Day 4 – Chame to Upper Pisang
At 6am on the dot, I crawled naked out of bed to split the hotel curtains with my fingers and marvel at the lavender haze of sunrise as it stretched its illuminated arms around the upper Himalayan peaks. “It’s happening! It’s happening!!” I called to my lover, Brian, who lay groggy and confused beneath a pile of wool blankets, eager to hit the snooze button on the alarm of my voice. Conscious that the magical, rose glow outside would not last for more than a few minutes, I tripped over my boots as I struggled to quickly pull my socks, thermals, and hiking pants over my feet to run outside and greet the morning.
I clumsily balanced myself on a frost-covered plastic table, snapping photo after photo of the gargantuan, white peaks that watched over us in every direction. Manaslu, Annapurna II, and Lamjung Himal protruded sharply above the town of Chame in every direction; glaciated crags perched chaotically wherever my eyes landed.
This was going to be a good day.
About 15 minutes after I first ran from our room to photograph the high Himalayas, Brian appeared and gazed around in astonishment, his face matching mine as he took in the immensity of the scene. We needed a breakfast that would rival this view. We needed apple pancakes.
There isn’t much fresh fruit after the initial few towns along the trail, but apple pies, apple porridge, apple fritters, and apple pancakes are in high supply and quickly became my favorite way to start a day on the Annapurna Circuit. I shoveled a fluffy, plate-sized pancake into my face along with half a vegetable omelet, and we were off again, climbing the steep dirt road as it curved up and out of Chame.
At this point on the trek, I was no stranger to the colorful prayer flags that littered the stupas, temples, and other Buddhist heritage sites we passed along the trail. I was actually becoming quite infatuated with their sudden burst of rainbow squares that fluttered in the wind and would turn a drab, metal bridge into a jittering orgy of harmonious Sanskrit mantras.
The bridge away from Chame was the best one yet. Hundreds of multicolored flags lined the coiled, steel cables like a morning parade, cheering us along on our journey. It is said that the flags promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom, and that each time they flutter in the breeze, the mantras inscribed upon the different-colored squares of fabric get released and sent out into the world.
I stared at the flags as they rippled for minutes on end, carrying what must have been thousands of Buddhist mantras into the surrounding air. Peace, compassion, strength, wisdom… Peace, compassion, strength, wisdom… They sounded like ingredients in a recipe I would need to concoct if I were to successfully finish the trail in good spirits.
After about an hour of hiking along a dirt road that had been blasted sheer into a cliff face, I turned around to check our progress and was met with a striking view of Annapurna II, her jagged edges like the perfect, triangular peaks I used to doodle in grade school. I was gobsmacked by her unbelievable size.
Imagine you are standing at 10,000 feet above sea level (roughly the summit of Mt. Baldy), and you are craning your neck to capture a mountain higher than the entirety of Mt. Whitney in your field of vision on top of it. Annapurna II is even taller than that.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to stand toe-to-toe with an 8,000-meter peak. It makes your stomach drop and your mouth go dry and your eyes squint. It’s as though something deep in your bones knows that this is a space not meant for humans, and you’d better tread lightly when you enter its domain.
Not long after staring down the imposing east face of Annapurna II, the trail promptly spit Brian and me into a dense, mossy forest. As the path steepened, I slowed my pace and tried to listen for birdsong as my feet crunched into the rocky ground below. I was starting to feel the altitude and had to measure my steps carefully so that I didn’t lose my breath.
We meandered through coniferous pines and soon found ourselves in a clearing where dense rays of sunlight peeking through the leaves illuminated hundreds of cairns made from small stones. There was no signage of any sort, but this was clearly a shrine of some sort, a sacred place. I took a deep breath and tapped the index finger of my right hand to one of the stones and touched it to my third eye. I wanted some of whatever magic made this.
The forest trail didn’t last long, however, and soon, it was time for a quick lunch stop in Dikhur Pokhari, where we sat rooftop in the sun with the most incredible views of Pisang Peak and Annapurna II. Then, we were back on the trail as quickly as we had come. We had a big climb ahead of us to get to Upper Pisang before nightfall.
A few hundred meters outside of Dhikur Pokhari, the landscape opened up, and what was once a narrow river canyon punctuated by thousand foot drops on either side quickly turned into an arid, high-alpine valley that reminded me of my beloved Sierra Nevada, back home in California. I crept through abandoned medieval villages whose stone huts no longer had roofs and stood on tiptoe to try to capture the perfect image of a yak in its natural habitat.
I ascended the dusty dirt trail as it curled high above our friendly lunch spot, my eyes continually swerving left as the teal thread of the Marshyangdi river grew further away and the wind began to pick up, causing evening temperatures to drop below freezing with the sun still out.
Brian and I were over the moon with joy when we rounded a quick turn to the right and suddenly found ourselves in Upper Pisang. We dropped our bags at the Trick Horse Hotel in a cute, wood-paneled room with two twin beds that we quickly pushed together to make late night snuggles possible. I looked out the window, the wind howling outside, and couldn’t help but burst into a magnificent grin. We had a dead-on view of Annapurna all to ourselves.
At sunset, I loaded up my mirrorless Sony a6000 and set off with Brian to explore the Buddhist monastery that sat on top of the hill overlooking Upper Pisang. We wandered the main room barefoot and meditated at the feet of a golden Buddha. The air was crisp, and the wind turned my fingers pale and numb as the sun began to sink below the horizon. This was everything I cad come for, and it was perfect.
We shivered our way back through the old town of Upper Pisang, passing adorable children and baby calves as we crossed our arms and braved the wind. Back at the hotel, I donned every jacket I owned and sat in a booth opposite Brian, inching as close as we could to the one small fire. It felt good to finally eat. My body relaxed into the fuzzy blanket covering the wooden bench, and I continued to devour Cheryl Strayed’s words on my Kindle.
None of the buildings in Nepal have internal heating, so by the time we made it back to our beds, it was twenty-something degrees inside the hotel room. I began to shiver. The sudden shock of the cool night air against my face and my body sent my nerves shaking, and I couldn’t seem to get warm.
“I’ve been through this before,” I thought, and I did not want to make the same mistake twice, so I took off everything except my long underwear and my lightweight jacket, and I practically jumped inside my sleeping bag, mimicking the action of running in place for a few minutes to warm my body and the down feathers.
I couldn’t stop shaking, and my teeth were chattering against one another, making it hard to speak properly. “Are you ok, dude?” Brian asked, looking more and more concerned as time passed. “Do you want me to read to you?” He suggested with the handsome, openhearted sweetness of a living saint. “YES please!!” I yelped, feeling trapped and helpless the more I shook.
About two hours later, I was still shaking, and I was panicked.
Brian had gone to sleep, and I shivered alone in my bed, trying to steady my eyes on my Kindle to calm my nerves. Until, suddenly, I darted up from my sleeping bag, nauseous and trembling.
“I think I have to throw up!” I shouted to Brian as I threw on a jacket and ran towards the communal pit toilet down the hall. There was ice in the toilet and a frozen bucket of water sitting nearby, and it was all I could muster to lift the seat before everything I had eaten in the past 6 hours came roaring out of my mouth and into the basin. “Goodbye, apple fritters.” Deep inside my brain I was rolling my eyes at myself for getting sick on yet another international trip.
In storybooks and fairytales, love always holds a nebulous meaning. It’s portrayed as though it’s this magical force field that sparks up between two people abruptly and without reason. Well, on that night high in the Himalayas at around 1am, I think I finally figured out its elusive disposition.
Love is when a man gets up repeatedly throughout the night to hold a neon orange trash can for you as you puke out of the side of your sleeping bag. Love is him rinsing it out in the bathroom and bringing you tissues. Love is when he walks around a 25-degree room in the middle of the night to force feed you snacks so that you can take an Advil to calm your fever, and love is the way he holds your quaking and broken body against his ribs without making you feel the least bit gross or pitiful.
I knew when I walked into the Himalayas that I would find awe as well as beauty, but I think what I uncovered on that long night in Upper Pisang is far greater.
Day 5 – Upper Pisang – Manang
After a freezing night of no sleep, no food, and a bunch of frayed nerves, I was pretty damn excited to sit in a warm room in the morning and try to get some porridge in my stomach.
Only, when I made my way over to the dining area, there was no fire to be had, only a room as cold as the outdoors with a few tables and benches lying around. I donned my gloves, both my jackets, and my hat, and hovered my hands around my teacup, eager to absorb as much of its warmth as possible. I slowly stuffed my bowl of porridge into my eager mouth before returning to our room to pack up.
But, before I knew it, I was face down again in the toilet, voiding the few and precious calories I had. There was no way I could hike today.
I conferred with Brian, and we asked the hotel owner if he could call a Jeep for us to drive to Manang as quickly as possible. However, our plans were quickly dashed, as he explained that the jeeps run one way all day long, and they don’t arrive in Lower Pisang until mid-afternoon.
“Well, poop,” I mumbled. “What do we do now?”
“I can call my friend, and maybe we could drive you on our motorbikes,” the hotel owner replied optimistically.
Motorcycles on an upset stomach – just what I needed.
As luck would have it, the motorbike ride from Lower Pisang to Manang is one of the most fun things I did on the trek. We zipped in and out of tiny, high elevation villages and passed permit checkpoints and colossal mountains covered in snow and ice. We took shortcuts down narrow pedestrian pathways and dodged pine trees in a dense forest. We felt the wind turn our cheeks into ecstatic, pink tingles, and we stopped 30 minutes in to take a photo break at the base of Annapurna IV.
I felt flush with color and suddenly alive again! My fingers and face were numb from the wind, but my mind was racing, eager to soak in more of the scenery and culture. Before I knew it, we were at the end of the road in Manang and checking into the Yeti Hotel.
I flopped onto the bed and grabbed a set of clean clothes. It was nearly lunchtime, and I was trembling at the possibility of a real hot shower. Not a dingy solar one that shuts down after 3pm and only ever gets to be about lukewarm, but a hot, steaming shower that would scald the grime off my skin and leave me aching to get out.
Needless to say, I ate a simple lunch of vegetable soup as quickly as I could and pranced my way back up to the hotel room to pay 200 rupees for a real shower.
It. Was. Heaven.
I washed my hair for what I knew would be the last time on the trek and scrubbed the dirt off my crotch and underarms. When I returned to our hotel room, Brian was cat-napping in the center of a large bed beneath a nest of blankets and down sleeping bags he had arranged for us. I slipped my body under the sheets and started to go down on him in the dark folds of the covers, emboldened and sexy in my newfound cleanliness.
We fucked each other with all the grace one can while dodging an incessant tangle of sheets and blankets and sleeping bags, without which we would surely freeze. Careful not to expose any of our skin to the frigid air inside the room, we spun our bodies around inside the burrow of warmth and fondled each other’s bits as the afternoon sun began to lower. I was starting to feel whole again.
One of the hidden gems of Manang is its tiny movie theater along the main drag that plays classics like Into the Wild and Seven Years in Tibet as tourists eat popcorn and sip tea on wooden benches covered in yak fur. It’s a marvelous escape from the pervasive cold outside, and I was eager to set aside my worries for two hours and see a show, so we planned to eat a late dinner and ambled inside the 5pm screening of Seven Years in Tibet.
The film itself was phenomenal, teaching me things I never knew about the Dalai Lama, the Chinese takeover of Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism itself. As the film played, I found my mind wandering to the trail we were walking and the thousand-year-old relics that line its ancestral path. The Annapurna Circuit wasn’t just a strenuous romp to add another notch in my belt; it was a pilgrimage, a way towards peace and self-actualization through the meditative act of walking.
I went to bed nestled against Brian’s body that night, and I slept better than I had since the trip began.
Day 6 – Manang “Rest Day”
For the first time in a week, Brian and I had a rest day scheduled, so we slept in until the ripe hour of 8am and woke clinging to each other’s bodies, wrapped in a mess of down and long underwear. For a trip that involved food poisoning, had minimal showers, and was largely sub-freezing, I sure was having a lot of sex.
We grabbed a late breakfast at the hotel before taking a 20-minute walk down a dirt road to the small, historic village of Braga, home to a 500-year old Tibetan Buddhist monastery I was dying to see. As we hiked, clouds began to kiss the tops of nearby peaks, casting a soft, vintage glow on our surroundings. A woman carrying a humongous bundle of sticks on her back hobbled up the road ahead of me, craning her neck to catch my eyes as she willed herself forward. Goddamn, she seemed tenacious. She was wearing a Shepard Fairey “Obey” hat, a dirty maroon skirt, and sandals.
As I began my climb towards the monastery, I passed a row of unattended horses, their coats fuzzy to ward off cold. The intense fragility of the moment struck me right in the heart, and I fell to my knees with an outstretched hand to brush the muzzle of a chestnut mare who was lying on her side. She had disarming brown eyes the size of saucers, and when I looked at her, I felt I finally understood something simple and ancient: she and I were the same. Tough, female, freezing, and a bit wild. We were both just two animals trying to survive in the Himalaya.
At the top of a series of ancient stairs, I came face to face with the monastery door. It was locked. It was locked with a tattered curtain flapping in the wind that teased my inability to enter, inspiring me to try harder. So, I took a good look at the locking mechanism and found that I could pull a pin out from the door and, voila! It opened.
The door creaked free into a narrow wooden passageway, made uneven by the 2015 earthquake, so I had to tread lightly. I turned a corner and stopped cold, my eyes fixated on a painting that sent shivers down my spine. Here, outside the temple’s main doors, were a pair of 500-year-old ancestral demons in green and gold, dancing maniacally as they guarded the sacred space within.
I called to Brian outside, and he quickly followed me into the dark corridor, just as awed at the sight as I was. It felt frightening and reverent and magical all at once. We lingered a bit longer in the doorway to the shrine, taking our daily meditation at the feet of the temple guardians.
Once our spiritual desires were sated, we trekked back into the town of Braga and splurged on a set of freshly baked cinnamon buns.
The Manang district is famous for fattening up weary hikers with baked goods of all shapes and sizes. You can’t swing a trekking pole on the street in Manang without hitting a bakery or a coffee shop, their tantalizing cookies, cakes, turnovers, and sweet buns seductively posed in store windows as though it were a red light district for treats.
So, of course, when we stopped for a bathroom break and saw the rows and rows of sweets, we simply had to buy some as a snack for later. We hurried along the dirt road once again, crossing a rickety wooden bridge on our way to the day’s next adventure – Milarepa’s Cave.
To me, the notion of sacred Buddhist heritage sites hidden all over the high Himalayas seemed like a magical, elven mountain game of Where’s Waldo. Only, under these circumstances, Waldo was a series of elusive stupas, temples, and a network of caves that monks would live and meditate in for years on end.
I skipped ahead of Brian, crossing a huge field by the side of the river that was filled with hundreds of small goats who jumped and stumbled away the moment they saw me coming. Then, we took a sharp turn up a steep ridge and started climbing.
In what felt like no time, the views were completely spellbinding. The pale blue ribbon of water cut through the arid tundra with the precision of a serrated blade, curling back and forth against the jagged cliffs as far as the eye could see. We were over 12,000 feet above sea level now, earning the most striking views of imposing glaciated shelves set high atop the rocky limbs of nearly every peak in sight.
As we ascended, we passed through an abandoned village before reaching the first of two large, white stupas, haunting in the cloudy stillness of the day. There were no hikers in sight. My partner and I were completely alone on the mountain.
I gazed up at the tremendous white figure, feeling tiny beneath its timeless stare. It was as though an onion dome or a pawn from a giant’s chess game were swiftly plucked out of another world and plopped down right here, on the edge of the earth.
By now, my legs were growing weary, and I was starting to feel the altitude deep in my lungs. I slowed my pace and continued hiking upwards, passing a pair of blue mountain sheep as my boots cracked through a thin layer of ice lining the trail. We were nearing the enormous, white traffic jam of the Annapurna III glacier, dizzying in its impossible size.
I feel like, in photographs, glaciers are portrayed as these pristine rivers of blue ice, with neatly carved crevasses that cut deep into their abdomen like the ribs of a long dead ice dragon. In reality, glaciers are terrifying jumbles of frozen water, dirt, and rocks. They look like a massive cement truck dumped thousands of tons of white sludge onto a mountainside and drove away without bothering to clean it up. They are amorphous and yet filled with sharp edges.
In short, they tend to set my nerves off.
The trail to Milarepa’s Cave leads straight towards the perilous glacier of Annapurna III, cutting up along the north side of its terminal moraine. For the final 500 feet of ascent, I stared around in absolute wonder, feeling terribly small and yet terribly lucky to be exactly where I was.
I slowly huffed and puffed my way up the final dozen stairs to the base of Milarepa’s Cave, standing, at last, at a smiling golden Buddha hidden behind a foggy pane of plexiglass. The monk on duty was nowhere to be found, so I left him a snack of dried fruit and sauntered around the decrepit, old buildings scattered around the area.
My head was beginning to feel like a balloon from the altitude, and I was eager to get down before a headache joined me for a dance. I called to Brian, who was excitedly running around the grounds, and began marching my way down the trail. The clouds were sitting heavy in the sky now, and a light wind licked my face with a chill.
On our way back to Manang, we were greeted by a series of fierce-looking Gurung horseback riders, kicking up dust as they rushed down the road towards the city. I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and eat dinner.
That night, my period blessed me with its achy, bloated presence, and I desperately wanted to feel anything other than cold and claustrophobic, so I begged Brian to take me to another movie. At least in a movie I could pretend for a moment that my life was normal.
The theater was playing Everest for the late show at a 7pm time slot. I squeezed into a tiny bench in front of a coiled space heater and set my head against Brian’s shoulder, my eyes fixed on the screen.
I don’t know if you’ve seen Everest before, but it is the opposite of a relaxing mountain movie. It chronicles the true story of the day 11 climbers died trying to summit Mt. Everest in May of 1996. Even after reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and knowing the entire plot of the film, it still left me shaken, my anxiety spinning its tendrils into the ether.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well that night.
Day 7 – Manang – Yak Karta
If you’ve never heard a yak bellow, you need to put it on your bucket list. The sound that a disgruntled yak makes is at once hilarious and heart-stoppingly frightening like a mixture of an old man sneezing into a handkerchief mixed with an oncoming locomotive barreling down towards your face. It echoes against the surrounding Himalayan cliffs, reverberating a savage YAWP for several seconds. It’s pretty fucking magnificent.
Day seven of our journey was blessed with an easy 6-kilometer hike up an arid river valley towards the tiny township of Yak Karta. Now well over 11,000 feet above sea level, I was beginning to move at a snail’s pace, my usually fit body rebelling against the fact that there was 35% less oxygen in the air. The landscape was starting to change too. Once lush and full of waterfalls, butterflies, and tropical green plants, our scenery had taken a drab turn towards the color brown, the small shrubs that remained straining for warmth and moisture.
The saving grace of this uphill, slow motion meditation was the view. As Brian and I ascended, we gleaned more and more majestic views of Gangapurna behind and the rocky gorge ahead of us, the azure dragon’s tail of the Marshyangdi River coaxing us ever forward.
We arrived in Yak Karta around lunchtime, bellowing yaks greeting us as our shoes crunched down through waterfall ice. After tossing our bags into a large room and taking a pee break in a toilet that was already lined with ice, we darted through the cold afternoon air towards the dining hall.
At this point on the trek, we were learning that the evening fire schedule was very strict. So, when we asked the man waiting tables what time we could expect a bit of warmth, he firmly replied, “No earlier than 4:30.” That settled it. I would be reading with a cup of hot tea under a mountain of down until 4:30pm.
The cold was a fascinating character on my journey through the Annapurna Circuit. It was ever present, cruel, and more mentally taxing than the altitude or the physical exertion. It burned my cheeks raw and turned my feet to bricks. It sent my nerves to war and left me clutching my lover in the night for a warm respite from its malicious embrace. But, it also came with a few benefits like ensuring I read heaps of new books and got to bed on time every night.
From exactly 4:30pm on the dot until they turned the fire off around 8:30, we sat and we read. We sat and we read and we ate. There was nothing else to do, really. After dinner, groups of tourists traveling together would break out into card games and giggle at the shitty pop songs that would occasionally play from a dingy iPhone speaker. It was like being in college all over again, but at least it was warm.
The Nepali guide of a group sitting next to us noticed that the fire was running low, so he strolled over to the corner of the room to grab more fuel for the flames. Much to my surprise, the fires this high up were not comprised of wood.
They were burning yak dung.
And the strangest thing about it? It didn’t stink at all! I watched as the guide heaved huge dry lumps of dung into the metal stove and slam the door shut so that the embers could really get going. It was my first yak poop fire, and I was blissed out of my mind eating macaroni and cheese with a side of ginger tea.
I tossed and turned in my room that night as I struggled to keep warm when temperatures dropped into the low 20s, feasting my mind on a book of Norse mythology written by the inimitable Neil Gaiman. I shot out of bed once or twice, breathless and claustrophobic in the reality that I couldn’t move from this suffocating sack of feathers until it was light outside.
“Only two more days ‘til the suffering is done,” I whispered to myself. “Only two more days…”