Alright, I’m back in Australia now, but I suppose for coherency’s sake I should give a brief summary of Bangkok. Continue reading
I have left Australia for Thailand for what I’m sure will be one week of exploring, misadventure and general debauchery.
Due to an error in my working visa application – the Australian government informed me over the phone that I could enter the country on a tourist visa while my working visa was still pending, then two weeks later informed me this wasn’t the case and I would have to leave – I have fled to Thailand. The trip has cost me a solid half of my remaining savings, and means I will be returning to my idyllic outback farm with around £250 to my name. This is not ideal, and I am rather incensed at having been misinformed and forced to spend all my savings and vacate the country. But nobody ever got a puddle of milk back into the bottle by weeping over it. And so I am in Thailand, whether I like it or not, and I am going to make the most of this most irritating of detours.
I probably sound quite privileged and selfish, don’t I, moaning about having to travel to a pretty country with a throbbing backpacker scene. The reason is, I was growing very fond of my little farm and the friendships that were blossoming there. I was enjoying my slow transformation from a weary old seen-it-all city bastard into a healthy and cheerful farmer. Bangkok feels like a large step backwards. But again, I’m here now, and there’s nothing else for it.
My first impressions of the city could be summarised best by a long, slow emptying of the lungs. I never wanted to visit Thailand, for the simple reason that everyone does. I had a stereotype in my head of what it would be like here, and lo, upon arriving at my hostel at 2am after a delightful 20 hours of transit, the first conversation I overheard was two American frat bros talking about how they got into a knife fight outside a brothel and how they hate anti-gun liberals and how badly they both want to get laid. Sigh. Abandon all culture, all ye who enter here.
I’m staying at a self-proclaimed party hostel, due to its being the cheapest one I could find. I feel old. I’m not sure when that happened, exactly, but at my ripe old age of 25 the idea of fifteen sunburned men in neon vests screaming at red beer pong cups, whirlpooling around one or two English girls clad in arse-cheek pinching shorts seems rather bland. Give me a gloomy bar and a weird old man to chat to any day.
I just really dislike the idea that people travel halfway around the world to a country with a fascinating new culture, and all they want to do is shag about and get pissed. It’s not my idea of fun and never has been. I’m partial to a beer, if you’ve read literally anything I’ve ever written you’ll have picked that up, but I prefer alcohol as an accessory to silly adventures and a lowerer of inhibitions that enables people to reveal their true selves without weeks of getting-to-know-you chatter. I loathe the muscle bound, tribal tattooed masses with their chest beating and arse-grabbing.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. I’ve barely been here one day. I’m going to try and make the most of it. I’m heading out now to wander the streets all on me bill, and perhaps I’ll find something to love about this place. Or perhaps I’ll just sink a couple of those buckets you hear about and stop being such a moany pretentious wanker and end up dancing with my top off in some ping pong show ladyboy frat bro fuckhead dancefloor.
Truly, it could go either way.
I am changing. I am changing, I can feel it, and not only that but I can feel it’s a change for the better.
I’ve been a very bad person for the last couple of years of my life. I’ve done things I’d be embarrassed to write here, that I’d be afraid to admit to strangers for fear of judgement. I’ve been selfish and stupid and confused, and in trying to right previous mistakes I’ve made dozens more. A large part of is a result of cowardice and dishonesty. I won’t contextualise, I won’t make excuses. I have been a coward, and I have been dishonest. That’s all that matters.
Living as I have for the past three weeks in the Australian outback has given me hope for my own future. With no strings remaining to unatonable sins from the past, I am finally free to consider myself a worthwhile person again. I am able to like myself for the first time in two years, because I am not hurting anybody anymore, and consequently I am no longer ashamed of my life.
The weeks at the hostel have passed quietly, peacefully, joyfully. My working visa isn’t yet granted due to an error in my application, and so I have been unable to work. During the day, the hostel empties as all cars and pickups in the drive head out to the fields to pick blueberries. I spend the silent mornings cooking breakfast, lifting weights, writing my book, playing guitar, reading, sunbathing, or listening to music. The internet at the property ran out a week ago, and since then we’ve been almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world. No news, no social media, nothing. The occasional message to family is all I’ve used my phone for. It is so very quiet. It is so very beautiful.
I have immersed myself in farm work to ease the days along. Years working behind a desk and drinking to excess has made me lazy. But I feel awake out here in nature. Somebody calls out that we need firewood, I take an axe outside and cut logs into small pieces until I get blisters. Somebody tells me the pigs need to be fed, I grab a bucket and a sack of pig pellets. Somebody mentions that the mound of manure out the back needs moving, I find a wheelbarrow. A shed needs tearing down, I grab a hammer.
There is astonishing clarity to be found from immersing yourself in dirty, simple, honest work. When I am outside, sweating through some repetitive task in the sunshine, my brain, whose overactivity is the bane of my life, suddenly becomes quiet. I become fixated with the present moment, with my sole, simple goal; I am not concerned with past sorrows or future fears, only the task at hand.
My palms, my forearms and my legs are coated in cuts and bruises. I like it. My clothes are mucky and hang off me; gone are the tight fitting tees of 2015, gone are the drab black garbs of Berlin. Last weekend I picked up a bundle of free work shirts from outside the local charity shop one sunny Saturday. They are practical and comfortable and all I need. And every evening I sleep soundly, satisfied that the firewood I cut up that afternoon is keeping everybody warm in the living room.
Weekends are spent in a haze of cheap wine; you can get five litres for nine dollars from the nearest town, an hour away. We lounge together on the grass, twenty or thirty backpackers, music playing, and the farm dogs lay between us. We have all arrived with equally colourful and fucked up life stories, yet the laughter never stops. Two hundred miles from civilisation, adults discover that they never quite grew up, not really. Despite all our years of experience, all the wisdom, out here on the farm everything is as it was at eight years old. Friendships are born, relationships spark and fizzle or burn out, rivalries form, alliances are made.
Arguments have broken out several times as personalities jostle and clash and vie for position at the top of the chain. I stay away from social politics. It bores me. Let the angrier boys and girls yell at one another until they’re blue in the face; I’d rather sit with Ben and Seth and chat shit together in the afternoon warmth, sipping sweet white wine out of chipped white mugs.
I’m not thinking about the future. I have barely eight hundred pounds to my name now, and until I start working, dreaming of the future is a luxury I can’t afford. The past still rears its head most days, whether it’s in the form of a familiar song or a stumbled-upon photograph, and it still hurts the same as it always has, but I’m not afraid to look back anymore. After years of hating myself, three weeks on a farm on the far side of the world has helped me to see that I am not a bad person who occasionally does good things, but a decent human being who has made mistakes. And from this point onward in my life, starting everything anew, I am going to be honest, and I am going to be brave, and I am going to channel all my efforts into becoming the man I was meant to be. Somebody I can be proud of.
My god, how everything has changed. You just never see these things coming. Continue reading
After the hitchhiking miracle and the rooftop piss-up, I explored Hiroshima.
So, the second day of hitchhiking began. But first: a couple of paragraphs of angsty millennial dross! Continue reading
I’ve been in Japan for two weeks now, and good heavens it has been wonderful. See, in India and Nepal there was a lot of soul searching and loneliness, there were a lot of challenging sights and situations, and there was a considerable amount of homesickness and general lamenting. That’s not to say India and Nepal weren’t fantastic, exhilarating experiences; they absolutely were, but alongside the majestic highs there was an equal number of explosive lows – especially in India. But Japan? Boy oh boy, Japan is golden. Continue reading
Right, so I’m in Japan. It wasn’t meant to be a part of my trip; I was supposed to fly from India to Australia and live there for a year. But life is weird, and instead of a flight to Melbourne I whizzed over to Kathmandu, wandered around in the Himalayas for a bit, and now for some reason I find myself here, in the Land of the Rising Sun. And it’s fucking wicked.
After a 5 hour delayed layover in Kuala Lumpur (GORGEOUS airport), I flew into Osaka on the 26th of May, and my god. As soon as you land you know where you are; cartoon characters guide you through the airport. A giant Mario beamed at me as I passed through immigration. I hopped on a train into the city, and the fact that for once I didn’t feel overwhelmed and bewildered told me that I was growing accustomed to this nomadic whatevery that has been my life since the beginning of March.
I took a few different trains, amazed at their efficiency and their cleanliness. I’m definitely not in Berlin anymore. I found my hostel easy enough, Hostel Ebisutei, and arrived there stinky and knackered. It was a world away from the standard ramshackle hostels you experience on your usual South East Asia trips; this place looked more like Alt J’s private recording studio than a place for cheap-arse travellers to crash. The owner is Daich, a flat cap-clad Osaka local who is extremely generous when it comes to plumb sake.
On my first night I made a few friends and we hit up a cool Japanese bar or two, and I found myself trashed before I knew it. I ended my first day in the city sitting in the hostel living room at 4am, drunkenly waxing lyrical about my frustrations with spiritualism and religion to two American girls who were on exchange in the city studying architecture and helping design a new tea house. Honestly, I talk some shit when I’m drunk. I woke up the next day and cringed at my pissed-up philosophising. But hey ho.
The next day reality set in, and I wandered the city alone to find Osaka Castle. If you know me or have suffered through any of these weird diaries over the past three years or so, you’ll know that I am an emotionally volatile weirdo and my heart can soar or crash without warning. And so, as I wandered the streets of the alien city, I felt my spirits sink. It was just so different to anywhere I’d been in the past three months. It was just so clean and quiet and spacious that it felt fake, unreal; there were no cows in the road, and no masonry was crumbling around me, and there were no blasting horns, and the air wasn’t thick with fumes, and I felt uneasy; I suppose you could call it reverse culture shock.
Whenever I feel uncomfortable, my heart takes a nose dive – and always in the same direction. I miss home, I miss family, I miss friends… I miss a girl. I was wandering through a charming temple garden when this feeling of longing gripped my heart so hard that my legs almost buckled. What the hell was I doing on the far side of the world from everything and everyone I love, people I’d not spent proper time with in years? In a moment, all my wanderlust drained out of me, and I felt stupid and lost. I sat on some stone steps and watched people walk their dogs around the park, kids playing on swings, and could think of nothing to do but put my headphones in and listen to a song that summarises the feeling entirely: Despair in the Departure Lounge, by the Arctic Monkeys. Maybe it’s a bit corny, but it sums the feeling up better than I ever could. Here:
He’s pining for her, in a people carrier
There might be buildings and pretty things to see like that, but architecture won’t do
Although it might say a lot about the city or town
I don’t care what they’ve got, keep on turning ’em down
It don’t say the funny things she does
Don’t even try and cheer him up because… it just won’t happen
He’s got the feeling again, this time on the aeroplane
There might be tellies in the back of the seats in front, but Rodney and Del won’t do
Although it might take your mind off the aches and the pains
Laugh when he falls through the bar but you’re feeling the same
‘Cause she isn’t there to hold your hand
And she won’t be waiting for you when you land
And it feels like she’s just nowhere near
You could well be out on your ear
This thought comes closely followed by the fear
And the thought of it makes you feel a bit… ill
Yesterday, I saw a girl who looked like someone you might knock about with
And almost shouted
And then reality kicked in within us, it seems as we become the winners
You lose a bit of summat… and half wonder if you won it at all
As the last few chords rang out I felt my melancholy dissipate. Sometimes all you need is to feel like someone understands. That’s what music is to me, man. It’s being understood. There was nobody around to tell me to keep my chin up and that everything would be okay, so I told myself to keep my chin up, and I told myself that everything would be okay. I stood up, took a deep breath, and carried on to the castle.
The castle was perfectly lovely, and upon following the sounds of screaming violence that filled one corner of the complex I was delighted to find a large ornate hall in which young Japanese men and women were beating each other with very large bamboo swords. It was a competition, as far as I understood, and the sport is Kendo; a samurai-esque combat sport but with less limb-severing than in the good old days. I stood in the hall for some time, grinning from ear to ear watching shrieking young men thwack each other silly with bits of wood.
I drifted back to the hostel after, and didn’t do very much with the rest of my evening. I was invited for beers by a burly, hairy American named Yan, but I politely declined because he seemed ever so slightly mad and also he dropped the beefiest farts incessantly in the dorm, which made me furious in a very English ‘tut-increasingly-loudly’ way. I wandered the streets alone for an hour, ate a guilty McDonalds because I wanted something familiar, and went to sleep in my quaint little Japanese bed cubicle coffin thing.
The next morning, everything began to change. I showered, dressed (I don’t know why I bothered to write that because everybody showers and dresses every day and I’m just wasting words (this is also wasting words (so is this (CHRIST)))) and in the common area met a 22 year old Russian girl named Anastasiia. She has a shaved head and a calligraphic tattoo on her cheek that reads ‘art’ that I first misread as ‘arse’. Alongside Daich, I now had two proper friends in Japan, and I felt happy. At times it feels like somebody is smiling down on me. At my lowest moments, something always comes along.
I checked out of Daich’s place and moved a kilometre away to somewhere I’d booked the previous night, Backstage Osaka, because I’d read that it was a decent place to meet other travellers. That turned out to be a fallacy, because it’s the low season and the hostel was almost dead, however I did befriend two cool dudes who worked there named Ryan (England) and Daniel (Spain). They taught me about the culture, where to eat for cheap, and which booze to drink if I wanted to avoid setting my wallet aflame.
I spent a few evenings in a row with Anastasiia and a Taiwanese guy called Luke down by the river in Dotonbori, which is Osaka’s neon-soaked answer to Times Square – another strange epicentre of ultra-capitalism that has somehow fooled us all into believing that enough flashing adverts all side by side can transcend soulless consumerism and become art. But whatever – I’ll drop my faux-intellectual pretensions and admit that it is very pretty down there, and a lovely place to spend a few hours drinking wine and watching the lights dance off the calm waters.
Anastasiia – hereafter ‘Ana’, because I can’t be arsed typing her full name – busks to fund her travels. She found no luck on the streets and bridges of Osaka, and so in defeat we got drunk by the river’s edge and passed the guitar around. A Korean couple joined us, as well as a few local drunks, and we played and sang until the early hours of the morning, then stumbled away home to sleep.
On another night we climbed up to the rooftop of an apartment building to watch the city lights, then down on street level we browsed the myriad sex shops and laughed at the jaw-dropping range of fetish DVDs on offer. I find that Japan, like pretty much every country I’ve visited ever, is rife with contradictions. The people here are kind, generous and respectful to a fault. It’s considered rude to eat in the street, talking on trains earns you a pack of rueful stares, and crossing the road before the sign allows you is blasphemy – and yet gigantic anime tits bulge out at you from every available surface. Chewing your food in public is uncouth, yet throbbing cartoon breasts is a-ok? I do not yet understand.
I got my last rabies jab in Osaka, too. It was the 28th of May and 7 days since the bite, and in order to not die I needed to find a doctor and get needled and whatnot. Ryan from Backstage hostel gave me directions to one hospital that had patched him up previously, and I made my way there at 3pm. I translated a few phrases in Japanese (badly) on my phone before setting off – stuff like ‘I got chewed by a dog. I was on Nepal. I may have some rabies.’ The only English-speaking member of staff actually laughed at me when I showed her my note and – at this point can I just say that literally everyone has laughed when I told them I got mauled by a dog, even my mum. Why? Why god? Why does nobody take my potential death seriously, in any way, shape or form?
But whatever. I got sent to another hospital across the city which shut at 5pm, which made it a bit of a hectic jaunt over there because for all I knew if I didn’t get the injection that day I’d turn rabid and explode in a couple of weeks’ time. I made it to the place okay though and was left sitting in a waiting room watching sumo wrestling for a little while, then swiftly shanked, pumped full of life-saving juices, charged a hundred bastard quid and sent on my way.
I visited Nara one day too, which is an hour’s train ride from Osaka. There is a fuck ton of deer there, and you can buy biscuits to feed them. They all bow to you when requesting a biscuit, which is odd. I am unsure as to how the many thousands of deer that inhabit Nara park all learned to bow, but bow they do, and people bow back to them. I mooched off on my own to get away from the throng of school trip kids, and had a quiet word with one of the deer that I found lounging in the shade. I sat next to it and it nodded at me, and I shook my head and told it not to worry about pleasantries. I gave it a few biscuits but was forced to flee when fifteen other deer noticed and trotted over all bowing frantically.
I saw a very big Buddha statue in Nara, inside the world’s largest wooden structure, which is very impressive and nice and good and – look, I’ve always been shit at describing architecture. Just google it if you’re that curious. Otherwise, just imagine a wooden Japanese temple except really fucking big. I sat outside the place for ten minutes or so watching the school trips flow around the grounds, and reflected on how no matter where you are in the world, teenagers are really quite hideous and gangly. I am glad puberty is behind me.
Japan has been wonderful so far, and I can’t wait to dash to and fro across its beautiful, mad landscape.
I was a very bad traveller in Nepal. I saw Kathmandu and Pokhara and did a 5 day trek in the Himalayas and that’s… that’s it. The rest of the time was spent eating and drinking, socialising and relaxing. But that’s not to say I didn’t have an adventure or two.
[This is quite a long one. But you’re gunna fuckin’ love it.]
I woke up grumpy at 5.30am because it had been somehow freezing cold yet sweaty in the foisty cabin, and also because Alex had decided the night before that she wanted to alter our plan and sleep at Annapurna Base Camp itself (ABC) rather than our intended spot, Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC). ABC is some 300 metres higher, and my fear of altitude sickness and general death was making me quite moody.
I ate two slices of toast because I was skint, and we began our climb – now with James in tow as well. James’s presence gave me a boost, because now I was trekking with somebody who would actually reply to me when I asked a question. My vertigo from the previous evening had disappeared; I’d spent an hour the night before forcing myself to stare at the mountains in order to fight away the feeling of discomfort and nausea they brewed in my bones.
In reasonable spirits then, we set off, passing a nearby cave on our craggy ascent, eventually leaving the treeline far behind. It is shocking how quickly you rise up – you look forward and climb a higgledy-piggledy staircase, then you glance back and see the hamlet you passed through moments before is now a speck far below. At each stage of the trek, hikers walking back the other direction promised us that there weren’t many more sections of steep path left – oh, how we were lied to. We wound higher and higher up into the valley; up into the clouds.
We crested the brow of a small hill after a couple of hours, and suddenly the valley opened up to us. Gone was the claustrophobia that had rattled me in the hamlet of Himalaya; in a heartbeat the valley became a kilometre wide; yawning, stretching like a waking snow leopard, flexing muscles and showing off the nonchalance with which it could murder you. We passed the sources of the river, tumbling waterfalls that cascaded down from the heavens on all sides, forming what would become the frothing milky rapids we passed two days before.
There had been an avalanche in the night – a section of the path was blocked. It doesn’t change a thing up in the mountains though. There’s nobody around to ask for permission; the only thing to do is keep going. I gingerly took the first step onto the bank of crushed ice and teetered over it to re-join the trail. We crossed bamboo bridges over streams, and wobbled from rock to rock along the top of slippery waterfalls. We slogged up to MBC, meeting two English brothers along the way who were taking photos of every hiker attempting to reach the Base Camp that day. They took our photos, and the five of us sat to eat lunch at Machhapuchhre Base Camp, at an altitude of 3700 metres.
I wasn’t sure if I could feel the altitude yet. A couple of the guys were complaining of feeling weird or having headaches. When it comes to my health I never give my body the benefit of the doubt – seems the safest thing to do – and so of course I was convinced that I was going to collapse at the top, gasping for air. I’ve never been at altitude before, and you don’t know how it’s going to affect you until you go there. But I seemed to be fine, which arguably made me more worried.
We ate a huge lunch of dal bhat beneath the horrifying mountain Machhapuchhre, or Fish Tail, which has never been summited due to the locals believing it to be sacred. The unbeaten mountain looks like a dagger aimed at the sky, every slope ragged and jagged and hostile and grim. It rose so far into the sky that it seemed to be curling over us, the peak dangling above our heads like the sword of Damocles. Photographs don’t do it justice, words don’t do it justice. If you want to see it, you have to earn it. You have to go there and stand before it and allow yourself to be humbled into dust.
We finished our lunch and began the final two kilometres. Despite all the hostile adjectives I’ve been using to describe the mountains, I was in an optimistic and determined mood. One of the English brothers was struggling for breath as we began our walk; atonement for a youth spent smoking cigarettes. We kept stopping for him and taking breaks as we struggled up the hill, and it was a difficult final march but one thing that kept us going was the ever expanding mountain range that we were crawling up into the centre of.
The Annapurna range is nine mountains, all conjoined, all seven or eight thousand metres high, that reside in a natural amphitheatre at the end of the valley. The path curls around and brings you up into the centre, and every step towards Annapurna Base Camp brings ever more beauty into view as you rise above the boulders and hills. One kilometre away from our destination, I found myself surrounded in every direction by the highest mountains on the planet, and it stunned me into quiet laughter. As we climbed and our group made ever-slower progress, I told them I was going to walk ahead alone.
I don’t want to seem uncaring, but at some point you have to look after yourself first. I didn’t know these people, I was trekking for myself and myself alone, and I wanted to experience the mountains in isolation for a time. So I stopped taking breaks and pushed on up the path, enjoying the feeling of powerlessness and humility, feeling like a slave thrown into a coliseum of glaring ancient gods.
I could see the Base Camp now, a small collection of buildings a kilometre ahead now the path had levelled out. No more climbing; all that was necessary was to move one blistered foot in front of the other. My pace quickened and I stripped down to a t-shirt as my body heat rose despite the single-digit temperatures. I put my headphones in and played music to motivate myself. I chucked on a few gym-like tunes, Fuckin’ in the Bushes by Oasis, that sort of thing, and then for some reason I played the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, which made me laugh because the whole thing suddenly seemed absolutely absurd and whimsical.
I was practically running to the Base Camp, leaving everybody else behind to the point where the boulders obscured them, and I felt fucking amazing; it hit me that my fears never came to fruition – I was not short on breath at all! My lungs worked perfectly and for the first time in so long I remembered how young and healthy I really am, and I was coping the best out of everyone after being the most afraid, and I chuckled aloud as I jumped rock to rock over clear water creeks. I felt like the most vital and fit and youthful soul in the world – of course I can hike the Himalayas, what a silly thing to fear! I no longer felt like an alien in a hostile environment; I felt happy to be on that mountainside surrounded by snow and thin air and the strange guinea pig creatures that scurried around in the undergrowth.
In short… I liked myself, man. As I drew into the Annapurna Base Camp and the sign with yellow writing greeted me ‘NAMASTE!’, I found something in myself to be really, truly proud of. It’s been a long time since I felt that way.
That night James and Alex and I slept in a rickety little shitpiece of a cabin which was tacked onto the kitchen, meaning we had to walk through the pots and pans to reach it, and when lying in bed in our windswept cabin at night I had no choice but to stare straight out at the staff frying onions and rolling dough. I took an altitude sickness pill before bed, as I felt wrong. It’s hard to explain exactly how it felt, because it’s not an issue you normally come across, is it, not having enough air to breathe? I had a mild headache and my stomach felt weird, and I got out of breath from merely standing up or putting my socks on or eating a biscuit, and I just really didn’t want to hang around at that height a second longer than necessary.
The next morning we got up around 6am for the third day running and ate a meagre breakfast, because it costs the earth up there. And then we began the descent. And for this section of the diary entry I’d like to break with the format I’ve been using so far and do a big massive Wes Anderson style title card:
There we go. Well, here’s the thing about the descent down Annapurna: it was fucking easy and fantastic. I loved every second of the first four hours, so joyful and rejuvenated was I. There’s a brilliant scene in Jack Kerouac’s book Dharma Bums when, having scrambled up to the top of Matterhorn Peak in California with Gary Snyder, Jack fails to make it the last hundred metres to the top – it’s too high, the air is too thin, and he panics and freezes while Gary summits. And as Jack lies there panting, he sees Gary running back down the slope towards him – running – and Jack grows giddy and energised as he joins Gary in sprinting back down, yelling all the way ‘You can’t fall off a mountain! You can’t fall off a mountain!’
I never really knew what that meant, but having made the descent down some 2000 metres in a few hours, I completely understand the euphoria and elation that comes from knowing that the climb is over. No more heights, no more uncertainty awaits you. You know the route back home, you can visualise every step of the way, and as you wind lower and lower the air gets thicker and fills your lungs, your headache passes away, and you can finally talk and laugh and sing as you walk again. And it was going to be my birthday in two days! We had begun the previous evening to talk of changing the plan; of being home on the 13th rather than the day after. That suited me perfectly – I’d have a day to relax before I turned 25! Oh, everything looked so wonderful and rosy that morning.
I flew down ahead of Alex and James as they hobbled along at a snail’s pace and told them we’d meet up at Bamboo, a village some 10km ahead. I saluted goodbye to the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen in my life, and left the snow-clad sky theatre behind. And as James and Alex disappeared behind the hills and boulders I hopped over, I was completely alone once more, and the feeling hit me like a chubby line of Pablo’s finest. I whipped off my top, sweating already in the morning sun, and put my headphones in. Every song sounded incredible set against the backdrop of the planet’s most revered mountain range, and the feeling of total isolation made me feel dizzyingly free.
I cranked up my music – Cowboy Song by Thin Lizzy, Welcome to the Pleasuredome by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and of course That’s Where You’re Wrong by my darling Arctic Monkeys – everything sounded fantastic, and I was going down, down, at a rate of knots. I was dancing and singing my way, chest out to the sun, encouraging every climber I passed that although the trial is hard the beauty at the top is worth it. The waterfalls that I tiptoed over only 24 hours earlier I now skipped across like a mountain goat, not a care in the world. I was going down! Take me down to the paradise city, where the air is thick and the food’s not shitty! My birthday lay at the bottom, and beer and dancing and delicious food! Down was Shangri La; down was everything I wanted in the whole wide world, and I was dancing towards it gibbering mad with elation.
We covered 25km that day, jolly throughout, all the way back to Chhomrong – which meant we had to scale 1700 stone steps – a vertical kilometre – after trekking for 8 hours already. It busted my knees up pretty good and nearly exploded my heart, but no matter. We stayed over at a little old lady’s guest house – her name was Sugar Mama – and she gave us delicious vegetable curry and chocolate cake, and we took showers for the first time since setting off.
That night at Sugar Mama’s place we made a new friend, Claire, from Glasgow, and the next morning the four of us set out together. I got my comeuppance for all my giddy running ahead when, having arrived before the others at a hamlet called New Bridge, I waited for over an hour and found that nobody was arriving. I asked a few trekkers if they’d seen my friends. All said no. Then, with a monstrous sigh, I realised that my fellow trekkers had taken a wrong turn, and I was alone on the mountain.
I checked my wallet and found 150 rupees left – about one pound. I asked a local man which way to the buses, and he told me they were all striking, as were the jeeps. It was at this point that I had to try not to cry, finding myself alone in the sodding Himalayas with a single quid on me, only a few hours of daylight left, no friends, no working phone, and no idea in which direction to head. But I got a grip of myself. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy rule number one: Don’t Panic.
I waited around, cursing the names of my friends, and eventually joined a couple of hikers that passed through New Bridge, Ash from India and Egly from Brazil. We walked another 10km together, which pretty much ripped the muscle on my right knee in half, and found a dirt road. We trekked along it for hours with a friendly stray dog we named Pokhara, until we finally we managed to hitch a lift back to Pokhara from a jeep full of drunken Nepali bankers thanks to Elgy leaping in front of the car and planting her hiking pole in the ground like Gandalf before the Balrog.
The drunken bankers took us all the way back to Pokhara for free, and we stopped off for drinks and snacks with them on the way. I was wreathed with ecstasy to be free of the sodding mountains which had oscillated for the past five days between awe-inspiring mentors and, to be frank, massive wankers.
I did learn one thing on my trek, though. At the end of the second day, when my legs were hurting and Alex was short of breath again and we admitted to each other that we would much rather be back in Pokhara than slogging up Annapurna in the mid-afternoon drizzle, it hit me that there was nothing else we could do but press on. Going back would mean a two day trek anyway, with no achievement to speak of at the end of it. There was no shortcut to take, no smart-alec tactic to employ to make things easier, no cheating possible. The only thing that we could do on that mountain, when things were tooth-grindingly difficult, was push on. Sometimes in our lives and the choices we make, there is no easy road at all. Sometimes we go through shit, and we realise we’re not as tough or as smart as we thought we were, and there’s not a single thing we can do to ease the pain.
Sometimes the only thing to do is set your jaw, roll up your sleeves, and crack on.