And so did we. After a fashion. The plan is to spend two nights here at Manang (at 11’614 feet) to aid in the acclimitisation process. But there is a 1500’ climb we will do here as part of our ‘climb high sleep low” strategy. But we have woken to steady rain and getting everyone enthused about the climb will be something else I suspect.
I love Manang. Its construction is principally stone and the houses crowd in on the lanes in tall stacks of shale. Bees make their hives in some so I mind where I walk. Peter and I go for a walk as soon as we are in town and we poke up narrow lanes of towering rock. Kids appear out of heavy cedar doors, do a double take, throw down a ‘namaste’ and scamper off. Pete and I climb to the top of the village, climb a ladder made out of a single slab of timber and sit on someone’s roof and gaze out over the valley. It’s a view interrupted by vertical poles carrying prayer flags which whip and crack in the cool breeze. To our right is the green lake (tal) fed by the Gangapurna Glacier which stabs down the mountain, covered for the most part in black rock, from high above us. We can see the rushing foam of escaping water as it sluices into the channel that feeds the Gangapurna Tal then feeds in turn the Marsyangdi Nadi which has been our roaring, rushing companion from the moment we left Besisihar. The view commands our silent reverence, as if in a cathedral. But soon we start chatting, a conversation that prods the owners of the house to wonder who is on their roof. A woman steps out, has a look, seems placated, if not bemused and returns inside. We shrug at each other and remain where we are. The breeze drives us off in the end – we are not dressed for the chill that it whips up and, after a long day of hard trekking work we are sweat soaked and that now chills us to the bone.
Our accommodation is remarkable. It’s a stone construction hall. Our rooms open up off a central stone corridor. It’s a dark, gloomy nave, with a dirty window at the end through which spills diffused light and over which a yak skull and horns hang by way of decor. Yak hides, most of which the moths have eloped with, hang from the walls. The flooring is heavy timber covered in lime and cement dust. The boards are loose so you can’t sneak off to the bathroom (I am generous with that term) without alerting everyone to your intentions. Each bedroom is clad in rough pine to a point half way up the wall, the rest being topped by cheap ply. As with all our other tea houses the walls are paper thin (despite the rock) and you have to take care about your conversation. But most people here were in bed last night by 8.30, all by 9pm. And there was almost no chit chat. It had been a long day. And let’s face it, seven days continuous walking is not what everyone usually gets up to in the course of a normal week.
I woke as usual unprompted at 5am and to the sound of rain. I have a quick look around, refill my water bottles, drop in the requisite chemicals and go back to bed. The door squeaks and protests – it’s not a precision fit. I suspect I trigger a few awake as I hear clumping footsteps up and down the corridor on those loose boards. I drift off and wake again at 7, slip down to the kitchen and am delivered a Masala tea for my trouble. I hear no other boards creaking behind me, though downstairs I hear the porters stirring. Lila is trudging around doing goodness only knows what, while our tea house host lights up some juniper in a brazier and places it on the front wall of his establishment. The holy smoke streams up hill on a light breeze. Does that portend anything for them? He pays it no attention and walks away, after which it wafts over some mules clattering and jangling through. I hope they know how blessed they are.
I climb upstairs and sit at a window overlooking the track through town. Three young boys across the lane roll out from under a tarp, put on their timber racks which are strapped to their heads and go off to cart stones. They reappear ten minutes later loaded down with granite which a flick of the head sees dumped on a pile near a construction site. They don’t break stride and head off for another load. Stacks of firewood roll along under my window following the stony path. Only when they have moved away do I see the skinny brown legs and bare feet propelling those loads along.
I discovered seabuckthorn juice. You what? A local berry distilled into a strong orange liquid heavy with vitamin A apparently. I was shown the berry but am not convinced it is the one used for the juice – what I was shown was a rosehip and that is definitely no buckthorn. I will have to check that out later. But I ordered some of the stuff last night and a few had a taste. Now everyone is into it. But this morning I settle for the closest I can to a G&T – Ginger Tea (groans all round) and rolled oats.
We have a while to kill before we start our walk and I finally start into “God of the Poor” a volume I have dragged along to read in my downtime. Somehow in this town, with the young boys behind me carting rocks, it’s an appropriate volume to be getting into.
1500 feet above Manang is a 96 year old character with tanned leather skin and who lives in a cave. Despite the lard slog up to his front door he receives lots of visits – probably for the same reason we walk up there – it’s a convenient “climb high sleep low” objective. Or maybe it is truly because he is the lama, or plain old monk if you will, conveyor (and purveyor) of blessings. We climb up there for the good of our health. But it’s also hot and steep, though the breeze is chilly too so I am never really sure how comfortable I really am.
Our friendly monk is onto something. He ties a bit of coloured string around our necks and blesses us with “good luck on Thorung La. It is no problem to walk. I was up there in 1960”.
Really? Is that it? I could come up with a blessing that sounded far more poetic than that! But he’s 96, takes 100 rupees of us for his trouble and his wife offers us a hot cup of sweet tea. Then he opens shop and starts to flog prayer beads for 500 rupees each. We buy a couple then beat a hasty retreat before he completely fleeces us. Can’t blame him though, since this is the low season and chances are he has not seen anyone for a while. Mind you I am a little puzzled about his little shrine – he has a clock on the mantle piece in the shape of Australia (one of those souvenirs you would never buy in a pink fit. Has he travelled to Australia or has someone carted it up here for him?)
We take a short respite as we wait for the monk. As we do so a distant crack and boom echoes through the mountains. It’s hard to determine direction but it’s the distinctive sound of an avalanche. We have heard a number of them as we ascended today and the porters can’t but help lift their heads each time they hear one. After everyone has been blessed we retie boots and start our return trip. I hold back until I can see everyone down. There is a ruin of a shepherds shut up here on the precipice overlooking Manang and I sit there out of the wind watching the various members of my team, now scattered along the track below me wind their way back. It’s that solitude thing kicking in again too – it’s good to be quiet and still in the apses of these cathedral mountains. The track is not clear lower down, or rather, there a numerous options and I watch some of the team take wrong turns until they are all finally in town. Then I start a fast run down. It’s stupid (one slip on the higher parts and I am in trouble, but a twisted ankle is not what I need either) but exhilarating and takes me back to leaping, jumping runs up the back of Morrisons. An hour and half ascent is reversed in four minutes of heart pumping, lung punching rocket down the slope. I startle a couple of Germans on their way down ahead of me. I leap past them, coming perilously close to photo bombing a picture he is taking of a pair of bullocks ploughing. These mountains inspire a madness in me that is hard to release when I’m plugging uphill. Running down is just the tonic and my lungs are left burning.
If that was exhilarating it was nothing to the foolishness of our after lunch activity. With much head shaking by our guide the group took me up on the challenge of having a dip in the Gangapurna Tal. That might not sound too much of a big deal but this lake is melt from the Gangapurna Glacier that hangs off the mountain behind it. But first order of business is to buy a towel (lost earlier) and another cake of soap. First into the water I am appalled at how quickly my feet numb. So I soap up and get my hair washed as quickly as I can. I lowered myself in as far as my shoulders and decided that was enough and clambered out. I had split the group into two, just in case things went weird in the water. As the second group went in Alex decided to dunk himself under. Damn. Towelled off and feeling quite warm I am obliged to re-enter and completely submerge myself. Ouch. I ‘baptise’ Peter Irving in the name of all things Forest Recon foolishness and drop his head under. All who said they would take a dip in the lake did just that – I love the commitment and the sense of adventure. Surprisingly they pretty much all declared it was stupid idea but a great thing to do. We have come armed with down jackets and dry tops so we straggle back through Manang main street looking like a very odd bunch of people. The locals quickly deduce our foolishness and we are the subject of bemused Nepalese rapid fire conversation as we pass those gathered around the mani wall or collected in doorways. Another couple we have met on the track (A Frenchman and his Chinese girlfriend) cannot believe we have done this. I reward myself with a packet of almonds and a packet of dried fruit, most of which end up in the hands of a dozen urchins who ambush me a few metres from the shop. A memorable rest day indeed.
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