A 220km journey through the Himalayas, Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit is renowned as one of the most beautiful treks on the planet.
Denby Weller walked the walk in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake. She encountered jaw-dropping scenery, economic and social transformation, physical and mental challenges – and a most unusual fungus.
01 Besi Sahar: the road
The road from Besi Sahar to Syange would not pass for a road in Australia. Even the roughest outback dirt track has nothing on this. Carved like a horizontal gash in the side of the mountains that mark the western bank of the Marsyangdi river, each summer it creeps a little further up the valley.
Road construction began in the 1980s, and brought life expectancy up by a staggering 20 years in one generation. Even as western tourists decry the road as an instrument of destruction, locals make their claim on the mod-cons of the 21st century.
Trucks and jeeps now replace mules and motorcycles as the dominant form of transport; towns without universal running water or sewerage are now home to mobile phone towers.
In the rock walls above the road, you can see the scars left by the dynamite sticks that created this little step of level ground in the impossibly steep landscape.
The road gangs stay in rough camps along the way, breaking granite boulders with hand tools and laying them neatly up the strip marked out by surveyor’s pegs and twine.
During the night, while the road crews sleep on piles of empty polyethylene concrete sacks, the mountains awaken, hurling rain-loosened boulders down onto their labours, sometimes destroying in an instant what took days or weeks to construct.
As we inch along the road in a jeep, our 16-year-old driver casually points at a rock the size of a small house and says, “That wasn’t here yesterday.”
Unnervingly, he sometimes tosses his cigarette gravely out the window and slows the jeep to a crawl as he stares up at the cliff towering above us, scouring the rock face for signs of impending landslide.
After a few hundred metres of this, he’ll relax, light another cigarette and return his gaze to the road. Obviously we’ve passed the dangerous bit.
02 Chame: a guide’s life
For Western tourists, the prospect of a trekking holiday in Nepal is not thought of as particularly dangerous. However, life for their guides and porters is very different. The trekking industry is fraught with injury, seasonal variability in employment, unhealthy competition practices and poor infrastructure.
Hazards include below-freezing temperatures, landslides, roaring river crossings, heatstroke, unsanitary accommodation and a non-existent health service. There are no rules about how heavy a porter’s load can be, no requirement for safety gear or proper footwear (many wear flip-flops), no weather forecasting, no superannuation, health insurance or sick pay.
In 2013, 97 per cent of trekking agency employees were hired on a casual or seasonal basis; 92 per cent were aged between 20 and 40, with zero per cent aged over 60. The statistics paint a picture of a short-lived profession with such uncertain employment prospects that the reporting of accidents and injuries is likely to be low.
That said, the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) records two or three deaths of guides or porters every year, and another 10 or so cases of incapacitation by illness or injury.
Thirty of the 43 people killed in the 2014 blizzard spawned by tropical cyclone Hud Hud were Nepalis. This is a business where guides are literally putting their lives on the line for the tourists they shepherd over the mountains.
03 Manang: the deadly trade in “Himalayan Viagra”
For a few weeks at the start of each monsoon season, entire Nepali villages move into makeshift camps in the highest alpine meadows, to crawl on the ground from dawn till dusk.
They are in search of the world’s most expensive fungus – what scientists call Ophiocordyceps sinensis, and locals call yarsagumba.
It is yarsagumba’s reputation as a potent aphrodisiac that has made this “Himalayan Viagra” a status symbol in Asian nations such as China, and given rise to a sometimes deadly trade in Nepal.
“The price doesn’t compare to other fungi; the price compares to things like gold and platinum and diamonds,” says Professor Britt Bunyard, editor of Fungi magazine.
This is no exaggeration – yarsagumba routinely sells for $A139,000 a kilo. And in a country where the average income is in the range of a $A2 a day, it makes yarsagumba a commodity worth killing for.
In 2009, 70 men from the village of Naar – nearly the entire male population – were charged with the murder of seven men from Gorkha, who were suspected of being yarsagumba poachers. Nineteen of the villagers were eventually convicted in the Manang District Court.
Yarsagumba – from a Tibetan derivative meaning “winter worm, summer grass” and commonly called caterpillar fungus in the West – is a beige-coloured fungus that infects the larvae of the burrowing ghost moth during its subterranean caterpillar stage.
Having mummified its host, the fungus bursts from the head of the caterpillar. It sprouts a tiny stalk visible a few millimetres above the ground, and grows wild in local fields.
At the start of each summer, the Nepali press is overrun with stories of yarsagumba pickers variously disappearing, being robbed or dying of exposure.
A casual search of The Himalayan Times website brings up more than 30 articles covering the yarsagumba trade in all its bloody reality. In just the first two months of the 2015 season, 45 arrests and nine deaths were reported, along with half a dozen robberies.
On the day we began our trek, 32 villagers were arrested in Bhimduttanagar for the murder and robbery of a yarsagumba picker who was carrying close to $A7000 in cash.
In a bid to stem the violence and overharvesting, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project introduced a rule in March 2015 prohibiting outsiders from collecting yarsagumba. Pickers are now required to present permits for stamping to local officials when they commence picking each season.
There is an ancient Buddhist saying that picking yarsagumba is a sin and brings bad luck. As local leaders debate how the permit system can evolve to handle the increasing violence surrounding the cash crop, a news article in the Himalayan Times announces that Manang’s yield doubled in a year, and in 2015 was worth A$20M for the region.
04 Thorong Phedi: the climb
earing pain wraps around my left side and steals my breath. My vision is overrun by black spots. I sense I’m about to pass out, so I lurch for a wooden bench and just manage to plant myself on it before my legs give way.
I find myself gasping, but in a cruel catch-22, gasping from the pain only brings on a new stab of pain. Holding my breath is better. Pain eases. Thought returns. At this altitude, I can’t do this for long.
I gingerly exhale. As my side contracts, I feel a slithering sensation deep under the skin. I know it’s probably a broken rib, but don’t want to accept it. The thought arrives unbidden: At what point do you decide to turn back?
If there was ever such a point, common sense dictates that this should be it. I’m 10 days into the Annapurna Circuit, a 220km trek that circumnavigates the enormous Annapurna range in northern Nepal.
Hailed as one of the most beautiful hikes on Earth, it is tea-house trekking at its toughest, with steep ascents and descents, including the monstrous Thorong La Pass.
At 5416 metres, Thorong La rises to the more than twice the height of Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, which sits at a mere 2228 metres.
It was on here in October 2014 that a wild storm took the lives of 43 trekkers and guides. We are due to tackle it tomorrow.
I clutch my side and stare out at rain sheeting down the thousand-metre granite walls that wrap around Thorong Phedi, situated at the foot of Thorong La.
I feel that I’m under attack. The diarrhoea and vomiting mostly come at night and early in the morning, but as we’ve gained 4000 metres of altitude, I’ve developed a severe cough that comes in fits lasting minutes every time we stop after a strenuous climb.
Despite my religious adherence to the food- and water-hygiene guidelines of developing-world travel, I’m sick and it’s getting worse.
I’ve been dreaming of this trek for a decade, fantasising about the life of a photojournalist, following in my own humble way in the footsteps of the explorers I read about as a kid, the brave mountaineers who opened the Himalayas up to the Western imagination.
I expected to love it here, but I don’t. The shifting land makes me deeply uneasy. The constant illness and the futility of trying to keep healthy are exhausting. The thin veil of Western medicine has been lifted, and I find myself lacking out here in the real world.
My lunch arrives; spaghetti with tomato ketchup and the kind of packaged cheese that never goes off. Everyone else gets daal bhat, the rice-and-lentil staple of Nepal, which I haven’t been able to face since the current bout of gastro hit five days ago.
Under a hail of concerned enquiries from my companions – my good friend Brinley and Anup, her Nepali-Australian husband – I try to downplay the problem. Later, Anup tells me I look like I’ve been shot.
I have no appetite. The spectre of tomorrow looms like the surrounding cliffs. Tomorrow, I must either cross the pass or retreat.
At 4500 metres above sea level, we are too high to delay indefinitely while we wait for me to recover my fitness. The longer I tarry here, the more my condition will deteriorate, mostly due to the unsettled sleep and low-level confusion most people experience at this altitude.
The pass is nearly a vertical kilometre above us, and after crossing it we will face a serious 1600 metre descent to the nearest settlement. Normally, there are plenty of teahouses along the way to find shelter if one is feeling poorly, but since the 2015 earthquake, most of the proprietors have closed up and gone to Kathmandu or Pokhara to be with their families.
Once we begin the push, the only shelter we will pass is at Thorong High Camp, 500 metres above us and just two hours into what the guidebook says is at least a 14-hour day. We had planned to get to Thorong High Camp tonight, but as I force down my food, I know I’m done for the day.
After lunch, we play a few rounds of 500 while I gratefully settle into a codeine haze. As the afternoon wanes, I tell the others I’d like to sleep a bit. I shoot some video and pack my batteries into my passport pouch, then crawl into a sleeping bag with them. The thin air at high altitudes is very cold, and unattended batteries go flat if they’re not kept warm. The cameras get carefully wrapped in my towel and left in a corner – a trick I learned from a photographer back home to minimise condensation.
I lie on my back ignoring the bite of the bed bugs and contemplating the climb tomorrow. What it would take for me to give up? This is my first assignment abroad, and I’ve come with the backing of people who have put their trust in the hands of a relatively inexperienced journalist. Pain is not a good enough reason to disappoint.
Added to which, the retreat options are not really very appealing. I could walk for two days back down to Manang and fly to Jomsom, catching up with my companions on the downhill portion of the trek, where there are roads, jeeps, options for ailing trekkers. But I promised my backers that I wouldn’t run the risk of domestic air travel in Nepal. A plane crashes every couple of months, and people seldom survive.
There’s another factor. The tea-house proprietor says there’s a doctor in Muktinath, the first town on the other side of Thorong La. I doubt there’ll be facilities for an X-ray, but there might be enough antibiotics to stop the cough and gastro symptoms, and that is a goal worth aiming for. I decide to lighten my pack as much as possible and go for it.
My alarm sounds at 3am, and by four I’m enjoying the heady combination of altitude, codeine and caffeine, and we set off. The climb to Thorong High Camp is steep and wet, demanding complete attention. In the absolute dark, my world contracts to the little circle of light my head-torch provides. I take one shallow breath with each step. A wet, cold rain is falling and I don’t dare take out my camera, knowing that we’ll pass the snowline soon enough.
We stop for tea at High Camp, a stout collection of stone buildings that give welcome shelter from the creeping cold. Although my wet weather gear is faring well, I’m wearing a pair of locally-bought wool mittens that are soaked through and provide only marginal insulation. It takes a while for my fingers to be deft enough to control the camera. I shoot photos inside the dining room while the others chat.
Brinley and Anup are suffering from the altitude, with headaches and vagueness. We sip our tea and listen to a Swiss trekker we met a few days ago, telling us how bitterly cold it was here last night. After half an hour, we head back out into the rain.
The slope eases but as the fog lightens, I appreciate the comment in the guidebook about the disheartening number of false summits. The ground varies between talus and scree, loose underfoot but minimally challenging after the morning’s ascent. The trail splits again and again, and the landscape is featureless. We passed the tree-line two days ago and left all trace of vegetation behind us yesterday. It’s all brown rock and grey mist.
Without the surrounding peaks to give a sense of direction, I would certainly become lost here. There are navigation wands spaced every few hundred metres, but standing near one in this fog, I can’t see the next one.
Brin and I have fallen into step. Anup and Chhongba, our guide, are about 100 metres ahead. Every effort to speed up leads to more coughing – not an option. The rib is very painful and the codeine is wearing off now. I save the last tablets for an emergency. I call out to the boys and ask them to make sure they don’t lose us. They nod solemnly. Chhongba is visibly worried.
Some hours later, we pass 5000 metres and the rain turns to snow. I chance taking out my camera and shoot some video but the effort leaves me coughing, clutching at my side and seeing stars. My whole reason for being here is to shoot, but I simply can’t hold the camera up. I pack it away in agonising slow motion, angry and frustrated and worried that I won’t fulfil on my promise.
The pace has slowed to two breaths for each step. We pass a horseman coming in the opposite direction. Brinley speaks breathlessly behind me, “This is your last chance to get a lift, Den.”
Something about her comment slices through me. I shake my head and straighten as much as I can. I grip both my trekking poles and find that I have been dragging them along the ground behind me.
This is hard, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the only thing I have to lose going forward is my former idea of who I was. I can feel it shifting with each step; the me that is here right now is both weaker and tougher than I thought I was. This hurts more than I expected it to, but there’s a voice inside me telling me that it’s just discomfort, and I can handle more.
he summit arrives with a disappointing lack of fanfare. The fog has obscured all views, so there is no sense of having reached a landmark except that the trail slopes downwards. The cold in this dread place is bone deep; the altitude and exertion have made me sluggish. I paw the DSLR out of its case. I exist only to execute my task here and then begin the descent toward comfort. There is no energy for “Wow, I made it!” I’m empty.
Both of my cameras fail to operate. At first, I think it’s altitude-related operator error. I roll video again and try to redo my piece to camera, my tongue and lips slow from numbness. When I finish, I turn the camera around again to find that it’s turned itself off. I try the DSLR. A few stills, then the same problem.
Weeks later, I find out that in extreme temperatures like the conditions on the pass, the cameras are deisgned to shut down to prevent damage to the moving parts. But as I stand on top of Thorong La, all I can do is curse the futility of having come this far, and tried so hard, and failed so completely to get a single good shot to show for it.
As we begin the descent, the mist slowly starts to clear, and the next 10 hours are occupied with the gradual lifting of the curtain. The pass itself never appears, but in front of us, the magnificent Mustang Valley is revealed. Brown and bare of trees, the vastness of it beggars belief. As the air warms, my cameras come back to life, and I shoot my favourite photos of the whole trip – the enormous brown landscape swallowing up the puny little people passing through it. They’re not the shots I planned to get, but I’m proud of them.
Nor is this the adventure I came to have, but it’s the one I got. What I have found in Nepal is not the shiny world that sprang from the pages of all those books I read as a child, but it is real. And what I found in myself is not as brave, or strong, or heroic as I wanted to be, but that’s real, too, and that is worth something.
05 Thorong La Pass: the killer storm
In October 2014, Tropical Cyclone Hud Hud barreled north from the Bay of Bengal, across India and toward the Annapurna region in Nepal.
A combination of orographic lift and the local geography funnelling winds through mountain valleys led to a particularly massive storm striking Thorong La Pass – the highest trekking pass on earth – at the peak of the tourist season.
Forty-three people lost their lives and hundreds more were injured. But the death toll could have been much higher were it not for the actions of Paul Sherridan and Raju Gurung.
Paul’s leadership, fostered in his day job as a British police officer, and Raju’s 23 years’ of experience as a trekking guide made the two men the perfect allies against the brutal force of the storm.
06 Jharkot: traditional Tibetan medicine
Ineed help. I’ve just crossed Thorong La, the world’s highest trekking pass, with a hacking cough, severe gastroenteritis and a sharp pain in my side that makes walking for hours each day something between unpleasant and excruciating. I can feel things moving in my ribcage that don’t usually move, and I’m losing weight rapidly. Added to all this, I ran out of paracetamol a week ago and codeine the day before yesterday.
We are still two days’ walk from Jomsom, the nearest airport, and two weeks from Kathmandu. The spectre of more trekking in my current state has left me desperate for some kind of medical attention, even if it’s just a “You’ll be right” from a local quack.
When I arrive in the medieval town of Jharkot, I discover the “doctor” locals have been telling me about for the last three days is actually a “Tibetan doctor”. I’m not really sure what that means, but I’m quite beyond caring.
I stifle my sceptical grumbling and (slowly) climb the several hundred stairs to the main courtyard of Jharkot’s monastery. A knock on a door bearing a sign in Sanskrit is answered by a soft male voice, and a curtain is held aside for me to enter.
The room is small and dim, with an entire wall covered in shelves stacked floor to ceiling with glass jars. In the jars I see all manner of substances – brown powders, muddy liquids, black pellets, eyeballs – well, okay, not the latter, but definitely no sign of medicine, as the term applies in my mind. Scepticism returns.
I am greeted by a nice young fellow in wire-rimmed glasses and flowing maroon robes. His English is excellent. He asks me to roll up my sleeves and lie my hands on the desk between us, palms up.
He takes my wrist in his hand and applies three fingers to the ulnar artery. Varying the pressure between the fingers, he asks a few questions. I give him the details of the flu-like symptoms that had me bedridden in Kathmandu, and the vomiting and diarrhea that come and go (the particulars of which I shall spare you).
He does his pressing routine for a while, then takes my other wrist. We sit quietly. Minutes go by. He takes both hands at once, then alternates pressure between one wrist and the other, always concentrating on the same area, just below the hand. At the conclusion of this ritual (just as I’m about to commence eye-rolling), he speaks.
For several minutes, he describes my symptoms in bewildering detail, noting about a dozen things that he couldn’t possibly have guessed from the bare description I gave him. He tells me how I’m sleeping, how the cough changes character throughout the day, where the pain is, how long it lasts. He tells me I forgot to mention the headache (I did), and that the pain in my side is probably a broken rib – but whatever it is, it’s healing now.
“You began with an infection of the large intestine, the colon,” he says squarely. “It has spread to secondary infections of the respiratory system and probably the blood. I will treat them all. You will have 10 days of medicine, and when you return to the West, you should see a Western doctor for X-rays and to confirm my diagnosis. You will be well by then.”
While I sit and silently try to digest all of this, he gets up and prepares a remedy.
This consists of a series of small spheres that bear a striking resemblance to donkey poo – and in my estimation taste about the same (although I’m not planning to verify this). The spheres are comprised of powders from many different jars, and some unidentified goop that transforms powders into a paste, which he hand-rolls into pill-sized balls.
The balls are placed in little clear cellophane packets with a piece of paper showing the dosage. I’m to take them three times a day, and I get three packets. The afternoon balls are supplemented by a tiny black seed of unknown origin – one per day. Morning and evening balls are dosed in threes.
I take my packets and he nominates a fee of about A$10, which I pay, and then double with a contribution to the monastery’s donations box.
I am a woman of science. I go running because science says it’s good for me, I take paracetamol because science says it will make my headache go away, and I try to avoid eating a whole pack of Tim-Tams on movie night because science says that will give me cankles.
But hell, I’ve got nothing to lose by trying his concoctions. I couldn’t feel any worse. I down three balls with a glass of water before we shoulder our packs and depart Jharkot.
By breakfast the next day, the cough is all but gone and I’ve spent the night sleeping instead of trying to decide which end most urgently needs to be aimed at the toilet. I find that I have quite an appetite at breakfast, and as I take an accidental selfie while cleaning my camera, I notice that my face even looks a little less skeletal than the last time I saw a mirror a few days ago.
07 Jomsom: savage winds
At 4am the alarm sounds, and we rush out to meet on the road in front of the guest house. Head-torches are lit. If we don’t go now, we won’t make it to the next town before the wind starts. And in this part of the world, the wind is something worth getting up early to avoid …
08 Birethanti: post-earthquake recovery
The Annapurna Circuit is deserted of foreigners. We encounter a total of nine other trekkers on our 22-day journey around the mountain range. In high season on a normal year, that number would be in the thousands.
But that was before the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, which took more than 9000 lives and injured more than 23,000.
Less than three per cent of the buildings in the Annapurna region sustained damage from the earthquake, but for Nepal’s $677 million tourism industry, the cost is measured in more than property destruction.
Thousands of guides and porters have found themselves without work in the hour of their greatest need.
With the tourists gone and the industry in tatters, the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal and the aid agencies bringing relief have come together to create a unique solution.
09 Pokhara: paddling Lake Phewa
It turns out, paddleboards are nowhere near as heavy as they look. Which is a good thing, because I’ve been carrying mine quite a distance.
In the steamy early morning light, the city of Pokhara glistens behind me. Ahead of me, a mist rises off the surface of Phewa Taal (Lake Phewa). Surrounded by jungle-clad hills and guarded by distant towering Himalayan giants, Phewa Taal is the spiritual heart of the city.
Exploring the lake by paddleboard has been a goal of mine since I arrived in town, and I’m so happy to have located the tools of the adventure I don’t mind lugging the board a few hundred metres.
The chap at the paddleboard hire place wasn’t very interested in helping, and sometimes that’s the way of things in Nepal. People are friendly but direct. If they’re not up for carrying your paddleboard to the lake for you, they’ll hand you a paddle, and say, ‘Enjoy.’
When I arrive at the water’s edge, the hard yakka continues: there are at least 20,000 water hyacinths between me and clear water. They ripple like an ever-moving barrier between the shore and the clear green depths of the lake’s centre.
I’ve been watching boats tangle with them all morning, and I know their pretty looks are not to be trusted. They clutch at anything that passes among them, forming clumps that trail along behind unwitting paddle-boaters and novice paddleboarders like me.
I lay the board down and give it a shove while jumping, with all the elegance of an elephant seal, onto the deck. I cling to the board with one hand and fend off the clutching hyacinths with the other as I float toward the tantalising clear water in the middle of the lake.
Miraculously, I still have my paddle when I escape the greenery, my board leaving a wake of naked water that slowly closes up as the hyacinths resume their guardianship of the bank. To heck with how I’m going to get back out of the water; the next challenge is to find my feet.
I do so with remarkable ease, and at once I’m in a dream. The day is almost unbearably humid. It’s high summer, and the brooding skies only occasionally show glimpses of the enormous mountains.
In the thick tropical air, the day has the mesmerising quality of a twilight that stretches all the way from dawn until the spell is broken by the ubiquitous afternoon downpour.
As the gateway to the Himalaya, Pokhara is an adventure sports playground. From paddle boards to paragliders, mountain biking to whitewater rafting, Pokhara is the place to begin your adventure.
The touristy suburb of Lakeside, now gliding by my left shoulder, is a heady mix of nightspots, restaurants and souvenir shops, more charming than Kathmandu’s Thamel district and almost as abundant in Nepalese wares. Here, tourists stroll the dusty streets, where restaurants and their patrons do nightly battle with hordes of mosquitoes, and stalls sell everything from knick-knacks to corn cobs roasted over coals in their jackets.
I point the board away from Lakeside and make for the island shrine of Tal Bahari. The legend goes that Lake Phewa was once a verdant valley whose inhabitants lived in the lap of luxury. When a wandering beggar came to town, the inhabitants turned away in disdain, and the destitute figure received charity from just one woman.
When the vagrant warned the woman of a coming flood, she fled with her family to higher ground, where they watched in horror as the beggar revealed herself to be the goddess Bahari Bhagwati and flooded the valley in revenge. The survivors erected the island shrine in honour of the goddess and established the lakeside settlement of Pokhara.
The shrine is an overrated concrete island, where tourists routinely part with wads of cash to brave the monkeys and take in the unimaginative modern temple. I circumnavigate the island, waving and chatting to other lakegoers on a variety of watercraft, from rowboats to canopied punts with softly gurgling inboard motors.
The far side of the lake is a jungle that tumbles down steep slopes to the water, topped by the World Peace Stupa, a white concrete edifice commanding excellent views of the expanding city.
From the hilltop vantage, Pokhara bears a disheartening resemblance to Kathmandu. Pollution and poor waste management are becoming issues here too, and it’s not difficult to imagine a day when Pokhara will become as grungy and dilapidated as the country’s capital. But today, the tropical forest, electrified by cicadas and so green it hurts the eye, is a reminder of the stunning natural beauty of the region around Pokhara.
Pokhara is the jumping-off point for many treks that take tourists into the heart of the Annapurna Conservation Area, a network of national parks and protected forests where eco-tourism drives a strict conservation program. As I dig my paddle into the waters of the lake on the way back to town, my memory is awash with the scenes of moss-laden vines, towering rhododendrons and cascading waterfalls that made up the last few days of my three-week trek around the famed Annapurna Circuit.
The hyacinths prove no match for my now slightly advanced boardcraft, and I bump into the bank with relative ease on my return. Heaving the board up the bank, I manage to drag it back to the shop without dropping it on my foot. The chap from the shop is nowhere to be found. I call out. No reply.
After 15 minutes I finally give up, propping the gear up against a wall, and wander back to my hotel, marvelling that a shop full of such expensive equipment would be left totally unattended in the middle of the day.
But as I look at the few Western tourists I pass on the way home, I see that the slightly dazed feeling I had on the lake is written all over their faces too. Of course they wouldn’t steal from Pokhara – she has them caught in her spell, too.