Japan: Hitchin’ A Ride

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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

Japan: Cartoon Tits and Headbanging Deer

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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.

Nepal: Annapurna Base Camp, Days 3-5

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:

THE DESCENT

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.

Nepal: Annapurna Base Camp Trek – Day 2

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That first night was rough. After the tears-and-hugs chat with Alex over dinner, I finished my beer staring at the black-cliffed behemoth looming above us, and climbed into bed. I didn’t sleep well; I kept having nightmares that I was sliding off the mountain and down into the eternal valley below. At 2am I woke up, fresh out of a bad dream, and lay awake staring around me at the wooden ceiling and white plaster walls, thinking about how odd it felt to be halfway up the Himalayas without anybody guiding me. Totally alone, nobody in charge telling what to do. I barely had to tell anybody I was going – you buy a permit and you’re off. Things here are not like at home. Continue reading

Nepal: Annapurna Base Camp Trek – Day 1

Alright. I went trekking. Let’s get into it.

The day before our adventure began, my new little gang of Colombian Samy, Aussie Alex, Israeli Jonathon and Swedish Pontus spent a long, lazy afternoon smoking hash and drinking beer in the lakeside sunshine that drenches Pokhara, hippy paradise. I smoked a bit too much and drank way too much, and ended the day hurling my guts up into a hostel sink, clogging it, and having to scoop out handfuls of vomit to clean the drain. It was not glamorous.

It was supposed to be me, Colombian Samy and Aussie Alex, but at 6am three alarms went off and only two bodies heaved themselves upright. Samy decided to stay behind because there was a rave he wanted to go to in a couple of days somewhere in the jungle. Alex and I ate breakfast and set off; Alex full of cold, me sleep deprived and sickly from loudly vomiting for hours the previous evening.

We got a taxi to the mountains; we planned to start the trek to Annapurna Base Camp from a town called New Bridge – Alex had done her homework far more than I, who had no gear and even less of an idea. I realised in the taxi that I’d even forgotten to buy sodding trousers. I’m that half-wit that you see in sub-zero temperatures in a pair of board shorts, apparently. I had some hiking boots Jonathon gave me for a tenner, a rented coat with a hood, and a single hiking pole. Beyond that, my backpack contained shampoo, toothbrush, one pair of boxers and maybe a spare t shirt or something. My wallet had 7000 rupees inside – about 45 quid. Suffice to say, I was ill prepared.

As our taxi wound out of Pokhara the clouds parted and above the encircling green hills we saw snowy peaks for the first time, miles and miles away, yet enormous enough that they still towered over us. For the first time since planning the trip, I felt nervous.

We arrived in Nayapul, and had a short row with the taxi driver because we agreed he would take us to New Bridge, a stop further along the trek, but the driver kept insisting that was where he had taken us – though the map said differently (it turns out that Nayapul literally means ‘new bridge’, so we were both kind of right). We hopped in a jeep that took us a couple of kilometres along the trek to a hamlet called Siwai, and our journey began proper.

We were in good spirits at the start, amazed to be so isolated in nature. My boots were snug and my body felt strong, and hiking through little Tibetan-style villages was a joy. I remarked to Alex that I’d always hoped somewhere like this truly existed, but never really believed it. But no, it’s all true: scattered mountain villages, stone huts with wooden doorframes, mules tethered in the yard and roosters wandering freely, high up the slopes of the Himalayan valleys.

We walked for miles and found New Bridge – our intended start point. We grabbed lunch, amiable in the afternoon sunshine, and gawped at the humid green mountains surrounding us, with the caramel river sloshing far below. I remember thinking at the time that it didn’t look too much like the Himalayas I was expecting; our journey so far had been much more vibrant and luscious. And so, in good spirits and making excellent time, we set off for Chhomrong, our destination for the evening. We were happy. And then everything went very fucking Chhom-wrong.

The village is some 2100 metres above sea level. We were already at a height of around 1500 at New Bridge – so we would have to ascend 600 metres, which is quite a lot. However, what we didn’t realise is that Chhomfuckingrong was situated on a different hill to us, which meant we had to first descend several hundred metres, and then bloody claw our way back up again. We’d smashed several kilometres in no time at all, and then we found ourselves at the foot of the longest, most crooked, steepest, most perilous staircase I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Stairway to heaven is a cool song but a useless phrase. Heaven wouldn’t have a fucking staircase leading up to it; it’d have an escalator or possibly a gilded lift, like the one Donald Trump has, although the elevator to the pearly gates wouldn’t smell like stale cigars and old man fart, which the ones in Trump Tower definitely do. What I’m getting at is this: the stairs went into the fucking clouds. This was going to be crap, but there was nothing else for it. I bought us a couple of horrible energy drinks in the last village, and with a joint groan we started up the mountain.

In case you think I’m just lazy and bullshitting, let it be known that the steps number somewhere in the thousands. THOUSANDS. Do you know what a hundred steps looks like? A hundred steps gets you maybe from the bottom to the top of a football stadium. Now imagine fucking THOUSANDS, you bastards. THOUSANDS. Do you know how many steps there are in the sodding Empire State Building? 1860. THOUSANDS.

[I am swearing a lot today aren’t I? Goodness me. I’m ever so sorry, old sport.]

Alex was having a hell of a job getting up the stairs. I was too, quietly hating life, but I had mentally prepared for the challenge and I’m fairly used to being in extreme discomfort due to a lifetime of gargantuan misjudgements and monstrous decisions. Alex, however, was ill before the trek, and still had a cough and cold, and her lungs were given her a rough time. I kept stopping at the top of each flight to wait for her as she wheezed and heaved herself up. The only help I could offer was the occasional joke or reassuring sentiment, but it did no good. We simply had to grind on.

Other countries really are not like the UK. Health and safety in the Himalayas just isn’t a thing. You don’t get a handrail on the death stairs; there is no safety net. You have a cruel incline before you, and a nightmarish empty expanse immediately behind you, cold stone slabs dropping away eagerly into the mist thousands of feet below. The river at this point is no longer visible; you have climbed too high. If you fall, there is nothing, and you will have a long time to ponder your mistake on the way down. And still the peak of the mountain eludes you.

If the first 10km of our journey took us three hours, the last 2km took about the same. I read the map to Alex when she asked how much further we had to go: 750 metres distance. 500 metres height. We passed a rabble of white mountain goats on the way up, balanced impossibly on grass verges and tree roots, yelling at each other and staring at us with their alien pupils. I was still chipper – at least outwardly – lying incessantly to Alex that the next flight was surely the last.

After setting off from Siwai at 10am, we made it to Chhomrong around 5 in the evening. We were barely speaking at that point; everything I said to Alex was met with aggressive silence. We got a couple of beds in the first mountainside lodge we passed, and found the dorm room to be Spartan and cold. I bought a victory beer and we sat to eat rice in the small communal area, surrounded by other, equally flush-faced trekkers, most of whom were far older.

As I sipped my beer and enjoyed the post-exercise endorphins, Alex looked at me with watery eyes. She told me she had made a mistake, bitten off more than she could chew, and she was going home the next morning. I had a heart attack of course, terrified of trekking the mountains alone, but gave her a hug and a smile, and slowly tried to calm her. I told her she’d done amazingly well, and I promised the next day would be easier, that the worst was done, and that we wouldn’t have to struggle as much as we had that day again on the trail. I believed it myself too at the time – I’d checked the elevation of the other hamlets we’d be stopping in and found them to be far gentler.

[SPOILERALERTIWASFUCKINGWRONG]

I told Alex to sleep on it, and went up alone onto the terrace to sit and look at the mountains. I sat in a plastic garden chair with my bare feet propped up on a railing, and sighed contentedly as I drank my beer. Perhaps the worst truly was over, and from here on out it would be okay. And then, as if the mountains had read my mind, the low-hanging clouds that had all day obscured their peaks dissipated, mists drifting away on the wind.

Unveiled before me were the furious black cliffs of Annapurna, the deadliest mountain on the planet. To the east was the fang-like monstrosity that is Machhapuchhre, a sheer screaming spear into the clouds that has never been summited. They were at least 10 kilometres in the distance as the crow flies, but still their soaring spires loomed higher than the evening moon.

For every 100 safe returns, there are 34 deaths on the slopes of Annapurna. If you are going to try to summit, you have a one in three chance of dying. One in three. Your odds of survival are better playing Russian Roulette. Fortunately I wasn’t going to be attempting the peak, only base camp – but even then, there are 4 or 5 deaths a year just on the base camp trail. Earlier in the day, we passed a missing person poster for a woman who had disappeared on the mountain in February. I read the paper with my mouth agape.

The ferocity of those misty black cliffs is burned into my retinas forever. The sheer physicality, the weight, the mute, solemn threat of violence – in fact no, not a threat. A promise. The mountain allows no room for debate, no more than an ant can beg a wanton child not to stamp their foot. It is absolute, inhospitable, impossible; it will kill you. I’ve never felt so utterly, utterly powerless as I did looking up at those snow-swept peaks. The thought that there are humans out there who gaze upon such a horrifying sight and see a challenge chills me to the bone. There are some places on this earth that humans were never, ever supposed to set foot, and Annapurna is one of them. And, next morning, that’s exactly where we were headed.

India: Eye Gouging and Free Naan!

I woke up at 5am and crept out of the apartment, bidding farewell to Ricky, who sleepily reminded me I owed him 750 rupees. Arse. I found a few taxis in the street but the drivers were all sleeping, and so I was forced to bang on the window and wake somebody up to take me down the mountain to Dharamsala. I spent an hour or so waiting for the bus, and made the five hour journey to Amritsar, which for India is blissfully short. It was to be my final destination, and I was excited. Continue reading