Posts Tagged ‘tough times’


As I’m winding up this journey I’m getting a touch nostalgic so I thought I’d revisit some experiences from the road. I’m often asked what was the most frightening or dangerous moment during your trip. Probably, it was this one from Peru…


I feel muscles go taut, my whole body as tensioned and thinly tremulous as a tightrope walker inside my sleeping bag. It’s a familiar paralysis. I’m rough camping tonight, and offbeat sounds bring an anxiety that feels primal, that lives in my guts, and even if the sabre tooth tiger is now a policeman, a wandering drunk, or a curious farmer, it can’t be reasoned with, it won’t be allayed.

I stay still, dimly breathing, opening my ears and letting the sounds rush in. I hear the prickle of rain blown into my tent, and the breaths of wind, drawing, billowing the fabric. I think again about how safe spaces mutate into ominous ones when you’re sealed away, blind and sensitive only to its murmurings. I can’t hear footsteps now. Perhaps I never did. A dream maybe, or the fidgeting of trees: the innocent pretence of boughs knocking against one another in the night.

The blue glow of my watch says 3 am. I try to remember where I am. My brain zooms in like I’m moving a cursor on googlemaps : South America, Peru, somewhere in La Sierra. I’m far from a town. That’s right, it was raining. There was a house, silhouetted against a violet sky: aloof, concrete, long-shadowed and as empty as I’d hoped when I peered in through the paneless window. The roof, I saw, jutted out giving me three feet of shelter for my tent and a chance to escape the worst of the rain.

Rough camping is always haunted by stray sounds and grumbling portents, and camping in wild, unpeopled places can feel less adventurous than nights in the edgeland, in the half-light and jumbled shrubs of droning roadsides where car headlights tear strips into the night and streetlights twinkle like stars.

During these nightly detours there’s a feeling of stalking society. I’m awake to the clank and grumble of industry, the pylons that hiss like vipers, the harangue of farm dogs that have fixed my scent. It’s thrillingly outsiderish: the thief at the window. Childishly fun like a game of hide and seek. I worked out that over the last six years I’ve spent around 750 nights seeking out two metres square to make my own campsite. Like twilight, most nights have melted away and escaped from memory, though a few I recall now as glorious victories: the Jordanian cliff top, the Californian sea cave, the middle of a French roundabout, a derelict Ottoman castle. Others I remember as stonking defeats, and these I’ve catalogued under labels which invoke timeworn horror movies – The Night of the Fire Ants, The dawn of the Scorpion under my thermorest, and Midnight of the Flood. And when it doesn’t go wrong, when the footfall is not the axe murdering sociopath you know it must be, you experience a sense of escape that washes away all of that gut-buried fear and seems to make the whole process ecstatically worth it.

Crunch crunch



I’ve been here before too, the moment when all doubt evaporates. The feet – I’m sure now – are pacing out a careful circle. I’m being considered. I’m being surveyed. Someone, perhaps, is coming to a decision about me. The feet turn backwards and move to the other side of my tent, near the door.

Nothing for it now, I’m busted. The footsteps are too close, too precise, for me to have escaped notice. I revive myself in a jolt and sit up, unzip my tent and peer into the shadowy shape of a man whose face I can’t see well until he kneels down and I glimpse his eyes and stop caring about what he looks like because I’m staring at his right hand and the gun clutched within it that rises up and becomes aimed at my head.

The gun is black. It gleams metallically. It looks new. It looks illusory and weird. I see the black hole of the barrel. Something inside me falls and stays falling. I’m not breathing.


I’m babbling. Spanish comes in a messy flood, words clambering over themselves and pronunciation gone to shit.

‘I’m a tourist, it was raining, I needed somewhere away from the rain. What’s your name? I’m Stephen. What do you want? Please, you don’t need the gun’

‘Fuera’ – Get out. Not angry, not calm. Just instructive. I move. It happens in a flurry, I’ve twisted out from my sleeping bag, my shorts are on, I’m scrabbling to leave my tent. I’m saying ‘fuck’ a lot. And now I’m standing in front of a man with a revolver pointed at my guts. I can see his face now, wet with rain and streaked with mud. His eyes are wide, penetrating, moonlit. I notice that I’m shaking. I notice that he’s shaking too. His gun-hand wavers.

I’m reassured then in a wave. He’s scared. Scared enough to do something rash? I feel myself spiraling again. He angles the gun up a little, I judge the trajectory to meet my chest. My lungs, my heart, my aorta, my trachea, my spinal cord.

‘Get into my house’. There’s a tremble in that voice too.

OK, it’s his house. Think, think. But I’m numb, my mind’s snagged, insensate like my skin, unaffected by the cold and slicking rain.

Who is this? The infamous Ladrones perhaps, one of the bandits I’ve been warned of. There’s a flash of a conversation I had with a biker three weeks ago who’d been shot at, he’d showed me where a bullet had grazed his bicycle frame, it had sounded so fantastical I’d chosen not to believe him. Or maybe he’s one of the Rondas Campesinas, the local vigilantes who patrol rural Peru and fill in for the police, that would be better.

I walk towards the front door of the house, too fast, and he follows shortly behind me, the timbre of the footfall somehow worse than before. I feel the tendons in my neck in tension as I listen for a shot and wait for my back to explode, and blood to soak the front of my chest, movie-style. No shot comes by the time I reach the wooden door which creaks open under my shove.

‘Sit down. Who are you?’

A light comes on. I sit on a wooden chair by a table. I see a small stove in the corner that I must have missed when I peered in the window, but there’s little else to suggest this is anyone’s home.

‘What do you want?’ he says

My mind races to explain the rapidity of his questions, the flustered zip of his eyes, that catch in his voice. But something strange is happening: his fear has stopped precipitating more of my own. I start to wonder if it holds some key to getting out of this.

‘I’m just a tourist, from England. I’m travelling by bicycle. It was raining. I needed somewhere to camp’

He eyes fall away from me, to the side, he scrunches up his dirty face, he seems to be thinking. And with a small backwards lean, the gun falls down to his side.

‘It’s cold tonight’

‘Si señor’

‘Would you like some soup?’

Soup. Right. That would be wonderful. It wasn’t high on my list, but I’ll take it. I nod.

I’m still vigorously nodding as he moves to the stove and fiddles, his back to me. The gun is on the counter now: it’s unheld, it’s beyond an intrepid lunge away, I notice. He turns back to me.

‘Some men came to my home last month. They had guns. They took everything’ he says, explaining my impression that the place was derelict.

‘I bought this for protection. I thought you were one of them’

He smiles for the first time, and I realise I’m doing the same, but in a wildly exaggerated way.

‘Why are you back so late?’ I ask

‘Oro’ he says. Gold.

Of course, the muddy face, and all those holes I’d seen cut into the hillsides. This opportunistic mining is illegal, but local men ignore the rules and make nocturnal forays. Some have died when their holes cave in. They make pennies. The multinationals take it away in trucks.

‘Look what I found’ he walks over to me, digs into his pocket and brings out a wad of tissue paper. Opening it up two nuggets of gold glint in the yellowy dance of the electric light.

‘Wow. How much will you sell them for?’

‘112 soles per gram’; he says with pride. Thirty quid. Probably it’s nothing compared to their worth.

We talk, Vancho and I. He tells me about his family, a wife and three children, a few hundred kilometres away in a poor industrial town on the coast, high in crime and transient, dislocated people. He tells me of how he’s struggling to look after them.

Finally he says ‘Well if you need anything, you can knock. Buenas noches, Señor.’

‘Muchas gracias’ It’s for the soup, for the not killing me, but mostly for not toying with my impression that the world is not the chilling, calculated one of the TV news.

I return to my tent, the rain has stopped and a few stars are out. I fall asleep slowly next to Vancho’s home, listening again to the night. There’s a lulling, reassuring whisper to the wind, and in a few hours the sun will rise.

Two more blog posts to come: the next on Europe, the last one on thoughts of coming home.A new blog will rise from the ashes from this one.
I’ve been very lucky to receive regular donations from the
public over the last three years of this trip since I ran out of money, first through
a crowdfunding campaign and then through the ‘donate/ buy me some noodles’
button on this website. Along with income from travel writing and giving presentations, this has been essential for me to continue. I’m seriously
running on empty in the final weeks of my trip, so if you’ve enjoyed this blog
and would like to make a small contribution so
that I can sneak into a café and buy myself a coffee, or sleep in a hostel to
escape the snow, I would be immensely grateful. Here’s the link…

Ice lakes and frozen worlds

To the lake…

I was just a few kilometres from Ulaanbaator, but there was no hint a world capital lurked close by. The sky reached to wider horizons, plucked of the reaching soviet tower blocks, city traffic surrendered to silent space. Concrete was traded for yellowed steppe, salt and pepper peaks and the odd gur clinging limpet-like to the leeside of hills.

Espionage is easy

I took my seat on the ferry and looked out at the high-rising dens of Hong Kong’s deal makers. The sun was low and amber – reflected in the windowed skyline, the effect was a city-wide inferno. The lighted screens atop the lofty financial centres were beginning to mark the dusk too. On the receding peer I spotted a collection of men in Santa outfits, late comers for the international event of Santa-con where participants dress up for a pub crawl. It begins in the afternoon, and is bound to raise questions from any six year olds near the action. ‘Mummy, why is Santa Claus being sick in his Santa hat?’

I planned to ride across China, to the pallid hinterland of Mongolia, a move that loomed like a leap into icy water.I’d spent ten days giving lectures around the city, at schools and the Royal Geographical Society, and I’d had the chance to visit the student protest site: a small city of tents and postered walls, with areas for the protesters to take study-breaks, and where gasmasks were tossed aside deckchaired young and old who read from 1984 and made chat with the procession of supporters, tourists and hacks. The mood was dark on the day the police had been granted permission to remove the last of the tents. ‘We’ll be back’ affirmed the signs in reproachful red paint.

‘Ready? Tha cwock iz ticking!’ said the zippy Lin Lin in my headphones, the irritating teacher of my one minute mandarin series of podcasts. I’d half-mastered the numbers and simple greetings but Lin Lin’s shrill incitements were now just rubbing in the fact that I’d failed at every other lesson. This wasn’t the matrix-style booting up I’d envisaged: Mandarin, it turns out, is quite hard. Pinyin is the form Chinese takes in the Latin script, only it’s not phonetic so you have to decipher this secret code first before you even start on Mandarin, and those piddly signs I’d overlooked hanging about the letters indicated tone, which in Chinese has something to do with that trifling matter of Meaning. And Chinese script? An educated Chinese person might know 6000 characters – don’t even bother. It wasn’t just the linguistic challenges ahead that worried me, it would be a bit nippy up north too, and Lin Lin hadn’t provided the Chinese for ‘please help, my hands are black and I seem to be missing a finger’.

On the boat I got chatting to the lady in the next seat, a sunny soul called Medina. After twenty minutes chewing the fat I’d been invited to stay in her capacious white house on a gated street of palms and close cut lawns in one of China’s many young towns. Medina and two friends took me out to dinner – a seafood hot pot, punctuated by the leap of the still-live shrimps and the Chinese compulsion to cheers before every gulp of beer. I spent a day pacing through that nameless town – counting the differences: toddlers adorned in panda and tiger outfits, mums in thigh-high leather boots watching over their infants with the same serene, wondering look someone might give the flames of a campfire. I thought ear muffs were a victim to the years beyond 1989, like mullets and roller-discos, not so in China. And for every high rise there were three in construction, their attendant cranes like giant insects, a shout to China’s rising star.

First I had to negotiate a route around Ghangzhou, a city of 14 million, itself in a conurbation of 44 million known as the Pearl River Delta – the most economically dynamic region in China for the last three decades. I muddled my way under high-flying expressways, through messy junctions and an industrial sprawl. In a tiny patch of edgeland I threw up my tent, Chinese motorists oblivious on the eight fly overs and elevated rail line I could see from my sleeping bag. Navigating mainly by compass I kept on northwards, energised by the new border at my back – pedalling deep into the Chinese night beside the spreading phosphorescence of metropolis. I crossed vast bridges under which container ships sailed and high speed trains shot, the night red-tinted by the scrawl of Chinese characters perched atop the tower blocks, Lexus showrooms, anonymous warehouses. I turned up the moody hiphop on my Ipod, an apposite soundtrack for powering through the urban bloom.

A fair chunk of my time in China is spent map reading, or more accurately squinting into maps and creating similes to help me memorize the first symbol in the name of the next town en route. ‘Man with box for head attacking giant spider’ I decide and then look up at a sign post, muttering ‘man with box for head, man with box for head…’ before giving up and choosing another town. ‘Dancing alien with scimitar, dancing alien… dancing alien…’ China is a country with roads and glyphs aplenty, and landing on the right road is cause to punch the air and sing the A team theme tune.

I kept to the minor roads on my map, still clamorous four lane affairs, dwarfed though by the expressways. Inside a roadside restaurant there was a break in the scoffing of chicken feet and liver soup as I approached – an adventure loomed. I shuffled to a table and scanned the menu – a scribble of Chinese script – and wondered briefly whether it was in fact something else entirely, a calendar maybe, and what the waitress would make of me if I pointed to April and gave her an expectant look. I looked about for inspiration, but there was more smoking going on than eating. The Chinese take cigarette breaks between courses, mouthfuls and cigarettes.

The language section in my 1055 page Lonely Planet was slimmer than I’d hoped, and was broken down into Cantonese, Mongolian, Tibetan and Mandarin. It is a ludicrous fact, and one befitting those dilettantes at Lonely Planet, that it contained no word in Mandarin for rice, and no word for noodles. It did happen to include ‘Where can I buy a padlock?’ and ‘how long can I park here?’ I’m not an accomplished mime artist, and after two beef impressions and a particularly ill-fated go at broccoli (a sort of static pirouette), I decided to follow the chef into the kitchen where I set to opening cupboards and fridges and pointing. It worked. I ate and paid up, leaving a train of stray noodles on the floor, victims to the treacherous wobble from bowl to mouth on a stick. Next, I needed the toilet, and the Lonely Planet had let me down again, which was particularly vexing because there is no way to mime this without resorting to a Borat-style pantomime and creating a roomful of disgusted diners. I stared glumly at the pages of my book. Where can a buy a padlock? The euphemism didn’t work.

Christmas Eve, and I was cold, cowering under a railway bridge aside a noisy highway having bungled my chance to find a quiet rough camping spot in the expiring dusk. The litter-strewn roadside was now disquietingly tempting. As I stood wondering whether to sneak over the crash barrier, a bright light turned on and found me in the centre of its glare. Did that camera move too? I imagined a man in Beijing looking into a monitor and then picking up a phone. ‘Sir we have an unregistered vagabond, sector 7G’.

I barely noticed Christmas pass, and any celebration, no matter how meagre, felt like it might ramp up my sense of loneliness; drinking cheap red wine in my tent, with a solitary mince pie, pulling my own cracker, would be worse than doing nothing at all. I couldn’t find the next town (‘Table with squid on top’) and China’s Great Firewall that has blocked google and facebook made it impossible for me to contact my family. I set my sights on Yangshou for New Year’s Eve where I knew they’d be foreigners celebrating.

I followed the Xi River under rain, days of it. A strata of steam-coloured hill appeared to my left and then a lake, green, with a mist performing over the surface. I stopped in villages scented with aniseed where worn-faced women with sticks balancing two loads off their shoulders scowled at me until I pulled the easy trick: a big smile, infecting everyone, and suddenly I was welcome around the games of cards, Mahjong and dominoes that command everyone’s attention and are played unendingly. The local laughter could have had many targets: my unconventional shorts and whiskery mug, my messy eating expeditions, my mandarinlish.

North of the Pearl River Delta the land gathered about me, spread with pine and the odd blotch of bamboo on the higher rises. Outside an eating house a Chinese biker with two panniers broke into a grin as I cycled up, and with no common language, we did some wild gesturing over a map before he gave me his Iphone and a voice from Beijing said ‘He want to cycle with you. OK? You go together now, you help each other’. He was heading for Tibet, the pilgrimage of many a Chinese biker – the only ones allowed to ride independently in the region.

We peddled off but soon paused by a rambling scene of sun-patched rocky prominences and pine forest. He sat on a stone wall, took a breath, and yelled out over the vista, an ‘into-the-wild’ torrent of jagged sound. I sat beside him and shouted too, as loud as I could, and for the next ten minutes we took it in turns, shouting in celebration of the wild space and laughing at our freedom to conjure echoes in it. Language proved overrated. In the afternoon we said goodbye at a junction. If we’d ended the day together I might have asked his name.

I pushed on, stopping only to shovel great hillocks of fried rice, broad beans, pig intestines and just-don’t-ask into my mouth. In China animals are frequently slaughtered roadside, cows with slit necks make their final moos, dead pigs are shaved and inflated with bicycle pumps and their faces sawn off for the most treasured cuts.

North of Mengshan I came to the world renowned karst formations – towering limestone prominences, once the walls of ancient caves whose roofs had long since collapsed: it’s the paradigm China, an apparition at once familiar thanks to images on the 20 Yuan note. The humps and towers of rock looked places to command ancient armies from. There were shark’s teeth, camel humps, great motionless waves, greened with foliage in place of the white of surf. A double peaked rock was like some leviathan eating its way through the earth, mouth to sky. They were staggering not just in form and scale, but in number too – stretching for miles, the road swiped at their bases and tunneled through clusters of them.

Yangshou is a place of cobbled streets, thronging with sightseers, beside Karst formations which are lit up with spotlights by night as the electronic flying machines and green laser beams of street vendors zip and dance around their lower reaches. I celebrated NYE with an international crew, beer pong and rice wine from a vat which contained a tangle of dead snakes. The hangover was reptilian.

A day after I left Yangshou I caught sight of something to my left which, after ten full seconds later, made me snatch at my brakes, halt in the road and consider a question: ‘Was that man using a blowtorch on a dog?’

The answer, I discovered on cycled back, was a lamentable yes. He was crouched down, in overalls, holding the blue flame of a blow torch to the paws of a dog in rigor mortis. As I watched he looked up at me – his expression was entirely befitting a man blowtorching a dog. A lightless and bleak scowl made me wonder who else he was ready to melt with fire. So many questions, so little desire to stay and ask them. Nobody near him said anything, or looked in any way perturbed. I’m not implying this is everyday stuff in China, this is the first time I have seen industrial tools being used on Labradors – so perhaps nobody could think of an opening gambit to use for a man burning the paws off Rover. ‘Hi Shen. So…., how’s the… how’s the family?’

I remained on small roads as I journeyed north through the state of Hunan: people smiled, the world was on my side. ‘Welcome to Joyful Dong Land!’ said a sign. The Dong people are a local minority group and their abode is a more traditional China: bamboo forest, visited by breathes of mist – the apt aesthetic for the realm of warriors and sharp-bearded sages. The fuzz of bamboo leaves was broken by rice terraces, and wide dark brown wooden houses about which men huddled, dressed in navy blue or black. The storied Wind and Rain bridges ranged over rivers and I cycled over them to explore small farming communities where I came to drum towers and bands of women singing – a rich tradition among the Dong. I camped that night by a stream; enjoying the fencelessness of communism, a boon to wild campers.

The next morning I sat around burning coals in an old car tyre inside an eating house, and then… police: three growling cars of them, disgorged officers, all jogging towards me. ‘You’re coming with us’ one seemed to be snapping, and an audience of Chinese watched them lead me away.

Inside the imposing white-tiled station a young officer explained in broken English – ‘restricted zone, no foreigners’. I had a hunch this was the case after leafing through my guidebook the night before. I decided to feign ignorance. Apparently this is an area where the Chinese keep their inter-continental ballistic missile system, a fact I’d noted with amusement in my diary in regrettably large letters.

I was told to explain my route and to show them my camera, which I give up in an instant – the shutter had broken near Yangshou and I hadn’t been able to use it since. I had to make a snap call about whether to reveal the new Go Pro Hero 4 Black video camera I’m using to film for the documentary series Exploration Challenge, and decided not to mention it: going through the video footage would be a drawn out job and they might delete it all on a whim, also it looked, unfortunately, a little like a device for espionage.

The tall officer who first approached me on the street began flicking through the images, I could see he had an X shaped scar beneath his left eye and it struck me as cartoonish and comically clichéd that he should also be the ‘bad cop’ of the bunch. A senior officer lifted up my Pynchon book and flipped through the pages like he was expecting a cut out and stashed recording device. It was when Scarface interrupted by bringing the camera over to the senior and pointing to an image in the viewfinder that I felt something inside me fall, fast, and settle in my guts. The Hong Kong protest site, the tents, the images of police brutality, the anti-Beijing slogans, fuck.

The young officer told me then that colleagues had been called and would be there in two hours. I must wait. Colleagues? Intelligence officers? Double fuck. I was glared at for the next half hour until the camera was returned: dilemma. I could format the card, but when these enigmatic ‘colleagues’ wanted to see the images it would look bad if I’ve deleted them, but not as bad as if they’re still there. I went for it but was relieved to discover I’d inserted a new memory card and posted the one with images from Hong Kong home. Two officers then arrived – a young woman who spoke English fluently enough to figure out my scribbled ‘ballistic missiles!’ in my journal, and her perpetually sour-faced senior. I was interviewed and my documents photographed in triplicate. ‘Now we take a look at your things’ she said with a half-smile. ‘Just looking, OK?’

My journal was not my only concern, there was the Go Pro I’d neglected to mention and my laptop which did have the Hong Kong protest site snaps and which would, at the very least, give altitude to some Chinese eyebrows. An officer went through every one of my possessions methodically on video camera, reminding me of the footage of drugs busts that grace the evening news. My Go Pro was found and removed with my laptop for investigation. I headed inside to find seven officers sitting around my computer. I was told to reveal where I had camped the night before and then driven to the spot, my car tailed by another of five more officers. At the stream I was filmed and, for some reason, the stony ground I’d laid my tent on was photographed.

It occurred to me during the search that they must know I’m an unlikely 007 considering they’ve retrieved a moldy muffin of indeterminate age from my front pannier, discovered I can’t keep pairs of socks together and that much of my stuff is a congealed damp-scented mess (it had been seven drizzly days without a break). I wasn’t expecting guests. And if they’d binned the theory that I’m involved in international espionage, then, I realised with frustration, they’re bored, and they’re snooping.

Eventually I asked to go and was told yes, I could, ‘but first you will join us for lunch’. Half an hour later I was eating some of the best Chinese cuisine I’ve ever tasted, and served before anyone else, whilst my mind worked on how I’d made the journey from criminal to honoured guest. ‘Where would you like to be dropped off?’ One officer enquired. I ate until I couldn’t manage another mouthful. I was still worried about the visa  extension I was relying on to cross China, but I was glad to be moving again without having a Taser come anywhere near my nipples.

The next night I stayed in a hotel which cost 10 full pounds, maybe the most I’ve ever spent on a night’s sleep. It was worth every penny. I spent at least an hour star-shaped on the double bed, shower-fresh, and clear-headed at last. The days after were spent following a river on small gravel roads before climbing up through mountains.

In the hostel in Changsha I met two dandified gents – Bruce had on a brimmed hat, scarf and waistcoat, and the other was wearing a beret and insisted in calling himself Cloud (‘not Claude?’ ‘No. Cloud, like the sky.’) We bonded quickly over tofu hot pot and a rice spirit in 128 ml black bottles that was 56% alcohol by volume and tasted like it was 80% at least. They both helped me score replacement kit and took me out for more Chinese adventures in dining and to ogle the massive head of Chairman Mao.

Thank yous – Medina, Rachel and Sheila, Rob and Christine, Simon and Liz, Bruce and Cloud, the members of the RGS and everyone in Hong Kong who helped me out whilst I was there.
Apologies for the paucity of photos this month, I have been doubly thwarted – first by China’s Great Firewall and second by my camera which has finally broken. Presuming I get another 30 days on my visa, next up will be the northern reaches of China, where it will be very, very cold. The fact that I’ve been shivering in base layers and a hulking down jacket since the tropic of cancer doesn’t bode well.

I did win the Pure Travel writing contest so thank you everyone for voting me into the final three. I have articles pending in various publications this month including a piece in Backpacker concerning the disaster on Annapurna so look out for that.

Finally there have been many Chinese signs that have won my chuckles, among them ‘Fuk Street’ (I’m 34 years old in case you’re wondering) and the label on a packet of bread (‘best enljoiyment in spite of your care. Tasting it still remains so exquisite, the fantastic feeling hovering above your head gives you colourful dream at that moment’) Wow, that’s some bread. But this curious one over a urinal is the most joyously befuddling:

Annapurna: Cycling a circuit in crisis

In this world, few things exist alone, unworried by and remote from the rest. When heavy rains and gusts ripped through India’s eastern seaboard and cyclone Hudhud was christened as such, the sun was shining over Nepal, hikers were pounding Himalayan trails in peak season and nobody rued the interconnections of this world. Not yet, anyway.

As Indian police began the evacuation of 400,000 people on the Bay of Bengal coast Mike and I were beginning to bike-pack the Annapurna Circuit: a trial most often the realm of hikers (over 20,000 of them yearly). The trail scoots round the Annapurna range, a 55 km long section of Nepali Himalaya including 14 peaks over 7000 metres and one, the eponymous peak of the range, over 8000 metres. It’s one of the earth’s most venerated hiking trails, and in the space of the next few days, it was about to bloom in renown, but for all the wrong reasons.

Mike Roy would be my companion. Mike was part of the six strong posse of riders who, two months ahead of me, crossed Myanmar. His blog The Three Rule Ride is an awesome account of a two year bicycle odyssey from Korea in which Mike has given genuine thought to the environment.

Other things to know about Mike: he is an American, he loves food (though limits his pace of consumption, cf me), he meditates, he can speak Korean, Chinese, Italian, more than a smattering of Thai and Spanish, and has blossoming Nepali. He has an uneasy relationship with geodesic domes. He has a tendency to look intermittently mystical.

‘Now, you guys will ride down, it’s easy, and then it’s flat’ reported the confident young girl, perched on the steps of the village police post.

‘Flat?’ We chorused, from the shadow of sky-tickling mountains.

‘Well, you know, ‘Nepali flat’: Up, down, up, down, up down.’

An hour later Mike and I were still lugging our bikes down the steps carved into rock, blaming the process on not just on one optimist but two: a boy had directed us onto this hikers’ path hours ago. We wanted to be on the road which lay now tauntingly on the other side of the river, golden in the sun, like a promised land, unmeant for people as used-up and ugly from toil as us.

It was a familiar trap: you strive for ages, bent on some irrational hope that things will improve, only to learn that they will not, but by that time doing an about turn would be too spirit sapping, and anyway, things might improve, right?

Day one on the famed Annapurna Circuit drew to a cruel end.

By nightfall, we came upon a house and were offered to share a room with a preternaturally fat pigeon with diarrhoea which was perched (wedged) in between rafters. The woman showing me the room caught me anxiously appraising the thin plywood floor boards with inch wide gaps, offering glimpses of a painful landing: the dining table on the floor beneath. To prove the robustness, she jumped savagely, landing with a thud, laughed in my face and was gone, leaving us to our rickety bedroom.

The next day a line of honeyed light caught the peaks, and then dropped, filling the valley with warmth and promise. It was a return to shouldering our bikes though, traversing rivers, mounting unending steps, blaming ourselves. The circuit had promised to be tough, but not at this meagre altitude. About us was a stadium of yellow-green rice paddies, the breeze shivered them: ‘shhhhh, shhhhhh, you idiots, shhhhh’.

Finally we got to a bridge and rejoined the road. Almost immediately two hale and burnished trekkers, Scandinavians probably, jogged past. ‘Hi guys!’ they chirped. Mike looked like he might attack them, but cheered up a minute later saying ‘I’m kinda glad the start was tough. Everything will be easier from here on’. Briefly, I wanted to attack Mike.

The next two days to Manang were spent mainly on a road that only fitted that definition because people referred to it as such, and because it joined places, not because it actually resembled one. It was the sight of man sized boulders which hikers had to round that clashed most with my vision of what a road should be. Bike touring had again become bike-lugging, but there were the other things to enjoy: grand rainbowed waterfalls, purple-tinged fields packed with the stalks of harvested buckwheat, the cheery trekkers: robotic-looking in their pole-assisted mission. The British announced themselves with awkward apologetic manoeuvres when confronted with another hiker ‘Oh God’ I heard one man say ‘this is embarrassing’ as he shuffled into someone’s elbow. There were porters too, their job two-fold: to carry three rucksacks a piece, and to force everyone else into judging themselves inadequate slouches.

From the outskirts of Chame an audience of Buddhist prayer flags strung across the river waved us off and as we passed trekkers their words lingered in the air long enough to catch ‘wow, hard work’ and ‘no suspension. Alright!’ Reading the prices of food on menus on the trail involved a light-headedness to rival that provided by the thinning air, especially if you’ve been tramping around rural Nepal for a while and living cheap. ‘Oxygen goes down, prices go up’ as the saying goes. Oxygen is at a premium not just for the altitude though, methane displaces it. The local dish of Dal Baht makes up the dinner for most, and is the most flatulence-provoking food known to mankind. The fact it appears high on menus on a trail in which people walk one behind one another makes me wonder if it’s all just one big Nepali joke on the visitors.

Food. I fight the urge to ask the question that I know is not becoming of a grown up. It’s not: ‘What would you recommend?’ Not even ‘What is the cheapest?’ I want to know what is the biggest feed on the list. Mass over flavour. I ask anyway, and receive the muted smile I expected, but get a mound of potato as big as my head, so I don’t care about the faux pas.

The most delicious feature of the circuit though is the changeability of the landscape, and on the approach to Menang it altered again: from the steep valley lush with deciduous forest and sparkling with banks of rust coloured fern, woven like scrap metal, to a flatter, pine forested place, presided over by bigger mountains and beige coloured rock faces eroded into surreal shapes. Each splash of pine forest was riven by the grey streaks of old landslides.

A helping hand from a porter

We were alone, the trekkers had taken to the other side of the river and the road this far wasn’t yet accessible to vehicles. Crows cawed. Wind quivered the yellowing pines. Donkeys stilled in the road, like for them, time had ceased to pass. This is a place of stories: witches are said to wander these parts.

We passed a row of tables by the empty wind-blown road. Amid the artifacts were yak bones and two great yak heads with light bulbs in their eye sockets, old pottery, goat horns, a black necklace fashioned from the vertebra of a snake. A man appeared, chanting, prayer beads in hand. ‘Three babas’ he said nodding to his stash meaning three generations had gathered the finds on sale.

Up until this point, I had been feeling a bit envious of Mike’s bike which sported Buddhist prayer flags, the face of a bearded man carved from bamboo root from Vietnam, and the best novelty horn imaginable, which sounded like a clown’s. From the table I immediately claimed a charred baby yak’s skull and cable tied it to the underside of my handlebars. People now approach my bike, take a sudden step backwards and cast me a worried look. Children cry. Old women bring forth prayers. It’s fantastic.

As a breather, unlike most humans, I am of a singularly noisy variety when I exercise, and especially at altitude. Mike didn’t know this. Momentarily he looked back, concern written in his eyes, as if he might find me grounded, woven in my bicycle, drowning in sputum. When he saw that wasn’t the case, his face reverted to one of pleasant surprise.

As my breathlessness abated, and serenity returned to the Himalayas, I looked up at the mountains, now snow-coated and appearing impossible to reach. I mentioned this to Mike. ‘Nothing’s impossible’ he returned, grim-faced and sounding like a Nike advert. A wimpier travel companion, I realised then, might be easier on my ego.

The culture around Manang is recognisably Tibetan. On the approach to the town the small children have the paradigm rosy cheeks, and are so muffled they can hardly flex their knees or elbows when they walk, making them hilarious for their being unchangingly star-shaped. By three and half thousand metres up signs advertising the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness arrived on the scene, which just rubs it in if you’ve been suffering from 3000 metres. Exertion is a major player in who succumbs and bikers are a lot more susceptible.

The first sight to greet us in Manang might have been used on the cover of a book entitled ‘Wilderness Medicine: a practical guide’. Two western doctors charged through the village, one squeezing an IV bag of fluid attached to the arm of a Nepali woman who was being piggy backed by a porter stampeding through town. Later I learnt that the medics had to rub off melted yak butter from her forearm, a local remedy, in order to insert an IV line.

As we wheeled our bikes through the town I looked back behind us: a fleet of clouds was driving up the valley. I didn’t think to mention it to Mike.

Manang was in full bloom at the peak of the tourist season and few guesthouses had rooms to accommodate two bikers and the skull of a juvenile yak. Trekkers shuffled about the one street taking days off from the trail to acclimatise, buying books which seemed to be entirely about death in the mountains and watch films in the two small movie houses which also seemed to be about perilous quests into the unknown. Deciding I needed something a little more escapist (or just not entitled: ‘The day I starved and had to eat my frozen friend’s face off’) we headed straight to a guesthouse, ending the day with a few beers with fellow bikers James and Logan. As I walked out into the moonless night, I shivered and saw the snow. It wasn’t a flurry, not even a dusting, just a few minute white specs floating out of the night sky: pioneers, I would discover.

I was wrestled from sleep by a white light, and discovered a broad white bar occluding the view out of the upper part of my guesthouse window. It fell. Gravity has beaten the abundant snow gathering on the roof and it had joined snow heaping up on the ground. A head-scarfed old lady shuffled through the white-out, shovel in hand. There had been no weather warnings, and everyone in town was as agog as we were: a blizzard had gripped Menang, in October: a month of unchallenged blue skies in the middle of the Himalayan dry season. And we still had the steady climb of 2000 metres to climb to Thorong La, a pass of 5416 m which claimed the blue bit of my map and where the contour lines crowded together like tree rings. And if it was snowing abundantly here…

But as the snow continued to pile up, people’s minds were not on the pass, and the snowfall forced everyone’s faces into silly grins of the type that grace seven year olds when school’s cancelled. With the power out, there was nothing to do but read or crowd about the wood-burning stove which was incited with dry yak dung, as the scent of garlic and butter swirled and a snowman in sunglasses took shape outside my window. As more hikers arrived and nobody could leave, Manang became a stoppered bottle of bewildered adventurers, aiming eyes at the still-white sky.

Manang under snow
It was here we met three New Zealanders: Emily, Claire and Tim, all in shorts. This was immediately satisfying. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but in my mind, all New Zealanders wear shorts, and only shorts. I am certain that if I would go there I would find people running about glaciers in vests and underwear. They don’t have homes, or jobs. They sleep in crevasses and spend their days playing water-rugby in grade five rapids.

Emily, Claire and Tim didn’t pack trousers in order to hike over a Himalayan pass of 5400 metres. And that’s how it should be. They are the only nationality allowed to do this and not be considered foolish or ill prepared. All three were as outdoorsy as every Kiwi I have met, and Emily was keen on something called Adventure Racing (if you’re not acquainted look up masochism in a dictionary, it’ll be there).

The following day the sky was a pacifying blue, and the Annapurnas looked to smoulder as snow was whipped from their upper reaches by sun and breeze. Manang was alive again: sunglassed, pack-laden trekkers pounded through two feet of packed snow which was yet to live as slush. Above, electric cables, the ones still up, bled snow in plummeting shafts. The rock faces of Annapurna 2 and 3 were unsullied panes of white. Mountain goats, driven down to town by the snowfall, began pestering shop keepers and munching on gardens.

Mike and I trekked up to a ridge above Manang where the snow was thigh deep and eye-aching, almost forcing us to break trail. Our feet slid deliciously into it. When we returned power had come back to the town. Inside a hostel a posse of Australians sat, their eyes trained intensely on a TV: the BBC were reporting deaths on the Annapurna Circuit. Nine bodies so far, at least 140 missing. The news channels knew more about the disaster than anyone in Manang itself, one of the biggest towns en route. Everyone began playing the ‘what if’ game, everyone had a reason why they could have been two days further ahead, at the pass, when the snow-storm hit. Manang was all chatter, but facts? They were as absent as colour in the peaks.

The drone of search and rescue helicopters became as familiar as the low of yaks. They zipped to and fro, like the rumours around town: two metres of snow at the pass, body count: 21. Scores were still stranded at Tilicho Lake and High Camp. The Israelis were being evacuated first as the Israeli government had fronted the money for evacuation of all its citizens. Later, this would be a topic of controversy and rumours spread of helicopters half full refusing to take anyone not Israeli, of bands of Israelis commandeering the available satellite phones and, more farcically, of two people who’d blagged their way onto a chopper because ‘we’re half Jewish!’

We stared wistfully at maps, pondering the future of our ride, knowing it may now be impossible to proceed – already many hikers were turning face and marching back to Besishar. We decided to linger, and then, realising bike travel was fantasy (since hiking may well be too), we left our bikes and gear at a guesthouse and set out to the pass on foot when everyone else was in retreat. We bought wooden sticks as trekking poles and stuffed plastic bags down our trainers. Thoughts of avalanches were edged out by the slim chance of making it up. The events on the pass felt remote. We met two hikers, a Lithuanian and Siberian, unfussed, who ran out of beer and cigarettes from high altitude near Tilicho lake. ‘It vas tragedy’ the Siberian pined. From where others were being air-evacuated, they had left on foot through deep snow drifts, motivated by the fear of remaining without the refuge of booze and fags.

The Nepali minister for tourism arrived into Manang by helicopter and promptly presented to the medical clinic with symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness – typical, I thought, of tourists not to heed the advice, especially amusing through if you yourself promote that advice. I was asked to check in at the clinic too in case they had a rush of patients who had been stranded on the trail and needed help, but having not been called into action, I set out on foot.

Snow: the great eraser. Filching not just colour and detail, but leaving the land bereft of smell, of movement too, with the exception of avalanches and as we tramped out over the hills northwest of Menang, a huge crunch caused us to swivel and watch snow barrel down the opposing side of the valley. Our gaze waited over the mountainside before we moved on, our thoughts murky, our plan still imprecise. We met a few trekkers heading back who had been stranded at High Camp, they bore news that the Nepali army had closed the pass to collect bodies.

The next night we spent with a French girl, Maryon and American guy, Elie. ‘Hey, do you guys blaze?’ asked Elie.

It wasn’t strong weed, but it doesn’t have to be at 4200 metres above sea level. I know this because an hour later I found Mike in his room sat upright and crosslegged, meditating. He was wrapped in a yak hair blanket inscribed with Tibetan runes. He looked, in almost every respect, like a wizard. The only inconsistency was the fact that he was wearing a pair of gloves on his feet, and instead of solemnity, his expression was one of lightly controlled mania.

‘That Yak looks demonic’ said Mike. Having considered that Mike was no longer high, I peered at the beast and had to agree. A long face, big horns and a bleak, nowhere stare. I was still vaguely spooked when we came to some other trekkers who paused by us. ‘Over there, you see?’ one pointed to the shape of a man over the river, lying down in the snow. ‘It’s a dead body’.

Until that point, the events on the pass had seemed remote and marginal, too extreme perhaps to process. We had been merely held up and I hadn’t considered the reality. The reality was brutally unsheathed now, in the shape of a dead man, and a red rucksack, laid out in the snow.

There’s an expression in medicine which, typical of many of doctor’s idioms, carries a certain brutality but is useful nonetheless. ‘You’re not dead’ they say ‘until you’re warm and dead’. Hypothermia can do strange things: brain function can be preserved, heart-rate slowed so much as to affect death. I had to check.

If he’d been out there all night, or for longer, then I couldn’t see him being alive, but nobody knew. We passed a German hiker, noticeably shaken by the sight, and then to the body. He was lying down, head on a red rucksack for a pillow, a blanket over his legs, one hand balled up to a fist. He had been dead for some time. It was shocking in the juxtaposition: dead bodies belong in hospital beds, in the morgue, not alone, skin still shining, growing hard in the snow.

He was a monk whom we later discovered had walked from Thorung Phedi against advice during the night. By his posture he looked resigned to death, not as though it had come suddenly and with a fight. Later I wondered whether his religion might have played into this. Perhaps, amid the cold, with a certain fatalism, he’d thought about his next life. But perhaps not.

An army helicopter above described a curve and as we hiked around the next corner, they must have winched up the body.

As we hiked our wooden sticks created tunnels of glacial blue in the snow which was lumped over unseen boulders and shrubs – the world had been bubblewrapped. Recent avalanches churned up the snow, twisting it up into ragged shapes, like a sea bed of coral. My heart was set to pounding as I took stock of a great crack in the snow, extending down into the earth, where rocks and snow were spilling in ceaselessly. It looked as though at any moment the mountainside would snap and tear off towards the river, plunging at 20 degrees to the vertical. Maybe my perspective had changed: Would I have been as afraid had I not just stared into the frozen features of a dead man? I don’t know, but as I paced through the snow my feet found other footprints coming the other way. The lingering echo, perhaps, of a man’s last strides.

Sunlight roused the valley, waking the colours and contours of rock exposed by the melt. The crags above us were blotted with the shapes of big birds of prey, Himalayan vultures perhaps, and as the snow melted rocks shifted, at times tumbling down to the trail from on high.

It was a scramble from Thorong Pedi up to High Camp, which was at almost 5000 metres and the snow was still waist deep. We were now the only foreigners this high aside from a Chinese hiker, the rest had returned, and a few had been airlifted out. My head ached. This was the place that porters had arrived at days before, clutching notes from hikers near the pass which stated that they were in immediate and life threatening danger. Send help. No help by then could be sent. Mike set off on a short recce but even now, days after the snowfall, the trail to the pass was judged too dangerous and, dissuaded to try because we still had to return to Manang to collect our bikes, we decided to return by foot, trudging through the melting snow which was exposing sweet smelling shrubs, in a steady, pleasing silence.

Manang was a ghost of its former bustling self when we returned, and much of the snow had evaporated with the tourists. Uncomfortably, because we were in the shadow of tragedy, the Himalayas south of Manang looked as beautiful as perhaps they would ever be: the high rock faces sheeted with snow, the blue October sky, the rust and ochre of autumn, the earthy colours of rocks and pine.

We met tour groups, one British, with members in National Geographic t-shirts but so obese that the logo was distorted, stretched over geographically significant bosoms and man-breasts. A teenager in the posse received a text from a friend and said ‘Hey, hey Jack check this out. My mate wants to know if I’ve seen any dead bodies! Ha Ha Ha Ha!’ His friends joined him in the hilarity. I exchanged a look with Mike.

We arrived back at Besishar which was in the midst of Tihar (Diwali) celebrations and ornate Hindu girls dazzled onlookers with their practised dance routines.

An avalanche on the way back to Manang
That Nepal struggled to deal with the unfolding tragedy is unquestionable, that it needn’t have is under debate. Nepal is, after all, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The Annapurna Circuit is not a jaunt through Yosemite and the Himalayas are a different breed to the Alps. But with over 20,000 hikers paying 40 dollars a pop annually questions will and should be raised. Here are mine:
  • The cyclone was being monitored. The snow was predicted. Why were no severe weather warnings telephoned to the villages and camps en route before the snow fell, especially the ones after Manang where there is no public Internet access? (and if these calls were made, why were the hikers not told?)
  • Why are communications between points on the hike so patently inadequate? There are is no radio communication or relay towers, and only one satellite phone. When power went out, there was no way to relay a message to high camp and tell them to instruct trekkers not to leave.
  • Why did nobody take charge of the disaster – the trail was only closed a full 4 days after the snowfall and misinformation was rife.
  • How does TIMS (the Trekkers Information Management System) spend the 20 dollars a trekker it receives? Is any of it used in crisis prevention?
Officials I spoke with were in the habit of reminding me that Nepal is far behind the west in matters of disaster preparedness. That may be so, but it can’t be used as an excuse for mismanaging was has been an epic calamity, and the loss of 39 lives. You can argue that the responsibility lies not just with authorities but with trekkers too. I agree, but trekkers can’t make reasoned decisions without the information. A dusting of snow is not uncommon at the pass, even in the dry season. It’s conceivable that the hikers set out thinking it would soon peter out, they could have had no idea that two metres would fall, obliterating the trail and leaving them to exposure and ultimately, death.

Some of the misinformation may have been born of a vested interest, locals and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) were in the habit of telling everyone the pass was open and easily reachable in the days after, when it clearly wasn’t. This is peak season, and bad weather is bad for business. I sympathise, but this relentless optimism just added to the confusion.

Whilst the trail is spectacular, I can’t recommend the Annapurna Circuit for touring bikers, though this has nothing to do with the disaster. For trekkers it’s fantastic, but too much of the road is still unridable (for surface, not gradient) and trudging behind hikers with a 20 kg bike and more gear over your shoulder is not as fun as the Himalayas should be. That said – with a fat tyred light weight mountain bike and no gear – perhaps it’s a better prospect.

A lot more has happened this month, but alas, no space. I visited a leprosy hospital near Kathmandu, and one of the mobile health clinics that serve the city’s street children. Perhaps these will appear in a later edition.

Thank yous: Lizzie and Sanju, My Mum, Anna, Fareed, Mike (a special thank you for Korean acquired toe warmers), Mango Tree for the tranquillity I needed when the trek was over, Cory, Benny and Carolyn.