I was planning to write an article about a trekker and ended up doing one about Samira from Shiraz, Iran. I didn’t deliberately choose someone from the least represented nation on the Annapurna trekking circuit, but she was the person I got the most friendly with.
On my first day trekking I came across so many Germans that I thought they had a monopoly in this part of Nepal. Then I heard the familiar tone of British and American voices and in the evening came across a fair few French and a surly group of Russians. There were Israelis, Australians, Italians, Indians and Nepalis doing the trek but, as far as I’m concerned, only one Iranian.
I met Samira in Pokhara, Nepal’s second city, a place that seems to have built itself up around the trekking industry. Pokhara has a spectacular view of the Annapurna mountain range but when I was there the whole place was drenched in haze (or was it pollution?)
It was nine in the morning and we were both waiting in the government office where trekking permits were handed out (at $40 each, it was the most expensive thing about this whole trip).
We had the usual trekker’s conversation (“where are you going?”) and realised that we were heading to the same part of the Annapurna trail. We exchanged email addresses, went in different directions and I thought it highly unlikely that we’d meet up again.
Meeting Samira reminded me of the old chat up line I heard at university but never used, as it was too ridiculous: “I’m doing nothing. You’re doing nothing. Let’s do nothing together!”
We almost missed each other. We were going to meet up in a place called Ghorepani but a lack of internet access meant we couldn’t communicate by email and we ended up in adjacent hotels. It wasn’t meant to be.
I had started my trek in a place called Tatopani, where hot springs flow out of the ground (this article describes how I got there). I was joining the tail end of the most popular trek in Nepal: the Annapurna Circuit, a two week hike that passes the Annapurna range, consisting of 4 massive peaks. There are well worn footpaths, with lots of steps made of stone slabs, and every few miles there are guest houses, tea shops and friendly places to stop and fuel up. You can get by for about $10 a day (accommodation $3 and the rest on cooked meals and water) but you can easily spend double that if you’re not careful.
In Ghorepani, I stayed in a ramshackle building called Green View Hotel and my room seemed to be constructed of thin panels of plywood. I could hear everything my noisy Tibetan neighbours were doing — shouting into the telephone as I was trying to sleep and hacking up his lungs at 5am. The Tibetans and Chinese tend to spit a lot, at least they did when I lived there. My mother visited me in Tibet and said: “I know why you love it here — everyone spits on the street.”
At 5am the hotel was in uproar. Doors were being banged, people were stomping around and the sound was amplified by the poor construction. Everyone was trooping up a nearby slope called Poon Hill from where you can get a “sunrise view” of two of the world’s highest mountains: Dhaulagiri and Annapurna.
I was determined to stay in bed for as long as possible as I was feeling sick.I’d overdone it the previous day, my first day trekking, when I’d walked for over 7 hours and climbed over 1,500 metres. I had been doing exercises in the morning with my super-fit-and-energetic brother in Kathmandu, but not more than about 10 minutes a day. I later learned that you should take it easy on your first day trekking and you’re not supposed to climb more than 500 metres a day. Maybe I had altitude sickness? I was feeling sorry for myself and thinking that walking for seven hours must be a real shock to the body.
But I couldn’t sleep. By 6am I was out of my sleeping bag and staggering up Poon Hill, thinking “I must make an effort to see what is probably a spectacular view. I mustn’t be a slob.” I got this shot of the Dhaulagiri mountain, one of the few 8,000 metre peaks in the world, from the back of the hotel:
Having got a couple of good shots I almost went back to the hotel, but something made me go on. There were steps leading up and I felt like an old man, struggling to put one foot in front of the other. I wanted to throw up, but scores of well equipped and fit-looking trekkers were trooping down the hill and it would have been embarrassing. I said hello to the first few trekkers but they kept coming and I started to ignore them.
“Hello! Is that you?”
“It’s me, Samira. From Iran. Remember?”
“Eh…er…oh yeah. Of course. I was looking for you last night. How are you?”
It was nice meeting someone friendly, someone to talk to, and I quickly decided to walk down the hill with her and the ever increasing herd of trekkers.
Samira’s English is excellent and we got chatting. Within minutes I was whining about my nausea and exhaustion and wondering if I could go on.
“I am a doctor,” she said. “I can offer you some medicines from Iran. I have a pack of medicines in my room.” How could I refuse? I hadn’t even brought an aspirin. Proper trekkers come with bags of pills and powders and potions.
I asked her about Iran and she told me that she worked in the children’s hospital in Shiraz, that it was well equipped and modern. I assumed that it was difficult for Iranians to get passports and travel, but she said “It’s not hard at all to have a passport in Iran. Everybody can do it. And you don’t need any special permit to get out of Iran.”
We talked briefly about Iran’s controversial foreign policy (they have troops in Iraq and Syria) and she said “we suffered a lot in the Iran-Iraq War and we want to stop war coming to our country, so we send our troops abroad to keep it away.”
Ever since I went to Iran as a kid, on my own, in the early 1970s, I have been curious about it. Why don’t I meet more Iranians abroad? If the population is 79 million and they can get passports easily why don’t we see them more often? Samira told me that Iranians can’t afford to travel abroad and that the middle class “prefer to save money, buy automobiles and homes…and invest money inside the country. Travelling abroad is still a luxury.”
Getting Iranian Drugs
Back at her hotel I sat in the cafe area with scores of other trekkers, not speaking to anyone. I felt like death warmed up. Samira had gone up to her room and eventually reappeared with some tiny pills with Persian writing on the packet. She said it was for nausea and I swallowed it gratefully.
An hour later I was on the trail. My nausea had gone and my energy was back. I trekked for a few hours, through steep gorges and thick forests, along well trodden paths and endless steps, had a rest and then for a few hours more.
Samira had asked if I wanted to join her on another trek, but it would have taken an extra day and I just didn’t feel up to it. She also invited me to visit her in Iran, where she goes trekking in the mountains. I might just take her up on that. I’d love to visit Iran. I met another trekker, a young German kindergarten teacher, who had just been there. She told me that the Iranian people are incredibly friendly and she was treated like a rock star wherever she went.
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