There were two options available, one starting at a low elevation and requiring many hours of upward trekking, one starting with a vehicle-assisted head start near the middle of the hill with a few hours less. Because we were paying for a three-day hike through the Himalayas, a worthy accomplishment for future dinner table discussions, my friend Jenny and I decided that the full experience would require the full amount of trekking, and so opted for the low elevation start point. After an intense six days in the savage belly of Kathmandu, a three-day trek, we figured, would help scrape off the intense hustle and bustle cityscape skin that clung to us.
Waking early to start day one of our trek we were greeted by the not so gentle taptaptap of rain on glass panes. We knew we were travelling through Nepal during the monsoon season, but had been very lucky over the first week and thought that perhaps clear skies would follow us on our next journey. The car ride to the official start point was about forty minutes long, with threats of a real downpour ever looming in the grey horizon. Thankfully the moment we exited the car the grey had lightened to a foggy white haze, and we set off on a gravel road cut raw against the muddy hill.
I had never trekked before this moment, which was evident from the gigantic bag I had strapped across my shoulders. Years of being too scared to travel without every and all medication on my person’s had become my voice of reason inside my head when I chose to bring my massive pack back from Kathmandu, but with every step it was clear that I had made a very bad choice. Thankfully Jenny, a skilled trekker herself, offered to swap her backpack for mine when seeing my hands swell from the combination of high altitude and limited blood flow going to them. I am quite indebt to her for that, as I don’t think I could have survived the following 72 hours without her help. While the initial sense of failure and disappointment did set in, it was quickly disposed of when the fog cleared a triangular patch of sky, and we managed our first glimpse at the Annapurna’s. Ice and rock stood boldly, and the promise of a more majestic view was given to us if we pressed onwards.
It was cooler in the higher altitudes. Our maximum height for the first day was to be about 2,000 metres above sea level, not high enough to give anyone high altitude sickness (you need to be about 3,500m for that to potentially set in), but I definitely felt the effects of being pretty unfit. Waves of nausea and dizziness moved through my head and rested behind my temples, before leaving me to focus on keeping one foot in-front of the other.
As it became cooler, the jungle started to come alive. Squirmy masses of small, dark bodies started to wiggle their way out of the mud and across my boots.
Our guide, Raju, a man who had lived and breathed these mountains for more than 15 years, reminded us that a leech bite is neither dangerous, nor painful, but that didn’t quell our initial panic as they found their ways into our socks, our shirts, and our hair (they live in the trees as well, and when the rain falls, so do they). One settled against my hip bone and promptly bit into my flesh. Their bite feels like the most intensely concentrated itch you could ever feel, but trying to scratch them off was difficult when their bodies stretched to insane lengths while their sucker mouth stayed glued to you. Circular holes punctured my hip and feet as they writhed themselves against me. To combat these vampires of the forest, we tied small cotton bags filled with salt to one end of some scavenged sticks, and wielded our sticks of doom in defense. Salt is a natural deterrent to these slick suckers and they quickly started dropping off and pseudo-cart wheeled away.
We passed through and became part of many ephemeral moments. Cheeky monkeys scampered across grassland with stolen corn from the farm swelling out their cheeks. Sunken rice paddies glinted blue and grey reflections like jagged uncut jewels that had rolled off the table and settled back in the soil. A brilliant flash of white gave away wild deers that retreated into dense bush. We stopped for a quick snack at the home of one farmer, who allowed us to buy water and rest in her outdoor terrace before continuing up.
As we came closer to Dhampus, the first of two camping points we could settle into for the night, we took a vote (more like I complained enough) and decided that after five and a half hours fighting gravity we deserved a lengthy break. Dirt road became stone stairs, and we hauled ourselves over the rocky border and into the small hillside retreat. A few hundred people call this place home we were told, and glimpses of daily life could be seen by the open windows, beaten driveways, roaming chickens, and one watchful black and tan patched dog who kept to my side while we explored further into the town trying to find our resting spot.
A turquoise painted room with two beds and a sparse, dusty bathroom at the bottom of a hacked out area of grassland was our guesthouse. Cracking open its door for the first time in months we dropped our bags and dressed into warmer clothes. I fell into an exhausted sleep, the type where you don’t remember your head hitting the pillow, and awoke a few hours later to Jenny sitting cross-legged on her bed drawing hyper-coloured pastel scenes of different things we had seen in Nepal.
We dressed and went for a more in-depth exploration around the village. My token dog buddy accompanied us for most of it as we caught sights of serene villagers hard at work re-grassing the hill, taming wild chickens, and manning derelict storefronts that kept the necessities of life close at hand for the hillside populace. At the top of a small hill that rose in the centre of our stay area we looked out over Dhampus, and stared begrudgingly at the grey blanket of cloud that covered what we knew to be one of the most beautiful sights on Earth. Turning our backs to this frustration we finished our walk and made our way towards the central guesthouse that also held a kitchen and dining room inside it.
Raju met us for dinner not long after at the dining room/kitchen space. He sat down with a dusty bottle of alcohol filled with a cloudy mixture, which did not match the dark rum description half scratched away on the label. “It’s raksi”, he said, “the unofficial drink of Nepal.” I swirled a little around my mouth, a velvety malt-infused taste reminiscent of watered down baijiu swished through my teeth and over my tongue, before it slid down my throat. We ordered curries and soups and breads to break and share between ourselves, Raju’s friend Prim and Prim’s company – a young twenty-something Chinese girl who had decided to travel around Tibet and Nepal alone on the backs of various motorcycles before settling down to rot behind a nine-to-five desk at a bank she was well overqualified for.
The night dug into our souls as we sat and ate and drank and smoked around the table. The cook came out to join us and spoke remarkable English; living in England and training there will do that to someone. Prim pulled out a tinny set of portable speakers from his backpack and plugged his phone into it. Nepalese pop music became the background noise, which was turned up at an equal rate the Raksi bottles were being drained. It wasn’t too long until we all abandoned our seats for hand twirling and swaying shoulder-to-shoulder and dancing together.
When the music skipped to something a little more relaxed we sat back down to rest, elbows propping our languid heads up while conversations oozing drunken energies and slipping over essential grammar connections washed over the table.
Suddenly Raju, with his back to all the windows, sat straight up and in a moment of clarity whispered to us “the Annapurna’s are out”.
Clambering to the rooftop on stairs that had nothing to hold but the promise of broken bodies should one step wrongly, we threw the door open and made sure to not walk upon any of the rusted metal poking out of their concrete clusters before gazing towards the eastern horizon.
There, lit by the infinity above and a full moon untouched by cloud, shone the Annapurna’s.
Prim and Raju started to holler praise to Shiva, Jenny gazed in sweet, silent happiness, and I swear that time itself stood alongside me and held its breath. Everything from this moment was both too fast and too slow. Dappled moonlight dressed the mountains as ice cut silhouettes of each peak broke the night like glass shards. As forever ticked down to reality I knew that many minutes had passed me by, and I was ready to return to the confines of the dining room. Before turning back I watched the zig-zag of a firefly, a creature I had come to know only from fairytales, dance between electric lines, an artificial brethren of sorts.
With hearts glowing, we bid our company goodnight and settled into our beds, basking in the last of the twilight as we lay down for a deep, deep, sleep.