“Why do people trek?” my friend asks me on day one of the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal. It is 9 am, and the sun is hot and high. The sights aren’t as promising as they appeared on the internet either. We are trekking on a dusty road frequented by jeeps loaded with camping accoutrement, goods and people. Each time a vehicle passes us, we step aside, covering our mouths till the dust and smell of diesel settle. Masks are ubiquitous in Kathmandu, even among the locals residing along this trek. I consider telling my friend, who is trekking for the first time, “It will get better”. Instead, I rant defensive platitudes about nature, solitude, exercise and adventure. She hears me out but I wonder what my answer really is. Why am I here? I don’t exactly enjoy the trekking experience in its entirety, yet I choose it whenever I find a window for a vacation.
This trek, which orbits Annapurna Massif, Dhaulagiri, Machhapuchhre, Manaslu, Gangapurna and Tilicho Peaks, has been voted one of the world’s most beautiful treks. Adding to its lure are the welcoming tea houses, apple pies and trustworthy guides and porters. It was once pristine and lengthy — it used to take nearly 25 days to cover the whole base. Now, it is severely intruded upon. It is estimated that, by 2017, the trek will be fully accessible through motorable roads, except perhaps for the brief interlude of Thorong La Pass, the highest point in the route. Even in May this year, when we are here, the roads connect the Base Camp — Besisahar to Manang village, and Muktinath on the other side of the pass to Pokhara. This leaves us five days to truly step out of the civilisation, although there are reliable Wi-Fi connections at most stopovers. In October 2014, this route saw one of the worst trekking tragedies; more than 400 trekkers got trapped in a snowstorm and 43 people died. The rescue and travel facilities have since been upgraded. We are aware of many such facts. Like most people, we have devoured blogs, government websites, news articles and maps. We are not expecting surprises.
There is a group of Israeli girls, who have finished their military training and are travelling through South Asia. Our schedules match and we cross them, among other people. As we climb higher, the vegetation changes drastically; paddy fields have gone, and rhododendrons have arrived. The wind has become stronger. And our minds are occupied by body aches, blisters and constipation. By the end of day five, we are in for more surprises — a strap of one of our backpack breaks, a shoe wears out, we don’t have enough woollen clothes and we are cash-strapped. Nepal is surprisingly exorbitant for those used to trekking in India.
In a rest house in Manang, some trekkers complain of mild headache. Some attend a lecture on mountain sickness at a facility nearby, while others relax by playing cards or surfing the internet on their phones. Four guides and I surround a heater, discussing if we should go back owing to our lack of resources. I haven’t slept well and my friend is daunted by the climb ahead. The guides encourage us, even offer to lend us money.
Finally, we hire a porter. We have the best day of the trek so far, surrounded on two sides by snow-clad peaks, and, on the other, a dry and arid plateau. We chat with our new companion, the porter, who shares with us his fears of death of the Annapurna Circuit. Once the road is pucca, stop-over villages will starve for income, he tells us. The agencies run by rich people in Kathmandu will mint money.
The next day, we enter landslide prone areas that resemble cold deserts of Leh. The final climb starts at 4 am. It is unbearably chilly, the path is steep, breathing is a little difficult, my friend has a swollen ankle and we have not eaten since last evening. We have one bar of Snickers each and money for two cups of black tea. In constant anxiety, six hours later, we somehow make it to the top. There are high-fives all around and pictures are taken, but the two of us do not celebrate. It is an emotional moment. Quietly, we share a cup of black tea and begin the descent.
The weather forecast for the week hasn’t been good. Clouds loom large above us and, soon, a snow storm follows. We wear our raincoats and slow down. My friend slips, falls and hurts herself. One of the first to start the climb, we finish the last, at around 4 in the evening.
We return to the town to visit an ATM. To our dismay, there is no power supply. We walk from bank to bank, hapless. We had assumed that transfer of money from India won’t be difficult once we are in Jomsom — a town with an airport, where travellers end or begin their treks. My friend breaks down.
In Pokhara, we eat at a fancy restaurant. In this lake town, trekkers relax for a couple of days, get reiki treatments and massages, among other indulgences. On the table next to us is an agent showing pictures of Everest Base Camp to a prospective client group. When we scroll through our phone, we, too, find the snaps stunning. Judging by our smiling faces, one may construe that we had a gala time — how we might have spent hours appreciating a scene. What we have, though, are the memories of being preoccupied with reaching the next stop, of being determined and ill at ease. There is a sense of accomplishment and many stories that can sound dramatic even if we don’t fiddle with the facts. I haven’t found the words to answer my friend’s question, but I might just sign up for yet another trek.
Mohit Parikh is the author of Manan