" It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually render them familiar. Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship. Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, define and articulates itself." - Frédéric Gros
So it has been a few weeks since I last shared and during that time I have been pushing the limits of what my little legs can do! Before winter really sets in here in Nepal we sadly left Heaven Hill Academy school and embarked on a trekking adventure in the Himalayas.
Whilst trekking I pondered the difference between a mere walking adventure and a trekking adventure and had to succomb to looking up the meaning... the definition that really leaps out is "a long arduous journey". We were walking; arduously and for a long time. Eleven days to be precise. In all seriousness though, it was not easy! We were each carrying sleeping bags, warm clothes, water and snacks which makes for a very full and fairly heavy bag and walking anywhere between 5-8 hours a day.
We began our journey on a bumpy bus ride from a town called Besisahar to a little village called Ngadi. We had heard lots about where people stay along the trekking circuit but this was our first experience. In all the villages and occasionally dotted along the hiking trail are guesthouses and lodges. You don't prebook but simply arrive, decide on which one looks the most inviting and enjoy the basic accommodation and simple food. Many guesthouses allow you to stay for free if you agree to eat there. The most expensive one we stayed in cost the equivalent of £2.50 a night.
When we began walking the temperature was hot in the day, suncream weather and quite mild at night. As soon as we got high up though our sleeping bags were very necessary and so was wrapping up and sleeping in lots of clothes. The coldest point came when, in Upper Pisang - the highest place we climbed to at 3300 feet - I slept in long johns, a thermal top, a jumper, hat, gloves, a cotton sleeping bag liner, a sleeping bag and two duvets!! Still only just about warm enough! That was the morning that we awoke to icicles hanging from the waterfalls and no running water due to a frozen pipe (the hotel only had one tap - in the main courtyard!)
Aside from the interesting change in temperature, the landscape changed dramatically the higher we climbed. At the foothills we were surrounded in almost tropical landscape with rice fields, banana trees, poinsettia, rhodendendron and bamboo galore. Dazzling dragon flies and colourful birds were also really striking. Butterflies of all colours were abundant and would criss cross the paths with their clumsy way of flying.
The rice in the rice fields had recently been harvested and on the way back down we saw how the villagers separate the stalks from the grain using cattle to stamp it in a circle. The process is pain stakingly slow but, without machinery, is the traditional way to do it. This was the same for many manual labour jobs that we saw along the way. Groups of men and women all the way up the mountain spend hours each day breaking rocks by hand. Sometimes into smaller boulders and sometimes into gravel sized pieces. We occasionally came across an excavator or two and marvelled at the time and patience it must have taken to drive them up the mountain on treacherously narrow roads!
Along the way we met lovely people walking, and occasionally cycling (!), on the road and in the guesthouses at night. Everyone wakes up early, has breakfast (we opted for banana porridge to keep us going!), walks all day, has an early teatime and is in bed by eight! Many people take a guide and a porter with them. The porters carry remarkable amounts of luggage and make whatever you are are carrying seem like the weight of a feather in comparison! As we were not completing the whole circuit (we opted for going up and down again rather than over the pass and around the other side) and the path is fairly well marked, we didn't need a guide. As soon as you reach certain altitude and cross over the pass at the top of the Annapurna circuit, a guide is recommended.
I have never been so high before and the difference you can feel in your body is noticeable. I got a sore throat, which is a common ailment above 2000m: exacerbated by the thin cold air at night. In high altitude it is harder to sleep and, when walking, we got out of breath remarkably easily. As soon as we descended, these things got better each day! The main enemy of the trekker, interestingly, is not the red pandas, blue sheep, strange creepy crawlies, snow leopard or mountain roads but altitude sickness. This is a very real threat and can result in death if not taken seriously. We had read up about it and at the checkpoints that you have to sign into along the way, large signs offered reminders. We have since met quite a few people that have suffered from symptoms of altitude sickness, from headaches and nosebleeds, to one man being helicoptered off the mountain he was climbing. Luckily, we were fine and we didn't go high enough to hit the danger zone for altitude sickness.
Things that stood out whilst trekking were the vastness, and at times bleakness, of the mountains and the resourcefulness of the people that live in them. Jeeps and motorbikes are the way in which food and commodities travel up and down the mountain but people live simply, often in small (sometimes one room) homes, rearing animals and growing crops where the land is fertile. As we ascended the mountain, the crops changed from bananas to apples, from rice to potatoes. The higher up people live, the harder it seemed to become.
Culturally, the mountains are a rich and vibrant place. From beginning our trek we spent time with Hindu families in their guesthouses but the higher we got, many regions were Tibetan. Many Tibetan people fled their own country when China invaded and occupied Tibet in the 1950s, and sought refuge in Nepal, continuing to live there to this day.
Throughout this trekking journey, many lessons were learnt: I learnt more about different religions and the history of the Nepalese and Tibetan people. I learnt that I can walk further than I would have imagined and up more steps than I thought possible. That people in the remotest of places can live simply and survive harsh climates with grace, dignity and hospitality. And that trekking, although arduous and challenging, is the most rewarding of adventures. Walking is a great method of transport. Walking requires nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other and the desire to do so. It can offer freedom, both physically and mentally. It is a simple movement that gives you power to travel. Throughout time people have walked to travel, to escape, to think, to find solitude, for pilgrimage. I feel proud that I have felt what walking a long distance is like, day after day. It is something that I have never before done and the sense of achievement and quiet it can bring you is special. When walking for continuous days you can reverse the norm of the indoor/outdoor relationship that so often happens in our daily lives. As the philosopher Frédéric Gros argues, normally one will be using the outdoors as a passage to reach the indoors; outdoors is a temporary state between buildings and residences. However, when on a long walk you can live in a landscape, "...when you have left the walls of rest behind you, and find yourself with the wind on your face, right in the middle of the world: this is really my home all day long, this is where I am going to dwell by walking".
If you do one thing today, go for a walk.