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Monday, 30 December 2013

Trekking Annapurna: New 'highway' or old by-ways? - Page 2

Written by Heather Knight
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As we climb slowly into alpine forests, the Annapurna range crests into view. A sign announces a place found on none of our maps, and we head off-piste, submitting sweat inducing steps to the high village of Odar. Its inhabitants arrive immediately for a gaze  and greet, before we are ushered with smiles into a dark, low ceilinged one-roomed home,  woven straw mats for seating, light provided by a square relief of blue sky above the central fire-wood stove. Chandeliers of rib, ankle and thigh bones, still red with dried blood hover above us awaiting the winter dearth. Deman, a lively bespectacled school teacher gives us home-brewed chang, local beer made from corn, and explains how Odar's ancestors arrived from Tibet. Now they celebrate the Hindu Dhasin festival in their own animist tradition, sacrificing a chicken at the sacred cliff and daubing its blood on the village doors. All before 4 am that very morning. It is Deman's nieces who remind us that this is a place in progress, on holiday from their town school, flourishing mobile phone cameras and music. After their requests for a photo shoot we begin our descent through quiet horse grazed fields. 


The circuit has an unfathomable rhythm of people; from one morning of loud groups to entire days of empty wanderings. Even our two mandatory road days offer up hours of unexpected calm. On day four we encounter the reason for the traffic's hindrance. Under a granite face of rock, the road is befuddled by landfalls that descend directly into the river below, leaving a tightrope walkway for only the most skilled motorcyclist. This is not the publicized highway we had read of, and I wonder how workers with rudimentary tools and unsecured  bamboo ladders can stall off the mountains' relentless challenges. 


Regardless, the road picks up again in the form of dirt and mud on the other side, where we leave it for the Upper Pisang, reaching true altitude and cold for the first time. Ancient hamlets peer down bravely into the valley, decorated by colorful prayer flags that snap backwards and forwards in the wind. A newly arrived monk welcomes us to his monastery; its rich traditional painted walls appear mildly offended by flashing colored bulbs which highlight Buddha as the main event. Lit pine sprigs sharpen the air and the conch shell's long note gives me goosebumps; until my husband remarks that it sounds a bit like the deep moo of a cow. 


A relentless climb ends with a view of immense mountains, cut deep with black ravines, clouds rapidly spiraling down, wind scraping the snow off their summits. This short but steep walking day is rewarded by a warm courtyard on the edges of Nawal village, marigolds kept with sunny pride on windowsills, Biltok the dog asleep in a shaded corner. In return for abandoning the flush toilets of larger settlements, we receive hospitality, edging out the cold by a kitchen fire as dinner cooks. We listen to our evening's host Vim, recanting tales of wolves from the Tibetan plateau, Chinese attempts to claim Everest's entirety, frequent plane crashes, successive failing government regimes, and winter days when the sun does not appear over the mountain ridges. He rubs his hands to keep warm and laughs after each story, before returning to a deadpan face. His wife and children sleep with the cattle in a barn in order to watch over them. “The mountains are a hard place to live” he agrees solemnly. Then he laughs again. 


      That night my dash for the toilet is halted suddenly by the sight of the mountain Annapurna IV, laced in wisps of moonlight, its perfectly formed ice glowing. Only the bone chill moves me on. After some small space acrobatics, I eventually return to my stone-built room, complete with large cracks along the windows that invite the wind inside. I mummify myself in all the clothes I have: thermals, trousers, shirt, fleece, down-jacket, gloves, hat, scarf, sleeping bag, my husband's down jacket. It's still cold, but I'm smiling. 


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Last modified on Thursday, 02 January 2014

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