Life in the shadows of the Annapurnas
Without doubt my favorite part of trekking the Annapurna Circuit was discovering life in the skies, saying the word “namaste” and earning a smile as wind-kissed cheeks turned into apples beneath crinkled eyes.
In every village on the trail, there’s a lodge or three devoted to hooking trekkers in for a tea, a meal, or a night. But if you look between the gaudy painted signs, you’d see the village and notice her inhabitants, the ones who live outside the Circuit. The ones who spend their entire lives in the mountains, never going farther than the nearest big city (‘big’ being relative).
On our first few days I passed the wood and stone houses and thought to myself silly things like, ‘how quaint,’ or ‘how positively unthinkable!’ The vast difference in lifestyles is indecipherable at first…
But it’s really only when you travel quietly do you finally begin to understand the essence of life as a child of the Himalayas.
The grey, daubed stone walls of the mountain villages make things seem bleak, dark and foreboding, and under the dark shroud of afternoon clouds it is easy to miss the subtle signs of life. Gardens are tilled and tended, animals are tethered to pens besides houses, munching happily on piles of hay. Fresh dung scent the narrow lanes. The large piles of firewood are always kept well stocked. Fountains have puddles slowly draining, the soapy remainders of someone’s laundry.
When I was staring out a window one snowy afternoon, I realized the tops of each of the chimneys were smoking, and thought it must be very cozy to be in a room full of smoke and hot tea and old friends and family, the smell of fire burning in the stove. I espied a woman with gray-streaked hair emerge from one door, carrying a large thermos, and duck into another across the street. Tea with a friend, perhaps?
On sunny days, after the laundry is finished and hanging to dry, house doors are left ajar and windows thrown open, and housekeeping women sit on doorsteps as they catch up on news. Kids coming or going to school race each other up and down stairs as they dodge porters carrying huge loads on their backs. Others are hard at work in the fields or building new homes, and the elderly keep an eye and ear on everything as they sit on the ground and weave baskets.
Children wear a motley of clothes, whatever still fits and doesn’t have too many holes. Most men dress the same, there are no business suits to be seen in Nepal. For the most part, t-shirts, sweaters and jeans are the norm, but elders wear trousers, vests and don pastel-colored dhaka topis (caps). The Hindi women are identifiable by their colorful salwar kameezs– tunic shirts and balloon pants. Most except the oldest grandmothers dispensed with the utterly useless (but pretty) saris, I noticed! Tibetan Buddhist women–of an age older than their 20s–wear woven cloth skirts in muted shades, and tie scarves on top of their head in a unique fashion.
In the village commons, there are community essentials that everyone shares. Possibly the most important would be the water fountains, which serve many different purposes for every member of the community. Many villagers live in the commons, which is convenient but for the ones who live on farms more than 10 minutes away, water becomes a precious commodity. Water for drinking, water for cooking, water for laundry and dirty dishes, water for the garden, water for bathing–the fountain doubles as a shower quite nicely considering there isn’t running water at home. The animals need to be watered too, though many of them just help themselves.
There is also the water mill, which uses the current of the river to run a mill, and people use it to grind grain into flour. This one in Kagbeni had a lock hooked into the door and the wire that kept the door shut, but it was never locked after each turn taken and there was no key. Not every village has one, but it is a precious commodity to farming communities.
The mortar and pestle is used to pound herbs (or ingredients of some kind) into a paste or a fine powder. In Jhong, we came across this young feller sitting on a huge slab of black rock, pounding a pestle into a deep hole carved into the rock. It was next to the water fountain, two community essentials side by side.
He asked us, “Where you from? Where you go?” He went back to pounding as he waited for our answers. The powder was a flame-colored flurry of red, orange and yellow. Masala, the gentleman said, and he smiled, a few teeth left. He consented to have his picture taken, and reached up to touch his wrinkles when he was looking at himself in the LCD screen.
The winding, cobbled pathways of villages and the rustic bridges spanning the creeks are all made by the community. These young men we encountered in Chame were hooting and laughing as they pulled a ginormous log through the main street. There were three different gropus and 3 logs. Silly me, I thought it was a competition, a show of strength. Turns out the logs were for a bridge that was under construction!
Though some of the villages in the lower hills are predominately Hindi, many of the villagers in the upper mountains are Buddhist, so prayer walls and prayer flags became a part of the scenery. We would always pass with our right side to the wall, as it is considered sacred to go clockwise; and it became a ritual of sorts to stick out our hands and send the whole row of mani prayer wheels spinning as we passed along. Some spin for long seconds while others screech to a halt before even a full revolution. I often had to repress the childlike compulsion to go back and spin them harder.
Betting seems to be common in the mountains. Card games were popular, but the Thakali and Gurung tribes on the second leg of the trek really liked their archery. All of a sudden, young boys were wielding small bows, aiming at objects across the street, and men carried unstrung bows with strings pocketed. In Larjung, someone thoughtfully informed us of a ‘festival’. It was actually a competition between 30 men of varying states of drunkenness, playing in teams of three. Each player paid 100 rupees to play each round and the final prize would be divided between the winning team. On top of that, if someone shot an arrow into the black bulls eye, everyone would have to pay that person 100 for the feat. Police were summoned to make sure things stayed under control.
We encountered these children here… They were more fascinated with the camera than with the drunk archers!
Besi Sahar, at the beginning, was a typical cement block of a city, but by the time we got to Ngadi, we’d left civilization behind. Lowland houses were built with the cheapest materials available, mostly timber and sheet metal. Pens for the animals were gnarled branches nailed to a sturdy post, and topped with a ridged square of metal.
As we went further up, the houses turned into stone, though not all villages used the same kind of rocks. The round stones were stacked then filled in with daubing to keep the wind out. In other places, flat stones were carefully stacked together to fit tighter than bricks.
But not only were building materials different, the villages were built differently too. Farmland houses are separated by long tracts of soil and terraces, assumedly because their primary concern is maintaining the farm. It was not uncommon to see tall, two-story houses and large yards. On Poon Hill, houses stood by themselves, stretched apart along the trails. In other settlements, where trek tourism is rampant, most of the houses simply line the main road, as in Chame.
Some villages in windy areas tuck themselves against a ridge, using the natural wall to stave off some of the wind. The town of Bhraga was built along a steep incline, with square stone abodes that use another’s rooftop for their own verandah. Kagbeni, down by the riverbank, is exposed to the wind, so it is mostly built as several large conglomerates. Alleys are narrow and houses are hunkered down, more squat and wide. Gardens are also protected by stone walls, and it was rare to find a wide space inside the village propers.
And finally, here are a few photos of what “work” looks like. There were many other people hard at work along the trails, but as it is necessary to ask permission, we didn’t want to ruin the camaraderie by acting like tourists who just snap pics and leave.. So we don’t have any of people weaving or stuff like that.