Annapurna Circuit Trek, April 2014 – Thoughts, and a Trek Diary
In your life there are a few places, where something has happened. And then there are the other places, which are just other places.
—— Alice Munro, Face
The summer of last year was a disappointing one, at least for my trekking attempts. Planned three treks. Had to bail out on two of them at the last minute, and one fizzled out. The only thing that actually resulted was major frustration and some very bad haiku (worry not, dear reader – that was my first and last attempt at verse).
This year promised better things. All the organising and scheduling were done by others who were far more efficient & capable, all I had to do was show up. Having never done the Nepal side of the Himalayas before, Gokyo Ri–Everest Base Camp sounded very enticing. EBC is a boost to the ego, and the Gokyo trail meant that you avoid the ‘highway route’ to Kala Pathar. I couldn’t wait for the flight to Delhi and then onwards to Kathmandu.
As John Lennon famously said, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Landed in Kathmandu all right, but bad weather forced cancellations of all Ktm- Lukla flights the next day, and the outlook didn’t look good at all for the next couple of days. A quick confab, and we decided that rather than being at the mercy of the weather, we’ll head out west from Kathmandu instead of east and do the Annapurna Circuit (AC) trek instead.
Karma, I guess. Two of my three aborted trips last year were to be to the Annapurna range. Der aaye, due to rust aaye, I told myself.
The AC route is generally regarded among the trekking community as one of the best treks in the world. It spans a clutch of 8000m+ peaks – Manasulu, Annapurna I, Dhaulagiri.. and nestled between the last two is the Thorung La crossing. At 18000 feet, Thorung La is the highest point of the route and the Circuit goes around the Annapurna ranges down into the majestic Kali Gandaki, which is the deepest gorge in the world.
The views enroute are spectacular too. Snow-capped peaks greet you very early on, stunningly beautiful scenery all through competes for top spots in your memory archive as you traverse the majestic mountain ranges. The Annapurna Circuit is undoubtedly the best trek I have done, an absolute must-do in any bucket list of treks.
Sensory delights apart, these sojourns in the mountains also unfailingly offer meta level lessons. Stirring thoughts inside you, leaving behind impressions which are often transformative, long after you get back to your regular life routines. This one was no different.
A casual conversation with N, the American who runs the tea house in Gumsang on the way to Yakkharka, led to this quote from him “You don’t come and live in the mountains to get rich. But I have a wealth of peace and quiet here.” On the way to Thorung Phedi, a truly unique experience of seeing a mother yak delivering her baby by the side of the trail, triggered a myriad of thoughts on rights, liberty, nature, ethics, etc. (more details in the trek diary below, includes video). Enroute to Ngawal, we gaped at an avalanche that broke out on an adjacent mountain, awe-struck. And then came back home after the trip to read about the sherpas killed in another one on Everest, because they were unlucky to be on the same mountain when the avalanche broke out, and not an adjacent one like we were. In a parallel universe, probably would have happened the other way around.
But above all, these magnificent mountains are a reminder of the sheer insignificance of our individual self in the larger scheme of things, also known as the Universe. After our descent from Thorung la into Muktinath, we bought ‘shaligrams’ (ammonites), from local vendors – black limestone ferreted out from the Kali Gandaki river which contain fossils of shell fish and other sea creatures inside.
The Himalayas are the youngest mountains in the world, created when Continental Drift caused the Indian part of the Gondwana-landmass to split away from the African continent, move across the Indian Ocean, and slam into Eurasia from below, giving birth to these spectacular mountain terrains. Sitting a thousand miles away at home in Bangalore, as I look at this souvenir from our trip, it’s mind-boggling to think of the journey this creature has made, from a deep ocean millions of years ago, to a place inside a rock in one of the highest places on earth. Really puts everything about your life in perspective.
A trek, like life, is always about the journey, not the destination. Whenever the mountains have come calling, it’s been an experience of a lifetime. Every time.
“Annapurna, to which we had gone empty-handed, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days. With this realization we turn the page: a new life begins. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”
——– Maurice Herzog, Annapurna
A trek is also about the people who you’re with. My best ones have been with folks who made the whole journey unforgettable with loads of camarderie, laughter and fun. This nice little montage put together by B captures the mood of our trek perfectly.
So here’s to all the memories, guys.. thanks for all the hasee & khushi, and a fantastic couple of weeks.
Ladki, kulfi, khukri – the labels were many, but she defies categorisation. Her wish to see snow got fulfilled chappar-phaadke (though by the end, she had enough of it to last a lifetime :-) ). After years of making plans and one almost-made-it attempt, we finally trekked together. Here’s to many more.
My boss’s boss at the workplace more than a decade ago. Great to see you again after so many years, in a different avatar . Fantastic to trek with – all the wisecracks, the steady pace, mentally so strong. Also my role model for life after 45.
Has canoed in the Zambesi river dodging crocs, among other things. Cool as a cucumber. Chief planner. Account keeper and our annadaata. Insanely fit. A walking Wikipedia on anything and everything to do with the mountains. In short, ‘Bond’.
London-waasi, Bombay born & bred, but with pahaadi genes that make him streak like a mountain goat across difficult trails. Generous, effervescent, bubbly, a morale booster in any situation. DJ extraordinaire. Unsurpassed at selfies.
Kathmandu to Besishehar
We land in Kathmandu on a humid afternoon to a welcome of garlands. Inching our way through city traffic, we finally check into the Thamel Eco resort – clean, functional and right in the heart of the shopping district. Nice lunch at New Orleans café, a visit to Pandeyji’s office to get our permits and porters organized.. we are now free to walk around the streets of Thamel, checking out curios to pick up on our way back and do a bit of trek shopping. Dinner is at the iconic Rum Doodle bar, a place to visit more for the hype and lore than the quality of the food.
Our flight to Lukla is next morning, we make a touchdown at the Pashupati temple enroute to the airport. Seems like god has other things in store for us, though. We spend hours at the airport, waiting forlornly for our flight. Turns out the weather has made it impossible – no flights take off that day. From the reports we get, seems like the chances of getting a flight are very low for the next couple of days too. By afternoon, we have made a decision (amazing that we do so, and is a credit to the people I travel with). Gokyo-EBC is replaced with the Annapurna Circuit route instead. V graciously agrees to the plan too – he had done the AC route a dozen years ago. It’s a happy memory for him, as he first met his future wife on that trek.
So we are back again in Pandeyji’s office. Maps are opened, and a quick re-scheduling of routes and stops are made. Our guide Dhurba gets the new permits, and we start a 6 hour drive from Kathmandu to Besishehar, which is the start point for the AC trek.
Besi Shehar (Chamche) – Dharapani
A short drive in the morning from our overnight halt at Besi shehar gets us to Chamche. After a sumptuous breakfast of Tibetian bread, omelettes and chai, we “officially start trekking”. The trail leads us through an unfolding landscape of deep gorges and swaying bridges. We are a chirpy bunch, happy to be finally walking on our feet. In an hour, reach an arched entrance which leads to Taal – and offers a stunning vista of a pristine lake flanked by a sandy bank on one side and rolling hills on the other. Running like excited children towards the water, we click away on our cameras/phones. It’s amazing what a sight like this on the first day of a trek does to lift your spirits. It really does set a positive tenor for the rest of the journey.
Reach our first day rendezvous, Dharapani, late in the afternoon, at about 4ish. B & V race ahead to find a nice tea house tucked away from the main street, which has nice rooms, plus a courtyard. Copious quantities of pakodas and hot ginger lemon tea are consumed, and the menu is enhanced later by good ol’ Khukri rum. I also discover first-hand how luxuriously different trekking in Nepal is, compared to my earlier treks in the Indian side of the Himalayas – hot shower, a nice bed with blankets, properly built loos… it’s a completely different experience from holing up in a tiny cramped tent, spending cold nights sleeping on hard ground, toilet tents.
Dharapani – Chamye
The alarm sounds out loud and clear at 4 AM. Except, none of us had any plans of waking up at such an unearthly hour, it’s an enthusiastic rooster in the vicinity who thinks we should be up bright and early. So anyway, we set off by 7 AM, a commendable routine that we would faithfully adhere to, for the rest of the trek.
Today, the path winds through a forest-like stretch with small, gurgling streams – which cause this region’s version of minor traffic jams. An amazing aspect of the Annapurna Circuit is that we get our first sighting of snow-capped peaks at this very early stage of the route (and as I would discover, these sights get even more breath-taking further up). Manasulu and then Lumjung elicit plenty of oohs and aahs, as we walk with our necks craned upwards.
Chai break at Timang – a gorgeously beautiful setting with open meadows and the mountains around us, making the piping hot tea taste even better. End of day halt at Chamye is in a place better than the one in Dharapani.. perks include an open lawn facing the flowing waters of the Marsyangadi river (added bonus – the toilet in the lodge has a western commode. Seriously, what more can one ask for!).
V discovers a tiny hot spring buried under some big boulders alongside the river. He had stayed at the same tea house on his AC trip a dozen years ago, and happily recounts some nostalgic anecdotes.
Chamye – Upper Pisang
As dawn breaks, the first rays of the morning sun light up Lumjung’s peak with a glorious golden hue. In contrast, I’m holding a toothbrush in hand and staring, mouth agape. Lumjung escorts us through most of the day, and is joined after a while by the Queen of ‘em all – the Annapurna in her pristine glory (Annapurna 2, to be precise).
Today I learn about plumes – condensed clouds of snow dust that float atop peaks. For other ignoramuses like me, plumes are created by the immensely strong winds which blow snow off the top of these great peaks. This snow dust mixes with the moisture in the air and forms clouds that float away in the strong breeze. Mt. Everest’s plume for example, is estimated to span a distance of 15-20 kilometres.
Why do school textbooks say that clouds are only formed by evaporation and condensation of water from our oceans, rants B.. what about these ones created by these magnificent mountains, he asks. Why, indeed.
Today is also a day of unending visual delights – the show ain’t over yet. As we cross a really windy bridge, the ‘dome’ of Pisang comes into view. A massive expanse of rock covered by snow, with a thin wedge running through the centre. Not wanting to have such a spectacular sight remain without a name, B christens it as ‘the El Capitan of Pisang’.
On Dhurba’s recommendation, we choose Upper Pisang as our destination (as against Lower Pisang) and even after we get there, climb up to the highest point of the village to find a dwelling for the night – and are rewarded with stunning views of A2 and El Capitan, as we slurp our noodle soups.
There is also a splendidly built Gompa (monastery) right next door, with impressive murals and lovely architecture. Drawn to the gompa’s serene setting, we spend some very relaxing moments inside. Eyes closed, meditating, reflecting, introspecting. A calming end to a fantastic day.
Upper Pisang – Ngawal
As I walk down the next morning from the slopes of the Himalaya tea house, a familiar face greets me outside another lodge below. It turns out to be an ex-colleague from Bangalore, who’s also doing the Annapurna Circuit with his wife and 7- year old son (who is definitely the bravest seven year old I have ever met) . H used to sit in bay adjacent to me at work, and we’ve done some weekend cycling rides in the past. But I hadn’t seen him for ages, imagine running into him in a small village in Nepal at 12000 feet above sea level!
From Upper Pisang, we take a detour to Ngawal instead of the straight path to Manang, the ‘biews are better’ on that route. This involves negotiating a steep ascent via Ghreyu, a 400m uphill climb which makes my lungs scream at every turn. I look over my shoulder to A for inspiration. He has been down with a painful tooth infection since the previous day, has been on a steady dose of painkillers, and his steady pace is a testament of his mental strength.
But there is cosmic justice after all. As I huff and puff my way to the top of the hill, there is a roar from the mountain nearby – and I am witness to my first ever experience of seeing a snow avalanche at close quarters. In a few seconds, the slopes are shrouded by an enormous cloud of snow dust, as the avalanche cascades down. It is an awe inspiring sight (video), and also a reminder of the majesty of the mountains and one’s own insignificance in the larger scheme of things.
The second half of the trail is easier, and we check into the tea house at Ngawal by noon. The friendly lady there rustles up some fine food. B takes her pet apsos, Angel and Gava, for a walk around the village while the sun is still out. Soon, the breeze picks up and a chill sets in. We huddle in the warmth of the dining hall as little snowflakes start to fall. KV, who’s been fervently praying for some snow during the trek, has her wishes granted, and sets out for a walk under falling snowflakes for the first time in her life, a broad smile lighting up her face.
Ngawal – Manang
After heavy snowfall the previous evening, the morning luckily dawns clear. We have an easy day today – Manang is only about 3 hours away, and is actually at an altitude lower than Ngawal. It’s a leisurely trek, stopping at Brakha for some delicious Cinnamon and Danish rolls at a German bakery (we were told of its existence the previous night by some fellow trekkers at our tea house – world famous in Brakha, I suppose).
Manang is among the largest villages on this route – shops selling trekking gear, a fair sprinkling of largish tea houses, a nice coffee shop, where I drool over the freshly brewed coffee – it’s the first time I get to have caffeine after we started trekking. KV & V decide to order the yak burger on offer.
Since we are at Manang pretty early in the day, I hike up for a short trek up a nearby hill with B & V to Chorsar point (3800m), which ends right at the foot of the Gangapurna glacier. Spectacular close-ups of the glacier are on offer, plus a panoramic view of the Gangapurna taal and the river plains below. Also make a trip to the lake while coming down – the green coloured, still waters of the lake framed by mountains all around is among the most picturesque sights I have ever seen.
Glacial water contains tiny bits of rock and minerals called “rock flour” in suspension from the grinding action of the glacier. The rock particles refract the green spectrum of the sun’s light, so the water appears GREEN.
Manang also offers other entertainment options and since we have time on our hands, we end up in one of the local cinemas to see ‘Seven Years In Tibet’. The theme (a climber’s story of redemption) and the plea the movie makes for Tibet’s freedom, are an appropriate fit for our general mood, and triggers conversations over dinner later.
Manang – Yakkharka
We’ve now got super-efficient at our early morning start routine. After a delicious breakfast of fried eggs and toast, we leave Manang behind in the morning haze. A 500m ascent is the order of the day, which will get us to Yakkharka, and also to a 4000m altitude. The first half of the route is ardous, with a steep hike around a mountain right after we begin.
Mid-route break at Gumsang. End up chatting with N, who runs the lone tea house there. He is originally from Colorado, but a love of the mountains brought him to Nepal for the first time a decade ago. He then made a trip every year, and finally ended up marrying the daughter of the original owner of the tea house about a year ago, and has now made Gumsang his home. “I am not rich, but I have a wealth of peace and quiet here”, he says, and it seems unlikely that he will return to the country where he spent a large part of his life.
The weather at Yakkharka stays true to the now familiar pattern – warm and sunny when we get there, but very soon turning frosty, with heavy snow fall. This time, all of us get out and horse around in the snow for a bit. V even makes a mini-snowman.
But we are back inside very soon. I try to get some part of my foot edge-wise near the heater in the dining room. Dumb charades, scrabble, etc. get us through the afternoon, with cups of steaming ginger lemon tea.
At this height, the altitude starts becoming a factor in all your planning, and we have multiple chats about how slow or fast do we schedule our route from here. A fellow trekker from Israel is heli-rescued back to Pokhara after displaying acute symptoms of Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS). Another lady in the dining room is down with hypothalmia. It was relatively easy going till now, things will start to get exciting from here on.
Yakkharka – Thorung Phedi
A tough, but spectacular day. All that snow from the previous day has turned everything into a sea of white. It also means that one has to be careful while walking, and look out for stretches of ‘black-ice’ – slippery as hell, but more importantly, difficult to spot sometimes over black rock.
The day is about gorgeously beautiful, milky white scenery all around, but comes with a treacherous down slope about halfway into the route, just before a bridge. It’s about half a kilometre of steep descent on a narrow, zig-zaggy, snow-covered trail, and has to be negotiated with extreme caution. Right after the bridge, a brutal, but (thankfully) short climb up a hill leads to chai-break stop, where the tea tastes heavenly. Reach our destination at Thorung Phedi just in time, as the snow begins its now customary routine again.
The Thorung Phedi lodge has the best dining room of the trek by far. Large, warm and open, with double glazed glass windows and groovy music too – the familiar sound of Bob Dylan’s raspy vocals greet me as I walk-in, and the bar (music-wise, I mean) remains high through the day. I settle down at a large table with my book and decide that I’m not going to get up till evening. The other guys go out for an acclimatisation walk, but I am not convinced enough to give up my cozy nook.
Earlier in the day, just before the stretch of the tricky descent, we saw a mother yak deliver her baby right next to the trail. Expectedly, she soon attracted a crowd. I stayed for a couple of minutes and left, didn’t wait till baby yak came out. Actually, am unsure about what I feel about this whole thing. Is this part of the natural cycle of life, like so many other things that I have seen and experienced on this trek. Or does the yak deserve her moment of privacy, and not have a score of trekkers watching her give birth ( I try to imagine how the wife would’ve felt if there was a bunch of yaks watching her when A1-A2 were born.).
Like I said, not sure where I stand. I walked away pondering over this one.
Btw, if you’re interested, the scene was also captured on video. General reactions : beautiful, moving.
Thorung Phedi – Thorung La
D-day. We have decided to change our original plan of staying a night at HighCamp. So today, it’s a straight climb from Phedi (4500m) to HighCamp (4900m) to Thorung la (5416m), and then all the way down to Muktinath (3800m). All this in about a foot and a half of snow. In other words, a heck of a long day.
Its 3:45 AM as we start on the trail to HighCamp, our head lamps shooting white beams of light through the darkness on a half-moon night. The stiff breeze feels bone-chillingly cold, the altitude leaves me short of breath ever so often. V and I do the 75-step routine – walk 75 steps, pause, deep exhale 5 times, walk 75 steps, rinse, repeat. It works. In about an hour we join fellow trekkers beginning their day at the High Camp tea house over porridge, boiled eggs and tea.
Dawn breaks. The all encompassing whiteness of the landscape reflected against the sun is almost blinding to the eye. It’s bewitching to stand and stare, but in A’s words, snow is nice to look at, but tough to deal with. I trudge slowly along a narrow, almost invisible trail, carefully trying to find footprints of other trekkers as they are our only guide to a sure footing. Walking sticks are put to maximum use. We poke, prod and anchor them in the snow for balance, fully aware that one false step will take you sliding down the icy slopes and buried in tons of snow.
It’s probably the altitude playing tricks with our minds, but feels like a never ending journey to the pass. Every ascent leads to yet another uphill, and it takes an agonizingly long time (four hours, but seemed way longer) to finally get to Thorung La. Immense relief, much Hi-fis and posing for pictures ensues. Hungrily wolf down the tastiest veg noodle soup ever made, and begin descent to Muktinath.
Thorung La – Muktinath
The descent to Muktinath makes the first part of the day look easier, at first. The downslopes leads to a lot slipping and falling. All of us have our share of landing on our bums in the snow at least once. V has a pair of crampons in his day pack, which he gives to K and A. A gives me a tip on how to tackle snowy descents – land heel first, do the Charlie Chaplin walk with your feet diagonally outwards. I slowly get a hang of it, but it’s still a long stretch to cover – all 1600 metres of it. After an eternally long effort, clearly the longest of the trek by far, warily troop into Muktinath after 4 PM. A 12 hour trek today, but worth savouring every minute of it.
As I walk down the main street of this revered temple town in search of the tea house that my friends must have carefully chosen, I pass by a Bob Marley restaurant. If he was alive, this is the last place on earth where Bob Marley would’ve expected a fan club. We are like this only, maaaan!.
Muktinath – Jomsom – Pokhara – Kathmandu
We had initially thought about going further down from Muktinath to Ghorepani and take in Poon hill also, but decide to drop plans. KV’s daughter back home is unwell, she wants to get to Kathmandu and head back home. The rest of us also decide then that Thorung La has provided a perfect end to a great trek, and decide to chill out for a couple of days at Pokhara / Kathmandu, before we return to our respective home bases.
The road that has now come up on this side of the route has means that there is a regular stream of jeeps and two wheelers downstream from Muktinath to Jomsom, so it’s not such a great idea anymore to cover this part of the AC trek route by foot. We take a combination of jeep+bus rides from Muktinath, which takes us to Jomsom via the scenic plains of Kagbeni, along the Kali Gandaki river.
Reach Pokhara on Nepali new years’ eve. As down our drinks at nearby waterhole, there is lots of gaiety and celebration around us. Festivities end reasonably early in the night though. Its 11 PM and ours is the only table that is occupied. And obviously, none of us have reached our alocohol threshold levels either (exception being Bond of course. A teetotaller!).
A pleasant walk the next morning around the lake in Pokhara, with a decent view of Machupichure, the fish-tailed peak. . Spend a lazy morning exploring the coffee shops and other knick knacks on offer. I like Pokhara better than Thamel. More relaxed, and has more character.
So after 2 weeks, we are finally back at Kathmandu. A and B have a tradition of doing a grand dinner at the exquisite Garden of Dreams after their earlier Nepal treks, so we continue the tradition. Garden of Dreams is an erstwhile palace which has now been converted into a wonderfully done expanse of green, and open to the public.
Beautiful landscaped gardens, fountains, exotic flowers… its like an discovering an oasis just a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Thamel. A place where one can spend a lovely evening walking around, followed by dinner at the restaurant inside.
K, B and V are leaving the next day, while A & I will spend a day more in Kathmandu. So this the last evening when all of us are around. We clink our glasses for a celebratory toast, recount our favourite stories and moments of the trek. As usual, there is incessant chatter and laughter.
A memorable evening to end a magical two weeks.