My plan was to spend 7 months in south Asia this winter and a Nepal Trek was high on the list of priorities. Tom Carter of Moon Mountain Adventures offers custom guided hikes virtually anywhere in Nepal. He prefers to do 15 day rhododendron treks in the spring but likes longer trips during the prime trekking months of October and November. He had organized this trip for two couples from Prince George and Maple Ridge and I was able to join them.
The most popular trips in Nepal remain Everest Base Camp (very busy and not much of a sense of wilderness with lots of commercialization) and the Annapurna Circuit, an 18 day trek but now with a road built a long way into both ends. An alternative trail has been built to avoid the road (which generally follows the original trail), but it depends on ones guide on how much road walking one does. This trip was planned to walk across the entire south side of the Annapurnas to give views of the entire range with the best light and from a farther perspective than possible from the ‘circuit’. The highlights were to be from east to west, the foot accessible town of Seclis and nearby Tara Hilltop, Annapurna Base Camp, and Khopra Ridge on the western edge of the range.
I joined the group in Kathmandu and we had a few days to explore the city and surrounding Unesco World Heritage Cultural Sites. With 13 porters (we are camping and cooking all our meals), Tom, Nima (our Nepalese guide who always works with Tom), Vishnu (our cook), the five of us and all our gear on the roof, we drove 206 km over 7 hours to Pokhara, in the middle of the country. It is the staging place for trips into the Annapurna Range.
Day 1. With 4 more porters from Pokhara, we took a second bus the next day to Begnas Tal Bazaar, a small town on the shores of the second largest lake in Nepal, Begnas Tal. We had a short hike high above the lake to camp on a small peninsula jutting into the lake.
Day 2. Almost everyday begins with crystal clear skies and outstanding views of the Annapurnas to the north. Machhapuchhre or Fish Tail Peak (6997m), the main mountain in view for the next 19 days or so, poked up above the foothills. A sacred peak, it has never been climbed and is the only mountain in Nepal off-limits.
We climbed above the high ridge to the west of the lake, passed the town of Twaudanda, and descended one of the magnificent rough stone stairways to reach the Madi Nadi River at Bhagawatitar (1035m). The shrill whine of cicadas accompanied us everywhere. We walked through rice paddies to just SW of the bridge to camp on an old rice terrace. All the local kids who are very shy and speak little English were content to sit and watch us for hours.
Day 3. We crossed the superb suspension bridge with its wide metal decking and walked through small farms with chickens, cows and water buffalo and along the cliffs above the river. The Madi Nadi was crossed where it makes a big bend to the north and we climbed up to a road with a bus loaded with locals including 10 riding on the roof. The kids now asked for money. After this brief contact with the outside world, it was a walk back down to the river and the boundary of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). We had to show our ACAP and Nepali Trekking permits – available in both Kathmandu and Pokhara the same day (need 2 passport photos). Signs state that this an ‘open defecation free zone’ which I guess means you shouldn’t.
Day 4. We walked along the river on the gravel bar strewn with boulders, over headlands and passed through two lovely villages composed entirely of stone – walls, walkways, houses and terraces. Our lunch spot was shared with chickens, goats and dogs. It was then a huge climb through chest high rice with stone-walled terraces to the small town of Parche, our camp spot for 2 nights to explore the Seclis area about 30 minutes walk to the north. We all had leeches – they looked like earth worms with suckers on each end, flip-flopping around like slinkys.
Day 5. Camped high above town next to the soccer field, we woke to panoramic views of the entire eastern Annapurnas. We contoured above Seclis through herds of water buffalo, cattle and goats to Rishing Danda, a viewpoint high above Seclis, to see Lumjung and Annapurna IV and II disappear in the clouds. We then walked down through the town of 2400 cascading down the hillside. 85% are Gurung (a big ethnic group that were the main people for the entire trek – everybodys last name is Gurung). All houses were long, one story stone buildings with metal roofs and large courtyards in front for the drying of rice and millet and small silos for storing corn. Water taps bringing fresh mountain water were all over town. It is still a vehicleless place as the rough road was washed out in three places within a kilometer of town.
Back at camp, the soccer field was full of kids, craftspeople were selling their stuff, and they had an amitole (a cultural event with singing and dancing) to raise money.
Day 6. We wake up to a hot cup of milk tea and a wash basin of hot water delivered to our tent at 6 every morning. Breakfast is served on a tarpaulin at 6:45 usually in bright sunshine with the sun hitting the high peaks. By 7:30, we are usually walking – today to leave the Seclis area to head west. Traversing above Parche with huge views down to the jeep road and Madi Nadi far below, we passed lovely waterfalls and creeks. After the usual leisurely 1 1/2 hour lunch, we climbed up to a high ridge called Tara Hilltop at 2800m. The walk was through a magnificent mature rhododendron forest with some trees 6′ across the base. Moss, ferns, vines and bromelids covered the trees. Tara Hilltop is a camping only place and we were joined by two other trekking groups for our first encounter with foreigners.
Day 7. We woke up at 6 for panoramic views of the entire Annapurnas from west to east: Annapurna South and I, Machhapuchhre, Gangapurna, Annapurna II and IV and Lamjung hit by the rising sun. It was several degrees below zero. After walking along the long ridge. we descended a steep rock stairway 1300m to Ghalekharka where the rice harvest was just beginning. It was down a rough 4WD road to Khardarjung, a large town with many stairs, across the Seti Nadi River and uphill to Ghachok where we camped in a school yard. Our 4 young porters from Pokhara left us here. This was a 2 week school holiday during Dasain, the main festival of the year. Everyone had elaborate tikas. Swings made from 4 huge pieces of bamboo and wood ferris wheels are set up. The 4 seats filled with laughing kids are moved with some effort by hand.
Day 8. We stayed high contouring close to the mountainside through many rice paddies often walking on the narrow stone terrace walls. Still in Gurung territory, the stone houses had adjoining sheds filled with cows and goats. After a lunch on a stone courtyard of a house, we crossed the Mardi Khola River and climbed up a gorgeous stone stairway past isolated houses, many rice paddies and stone platforms to Lwang where we camped in another schoolyard. A teacher came to open the school for our cooks as a kitchen and Penny gave the teacher pencils, notebooks and assorted school supplies.
Day 9. After my first shave, we had a big climb up stairs and then contoured on a totally overgrown trail that was virtually clear when walked by Tom and Nima last April. I had 9 leeches on my abdomen, back and legs, all leaving large patches of clotted blood. We eventually reached the main trekking trail to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) at Pitam Deurali (Deurali = pass)at 2100m. With views all the way up the trail towards ABC, we now encountered lodges and hoards of other trekkers on their way to ABC, the main destination in the south Annapurna. There were big groups, maybe 10% camping but most staying in lodges, and many independent small groups often with a guide and or porter. I think most with a guide found them of not much value as there was only one way to go. We descended down to Tolka to camp.
Day 10. After a long descent past Landruk to the Madi Knola river (which comes down from ABC) and nice waterfalls, we crossed the river at New Bridge and started the long climb up to Jhinhu. The popular hot springs here are a long climb down and were apparently not worthwhile. We continued the climb to Chhomrong where we would return in 5 days. At the top of the town are lodges with internet and German Bakeries with excellent apple crumble. We descended to a guesthouse where we stayed on the lawn, our most common camping spots for the rest of the trip. We pay to camp and often get to use their dining facilities which is nice in the cold. Up to now most days have had highs in the high 20’s with cool nights. That will change as we begin the big climb up to ABC.
Day 11. There was a long descent down to a side river and then longer climb up to Sinuwa, many ups and downs above the river through Kuldigar and Bamboo to Dobhan. Signs announced to not bring chicken, pork or buffalo up to the sanctuary or we would meet personal calamity.
Day 12 and 13. Tom was taking it easy on us and we had 2 short walking days. The first was to Deurali where we camped on a goat pasture beside a lodge. We were now in a much steeper walled valley and Machhapuchhre just peeked above the rim. Waterfalls tumbled off the steep cliffs.
Day 13 was a 2 hour, 500m climb to Machhapuchhre Base Camp at 3700m. We walked well above the river on a rough trail with no stairs or stone walkways. I was able to deal with well below freezing temperatures in my +4 degree bag by sleeping in two tops, merino long johns, socks and a fleece liner lent me by one of the couples. Annapurna South filled the valley to the west toward ABC for a great sunrise light show.
Day 14, 15 and 16. Many stay at MBC and walk up to Annapurna Base Camp at 4:30 to see the sunrise. We did the gradual climb to ABC at 4130m and stayed in a lodge so only 2 porters came with us. The lodges are very basic with the only furniture 2-3 tiny wood beds with a thin mattress and a concrete floor. Only a sheet is provided. Just above the lodge was a ridge on the side of the moraine with vertical drops to the rock debris covered glacier below. There is a large memorial to Anatoli Bourkreev of “Into Thin Air’ fame, as he was eventually killed on Annapurna I. ABC is a magical place at sunrise with sweeping, close up 360 degree views – Huin Chili (6441m) to the south, Annapurna South (7219m) to the west, Fang and Annapurna I (8091m) to the NW, Kangsar Kang (7485m) and Singu Chuli 6510 to the north, Tent Peak (5694m) to the NE, Gandharwa Chuli (6248m) to the east, and Machhapuchhre to the SE.
On day 15 we joined the throngs for sunrise, packed up and walked all the way down to Dobhan with a 1300m descent.
The next morning we returned to Chhomrong to a coffee and apple crumble.
Day 17 and 18. There was a big descent to the Kimrong Khola river and then climb up to Ghandruk (1940m), the largest town in the entire trip with 15,000, mostly Gurung people. It is situated high above the Madi Khola opposite Landruk which we walked through on day 10. Our camping spot was magical at the top of town on a huge lawn in front to the lodge with 270 degree views. We all had wicker chairs to relax in and soak up the scene.
The next day was a day off and we all had a chance to have a good shower and wash clothes. Another totally stone town, this one with slate roofs, was a treat to explore. The road still had not quite reached town but there was internet in one restaurant. We are seeing many more mule trains, the workhorse of this area as they transport most of the freight. They all wear neat bells and make everyone smile.
It was also a welcome day off for our 13 Tamang porters (from NE of Nepal) who work so hard every day. They are a great bunch, always smiling and chattering away. We call them the “happy gang”. None speaks a word of English and we have virtually no meaningful conversation with them. They are all tiny guys, about 5’6″ and less than 120 lbs. A few wear traditional Tamang dress and look a lot different than the young guys from Pokhara who are doing most of the portering for other groups. We bought them a complete set of clothes with touques, mitts, jackets, socks and boots (all the same size!). They cook all their own meals, usually dhal bhat (dhal, rice and curried vegetables) and find their own accommodation. Several smoke and they all like homemade wine. All of their last names should be Tamang, but as it is a low status caste, some have mysteriously adopted the last name of Sherpa.
The next day was a relatively short climb up to Tadapani (2630m), a lodge town to the west of Ghandruk. We camped in a chicken yard with large, white, dirty chickens with big yellow feet. A large troupe of big, gorgeous monkeys was playing around a burning rubbish pile just below camp. It was a shabby place, especially after Ghandruk. Views of the whole range were still spectacular and it is easy to get up every day for sunrise.
Day 19 and 20. We were now on our way north-west to Khopra Ridge, a high ridge to the SW of Annapurna South, and this is where we left the usual trekker route. Our first day was to Dobato or Khasi Kharka (the name of the yak barn and the original name of the location until the Lucky Guest House came to town). We are now in yak country. The shaggy white and black beasts look a lot like musk ox.
The next day was on a narrow, rough trail with steep drop offs up to the ridge and our home for the next 4 nights.
Day 21 and 22. Khopra Ridge, at 3900m, has become a very popular detour from the main routes because of its up close views to Annapurna South to the NE, Nilgiri Himal to the north and Dhailagiri (8190m) to the NW. There are several yak barns and all the grass is closely cropped with yak dung everywhere but no yaks. There is a large lodge and great dining room with a big wood stove. I played shithead with a group of river raft guides from Jackson Hole which was fun. All Americans we meet are ecstatic about the Obama win. There is internet here and we knew within minutes of his victory. The next day was a day off so that we could become more acclimatized for the climb up to the lake at 4700m.
Day 23 and 24. As it is a big 10 hour day up to the lake, the rest of the group had planned to walk up to high camp then go up to the lake and all the way down the next day. I didn’t think my bag would handle the cold and did not relish being in bed by 6:30 as there is not much to do there. Walking as fast as I could, I passed high camp and proceeded up the long climb to the small lake and Hindu shrine. During one festival apparently hundreds walk up here every day. Evidence of animal sacrifices littered the ground. I was pretty knackered after the 4 1/2 hour walk, but it only took me 3 1/4 hours to get back to my tent. I had pizza and apple pie for supper and a quiet night alone.
Only Tom eventually went to the lake and the rest of the group was down for lunch. They had a windy cold night with temperatures to -10. I basically had a day off to finish my second read of James Clavells ‘Gai-Jin’. I destroyed my Kindle with the 220 circuit in Pokhara and was fortunate enough to have such a long epic to read. Four of us then tore up a Baldacci book and read it at the same time.
Day 25 and 26. We had a long walk downhill SW to Swanta (Someta on the map) to camp and then a long walk up to Gorepani (2850m), a major lodge town on the common trekker route. The major attraction here is Poon Hill, an hour walk above town to a viewpoint thronged with hundreds at sunrise. We had been witnessing much better views from Khopra so slept in. I have been fortunate to be able to walk alone for almost the entire trip. I have difficulty understanding the big groups that walk single file everywhere. All one sees is the back of the person ahead. When alone I soak up the scene and often pause simply to look around. It is quiet and I feel very in tune with my surroundings.
Day 27 and 28. With only downhill for the next days, it was going to be an easy end to the trip. Walking along a pretty river with nice falls made the 1300m descent to Tikhedhungga easier. Next to a waterfall, we stayed in the lodge as the tents were being washed. The last day, a 510m descent on a trail then road to Birethanti, was easy and we met a few motorcycles, the first vehicles in a month. We then caught a bus back to Pokhara, a hot shower and civilization. We threw a small party for the porters with lots of wine and they received their tips.
This was an amazing adventure. With good company, excellent care by the porters, cook, guide and Tom, and some of the best trekking in Nepal, we all felt completely satisfied. The views of the Annapurnas from the south were outstanding and the 28 days flew by. My only regret was not losing more weight.