Sunday, 26 October 2014

Annapurna: Cycling a circuit in crisis


In this world, few things exist alone, unworried by and remote from the rest. When heavy rains and gusts ripped through India’s eastern seaboard and cyclone Hudhud was christened as such, the sun was shining over Nepal, hikers were pounding Himalayan trails in peak season and nobody rued the interconnections of this world. Not yet, anyway.

As Indian police began the evacuation of 400,000 people on the Bay of Bengal coast Mike and I were beginning to bike-pack the Annapurna Circuit: a trial most often the realm of hikers (over 20,000 of them yearly). The trail scoots round the Annapurna range, a 55 km long section of Nepali Himalaya including 14 peaks over 7000 metres and one, the eponymous peak of the range, over 8000 metres. It’s one of the earth’s most venerated hiking trails, and in the space of the next few days, it was about to bloom in renown, but for all the wrong reasons.

Mike Roy would be my companion. Mike was part of the six strong posse of riders who, two months ahead of me, crossed Myanmar. His blog The Three Rule Ride is an awesome account of a two year bicycle odyssey from Korea in which Mike has given genuine thought to the environment.

Other things to know about Mike: he is an American, he loves food (though limits his pace of consumption, cf me), he meditates, he can speak Korean, Chinese, Italian, more than a smattering of Thai and Spanish, and has blossoming Nepali. He has an uneasy relationship with geodesic domes. He has a tendency to look intermittently mystical.


‘Now, you guys will ride down, it’s easy, and then it’s flat’ reported the confident young girl, perched on the steps of the village police post.

‘Flat?’ We chorused, from the shadow of sky-tickling mountains.

‘Well, you know, ‘Nepali flat’: Up, down, up, down, up down.’

An hour later Mike and I were still lugging our bikes down the steps carved into rock, blaming the process on not just on one optimist but two: a boy had directed us onto this hikers’ path hours ago. We wanted to be on the road which lay now tauntingly on the other side of the river, golden in the sun, like a promised land, unmeant for people as used-up and ugly from toil as us.

It was a familiar trap: you strive for ages, bent on some irrational hope that things will improve, only to learn that they will not, but by that time doing an about turn would be too spirit sapping, and anyway, things might improve, right?

Day one on the famed Annapurna Circuit drew to a cruel end.

By nightfall, we came upon a house and were offered to share a room with a preternaturally fat pigeon with diarrhoea which was perched (wedged) in between rafters. The woman showing me the room caught me anxiously appraising the thin plywood floor boards with inch wide gaps, offering glimpses of a painful landing: the dining table on the floor beneath. To prove the robustness, she jumped savagely, landing with a thud, laughed in my face and was gone, leaving us to our rickety bedroom.

The next day a line of honeyed light caught the peaks, and then dropped, filling the valley with warmth and promise. It was a return to shouldering our bikes though, traversing rivers, mounting unending steps, blaming ourselves. The circuit had promised to be tough, but not at this meagre altitude. About us was a stadium of yellow-green rice paddies, the breeze shivered them: ‘shhhhh, shhhhhh, you idiots, shhhhh’.

Finally we got to a bridge and rejoined the road. Almost immediately two hale and burnished trekkers, Scandinavians probably, jogged past. ‘Hi guys!’ they chirped. Mike looked like he might attack them, but cheered up a minute later saying ‘I’m kinda glad the start was tough. Everything will be easier from here on’. Briefly, I wanted to attack Mike.




The next two days to Manang were spent mainly on a road that only fitted that definition because people referred to it as such, and because it joined places, not because it actually resembled one. It was the sight of man sized boulders which hikers had to round that clashed most with my vision of what a road should be. Bike touring had again become bike-lugging, but there were the other things to enjoy: grand rainbowed waterfalls, purple-tinged fields packed with the stalks of harvested buckwheat, the cheery trekkers: robotic-looking in their pole-assisted mission. The British announced themselves with awkward apologetic manoeuvres when confronted with another hiker ‘Oh God’ I heard one man say ‘this is embarrassing’ as he shuffled into someone’s elbow. There were porters too, their job two-fold: to carry three rucksacks a piece, and to force everyone else into judging themselves inadequate slouches.

From the outskirts of Chame an audience of Buddhist prayer flags strung across the river waved us off and as we passed trekkers their words lingered in the air long enough to catch ‘wow, hard work’ and ‘no suspension. Alright!’ Reading the prices of food on menus on the trail involved a light-headedness to rival that provided by the thinning air, especially if you’ve been tramping around rural Nepal for a while and living cheap. ‘Oxygen goes down, prices go up’ as the saying goes. Oxygen is at a premium not just for the altitude though, methane displaces it. The local dish of Dal Baht makes up the dinner for most, and is the most flatulence-provoking food known to mankind. The fact it appears high on menus on a trail in which people walk one behind one another makes me wonder if it’s all just one big Nepali joke on the visitors.

Food. I fight the urge to ask the question that I know is not becoming of a grown up. It’s not: ‘What would you recommend?’ Not even ‘What is the cheapest?’ I want to know what is the biggest feed on the list. Mass over flavour. I ask anyway, and receive the muted smile I expected, but get a mound of potato as big as my head, so I don’t care about the faux pas.

The most delicious feature of the circuit though is the changeability of the landscape, and on the approach to Menang it altered again: from the steep valley lush with deciduous forest and sparkling with banks of rust coloured fern, woven like scrap metal, to a flatter, pine forested place, presided over by bigger mountains and beige coloured rock faces eroded into surreal shapes. Each splash of pine forest was riven by the grey streaks of old landslides.

A helping hand from a porter



We were alone, the trekkers had taken to the other side of the river and the road this far wasn’t yet accessible to vehicles. Crows cawed. Wind quivered the yellowing pines. Donkeys stilled in the road, like for them, time had ceased to pass. This is a place of stories: witches are said to wander these parts.

We passed a row of tables by the empty wind-blown road. Amid the artifacts were yak bones and two great yak heads with light bulbs in their eye sockets, old pottery, goat horns, a black necklace fashioned from the vertebra of a snake. A man appeared, chanting, prayer beads in hand. ‘Three babas’ he said nodding to his stash meaning three generations had gathered the finds on sale.

Up until this point, I had been feeling a bit envious of Mike’s bike which sported Buddhist prayer flags, the face of a bearded man carved from bamboo root from Vietnam, and the best novelty horn imaginable, which sounded like a clown’s. From the table I immediately claimed a charred baby yak’s skull and cable tied it to the underside of my handlebars. People now approach my bike, take a sudden step backwards and cast me a worried look. Children cry. Old women bring forth prayers. It’s fantastic.



As a breather, unlike most humans, I am of a singularly noisy variety when I exercise, and especially at altitude. Mike didn’t know this. Momentarily he looked back, concern written in his eyes, as if he might find me grounded, woven in my bicycle, drowning in sputum. When he saw that wasn’t the case, his face reverted to one of pleasant surprise.

As my breathlessness abated, and serenity returned to the Himalayas, I looked up at the mountains, now snow-coated and appearing impossible to reach. I mentioned this to Mike. ‘Nothing’s impossible’ he returned, grim-faced and sounding like a Nike advert. A wimpier travel companion, I realised then, might be easier on my ego.

The culture around Manang is recognisably Tibetan. On the approach to the town the small children have the paradigm rosy cheeks, and are so muffled they can hardly flex their knees or elbows when they walk, making them hilarious for their being unchangingly star-shaped. By three and half thousand metres up signs advertising the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness arrived on the scene, which just rubs it in if you’ve been suffering from 3000 metres. Exertion is a major player in who succumbs and bikers are a lot more susceptible.

The first sight to greet us in Manang might have been used on the cover of a book entitled ‘Wilderness Medicine: a practical guide’. Two western doctors charged through the village, one squeezing an IV bag of fluid attached to the arm of a Nepali woman who was being piggy backed by a porter stampeding through town. Later I learnt that the medics had to rub off melted yak butter from her forearm, a local remedy, in order to insert an IV line.

As we wheeled our bikes through the town I looked back behind us: a fleet of clouds was driving up the valley. I didn’t think to mention it to Mike.




Manang was in full bloom at the peak of the tourist season and few guesthouses had rooms to accommodate two bikers and the skull of a juvenile yak. Trekkers shuffled about the one street taking days off from the trail to acclimatise, buying books which seemed to be entirely about death in the mountains and watch films in the two small movie houses which also seemed to be about perilous quests into the unknown. Deciding I needed something a little more escapist (or just not entitled: ‘The day I starved and had to eat my frozen friend’s face off’) we headed straight to a guesthouse, ending the day with a few beers with fellow bikers James and Logan. As I walked out into the moonless night, I shivered and saw the snow. It wasn’t a flurry, not even a dusting, just a few minute white specs floating out of the night sky: pioneers, I would discover.

I was wrestled from sleep by a white light, and discovered a broad white bar occluding the view out of the upper part of my guesthouse window. It fell. Gravity has beaten the abundant snow gathering on the roof and it had joined snow heaping up on the ground. A head-scarfed old lady shuffled through the white-out, shovel in hand. There had been no weather warnings, and everyone in town was as agog as we were: a blizzard had gripped Menang, in October: a month of unchallenged blue skies in the middle of the Himalayan dry season. And we still had the steady climb of 2000 metres to climb to Thorong La, a pass of 5416 m which claimed the blue bit of my map and where the contour lines crowded together like tree rings. And if it was snowing abundantly here…

But as the snow continued to pile up, people’s minds were not on the pass, and the snowfall forced everyone’s faces into silly grins of the type that grace seven year olds when school’s cancelled. With the power out, there was nothing to do but read or crowd about the wood-burning stove which was incited with dry yak dung, as the scent of garlic and butter swirled and a snowman in sunglasses took shape outside my window. As more hikers arrived and nobody could leave, Manang became a stoppered bottle of bewildered adventurers, aiming eyes at the still-white sky.



Manang under snow
It was here we met three New Zealanders: Emily, Claire and Tim, all in shorts. This was immediately satisfying. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but in my mind, all New Zealanders wear shorts, and only shorts. I am certain that if I would go there I would find people running about glaciers in vests and underwear. They don’t have homes, or jobs. They sleep in crevasses and spend their days playing water-rugby in grade five rapids.

Emily, Claire and Tim didn’t pack trousers in order to hike over a Himalayan pass of 5400 metres. And that’s how it should be. They are the only nationality allowed to do this and not be considered foolish or ill prepared. All three were as outdoorsy as every Kiwi I have met, and Emily was keen on something called Adventure Racing (if you’re not acquainted look up masochism in a dictionary, it’ll be there).

The following day the sky was a pacifying blue, and the Annapurnas looked to smoulder as snow was whipped from their upper reaches by sun and breeze. Manang was alive again: sunglassed, pack-laden trekkers pounded through two feet of packed snow which was yet to live as slush. Above, electric cables, the ones still up, bled snow in plummeting shafts. The rock faces of Annapurna 2 and 3 were unsullied panes of white. Mountain goats, driven down to town by the snowfall, began pestering shop keepers and munching on gardens.

Mike and I trekked up to a ridge above Manang where the snow was thigh deep and eye-aching, almost forcing us to break trail. Our feet slid deliciously into it. When we returned power had come back to the town. Inside a hostel a posse of Australians sat, their eyes trained intensely on a TV: the BBC were reporting deaths on the Annapurna Circuit. Nine bodies so far, at least 140 missing. The news channels knew more about the disaster than anyone in Manang itself, one of the biggest towns en route. Everyone began playing the ‘what if’ game, everyone had a reason why they could have been two days further ahead, at the pass, when the snow-storm hit. Manang was all chatter, but facts? They were as absent as colour in the peaks.

The drone of search and rescue helicopters became as familiar as the low of yaks. They zipped to and fro, like the rumours around town: two metres of snow at the pass, body count: 21. Scores were still stranded at Tilicho Lake and High Camp. The Israelis were being evacuated first as the Israeli government had fronted the money for evacuation of all its citizens. Later, this would be a topic of controversy and rumours spread of helicopters half full refusing to take anyone not Israeli, of bands of Israelis commandeering the available satellite phones and, more farcically, of two people who’d blagged their way onto a chopper because ‘we’re half Jewish!’

We stared wistfully at maps, pondering the future of our ride, knowing it may now be impossible to proceed - already many hikers were turning face and marching back to Besishar. We decided to linger, and then, realising bike travel was fantasy (since hiking may well be too), we left our bikes and gear at a guesthouse and set out to the pass on foot when everyone else was in retreat. We bought wooden sticks as trekking poles and stuffed plastic bags down our trainers. Thoughts of avalanches were edged out by the slim chance of making it up. The events on the pass felt remote. We met two hikers, a Lithuanian and Siberian, unfussed, who ran out of beer and cigarettes from high altitude near Tilicho lake. ‘It vas tragedy’ the Siberian pined. From where others were being air-evacuated, they had left on foot through deep snow drifts, motivated by the fear of remaining without the refuge of booze and fags.

The Nepali minister for tourism arrived into Manang by helicopter and promptly presented to the medical clinic with symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness – typical, I thought, of tourists not to heed the advice, especially amusing through if you yourself promote that advice. I was asked to check in at the clinic too in case they had a rush of patients who had been stranded on the trail and needed help, but having not been called into action, I set out on foot.

Snow: the great eraser. Filching not just colour and detail, but leaving the land bereft of smell, of movement too, with the exception of avalanches and as we tramped out over the hills northwest of Menang, a huge crunch caused us to swivel and watch snow barrel down the opposing side of the valley. Our gaze waited over the mountainside before we moved on, our thoughts murky, our plan still imprecise. We met a few trekkers heading back who had been stranded at High Camp, they bore news that the Nepali army had closed the pass to collect bodies.




The next night we spent with a French girl, Maryon and American guy, Elie. ‘Hey, do you guys blaze?’ asked Elie.

It wasn’t strong weed, but it doesn’t have to be at 4200 metres above sea level. I know this because an hour later I found Mike in his room sat upright and crosslegged, meditating. He was wrapped in a yak hair blanket inscribed with Tibetan runes. He looked, in almost every respect, like a wizard. The only inconsistency was the fact that he was wearing a pair of gloves on his feet, and instead of solemnity, his expression was one of lightly controlled mania.

‘That Yak looks demonic’ said Mike. Having considered that Mike was no longer high, I peered at the beast and had to agree. A long face, big horns and a bleak, nowhere stare. I was still vaguely spooked when we came to some other trekkers who paused by us. ‘Over there, you see?’ one pointed to the shape of a man over the river, lying down in the snow. ‘It’s a dead body’.

Until that point, the events on the pass had seemed remote and marginal, too extreme perhaps to process. We had been merely held up and I hadn’t considered the reality. The reality was brutally unsheathed now, in the shape of a dead man, and a red rucksack, laid out in the snow.

There’s an expression in medicine which, typical of many of doctor’s idioms, carries a certain brutality but is useful nonetheless. ‘You’re not dead’ they say ‘until you’re warm and dead’. Hypothermia can do strange things: brain function can be preserved, heart-rate slowed so much as to affect death. I had to check.

If he’d been out there all night, or for longer, then I couldn’t see him being alive, but nobody knew. We passed a German hiker, noticeably shaken by the sight, and then to the body. He was lying down, head on a red rucksack for a pillow, a blanket over his legs, one hand balled up to a fist. He had been dead for some time. It was shocking in the juxtaposition: dead bodies belong in hospital beds, in the morgue, not alone, skin still shining, growing hard in the snow.

He was a monk whom we later discovered had walked from Thorung Phedi against advice during the night. By his posture he looked resigned to death, not as though it had come suddenly and with a fight. Later I wondered whether his religion might have played into this. Perhaps, amid the cold, with a certain fatalism, he’d thought about his next life. But perhaps not.

An army helicopter above described a curve and as we hiked around the next corner, they must have winched up the body.

As we hiked our wooden sticks created tunnels of glacial blue in the snow which was lumped over unseen boulders and shrubs – the world had been bubblewrapped. Recent avalanches churned up the snow, twisting it up into ragged shapes, like a sea bed of coral. My heart was set to pounding as I took stock of a great crack in the snow, extending down into the earth, where rocks and snow were spilling in ceaselessly. It looked as though at any moment the mountainside would snap and tear off towards the river, plunging at 20 degrees to the vertical. Maybe my perspective had changed: Would I have been as afraid had I not just stared into the frozen features of a dead man? I don’t know, but as I paced through the snow my feet found other footprints coming the other way. The lingering echo, perhaps, of a man’s last strides.



Sunlight roused the valley, waking the colours and contours of rock exposed by the melt. The crags above us were blotted with the shapes of big birds of prey, Himalayan vultures perhaps, and as the snow melted rocks shifted, at times tumbling down to the trail from on high.

It was a scramble from Thorong Pedi up to High Camp, which was at almost 5000 metres and the snow was still waist deep. We were now the only foreigners this high aside from a Chinese hiker, the rest had returned, and a few had been airlifted out. My head ached. This was the place that porters had arrived at days before, clutching notes from hikers near the pass which stated that they were in immediate and life threatening danger. Send help. No help by then could be sent. Mike set off on a short recce but even now, days after the snowfall, the trail to the pass was judged too dangerous and, dissuaded to try because we still had to return to Manang to collect our bikes, we decided to return by foot, trudging through the melting snow which was exposing sweet smelling shrubs, in a steady, pleasing silence.






Manang was a ghost of its former bustling self when we returned, and much of the snow had evaporated with the tourists. Uncomfortably, because we were in the shadow of tragedy, the Himalayas south of Manang looked as beautiful as perhaps they would ever be: the high rock faces sheeted with snow, the blue October sky, the rust and ochre of autumn, the earthy colours of rocks and pine.

We met tour groups, one British, with members in National Geographic t-shirts but so obese that the logo was distorted, stretched over geographically significant bosoms and man-breasts. A teenager in the posse received a text from a friend and said ‘Hey, hey Jack check this out. My mate wants to know if I’ve seen any dead bodies! Ha Ha Ha Ha!’ His friends joined him in the hilarity. I exchanged a look with Mike.

We arrived back at Besishar which was in the midst of Tihar (Diwali) celebrations and ornate Hindu girls dazzled onlookers with their practised dance routines.



An avalanche on the way back to Manang
That Nepal struggled to deal with the unfolding tragedy is unquestionable, that it needn’t have is under debate. Nepal is, after all, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The Annapurna Circuit is not a jaunt through Yosemite and the Himalayas are a different breed to the Alps. But with over 20,000 hikers paying 40 dollars a pop annually questions will and should be raised. Here are mine:
  • The cyclone was being monitored. The snow was predicted. Why were no severe weather warnings telephoned to the villages and camps en route before the snow fell, especially the ones after Manang where there is no public Internet access? (and if these calls were made, why were the hikers not told?)
  • Why are communications between points on the hike so patently inadequate? There are is no radio communication or relay towers, and only one satellite phone. When power went out, there was no way to relay a message to high camp and tell them to instruct trekkers not to leave.
  • Why did nobody take charge of the disaster – the trail was only closed a full 4 days after the snowfall and misinformation was rife.
  • How does TIMS (the Trekkers Information Management System) spend the 20 dollars a trekker it receives? Is any of it used in crisis prevention?
Officials I spoke with were in the habit of reminding me that Nepal is far behind the west in matters of disaster preparedness. That may be so, but it can’t be used as an excuse for mismanaging was has been an epic calamity, and the loss of 39 lives. You can argue that the responsibility lies not just with authorities but with trekkers too. I agree, but trekkers can’t make reasoned decisions without the information. A dusting of snow is not uncommon at the pass, even in the dry season. It’s conceivable that the hikers set out thinking it would soon peter out, they could have had no idea that two metres would fall, obliterating the trail and leaving them to exposure and ultimately, death.

Some of the misinformation may have been born of a vested interest, locals and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) were in the habit of telling everyone the pass was open and easily reachable in the days after, when it clearly wasn’t. This is peak season, and bad weather is bad for business. I sympathise, but this relentless optimism just added to the confusion.

Whilst the trail is spectacular, I can’t recommend the Annapurna Circuit for touring bikers, though this has nothing to do with the disaster. For trekkers it’s fantastic, but too much of the road is still unridable (for surface, not gradient) and trudging behind hikers with a 20 kg bike and more gear over your shoulder is not as fun as the Himalayas should be. That said – with a fat tyred light weight mountain bike and no gear – perhaps it’s a better prospect.



A lot more has happened this month, but alas, no space. I visited a leprosy hospital near Kathmandu, and one of the mobile health clinics that serve the city’s street children. Perhaps these will appear in a later edition.

Thank yous: Lizzie and Sanju, My Mum, Anna, Fareed, Mike (a special thank you for Korean acquired toe warmers), Mango Tree for the tranquillity I needed when the trek was over, Cory, Benny and Carolyn.