I had not eaten protein from an animal in days. Most meals at high altitude in Nepal consisted of rice and lentils, and though I know, empirically, that this is a whole protein, I missed meat and fruit. I fantasized about Thanksgiving dinner, papaya, Magnum bars, pizza, tacos and anything that was not lentils or rice.
The Annapurna Trek in Northern Nepal was, 25 years ago, a delightful, challenging and stunningly varied and beautiful adventure. I sat atop a Jeepney on dusty luggage to get there from Kathmandu. I listened to the driver’s assistant whistle, pray and hit the side of the bus, encouraging the driver through rivers, up angled shitty roads, past donkeys and into Besisahar.
For the first several days I walked peacefully through terraced rice fields lit flourescent green in the sun. I sat, eating a banana over-looking a turquoise river with huge boulders. There were apple orchards and green hillsides and then above the green hills, the Annapurna Massif showed bright white.
I stopped at tea houses along the way for lunch or a strudel or to sleep. White or stone with royal blue trim, the tea houses dotted small villages of 7 or 8 buildings atop a terraced hillside. 3 Tibetan- Nepali porters smoked on the wall in front of a row of marigolds while a gigantic white mountain top brooded above them. A tiny man with what looked like a refrigerator slung on his back, held by a forehead strap, sauntered past in flip flops.
I hiked most days with St. Jean from Ojai. His dad was an oil broker. I found him on the board at the Kathmandu hotel but soon became annoyed with his hair flipping and incessant need for hot water at each tea house. I split from him after I saw that he packed Nantucket red pants. He also treated porters and tea house workers shabbily, demanding “Thali, Thali!” when he wanted a third serving of Dal Baht.
In Dharapani I ran into a British woman who would make it a habit along the trek to enter my room at night, quietly do what she wanted to me, and leave. She was 36, I was 22. I looked forward to running into her on the trail. We never made it into anything other than a late-night secretive dalliance until she asked me to travel on to Indonesia and Australia and became upset when I said no.
There was a Kiwi lady who complained about a rat eating her undies and two kids from New York who walked with wild marijuana on their packs to dry out. Once it dried, we smoked it. Looking up at Ganggapurna under the stars we chatted about the Middle-East and Ice Cream. In Tatopani. Nilgiri, Annapurna 1,2 and 3 and Machapucre stood over terraced fields, passionfruit trees and an aqua river babbled past hot springs. The mountains looked like shark’s teeth piercing the night sky. We giggled about the kiwi who thought a rat had eaten her “keks.”
It was the archetype of the Shangri La fantasy I had always searched for. After passing through apple orchards and the apple strudels, pies and tarts from those apples, I reached the brown zone. Near the Chinese border, the rice paddies, grapefruit and guavas gave way to a spartan brown, stone environment filled with mud and stone villages. Small white stupas, faint red paint and walls of prayer Mani sat quietly under Multi-colored prayer flags flapping in the wind. Children in Maroon sweaters with cleft pallets and dirty faces ran up yelling, “schoooooo pen sir.”
The monochromatic high country went on for days punctuated with near death experiences from Yak trains walking on the inside of a ledge or shabbily constructed suspension bridges or word that Maoists were fucking with trekkers down the valley.
Two days in Manang to acclimatize and an extra day during a snowstorm. Lisa entered my room several times, slipping under my sleeping bag then exiting, picking up her clothes from the floor as she left. I did have a Yak Steak with potatoes that was as fine as any Niman ranch filet from Lugars or Del Frisco.
The final day before the 12-hour push over 17,777 foot Thorang La pass I stayed in Thorang Phedi. The tiny tea house was dark, rustic, with a small kitchen, a few pots, a fire and a small table with a wool blanket draped over a heater. The toothless, smiling cook felt that garlic, a tremendous amount of it, in ramen noodles, staved off altitude sickness.
At 14,555 feet it was worth a shot. It was in my -15 degree Goretex Northface sleeping bag that I learned that garlic, ramen and altitude create, also, the worst bubbling, roiling painful tummy ever imagined, and does not, in fact, help with altitude sickness.
I tried to stay in my warm bag, not wanting to creep down the frozen stairs out across the snow to the outhouse. Futile gesture, as I frantically unzipped my bag, leaped down the stairs three at a time and ran across the snowy courtyard. I flung open the door to the outhouse, slipping on the icy shit and falling on my back across the open hole. The ceiling was open, pulled back from the rafters to reveal a billion blue-white stars, their constellations and the tops of what where several 7,000-meter mountain tops.
I didn’t sleep that night. Up at 3 am to make the push from Thorang Phedi, over Thorang La Pass at 17,777 feet and down the miles of large rocks to Muktinath. The light shined on a large white mountain to the south at 6 AM while a dark ridge appeared to the north so that the two lightings and geometries made for what could pass as a modernist painting. I stepped slowly, one step, one exhalation. As I moved higher, the steps and the inhalation and exhalation became more difficult. I vomited on my La Sportiva boot, took a step and a breath and vomited again.
I reached the pass in the mid-morning. A mountain to the south, and one to the north. A rock stupa with prayer flags blowing in the harsh wind and a view of the brown Mustang region and China.
I had eaten Dal Bhat, the Traditional Nepalese meal of Rice and Lentil soup, for the good part of 20 days. On lucky days, in the middle of the stainless round platter, the tea house cook would drop a small stainless bowl of cauliflower and cabbage curry and on very special occasions a wet chicken wing or drum piece swam in the curry.
It was a dream entering Pokhara, the end point for the Annapurna Trek. Pokhara was a delightful small town on a lake with views of the larger mountains of the Western Himalaya, Annapurna, Dalgiri and Machapucre to the north. We met at Everest steakhouse for one final dinner. There was St. Jean, The kiwis, Lisa the sexpot, the boys giggling in the corner, surely high on shitty wild pot. Dal Baht was on the menu, but I opted for a Beef Filet and potato. We finished, hugged, promised to keep in touch. I walked down a dark alley to my hotel holding hands with Lisa.