuit because my backpack got lost in the shuffle for a long while at LAX. Electing to not carry my laptop on the trail, I left it along with some extra stuff at my hotel in Kathmandu and returned to reconnect with the world four days before my flight out. And thus, of twenty-four days in Nepal, I spent nine in Kathmandu.
Most people flee Kathmandu for Pokhara or the mountains fast. The city is overcrowded and dirty. Poverty is blatant. Yet, I oddly loved it there.
Daily, I'd go for these early evening walks for two or three hours and just marvel at the passing wonders, at how little people have to work with, at how they curiously seemed happier than the people back home. Coupled with running into an old friend from high school, long conversations with a couple who own one of Kathmandu’s best coffee shops, and an invitation to meet for coffee from a local reader of my letters who gifted me two of his favorite books (Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Calvino’s Difficult Loves) and shared some remarkable hours of conversation, exploration, and scooter transportation… I loved Nepal and very well might return one day.
Other Things of Note:
Out and back, travel credit card bonuses paid for my flights.
Bonus mileage from a “Citi Thank You Premier” Card covered the entire flight, baggage and all from the USA to Nepal. I literally spent $0.00 to fly there. My flight home was funded by bonus mileage from an “American Express Delta Skymiles” Card, but also included $81 in fees.
In total, my flights would have cost $81 round-trip. But, I also flew to Cambodia to spend two weeks with a friend in the Peace Corps after Nepal, a flight I paid $225 for, plus a last-minute $121 baggage fee (which required split second weight redistribution to knock down from a ridiculous $350… a low-blow from Malindo Airlines). In total, my flights amounted to $427, which is still pretty sweet.
I’ve probably turned ten travel credit cards now and can only think of two flights I’ve paid for in my adult life. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t really have any effect on your credit score. If you’re curious (and from the United States, as it seems from many conversations on this topic that you have to be, unfortunately), here’s a comprehensive list of travel credit card offers available right now.
Money goes far in Nepal.
A clean, basic hotel room in Thamel, the expensive, touristy area of Kathmandu cost about $10 (USD) a night. Hostels are even cheaper, between three and five bucks. A big, hearty meal cost $2-4 in the city. A bumpy, wild ten-hour ride on a “tourist” bus between Pokhara and Kathmandu ran me eight dollars. I wasn’t really striving for thrift in Nepal. I’d guess I averaged spending $15 to $20 per day between the city and mountains, always a roof over my head and three meals a day prepared for me.
My friend in Nepal works forty hours a week earning about $150 a month. At minimum wage, I can almost make that much in a single day in the United States. So, I didn’t bargain all that hard. I tipped well. I met many people working long and hard hours for so little in return, it almost felt unethical to squeeze them for a dollar discount when I have the good fortune to be able to collect dollars in such faster, easier ways in the place I’m from.
Largely, I was flying blind and finding my way in the present.
I used to be a know-before-you-go, plan ahead kind of guy. More and more, I’ve let go of such preparations for they effect our view the present. We can’t help but approach everything with preconceived notions, notions that skew our view of reality and further blind us to what we might be able to see without them. I’m not sure how to get rid of notions, or that I’d want to, but I don’t often go out of my way acquire extra ones anymore, especially when I travel to a new place with the hope that I might perceive something closer to what is actually there, rather than just what I have been primed to look for, and thus, see. This also makes the present moment much more interesting and necessary to pay attention to, which is a wonderful thing in itself.
I think many people believe lacking information to be a dangerous acceptance of additional risk. To a degree, I agree. But built into my traveling muscle memory by now are many a safeguard that allow for it — a dry, fun sort of skepticism towards strangers that can be quickly torn down as we build trust, basic survival and navigational needs like printed maps and an extra water bottle always stuffed somewhere deep in my pack, and a handful of other habits and practices that help me to land on my feet when life on the road tosses me around.
Perhaps the most important aspect of not knowing beforehand is maintaining an awareness that you don’t know.
A short example:
After completing the trek, I was walking down a dirt road looking for its intersection with the highway to find a ride to Pokhara. I’d been walking for a while, particularly entertained with this guy angrily chasing his wily, escaped cow down the road, when an elder man sitting in front of a hole-in-the-wall convenience store shouted, “Ey! Where you goin!”
I thought I knew where I was going and figured he was probably trying to sell me something (people often tried to sell me something in Nepal), but knowing that I don’t know, replied: “Pokhara?”
He laughed and kindly explained that I was walking the exact opposite direction of Pokhara. The dirt road I’d been walking down was the highway!
Not more than a minute later, he had waved down a local bus and ushered me on. You wouldn’t believe how many people can fit into a local bus in Nepal. Eventually, I found a single, low-lying bag of concrete in the middle of the aisle to sit on and spent the next two and a half hours smiling at it all, bumping along to Pokhara on the floor of a bus among feet and a couple of chickens.
For me, that’s what travel is, and Nepal was, all about.