BILLI BIERLING in MANANG
From Issue #308 (28 July 06 - 03 August 06)
"How much rain did we see in the past two weeks?" I asked my trekking partner, Sam Voolstra, who came walking with me to the Annapurnas during this year's monsoon season.
"I would say about one or two hours at the most," the marketing director of the Last Resort in Kathmandu replied. On this instance the skies suddenly opened and drenched us for the last few hours of our two-week trek which took us from Besi Sahar to Jomsom via Manang.
As both Sam and I are usually busy during the tourist season we decided to visit Nar and Phu in the remote area north of Manang, during the monsoon.
Everybody thought we were mad to go trekking in July, but we were well prepared for the onslaught of leeches and lots of rain. We were armed with salt and special leech oil, and umbrellas, which we eventually gave away as we hardly had any rain and did not see a single leech.
"And the best thing was that we did not see many tourists, no leeches, no people," Sam said.
From Besi Sahar we made our way along the Annapurna Circuit, which is normally teeming with people. According to ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project), 36.224 trekkers visited the region in 2005. The highest-ever figure is 75,000 in 2001/1. On our trek we only came across four tourists. We had the big lodges absolutely to ourselves.
By the time we were in the trans-Himalayan Manang Valley we were basking in sunshine all the time. From the village of Phu (3,761m) we admired snow-covered peaks, like the 6,981m Kanguru towering above us.
As Phu is relatively new to the tourism business it does not have many facilities. But there are some ambitious young people who want to improve the lives of the villagers inhabiting the 30 houses there. "After finishing my studies in Kathmandu I want to come back here and open a hotel and a restaurant," said 21-year-old Sonam Lama, who grew up in Phu.
After our detour to Nar and Phu we crossed Kang La (5,240m) to rejoin the main trail of the Annapurna Circuit. Manang itself felt like a ghost town, but the views of Annapurna II and Gangapurna to the south were stunning.
After a rest day in Manang we headed towards the Thorong La which, at 5,416m, is the highest trekking pass in the world. Finding a porter for the crossing proved rather difficult as most youngsters were busy playing football.
Even though most people here don't have TV they still knew exactly what was happening in the World Cup. Football fever gripped the whole nation and no matter how high or remote the village, everybody seemed to be kicking a ball.
We eventually managed to find a young man, who happily put down his 70kg load of wood to exchange it for our ridiculously light bag of about 15kg.
"This is better than carrying planks of wood from Manang to Yak Kharka. We are extending our lodge there and the wood needs to be brought up," said Suman, who works as a chef during the season.
Instead of sharing the path with hundreds of other trekkers on Thorong la. we only saw three watch-sellers, who were desperately looking for customers. In Muktinath on the other side we were taken aback by the size of the teahouses and the food available on their menus. Once again we were the only guests to stay in the Bob Marley lodge with its gaudy decoration and huge dining hall.
"During the season this place, which sleeps 65 people, is normally booked up by lunch and sometimes we get up to 100 people for dinner," said Karma C Gurung who runs the Marley lodge and learnt his culinary skills in Sydney.
The only stretch we got rained on was the last bit before Jomsom, but due to the high altitude there were no leech attacks. Once in Jomsom, another deserted town during the monsoon, we did not encounter any problems purchasing a plane ticket. The clouds lifted early the next morning and we got the first flight back to Pokhara- where we landed in a heavy monsoon shower