12:45am

When most people consider getting a taxi ride at one o’clock in the morning, the intention is usually not to go boating. Over two different bottles of liquor and one rowdy card game, the three of us, Oliver, Adam, and myself discussed the coming days plan and the impending probability of a nationwide baahnd (strike) that would shut down all services for at least a week. This baahnd would include reducing/eliminating taxi and jeep services, which for us, meant no shuttles to or from rivers. The loophole, and reason behind the hour of our departure, was that the strike only lasted during the day, most services opened up sometime around five in the evening for at least a few hours, and things like taxis could operate as long as one was willing to pay.

For $35 the not-entirely-sober three of us procured a taxi with driver and appropriate roof rack willing to drive us the hour and a half or so to Nayapul. Twenty minutes after finding our ride, we had each gone back to our hotels, packed enough gear to make our boats with enough gear to be more than just slightly burdensome, however not quite enough to be comfortable the entire time and piled ourselves through the doors of the waiting taxi.

1:11am

Roads in Nepal really aren’t that bad (okay maybe they are) it’s mostly the traffic that makes travel an arduously slow endeavor. Without traffic on the roads however, we left Pokhara and were climbing out of the valley at an incredible rate! Between conversations of a broken heart over a girl named Angel, and late night Nepali lessons, the kilometers passed by, and soon enough, we found ourselves driving through a sleeping village.

“So you want this Nayapul, or the next one?” our dutiful driver turned around and asked.

“Uhhhh,” Oliver and I stammered, “there are two?”

“Yes, one here, and one twenty-five kilometers away.”

“Oliver, do you have the guidebook?” I asked, already knowing that he hadn’t brought it.

“Wake Adam up,” Oliver replied, “maybe he brought his.”

We both held our breaths as I poked Adams shoulder. He turned head as far from the light at the front of the taxi as possible and kept on sleeping.

PaddleNepalWestHowland-106Photo: Oliver Grossman

“Adam! Wake up! Is this Nayapul? Is this where we want to be?”

“Huh? What? Yeah, Nayapul,” Adam agreed still obviously asleep.

“Come on Adam, we need you’re help here,” Oliver tried to rouse him again. I gave him another vigorous elbow to the ribs and his head lifted and eyes opened.

“Is this where we want to be?” We repeated to him.

“Where’s Byrantanti?” Adam groggily asked the taxi driver.

“Byrantanti?” he replied, “two kilometer that way,” and pointed down a dirt road that disappeared downhill into darkness behind us.

“Okay, this is it guys,” Adam said, now more or less at his senses.

We spilled out of the cab unfolding ourselves and realized that we weren’t alone on the side of the road. Under the unfortunately bright flourescent lighting of a streetside shop was a line of sleeping bodies packed together tighter than a pocket-smashed pack of cigarettes. We found a similar space for ourselves in an adjacent stall and unloaded our boats and gear onto the cold concrete. A quick photo, an exchange of rupee notes, and thankyous to our taxi driver and assistant, and we watched the red tail lights weave their way back up the mountainside toward Pokhara.

PaddleNepalWestHowland-4Photo: Oliver Grossman

With a silent strike-stricken road and chilled Himalayan air we had no trouble finding sleep in front of an adjacent street-side shop, at least not until 5:30 when the teahouse owner whose dining space we were occupying began opening up shop for the day. A cup of tea on the way and we were all three up looking like we had been out drinking and woken up somewhere completely unexpected, which wasn’t actually far from the truth. We regained our bearings and began discussing the days options.

Assuming a jeep or pickup truck was out of the equation due to the strike, Option A looked like packing up our boats and hiking the nine kilometers up to the end of the road, then four more to Old Bridge, and taking all day (and probably the better part of all night) to do so. Option B looked like finding porters to do the same thing as Option A. And Option C was to somehow find a jeep with driver who was willing to drive us as far as possible before needing to switch back over to either B or A.

As we sipped tea and slowly arranged and rearranged our kit, we were slightly surprised by the sound of a jeep working its way up the road toward Nayapul. Assuming it was destined for a pre-arranged group of trekkers, we gave it little notice until it puttered up in front of our boats and stopped. We looked up at the passenger (left) side of the jeep to see a jolly roger decal on the window with the words “Scurvy Dog” emblazened beneath. The driver stepped out and, fitting his vehicle, asked somewhat gruffly “jeep? You want jeep?”

The heavens had answered with Option C. After a few minutes of haggling, the price dropped to what we understood to be two thousand rupees ($20,) and boats were quickly loaded onto the roof under a tarp and we were hustled behind the dark tinted windows. We bumped and jostled our way down to Birantanti, across the bridge, and with no sign of the Annapurna Conservation Area permit police, made continued up the Modi Khola valley.

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Rounding a bend in the road our jaws dropped. The view before us of Macchupucchre’s stunning snow-capped slopes, spines, and pinnacles had us all rushing for our cameras before we bounced our way around another corner. The peak appeared and disappeared as we wound our way up the valley, each time set behind a slightly different foreground of rice terraces as the sun made it’s way up the valleys’ eastern ridge. Smoke from cooking fires cast drainage-wide shadows in the lower elevations adding stripes across the opposing mountainside.

Eventually, we made our way to the end of the road, unloaded boats, and took off on foot continuing our journey up the valley. Views of terraced fields, small traditional huts, and bits and pieces of infrastructure clung to the sheer walls that rose up in every direction. Needless to say, the going was slow. 45lbs of boat, 25 lbs of paddling gear, 15 lbs of warm clothes, camera, ibuprofen, leftover tequila, and drinking water left us with heaving chests and stumbling feet longing for the hand-painted sign for Old Bridge that seemed to never appear.

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3 hours later…salvation. I stumbled through a narrow passage to find Adam and Oliver reclining in cheap plastic seats sipping tea under a blue and white sign that read “New Bridge Tea House Wel-Come”.

Three pots of tea and three massive plates of dal bhat later we had made a plan. Drop overnight gear and anything else deemed unnecesary here in our soon-to-be-rented room, gear up, and continue the march uphill with boats and paddling kit another 5km to New Bridge, and from there paddle back down and reconnect with our gear, beds, and more dal bhat.

Against better judgement, up we went, and up, and up, and up, with only vague glimpses of the turquoise ribbon below us to keep our spirits from coming crashing down in an overwhelemed, sleep deprived, sweaty mess.

Salvation came again, this time in the form of a steep thorny bushwhack down to the river, and a quick icy dip to rid ourselves of the thorns, sweat, and grit. A speedy superman-changing-act later and we were on our way bouncing down steep class IV, gloriously oblivious to the portage madness that awaited us downstream.

PaddleNepalWestHowland-8Photo: Oliver Grossman

PaddleNepalWestHowland-6Photo: Oliver Grossman

The water was instantly chilling, and as the sun continued its downward trajectory below the ridge above us, the temperature plumetted below the comfortable threshold of shorts and flipflops. Each rapid became more and more serious; first portaging every four or five drops, then every three, then two, then we were hiking again, this time through waist deep water over boulders the size of houses, all the while wondering if the saving grace of the Old Bridge teahouse was ever going to appear. “It must be just around the next bend” became our mantra as darkness began to creep out of the shadows.

The “next bend” came and went a dozen times and finally, a glimmer of hope. A moss and lichen covered PVC pipe hung down from a mess of baling wire and cheap nylon rope into a pool. Just beyond the next horizon line the silohuette of an old trestle framed walking bridge emerged out of the growing darkness. We stashed boats and crawled up the hillside toward the warm lights emanating from the kitchen and patio.

Shedding wet life jackets, sprayskirts, and board shorts, we quickly retired to down jackets, dry long underwear and endless pots of tea while we waited for heaps dal bhat to be served.

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The next morning came cold and shaded as we each found our way from bed to patio table still wrapped in sleeping bags. More tea. Breakfast. Blessed sunshine. Nap-time.

We re-connected with our boats and began, once again, picking our way downstream, alternating leading rapids, photographing, and taking in the spectacular scenery.

Morning turned to afternoon, and soon we found ourselves in a small town shin-deep in rice harvest. Every open inch of floorspace was covered in drying grain, and upon investigation, the rumors we had heard of waterfalls were confirmed. A short hike up the side-drainage and we were rewarded with clear pools, and clean free-fall.

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Daylight began to wane and we made our way back down toward Nayapul to confront our next adventure; getting back to Pokhara. Remember the strike…still in effect. Luckily for us there was a Russian/Tajikistanian tourist group in Nayapul, Oliver was living in Tajikistan, and they had exactly three empty seats!

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