Day three started with a beautiful clear morning. The hours of climbing that we did the day before had earned us a spectacular view. We were well above the bottom of the river canyon and could see over the steep green foothills to the Annapurna Range about ten miles away. Not a bad sight while eating breakfast. It was pretty cool to know that in a week we would be right in the heart of those peaks.
Although we had climbed 3000 feet to reach the village the previous afternoon we were not at the top of the ridge. In fact not even close. So during breakfast Tasi briefed me that we would be heading uphill again this morning. "But don't worry sir. Afternoon is not all climbing. Afternoon is uphill and downhill both." Welcome to Nepal.
Still it was a great morning and the views got more expansive as we climbed. The trail was sketchy and there was no one else hiking it. After a hard climb we stopped for lunch in a large meadow with a small shed where a farmer kept some of animals for grazing. I got a chance to watch the guy making a basket. People in Nepal used them to carry everything. Unlike Westerners who carry backpacks that put the weight either on a hip belt or shoulder straps, these baskets were carried with a single band that went across the forehead. It actually keeps the weight straight along the spine and allows you to carry heavy loads. Even though the people in Nepal are quite small in stature I was always impressed by how much they could carry. But part of it was just that they were extremely tough from living in the hills.
After a long lunch break enjoying the view it was time to hike again. And Tasi was right. It was not all uphill. It was up over a hill, down the other side, then up over the next hill. Again and again. And again. Our camp that night was in a tiny clearing surrounded by woods. No views from here. And other than one group of local people that passed our camp there was nothing but forest and no one around. The local people were out hunting, which is illegal but of course there was no one anywhere close by to enforce the ban. It is hard to fault them since they really are hunting the game for food. But the bad thing is that the hunting pressure in these hills has pretty much cleared them of any game at all. But there was plenty of wood so we had a large campfire for cooking instead of using our gas cookers.
On day four we started hiking...uphill. We had another ridge to climb. Today the sketchy trails we had been following pretty much disappeared and we were bushwhacking. Hard work but really tough for the porters with the heavy, awkward loads that they were carrying. For about an hour it was uphill through forest but then we came out on a grassy ridgeline. And back to the up and down. We passed a quarry where the local people got rock to use for building. I'm glad I didn't have to carry it for a hard day's hike to get it back to my house for a DIY project. Makes a trip to Home Depot seem pretty easy.
With all our steep hill climbing, Tasi and I developed a bilingual joke. Tasi decided to try to teach me a few words of nepali but sometimes I had trouble getting the right pronunciation. Written nepali does not use roman letters but rather Devanagari, a south asian script used to write hindi, sanskrit and several other languages. So the english transliterations of nepali words are an attempt at a phonetic spelling but are not always perfectly accurate. One word I was having trouble saying correctly was the word for steep or vertical, which is "tankyo". When I finally got it right I said "Tankyo. I thought you were saying thank you! I didn't know that you were telling me the trails would be steep." Well from then on for the rest of the trip any time one of us stopped to rest on an uphill slope the other would ask "tankyo?" to which the reply was always "you're welcome". Hey we're just the Abbott and Costello of the Himalaya. Dumb but we thought it was hilarious. I guess you had to be there. Exhaustion and hypoxia helped.
Finally we topped out on the ridge system. On the other side we could see Dhaulagiri, an immense 8000m peak. In high altitude mountaineering 8000m (26,247 ft) is a magic number. There are only fourteen eight thousanders in the entire world. All of them are in the Himalaya or Kharakoram ranges in central Asia. Eight of them are wholly or partially in Nepal (most are on the border since the highest mountain range in the world is a natural choice for the border of a country). All of the 8000m peaks are major targets for climbers. Reinhold Messner, in my opinion the greatest mountaineer of all time, was the first person to climb all of the 8000m peaks. Seeing one of these great mountains was an incredible experience for a mountain enthusiast like myself. On this trip I had excellent views of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, and in the distance, Manaslu. On my previous trip to Nepal I had seen the other 8000m peaks of Nepal: Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu and Kangchenjunga. Those are eight of the ten highest mountains in the world.
After some great views we dropped into a valley where we found a sheltered meadow for a pleasant lunch stop. Of course that meant that after lunch we had to climb up the other side of the valley all the way up onto the crest of the ridge system again. Then we had our usual up and down hike following the ridge for the rest of the afternoon.
As we left the lunch spot one of the porters started to dig in the brush. Apparently there is a particular plant that has a root that is highly prized for its medicinal properties. The plant is quite rare, probably because whenever people see it they dig out the roots. But since we were far off the usual path there were some of these plants around. So half our group stopped and started digging all over the hillside trying to get these plant roots. I guess when you can't just stop by the drug store anytime you want to pick up some antacids you take any opportunity you can to get medicinal herbs.
I decided not to wait and headed up the hill. It was steep and I figured that I could use the head start. For a change I was at the top first so Lakpa (the cook) and I waited there for everyone to catch up. Since he was the only other person in our group besides Tasi who spoke much english, it was a chance for us to chat. I found out about his family and his village and some of the other trips he had done.
We had really been in a remote area. We had not seen any people or even any animals grazing all day. But in the afternoon we came across a Nepal icon. Right in the middle of the trail there were a couple of yaks. Although we had seen cattle and even domestic water buffalo on some of the farms at the beginning of the trip (and would from now on as well) this was the only time on the whole trip that I saw a yak. On my last trip they had been everywhere in the Solu Khumbu region. I don't know if we were just too low for the yaks. They are adapted to the high, cold country and it might have been too hot for them. Or maybe they just are not common in this part of Nepal. With their big horns and huge size they can look pretty threatening but Tasi just walked up to one and smacked it on the butt to get it moving off of the trail.
Our campsite for the evening had a spectacular setting. It was in a high saddle between Poon Hill and another peak. It was at an elevation of about 3000 meters. It looked off to the west across the valley of the Kali Gandaki to the Dhaulagiri range. The clouds partially cleared from the mountains this afternoon providing a beautiful sunset. Our campsite on the saddle was next to a small shed put up by a local farmer. Because the saddle was fairly flat, he had planted some vegetable patches and offered a flat spot, running water, and fresh vegetables for sale to the few trekkers who came that way. In the hill country of Nepal virtually every flat spot of land, and a lot that isn't flat but has been terraced, has to be used for farming to produce enough food for the local people. Because there are no roads in so much of the country, there is no way to ship large amounts of food into the mountain regions, even if people could afford to buy it. So most of the people in the hill country have to produce their own food.
Sunset was beautiful but I have to admit that this was the one time on the trip when I was really tired at the end of the day. Tasi set up dinner in the small building that the farmer was letting us use. The cook staff was making the food on a big wood fire inside. Strangely, houses in Nepal almost never have chimneys. And since it gets cold up high in the winter they always have a big fireplace inside for cooking and warmth. Which means the inside of a nepali house is completely smoke filled. And I can't even stand to sit next to someone smoking a cigarette. I just couldn't take it tonight, so since we had an early start planned I just decided to head right to my tent and crash without dinner. I felt a little badly as Lakpa had already made a pizza for me, but I knew that the rest of the crew would polish it off quickly enough. It would not go to waste. Tasi seemed really worried about me but I told him I would be fine after a good nights sleep.
The next morning we would start early to hike to the top of Poon Hill, a very famous viewpoint, to watch the sunrise. From there we would descend to the town of Ghorapani and rejoin the main trekking route to the Annapurna Sanctuary. But the past few days had been really cool. We had taken a very obscure route and traveled through villages that saw few trekkers. We even hiked beyond the villages and had spent the last two days in truly wild and remote country. I hadn't expected that so it was a pleasant surprise. I knew that the Annapurna Sanctuary was one of the three most popular treks in Nepal (along with the Annapurna circuit and base of Everest) so I had expected lots of other trekkers. This had been a really fun part of the trek, where we were in remote country all by ourselves surrounded by such incredible scenery. It provided a glimpse of what Nepal had been like thirty years ago before trekking became so popular. But tomorrow we would be back with all the other tourists and the lodges and restaurants and tea houses set up for them. But that was ok. I was looking forward to taking a shower.