Nepal - entry 5

And so, with the two weeks of computerless work relocation gone by, time to jump right back on the saddle of writing needlessly long blobs of text and continue from where I left off. If you remember from two entries ago, I ended by sleeping the night in Ngawal, with a great view of the Annapurna range under the trip's first clear night sky. Come morning and we move on to..

Chapter 3 - Acclimatisation

May 2nd

Ngawal was a great experience, not only because of the terrific sights of the mountains, both in the evening and at night, not only because the village had a unmistakably Himalayan feel, with its, like Ghyaru's, stone-walled, flat-roofed houses, not only because it was great sleeping that high and suffering nothing more than shortness of breath from the altitude (once again, 3680 m), not only because my cold was finally starting to break, but also because Dawa had told me the previous evening that today's trip would be a leisurely stroll down to Braka (3500  m) through a thinly forested path that maintained a great view of the Annapurna II, III and IV peaks. Furthermore, we'd spend the next two nights there and go on a couple of side trips to nearby attractions, unencumbered by our backpacks, which, after last day's steep climb to Ghyaru, was about the best news I could get.

Morning was tough for everyone..
But waking up to sights such as these quickly brought me to my feet, eager to continue the trip

The road we followed of of Ngawal, with the Annapurna giants constantly on our left

And so we left Ngawal and started down the gently descending path, going by the barren mountain side for a while before easing into the scented pine forest, going past locals traveling on horseback and, a bit later on, tourists riding bicycles. For the most part though, all we were passing were the silent trees standing watch around the road, with the ever-present, ever-imposing figures of the icy, nearby Annapurna peaks right behind them. It was on this portion of the trip that I truly felt most at peace, the sparse and, at times, dead quiet forest creating an overwhelming feeling of tranquility that nearly irresistibly drew me to lie down among the trees and spend a couple of hours just staring off yonder; despite the relaxed nature of that day's trip, however, a couple of extra hours we did not have.
It's not a great photo, but the only one I had of him; I couldn't not include that smile and garment!

It might not look it, but without so much as a zephyr to break the silence, this was the embodiment of tranquility.

Alas, I cannot remember which peaks this ridge connected, but it was damn impressive

Larger mountains attract larger birds, and while equally majestic, last week's lesser spotted eagle was somewhat less intimidating

Eventually we left the forest and once more reached the Marshyangdi river, along which we walked the rest of the short distance to Braka; more readily accessible than Ngawal, with a dirt road going past it and into nearby Manang, Braka was slightly more developed insofar as accommodations went, and the lodging we quickly found for the night was very near what I would call a hotel, or at least its equivalent in the Himalayas.
The five days we'd spent trekking had taken their toll on all of us, save Adriana, who'd thus far eluded injury or ailment of any sort: I had carried that blasted cold with me probably since before I stepped out the airplane, but thankfully it was starting to get better, Adrian had some minor digestive disturbances, coupled with headaches, the prior evening, and now Nicu started suffering from an old, traumatic injury to his left eye, which he'd treated a few months ago but which, possibly under the strain of direct sunlight, once more became acute and threatened to seriously compromise his enjoyment of the trek if not, worst case scenario, the trek itself. With that in mind, after dropping our backpacks off in Braka, we took a walk to nearby Manang (some 30 minutes away), hoping to find a pharmacy or medical centre where we'd be able to buy some eye drops. Now Manang, as I saw it, was something of a touristic capital of area - a 6000+ village built atop a small plateau, filled with tea houses, shops, bakeries, laundry services (!) and, I kid you not, cinemas. Well, projection rooms, but cinema-esque in feel, with popcorn and the works. Fun as it may have been to stay around for a bit longer, we had to stick to our priorities - we managed to find the med centre where a kindly medical assistant offered us gentamicin eye drops which, not to drag out this particular story arc for too long in an attempt to build unnecessary suspense, worked beautifully and Nicu's eye gradually recovered over the next few days, though he'd never after look as badass as he did on that day with the improvised eye patch.
Yes mom, I'll clean my barn, jeez!

I didn't take make shots in Manang, certainly none very impressive, but I couldn't leave Jim out!

Medical emergency resolved, we headed back to Braka to enjoy lunch while Adrian and Adriana (who'd stayed behind and had already eaten) did their share of laundry. The day was not over (it was only around 14:00) and, while Nicu stayed behind to take an afternoon nap and rest his eye, Dawa, the Adrians and myself took off on the first side trip we'd planned, going up to (or near) the Milarepa cave. 
The Marshyangdi river as we crossed over towards the Milarepa cave.

Milarepa was a Tibetan Buddhist philosopher who lived in the 11th-12th century  and the above-mentioned cave appears to have been his residence during his stay in the area, a period in which he subsisted on black nettles. The cave (which isn't easily accessible, being situated behind a steep, icy climb) is preceded by a gompa (monastary), which was as high as we could go for the day. The climb up there, despite slightly steep, didn't really pose much problems, being that we were unhindered by our rucksacks; we went on a winding path through a thick, pine forest, going past a stupa midway through, and eventually coming out of the tree line into the alpine clearing, where, around the high monastary, I saw for the very first time yaks, impassibly looking back at us, impervious to the doubtlessly low temperatures they'd have to face in the coming night.  A kindly caretaker opened up the gompa for us to visit inside, and the mixture of austerity (for how else can one live at over 4000 m?) and opulence (a 3 or so meter tall statue is not what I'd call modest) was striking. 

A view of the river valley, with Pisang peak behind and the way we'd traveled to reach Braka.

The stupa in a clearing roughly halfway up towards Milarepa's gompa.

A final glance behind us as we were nearing the monastary..

And a look forward towards impossibly steep cliffs

No way of seeing Milarepa without a glass wall between us, best I could do.

My first time inside a Buddhist monastery; it was quite serene.

I ended Ngawal's entry with the moon at night, well it's no less impressive during the day!

That's a face that seems able to shrug off quite a lot

Going back, a high view of Old Braka, with the monastery up to the left.
As the sun was slowly starting to set and the evening cold was beginning to ensconce us, we started our descent back to Braka, which, once again, without the weight of the backpacks on our shoulders, went by quickly and easily. As we sat around the stove enjoying our dinner later in the evening, I figured at that point acclimatisation should have been in full gear - we were sleeping at 3500 m, we'd climbed up to 4200 m (ah yes, I hadn't even made an appropriately big deal about it - going up to Milarepa's gompa had marked the first time I walked above the 4000 m threshold!), so the little bone marrow erythrocyte factories should have been busily churning out red blood cells; without any further sabotage from whichever undesirable microbes chose to temporarily inhabit my respiratory tract, I fully expected the following days to get progressively easier to tolerate, endurance-wise. The next day's plan was to visit the Ice Lake in another one day weightless trek which, from the photos we'd seen, we were all very excited to get going on.
And lastly, two views of the sunset from our hotel's terrace