Well, if we thought we had it tough yesterday we were put through the grinder today. Those who have wide trekking experience found it as arduous as anything tackled anywhere else. Those new to the game wondered what the heck they were doing here. Actually there were moments when we all wondered what the heck we were doing here.
This was our first day above the treeline. But we had to get out of the trees first and to do that we needed to climb. We cleared town at a respectable hour (7.40 again – we seem to be locked into this departure time) and walked a flat walk (really) across a river bed heading roughly west. We are well and truly in Tibetan Buddhist territory now and we walk though the fragrance of cedar frond burning, the first being at our tea house. We pass our first cemetery situated between the track and the river bank, a collection of stone cairns topped off with prayer flags. We walk for half an hour through a gravel landscape covered with a scattering of pine. High (I mean really high) on our 5 o’clock is Annapurna 2. We catch glimpses of its peak and ridge spur as we leave town but the monsoonal cloud is obscuring the most part of it. I pray for fickle winds to clear it for us. Then we hit a mani wall, take a break and then hit our own wall. (By the way the mani walls are now a common part of our daily sight-seeing diet. The mani is a prayer etched on stone and placed along a wall or on a great pile together with a whole lot of manis. The common prayer is ‘om mani padme hum’ which sounds very poetic to my ear and means “Hail to the jewel in the lotus’. We always pass to the left of them when we encounter them on the track and in villages. Sometime we find a gigantic mani carved on the side of a hill or on very large boulders. And clearly there are many prayers carved which are far more comprehensive than this short burst).
From that mani wall we start an arduous climb to a stupa on the hill above us. I glace up and think ‘that’s not far’. Two hours later I drop my pack on a table and hope I never have to lift another step again. Switch back after switchback until we were high above the vallley. The upside – there were a few moments when we could watch the cloud shift over Annapurna 2 and we caught a glimpse of its magnificence when the cloud rolled off. The other upside of course was that this ascent was a good way to help us get acclimatised to the altitude and a few of us, if any, are feeling any symptoms. None revealed in me yet but they will come soon enough I am sure. And of course by now the sun was out and were were dripping rivers. Every step dislodged at least another drop from my face and I painted the track with a continuous spatter of salt water. It was a tough physical and mental wall for everyone but the whole team managed it extremely well. Graham magically presented some jellybeans half way up and we all savoured those for as long as we could.
Our saviours at the top were a delightful Nepalese couple who treated us to mint tea and who were delighted that we wanted to plunder their little store of Snickers bars and Pringles.
From there we followed the contours (I use that phrase very lightly) west, around jutting spurs, though stone paddocks of buck wheat or through moonscapes of rock, shale and flint. The sun beat us along and the dust was whipped by the wind. Chris S noted at one stage that the landscape was not unlike Bulyaninnie (desert South Australia). He was surely right. As we wound around the contours we had to take care that we did not slip – it would be the last one you made if you chose the wrong spot, From our edgy eryrie we can look down in to the river valley and see the easy route on the far side of the valley. The easy route would take four hours less but of course would not serve us the acclimatisation we need. There were moment of oasis on the track as we passed through stands of fragrant pine. Miniature purple irises dotted the track as did a variety of other wild flowers I have no hope of identifying at the moment. The contours eventually eased us down out of an arid moonscape into a farming community where we stopped for lunch – fortuitously catching the only restaurant owner on his way out of town with his wife. He turned and hurried back to open up the kitchen. I am not sure where his wife ended up – she was walking ahead of him with a load of something on her head. When he hollered at her from the side of the track she either did not hear him, or did not want to hear him. Either way he sorted us out for lunch and we got stuck into various soups all loaded up with garlic. And he had an ample supply of Sprite as well so we were well served.
The afternoon effort was a hot one as well as we rose and fell across a rock strewn river flat, covered in stunted pines. These we eventually left as we bore down on Manang. More on that town later, but suffice it to say it’s the most wild west place I have ever been to. It’s loaded with character, but very rough. I love it. The team are exhausted and humour has been stretched a little. A good feed and two nights here should repair today’s battering and damage. But overall everyone is holding up well and I remain impressed with, and very proud of them all.