After five days of slogging it up the hill we have come to that big red circle on the calendar page, rest day. We have just a 30 minute stroll from Braga to Manang but not before a little poke around old Braga, our first moment of free time cannot pass without a little exploration. At the top of old Braga a commanding view of the pastural fields in the foot of the valley lays out before us among the crumbling remnants of this old town. Hopeful of having a look into the gompa we meander around decaying walls on well worn paths looking for someone with a key. A young guy carrying a staggering weight in a basket strapped over his forehead tell us that the key will be available at lunch so for now we content ourselves with a nice view from a town that will see better days than this one.
After five days covering nearly 70km the little stroll to Manang is exactly that, just a little stroll. Being the official end of the vehicle road, it’s a path for walkers only from here on in, we’ve been heading roughly west for the past few days but after Manang the days get shorter as the elevation gets higher on the northward push. Today is for rest, coffee, cakes and recovery, from here the focus is all about Thorong La, the pass over the mountains before we can descend once again, the highest walkable pass in the world. Thorong La has a high point of just over 5400m above sea level, still 2000m above where we are now and into genuine altitude sickness territory. We’ve been enjoying the walk thus far with only a little mind to Thorong La but now it’s unavoidable, the monster under the bed won’t stay hidden any longer.
Rest days couldn’t be any better, the town of Manang bustles with hordes of trekkers and locals alike. After five days of walking, the end of the road spells the end of ready contact with civilisation, there’s only wilderness before and above us with a final deep intake of thin air the last step before the steep ascent begins. We need to acclimatise for now so in place of the tough slog of the last five days it’s firmly bums on seats with an apple roll and ginger tea to while away the afternoon. There’s a horse shoe shaped building wrapping around us, three storeys of weathered grey stone and timber beams whispering a tale of centuries past in a town that shuns the convenience of a modern world.
Small agricultural fields sit across a flagstone path just before us in the first opening expanses of the valley. The Annapurna’s are behind us, their north face all snow and ice tower above us on the other side of a milky glacial river; before us bare rocky scree slopes roll distantly upward into clouds that promise so much yet reveal so little. A sharply cool breeze pushes thin air with an oddly welcome sting of the harsh sun in this place that rips a sense of connection with the world from us. The outside world, what a strange concept nowadays. But isolation is the temptress, we’re drawn like moths to a flame; the only thing tying us to familiarity is this apple pastry before us that seems so out of place here but so wickedly welcome.
The scope, the size, the severity of the landscape defines existence here, nothing is small, safe or comfortable. From my small wicker chair that has seen better days I can see over the small fields to a ridge of land we are going around tomorrow before disappearing upward into whatever those clouds are concealing. Rumbles and thunderclaps of moving snow are commonplace in this world of upheaval; but this is a big one, it must be pretty close. It must be extremely close. The air shifting is the first thing we feel, we’re sheltered in the horse shoe of the building yet the shift is like a vacuum rather than a wind, an intangible feeling of air being extracted rather than pushed overcomes us in this already thin atmosphere.
Our senses are always so dependable, so secure; but not now. For a moment the world feels like gravity has stopped working and everything we thought we knew is proven so wrong. My flimsy wicker chair doesn’t shift from the ground or lift in any way, it’s remarkably stable to my confusion as I mentally struggle for something rational to grab hold of in this state of destroyed understanding. In an instant that plays out in an eternity the heavy stone horse shoe that encircles us shifts with a fluidity that it shouldn’t, the stone paving below me that has settled over centuries shivers on a Himalayan shrug.
A second, maybe three; how can so much occur in such a small space of time. Grabbing only what is in our hands we run for a clear space, another small field not opposite us but beside the horse shoe building; we want to see this avalanche, it must be massive. The building swings in great exaggerated movements, Annapurna reflected in the window panes shifts wildly at each swing of a pendulum going the wrong way. We were thinking of an avalanche but all around us, in the icy Annapurna and the dusty mountains alike, the earth rises up rather than falls down. Clouds of dust and snow burst disconcertedly upward in a world turned upside down from every crack and crevice which accommodates a slide.
Like penguins huddling for shelter but too concerned to embrace each other we’re in a gaggle of trekkers, a buzzing hive of brightly coloured weatherproof clothing and too many languages. The earth continues to lift up, rising all about us as a weird balance of innocent excitement and slowly permeating concern engulfs the crowd. First we see a few small rockslides, then some more, a billowing cloud races down an icy mountainside as small isolated signs of movement join together to paint a more complete picture. A small voice cries out, ‘is it a volcano?’ from one of the frightened penguins in the huddle. Still no one can place the disorientation of what just happened.
The movement has slowed, the penguins disperse somewhat with a delicately held grasp on nerves now so uncertain, earthquake is the popular word being hushed. Around us the horseshoe building still stands, the reflection of the Annapurna’s no longer dancing, the fields are still there and with clouds settling a cautious look around town reveals that nothing much has happened here. But we all know it has. An attempt at normality calls for another pastry and to ask a few locals about this, after all the Andes have earthquakes nearly every day in some parts. A terrified face says to us “I’ve been here 16 years and never seen this”. This just got real.
In those words a strange balance between excitement and concern tipped swiftly to the latter. A celebrated launch into wilderness is now wrapped in severity; isolation engenders two very different emotions on the shake of a mountains whim. We’re just two days from the highest pass in the world where a huge number of people died last October, there’s no communication and we’re five days solid walk from anywhere. On this sobering flip of perspective we oddly seek normality in pastry only to be taken from the comfort of normality and placed into repetition. It’s a cinnamon roll this time but the air sucks all the same. No confusion, no thinking it’s an avalanche, another tremor grips us as we run from the bakery as if it was on fire.
We don’t quite understand what’s going on, the severity, the consequences but we know that something big has happened. Distraction is the key for us today, we content ourselves to watch on a few local guys shooting archery in the worlds most dramatic setting before settling down to watch a movie in the a tiny informal theatre in town, Seven Years in Tibet the fitting feature. The film centres around isolated and sheltered Tibet so cut off from the world, we usually exit a movie to return to our modern world but now we exit the escapist world of the movie into what feels like the scenes of the movie itself. The slow walk on the still intact flagstone path still sits alongside the small fields below the mountains but now the overriding thought is not crossing Thurong La, it’s getting out. In the story of Seven Years in Tibet Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter fought so hard to get into the isolated land, tomorrow begins our fight to get out.