Mud, Magic Honey, and Faith-Based Driving in the Nepal Annapurna Region


Nepal Journal
Mud, Magic Honey, and Faith-Based Driving in the Nepal Annapurna Region 
Richard Carr
Fall 2019

Nepal is a faith-based nation. Temples, stupas, mani stones, gompas, and monasteries abound throughout the valleys, mountains and jungles of this majestic, mysterious, and muddy land. Colorful Buddhist prayer flags decorate taxis, restaurants, department stores, buses, and trucks, religious sites, and mountain summits. The presence of faith is also apparent in the way that Nepalis is drive. Technically you are supposed to drive on the left-hand side of the road. This doesn’t always turn out to be the case, however. When it becomes inconvenient, due to the poor quality of the road or the frustration of the driver, people sometimes switch over to the right side with no apologies: barreling down the wrong lane and nosing themselves back onto the left side if there’s any threat from oncoming traffic. Drivers speed fearlessly to the most advantageous open space in the road with unflinching faith that they will harm no one and that no one will crash into to them. 

This is not the way traffic works in New York, where I live, or even in cities like Boston or New Jersey known for their automotive trepidation. We have traffic lights, signs, and lines that we abide by in leu of faith. For the first few days in Kathmandu, I frustrated myself waiting for gaps in the traffic before safely crossing the street. Watching Nepalis closely, I gradually understood that there was an unspoken understanding. It’s completely acceptable to simply walk out into rushing traffic with the blind faith that all of those seemingly reckless buses, motorcycles and cars will miraculously avoid you. It has be faith in a higher power.

In September 2019, I booked a 14-day trek known as the Annapurna circuit. The trek entails traversing long distances; up and down steep mountainsides; along cliff edges; over wobbly, wire bridges; and slick, death-defying, stone stairs that can go on for 1000 meters.  This too requires a certain amount of faith. But the most perilous experiences were those that I had on four wheels.    

We embarked upon our journey from Kathmandu at 5AM in the morning. There were eleven of us: two guides, three porters, and six trekkers. The trekkers were an odd assortment comprised of Three Swiss men (Drei Schweizer) in their 20’s, A German man also in his twenties, A Spanish women in her 40’s , and (me) a 64-year old geezer from New York. We piled into a vehicle that was smaller than a bus but bigger than a van and started out on the paved road headed west toward Pokhara. There were thousands of kiranas (small stores filled with fast moving items) lining the roads in dilapidated buildings with rusted galvanized iron roofs. We sped along westward for about 6 hours until we turned to the north and onto dirt roads. In their on-line itinerary guide, G adventures describes this segment thusly:   

Settle in and scan the scenery from the convenience of a private vehicle.

Climb aboard, grab a seat, and enjoy the ride.


The roads became progressively riddled with deep ruts, holes and towering bumps that would rearrange your aching guts every couple of minutes. 

`20 miles south of Jagat, we piled into a large jeep and proceeded to ford a wide, 2-foot-deep, rushing stream; skirting our way past perilous mountain traverses where the road was so washed out it seemed like we only had a quarter inch of road between us and eternity 1000 meters below in a deep ravine. The driver seemed engaged, confident and filled with the faith that we will carry on. The six Westerners in the van: not so much. Each time we forded a small river, perhaps two feet deep and rushing, we closed our eyes, grabbed on to a handlebar, and thrust our heads down below the seat. We looked at each other with shocked amazement. Sometimes a vehicle would come from the opposite direction and it was anyone’s guess whether the driver would decide to keep left or switch over into the oncoming lane if it served his or her purpose in finding the most passable piece of road. 

Though the drivers beeped their horns constantly, we witnessed no road rage. There was an inexplicable order that rose from the chaos. Drivers proceeded with the expectation that there would be hundreds of close calls along the way; that there would be places where they would pass another vehicle by less than a quarter of an inch without any hesitation. Us Westerners were terrified. For the Nepalis, it was just another day. According to Buddhist teachings, suffering is an inevitable part of life.

We were grateful to still be alive when we reached the town of Jagat where we would begin 11 days of perilous, oxygen-deprived trekking in the high Himalaya. What else could possibly go wrong?

I have been on six previous treks with G Adventures: a company that organizes cultural tours and adventure outings throughout the world. You stay in humble lodgings and eat simple but hearty meals. I have previously immersed myself during these adventures in the beautiful mountain scenery and indigenous cultures of the Andes, Alps, and Himalayas. I knew what was coming. I knew the trek would be long and physically demanding. We would climb the world’s highest mountain pass enduring primitive and sometimes squalid conditions along the way. Be that as it may, I enjoy the challenge and struggle of these treks. When we are finished everyone in the group heaves a sigh of relief and raises a glass to celebrate. 

At 64 years old I was between 30 and 40 years older than my trekking companions. I knew that I’d be slower than them. We were in the last weeks of monsoon season. The first day of our trek entailed about nine hours of hiking over rugged, muddy terrain. 

In Kathmandu I had arranged with the guides to carry the low priced but durable violin that I bring along on all of my treks. Usually a guide or porter carries the violin in exchange for violin lessons. If all goes well, by the end of the trek, the carrier of my violin has learned how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, or maybe “Happy Birthday”. Instrumental music education is scarce in many places and therefore any hands-on instrumental experience it is met with great enthusiasm. This also gives me a chance to play for the local people in the villages where we stay as well as my trekking buddies in the dining rooms of tea houses and refugios. After the first day on the trail were all fantastically spent. We had reached the stage at which any bed, no matter how primitive, was welcome and any food, no matter how basic was consumed with voracity. They say that hunger is the most delicious sauce. 

It was enjoyable getting to know the other people in the group. Despite the age difference we were able to effortlessly establish a relaxed comradery together. Though all of them spoke another language as their mother tongue, they all spoke admirable English, making it easy to converse. By the end of the day I was anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes behind the pack. They took off down the trail like fleet young bucks. I went slowly and steadily. As the trail grew steep and the air grew thin, they slowed their pace and discovered the Zen-like repetition of putting one foot in front of the another. Walking together through the towns of Chame, Lower Pasang, and Manang we bonded as a group. The experience of adventure and adversity brought us together and we were cheering each other on. Continuing to slowly put one foot in front of the other, we went higher and higher. First 8000 feet, then 9000 feet, then 10, 11, 12, 13, 14,000 feet. We spent the night in Phedi: at 14,400 feet: it was the last place we would sleep before making our final ascent to the Thorang-la pass (17700 ft.). 

To reach this highest mountain pass in the world we would ascend 3000 feet over the course of 5 km at an altitude that required one to walk at a deliberate, measured pace. Anyone inclined to suffer from the effects of high-altitude sickness will most certainly experience it here. Fortunately, I was hanging out with certified Billy goats who made it to the top of the pass with only minor complaints. In other groups that I had previously ascended the heights with, there had been a few people who would experience nausea, extreme headache, and dizziness to the point where they had to either rest or, in some cases, descend. None of this happened in our group. 

Five days before reaching the Thorang-la pass, I had noticed a dressmaker’s shop in the small village Bagarchhāp where we were spending the night. Some devil inside me whispered that the bunch of us should wear dresses and pose for a picture at the top of the pass. Besides me there were four guys in their twenties and a woman in her forties. I pitched the idea to everybody back at the tea house. Within five minutes, we were crowded into the shop trying on brightly colored, frumpy, floral-patterned dresses to the amused astonishment of the dressmaker and her employees. Our Nepali guides and porters wanted none of it.

We took the standard picture in mountain gear with guides and porters standing next to the sign that marked the highest point of the pass. It wasn’t the warmest day up there, in fact it was near freezing and beginning to snow, but we changed quickly into our comely dresses and posed for what is perhaps the most absurd mountaineering picture I have ever posted on social media. It was a testament to the indestructible high spirits of our group. The Nepali porters and guides were reduced to fits of laughter. 

And then we went down.

Most mountaineering accidents happen on the dissent. Everyone is relieved to have made it to the top. It’s easy to lose concentration on steep, descending  slopes and problems emerge. Fortunately, there were no problems like that with our group. There was some passing orthopedic damage in the form of knee, calf, and quadricep pain. We descended an ibuprofen-inducing 6000 feet down the other side of the pass into the town of Muktināth where we stayed at the festive Bob Marley Guest House. The lights flickered on and off all night, but the showers were hot, and the alcohol flowed.

 After reaching the high point of most treks: it’s time to head down and go home. With the Annapurna circuit trek: the Thorang-la pass is just the halfway mark. There is much more to experience and by the end you feel like you’ve run the gamut. The gamut began with another horrifying, internal-organ-scrambling, vertigo-inducing, nausea-provoking ride over hopelessly impossible, one-lane dirt (mud, rocks, fallen debris, rushing stream, one-inch-to-spare) roads that were heavily used by absurdly large vehicles like intercity buses, construction equipment, and 18-wheelers. Every hundred meters there was another near-death experience that had to be dealt with. Sometimes we were all so frightened that we held onto each other for emotional support. The no-nonsense passenger bus driver took us on a Little Shop of Horrors tour to Ghasa.

The itinerary guide described it this way:

Take a local bus to Kalopani and view the contrasting yellow hills against green farmland of the valley floor. View the Kali Gandaki, home to the deepest canyons.


The driver had a doorman who would let people in and out. There was never enough room for everyone on the bus and many people ended up standing in the isle. I don’t know how they carried on. It was all those of us who were fortunate enough have seats; holding on to various restraints and bars could do to keep from hitting our heads on the ceiling or rolling onto the floor. The members of our group sat in the front next to the driver so that we could get a full dose of his virtuosic driving and his constant yelling and grumbling. Only the deafening loud Nepali dance music that he played on the stereo seemed to sooth him. Minutes before the end of the ride, we had to negotiate our way around an active avalanche. That’s right AN ACTIVE AVALANCHE. Dirt and rocks from the cliffs above the road were now falling into the lane twenty feet ahead of us. The bus driver ordered his doorman to go out into the road and simply clear the rocks away. The doorman was, understandably, frightened to death of this task. He would move a few rocks and then duck his head and run away from where the active avalanche was slowly spilling dirt and rocks into the road. The bus driver loudly insisted that the terrified doorman move this rock and that. The doorman tried his best to obey but there is no mistaking his absolute trepidation. Finally, the bus driver waved the poor doorman to the side and audaciously drove the bus (bottoming out on shards of granite stabbing into the chassis) over the rubble while there was still dirt and rocks coming down on top of the bus. 

That was the climax. We exhaled with relief and leapt out of the bus, kissing the ground and thanking God that he/she spared us another day. Ghasa was a laid-back little town. It was a Nepali version of a mountain holler in West Virginia. The place had a battered, hillbilly feel to it that was at once decaying and beautiful. Beautiful, because of the verdant mountains and jungles that surround the village. Decaying, because of the dilapidated homes and abject poverty of its denizens. We settled into a cozy little hotel and many of us wandered around the stone pathways in the center of town. Two of the Swiss guys found a farmer who raised and slaughtered goats. They arranged to have a goat slaughtered for our dinner that night. They watched and photographed (yuck) the proceedings. Then the goat meat was brought over to the hotel where the proprietor made a kind of stew out of it. Being a vegetarian, I did not partake. 

It was an authentic experience and I couldn’t blame my meat-eating friends for indulging. 

We became friends with young boy named Assim. He just came over to the hotel and started hanging around. He was curious and friendly with wisdom and intelligence beyond his years and the confines of his life. We all took a liking to the little guy immediately. I taught him a little bit of violin and then he walked me, camera in tow, around town pointing at places where he thought I should take a picture. He was particularly fond of the chickens that ran through the streets. He insisted that I take copious pictures of the local yokels who all knew and adored him. 

Heavy rain was forecast for the next day and exposure to leeches became more likely as a consequence. Is there a soul on earth that welcomes the idea of a leech attaching itself to the skin and sucking the blood?  Leeches combined with torrential rain had no appeal to me. As it turned out there was the availability of the bus (the one we almost died on the day before), or perhaps a jeep that would take us to our next destination in Tatopani. One of the Swiss guys and myself decided to go on the road in a vehicle despite the crushing horror of its peril. The conditions were not quite as bad as the previous day and we managed to get a ride in a jeep that secretly conveyed our porters (they didn’t like leeches either) to the next hotel. 

The whole idea of a large bus going on these single-lane, washed-out roads is absolutely absurd and would probably be illegal in most places. But in this land of faith-based driving anything goes. It was all going pretty well until we met up with the goat rodeo of the day in the form of a large, heavy 18-wheeler, with the name “ Road King “ painted in bright yellow letters on the front grill, that was stuck on the sharp curve of a narrow traverse with cascading water coming down. Upwards of fifty men were unable pry it loose.  Hundreds of jeeps, taxis, buses and gravel trucks were backed up on either side of the disabled vehicle. Drivers from stranded vehicles got out and helped to fortify the area beneath the wheels with large rocks, creating harder sturdier surface that would enable the truck to become unstuck and out of the way. The process emancipating the 18-wheeler took about two hours and the participation of several dozen drivers, army personnel, and local police. It became a social scene. I caught up with people I’d met and various other parts of the Annapurna circuit. We were all stuck for a while and got out from our vehicles; walking around greeting each other and laughing about how this was just another day in the land of faith-based driving. The Swiss guy (Tizi) and I decided to walk along the road until we got to Tatopani or the jeep caught up with us. We walked for about 2 km before, miraculously, the truck had risen from the muck, making everyone else free to go on their way. Our jeep came up from behind us victoriously honking its horn and we hopped in. We still had about an hour’s drive along a ravaged road ahead of us. Tizi and I rode in the back seat. The expedition porters rode in the truck bed behind us: getting regularly sprayed by cascades that flowed down from the steep cliffs. Along the way we picked up two middle-aged women who knew our driver. They were dressed in ornate, red, silky outfits that many Hindu women wear come-what-may in the backcountry of Nepal. 

Reunited with the group and settled in our Tatopani hotel we noticed that there was a store next-door that sold magic honey. Magic honey, I had never heard of it before, is a psychedelic drug that is legal to buy and consume in Nepal. If you take the full dose you will be, out of commission, in an altered state for at least two days. Two members of our group sampled just small amounts of it and reported a hazy drunk and feeling accompanied by diarrhea. Most of us abstained. 

It was a long ascent from Tatopani to our next destination, Sikha. Many of the trails that wind through the high Himalaya have large stretches of stone staircases that can climb on for an hour or two or sharply descend steeply for the same amount of time. Going up requires a slow rhythmic determination. Going down requires steadfast focus insofar as it would be easy to slip on wet, mossy stone and crack your skull. 

The hotel in Sikha had a rooftop where you could go at daybreak and, if you were lucky, observe a crystal-clear view of the Himalaya. We did just that and were rewarded by an absolutely drop-dead, clear-as-a-bell view of Dhaulagiri the 7th highest peak in the world. We stood there for at least an hour taking pictures and basking in the fabulous grandeur of the surroundings. 

From Sitka we spent another 4.5 hours climbing stairs up to the touristy town of Ghorapani. This popular town must’ve been built by the people who invented rocks because you have to climb steep stone stairs on either side get to the center of town. At the hotel I took out my violin stepped out onto the street; playing for gaggle of young kids between the ages of four and eight. My presence was such a curiosity to them that they couldn’t help but run and fetch their friends. I let them all pluck away on the strings. They did this with great joy then I played the fiddle like a ukulele and made a up song about the barking along with the dog who had been interrupting my show.

The next morning the group ascended another long staircase to the top of Poon Hill which has a signature view of the Annapurna range and serves as the “money shot” at the end of the circuit. We were supposed to be wakened at 4:30 and begin our hike, which takes about an hour to get to the top. I was dressed and waiting to go at 4:30 but didn’t hear a knock on my door until 5:30. This posited the group at the Poon Hill summit at about 6:30: too late for sunrise and into the time when clouds start to creep up and eventually obliterate the view. The head guide was coming down with a serious respiratory infection and was apparently too weak pry himself out of bed at 4:30 AM. 

Some people felt disappointed by this in so far as the other trekkers on the way down told us that we already missed the best part. Be that as it may, we ate a hearty breakfast, packed our things and headed down the most torturous 5 km of stairs imaginable. They were stone, they were slippery, and we descended 3000 knee-busting, quad-burning, calf-crippling feet. I was in a gruesome mood by time I reached the bottom. Advil and beer were the only cure. 

According to the itinerary guide:

Enjoy an early morning excursion to Poon Hill. Then venture to Ramghai, enjoying spectacular views of the Annapurna range along the way. Cross through forests, streams, and bridges to reach the final destination, Birethanti.

After sleeping in until 7:30 we walked down a muddy road – thick as diarrhea - for about an hour and a half and then climbed aboard another bus. It wasn’t really a bus, it was the same sort of small bus or a big van that we had come out in. The physical challenge of the trek was over, and the remainder of the day would be taken up by six hours of bumpy riding to Pokhara (second largest city in Nepal) by a beautiful lake. We stayed at a proper four-star hotel in Pokhara. The reacquaintance with clean toilets, hot showers, sanitary conditions, and quality food was like returning to a long-lost lover. 

Beer, wine and hard liquor were consumed eagerly at an end-of-journey celebration in an upscale garden restaurant. It would be the last time we got to hang out with our porters and assistant guide. It is the custom to present them with our thanks (and generous gratuities) at this time. We collected the money and put each individual tip into makeshift envelopes that we had made from computer paper. After failing to wriggle out of it, I was the one chosen to make the speech and presentation. Throughout the journey, most of the Nepalis we met called me Bàjè (Nepali for grandpa). There was no shaking the elder thing. I stood, and they stood, and I gave them their money - and of course called one of them by the wrong name. 

The next day presented us with what was billed as a six-hour drive to Kathmandu on paved road. 

We travel back to Kathmandu where the rest of the day is free for shopping, sightseeing, or relaxing in one of the many rooftop cafés.

This sounded like a drowsy little undertaking that would posit us at the end of our trail by late afternoon. 

But no. 

About ten miles outside of Kathmandu we got stuck the traffic jam from Hell. It was a Monday afternoon and the highway department had decided to do a small bit of paving on the principle, two-laned road that traveled between Pokhara and Kathmandu. Traffic was backed up for miles on each side of the paving operation. Trucks were at a halt. Both intercity and tourist buses filled with hot, frustrated people were also at a standstill. I took out my fiddle and played for some bored-looking folks while we’re stranded there. They looked on with interest but also a touch of hostility. Maybe they were just pissed off about being in a traffic jam. Tough crowd. 

I decided to walk. It was about 6- 7 miles uphill. Traffic would move from one direction at a time and with long, inexplicable pauses in between changes in direction. When the traffic moved, epic clouds of dust and exhaust fumes were overwhelming for an unfortunate soul walking along the side of the road. I spent most of the trek up the hill with my shirt pulled up over my nose, so as to filter out some of the noxious fumes. 

When I got to the top of the hill, I met up with our head guide and one of the Swiss guys. I told the Swiss guy I was done horsing around and the two of us hopped into a cab to the hotel while the guide waited for the others to show up in their own time as permitted by the traffic jam. We reunited as a group, hours later, at a restaurant in town. 

A few us stayed in town for another night. I upgraded to a high-tech, boutique hotel called Aloft. I enjoyed saying the word Allaawwhhffftt. 

Rise above the crowded, dusty streets of Kathmandu and rest your weary head at Allaawwhhffftt.

Enea and Rene (young guy trekkers still hanging around town) helped me move my stuff and settle in. It was the last night. I took Enea and Rene along head guide out to dinner. We debriefed over beer, dal bot and laughs. Enea and Rene went back to their hotel. The head guide invited me to ride on the back of his motorcycle back to Allaawwhhffftt.  On a motorbike for the first time in decades, in the cool night of the city, I felt young and free: renewed by the challenge.   




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