Spiritually thunderstruck.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

A kind of swishing sound, only just perceivable to my ear, was what I heard. It happened in such a microscopic space of time that I had no time to react. My instinct said the sound was to be alarmed at. My brain had the signal. The computations were in process. It didn’t add up fast enough. As soon as my central nervous system was signalling peril, it struck. It skimmed more than struck, gliding over my head and landing with a thump two metres to my left shoulder. My head had slowed its momentum and the rock landed with a dull thud. The snow around it had remained intact. It sank into a hole maybe a leg’s length deep. As I peered into the hole, one eye was facing up the slope, making sure this rock’s bigger relatives weren’t coming down to flatten me. The slope was still enough. I gave a little more time to viewing the rock in the hole.

It was slate in colour, crumbly around the edges, rough and worn underneath but jagged and unforgiving on the top. The size, well, it was close to that of a red house-brick. I reached down to touch it. It weighed as much as two bags of sugar, if not a little more. I thought to myself, if that had landed on me more directly, I’d be as good as gone. Game over? I assessed my injury. It was a bump and no bigger than two (or three) that I had experienced earlier in the trek from headbutting low roof rafters and doorframes. It’s a habit I have tried to avoid since being a kid, but as my Mum will agree, I am clumsy. It’s in the genetics somewhere.

With that new bump obtained between Bhratang, the beginnings of the huge western face of Pagunda Danda, I just carried on to Upper Pisang. Not much I could do but knuckle down and see how it panned out. Initially that day, I was fine and later that day, I was still okay. The next day, as we departed the lodge and started our walk onwards, I started to feel an ache spanning from the bump back to rear-right of my head. After an hour of trekking that ache became near agony. It was either the rapid onset of altitude sickness, or that injury was playing up. Livia, Srirang and I trekked through deep snow, and eventually Livia and I stretched ahead a little, but not much. As we reached the mani stones, just shy of a very snowed over river with two bridges, I took a moment to try to understand my pain.

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We had opted for the path up to Ghyaru and Humde, because the views would look back across the valley at the Annapurna Masiff. The great mani stones, stood on a ridge overlooking the raging river below, and the smaller tributary that was would have to cross. Many slabs, rocks and smaller carved models carried one simple message, ‘Om mani padme hum. The beautiful artistic Sanskrit writing curved and glimmered in the various levels of light: ॐ मणि द्मे हूँ. Om/Aum/ ॐ [white] is a sacred syllable. Mani/ मणि [green] is a jewel (or bead). Pad/प [sky blue] plus me/द्मे [red] is the lotus flower – a flower sacred to Buddhism. Hoon/hum/ हूँ [dark blue] is the spirit of enlightenment. It can also be found in Chinese as 唵嘛呢叭咪吽 and Thai as โอมฺ มณิ ปทฺเม หูมฺ, amongst many languages and cultures.

Right here, on the pathway, the stone plates featured the six syllabled mantra as a form of Tibetan prayer. Some had clearly been painted, but most were natural earthly colours. Decades and possibly centuries of devotion made up this wall, like many other walls throughout Nepal and other countries. I’ve seen many mounds and cairns in similar fashions. Each one, I believe, offers prayer to the locality and beyond. The time and effort for each creation could be seen. No corners had been cut. Devotion had been placed on each faithful stone. This wall was around about two metres high and sagged just a little. It was long as coach and as wide as a wardrobe. You always walk around a Mani wall, the same way the Earth rotates. Buddhism has rules. Against the backdrop of the Himalayas, spiritualism and nature hugged each other. Lichens and mosses covered what surface they could, and birds occasionally perched on the walls, looking down at the snow, trying to find the little food available. At this moment, I assessed the bridges. Livia and I decided the lower bridge route would be the safest option. We set out.

After crossing the lower bridge, we scrambled upwards a few and awaited Srirang. He chose the upper bridge and we met once again. I walked up one gentle wide path and Srirang and Livia chose a steeper more direct route. They met me as I was sat down. My head was pounding inside – and I felt a little sick. There was dizziness. I ate some biscuits and drank plenty of water. Srirang and Livia were concerned. They suggested a rest and we discussed the injury or whether it could be altitude sickness. We were about 3500m up and we had never rushed the journey so far. Ghyaru (3730m) lay just a few metres upwards. After an hour, I decided I had to descend. Livia and Srirang disagreed but we all agreed, “if I feel better tomorrow, I’d head back up.” With that I scuttled back to Upper Pisang, and enjoyed the views of the frozen lake below on the plains, and the ever-angry flows of the Marshyangdi River. I was welcomed back into the same lodge. Even to this day I cannot recall the name of the lodge. It had a Sherpa-Tibetan family and they were ever so nice. I said about my discomfort and they said that I did the right thing.

After an evening of talking with trekkers on their way from Manang, and a few individuals heading upwards, I slipped off to bed. The dal baht power didn’t seem to be shifting my headache and numerous litres of water made me get up during the night several times. Peeing into a frozen toilet with no water to flush it, isn’t a nice experience, at 4am in the freezing cold. Still, it beat watching celebrities on mind-numbing television shows. I’d also spent hours on Wi-Fi trying to talk with customer services at Trip.com – for the second night running, to see if I could move a flight to Hong Kong, because of the growing seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Many airlines were cancelling flights and by this time Nepal had apparently closed its borders to China and reportedly banned Chinese tourists. In my anxious mind, it made sense to be proactive and try to remain in Nepal. The border crossings between China and Hong Kong were rapidly becoming fewer too. Why fly to absolute uncertainty?

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I awoke a little refreshed but still with a headache. I made the choice to descend further. I set out just before 11am and walked back. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t relieved. I just had a pain in the head that wouldn’t go away. The walk back was tough as the walk up. The deep snow and occasional blustery winds made it a slog of a day. As I rounded the cliffs and the path led through to The Farmhouse at Bhratang, I spotted a jeep. The driver helped me get to Chame. At Chame, I met a doctor who looked at my head, tested my reactions and concluded concussion. He said no need for emergency treatment and suggested I head back to Pokhara or rest for several days in a warmer village downhill. I was in luck, the jeep driver took me as far as Besi Sahar! Back to the beginning. Here I was dropped at the hotel Manaslu and booked onto the first coach to Pokhara that morning. It felt sad but I had a mix of emotions in my head, anxiety and a head injury.

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The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all travel to China but didn’t state a clear reason why. The outbreak seemed to be mostly confined to Hubei and a few other areas. The U.K. wasn’t even screening passengers on arrival from any Chinese city. Was it really that serious?! Could I return to China or not? Would I have to head to the U.K.? Could I stay in Nepal by extending my visa? I had a tight budget and worry had been with me for days. Worry and concussion are not ideal bedfellows.

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The cumbersome coach clumped along, bouncing and bumping, throwing passengers here and there, and visited countless villages on the route back to Pokhara. At one stop a toothless elderly man sat on a step. He had no shoes on and his clothing looked unkempt. His face crinkled from years of exposure to the sun. He looked at me. He smiled. He gestured with his fingers the shape of a smile, over his face. That’s what it is all about. Experiences, moments and smiles. I smiled back, greeted and waved goodbye as the cumbrous coach continued headlong. I could take much from this journey and experience.

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Looking back at the day where the rock had hit my head, I’d been clicking away like crazy on my camera before that. After that, I’d rarely taken many photos. It clearly marked a change in my behaviour and my general health. The physical and mental challenge had just been knocked out of me. Yet, I experienced many great moments, even on the jeep journey back down. It isn’t every day a herd of goats gets in your way! From then on Nepal would still give me more great moments, but the trek had finished.

So, what next?

Vivid moments on the Earth’s crust.

好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!


Eddie, Eddie give us a wave!

Rest in peace Eddie Large. The comedian born in Scotland came to Manchester as a kid and adopted City. Well City adopted him as a mascot later on in the years and one thing about him and Syd Little, they really were a sweet comedy pair. On his heart problem: “He said, “What stresses you out?”, I said, “football”, he said, “What team do you support?”, I said, “Manchester City”. He said, “That’s it.”” Later he ends the brief video story as, “I don’t blame it on City, but he did.” Rest in peace big man – and condolences to your family. The likes of Matt Lucas saying that Eddie Large offered him support when he started out says a lot. Eddie Large has a large legacy.


Words and actions are being thrown around in these tough times. I love reading and can’t focus because the information that is out there is too much. There’s great and good. There’s sad and devastating. For example, the BBC News footage of the news presenter Jane Hill saying the government expected 30,000 ventilators. Before that, she sounded so bleak, and she shows all the pain in her face, “…and we have been double-checking this, but it does seem to say thirty.” So, so worrying. Even the media are struggling to comprehend this all now. Shandong province, of China, have sent support to the U.K.

“This virus is a disaster. Footballers can live without receiving a single paycheck for a few years, but I feel sorry for the person who wakes up at 6 in the morning and comes back at 9 at night just to feed his family. Us footballers can make a difference.” – Carlos Tevez, footballer

Someone, somewhere, wrote to me, ‘How’s the bat soup going down. & the puppy blamange desert?’At first I wan’t going t reply. There’s so much hate and pain going around. There’s so many xenophobic lines just bashed out on keyboards. I know, because all I want to do is exercise my right to reply or write something. Usually, I hold back. Spread peace and love. I try. I hate hate. But away, I went as per below:

This is obviously linked to wet markets and wildlife trade. China is pushing through some serious laws. They’ve lost so much face, and many lives, many. The world is suffering too. If it wasn’t here, it could have started in Vietnam, Korea, a whole list of countries. The thing is, it is too late to laugh at it all, because it’s on our doorsteps, everywhere, knocking and pushing its way through. We’ll all suffer for this. It is too sad for me to laugh at. Especially, seeing as bear bile is classed as a TCM (traditional Chinese med)… and is sanctioned to treat COVID19.

Sorry, I can’t joke anymore about this. Over here, in China, foreigners are experiencing xenphobia for importing cases into the country, jobs are going for fellow teachers and workers who were needed here. Gallow’s humour is all well and good but there is a time and place. The blancmange is to die for.

This virus and spread of disease may be hell for many. Some will go into lockdown and may never come out. Elliot Dallen imagined spending his last few weeks with friends. Now his final time is slipping away. I can’t imagine the dread he is going through and there are no words that I, or many others can offer for him. I hope he gets the tangible bonds of friendship and family time, he like many, are missing. Life must carry on, right to the end.


 

The journey goes on.

Leaving Chame (2710m) town, we clambered up a wide pathway, below a very steep cliff of a mountain. The rattle and whistle of prayer flags could be heard overhead. The path led out, upwards gently, hugging the valley. Eventually in reached a small village and then another smaller village. Bhratang (2850m) was quite a small village. Not so much a village, more of a hamlet. A small number of houses before modern signs for The Farmhouse. The Farmhouse is an eco-resort, and many note it as being a heaven for apples. I was excited. I wanted to try an apple from here, despite knowing that the orchard much be closed. Maybe, just maybe they’d have one or two apples knocking around in a cold room. I clung to hope. The Farmhouse has a link to both Bhratang Apple Farm and Agro Manang. This is Nepal’s biggest and most famous source of apples. Maybe, they’d have some apple sauce? Some ciders? Apple vinegar? The apples that the bus in Swayambhu, Kathmandu had carried (to Pokhara) had come from here. I’m not a huge apple fan (I could have said big apple, right?) but the smell of those apples on that bus journey was scrumptious.

Soon after I would pass a huge apple orchard with discernible damage from storms. Power lines, trees and fencing didn’t just lean over, it littered the scattered exposed earth. The acres of apple trees leaned towards the south in a way a rugby team would crouch in a scrum. The naked branches of each tree were bound together with reinforced ropes and supports, giving it the view of a kind of wooden graveyard. The towering rockface to the right of the path sparkled in the sunlight, with occasional ledges much like the whole mountain had been carved away by an immense force. The eco-park beneath it and The Farmhouse were closed. There was no chance of an apple tart or an apple flapjack. I refilled my water bottle from one of three gushing springs set in a wall.

The orchard was hidden by fences that could have belonged in Jurassic Park. Warnings about keeping out were everywhere. Every now and then a tree had fell out of the in, and into the road. Bits of electrical pylons dotted the pathways and the odd electrical wiring slung here and there. An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but this pile of ruins wasn’t inviting me to look for the scattered rotten apples on the floor. Quite the opposite. I trotted on.

Rounded a sharp-rising pathway from Bhratang, the huge western face of Pagunda Danda became visible. The mountain could easily have doubled as a slate of hill, or a hill of slate. It is so smooth-looking that you wonder if it has been moisturising for millennia. Many people trek the Annapurna Circuit for the biggies, the large peaks but views such as Pagunda Danda alone made my trip well worth doing. I can see the appeal of a scramble and ice-climb up the face, but with melting and sunlight upon it, the risks of avalanches were high.

Avalanches had been noted from just before Chame village onwards. One avalanche field had swept trees, boulders and all in its path down across the pathway. The pathway had been sliced open again and cleared. Either side of the road potato-shaped but basketball-sized balls of frozen snow piled high, with twigs, branches and stumps jutting outwards. On the lower levels of the pathway, fallen electric pylons and rocks the sizes of cars had crashed downwards. The avalanche was not fresh, but it wasn’t particularly old. Looking upwards into the steep valley to a mountain ridge, I deliberated about where all this material had actually come from. It was frighteningly too much for mind to compute.

The second avalanche field I encountered was on the opposite bank of the gushing Marshyangdi River. It was so big that it covered over the river and arrived at the steep base far below my footing. The river had tunnelled through the frozen snow overhead. It was an eerie sight to behold. Just before that field a few tonnes had piled on the sharply-carved Bhratang to Chame road making the area impassable, and causing a huge landslide to make the footpath as wide as a human could walk safely. Just. Below in the river, a carcass of a Toyota jeep sat well-below the narrow road overhead. Later, Livia had found out that back in October, several people were on board as the jeep slipped off the road. Thankfully all had managed to jump clear. A real miracle in the mountains.

The sharp road is but only wide enough for one car. The rock above is barely two metres high. It’s a ledge that commands real respect and no hanging around. A long horizontal slat has ice caps and blastholes in equal scatterings. Walking far from the edge, I could peek at the drop below. Ravine of the week was alongside me for several hundred metres. I felt I needed to be roped to the wall behind me.

The largest path of avalanche destruction lay soon after the perils of the cliff track. A huge sweeping sheath of snow and debris had swept from the southern flank of Pagunda Danda. This casing of ice and power had ripped over the pathway into the river below. A clearly demarked pathway was cut through and lined with pines from nearby trees. The crevices and nooks around which were not safe to linger for too long.

On approach to the well-named Marshyangdi River Bridge, Pagunda Danda’s splendour was there for all to see. This 1500m (4,900ft) elevation is striking. Almost like a vivid piece of the Earth’s crust curved outwards and upwards in a kind of skateboard park half-pipe shape. It isn’t beyond the imagination to picture people skiing down the snow covered silky-looking solid surface or perhaps cycling up the shiny and extraordinary rockface itself. I was reliably informed by a passing guide that once upon a time it once was a lakebed. My imagination could barely see that. Now, local legends believe that mass of rock, known as Swarga (heaven) Dwar (gates) is the route to the afterlife. After leaving your mortal remains behind, you must clamber up this wall to reach the beyond. Few cracks and very little green grew along this gargantuan surface. Its various tones glimmered in the sunlight. Swarga Dwar is heavenly.

I decided I’d walk over the wider bridge. Bad idea. Not so soon after, I had to double back in deep-unbroken snow to the pathway that connected from the smaller chain suspension bridge. Still, the views were worth it, or that’s what I kept telling myself. On crossing the bridge, I noticed that not one, but of my walking boots had worn splits in them. They would remain watertight for that day, but worry set in. How easy is it to buy a pair of UK size-14 boots in the mountains? Was there much demand for European-sized 50 boots in that neck of the woods? Would a repair shop be open in Manang?

The slog up to Dhukur Pokhari (3240m) involved a little bit of that famous Nepali flat (little bit up, little bit down) on the last section. Ordinarily, I’d have enjoyed that, but waist-deep snow and a heavy frame meant I spent a fair bit of time digging myself out and starting up and over again, only to have to dig myself out again. Occasionally, for the sake of variety I flumped over like a dropped teddy bear and rolled around in the snow. These are the moments we hike for – to get in touch with nature, even if gravity is fully in charge. This also gave me time to really appreciate the incredible views. Snow-capped peaks are in every direction and the lower hills around me give glimpses of the fuller Annapurna range. The path had been a zigzagging tour of the under-canopy of pines and firs. The trees had nestled so closely at times that sunlight had failed to melt much of the deep snow beneath the natural green sunshade.

At Dhukur Pokhari, a brightly coloured lodge offering a fruit juice and sun-bathed benches caught my attention. Several trekkers were tucking into what looked like proper potato chips. Would they also have gravy and a nice piece of haddock too? I decided that lunch was needed. Well, actually my belly was rumbling like hell having ran on a trekker’s fuel bar, porridge and omelette for far too long. I greeted the lodges family, “Tashi delek” and took the menu from them. The crisp air, with sunshine beating down on me, reminded me of a winter’s sunny day on Morecambe Bay. I was warm despite the now sub-zero temperatures.

After a lunch of vegetable momos, chips, and allu paratha (potato in a bread), I didn’t enjoy the dal bhat later that evening, but I did have plenty in the tank for the final part of the walk. The steep upwards pathway through to Dhukur Pokhari had burned a fair bit of energy but on leaving the village, the trail was quite smooth, with only a few upward rises, and most of them in the finale of the path.Livia, Srirang and I set out once more and remained together for the final push of the day. The air was much thinner than earlier than day, and a huge radio mast amongst the crumbling old and proud new buildings marked out the final stop for the day. It grew ever closer.

After crossing a footbridge, alongside two twisted bridge remains, the pathway snaked in and out of small bushes and a very hidden abandoned settlement. To the left the river moved away, and fields spread outwards. To the right a new peak became clearer. Pisang takes its name from Pisang Peak (locally called Jong Ri – 6091m high), of which Paungda Danda is its south-eastern subsidiary peak. The so-called ‘Great Wall of Pisang’ was easily visible in the fading sunlight. Pisang Youth Club’s football fields could be made out amongst the snow on our right, as the goalposts gave it away. To our left, a huge sweeping curing avalanched seemed to have completely lost momentum at a stonewall. It was stonewalled just a metre from our footpath. The jagged windswept icy tufts of the avalanche stood in contrast to intact wheat shoots to the avalanche’s left.

Upper Pisang (3300m) is part of the Pisang village. Lower Pisang (3200m) is its slightly lower down and over the valley other half. About 307 live across 105 houses, according to a census in 2011. It seemed on my visit, that far fewer people were here. Arriving at our guesthouse, the lucidly turquoise Marshyangdi River could be seen a hundred metres or so below. If life it what you make it, then right there and then, life was wonderful. To reach Lower Pisang, you don’t cross the bridges, you follow the river and cross a different bridge. The Lower Pisang plains and the buildings looked cold and uninviting because the mountains above cast such a large shadow below.

Upper Pisang has sweeping great views of Annapurna II and ample opportunity to take endless snaps on your camera. The lodge’s family feel is completed by a young girl singing from YouTube videos on a phone. Mother and father, busy cooking occasionally pop out to check on her, and she looked up every time, with full respect and listened to all instructions, in the Tibetan language.

After gaining 600m in elevation and trekking about 14.5km that day, we’d all earned a good night’s sleep. I tucked under my extra blanket and crept into my sleeping bag. I sat up suddenly and took one last look outside at the valley beneath and the few twinkles of electric light. The dark sky and stars made me realise how cold it was, so I slipped back into the sleeping bag and soon fell asleep, deep into a dream…

“Listen as the wind blows, from across the great divide, voices traoped in yearning, memories trapped in time. The night is my companion, and solitude is my guide…” – Possession by Sarah McLachlan

 

Cover image by the angry hungry Hungarian and great trekker Livia (Srirang and I passing an avalanche field the day after arriving at Upper Pisang):

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Wonder Lost Wanderlust

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

As pensioners and the vulnerable wipe away thoughts of pasta on toast, and dream of times, the better times, when three-ply toilet paper was a thing, Britain slips closer to the abyss. Gone are considerations of single-use plastics and the overuse of carrier bags. Armed with media footage of Australians panic buying toilet paper, Britain laughed at first and then they went out, with little shame and emptied shelves rapidly. Scenes in supermarkets across the lands, far and wide resembled lootings of old, and movies that centred around cataclysmic events. Football fans could not be heard chanting, “We’re fucked and we know we are…” over and over again. Amongst all this Liverpool held a half-marathon. Well Liverpool’s second football team Liverpool F.C. weren’t in action, so why not?

Food bank baskets were frantically emptied and hand soaps pilfered from hospitals across the land. Every man for himself, straight out of 1930s USA had arrived in Britain. The Great Depression reenactment society were even too busy to invite their friends on Facebook to this mass event. Luckily for the selfish amongst Britons, they’d already sneakily arranged their own do. And so, everyone went bat-shit crazy making Overlord of That America, Donny Trump proud as punch. It kept everyone away from his golf courses on Irish and British turfs. Same place anyway, right, Donny? Or is it not?

“And one of the reasons the UK, basically, has been: It’s got the border; it’s got very strong borders. And they’re doing a very good job. They don’t have very much infection at this point, and hopefully, they’ll keep it that way.” – Donald Trump, lover of borders, March 2020.

Community and social care are at stretching point. World relations hang on knife edges and just one stupid tweet can make the retro dark ages look modern and all right here, right now. So, we must each abandon hope, loved ones and become ultra-selfish now. I’m going to panic buy piccalilli, Marmite (in the hate camp, but needs and musts), and head off to an island and start a rhubarb and Rumex obtusifolius farm. Just need to learn how to farm wheat, bake bread and all that. What’re the key ingredients of brown sauce and Vimto? Any good (and uninfected) piggy farmers/butchers out there? Preferences will be given to those who have more skills than Bear Grylls and are of the opposite gender. These are not equal opportunity times. Nor, are they easy, for those apart from loved ones and family. Still, our older loved ones are being told to isolate themselves – and us younger ones are expected to be immune (or bust) according to Shit Donald Trump Boris Johnson… happy days, indeed. Ignore the WHO’s advice of test, test, test and go against the grain of the globe. What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s look for positivity. My Aunty Susan mentioned about a man with a mini bus taking the elderly shopping; community groups setting up help; local shops finding ways to get food delivered to those in need etc. That’s how it should be now. Not just, me, me, me, me, me (please like my blog), me, me, me… and my neighbour back in Manc, offered a note to Mum and co. to help with shopping assistance if needed.

“Panic on the streets of London; Panic on the streets of Birmingham; I wonder to myself; Could life ever be sane again?” – The Smith – Panic

As our brave NHS receptionists, nurses, doctors, cleaners and staff put themselves on the frontline, we must remember each will no doubt have family back home waiting. Their selfless acts may expose their mothers, fathers, children, husbands, wives, partners and grandparents to what is now on our shores. The days of Covid-19 are here. These true heroes are the real line of defence. Not all heroes wear capes, but let’s hope the British government tests them, protects them and provides them with more than shoddy NHS 111 advice or social distancing blurbs.


 

And, now for something completely different…

Walking to Khudi wasn’t the biggest of walks. A commute for many. The tourist bus journey from the day before had been a largely bouncy and claustrophobic affair, with little comfort and a variety of smells that were neither pleasant nor hell. The seats filled fast around the halfway point of the journey and emptied faster on arrival to Besi Beshar. The stop-start nature of the journey had jolted muscles and bones in ways only experienced when falling down hills. The first day of wandering was welcomed with joy. Accompanied by the rapid flowing Marshyangdi River to our right shoulder, off we trotted, up a gentle rise, through a farm field and away we went. The beginning had began.

Unlike the colourful yet featureless interior of the bus, the fresh air of the trail enveloped all senses. A breeze blew through my lack of hair and my nostrils filled with warm spring air. My birds filled with great natural sounds, unlike the bus’s Nepali music blaring out on a setting known as too loud. The dusts that blew through the window on the bus journey seldom visited our walk that day. The repetitive beats of Nepali music were soon replaced by water flowing, leaves rustling and animal cries. Goats? Check. Engines humming? Negative.

Embarking on a journey with beaten muscles is tough. It doesn’t inspire a lengthy trot. The backpack, made by Deuter, had been a secondhand purchase, but it fitted well offering comfort across 55 litres. A zip-on, zip-off daysack sagged from its exterior, making for an odd balancing act but after a few hundred metres it felt part of my super-structure.

Little bit up, little bit down, Nepali flat, actually felt very inappropriate today. The walk was not up at all. Good job! I had read many trekked as far as Tal in one day but I certainly would be going nowhere near there. Gentle and slow, and away we go, was a good motto to begin. The journey is key. You’ll experience more in a long trek and walk, then a rush and a click of the camera. You must always go at your own pace, and if with others, the pace of the slowest – or at least agree where to stop each day, in advance. The region by Annapurna wasn’t a tick-box exercise. It was, to me, a way to explore and see a little bit more, and understand more than I had done the day before. Relaxation, the testing of my physical condition and so on, were just bonuses. Stories for future camp fires or to slap online via a blog would be huge advantages, but not necessarily the aim of the wander.

Here, I was with good company (thanks Srirang and Livia), able to stroll off or amble a tad behind, with my mind. All two brain cells could have a natter and give me some clarity over this, that and the other. So, within a few moments, we’d decided Khudi would be our first port of call. Khudi, and the Maya hotel, right by a road bridge, had a hot spring pond. The chickens loved it. The heat obviously drew in insects and the garden was lush and well-kept. Two separate dining areas looked down on the thunderous Marshyangdi River whilst upstream a kind of footbridge was suspended over the river. The room costs 500NPR (4.21 USD/3.48GBP)and the food was pleasant enough. Dal Bhat daily, with a lovely pickle. I checked out the next morning, happy with my 2800NPR bill, despite it being far higher than the local rates.

The next day involved a bit more trekking – and 20NPR naturally grown bananas (five fresh fleshy ones). After around 10km, the end point was the village of Bahundanda (1310m).

After a snack in Bhulbhule (840m), the trail passed through much dust, passing the ugly hydroelectric dam and the Chinese construction project around there and Ngadi, it was good to escape the hum of engineering and electrical production. The silted river eventually cleared to a bluer and clearer channel. Signs for Wanderlust (also written as Wonder Lost due to an advertising error) appealed because of the words hot and spring. The guesthouse offered us a free room (0NPR, 0USD, 0GBP) on the condition we ate breakfast and dinner there. Deal done. I would check out after two nights with a bill for 3280NPR. I didn’t just eat Dal Bhat, I managed big breakfasts and copious amounts of coffee, the milky kind. As Srirang and Livia rested, I tumbled down a path freely, almost skipping in a happy way. Bats flew around me as daylight faded, and I found two hot springs bubbling away, with an orange rustic appearance. The muddy sludge around each pool shimmered in an unappealing kind of way – an uninviting emerald green stain, flanked by dry looking grasses and rich plants, fed by the rich waters emerging on the surface. The waters gently slipped down a pebbly slope into the raging Marshyangdi River below.

Many people spend one day plodding the road from Besi Behsar to Bahundanda and few stay longer than a night. Bahundanda was so relaxing that we stayed for two nights. It gave Livia the chance to shake off the Coronavirus bug she had, and Srirang and I chance to go over the other side of the valley. Here we clambered up to two villages, Arkhale (R-Kelly?) and Gairigaon. There was plenty of time spent observing a river of goats – they were everywhere, in trees, on rocks, all along the paths and probably on dogs’ backs too. A goat herder carried a small kid along the pathway and greeted me. He could have been a hundred years old. He certainly had no teeth but a very friendly smile, despite his lack of gnashers. On the opposite valley, towering over Bahundanda, was a conical mountain, almost volcanic in shape, and two small hot spring pools at the mountain foot, on the banks of the ferocious Marshyangdi River. Dry terraces, possibly of rice and other grains gave the appearance of monstrous steps to the southern face of the village.

In the distance, I could see a small group, of colourful porters and guides ferrying excessively large backpacks and colourful trekkers behind them. I couldn’t see it, but I guessed at least one, and if not all the porters had sandals or other such ill-suited footwear for lugging weights far beyond their light frames. We descended back to the lodge, and enjoyed our meals, despite Srirang picking up a sprain or strain from some rock-scrambling. Well, we were avoiding bears. Maybe. Possibly. Or, just a little off the beaten track? I’m still finding the many seeds that stick to you, on my clothes now.

The Annapurna Circuit isn’t a complete loop, which is just as well, because 230km is a long walk. After a late check-out from Wander Lost, I left Srirang and Livia, looped onto a blue and white pathway and reached Ghermu around lunchtime. Here, I ate homemade potato momos (soft boiled dumplings), omelette, chapatti and a cup of milky tea. I talked with the owner of the Peaceful Lodge, who was wearing a Chelsea FC jacket, as his other job was to coach the local football team – alongside his other job as porter and guide. He explained more about the local Gurung people and the stretched flat plains of the Ghermu (1130m) village. He pointed out several eagles in the distance and we also discussed vultures and their importance to the circle of life. The day had involved a great little ascent surrounded by farmhouses and glorious scenery. Each slope was tough on the feet, yet farmers and village life seemed to zip uphill at breakneck speeds – carrying baskets of wood, and even rocks to repair a rising footpath.

We stayed a night in Ghermu in a place where I cut my head open on a low beam, twice. The second time did not help at all. Not that the first was any pleasure. A gecko clung to the cold walls, as we sat eating outside and enjoying the calm area. Our cook, who seemed to be the only cook in the village, was the same man from the Peaceful Lodge, earlier that day. Community in action.

The following morning involved a lazy and sluggish breakfast. On descending a steep path down to the footbridge to Syange, we walked through the Late-Mulka Bahadur Curying’s Memorial Gate which proudly had written, “Thanks for your visit.” After crossing the swinging suspension bridge, the west bank of the Marsyangdi river, the Lhasa Guest House and all the other lodges appeared closed. Drills and noise erupted from a nearby waterfall’s foot. A new concrete lodge was being built alongside the Besi Sahar to Chame Sadak (road). The road climbed upwards, sweeping left and right and hugging a few hairpin bends. There were few and far between sections of footpath acting like little breaks from the road ahead. Plenty of milky coffee was had after one particular rise, allowing Livia and I to await Srirang, who was nursing a leg strain, and plugging on despite the pain. A cyclist pedaled on upwards. He stopped and we talked. His intention was to cycle the entire Annapurna Circuit – and he bubbled with his native Dublin accent and enthusiasm. After talking by a roadside lodge and restaurant, he pedaled on, never to be seen by us, until the next time. His touring bicycle made mean work of the steep rocky road. Its handlebars, frame and his back didn’t look too prepared for wet and cold ahead. Brave man.

A cute kitten lolled around our feet and played blissfully as Srirang arrived. We then trekked on. At Jagat we took a wander through the long village before ducking back for the Mont Blanc hotel. The fresh coffee sold it to us. The Hotel New View wanted 2000NPR per night, per person, per room, but the Mont Blanc quoted a fairer 100NPR. A saving of 1900NPR for just ten footsteps. The sun-drenched top floor oozed warmth and I dropped my bag down. I did ask the owner why he had named his lodge after a mountain far away in France. He said he liked the name. It stood out amongst the Three Sisters, Everest, Manaslu, Annapurna, Peaceful Lodges, Tibet, Tashi Delek, and other names that formed a quite predictable list of lodge names.

Hotel Mont Blanc make sure that the guests come first. Welcomed with a warm smile, we stepped inside the lodge. On viewing a sun-baked top floor, it would have made no sense to have said no. The finest cappuccino for breakfast and great food throughout. Try the tagliatelle lasagna with local tomatoes and a hint of spice. I had room 4 on the top floor by the cold shower and squat toilet but wasn’t disturbed. On the ground floor is the hottest hot shower in Nepal. Trust me I have tried a few that claim to be hot. This one does not disappoint. Khusi and his wife pointed us to two different hot springs, both delightful. There’s a nice trek to Chipla on the opposite side of the river and you make see monkeys nearby one of the many waterfalls. A most wonderful place to stay. So good that we stayed an extra night. Try the Dal Bhat for a fully flavoured 24 hour power… ready for the days ahead.

Jagat allowed ample opportunity to feel the serenity and embrace the awe of the valley underneath. Here I dipped in my first hot spring bath, and observed tomato plants growing nearby. Monkeys flipped through trees and the fresh mountain air quenched every need of the day. Rivers, forests, and humanity sat side by side, as did a huge landslip of trash next to a trickle of beautiful waterfall. Supply and demand leaves to much rubbish at lesser accessible places with totally inadequate waste management systems. In the distance, snow-capped peaks peaked between clouds and rocks edged out precariously from mountains upstream. Banana trees, pines, tropical and lesser-tolerant of warmth plants towered around the village, flanked with great wide trees and great slowing green ground-level leaves. Jagat is a tranquil village perched on what appears to be a huge rock. Beneath it the Marsyangdi flows and to the north west side of the village, a stepped waterfall smashes into a pool, misting and swirling outwards.

The trek goes on… just like the news of our not-so-friendly COVID-19…