Trekking on the world's rooftop

Adventurers from around the globe come to Nepal to experience itsrugged trails and gentle people

A long the Annapurna Sanctuary trek from Birethanti to Muktinath the change is almost total. I ask myself, where is home? Answer: Boston, half way around the world from where I am standing now in Nepal, bent over on a narrow, rocky trail, hands on my knees, a trekker out of breath.

Frankly, I love it, this total disengagement from Western consumer life, experiencing the arduous physical exertion in the presence of the various snow-packed Annapurna peaks not far from the China border.

Shrouded in ancient myths and mystery for years, Nepal was drawn out of its sublime peacefulness in l951 when the ruling rana (prime minister) opened its borders. Now, long after the hippie invasion of the '60s, Nepal is the trekker's mother lode of adventure. Climb Mt. Everest or trudge through the Annapurna region: The awesome Himalayan range is the rooftop of the world.

To get here, and pause breathless on the trail, I flew in a small

Buddha Air flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara, then took a rattling bus to Birethanti.

I caught up with my wife and a group of 18 hearty environment students and professors from Principia College in Elsah, Ill. For them, the two-week trek blends academic field study with lots of journal writing and oral presentations on subjects indigenous to this western part of Nepal between India and Tibet.

For me, this is the start of a dual adventure: a challenging trek plus immersion in a culture truly shaped by its environment. From religion to architecture to agriculture, the impact of stunning mountains has dictated contemplation and respect in a gentle but poor people.

In the first few days on the trail, the rocky path moves through lush lowlands with forests of rhododendron trees, terraced farming, and rain forests with moss and ferns. It is also a journey through Hindu villages deep into Tibetan Buddhist country.

The trail passes through the amazing Kali Gandaki, the world's deepest river gorge, which divides the Himalayas biologically and geographically. It is a huge, rock-strewn valley with a meandering river that begins somewhere in the Tibetan plateau.

Toward the end of the first day, my hiking boots have proved clunky but ruggedly friendly; my water bottle is half empty, and ahead of me is the welcome prospect of spending the night curled in a sleeping bag in one of the small, village lodges.

Dozens of villages dot this ancient trail. Men and women still carry everything in and out on their backs or on the backs of donkey and yak caravans. Sharing the narrow trail these days are trekkers from Germany, Australia, Japan, England, and Ireland, among others. It is not uncommon to hear villagers on the trail meditating as they walk, saying the famous mantra, "Om mani padme hum" ("Salutations to the jewel of consciousness, which has reached the heart's lotus").

No paved or dirt roads here. No billboards. Few Western-style toilets. Occasional electricity. And plenty of prayer wheels. Now and then a telephone. It's a trek of manageable adventure, cultural expansion, and sheer delight.

Above me now, high winds blow the snow away from the distant mountain ridges like streamers of powdered sugar. Sunrise bathes the peaks in pinks; sunsets bring orange and reds. Other peaks along the trek, the Dhaulagiri and Machapuchhare, are equally breathtaking.

Lodging is usually around $1 or $2 a night for a wooden bed with a thin mattress. Lodges have names like "The Peaceful Inn," or "The Namaste Guest House" or "The Bob Marley Inn."

Dinners, served on mostly big, family-style tables in the lodges, could be a plate of daal bhaat, the rice-and-lentil staple of Nepal, or thick tomato soup with Tibetan bread, or delicious Nepal versions of pizza. Breakfast can be omelets, porridge, cereal, toast, or combinations, and hot tea.

What a trek here is really like

Even though one of the travel books describes the Annapurna Sanctuary trek as a "highway for trekkers," trekker overload can easily be avoided. Trek in the off-season, which is sometime in the last three weeks of February, as I did, or in early March. Summer brings the monsoon season. The popularity of this 90-mile or so route from Birethanti to sacred Muktinath stems from its reputation as Nepal's most dramatic and spectacular trek.

Another travel book calls it "easy." Hardly. Depending on your conditioning, and individual pace, you will probably not scoot up and down this unmarked trail, especially on the first two days between Birethanti, Ghandrung, and Tatopani where there is more up than down.

With a 20- or 30-pound pack, and at times going almost straight up, only the most ardent, experienced, superbly conditioned trekker will call this easy. Altitude starts around 4,000 feet above sea level at the start of the trek and reaches 13,000 feet in Muktinath.

The best advice: Take it easy for the first few days if your preparation for the trip didn't include working out to improve your stamina. And schedule in a few days in Nepal before trekking to ease into adjusting to the altitudes.

Porters can be hired in just about any village for several dollars a day plus meals in lodges. Most will go all the way on the trek, or travel between villages where another porter will shoulder your pack to the next village.

I hired a porter, Kharjit Garbuja, a patient and wise Hindu father of two from the village of Nangi, where he is a librarian, sometime accountant, and village leader. Endlessly polite, as are most Nepalese people, he carried my large pack (20 pounds) and his smaller pack while I carried a day pack with camera, lenses, water bottle, notebooks, books and a sweater.

He spoke English, knew the terrain, and answered questions about everything from religion to village customs to Nepalese poets. Usually he began his day with a poetic exclamation such as, "Fresh morning, fresh mind, fresh day."

Each village along the trail usually has some historical or religious building, like an ancient gomba (temple) in addition to the extraordinary landscape packed with geologic bounty. Even the smallest mini-village usually has a store with tourist items and snack food for sale. The trail goes back and forth across rivers, which means bouncing walks across several suspension bridges.

In Tatopani, a village that has plenty of lodges and inns with electricity, a dip in the hot springs by the river is refreshing and another way to strike up conversations with local people. This is a subtropical zone, so cold-weather gear is at the bottom of all packs.

Near the end: a famous shrine

Past Ghasa, with the majestic Nilgiri peak on the right, the trek moves deeper into Thakali country, into the region known as Thak Khola valley. Thakali people are renowned as spirited traders with strong ethnic pride.

Before China shut off Tibet from the world, Thakalis moved back and forth between Nepal and Tibet as salt and rice traders. Now, with the salt trade ended, they own many of the lodges along the upper trek or are involved in other economic activities

Jeevan Thakali, the young owner of the primitive but warm Peaceful Inn in Kobang, says his brother works in Japan and sister in Germany. "I'm staying here," he says, "because my mother is very old. Most young people want to leave the village."

Our trek ends in Muktinath, at 13,000 feet. This slightly barren village is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. Mentioned in the Hindu epic book, "Mahabharata" (circa 300 BC), the shrine, a mile above the town, has flickering "miracle" flames on water, earth, and stone burning in the Jwala Mai temple.

Natural gas feeds the flames. The water trickling out of 108 spouts promises salvation after death to any Hindu who bathes here, as does my porter. Buddhists believe that Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet, left his footprints in a rock here when he meditated.

Westerners are welcome, as long as shoes are removed and offerings are left behind. On the trail back, vendors sell jewelry, little prayer wheels, blankets, and other crafted objects. Bargaining is a must here or anywhere in Nepal.

After a night in Muktinath, we trekked back to Jomsom. A small airport there offers morning flights to Pokhara, a lakeside city of 55,000 in central Nepal. A trail that took two weeks to trek can be flown over in 20 minutes.

What I can't forget in leaving is the sheer exotic, otherworldliness of Nepal. The eye and heart remembers that the journey and the place are equally unforgettable.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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