Trekking in Annapurna, Nepal Part Four: Annapurna base camp

I was alone on the trail and on my way to Annapurna basecamp. I charged through the forests on a well maintained trail towards Tadapani, but then plunged into a quiet and stunning valley. It was an amazing route with stunning views and perfect trails through a steep sided terraced river valley full of little colourful houses and welcoming tea shops. I found a great little lodge on the corner just before Chhomrong – the gateway to the Annapurna base camp trail – and enjoyed the spellbinding views across the valley. I drank a cup of lemon tea and relaxed. There was so much to be grateful for and so much to look forward to: the mountain trails, the welcoming villages, the cheap lodges, the apple pie.

I got up super early and started walking at 7am from Chhomrong (at 2210 metres). After 22 days on the trail, the straight, steep stepped climb was fine for me. I wanted to sleep as high as possible to make sure that I was well-acclimatized for visiting base camp. I only stopped to gobble down a huge plate of cheesy spaghetti in Himalaya and eventually reached Deorali at an altitude of 3140 metres.

I beamed with pride when I was able to tell people: I am on day 21, 22, 23. Wow was their response, all alone? Yes I eagerly chimed. My body was well acclimatized. I was feeling supreme, lean, invincible. I went sprinting up the climbs with a constant rhythm and reliable confidence. My well packed pack weighing easily on my back.

At 4130 metres, Annapurna base camp was an amphitheatre of rock and snow – unreal surroundings of mega clear and perfect high mountain views, including the near vertical south face of Annapurna, first climbed by Chris Bonington and team in 1970. Prayer flags draped nearby moraine fields where I found the memorials to climbers killed in avalanches. Now the trail had come to a dead end, it was time to turn around and run back down to Chhomrong. The journey was almost complete. 

I walked and walked all day long, out of the mountains, past villages, begging children, deserted lodges, long steps of stone, lovely views, into Tolka and on into the misty afternoon towards Dhampus. Step by step, further away from the mountains of the Annapurna region and into the flat lands around the city of Pokhara. It was all finally coming to an end.

On my 26th day on the trail, I left Dhampus early in the morning and descended on stone steps towards the road. I was in high spirits, listening to music, enjoying the sun, and chatting to fellow trekkers on their way up. And then I met the road at Phedi and the mountains were over. An old crooked lady walked up to me, grabbed my wrist and looked at my bracelet with interest. I had brought it back in Marhpa and she told me that the words meant Long Life and Good Health in Tibetan. It was special – I should hang onto it. Then I bargained a great price on a taxi to zoom the 30 minutes down the road towards Pokhara.

I had loved this trek for the contrasts and the variety: the jungle, the deserts, the lush greens and the icy whites. I had loved this trek for the people: the camaraderie of a trekking team, the drunken nights on apple brandy, and the constant games of cards. Also the lack of people, with the long stretches of solo silence in the wilderness. I had loved this trek for the great food: the apple pie, the momos, fried rice, stews, pancakes, soups and curries. I had loved this trek for the adventure: exploring remote villages, climbing high passes, and walking through deserts

Wandering through Lakeside in Pokhara, the brilliant sunshine, the promise of plentiful cheap food and a comfy bed all gave the true and rounded feeling of total pride and satisfaction.

26 days and 12,000 metres of ascent later, the loop was finally complete. It had been a wonderful first time wander through the mighty Himalayas.

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Trekking in Annapurna, Nepal Part Three: The Kali Gandaki valley

I chose the alternative road to Jomsom. There was a high pass on the western side of the valley which totally avoided the road. I walked most of the way with a small local girl who wanted to practise English with me. In Jomsom I found Australian Rodney and his Nepalese guide Tiljung, who I had met on Thorung La, and I spent the night drinking apple brandy and playing cards with them. Wandering down the dusty streets of Jomsom, I also bumped into François again! It was like meeting an old friend and we were delighted to see each other, straight away making plans to trek together the following day.

We spent the next five days wandering slowly down the Kali Gandaki valley together. We saw barely any other trekkers and it felt very off the beaten track, despite being on one of the most famous treks in the world. Most people seemed to finish the route in Jomsom, flying home or taking the long bus ride onto Pokhara. We stopped at a tiny Restaurant in Sauru. As the only clients, we sat in the ladys kitchen as she made us some extremely delicious fried rice and momos. It was a quiet and peacefully homely spot.

Marpha, Larjung, Ghasa, Tatopani. Each village was so different: crumbling and deserted, traditional and authentic, hot springs and souvenir shops, quiet and serene. All the time passing underneath giant white summits far, far above. Local people in the spaces in between seemed surprised to see us. Nobody spoke English and it was impossible to ask for directions. I felt as though we were seeing a slice of real and normal Nepal, free from the trekking culture. After nearly 20 days of constant walking, we talked about food constantly. Always hungry, lunch was the highlight of the day. More often then not it was a plate of fried rice and momos (Nepalese dumplings). We watched the vegetation gradually change with our descent and by the time we reached Tatopani it felt like we were back in the jungle. Another section of the journey complete it was time to celebrate again, with a delicious ice cold chocolate lassi.

Another big climb was coming up. From Tatopani it was 1750 metres uphill to Ghorepani. While in the Himalayas, that was pretty normal. Everything was just on a much bigger scale. The trail was like heaven. Steps climbed between lush green vegetation and colourful houses all day long with no traffic in sight. We slept in Serendipity Lodge – gloriously quiet giving space to think about the days gone past. The place was beautifully painted and had a well kept garden full of flowers. We were the only guests. We sat in the kitchen with the dad and the mum while they cooked, calling over their teenage son from his room to help roll out the momo mixture which we all eventually shared for dinner. I slept so well. The bed was so cosy. And I woke at dawn to a perfect golden view of Dhaulagiri from across the valley…reaching to the sky at over 8000 metres.

After a three hour early morning slog, we arrived in Ghorepani. Full of hotels, soul-less and touristy, it was very different to everything we had experienced so far on the trail. Poon Hill at sunrise was featured in all the guide books and was listed amongst the must-dos in Nepal but I found it to be too crowded. We were getting close to Pokhara now and therefore crossing paths with many more tourists on much shorter itineraries. All of this only compounded my preference and love for lesser known spots, such as the entire Kali Gandaki valley that we had just been enjoying so much.

It was time to say goodbye to François for the second time. I never thought I would met another trekker who I could happily wander along the trail with for a full seven days. It was a quick see you later at the crossroads in the middle of Ghorepani, only to meet up again later in Pokhara and Kathmandu.

 

Trekking in Annapurna, Nepal Part Two: Thorung La Pass

I was sitting with a Buddhist nun in a cave above Manang. She blessed my impeding crossing of the Thorung La high pass by whispering strange words under her breath and tying a sacred string around my neck. 500 metres above the valley floor, I stood next to her vegetable garden while staring out across the Annapurna range. I was alone again – while the others had gone on ahead, I had decided to spend more time in Manang.

The village was located in a dramatic wide-open valley fringed by snowy peaks. Many Buddhist sites added splashes of colour. I watched the locals riding about on horseback, working in the fields or herding cattle. I wandered along cobblestone alleys and narrow passage ways, passing tumbledown, ancient buildings. The many trekking shops were full of woolly socks, postcards, chocolate bars and tubes of pringles. Millions of prayer flags decorated piles of glacial moraines. It was a comfortable place to relax and an interesting place to explore.

It would take two and a half days to reach the top of Thorung La pass at 5416 metres. Overall a climb of 2000 vertical metres from my current position. It was important to go slowly to avoid any symptoms of altitude sickness caused by the lack of oxygen higher up. This would mean two days of arriving before lunchtime only to spend the rest of the afternoon napping, reading or chatting to other trekkers. I found these acclimatization days a little slow as I was used to trekking all day long but I knew that it was very important in the overall success of my trek.

When pass day finally arrived, it would be a very special day. I left at 6am to start the climb. Alone and high up in the Himalayas at dawn. I was excited, and felt confident and fit. I quickly overtook many people but then paused by the trail to marvel at the wonderful views. The sun was sneaking over the top of a larger then life mountain scene. Thankfully the sky was clear and blue so conditions were perfect. I wanted to stay there all day long. It was time to go slowly, take your time and appreciate every single second. These were powerful moments and I couldn’t help thinking back through all of my adventures. The people who had told me that I couldn’t do it and I wasn’t strong enough. Well here I was, trekking at over 5000 metres in the Himalayas.

On the top I was full of happiness, stopping to hug a few new friends made on the trail and drink more tea together. It was a carnival atmosphere  with many smiling trekkers and jumps for joy that they had made the big climb in one piece.

The trail made a very long and tiresome descent before arriving in the hot dry bowl of Muktinath –  crowded with religious sites and temples. I liked the Jingling of bells on donkeys, the colourful incense, the candles, the ribbons, the long lines of beads and engraved sacred rocks. With the many pilgrims and religious going-ons – this was more then just a town for trekkers.

The descent to Kagbeni on the northern side of the valley was remote, desolate and totally empty. With not a sign of human life in any direction, I felt free and liberated, dancing to music on my head phones. These were self defining moments. I could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be while alone in the wilderness. Peering into the mysterious kingdom of Mustang higher up the valley, it was hard to believe that there was any life up there, the landscape seemed too wild and bare. 

Between fierce winds and swirling dust, I rushed into the medieval settlement of Kagbeni. Stepping through the labyrinth of stony streets I eventually fell into a welcoming lodge and found the friendly faces of familiar trekkers from the Thorung La pass. It turned out to be an afternoon full of good food, games of cards and shared laughter.

Trekking in Annapurna, Nepal Part One: Towards Manang

A taxi running through the dark streets of Kathmandu. A chaotic and dirty bus station. 10 hours of pot holes. Sweaty and cramped. Not knowing where I am. Nervous at the huge drop off. A slow realisation that this is one of the poorest and most disorderly countries in the world. Remote valleys. Hidden villages. We are eventually thrown out the bus at dusk in the very nondescript town of Besi Sahar. Locals staring – the comforts of touristy Thamel feel very far away. A co-passenger – a rugged, ageing Ukrainian man with a ponytail and grimy khaki trekking shirt – turns to me, seeing my tired face, my pounding headache, my feeling of disorientation, he gruffly mutters “Welcome to the Himalayas” before slinking off into the twilight. And there I am, alone, at the start of a very long mountain trail.

If we travel to create memories then this is one that I certainly will not be forgetting any time soon. The following morning it took some time to negotiate my way out of town and onto an empty dirt road that slid through the hot and humid jungle. I sweated, I smiled, I asked for directions. Despite being nervous, onwards was the only way. In my first tea house in Bulbulhe I slept in a tiny box room built of plywood, walls lined with newspaper. That night I huddled under the blanket, feeling quite scared as an intense storm raged loudly over head. In mountains this big you never quite knew what that could mean. A lizard scuttled across the wall, my sweaty socks fell of the window sill, I slowly fell asleep.

The following morning I enjoyed a bowl of banana porridge for breakfast before setting off for day two of my walk around Annapurna. After a few minutes I noticed a young man a short way behind me on the trail and as he drew level, I casually said, “Hey, How’s it going?” This turned out to be François from France. We chatted easily all day long; along the cobbled pathways through ancient villages, along balcony trails revealing vast valley views, passing high gushing waterfalls. With fresh legs and bags of energy we skipped every possibility for lunch and ended up finishing the day at the Rainbow lodge in Ghermu. My eyes had flickered over this name in my guidebook back in my bedroom in England and now here. I. Was. Amazing. An English speaking couple arrived. They had been on the bus with François. And before I knew it we were an awesome trekking team of four.

That night we were the only guests in the living room/dining room of the young family who ran the lodge. While sharing stories of travel and life we enjoyed the hearty traditional Nepalese staple of Dal Baht – Rice, Curry and Lentil soup – the ideal trekkers diet. In the days that followed we gradually fell into the peaceful rhythm of trekking life. Lovely mountain days meant early starts, cool mornings, big lunches, hot afternoons and relaxing evenings with good food and lively chat. We enjoyed pumpkin stew, hot ginger tea, banana pancakes and apple pie. The trail was scattered with bright colourful guest houses, long suspension bridges, lush green layers of rice terraces, deep and rocky cliffs. Dreamy and Surreal. Tranquil and Easy. I enjoyed the feeling of being far from home in those mighty and quiet mountains.

Upper Pisang was a turning point with the first awesome views of big mountains with the cooler climate and icy breeze. A medieval village built from stone, we stayed in the simple but cosy Annapurna Lodge and enjoyed the glorious views of 8000 metre peaks. At the top of the village there was a Buddhist monastery which turned out to be one of the beautiful places I have ever seen. The vibrant colours, the detailed artwork, the peaceful atmosphere – it was a very special place in a pretty awe-inspiring location. Together the four of us eventually rolled into Manang, the first large settlement on the circuit and a big milestone in our journey. After a week of walking, it was time for a hot shower and a tasty Yak Burger to Celebrate.