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THE WANDER YEAR

Savoring Some High Points and Peak Experiences in the Annapurna Range

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 13: NEPAL * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

May 07, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

POKHARA, Nepal — When I asked Nepali trekking guide Padam Magar the name of a distant, towering mountain--the tallest I had ever seen--he stifled a smile. "It has no name," he said. "It is not a mountain. It's just a ridge."

We soon rounded a bend in the trail that afforded a wider view. I froze in my tracks when the wall of white that had captivated me moments earlier was suddenly dwarfed by Dhaulagiri, the sixth-highest peak in the world. A plume of snow sailed from its 26,810-foot summit, and the only reason my jaw did not hit the ground was that I had to tilt my head back to take in the spectacle. "That's a mountain," Magar said.

In more ways than one, Andrea and I reached the high point of our journey thus far during a 13-day hike in the Himalayas. The stunning sights, hospitable people and remarkable food and lodging so far exceeded our expectations that we spent most of the trek wearing big, goofy grins. Long before we kicked off our hiking boots, we had vowed to return to these magical mountains.

We started in Pokhara, Nepal's second most popular tourist city, where we boarded a 25-minute flight north to a dirt airstrip in the alpine village of Jomsom. After a day's hike farther north to Kagbeni, we turned around and gradually made our way back to Pokhara. We stuck mainly to the western leg of the Annapurna Circuit, a trail that follows a centuries-old Tibetan trade route along the Kali Gandaki River in the Annapurna mountain range. During the last several days, we walked east on a smaller trail that took us closer to the impressive Annapurna peaks.

We are not what you'd call outdoor types. Andrea has been backpacking all of two times, while most of my woods experience has been limited to hunting down errant golf balls. But we were ready for the Annapurna Circuit, also known as the Apple Pie Trek. Aside from the availability of the American dessert at nearly every inn along the way--usually cooked over an open fire--it is a relatively easy hike, attracting trekkers ages 8 to 80.

Still, we weren't taking any chances. Our path was smoothed by Kumar Magar (no relation to Padam), a porter we hired for $10 a day through a trekking agency in Katmandu. He lashed our two rucksacks together and carried them on his back, leaving us to heft only our day packs.

Kumar, 24, is part of an old Nepali tradition. As there are few roads in the Himalayas, most everything is transported on the backs of humans or donkeys. Our packs totaled 35 pounds, but it is not uncommon for a porter to carry four times that weight, the load braced by a strap across his forehead. Most wear flip-flops (Kumar had sneakers), but some walk barefoot. The cargo we saw men (and sometimes women) laboring under included sacks of rice, cases of beer, wood beams, 12-foot lengths of pipe and entire bed sets. Every time I sat on a Western-style toilet, I gave silent thanks to the poor porter who had schlepped it up the mountain.

We hiked three to seven hours a day, taking the occasional rest day in hamlets that offered the best views, rooms and enchiladas. The Himalayas handed us a new look each day--desert moonscapes, tumbling icefalls, terraced fields of buckwheat, forests of blooming rhododendrons. The one constant was the looming mountains. We hiked much of the time above 9,000 feet (I had no problems with the altitude, but Andrea had a mild headache the first night). That would place you at or near the top of most peaks in the Sierra Nevada. But in Nepal, it puts you only at the base of mountains that jut another three-plus vertical miles into the sky.

Hiking in this region of the Himalayas is never a solitary endeavor. You are always part of a human highway of porters, schoolchildren, other trekkers and pilgrims climbing to religious sites higher in the mountains. The trail, a marvel of engineering that features suspension bridges and miles of stone stairways, rarely stretches more than an hour between villages.

In Kagbeni, where colorful Buddhist prayer flags flap atop crumbling mud-brick houses, we wandered into the ancient Kag Chode Monastery. A young monk showed us a 700-year-old, 33-pound Tibetan prayer book penned in gold and silver. Outside, we ran our hands across rows of prayer wheels, canisters each containing a roll of paper inscribed repeatedly with the Tibetan Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum (hail to the jewel in the lotus). Each spin of the wheel, Buddhists believe, releases thousands of prayers into the heavens.

Midway through the trek, I realized I had no idea what day it was, and this gave me great pleasure. For the only extended period of my life, I became lost in the moment. Cut off from TV and radio, I tuned to natural rhythms: the jingle of a cowbell, the laugh of a child, the press of my boot against the earth.

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