Today is one year to the day from the start of my trip. On 5 July last year I boarded a plane from Brussels to Mexico and so my incredible journey began. It is somehow right that the first part of my journey comes to an end now. Tonight I am going to take a plane to Tallinn, where I am from. To be very precise, the circle around the world will not quite close then – this will only happen when I reach Brussels. Nevertheless Tallinn will surely be a special stop on the way. Is the trip itself over? No no no. The journey continues!
With so many exciting events taking place recently, my blog is now somewhat delayed. However I will keep on publishing materials from the trip in a chronological order. And so today I will write about the amazing 10-day trek that I took in the Nepalese Himalaya.
The Himalaya are what gives Nepal its fame. They dominate Nepal the way The Wall dominates the Seven Kingdoms. A trek in the Himalaya did not initially figure in my plans. It was out of the question: I had no trekking equipment, not even warm clothes to speak of. But conversations with fellow travellers in Kathmandu and Pokhara alerted me to the fact that to be in Nepal and not to do a trek would be outright criminal. There was a complication though: the start of the Nepali rain season was imminent. “Two weeks left before the rain season starts!” I was told. “One week left!” Nevertheless it was clear to me that a chance to trek in Nepal is quite unique and so if I do it, I have to do it properly. And I decided to take the risk and despite the start of the rain season to do a 10-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp.
I spoke to some fellow travellers to see if we could do it together, but finally we could not quite match the routes and dates. So I decided to do a trek on my own with a guide. The whole thing got magically organised at the last moment. A fellow volunteer Becca wrote to me on Facebook about an amazing guide called Krishna she heard of while having dinner with a Canadian friend and gave me his number. I called Krishna from Pokhara to Kathmandu and immediately he said he was available and was ready to come to Pokhara. He sent me a proposed route and it fit my desires perfectly: in addition to the classical ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) trek it included also the so-called Ghorepani trek which many people do as a separate trek. Lonely Planet proposes to allocate to ABC alone 16 days; in Krishna’s ABC and Ghorepani together would take 10 days. I thought this was reasonable and so I confirmed.
We met in Pokhara over a bottle of beer the next day. He said I was obviously younger than him, what are you, 25? I am actually three years older than him, so this was neat. He also immediately declared that I was walking really fast. I laughed and said that we would see if it would hold up in the mountains. Hold up it actually did – the easiest rhythm for me was to run up some hill, like 500 metres up, and then take a good pause to rest. Krishna’s natural rhythm I think was to go slower without the need for long rest.
On the same day I bought everything that could be bought at the last moment – trekking boots, light pants, water purification tablets, lip balm. I packed it all in my old city backpack – which almost bursted at the seams – and off we went the next morning. Krishna looked at my backpack rather sceptically – it was only 9 kg, which was quite a bit less than his backpack. But finally my pack was just right – no more, no less.
In the morning we took a taxi from Pokhara to Nayapul, which is around 1.5 hours by car. The road actually does continue for some way further on, but then suddenly disappears in the woods, so there’s no point in taking the taxi further. This is the point where we started walking:
And the first kilometres of the trek were incredibly hard! It is summer in Nepal. On this very modest altitude – only 1100 metres – this meant that the sun was scorching, terrifying, annihilating! I was sweating profusely and frankly had trouble imagining walking for 10 days to ABC and back under this sun. Krishna lagged behind me and barely moved his feet. Almost immediately – after about two hours on the road – I started to feel the blisters form on my feet. Of course that was expected – I did something that all guidebooks warn against. I bought new boots just for this trek, paid about 30 dollars in Pokhara, and this meant I was breaking them in as I went. But in the end it all went well – the boots turned out to be very comfortable and even though I had some blisters the first days on the road, by the second half of the trip they magically cleared and I arrived back in Pokhara with no blisters at all!
The road under the scorching sun:
Finally we reached the first overnight accommodation. This is where I learnt how the whole tea house system works and what was the role of the guide. The guide selects the simple hotel (“tea house”) where you stay. He deals with the owners of the hotel. You simply get the key. I got a wonderful room with a panoramic view of the valley. In the tea house accommodations you are expected to eat in the hotel where you stay – this is why the room price is so low – about 2 dollars. So the guide also brings you the menu and again you do the ordering via him. He also explains you how the things work in the tea house. Say, it is not always immediately obvious how to take a shower – this is Nepal, so the owners have to switch on the gas heater etc. There are many other little things of this sort which he fixes for you.
My guide Krishna:
Already on this first day the rainy season manifested itself in full force. Just 10 minutes passed after we settled in the tea house, and all of a sudden the peaceful sun-drenched hilly village turned into a kingdom of the raging elements. First out of nowhere a milky-thick fog cloud appeared right in front of my window – as if a genie was released from a bottle. Then the water started pouring from the sky – and it looked as if someone was holding a bucket up there! The shower was so powerful that you could not see the other side of the valley behind it.
I later discovered that this was the general pattern in the rainy season: the morning is sunny and clear, and after midday as if on schedule the sky is covered with clouds and the rain comes. Therefore we trekked mostly in the morning. We would set out at about 8 a.m. and after let’s say six hours on the road at about 2 p.m. we would be in the next overnight location.
The view from my room as the clouds gather:
Our planned route was as follows:
Day 01: Pokhara – Tikhedhunga (1560m)
Day 02: Tikhedhunga – Ghorepani (2850m)
Day 03: Ghorepani – Tadapani (2610m)
Day 04: Tadapani – Sinuwa (2340m)
Day 05: Sinuwa – Deurali (3200m)
Day 06: Deurali – Annapurna base camp (4130m)
Day 07: ABC – Sinuwa (2340m)
Day 08: Sinuwa – Jhinudada-Hot spring (1700m)
Day 09: Jhinudada – Pothana (1900m)
Day 10: Pothana – Pokhara
This route is essentially two treks merged into one. Days 1 to 4 is the Ghorepani trek (which you could complete in another two days if instead of ABC you returned to Pokhara). Days 5 to 10 is the classical ABC trek, which can be also done directly from Pokhara, without attaching the Ghorepani part.
At first glance you would think that days 4-5-6 would be the most difficult ones – there is a large change in altitude and overnights at an altitude. The reality was quite different. The toughest day by far was the first day! Because of the mad sun. The second day was also second in difficulty. On that day we climbed and descended up and down many times, overall the change in altitude was around 1300 metres, and all of this took place at an altitude where you can still feel the heat and the sun is unforgiving. The days in the Annapurna valley itself seemed ridiculously easy to me. So easy, that on the morning of day 8 I declared that three days to get to Pokhara is way too much and I want to do it in two days. Which we did. On day 8 instead of Jhinudanda we went quite a bit further to Newbridge and on day 9 we made it all the way to Pokhara. Looking back, I realise that I could have easily done the whole thing even in 8 days instead of 9.
The innuendo of the Ghorepani trek. On the morning of day 3, literally at 4.30 a.m., you climb the Poon Hill. A fantastic view offers itself to the mountains in several directions. Right in front of us is the Dhaulagiri mountain range. Its main mountain is one of the legendary eight-thousanders, of which in the world there are only 14. Dhaulagiri is the seventh tallest mountain in the world.
We are happy to reach the high point of the first part of the trek. It is quite chilly at 3000 metres in early morning. The locals are selling coffee and tea up there which comes in really handy.
A bit later in the trek the same view presents itself. This time without the crowds of tourists!
Day 4. Down below is the Gurjuing village. We will pass it on the way to Chhomrong and Sinuwa. This is approximately the place where the Ghorepani trek connects to the ABC trek. Three river valleys merge here – two rivers merge into one. All the rivers in the area run down the Annapurna range of course.
One of the many suspension bridges across the mountain rivers. This one is brand new. Yet it still sways beneath you rather precariously.
A look down.
This is the valley that leads to the Annapurna Base Camp. The Annapurna range occupies a huge territory. However there is this valley that pierces through the ring of mountains into the centre of the range. In that centre is the Base Camp, and it is surrounded from every side by a ring of mountains. The incredible mountain on the right on this picture is Machapuchre, the Fish Tail. The locals consider it a sacred mountain. It is relatively low by Nepali standards – 6997 metres – but it is famous for the fact that it has never been climbed. Apparently some early expeditions that tried to conquer it ended in disaster and so climbing was eventually prohibited. There are only a few mountains like that in the Himalaya, the other famous one is of course Mount Kailash.
A lunch stop in the Himalaya Hotel – this is towards the end of day 5, on the way to Deurali. The clouds are covering the sky, the rain will start soon. This time it will catch us while we still walk.
A bit later on the same day.
Early morning of day 6. We walk from Deurali (3200 metres) to ABC (4130). This is a look back at the valley we just passed. A blue sky with not a cloud in sight. Paradoxically this was the easiest day of the trek – we almost run up to ABC in 2.5 hours. The Deurali stop was needed anyway due to safety considerations – you have to give your body the time to acclimate to the altitude.
In the Annapurna Base Camp valley. The Fish Tail is behind me.
I liked this angle. The little houses in the centre is Machapuchre Base Camp (MBC). This name is actually meaningless because climbing Machapuchre is forbidden.
One more glimpse of the Fish Tail:
This is already almost in ABC. The clouds start covering the sky, so you cannot see Annapurna South (7219m) – which gives its name to ABC – on the left. But you can see the Southern ridge and the peak of Annapurna I (8091m) – the tenth highest mountain the world.
When we reached ABC, the clouds were already in full force. The plan though was to spend the night in ABC and if we’re lucky, the sky would be clear the next morning. That afternoon anyway we ventured out to a small ridge which separates the Base Camp from the bed of the glacier going down Annapurna I. That ridge was the place to go to next morning to take the best photos.
The glacier bed:
As we arrived in ABC so early – at 11.30 am – we had lots and lots of time. This is how it is spent there. However together with Krishna we decided to buy a small bottle of local rum and to kill it. Then another. And then another! This was wonderful. Young English lads looked at us with some envy but did not dare follow our example – we’re talking 4200 metres of altitude after all. That night I slept like a baby.
A friend of mine who had done this trek before advised me at all cost to get up in the middle night and get out to see the stars. So at 1 a.m. my alarm clock rang. It has to be said here that the nights at this altitude are incredibly cold. In my bed I was sleeping in in a woollen hat, in two jackets and in pants, under two blankets. So to get out of this cozy encampment was not so easy! But eventually I did get out.
The Milky Way was painted on the sky. The countless stars were piercing, as if trying to reach me with their cold stares. And the whole incredible sky spectacle was surrounded on every side by a black crown of mountains. I walked to the main courtyard of the base camp and stood there for maybe 20 minutes, bewildered by the solitude, the darkness, the silence of the mountains. All of a sudden in the window of a completely black hotel directly in front of me a red light appeared. I was so surprised I almost lost consciousness. The light then disappeared. Appeared again. Disappeared again. Appeared and disappeared for the third time. I thought I was hallucinating – the rum? the altitude? the starry night? As I headed back to my room, a door creaked behind me, and a person stepped out of the hotel. On his forehead was a red flashlight. Perhaps I woke him up and he wanted to verify what kind of strangers roam the camp at 1 a.m.
This photo was made in the very early morning, using a long exposure. The rays of the rising sun have not yet reached the mountain tops.
The sun starts kissing the mountains.
The mighty Annapurna South (7219) is on the left. Annapurna I (8091) is on the right.
The Fish Tail and ABC in the early hours of the morning.
Annapurna South behind my back. We start our way back.
One more look back at the Annapurna South. This is the rain season. Not a cloud in sight.
Krishna is walking in the direction of Machapuchre.
It is of course a luxury to do a trek like this with a guide. This luxury is not obligatory, but it makes the trek a lot easier – first and foremost psychologically. You don’t have to constantly monitor the map, trying to figure out the way forward. You don’t have to hesitate on strange forks on the road without any signs. No need to waste time trying to choose the best accommodation out of rows and rows of identically looking tea houses – the guide perfectly knows them all and makes the choice for you. He takes care of all the interactions with the personnel of the tea house. Basically this removes all the stress from the process. I would not want my choices to be made for me in this way in any other situation – but on a trek of this sort where I do not know the options a guide is supremely helpful.
There is of course another important aspect to trekking with a guide. It is almost like having an insurance policy. The tourists regularly disappear on these treks, and almost always this happens when they trek alone.
In Krishna’s case there was yet another major advantage. He turned out to be an extraordinarily cheerful companion. With his perfect English, we have talked about everything under the sun during these nine days on the road. I got to know his romantic history, he told me a lot about his ethnic group (he is Tamang – like most of the kids from the orphanage). I even downloaded some Tamang songs – forbidden by the Maoists when they controlled their villages on the grounds of indecency! The indecent part was when they sang about a girl’s pink cheeks. Of course he told me all about the local tourist business. In the end I was exhilarated to have such a pleasant company.
On day 8 we reached the hot springs in the Jhinudanda area. It was wonderful to step into the hot waters after many days trekking.
I had heard all kinds of frightening stories about how tough the life on the trek was supposed to be, but overall I found them to be a bit of an exaggeration. Of course I did sleep in my clothes at night – it’s too cold at night – and with earplugs – it’s too noisy in the thin-walled tea houses. But almost every day on the road it was possible to take a shower – with the exceptions of nights 5 and 6. The food was also very good by Nepali standards – dal bat, noodles, eggs were always available, even chicken could be had all along the way except on days 4, 5, 6 (the reason being that the ABC valley is sacred and it is forbidden to eat meat there). Almost every tea house would have wifi! Again with the exception of those on nights 4, 5 and 6. The profusion of wifi though is relatively new – according to Krishna, just a couple of years ago wifi would be unheard of here.
On the last two days we walked though the lush green valley and all kinds of interesting life forms would cross our path. This golden lizard apparently is in the Red Book – Krishna said he’d never seen it before – so we were lucky to catch a glimpse. The leeches were a less pleasant encounter. In Newbridge after a heavy rain the ground in front of our tea house was literally teeming with leeches. We put some salt down to prevent them from climbing to our rooms. I was once bitten by a leech in Australia, it’s nothing too scary, but still even to look at this sea of leeches gives you creeps. The next morning some leeches would attempt at climbing our boots – they have a way of going up the side, raising one side of their body.
Day 9. A look back through the valley at Annapurna South.
The village of Landruk and Annapurna South.
And finally the end of day 9. I just run down the thousand steps from the hilly ridge to the village of Phedi, where we would take a taxi to Pokhara. Krishna actually looks rather exhausted here. As for me, I felt as if I got a second wind on that last day. I was surprised how easy this trek turned out to be.