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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