Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Into Thin… Crust Pizza

There we were: Annapurna Base Camp, altitude 4,130m (13,549 ft). 
A five-day walk from the nearest road. Surrounded on all sides by enormous mountain peaks, each one of them higher than any mountain in the US or Europe. The tallest in the area, Annapurna I, still jealously hoards the frozen bodies of victims who have died trying to summit her.

And we were eating a pizza.

“Pizza at 4,000 meters” might as well have been the motto of our 10-day trek in the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal. Don’t get me wrong, the trek to Annapurna Base Camp (or ABC, as it’s called by trekkers too lazy to say the full name, yet somehow motivated enough to hike to it) is not a walk in the park. It’s a pretty strenuous endeavor: 10 days of hiking 5-7 hours a day over mountains and down deep valleys until finally going up, up, up to above 4,000 meters. It’s not for the light-hearted or unfit.

That said, it’s not inaccessible either. We saw all types on the trail: young, old, in-shape, flabby. Tanned, fit Germans in full trekking gear flew past us in a blur of Gortex and trail mix right before we passed a group of 15 senior citizens from Russia who were moving so sluggishly that if they had been going any slower, they would have been going backwards. A group of Japanese teenagers, all trendy sunglasses and neon colors. A horde of Korean tourists- so many that the trekking lodges served kimchi and Korean noodle soup on their breakfast menus. Really, we saw everyone. I even met two kids from Missouri!

Despite the diversity and sheer number of people on the trail, it wasn’t difficult to escape the crowds and have time to ourselves as we walked. We planned our itinerary and walking rhythm to do just that: avoid the guided tours. While the vast majority of other trekkers - probably 90%- were doing the trail with a guide and porters to carry their bags, we decided to go at it alone. 

And we never regretted that decision. While others had groups to wait for and guides to plan their departure time, V and I were able to go at our own rhythm and beat the crowds. 
A typical day was as follows:

5:45am-- Wake-up call. At the first alarm, I would stretch out of my cozy, warm sleeping bag into the cold room to retrieve my trekking clothes, which I would put in my sleeping bag to warm up while I snoozed another 10 minutes

6:00am-- Snooze on the alarm goes off. We both do our best to change into our now-toasty trekking gear while still in our sleeping bags. Once up and dressed, we pack up our stuff and shove everything into our backpacks, which each weigh around 20 lbs.

6:30am-- Breakfast. We carried our own breakfast items to avoid paying the high prices (and understandably so- everything is brought up by porters) at the lodges. We would order a small pot of hot water and enjoy our Breakfast of Champions: oatmeal with peanut butter and honey, instant coffee and a glass of water with vitamins. AARP card not included.

7:00/7:30am-- Departure. As most groups didn’t leave before 8:00am, we always had the trail to ourselves for the first few hours of the day. You can just imagine how proud of ourselves we were for being so clever.

7:00-11:30-- In the mornings, we would walk for 4ish hours at a pretty good pace with small snack and water breaks. We would carry 2-3 liters of water each, which we purified with iodine tablets, along with trail mix and dried fruit.

11:00/11:30am-- Lunch break. We would stop in little villages or lodges, of which there are many along the trail, for a hot tea and a typically Nepalese lunch of Dal Bhat: hot lentil soup poured over rice and mixed with curried vegetables and spicy pickles. Delicious, nutritious and filling. Just like our oatmeal. Huzzah!

12:30-2:00pm-- More walking (and, let’s be honest, farting. Dal Bhat does that to you…) We usually arrived at our stopping point for the day around 2:00 or 3:00pm so as to be sure to find a free room before the groups arrived. We never had a problem finding accommodation and managed to find places that were always very cozy and comfortable.

2:30-5:00pm—Shower (sometimes even hot ones!), laundry, reading, generally relaxing. The thing that amazed us about the lodges along the trail was just how comfortable they were: private rooms, often Western toilets (aka, ones you actually sit on, as opposed to squat over), sometimes even hot showers. Most of the treks we have done in other parts of the world have had accommodation that included camping and sleeping in communal rooms on the floor. This was completely unexpected luxury. And I haven’t even told you about the food…

5:00-7:00pm—Food! We would generally order dinner around 5:00 and eat within the following hour or so. And this is where we were really shocked. They had pizza. And pasta. And, I kid you not, enchiladas. In a tiny lodge in the Himalayas at 4,000 meters above sea level where the food was cooked over a wood fire and brought up on the backs of porters wearing flip flops, I could order a burrito. It was insane. We really, honestly expected that the only food available for 10 days would be dal bhat and curry. We were almost disappointed to realize that that was no longer the case. Of course, that disappointment vanished as soon as we got our pizza.

7:00-8:00pm—Talking to other trekkers, playing cards and -just to make sure we were well within the Nepal cliché- reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air about a disastrous expedition on Everest. Mind you, Annapurna Base Camp is not Everest. It’s not even half of Everest. But you better believe that as we hiked up to ABC on our well-defined path with the sun shining, we were both imagining ourselves slogging through waist-deep snow during a blizzard at 8,000 meters. I think I even referred to our arrival at the base camp as “summiting.” Yup, I’m a douche.

8:00pm—In bed. Lights out. I’m not even kidding.

So that was what we did, day in, day out, for ten days. There were the occasional unscheduled surprises in our itinerary: a few half-days with long lunches in the sunshine, some natural thermal baths, stopping to talk to farmers and peasants working on the millet harvest, a village celebration during which we danced in the streets with a bunch of old ladies drunk on local rum.

A nice old lady we met who explained to me with hand gestures what she was doing with the newly-harvested millet
This woman was a dancing machine! And probably wasted...
OMG!!: Taking time out from the party to text
These ladies were hilarious: just cozied up on the street, drinking and laughing.

But mostly, it was just lots and lots of walking.

And we loved it. Absolutely loved it. The scenery, as you would expect, was incredible. You know how much I love describing landscapes with all sorts of quasi-poetic, flowery nonsense, but I’ll spare you the adjectives and instead show you the pictures.

But before I do (you should have known you wouldn’t get off that easy…), let me tell you how impressed and awed we were not just by the beauty of our surroundings, but also by their diversity. We walked through terraced rice paddies and drying millet fields, through picturesque villages with stone houses (oh no, here come the adjectives!), through sub-tropical rainforest complete with ferns and monkeys, on to temperate forests blanketed in warm, autumnal colors (Blanketed? Really, Elissa?), then up through bush-covered mountainsides until finally reaching soaring snow-covered peaks. Every day the scenery changed completely, which made ten days of walking and oatmeal a lot less tedious than it sounds.

Now here are the pictures:
Adding a rock to a cairn and asking the mountain for safe passage
And what trek in an Asian country would be complete without adorable little kids?
Porters carrying the weight of our enchilidadas with a strap over their foreheads

The crown jewel of the trek was, of course, the Annapurna Base Camp, which is set in a stunning “sanctuary” surrounded on all sides by enormous, snow-capped mountains. 

Amazing Annapurna Base Camp Heartly!
Awestruck at Annapurna I
Showing Krakauer how it's done.

It was humbling to look in every direction and see such powerful, and such beautiful, forces of nature, knowing that several of those mountains had claimed the lives of many, many people who tried to conquer them. The camp sits at the base of Annapurna I, which, at 8,091m (26,545 ft), is not only the tallest mountain in the Annapurna Range, but also holds the macabre honor of being the most dangerous mountain in the world. The mountain’s ratio of number of deaths (56, as of 2005) to number of successful summit attempts (103) is the highest of any other mountain. Into Thin Air, indeed.

Buddhist prayer flags in front of Annapurna I

Standing at the foot of that giant, knowing that the majority of its victims were still up there, buried under the snow and ice, gave us the chills.

Or maybe we were just cold.  Forget those doomed souls, we’re gonna go get a pizza.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Elissa and Vincent, I really love your stories, its interesting and funny to read. Its like beeing a part of that. Its beautiful and reminds me on our trek in the Indian Himalaya Range which was the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen as well. I hope you still having fun. Im really jealous that you are togethe3r, I really miss Peter :-( Keep safe, all the best Peggy