The Annapurna Circuit

17 days in the Nepali Himalayas

Andy Prinsen


It is quiet at 16,000 feet. If I lay perfectly still the silence crowds in, like I’m wearing shotgun earmuffs. It’s so quiet that I hear the nylon of my sleeping bag pulsing and crackling as the vein in my neck nudges it with each heartbeat. There are few animals living this high — the ravens have gone to their night’s nest and the droll, obedient horses stand perfectly still, peering into the windows of high camp’s lodge. It is only 8:30pm and already everyone is in bed, wrapped in their nylon cocoons like me, early to bed with an uncertain excitement. At dinner there was a sort of camaraderie among us since the next morning we would all set off with the same daunting task — crossing Thorung La Pass at 17,768 feet and then making the 6,000+ foot trek down into the next town. The camaraderie had a caveat, though. We were all in it together to a certain point. Everyone in that dining hall knew that it was his legs and his legs alone that could bring him over that pass. A young Swedish nurse named Maria was extra nervous. All week she had seen helicopters flying in and out of the valley and assumed each one was carrying an injured hiker, or someone with an advanced case of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. She didn’t find out until days later that the helicopters were all sightseeing tours, flying over Annapurna. But there were nerves running high and even the coolest kids, the ones with patchy beards and dreadlocks, were a little uneasy. The feeling was like the inside of a minivan full of pubescent boys on its way to a first middle school dance. Everyone is excited to be taking on this experience together, but if someone gets the chance to make out with a girl then it’s every boy for himself.

And so it was that all of these travelers — young people with an average age not over 25, these capable, worldly people at this base camp in the Nepali Himalayas that on any other night would be up drinking cheap Nepali beer until the music stopped — all went to bed early and set a silence upon this snow-blown, latrine-smelling camp at 16,000 feet.

But let’s go back a bit, to 11 days before …


The Thamel district of Kathmandu is chock full of exactly three kinds of shops, replicated over and over and packed side by side. First is guest houses, Thamel being the main backpacker hub of this, Nepal’s capital city. Every major Asian city has an area like this, and as far as the “backpacker slums” of South Asia go, this one is not so bad. The guest houses are generally clean and have rooftop patios where you can sit an enjoy a nice curry as long as you are able to avoid the pairs of smoking frenchpeople.

The second type of establishment are the trinket shops, with tables spilling out into the streets, all lined with the exact same souvenir pieces of junk. Just like a coworker pointed out of the businesses in Africa, if one person is seen making money from a product, everyone decides to carry the exact same item, spreading the business so thin that no one can really make a go of it. Whereas in Zambia it’s drum-shaped bunches of charcoal burned out of the few trees left in the bush, in Kathmandu it’s tiny daggers in decorative sheaths, buddha statues, and beaded necklaces.

The third type of establishment are shops selling knockoff outdoor gear and apparel. In the U.S. a decent down sleeping bag made by the North Face rated to 20 degrees will run you around $200. In Nepal, a sleeping bag made to look the same, complete with an embroidered North Face logo, will cost only $40. There are backpacks and jackets with fake Mammut logos and big duffel bags made from what appears to be waterproof material, emblazoned with the signature Mountain Hardware bolt.

It was this final type of shop that we had come prepared for, having ditched our backpacking gear way back when my parents visited us in Chile. We needed a couple of packs and a couple of sleeping bags, and were able to get the whole lot for the equivalent of $140.

And so, outfitted with our shiny new knock-off gear, we lit out into the early morning streets of Kathmandu. When I asked the proprietor the night before directions to the street where the bus would be waiting, he sort of waved his hand towards the southwest along with some loose lefts and rights, finishing with a mysterious, “Just follow the other backpacks.” We now understood what he meant since the only sign of life on the streets at 6:30 a.m. in Kathmandu are groups of foreigners, all headed in the same direction, all clad in backpacks stuffed to the brim with gear. When we turned the corner onto our sought after street, we saw a line of busses parked along the left side, dozens of them, of all different colors, companies, and states of disrepair. We walked down the sidewalk, up the row of buses, and every twenty feet would be asked which company our ticket was for. “Blue Sky,” I would say, and we would be waved further up the sidewalk. Bus after bus we passed until finally finding the right one, our gear getting chucked in the back and we finding our seats next a smartly placed fan (every other row had one) that at one time, perhaps when the bus was still new somewhere in Eastern Europe, probably even worked.

It was about six hours from Kathmandu with one switch before we landed in the town of Besi Sahar. I can’t speak much to the contents of the town because the only part we saw was the tourist check point where we got our hiking permits checked and stamped and then continued out of town where the paved road on which we had arrived turned to a fine, dry powder. While the other tourists who had arrived on our bus haggled over jeep prices that would take them all the way to the village of Syange, we decided we’d had enough bouncing around for one day and, having nothing but time and fresh legs, we would start our hike from there, seeing that same distance over the course of two days from a slow eye-level rather than a few hours from a dusty jeep window.

The lowlands

Our first day of hiking started with wind and threatening dark skies. We put on our rain jackets as drops started but then found ourselves baking in them half an hour later, realizing the rain proper had never come. It was three hours before we came to the village of Bhulbhule, set on the crusty ridge above a gray river. As we were crossing a suspension bridge, our first of what would be many metal-grated, slightly bouncy contraptions of the trip, the sky finally opened and began to lighten itself with vigor. We ran underneath an open-sided thatch hut, likely used as outdoor dinner seating by the guesthouse nearby, and talked about whether we should find a room or trudge in the rain. We had no sooner asked ourselves the question than we realized we were in a very rare situation, one that I realize now we perhaps had not been in since becoming old enough to begin dictating our own schedule.

We had this trek ahead of us — maybe three weeks, maybe more — and we really had no reason to rush through any of it. How often, when the question is “Do we have time for this delay,” do we get to answer Sure, sure we do. And so we walked into the first guest house we found, requested a room, and that was that. There we were, three hours into what would be a 17-day trek through the rooftop of the world. Looking back on it, I suppose it’s fitting that this first day was the only on which we experienced any rain the whole trip. Perhaps it was just some sort of tap on the shoulder, a reminder as we began to fall into our regular as many miles as quickly as you can every day mode, just to say “Hey, this is an opportunity. To take your time. To go slow when you want to. Don’t throw it away.” Often what we need is a kick in the butt. But perhaps more often it’s a gentle tug on the waistband.

Our guest house that first night was like most we would experience throughout the trek. It was a family-owned place made up of a few different buildings, all constructed in the same function-over-form manner. The walls were made of stone, likely harvested from the mountainside right out the back door, stacked and patched together with sloppy plaster. The dining area was a few tables with chairs that had thoughtful little cushions on each seat and the man who acted as our server, conversationalist and possibly cook came came over after we sat down and plugged a stubby white candle into a used glass Coke bottle, giving us a little ambiance. The power was out and would be until around 8pm, that being the normal case around the majority of the country. We ordered the staple food we head read about, dhal bhat, and it came on large metal platters. Dhal bhat is sort of a combination meal that always includes a healthy mound of rice and bowl of hot dhal, a tasty lentil soup. Your platter will also usually include a piece of crispy papad, like a big chip with cracked pepper, and then sides of potato and pea curry and some small pickled vegetables on the side. As if that doesn’t sound like a glorious, filling meal already, we learned on that first night that every platter of dhal bhat comes with a hearty refill — effectively as much again as your first serving. It’s all you can do when you are actually full to smile and convey your “No seriously, I’m full” face as they shovel more and more rice onto your already finished plate.

The next few days passed in a hot but happy haze. We would get up when we woke up, make it down to the dining area of the tiny refuge we had found for the night, order some milk tea (which closely approximates chai back home — but really good chai made with unpasteurized milk), have breakfast and then pack up and hike for a few hours. When we got hungry we would stop at another guest house along the way (it was rarely more than a couple of hours between villages) and order up some soupy vegetable curry and rice, then continue our walk for a few more hours until we either reached our day’s destination or just felt like we were happy with the day’s effort. It was an odd sequence to settle into, but became familiar more quickly than I would have guessed. Get up, pack up, hike, unpack, eat, sleep.

Our normal lunch fare — curry soup with rice (or chapati) and tea

Day four found us climbing what felt at the time like a substantial amount, over 1,000 feet in one of the stretches. By this time I had realized a terminal flaw in the stitching of my knock-off pack that was causing my whole load to focus on a single muscle in my right shoulder, like a neck massage tinged with revenge. So I was relieved as we finally made it over the day’s highest point and meandered down into the valley where the tiny village of Thanchowk sits, lined by blossoming stands of apple trees. We had learned that it was often better to hike all the way through a village to the almost ubiquitous outlying lodges that find their home outside village limits, and thus outside the sound range of any motorbike traffic and (most of) the morning roosters or “gringo alarm clocks” as I heard them accurately appointed. And so it was that we found ourselves tucked away in a little room on the second story of a windswept lodge with a picture window view of a sheer rock cliff, stunning in its sheer lack of organic-ness set in opposition to the light pink blossoms of the apple trees. The wind howled through the cracks in the mortar, most of all in the room where the pipe was propped for showers. The sun had been reluctant in the Thanchowk valley that day, leaving we bathers with water only a few degrees warmer than had it come directly from the river, the wind licking through the cracks at our wet skin all the while.

The old man running our guest house seemed to be doing it on his own, adding to the place’s feelings of loneliness and seclusion in its place at the bottom of the hill, separated from the rest of the village. While we sat up in our room, spooning together from our separate sleeping bags while we read our books, I could hear the man working in the house next door, pounding slowly and monotonously on something. The work sounded hard. When we came back down to the dining room, raising our shoulders against the chilly wind, we found a small fire burning, orange and inviting with a massive tea kettle on top. Somehow sensing our presence, the man stopped his work and came into the dining room, placing the yellow order sheet on the table so that we could write our order down on the paper. He made our tea and then said our meal would be prepared “Slowly slowly,” and I tried to assure him that it was no problem.

Our tea was warm and glorious and had you told me just a few hours before that I would be pining after something warm I would have looked at you, with sweat dripping down my face and the back of my shirt soaked through to my pack, and told you that you were crazy. But now I love it because it is warm and sweet and cloudy with crushed ginger and I don’t even mind the drop of honey that abandoned the pour and found its way onto the mug’s handle where I touch it every time I take a glorious sip. And the wind is still blowing but now I am clean and wrapped up in long pants and the long sleeves of my fleece and I feel sheltered and happy and I hope the man working away pounding on the walls of the building next door has someone to share this place with and the work that goes with it and I feel so relieved when in the morning a little old lady is there at breakfast, scuttling around the kitchen, warming up this and that and frying eggs and then I feel a little silly for feeling so relieved. And we sleep and the sleep is sound and we wake up in the morning to sunshine and sit in plastic chairs in the front yard drinking tea before shouldering our packs for day five and setting off, looking back and smiling before we turn the corner away from the lodge below the village with the old man and the little old lady.

The next morning I made an adjustment to my pack that made a world of difference. I basically had to disconnect the shoulder strap assembly from where it velcroed into the back panel and instead connect it through the haul loop. Then I disconnected the back retention straps that come over the shoulders and tied them instead to some plastic rings on the topmost part of the pack. This all served to elongate the pack’s torso size, readying it for a me-sized frame instead of the Nepali-sized fitter for whom they probably sized it.

Large groups of donkeys and mules would often pass us on the trail

Large groups of donkeys would pass us on the trail, laden with their woven plastic sacks and decorative head adornment, the most important ones wearing huge brass bells round their necks. We would round corners to find groups of two dozen of them coming our way, slowly plodding ahead without the need for a leading cowboy. It often seemed they were completely on their own since it was usually several minutes before we saw their human guide who was often chucking small rocks ahead, trying to keep a few ADD asses from eating too much grass from the side of the road. Then other times we would see cows walking past who were completely on their own. As we were having dinner one evening, the trail was just outside our window with a tall stone wall creating a barrier on the other side. I saw several cows come through all on their own, slowly plodding their way from town to town for who knows how far or how long. What makes them decide to stop somewhere for the night? Did they have a regular route and go back and forth or are these cows on a longer journey and if so a journey for what? Do the cows also believe that the grass is always greener on some other side?

That evening I was dumping out our snack food bag on the bed when out chucked a small, 500 mL boxed red wine. I had forgotten shoving it in there during our brief stopover in the U.S. and was elated to have a treat for the night (and at the same time kicking myself for having carried that much extra liquid weight for this many days, even if it was only a pound.) So this being the night before our first decided-upon rest day, we tucked in to the three glasses my little stowaway provided alongside the radiating heat of the wood-burning stove in the dining hall of a lodge in a village called Upper Pisang.

The view from our rest day lodge in Upper Pisang

The rest day was perfect, everything in Upper Pisang being so quiet, so still save for the flapping of the prayer flags that hung from every structure. We had a stunning view of Annapurna II in the early morning, but by afternoon the mountain sat in silent grandeur, shrouded most of the time by clouds so that all you could see were the snowy, impossibly steep approach fields that still grabbed you and held you and made you feel insignificant. There was a phone in the dining hall and every once in a while it would ring and the following five minutes were full of machine gun shouting, partly due to the uncharacteristically forward character of our proprietress and partly being the penchant of everyone here using a telephone to really project. Then without a recognizable sign-off the call would end and the entire place, the entire valley, would settle back into silence. And it would remain so until an action was taken on our part. When we became hungry I would track down the proprietress and write down our order in a little yellow notebook and then she would go into the kitchen and make it all from scratch. If we wanted a shower I would track her down again and she would use the place’s biggest teapot, several gallons at least, and heat up some water which she would pour in a plastic bucket that I would take to a designated room with a concrete floor and mix with cooler water, using a cut off water bottle to slowly pour its contents over my head.

Ice Lake and into the High Country

From our rest day in Upper Pisang we set out on a steep, hour-and-a-half uphill to a village called Ghyaru. We sat and shared a coke at a tea house with a deck at the top of the hill, more unbelievably white and craggy mountains staring at us from across the valley. Then it was a gradual downhill the rest of the day, of course loosing all the altitude we had gained in the morning. We stayed the night in a village called Mugje where a 16 year old boy named Ombishak seemed to pretty much run the show. He would take our dinner order, make us tea, and was always the one to somehow hear us and show up anytime we emerged from our room.

That night, after Ombishak had made a fire with wood and the assistance of some harsh-smelling gel chemical in the wood burning stove, I pulled up a game on my iPad called Biker Baron, one with impressive graphics in which you navigate a course of obstacles, loop-de-loops and explosive barrels trying to pick up coins. He was enthralled, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Video games are fascinating, especially if you are 16, especially if the most advanced game you’ve ever played was Snake on a Nokia feature phone. He gripped the iPad in his stubby, dirty fingers and controlled the buttons, a toothy grin glued to his face.

The next day we did an acclimation day hike to Ice Lake, a vertical gain of almost 4,000 feet. Near the top we passed a semi-permanent base camp of some sort, several dozen tents all piled in together, appearing to be in it for the long haul with bright orange tarps wrapped around each and anchored down by rocks. When we returned to our guest house that afternoon, I asked the owner, a tall man in his late 50s and I would assume Ombishak’s father, what the camp was for. He told me the camp was for “catching caterpillars,” which prompted a hearty laugh from the other Nepalis sitting around him. Thinking they were pulling my leg I said, “Really, for caterpillars?” and he replied in the affirmative, clearly not ready (or not possessing the English skills) to give me any more information.

I wouldn’t find out until days later when I was handed a shot glass of the local liquor that the man was telling me the truth. At the bottom of the clear, label-less glass bottle from which the shot had been poured sat three tiny caterpillar-looking insects. These caterpillars or “worms” as they are commonly referred to are actually a fungus called yartsa gunbu and are neither caterpillar no worm. They are actually the underground-dwelling larvae of the ghost moth infected by spores of the parasite fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis. According to an article I found in National Geographic, “The fungus devours the body of the caterpillar, leaving only the exoskeleton intact, and then, come spring, blooms in the form of a brown stalk, called the stroma, that erupts from the caterpillar’s head. This process happens only in the fertile, high-alpine meadows of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya.” The fungus is thought to have exceptional medicinal qualities in this part of the world and has created a “modern-day gold rush” with a trade that has seen everything from secret bartering hand signals to tunneling robberies to murder. This is not hard to believe given that these tiny worms, difficult to find but freely available for he who finds them first, can easily fetch more than twice their weight in gold.

When we reach the top of the Ice Lake hike the lake itself is less than astounding. But the 360 degree views are impressive, snowy mountains of the Himalayan range rising up on all sides. Kaitlin and I sit and eat the snacks we brought, willing our red blood cells to reproduce and fill our veins with rich, oxygen-filled blood that will stay with us in the days to come. But it soon got too cold, especially since I had stupidly decided to wear shorts, and we headed down, the descent only taking us an hour and a half.

Transporting lumber in the high country

The next day we hiked to Ledar, higher and higher into the thin air. When the sun is out you can tell you are close to it, warming and then charring the skin on the back of your neck. Your back begins to sweat, soaking through your shirt into your backpack. Then the sun goes away and the wind picks up. You’re still working and still sweating but now your arms and your chest begin to chill. There isn’t much around but open, sparse grassland and yaks and views of 6,000 meter peaks towering all around. And so the wind whips in and chills you but you’re still sweating and no combination of clothing is fit for the job. So you hike, somewhere between overheating and hypothermia. We reach the guest house and suddenly there are people again — several dozen trekkers who have all sort of bottlenecked to this village, trying to best space out their nights leading up to the pass just as we are. Before bed I walk down to the outhouse that sits on the path opposite the rest of the building and turn my head lamp off to take in the night. There are bells, deep and rich gonging sounds that could be from a Buddhist monastery for the sound is just as rich and the cadence just as regular. But these bells hang from lengths of rope and sit with their tops pressed against fur and clang with each chew of the cud for they are around the necks of the great night beasts, working hour after hour all through the day and most of the night to fill all their stomachs from the ever-thinning fields of barely-existent grass. On and on their bells toll, signaling something to their owners who sleep in stone homes nearby.

Above Thorung Phedi, on the way to High Camp

The next day we hiked from Ledar up and through the snowy mountain refuge of Thorung Phedi and up to High Camp at 15,908 feet. There are again many people at the camp and it’s easy to tell some are more apprehensive than others. They eat dinner early, are drinking an inordinate amount of water and are staying close to their porters for moral support. They are the ones who are trying to find out exactly what time the sun comes up so they can hit the trail the minute it does. Kaitlin and I felt sort of like the seasoned veterans, whether we had reason to or not. We had never been over this pass before, but we did the acclimatization hike to Ice Lake a couple days before and generally hike faster than most of the groups on the trail. And we have lived in Colorado for the last few years, which we thought had to count for something. Not that being able to hike fast or living in Denver means diddly when altitude sickness shows up.

Up, over, and down

The pass hike ended up being a great day. The acclimatization had helped a lot and we both felt great the whole time. We passed through a few areas marked with “DANGER, rockslide area,” harkening back an image from the day before of an Israeli girl being taken out on a horse, bandage wrapped around her head, her boyfriend holding her in the saddle as he walked alongside. We found out she was on the receiving end of one of the rocks skipping down one of the steep slopes abutting the trail, leaving a bloody stain in the dirt that Kaitlin noticed as we passed by. At the top of the pass was a sign reading “Thorung La Pass — 5416 meters. Congratulation for the success!!!” and I lifted my tea cup to that. The sign was completely covered in prayer flags, each one encrusted with tiny blown ice chunks, like intricate dabs of white paint applied with a miniature brush. We enjoyed a cup of mint tea while watching the relieved smiles of other trekkers arriving after us. The hike down was long, over 6,000 feet to a town called Muktinath, much of it steep enough to sufficiently jar the knees.

Muktinath felt like a big city against all the mostly tiny villages we had been through so far. There were buildings more than three stories tall, looking like they were structured with honest-to-goodness rebar. Another sign was that the beer prices came down a bit, which makes sense since the big, 650 mL bottles they drink here could be driven in by jeep rather than hauled in one of the baskets the porters use, always retained by a strap looped around the bulk of the basket and centered on the forehead. It was thanks to such urban development (as it were) that I realized we suddenly had an opportunity we hadn’t yet seen in our 11 days on the trail: Mountain bikes.

It seemed that you could rent the steeds, God’s glorious gift of machinery to mankind (as I prefer to think of the mountain bike), and ride them to Jomsom or all the way down to Tatopani. I spoke with a tall Nepali man around my age who looked like a model (but don’t all mountain bikers, really) who ran one of the tiny rental agencies run out of a storage shed on the main street, gathered information on prices and logistics and then practically skipped back to the hotel, formulating a pitch for Kaitlin in my head the whole way. She ended up being surprisingly amiable to the idea, surprising to me because she has been telling me for all these years about how much she hates to mountain bike. I have gotten Kaitlin to pick up skiing (last year she clocked a run on which she reached almost 50 mph), and even to start leading climbs (that being the person who “puts up” the rope, climbing above each anchor you place in the wall). But mountain biking is one of my favored sports that she has always made it very clear she wants no part of. It probably didn’t hurt that part of my pitch was the savings to the knees riding a bike would afford, especially now that the hike would be one downhill day after another. Included in the rental cost was a transport service for our big backpacks all the way to our destination in Tatopani where we would meet them in three days.

So the next morning we collected small backpacks from the rental garage, loaded them with only the absolute essentials and traded our big packs for mountain bikes, mine a Giant Rincon, an entry-level bike with v-brakes, costing around $500 brand new (she was not new), and Kaitlin’s a Motachie, some brand I had never heard of but sporting disc brakes. We set off for a village we had read about called Kagbeni that was a little out of the way but is often cited as a trekker favorite. The trail was a rarely-used jeep road that was flat for a ways and then gloriously declining after a few miles. I screamed down the downhills void of big rocks, feeling like I was on a legitimate downhill ride in Colorado. The adrenaline rush was sublime, something I wasn’t expecting on a trek like this but that was greatly welcomed. Kaitlin will be the first to admit that an adrenaline rush is far from her reason for participating in pretty much any activity, but she completely held her own, working down the trails, leaning her weight back over the sketchiest stuff like a pro.

First day on bikes, gloriously flying downhill

As we drew nearer Kagbeni, the wind got stronger and stronger, something we had been warned of. We read later that the wind blows every day with a vengeance from 11am until 4pm. At times a gust would spring up and kick sand and pebbles into our faces. You only had to hope you weren’t riding too fast at that point since you had no option but to close your eyes on reflex. The town itself is set on a ridge above blowing green fields of barley, ever creating a rolling sea effect in the wind. Our guest house had a beautiful view out over the fields and the vast, dry riverbed with a noble white mountain peak framed by our room’s window. As we sat waiting for lunch, the wind rattled the windows in their frames and stood in opposition to the beautiful sunny day outside. If you closed your eyes it sounded like midnight in a lighthouse off of Maine in gale conditions. But if you opened your eyes and closed your ears you felt like you were in the holy little peaceful city that Kagbeni in fact is.

The next couple of days were tough riding, still downhill overall but over some of the rockiest roads I have even ridden. It was more rock biking than mountain biking, but spirits remained high and we were covering ground. One day we had lunch in a village called Marpha, a gorgeous little place flanked by apple trees that were part of an NGO project, the idea being to give Nepal a fruit source it could have for itself and also have a product to export. We branched off the road and rolled under the welcoming gateway, the 10 foot deep arches with prayer wheels inside being a common sight on entering villages here in the high plains. The village streets were narrow alleys with whitewashed stone buildings sanding two or three stories above. We rode our mountain bikes down the cobbled stone pavement, hopping over the water diversions and saying our namastes to the villagers as we glided by. I felt like I was in some sort of dream.

The author, just a happy boy and his bike

We made it to Tatopani after three days of riding and were in bed that night (after I had a nice soak in the hot springs there) by 7:30, our bodies ready for some rest after the beating they had taken over the last few days. The next morning we decided to continue the hike for a few more days. Tatopani is one of the exit points since microbuses travel from there to Beni and larger buses from Beni to Pokhara. But we figured that it would be nice to finish on our feet, as it were, even if Tatopani was the low elevation point on the trek and it would mean gaining another five and a half thousand feet over the next couple of days.

At trail’s end

The next couple of days we walked through more small villages and around cliff edges, passing people chipping at one of their resources in plenty, big rocks. I saw a woman around my age, wide in the hips with a baby sitting nearby as she swung a two-pound mallet with vigor at a fat stone the size of a charcoal grill’s basin. She wailed on the huge rock two, three times, my sympathy being with the vibrated ringing of her hands, having dinged off too many baseballs with aluminum bats the wrong way as a little leaguer. My sympathy was also with the tragic hopelessness of the situation, assuming she had chosen much too large of a rock. But then on the fourth swing, like a hatching dinosaur egg the rock split in two. The woman pushed one of the halves to the side, barely able to move it without the whole force of her short little body, then turned the other half over and began the beating all over again.

We saw this time and time again, people squatting in front of large piles, some composed of rocks the size of softballs and others the size of marbles. It didn’t take long to realize what they were doing — creating gravel by hand. They were literally making larger rocks into smaller rocks by means of pure, physical, non-machined labor. One woman held a metal dish in front of her and with a metal hammer would beat the already reasonably small rock sitting inside it one swing at a time. This wasn’t one of those scenarios I’ve experienced in the developing world where you see someone doing a task that we use modern machines for but still doing it exceptionally well and efficiently, like masterfully working a loom or darting through a rice paddy, filling baskets with freshly cut stalks in minutes. There is no way to make such a task look graceful. It looked like grinding, monotonous, down right hard work.

Leave it to a scene like that for perspective. Our trek would end up cover about 130 miles. We would see over 20,000 vertical feet of altitude gained and as many descended. It was what we think of as physically demanding. But then, just when I would think I was working really hard, having sweated through yet another shirt, my calves stiff as rawhide when I swung my feet off the bed in the morning, I would see a porter with a load the size of a pinball machine, rising high above his back out of metal basket cages specially designed for the cause. Or we would arrive at the top of Thorung La pass at more than 17,000 feet and find a man running a tea shop like it’s completely normal, several hours hike from anywhere, greeting you with a hearty namaste as you duck inside, away from the blinding light of the snow outside.

There is a resilience in humanity that I see every time I travel, though I feel like I only comprehend it in increments. But I suppose this is why we travel — to see more, to take in more so that we can by good graces one day maybe begin to understand more. If we can remember that motivation, if we can shoot for that goal even on our worst days, then we may be getting somewhere.

“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest — in all its ardor and paradoxes — than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival.”

— Alain De Botton, The Art of Travel