Posted by: Tommy | April 22, 2011

Annapurna IV – The final days

Our guidebook recommended going from Muktinath to Kagbeni along the recently-constructed road on the first day after the pass.  The road was started, on the western side of the trek, in 2007.  It makes life easier on the locals – children can get to school, medical care is better and faster, there is more industry and nothing has to be hand-carried like it does on the eastern side.  It also has ruined some of the lure of walking.  Rather than all beautiful trails through unspoiled nature, you now have no choice but to walk for hours along a dusty gravel road.

We’d all been in agreement – we’d take every “alternate route” available to us on the western side.  In this case, it meant skipping the easy 3 hour walk to Kagbeni (and it’s fabulously named YakDonalds) and heading over a challenging, up and down, 6 hour route via the tiny village of Lubra to Jomsom (the largest, by far, town on the Annapurna circuit).  Jay really wanted to check out a unique rock and roll pilgrimage site – Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger both stayed at a crappy hotel in Jomsom.  We made plans with Alex to stay there, knowing she’d quickly outpace us.

I had had a “blister party” the night before. I’d had one blister burst on the ball of my right foot the previous day, and had developed a silver-dollar sized blister on the right heel as well.  Heels don’t make threading easy and I wasn’t able to drain that one.  I covered my feet in moleskin (a rapidly dwindling resource at this point), bandaids and tape and was good for the first hour.

And then we hit the crazily-steep decline.  It was steep, slippery and neverending.  Jay and I probably took twice as long as we should have – Jay mostly waiting for me.  I was having to steel myself for every step.  It felt like I was stepping on needles.  And stopping only made it worse – if I took the pressure off my feet, the blood rushed to them and each nerve screamed at my brain.

I couldn’t take it.  I told Jay right then, at 11 am, that I was done.  I’d gladly take the bus the next day (one perk of the road – buses).  Unfortunately, we still had to complete that day.  Lubra was so small there were no guesthouses.  When we finally arrived there, it was 4pm.  The sun was starting to set (we figured we had until 6:30) and it was starting to rain.  I tried to get someone to give me a ride, but the reason we’d come to Lubra is that it isn’t connected to the road.  They said the nearest road would be an hour’s walk.  And Jomsom another hour after that.

Jay and I debated – we had to either press on or turn back.  We had 2.5 hours to dark – something neither of us wanted to face.  It was hard enough to navigate the barely-marked “alternate route” during daylight.  It had taken us almost 6 hours to get to Lubra and that was moving downhill.  It would take at least that to get back, so we decided to press on.  We were told that getting to Jomsom was easy – just follow the riverbed.

And it was easy to navigate.  The problem was that the riverbed was full of rocks (as riverbeds are).  There was no even ground to walk on and every step hurt that much more.  I can honestly say I’ve never been in more pain.  I had mentally set out to walk the entire trail – when Jay had talked on day 2 about taking the bus after the pass rather than walk along the road, I told him I considered that quitting and that I’d be going the distance for sure.

But I gave up, in a hurry.  I couldn’t enjoy the beauty of our surroundings – I could only think about the next step and how much it would hurt.  I could only watch the ground, trying not to step on anything unevenly.  We eventually came to the road and could see Jomsom in the distance in the fading light.  Several times, I could tell Jay was getting more and more concerned that we wouldn’t make it before dark.  And he was probably right.  I was walking as fast as I could, ignoring the pain as best I was able, but it was at best 1/3 my normal speed.  I encouraged him to go on ahead – it was raining, cold and windy.  We were both miserable.  But he wouldn’t leave me behind.  I assured him I could follow the road to Jomsom and find the Thak Khola lodge (the Jimi Hendrix place) but he just encouraged me to walk faster.

And then a Jeep came by – and Jay flagged it down.  Jay spoke to the driver, who yelled in the back, and a Nepali jumped out.  Jay told me to get in – and I did, without a second thought.  I was in the Jeep for about 10 minutes but it would have taken me an hour to walk that far.  There were 3 other tourists who’d been picked up along the road before me that day.  The Jeep dropped us in Jomsom (total fare: 90 cents) and I limped along until I found the lodge.

I hadn’t been there 10 minutes when Jay walked in – he was so worried about the dark (and had so much extra energy from walking the whole day with me) that he sprinted the rest of the way.  Alex had been there – and decided the rat’s nest that was the Thak Khola wasn’t for her.  She left us a note and moved on to the next town.  Jay and I ate Shabbat dinner (my first ever) with some Jewish friends we’d met previously on the trail and went to bed.

Jimi Hendrix stayed here - so you will too, even though it sucks.

The next morning, I still knew that the bus was the right decision for me.  It had taken me 10 minutes to remove my boots the night before and 3 new blisters had popped.  My heel was now one gigantic blister.  I walked to the bus stand and bought a ticket to Tatopani.  Jay would rendezvous with Alex that night, then they’d put in a long day the following day and meet me the next night.

Tatopani is a village halfway along the western side of the trail that features a natural hot springs.  With a bar.  We’d been talking about Tatopani since we’d heard that you could sit in a natural hot spring and drink beer – it sounded like the perfect way to celebrate being near the end of the trek.  Although I wouldn’t be finishing the full circuit, I’d made it over the pass and made it 11 days of the 15.  I could still celebrate with hot springs and beer.

The day I took the bus was a tough one.  I was already a little down about not going all the way, though I knew it was the right decision.  I was also starting to get a little cold from the rainy walk to Jomsom.  And when I got to Tatopani, it only got worse.  One of the perks, in my mind, of taking the bus was that I could be back to civilization sooner.  I missed Anna terribly and thought I might be able to convince her to find a cheap flight and come meet me in Nepal for the last week there.

We’d be able to celebrate her birthday for real and explore the beautiful Kathmandu valley together.  After finding a place to stay and setting down my bag, I limped around Tatopani looking for an internet cafe.  I found one (the only one in town) and sat down…only to have the power go out on me.  No power = no internet.  He told me it would probably come back on at 2, one hour away.

I went back to my room and read, killing the hour until the electricity would come back on.  At 2, I headed back – only to find a large group of Russians monopolizing all of the computers.  I waited another 15 minutes and one of them got up.  I logged into my email – only to find that I’d missed Anna by a day.  While I’d been struggling to reach Jomsom, she was flying back to Texas for 2 weeks.  I’d still see her in Singapore, but there was no chance to see her before that.

To make matters worse, I had a string of increasingly-frustrated emails from her.  I read each of them, knowing that I had been having an amazing experience working toward the pass while she was having a miserable time in India.  It was such a letdown – I’d mentally set my hopes on seeing her by the 6th…and instead had to sit around Tatopani waiting on Jay and Alex, utterly alone.

At best, I thought, they’d arrive the next evening.  They were already going to have to put two 6 hour days together to make it from Lubarj to Tatopani in one day (this was Jay’s plan, so I wouldn’t be sitting in Tatopani alone for 3 days).  The next day I had lunch in the outside garden.  As I came downstairs to pay, I heard Alex call out my name.  What? It was only 1pm.

It turns out it had been raining that morning and so overcast you couldn’t see anything. Since the whole point of walking is to take in the views, they decided to skip the walk and take the bus.  My mood did a 180 – instead of thinking about Anna and my feet, I’d be spending the afternoon drinking in the hot springs!  And that’s what we did.  It was such a treat – hot water is extremely scarce along the trail, with only the occasional hot shower.  At the hot spring, the water was hot-tub hot and we bought a small bottle of local Apple Brandy and passed it around (classy!) as we soaked in the water.  Several of the friends we’d made along the trek showed up, all having taken the bus that day because of the rain.  It was almost a party that afternoon in the springs.

Alex and Jay were a bit disappointed – they didn’t walk the entire trek.  Selfishly, I was glad that they (and so many others) took the bus.  It means I probably wouldn’t have walked the whole thing anyway, blisters or not.  (I think we probably would have waited a day and hoped for sunnier skies if we’d all been together and still had the chance to complete the circuit – but maybe not.)

The next morning, Jay and Alex set out early for Ghoropani while I grabbed a bus to Beni, the end of the trek.  I’d meet up with them 2 days later, back in Pokhara.  I was the only white guy on the bus to Beni and had by far the most interesting seat partner.

Yep, I sat by a goat on the bus.



  1. This could be the most enjoyable series of blog posts I’ve ever read. Well done.

    • Thanks. High praise coming from a Freshly Pressed blog writer.

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