Travel: Walks - How to vanish into thin air

Himalayan trekkers are fit and lively as mountain goats. Right? Wrong. For Mark Rowe the best training was a 5am start in Croydon
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The Independent Culture
It took a retired milkman from Huddersfield to disabuse me of the notion that the Nepalese Himalayas were open only to those who enjoy trudging through snow at some breathless altitude with an ice axe clenched between their teeth. Chatting in Ernie Beckett's Fish Bar in Cleethorpes, he spoke of gently trotting through scenery dotted with names that sounded like Miss World entrants: Annapurna, Thorung-La and Kali Gandaki. Do the Jomsom Trek, he suggested.

The Jomsom Trek is an ideal choice of hike for Himalayan beginners. Located in the Annapurna range to the west of Kathmandu, it runs for around 50 miles from the trailhead outside Pokhara north to Jomsom and requires between five and eight days in each direction. Those worried about time, stamina or dodgy knees can walk one way and return via a spectacular Indiana Jones-style aircraft flight.

We flew to Jomsom, tucked behind the Himalayan watershed amid a dry and rugged landscape. At 2,800m, this is as high as you reach on the trek unless you plan a day's walk further north to the pilgrimage centre of Muktinath. The air felt thin, yet after the smog of Kathmandu this acted as a kind of bleach for our lungs, scrubbing them clear of the pollution we had picked up in the capital.

But symptoms of altitude sickness are likely to be low-level compared with the horror stories recited with an unsettling element of schadenfreude by our fellow trekkers. Most centre on a 17,000-ft pass, the Thorung-La, three days beyond Jomsom, and include rumours of fatalities and trekkers helicoptered out with acute mountain sickness. Few people sleep soundly on their first night in the Himalayas.

Tukucha is a popular staging-post, three hours and eight miles from Jomsom, where we stayed at a wooden inn decked out with blue and red wooden porticoes. Here we encountered two of the effects that trekkers - ourselves included - have had on the Himalayas. One, solar-powered showers, for better; the other, deforestation, for worse. The manager of the inn assured us he used imported kerosene for cooking, yet large chunks of wood were clearly being employed to keep the kitchen stoves bubbling.

Because of the cooks' ability to reproduce staple Western foods, the Jomsom Trek is also known as the Apple Pie Trek. This can be a mixed blessing. We asked Micha, the innkeeper's young son, what the apple pie was like. "Oh wow," he said. "Super! But no good for me," he added, patting his stomach. A couple of mouthfuls of the pie (as the sun rose the next day, so did the custard) were enough to explain why Micha stuck to rice and dahl baht.

The inns were full every night - and good value - with trekkers drinking and smoking and generally showing little regard for the health thing I had assumed so necessary for a Himalayan hike. We would habitually warm our toes over hot coals and, like the Nepalese, go to bed before 9pm. Every day saw an early start but the dawn view of a handful of 8,000m high mountains militates against the effects of sleep deprivation especially when, as I had, you have spent the previous six months getting up at 5am for work in Croydon.

The first two days of the trek followed the dry river bed of the Kali Gandaki, with the scenery changing by the hour as we moved from a terrain of scrub to alpine woodland. The 13 miles from Tukucha to Ghasa provided a real mountainfest. Unlike Micha's apple pie, this you could not have too much of. To the right, the solid lump of Dhaulagiri; left, a choice of Annapurnas. Set against a sky of depthless blue, the territory is truly the Himalaya of the imagination.

But it would be wrong to suggest the trek is an undemanding amble through some conveniently startling scenery. The climbs were occasionally lung- bursting. Before setting out, we visited the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Kathmandu and read trekkers' experiences of the route. One veteran likened it to spending a hard week hiking in the Lake District, which is about right, though I don't recall Helvellyn serving up 8,000ft passes, with rope bridges swinging like pendulums. And we struggled to keep up with the superhuman Lonely Planet Guide to Nepal, which was bounding ahead almost out of sight. After three days, we were as much as 24 hours behind its suggested walking-times.

In Kalopani, hot springs soothed weary calf muscles, but attention focused on Ned the goat who grazed the grass by the lodge toilet. Ned was on the menu and he knew it. He mistook Westerners with stomach cramps for would- be executioners, twitching every time we dashed for the loo. The landlord said Ned was ours for pounds 50, but explained that he was a "homing goat" and would make his way into the pot whatever we did. We awkwardly munched vegetarian noodles that night.

The Nepalese take the view that a direct line is the quickest route between two points, even if there happens to be a mountain in between, and the next day's hike to Ghorepani was the hardest of the trek: six hours of unyielding climbing from 1,100m to a height of 2,800m. The views across the entire Annapurna range diluted the pain, though it is a skill to keep one eye on the mountain tops and the other watching out for the downward- headed donkey convoys.

A knee-cracking descent later and we reached Pokhara, a town that resembles a surreal episode of M*A*S*H. As we treated ourselves to a Pan au Chocolate [sic] at the Garlic Garden restaurant, a steady stream of post-trek survivors struggled by on crutches or walking stiffly with His and Hers knee supports.

Instead, as the clouds drew back to reveal the fish-tail peak of Machhapuchhare, the restaurant, I suspect not entirely by accident, played the Morning Song from Peer Gynt. As Grieg gave way to the car horn, I suddenly ached to be back up at Jomsom. The apple pie may leave something to be desired but the mountains have a music of their own.

Fact File

Getting there

The only airline with direct flights between the UK and Nepal is Royal Nepal (0171-494 0974), but these flights stop twice en route. Fares are lower, and sometimes stops are fewer on airlines such as Qatar Airlines - pounds 636 through Thomas Cook Flights Direct, 0990 101520.

Organised treks

Many companies, in Britain and Nepal, organise walking holidays. British operators include: Bufo Ventures (015394 45445), Classic Nepal (01773 873497), Encounter Overland (0171-370 6845), Exodus (0181-675 5550), Explore World-wide (01252 319448), Five Valleys Treks (01752 567617), Himalayan Kingdoms (0117-923 7163), Jasmine Tours (0181-675 8886).

Red tape

Visas are required by all British passport-holders. A one-month visa can be obtained upon arrival in exchange for a passport-sized photograph between US$30 and $35 (pounds 18-pounds 21), but you must pay in US dollars with exact change. If you prefer to obtain one in advance, send a stamped, addressed envelope to the Visa Section, Embassy of Nepal, 12a Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QU (0171-229 1594).

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