I was prepared to not like Kathmandu. I assumed it would be a typical third world polluted, overcrowded, noisy, a crime-riddled city with a few UNESCO World Heritage sites to explore. My assumption was mostly right, but one quickly becomes intoxicated with sensory overload in this incredible city. Three days was barely enough to scratch the surface of this endlessly fascinating cultural maze of a place. Already I long to return to Boudhnath on a pilgrimage to once again feel the prayer wheels spin under my fingers, light a butter lamp, and circumnavigate the dome on the prayer flag-decked street.
We departed Kathmandu and after a 6 hour Hail Mary bus ride, a night in picturesque Pokhara, rendezvousing with Gopal, our shy porter, we finally arrived in Nayapul, the starting point of our Annapurna trek! Here, throngs of trekkers, guides, and porters were hurriedly packing and doublechecking gear. A short hike (just a week prior, it had been only a path; now, civilization was encroaching with a gravel roadbed) and we were in Birethanti, “Check Point Charley” if you will. All people trekking within the Annapurna Conservation Area Project have to purchase a TIMS card (Trekking Information Management System) and register at the various checkpoints. There are multiple routes and treks one can choose in the Annapurna Circuit region. Routes and treks are based on budget, time available, and fitness level. We chose the Annapurna Sanctuary route to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) as we wanted to explore the ethnic culture of the communities along the way, enjoy the flora and fauna of the subtropical forests and alpine regions while maintaining a constant panoramic view. Bill and I also decided that we wanted to trek by ourselves, and not join a larger group. Many people arrive in Kathmandu and trek alone or arrange for a guide and/or porter once they arrive. Our choice was easy. Himalayan Glacier Trekking a highly rated outfitter has a US representative: Tony Monaco, a CMC member in Charlotte. Our itinerary was established according to our trekking ideas and our pre and post trek plans. One couldn’t ask for a better-executed trip. People ask how to “train” for trekking in the Himalayas. In reflection, one should hop on a treadmill set at the highest tension for a couple of hours, then hike from Mount Mitchell to Deep Gap and back, double the altitude, and repeat daily for a few weeks. If one doesn’t follow this regimen, then pack some extra strength Tylenol. We were not prepared for the miles and miles of “steps”; it’s a trail building marvel, but a hiker’s pain in the quads and hamstrings.
Other treks/hikes that we have done around the globe were either wilderness camping or staying in a lodge of some sort. While trekking the Annapurnas we chose to stay in tea houses that were available in a few villages scattered along the route. The operative word is “available.” Every day, there is a mad scramble in the afternoon to secure lodging. Lodging can only be booked “the day of”…and there may only be 3 lodges with 8 or so rooms in a given community. There may be 2, 3, or 4 hours of “extra” hiking if a room is not secured early in the day. Or, sleeping arrangements can get rather creative! Rooms are typically spartan with twin cots and a lock for the door. Toilets are Asian style and unisex. Showers, if available, are for a fee. Hot water, if available, is solar heated. The water in Nepal is highly polluted. The Modi Khola River (originating at the Annapurna Glacier) provides 95% of Nepal’s drinking water. The water supply to villages is medieval … a 1 ¼ inch PVC pipe runs from village to village, splicing home to home, and running (or not) nonstop. We observed the pipe strung through the jungle, tree to tree, lashed in place with bamboo “thread”. After several days, hygiene and water purification become tedious but necessary.
Before you dismiss considering a trek of this nature, I haven’t discussed one of the most intriguing elements: the people one meets along the way! There is, of course, ample opportunity to meet folks along the trail, stopping for tea, lunch, a break, or stopping to eat/sleep for the day. (People often commented on our CMC hats or AT volunteer patches on our packs.) Once your trekking is done for the day, people gather in the communal dining room. One’s personal space dissolves. We gravitated like magnets to anyone who looked remotely 60ish.
The higher the elevation, the sparser the crowd, the more likely we would meet up with people we met earlier on the trail. Rooms are very inexpensive ($3.50 a night), but require buying meals at the lodge. The dining room tables typically had a wool blanket tacked along the sides; there was also a propane heater under the table which was lit at night. Everyone (gladly) paid 100 rupees ($1.25) to pull their boots off and stick their feet under the table and pull the blanket over their lap. What warmth! We sat there for hours, chatting about the day’s trek, or writing in journals, eating, drinking, and playing cards. We identified people by their given name, or code names (Not AT trail names, but our personal way of identifying people). For example, “the Poles” were a hearty group that kept us honest. On our second day, Bill and I sat at the dining room table quite smug in the fact that we had trekked 14 hours in 2 days and were on our “track” timewise.
The Poles pulled in that night after trekking the same distance in ONE 12 hour day! They proceeded to each order a pint of rum, just as a “warm-up” before their “real” drinking began. We were reminded of our time years ago hiking in the Bieszczady Mountains tracking Red deer with a Polish guide. We cursed him soundly under our breath, as we saw him in the distance rolling a cigarette, casually smoking, waiting for us, then striding off and leaving us again to trot to catch up to him. What a hearty lot, the Poles we were gladdened every time we met up with them. At the same time, a young Spanish graduate student arrived. She was about to collapse, crying, gasping for breath. All the guides quickly came to her “rescue” as if they were the resident EMTs. What histrionics! We giggled at her demonstrativeness. We were not surprised that “La Princessa” never reached ABC summit. Another group, “the Taiwanese”, strode up and down the mountains; in one hand they held an IPad, in the other a bottle of water. Enough said. “California” and “Minnesota” were more or less our age. Minnesota made the summit, California did not. Mrs. California took a nasty spill at a creek crossing, ripping her knee. Meeting them at an afternoon rest stop, we decided to stay put, and they pushed on despite the weather that was quickly disintegrating. The drizzle turned to sleet with a fierce wind. (CA was sick in bed for 2 days and turned back.) Another couple we met, a bubbly Irish pair, had already made it to Everest Base Camp and now they were trekking to Annapurna Base Camp! “The Irish” were simply so thrilled to have sunshine that they would have kept trekking around the globe. A young Finnish couple smoked marijuana joints as fast as they could roll them. “The Finns” didn’t talk, just smiled. One quickly obtains the idea of “life” on the Circuit.
A guide is not requisite to trek in Annapurna. However, we found that having one enriched our experience immensely. Basu was: a walking GPS, concierge service by phoning ahead for a nightly room, our gastronomical advisor who deciphered our menus, a constant natural history/cultural educator, a musician playing his bamboo flute, our “medic”, and most importantly, a friend. It is our opinion that the Nepalese government needs to continue to strive to provide for the wellbeing of the guides and porters who make these Himalayan treks possible. The trekking season is brief, maybe a total of 34 months of every year; finding other employment for the rest of the year is difficult. The trail led us through the Modi Khola valley, filled with rice paddies, fields of quinoa, turmeric, corn, squash, and cabbages. We shared the path with trains of mules transporting goods between villages, water buffalo, goats, sheep, porters, and fellow trekkers. Passing through dense bamboo and hardwood forests, we arrived at Ghorepani. Our $3.00 a night room had a 5Star view of Machhapuchhre, Dhaulagiri, Nilgiri, and the Annapurnas! At 4:30 in the morning, wearing our headlamps and woolies, we climbed another 2,000 feet to Poon Hill for one of the most spectacular sunrise viewpoints in all of the Himalayan Range.
A steep descent, a steep ascent, and we arrived in beautiful Chhomrong, located on the lap of the Annapurna massif. We laid in bed that night with the moon shining on Machhapuchhre. We cracked open the window and breathed the frosty air. I declared that it just might be as close to heaven as we will ever get. The stars were floating just a fingertip away. Little did I know that Chhomrong was a turning point, literally and figuratively, for trekkers. This was the last village that supplies and any sort of luxury items (like toilet paper) could be purchased. The rest of the journey would pass by a few tea houses only no more villages with inhabitants, livestock, mule trains etc. The trail was too steep and treacherous; conditions are too harsh to travel/ live at the higher elevations. 2/3 of trekkers exited this section of the trail to loop to the lower elevations. In two weeks we viewed more waterfalls than the year spent hiking to the 100 on the CMC Waterfall Challenge. The Nepalese don’t bother to name any of them as there are so many. Most of the peaks aren’t named either; if they aren’t snow covered year round they are not “worthy” of a name. It was difficult for our guide to believe that Bill and I lived in the oldest mountain range in the world with such “low” peaks, and yet here we were in the youngest mountain range, and it contained 8 of the globe’s highest peaks. As the vegetation disappeared, our solitude in the wilderness became more obvious. We passed makeshift shrines built to honor individuals who perished in avalanches. Twice, helicopters churned through the canyon to attempt a rescue at ABC. Our attention remained riveted on the views of majestic Machhapuchhre. It is the one virginal mountain in the Himalayan range; the Nepalese government refuses to allow climbing on it. At 13,000 feet elevation, sleeping soundly became difficult. Besides the thinner air, it was cold. I tucked my batteries in my sleeping bag at night. I would have traded Bill for a pair of yak wool slippers. Our laundered clothes wouldn’t dry. The thought of taking our clothes off, much less having a cold shower, kept us in the same apparel.
We decided against stopping at Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) for the night and trekked another 2 ½ hours to ABC. The trail between MBC and ABC is a strenuous path that leads right into the frozen heart of the Annapurna range. This is an unparalleled mountain experience with unparalleled views. We arrived at Base Camp just before the fog rolled in shrouding anything more than a foot in front of us. As luck would have it, the Poles arrived at our lodge within a half hour. We spent the evening eating bowls of garlic soup (supposedly good for altitude sickness; we didn’t experience any, so perhaps the soup works!) and eating some of the best pizza we have ever eaten.
Before dawn, we trundled out for a position to watch as dawn seared the tips of the frozen peaks. I accidentally dropped my headlamp. There was a chorus of gasps as we listened to it clatter hundreds of feet down the mountain. I took a step back from the edge and firmly planted my feet. Red and gold commenced etching across the amphitheater of rock and ice. The staggering scale of the mountains was all but overwhelming. Lost in our thoughts, we silently hung a prayer flag, and then slowly, savoring the moment, turned toward lower elevation.
First posted on CMC (CarolinaMountainClub.org) eNews March 2013 by Ann H