Pokhara and Annapurna Base Camp
Pokhara is thumbs up smiley face great. An absolute treat compared to Kathmandu. A little lakeside town at the base of the Himalayas, full of travellers trying out their trekking poles or de-leeching from the nearby Annapurna mountains. If you tilt your head up, you’ll see a rainbow of paragliders taking off from the nearby Sarangkot Hill, chasing the thermals (fun fact: they do this by looking at where the local vultures go to catch the thermal upwind). There’s a movie garden showing films like ‘Everest’ and ‘7 years in Tibet’ to get your spine tingling before you set off to conquer the mountains. There’s a gazillion guesthouses, lodges and restaurants on the hill, all advertising a ‘lake view’. But the demand for lodging is so high that people are screwing each other over by building taller buildings in front of other people’s guesthouses. I thought there must be some sort of rule against this, planning permission, etc…but I got chatting to one of the owners about this: ‘If you have money, anything is possible’. My first glimpse into the pervading corruption in Nepal.
My head was buzzing at a million miles an hour having just come from London, where if you stand still for too long you have a mental health issue. So I was getting pretty antsy to say the least after a few days in Pokhara listening to the rest of the Florisca fam talk about meditation and yoga 24/7. Bloody hippies, I thought, what have they turned into? All interesting stuff, don’t get me wrong, but a brutal change — from copious amounts of craft ales and chatting about the Euros to sipping chai and dissecting the meaning of life. It was peak monsoon season after all, so no one was in a rush to go anywhere with torrential downpours every day. After about a week or so we braved it and headed for the hills.
We got to a little village called Phedi at the base of the Annapurna Base Camp trek. And by village I mean 4 houses and a couple of stalls by the side of a road. We headed on up the path, and within 20 minutes everyone was drenched in their own sweat. Kind of forgot it was 35 degrees with a million percent humidity. Felt like you were running on a treadmill in a sauna. I was getting fat from drinking too much anyway so this was good. We plodded on up through a few little villages where we were greeted with friendly Namastes and warm smiles from the locals. Amazing people. I unloaded my ibuprofen supplies onto a man with a rotten tooth in one of the villages and felt pretty good about myself. Good deed of the day done.
The deep chats continued on the mountain, the most memorable of which was with lil bro. He’d just spent 3 months in India so he was was beaming with spirituality. More recently he just came out of a 10 day silent meditation retreat. He was zen as fook. We were talking about using meditation to recognise and be aware of your thought patterns. As you do. The example we talked about was the idea of trying to be funny. So if you think you’re a funny person, when you go down the pub, or when you meet someone, you’ll always be trying to think of funny shit to say. To impress. When you do, everything’s awesome, you’re a legend. “I’m a funny motherfucker” you might say to yourself. But no matter how awesome you are, there will be times when you can’t think of something funny to say, or anything at all…and you stall and you say something random and it comes out weird. Then you’ll beat yourself up. You might start a negative thought pattern instead — “I can’t think of anything funny. Shit. I’m a boring motherfucker”. So you’re reactions are constantly pulled in two directions. Sometimes you feel good about yourself, other times you don’t. Meditation teaches you to be aware of this reaction, and let it go, by just being present in the moment. In that way, you feel more grounded. You don’t care as much if you’re funny. You just say whatever comes to you, without judging or analysing. Without a filter — for better or for worse. I learnt the same lessons in improv comedy. The whole point is to chat shit. Go with the flow. Say the first thing that comes to your head, and eventually something funny will come out of it. Common sense right? That’s just one example. But how many times have you no enjoyed something because you were judging, comparing, hating? Say a guy takes a shit on your carpet. You’re obviously not going to be happy about that. You’re going to be angry, fuming. But the sooner you realise how you’ve reacted, and accept that there’s a shit on your carpet, the quicker you can get over it and feel happy again. That’s what meditation teaches. To not give a shit that there’s a shit on your carpet. Some people can do it better than other naturally. I’d get pretty pissed.
Where were we. Oh yeah, Himalayas. The landscape felt surreal! We were in the bloody Himalayas! I already said that. I imagined a cold, barren land with snowy peaks. Instead, we were trekking through a leech infested jungle in 30 degree (celsius) weather. I was proud of my leech free record the first day or two, only to find about 7 of them munching on my leg on the third day. Nasty little fuckers. Luckily we came prepared though. I busted out the bag of salt and had a little sacrificial ceremony near one of the villages. Everyone else had similar experiences, including our adopted dog, Puchi — named after Dom’s childhood stuffed toy which he kept until he was waaaay to old — sorry bro, had to give some context.
The path kept snaking ahead through the dense forest. The incline was gradual for the first couple of days, with some small, sharp ascends and descends. The air was getting cooler by the day, but still had a hint of humidity and jungleness.
We passed through many villages, with curious and friendly people. The bigger villages were more alive, but not because of hikers but because of the vibrant energy of the local people. Kids were running up and down thousands of steps to go to school. Farmers were tending to their fields and the oldies were bantering and laughing like there’s no tomorrow. Every one of these villages seemed to beam with aliveness, even in the midst of the rainy season. One advantage of trekking at this time is that the guest houses are pretty much empty along the way, and we have some bargaining power. We mostly tried to blag the accomodation for free and promised to eat dinner and breakfast there. The higher you went, the more expensive the Dal Bhaat (local dish) and the colder the showers. They charge money for warm water. And western toilets. And electricity. And wifi. Not that I would have used wifi. Ok maybe for Instagram. But it was nice to disconnect totally for 10 days. It felt pretty liberating. I was finally starting to unwind, to get on the same hippie wavelength as everyone else.
We cross many bridges on our way up and since we’ve adopted Puchi, it’s always an adventure. He’s the world’s skinniest dog, feeding of remnants of food left over from hikers along the trail. We’ve been particularly kind to him so he’s decided to follow us. First bridge we get to, he’s howling and screaming like he’s just watched his whole family get murdered. It becomes pretty obvious that he’s terrified of these bridges so Dom gives him a little helping hand. He’s getting the 5 star treatment. Hugs and Dal Bhaat all the way to the top. He’s made it.
Leaving the dense forest behind. The panoramas started opening up with views of the Fishtail and Annapurna peaks. As we get higher, stunning waterfalls appear to the east and a lush green valley to the west. The path gets harder and steeper now, with large, stone steps built into the ground. I presume this is to stop it from turning into a deadly waterslide when the torrential rains come in. Great idea but it takes away from the feeling that you’re climbing a mountain, and instead I’m immediately reminded of a tube station with a broken escalator. One has to also wonder how the hell they managed to get all this stone up here? Or maybe DOWN here? Maybe they took it from above the tree line further up the mountain. In hindsight I should have asked one of the villagers, but I was in the zone trying to carry my beer belly up those steps. Next time.
When we finally reached Annapurna Base Camp, it was — shit. Complete whiteout. Couldn’t see 20 metres in front of you. But there were no leaches and the lodge was pretty chilled, had good vibes, so everyone was happy to camp it out for a while hoping to get a view in the morning.
We waited a couple of days for the clouds to part so we had some time to kill. I got roped into playing a game of poker with a bunch of kiwis — using bits of corn as poker chips. We had about 100 each, all worth the same. Raising the blinds was a bitch. I did not win.
We’d met one of the guys on our way up, Andrew, who was a crazy freediver dude from New Zealand. He’d raced up here in half the time it took us and after day 1, we were all getting a bit of cabin fever. In an effort to distract ourselves, Dom, Tash, Andrew and I got the cards out and started a mammoth game of Kemps. This is played in teams of 2. Everyone gets dealt four cards. Every round 4 cards get dealt from the deck face up, and anyone can swap any card in their hand for any card face up. Everyone goes at the same time so it’s pure carnage. The goal is to make 4 of a kind in your hand, and show your partner the secret signal. Once they notice it, they shout “Kemps”. You can also shout “contra kemps” if you think you’ve spotted another team’s signal before the other person on their team has clocked it. It’s one of the funniest games I’ve ever played.
And boy were we rewarded for the wait. Dom comes knocking on my door at 4am, shouting something along the lines of ‘Your Instagram is here’ —I’m in a haze, I’ve not got much oxygen in my brain from the altitude but I jump out of bed and ohhh…myy…gaawd! This is what we came here for. And this is why I wish I was better at writing, because there’s no way I can do it justice with words. But I’ll try.
We walk outside in the middle of the night and see an opening in the clouds. The moon shines as bright as a small sun at this altitude and pulled the curtain to reveal a breathtaking view of the Annapurna mountain range. The Annapurna I peak is towering above me, with Annapurna South to the left, the moonlight catching them perfectly from the side. Slightly to the right, the light finds another mountain range, exposing the Annapurna III and Gongapurna peaks. It dawns on me how ridiculously ginormous these mountains are. We’re at 4130m and we’re all tilting our heads up. There’s still about 3000–4000m of rock above us.
As moonlight turns to daylight, it shows a clear view of the base camp area, with the snowy mountain faces smiling down and all around it. My eyes are drawn to the glacier snaking up behind the mountain and onto the opposite face. Thoughts turn to impossible feats. “I wonder if you could ride down it? I’m sure people have. Two turns and your out of gas at that altitude though. Hmmm. Either way, it’s just begging to be climbed. “
It’s god dam beautiful! This is what I pictured the Himalayas to be like. This is the postcard moment everyone talks about. It’s worth every kilo of sweet, every leech wound and every day of being soaked to the bone on the way up. I realise just how much I bloody love the mountains and how they make you feel so insignificant, yet so alive! I sit in awe of the views, the energy, the audacity of where we are.