(For now I have skipped the account of the trek from Tatopani to Ghorepani. There were many Korean tourists at Poon Hill. Trekking to Ghorepani seems to be popular in the winter, even pre-rhododendron bloom. We did see a few rhododendrons blooming near Tadopani, strangely, not the lowest elevation rhododendrons.)

Starting at Ghorepani, it rained on and off for three days. There were views of Annapurna South and Fishtail, mostly in the morning. We took a layover day at Chomrong, then started hiking to Dovan. The reports from people coming back from Annapurna Sanctuary were of a couple of feet of snow. Lal said that in contrast to Thorung La, the trail to the sanctuary was rocky, slippery, and the snow would hide crevices. I wasn’t enthusiastic about having to dry my boots at night with a kerosene heater. A Swiss guy at Chomrong said when he was at Annapurna Base Camp, he got sick, but he didn’t know if it was from the altitude or the kerosene. The food on the way to the sanctuary is at best good, not excellent, and there is nothing cultural of interest. Plus, it seemed objectionable to backtrack for two days only to see the same peaks I had already seen from at least two other angles. We turned around at Dovan. I might have had some regret or lingering sense of defeat at not making it to the sanctuary, but the next day on the way to Pothana it rained steadily for 18-20 hours, likely corresponding to several feet more of new snow in the sanctuary.

Lal had suggested a “cultural trek” to Panchase Danda. The route left the popular route for the sanctuary at Kande, where it crossed the road. What an immediate difference! Way fewer people, no porters, no intense tourist economy. On the popular routes, every fifteen minutes you run in to gangs of porters carrying supplies for the lodges, pots and pans, sundries, construction material.

I worry about mentioning Panchase Danda. It was perhaps the high point of the trip, and it is in danger of development.

7 February 2013

At Bhadaure we took a lunch break at the View Point Guest House. It was on top of a building with 360 degree view. Lal bought a 650 ml bottle of San Miguel Pale Pilsen. He noticed a hole in the toe of my left sock, took out his kit, and mended it. There were dozens of vultures soaring around. For some reason he cooked the food that I ordered.

At a place where Lal left his pack on the trail to poop, a French Swiss couple caught up with us. I thought he was her guide. We ascended a ridge, then ascended along the ridge. The couple waited for us at a junction where they were unsure of the way. Lal spotted some pheasants that I only got a glimpse of. The trail opens up to pleasant buffalo pastures here and there along the ridge. Being on a ridge, there are few sources of water other than muddy ponds.

My immediate impression of the Happy Heart Hotel was of a lost paradise ala James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. The stone steps, stone walls around rolling pasture, stone paved roads, and stone buildings artfully blend together. My room has earth walls, wooden shutters, a couple of framed pictures, shelves of thin bamboo with a vase of artificial flowers, a woven ceiling to hide the corrugated metal roof, faux wood linoleum over the cement floor. Showers here are with the bucket system. There are lights and switches in the room, but they don’t work. A couple of lights in the kitchen do work, from solar.

In the kitchen sitting around the stove were three Nepali women (evidently the three sisters mentioned in the sign on the toilet door saying to clean the toilet with water), Lal, the French Swiss couple, and another couple from Denmark. In an adjacent room an older white guy sat by another fire under kettles of rakshi. I said to Lal maybe we will stay here another day; the youngest sister Maya replied, you can stay here the rest of your life. Then she said it to Lal in Nepali, who reported it to me.

The guy from Denmark said he knows someone making a documentary of someone who lost a leg to frostbite on the Annapurna circuit.

There is no menu system here. Everyone had dal bhat for dinner. After dinner I helped the middle sister shell some small beans; I noticed a bandage on her hand. She said it was an infection. None of the guests had medical training. I gave her the rest of my ciprofloxacin, and the French Swiss guy gave her some essential oil that was a completely natural remedy. He seemed very sure it would help. When I saw her hand unbandaged, it looked like a large blister had drained. Cipro is not the antibiotic recommended by Bezruchka & Lyons for small wound infections. I hoped I wasn’t making a mistake by giving it to her.

I awoke to a stupendous view of the Annapurna range including Manaslu poking above the ridge. To the left of Annapurna South, the view of Dhaulagiri is blocked by the local mountain. At breakfast I watched the sister with the bandaged hand make chapati. After kneading the dough with one hand, a thin patty of dough is first fried in a pan, then rested over hot coals for a few seconds until it puffs up, leaning against but not grasped by tongs, one end in the ash. The white guy was in the adjacent room sitting in front of the burner making droning humming sounds. Another older white guy offered to wash the hair of the woman with the bandaged hand.

After breakfast Lal and I headed up the trail to the top of Panchase Danda, about an hour of stone steps. I took pictures of some orchids on mossy gnarled branches. The Swiss French couple were at the pavilion at the top, where the view of the Annapurna range was complete, including Dhaulagiri. The top of Panchase Danda is way more pleasant than Poon Hill, and the view, which includes Pokhara and valleys north, is better in my opinion.

There are a couple of peaks past the lookout pavilion; one has a (closed) lodge and a shrine, and on the last one there are some stone ruins. Lal hung around the Buddhist shrine while I investigated the further peaks. When I returned he said he had caught sight of a member of the weasel family, not a mongoose, maybe a marten. He said that martens kill deer by dropping from a tree and biting the throat; he had witnessed that.

It was late morning when we returned. At a table in the sunlight the Danish couple were sitting with the white guy who had been tending the rakshi, who is from Canada. He was wearing high tech gear: nylon shirt with zip off sleeves and pants with zippers down the lower legs. He had a spiral note book and asked the Danish guy questions about how he came to Panchase Danda. He started talking about yoga. I sat nearby on a stone bench built into the wall. The Danish guy was smoking cigarettes. The Canadian said that all the mountains of the Annapurna range are named after female deities. What happened with the Greeks was, the rational aspect of yoga somehow descended on them; that is why our culture is so caught up in rationality. When the female priestesses were banned by the Greeks, everyone knew it was a mistake. Think about it: all the mountains of the Annapurna range are named after goddesses. In Canada there is only iPhones, but in the rural areas of Nepal people have no problem owning an iPhone and being into yoga. He had been to some temple with a crystal under a hole in the roof; you had get permission to enter, but once inside it was like being in golden light.

There is a dirt road that seems to end here, which didn’t exist fifteen years ago when Lal was last here. A motor scooter was the only vehicle parked. A young man arrived, shook hands with the three at the table, chatted for a moment, said he had been to a wedding of an uncle, had walked up the mountain. One of the sisters gave him a bottle of Coke. Several minutes later he drove the scooter away.

6:05 I went outside to use the toilet; Lamjung Himal and a bank of cumulus clouds were pink from the sunset. I rushed back to my room to fetch my iPad, but by the time I got back it was too late. The rooster that had been tied to a stake on the lawn had gotten loose; the rope around its leg was now wedged in a crack by the stairs by my room.

At dinner the other older white guy was seated by the fire, kind of quiet and smoking cigarettes. He was an artist who works in acrylics and very widely traveled. He has stayed on and off in Bhanjyang for the last six years. Another of his favorite places to go in Nepal is on a mountain between two lakes in Langtung. In response to a comment of mine he said, no, it’s not a paradise. There are no paradises. I replied that was just my impression.

The Canadian was in his usual spot making droning noises. Simon, the Dane, came in and asked for a candle; he cannot handle without a candle.

After dinner a large pot was put on the fire containing water, corn flour, and perhaps some veges. This was for the buffalo. The Canadian came in from the other room and began stirring it. Once he was feeding the buffalo, and the woman told him not to put the food down on the ground, because if the buffalo saw that people could see the food as they passed, she wouldn’t eat it.

I spoke with the Canadian for a few minutes after the others had gone to bed. In Canada, the natives have sacred sites that they ban non tribe members from; whereas in Nepal all sacred sites are open to anyone. In the western culture, the good part is interacting with nature is encouraged, but it is merely recreation. In Nepal whenever someone goes on a trek, it is really a pilgrimage. There are shrines that are pilgrimage sites on mountain tops everywhere, including Panchase Danda. He wants to convince someone in the Nepal government, who thinks western trekkers are not interested in the culture of Nepal, that trekking has deeper aspects. The person has a Phd, but the Phd is entirely an accomplishment of western thinking. The Canadian asked me about my attitude to culture, to pilgrimages.

There are plans by the local board to make Panchase Danda more like Poon Hill, with a toll booth, even a tram to the top.

It turns out he is married to one of the sisters. He was waiting for me to leave so he could lock up. Next morning I hung out and watched while he tended the rakshi. There is an upper pot nested on top of a lower, both are made of copper. Around the rim of the lower pot is a rag to seal in vapor. The upper pot contains cold water; the lower contains a mash consisting of water, fermented millet, and even dirt. Steam from the lower pot condenses on the bottom surface of the upper, which is in the shape of a shallow cone so that the rakshi condensate will run to the point and drip into a clay pot that is inside the lower copper pot.

When the water in the top pot gets hot, it is ladled off and more cold water is put in. This is done 3-6 times, then the rakshi is ready. The more times the water is changed, the less alcohol content. He had been to weddings where rakshi was served that had been prepared by Buddhist monks; it was so strong it was hard to drink. After the batch is done, the millet mash is fed to the buffalo. He said that the main economy in Bhanjyang is rakshi.

They pick some plant or little weed to use as the fermenting agent; it is mixed with the millet and allowed to ferment 2-5 months in plastic jugs. The longer it ferments, the stronger the rakshi.

He wants to get the message out to the tourism board, that trekking is pilgrimage. That is what the locals are doing, when they do their little chants or prayers, whether they know it or not.

There is still a tourist economy here, but it is way less intense than on the circuit and sanctuary trails. This is more a place for hippie trekkers; there are not so much the vibes of mindless alpinism and strenuous hiking goals.

After breakfast I shouldered my pack and said bye bye to Maya and the woman with the bandaged hand. As I turned to leave Maya yelled something. Lal translated: Gary is going to Bhumdi also. So that is his name. Lal didn’t know he worked at the Happy Heart, was married to one of the sisters. He thinks to the older one. The one with the bandaged hand is not a blood relative to the other two, is a worker, but is just like a sister. Lal was last at the Happy Heart fifteen years ago. Maya was littler then (he held his hand out to indicate her height), and very sundar. But she never married.