One thing I never liked doing since my childhood was to see off someone at the railway station! I still don’t. As the carriages moved out of the platform with me helplessly waving my hands, I used to think that the traveler is the luckiest one on this planet. When my friends went back to their hostels after their vacations, I used to think they were very happy to ‘travel’ back to their places of study where it might well have been to the contrary.
Such views have evolved with age. Destination and purpose of travel does have a bearing now. For example, when I travel to my native place for a vacation, I’m all too excited but same can’t be said for the reverse.
Just like many other Bengali families, travel started in my childhood with trips to Puri (Odisha). Whenever there was scope and time, that was the only destination to aim for. My parents never wasted time to choose places as that was always settled. So was the itinerary. It almost got to a point where I started to prefer staying at home rather than going there.
That pattern changed in our first ever trip to Darjeeling after my class X exams. That was the time I was introduced to the misty bends of the mountain roads. For the first time, I came to know that clouds could hover around me and I could swim in and out of them. The first ever view of Kanchenjunga from the mall was to change the way I looked at travel forever.
Then came the eventful trip to the Garhwal Himalayas in 1999. Events that occurred during the build up to that trip or even during it almost threatened to it, but we somehow managed to pull it off at the end. Nowhere in this world, you get to see a temple at the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas. I was thrilled to travel through places like Rudraprayag, the place where Corbett shot the man-eating leopard way back in 1925. I plan to share the details of this trip sometime in future on this site.
Then my profession brought me to the city of Delhi. Every year, when my company published the holiday calendar, our (me and my wife) first job was to look for long weekends. They were my windows to venture out to the corners of The Himalayas. Many such weekends took me to places of seclusion in Kumaon, Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh.
Mountain roads have always fascinated me. In more than one ways, they resemble the journey of life. After every bend, you’re presented with a view that is different from the previous one. It’s like a play with its scenes unfolding. You never know what surprise awaits you at the next bend. Mountains are probably the only places which let you to be with yourself. When you walk the trails up or down the slopes, you’re always with yourself and no one else. You’re responsible for the decisions you take, the speed at which you travel and hence, how soon you reach your destination.
I wish to share these experiences with you with my posts about my voyages. If they interest you, I’ll be more than happy to answer any queries you may have about those trips. Looking forward to interact with you all.
The cosy warmth of the blanket embraced with lots of love and it was difficult to answer the call of the alarm that went off at 4 AM. After tossing around for some moments, I left the bed to brush my teeth & complete the other regular tasks to get myself ready. Biting cold greeted me in the corridor when I went out of the room. Bathing was out of question. After getting ready, I woke up my daughter & started preparing her. She followed me to the toilet with half closed eyes & I put some toothpaste on her brush and thrust it in her mouth. The act of applying the cold water proved to be the most difficult part, but she survived that onslaught somehow. Dhananjoy, as usual, was ready. Gradually, other members started to make their appearance. The sky started to assume some brightness. Some of us, went uphill to reach the rooftop of a nearby lodge. The peaks of the Annapurna range were peeping from behind the hills.
The tourists who assembled there, started training their camera lenses as the first rays of sun played with their brush strokes upon the canvas provided by the snow peaks. Shutters of cameras and mobiles were going on uninterrupted. We kept capturing the amazing act of nature. Colors kept changing fast as the sun made its appearance.
After watching the wonderful play acted out by nature, we headed back to our lodge for breakfast. Most of our members went for “set top breakfast”. The menu for that includes butter toast, mashed potatoes, omelette or boiled eggs and a cup of tea or coffee. People relished the meal and so did my daughter. After breakfast, it was time for a group snap with all of us in our trekking gears.
We gradually headed out of the lodge and the trail went upwards. We crossed other lodges on our route. We stayed at lower Chomrong and the trail moved towards upper Chomrong. Chomrong is the last village on this trail. All other places of halt are purely composed of just lodges (or tea houses, as they call it in Nepal). These places are only inhabited during trekking season and they remain deserted during off seasons when all the lodges are locked and their owners head down to their own villages lying in the lower areas.
After sometime, the trail reached the top of a hill. Beyond that, there were steps going downhill. We could see the entire valley below. Terraced fields covered the slopes on both sides of the gorge. The entire trail was visible. The steps went down through a maze of lanes between lodges and village homes to the bank of the river. After that, there was a hanging wire bridge. Beyond it, on the other bank, stairs moved up the slopes and the trail disappeared behind the bushes. We could see the roof tops of a few lodges peeping out amidst the forests. That was Sinuwa, the place where we were supposed to have our lunch.
We started to move down the slopes. After sometime, we across the office of Annapurna Conservation Area Project. It was the second time on this trail, our permits got checked. Guide Raju completed all the formalities and we kept moving on. Terraced rice fields were full with golden ripe crops waiting to be harvested.
We reached down to the wire bridge. While crossing over, I had the same feeling of nervousness as I had, on earlier occasions. Every person crossing the bridge added to its vibration which was at its highest at the center. I tried to cross over it as quickly as possible. Some members of our group also suffered from vertigo and they didn’t dare to look below the bridge, while others enjoyed the view and took their own time to cross over, often stopping over at different points to take snaps on their way to the other side.
After reaching the other bank of the river, we started hiking. The steps kept moving up through many twists and bends. On one of the bends, we came across a trekker from Bengal who was on his way down. His accounts of stay at the base camp and the views he was fortunate to witness, gave us goosebumps and the energy to keep hiking. On our way, we crossed the huts and lodges of lower Sinuwa and finally, at about 12 PM, we reached upper Sinuwa. Chomrong was on the top of a hill, upper Suniwa was on top of another one. All we did through the first half of the day was to descend down the former only to hike along the slopes of the other. In response to my daughter’s question, our guide Raju assured that the trail from here on was going to be gradual. With that assurance, we spread our arms and legs on the chairs and ordered our lunch. Our legs were tired after the long climb. The bright sunshine gave the necessary warmth as we waited for our lunch to get served. We transferred some of our warm clothing to the bags that were being carried by the porters. The chilling cold in the morning gave way to warmth as the day progressed and we started peeling off layers of warm clothing one by one. After finishing the lunch, just when our porters embarked on their way out of Sinuwa and we followed suit, clouds started gathering over the valley and eclipsed the sun almost instantly. With that event, cold winds started flowing and we rued parting ways with our extra layers of warm clothes. We got wet to our bones due to sweat while hiking up to Sinuwa amidst sunshine, which now came back to chill us. Fortunately, I had my jacket tucked in my backpack. Putting it on gave me some relief. I did the same for my daughter, who, as usual, was walking with Niladri, a few steps ahead of me.
Thick forests covered the slopes of the mountains on both sides of the river. Trees formed a canopy above the walking trail. Winds started blowing thick and fast. The surrounding forests were primarily comprised of bamboo trees, which explained the name of our destination for the day. The whole area was filled with bamboo shoots of a thin variety which were markedly different from their thick counterparts that get used daily life. Keeping to the words of our guide Raju, the trail was gradual and at times, even flat. That stopped the whining of my daughter, who appeared to walk with ease. After a few bends, we came across a herd of goats and sheep. It was a big herd but the owners were not around. The members of the herd were all over the place – up on the hills, down the slopes, between the bamboo trees, almost everywhere around, feeding on bamboo leaves and shoots. The atmosphere was filled with their bleats. There were sounds of every note, scale and pitch coming from the animals of varying age.
After crossing the herd, we came across a series of steps that descended downwards. While it was pleasant to be descending, but it also meant, on our way back, we’d have to ascend the same steps. After descending quite a few steps, we came across a board that declared that we were finally at the premises of Bamboo, our destination for the day. We could see the lodges down below.
We descended the steps to enter the lodge that we were destined to stay at. We entered the dining hall, a norm that we followed everywhere. That gave us some respite from cold. After settling in our rooms, we hung the wet clothes on the ropes with hope of drying them up, but the mist in the atmosphere didn’t help the cause and after sometime we were forced to remove them. Evenings at the lodges are normally spent at the dining hall. They always buzz with travelers from all over the world. The halls are also normally much warmer than the rooms. We spent that evening playing cards and our kids played their own games among themselves. Tea and snacks provided company. Out guide and the porters also joined us in the games and gossip. We requested for blankets to be given in our rooms and got to know that the lodge was full of travelers, much more than its capacity and there was a shortage of blankets. We’d have to adjust with a lesser number of blankets and our sleeping bags would have to complement. That dropped as a bomb shell. Not all of us carried sleeping bags. Even if we sleep with all our warm wears, it wasn’t going to be sufficient, especially for the kids. We kept bargaining hard with the lodge owners. Though they obliged us with a few more, but we were still short by few. Trekkers who were on their way down, revealed that the trail after MBC (Machchapuchchare base camp) had received fresh snowfall and the route was covered with snow. That was disturbing as we weren’t carrying crampons. Walking on slopes without them is always a challenge. Guide Raju assured us that if we walk together and start early before the snow starts melting, we could manage. After dinner, we went to our respective rooms. Normally, I had to spend significant time in rearranging the bag, segregating the dry and wet clothes. But most of the time went in deciding about what to wear the next day. It wasn’t because I had many choices, but because of lack of dry clothes. I ran out of stock as there weren’t many at the first place. Hence, it was a matter of deciding which one was least wet. Just as me and Ranjan da were busy arranging our clothes, Ranjan da’s daughter was preparing to go under her blanket, my daughter suddenly started crying. For a moment, I didn’t give much attention and admonished her, asked her to stop crying and go to sleep, but she wasn’t prepared to listen. The intensity of her crying increased by time and she was inconsolable. I tried to calm her down, cajole her, trying to understand the reason but she kept on saying “I’m not feeling good”, “I want to go home”, “I’m missing mom”, “This isn’t a good place to be in”. All of us in the room tried to assuage her, but she wouldn’t listen. Other members of our group entered our room. Just like me, they were tense. It was a matter of concern. If such thoughts make their way into her head, it’s impossible to carry on and something had to be done. Definitively some fear had settled in her, which she wasn’t revealing. We tried to understand the cause, but weren’t able to. I had a feeling that our conversations in the dining hall must have contributed to it. The talks about possibilities of snow on the route at the higher altitudes, the cold and possible shortage of blankets, all of these acted as buzzwords which accentuated her fear. After sometime, I stopped questioning or consoling her and just held her within my arms. The idea was to let her settle down on her own and try to persuade her to sleep. Thoughts also crossed my mind to abort the tour and return from this point, if things didn’t improve, but I kept them at bay. Members of the group also came up with a plan B. In worst case, they were even prepared to skip the halt at MBC, to save a day to return earlier. But we deferred that decision for the next morning, depending on her mental situation. Sleep eluded me for most part of the night as I kept thinking about what awaited us the next day – advance or retreat? We were sleeping at 2145 m.
The die has been cast & there was no turning back. That was my feeling when I woke up prompted by the alarm clock. It was the day when we had to start our trek. All vehicular traffic would end and for the next week or so, we’d be on mountain trails. It wasn’t new to us, but it was, for the two little daughters in our team. They haven’t been through this before. Both the duration & altitude were going to be the highest they’d experience in their lives so far. Some members of the team already were out on the banks of the Fewa lake to enjoy their morning stroll.
The overcast sky was a reminder of previous evening’s rains. It also meant that we won’t be treated with the views of the Annapurna range & their reflection on the lake waters. The clouds had it all covered but for a few glimpses peeping out here & there. I turned my attention to get myself & my daughter ready. Once that was done, it was time for breakfast. By then, rest of the members were back from their morning strolls. Once all assembled at the dining hall, breakfast was served. Some went for toast, bread & butter, while others stuck to parathas. Watermelon juice & black ginger tea complemented the food. By the time we finished the breakfast, our guide Raju & the porters arrived & so did the two jeeps that would carry us to Khumi, the point where we start walking from. As I went upstairs to my room for a final time, a quick glance to the horizon revealed a welcome scene. Clouds cleared up & beyond the ridge of the hill that lay in front, Mt Machchpuchchare (fish tail) was peeping out in its full morning glory!
A single view made all doubts go away. Suddenly, all seemed possible & easy. It’s amazing to know how the changing mood of nature can influence one’s state of mind. Our luggage made their way to the top of the vans. We divided ourselves equally between the two vans and started our journey. The road moved towards the outskirts of the Pokhara town. As we entered the highway, the entire stretch of it lay before us, which led straight towards the distant hills, beyond which, the snow-clad peaks of the Annapurna range bathed in bright morning sun. As the van moved ahead, the peaks only got nearer as if we were directly entering into their laps.
My daughter got excited and she started filming a video with the mobile camera. As the van switched the roads, so did the angle of the snow peaks, but they never deprived us from their views. We crossed many junctions, small bridges and started to ascend the slopes. The peaks kept increasing their dimensions. The beautiful Modi khola (river, in Nepalese language) came thundering down through the slopes & the rocks in leaps & bounds. It’s water was azure, shining brightly in the morning sun. We crossed a bridge to reach the town Ulleri.
Ulleri is the first place where our permits were checked. It is the first doorstep to enter the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, the protected area & the national park that covers the entire region in & around the Annapurna massif. Ulleri is also the place from where different trekking routes start. One such route is the one that goes to Poonhill. This route goes via Ghorepani, Tadapani and finally meets at Chomrong. Our route didn’t cover Poonhill and were to go via Khumi, Jhinudanda to converge with the Poonhill route at Chomrong. After which, the route was common. As the van crossed Ulleri, the paved road gave way to a dusty road with rocks and boulders. By the looks of it, it was a walking route, but somehow vehicles have started plying with the aim to reduce the walk. On our way, we crossed Birethanti, beyond which, we saw many trekkers embarking on foot. The road became increasingly bumpy & narrow. Human settlements & terraced fields reduced as they gave way to dense forests that started closing in. We kept thinking that the road would end anytime and we’d have to start on our feet, but the van kept moving on till it reached an open space which looked like a stand. There were a few shops. Rest of our group were already there and we joined them for tea. After tea, we strapped our backpacks, the porters evenly distributed the luggage & strapped their share on their respective backs. We took our walking sticks and after an opening photograph of the entire group, we hit the trail.
The path moved along the slopes amidst the forests. To start with, it wasn’t steep & we almost walked on level grounds. It was about 10.30 AM. While there was dense vegetation along the slopes we walked on, the slopes on the opposite side were covered with terraced fields that were interspersed with villages.
In spite of the sunshine, it wasn’t very hot, mainly because we were walking under the shades of a canopy formed by hovering trees.
The Annapurna base camp trail is known to have forest cover for a majority of its sections and we were only going through the lowlands now. Trekking is always easier when you have tree cover as there’s no dearth of oxygen.
Niladri insisted to walk alongside my daughter, a trend that would repeat for the entire trek and it provided the much-needed support. The age group to which my daughter belongs is one which makes her driven by moods. She has not yet reached the age to be able to ignore the physical exhaustion just by immersing herself into nature. Just going by the age, she is probably better equipped to cope with fatigue or breathlessness that usually accompanies trekking in the Himalayas, but she lacks one crucial trait, patience.
It becomes critical when one goes through steep hikes seemingly unending. It is during these phases, one needs to constantly keep her engaged either by talking (at times, nonsense) or by diverting her focus to something other than the constantly hovering thought “how much more to go or I can’t bear it anymore’. Niladri is the best person equipped for it since, admittedly, I sometimes run out of patience, which can worsen the situation. So, I let them go ahead and followed, keeping a distance. Though I tried not to lose them from my sight, but off and on, they kept disappearing beyond the bends of the serpentine trail. Photography was another reason of such detachments.
After crossing a bend, I found them enjoying the serenity of a waterfall that crossed the trail. Other members of the group walked in separate groups in front or the rear. Rumi (Ranjan da’s daughter & my daughter’s cousin) was faring good, walking slowly at her own pace. After sometime, I found my daughter slowing down considerably with her walking increasingly interrupted by frequent halts. This wasn’t ideal. Though one doesn’t expect someone to sprint in the mountains, one needs to maintain a steady pace. It’s crucial to reach destination within time. I kept urging her not to halt frequently but Niladri asked me to go slow on pushing her. His logic was not to pressurize her, which could make matters worse. I felt, something wasn’t quite right and repeated probing revealed that she was facing stomach ache. Indigestion can be very depleting in treks, so something had to be done. We didn’t have much of a choice but to continue till the place of halt for lunch, Jhinudanda. It was already 12.30 and fortunately, we could see the village along the mountain slopes on the other banks of the river. But, what appears near, can prove far enough in these parts of the world. The trail started descending towards a metallic bridge,which was almost 1 km in length.
It would take us to the other bank. Beyond that, I could see steps that we would need to ascend to reach Jhinudanda.
It could prove difficult for my daughter to ascend the steps with stomach ache, but we had no choice. Both me & Niladri tried our best to keep her attention away from the ailment & she responded reasonably well. Hiking the stairs wasn’t easy for her and we had to halt after every 8-10. I was aware that more stairs awaited us after Jhinu. In fact, the entire trail from Jhinu to Chomrong involved ascending steps (created by placing carefully cut out rocks). There were around a thousand to ascend. For a moment, I was worried about how my daughter would cope with them, especially, after lunch, but I removed such thoughts & decided to solve the imminent one, which was to address her stomach ache.
The lodge at Jhinu was big by local standards. It had a big covered dining hall which is where we sat and gave our orders for lunch. I restricted my diet to curd & rice and did the same for my daughter. But first of all, I searched for a toilet for my daughter. Fortunately, it was near and it was neat & spacious (a rare find in these remote areas). After returning from toilet she expressed some desire to eat, which was a good sign. We would be staying at Jhinu on our way back, which would be in another six days. Others enjoyed Nepalese meals & chicken curry, which raised interest of my daughter as well, but we stuck to our diet to keep it light on the first day. After lunch, we strapped our bags again and moved out of the lodge. Very soon we were greeted with the steps that would take us to Chomrong.
It did appear daunting at the first sight as the stairs seemed never-ending that went upwards turning through multiple bends only to ascend further up. With our stomachs full, it did prove difficult to ascend them initially. However, I knew, it was just a matter of getting used to it. As before, I let Niladri move along with my daughter & I followed them. For the initial phase, she was doing good, but things started to change after a few bends of turn. As her legs started tiring, fatigue set in and her patience started wearing out. After every few steps, she would halt to ask about the distance remaining to be covered. I had to be careful to set her expectations right. There wasn’t any point to quote low, so I said “there is still some way to go, be patient”. I also urged her not to stop frequently since clouds were making their way into the valley having eclipsed the sun already.
A development I didn’t like but there wasn’t anything I could do. I just hoped it didn’t rain as that would make matters worse. No one wants wet clothes ad there aren’t many that we were carrying & they don’t dry sufficiently quick in this moist weather. Visibility reduced with dense clouds and fog held the sway. With height, my daughter started getting more tired and her halts increased. I was now in a catch 22 situation. Tiredness meant she couldn’t walk any faster, but slow speed implied increasing the possibilities of facing rain before reaching the destination. Both Niladri & I tried to make her understand. But she continued her rhetoric “I can’t walk, my legs are paining, how much more to go?”. It was proving difficult to make her understand that “not walking” isn’t really an option. In order to get out of this situation, one has to reach the next destination & for that, walking was the only way out. At times we had to mix considerate words with mild admonishment (at the same time being careful about not overdoing it to an extent to demoralize her). It was a tough balancing act at such altitudes to handle a child of little over nine years. After a few more turns, she almost gave up and started crying inconsolably.
I felt helpless and looked up to Niladri, who was equally at bay. He came up with a wild suggestion (which only he could do) to carry her on his back. I vehemently denied it. He kept insisting but I stuck to my stand. No matter what happens, we shouldn’t get into these acts. Firstly, it was an unnecessary risk to put oneself into. Secondly, I didn’t want to set unrealistic expectations that, when in such trouble, someone could always carry her through. Looking upwards, I saw one of our porters coming down the slopes. They already reached Chomrong and after keeping our luggage, came down to see if anyone needed help. This is something they always do & I keep getting overwhelmed by their acts. This time, he offered to carry my daughter on his back and my reply to him was same as what I gave to Niladri. But guide Raju (who was coming up in the rear) insisted I agree. Since there wasn’t much of the trail left, he thought it to be reasonable, especially, considering that rain was imminent. I reluctantly agreed and the Porter carried my daughter on his back while we followed behind. After crossing another few bends, I found my daughter sitting on a rock and a few steps ahead, lay the lodge of Chomrong, our destination for the day. The trail ahead was gradual and we quickly covered it to reach the dining hall.
As soon as we got the keys of our rooms, I headed towards it. My first job was to change the clothes of my daughter, which were wet, not due to rain, but sweat. Since she was carrying a bit cough, the idea was to put on dry clothes as soon as possible. As soon as I did it, she was prompt to go to the bed and went into deep sleep. She reached the threshold of tiredness and sleep overtook her. Just as I ventured out of the room with the hope to hang the wet clothes to dry them up, rains poured in heavily. We were just in time to reach the lodge. Given that it was the first day of trek, our legs were very tired. Evening settled in gradually as daylight gave way to darkness. Dinner was served at 7.30 PM. I had to wake my daughter up who was deep asleep. After dinner, some of the members went to a nearby village to witness the celebrations of Dussera (or Dasai, as it is called in Nepal). I concentrated to identify the set of clothing for us for the next day. After that, it was time to go under the blankets. We were sleeping at 2700 m.
The alarm was set to 4 AM and it screamed out loyally at the stipulated time. It was to stay at 4 AM for this entire travel, instead of 5.30 AM, which is the time to start pushing my daughter for morning school bus. I got myself ready and knocked the doors of others. Five of us ventured out in search of a taxi. Kathmandu was still asleep and the vehicle meandered through the empty streets under the dark skies towards the Pasupatinath shrine. The temple site though, was awake and bustling with activity. As we walked down the alley towards the gate, vendors on both sides were screaming with the hope of selling their puja offerings. We finally obliged one of them to buy some. The shrine was enlightened by the glow of innumerable earthen lamps. The place was abuzz with chants from the priests and devotees. There was quite a rush at the gates, but we somehow managed to sneak through to get a glimpse of the deity and offered our pujas. After moving out of the temple complex, we went towards the cremation ground. As on the previous day, a few cremation proceedings were underway. We didn’t have much time and I had to get my daughter ready before we were to embark for Pokhara. Tej Gurung was to come and meet the group to brief us about the itinerary. All of that had to be completed before 8.30 AM, which is when we were to start for Pokhara. Tej was right on time. He met us at the dining place of the hotel. Some of us were already familiar with him. He was in his normal jovial self with his upbeat and encouraging words for the group. We made our balance payments. He was candid enough to remind us, regardless of the outcome of the trip (possibilities were there for someone failing to complete the trek due to altitude sickness), the charges we paid to him, were non-refundable. It was a bitter but unavoidable fact. Lodges were already booked, charges were already paid to the guide and porters. From his side, he had already invested his share of the bargain and there was no turning back. We hoped that all of us would be able to complete the trip successfully. After all, altitudes were much less than those of the Everest base camp trek. During our conversation, I took the opportunity to inquire about some other tours and treks of Nepal. Manaslu circuit and Makalu base camp featured high on the list of probables in future. After all the briefing, it was time for a group photograph with Tej. This is something which he always does with all the groups and we knew, the photo will make its way to social media with appropriate tags. He also gave us the T-shirts bearing the logo of his company. Finally, our luggage made their way to the roof of the vehicle and were fastened. With normal traffic conditions, it should not take more than 5 hours to reach Pokhara, but the roads, especially the ones leading out of Kathmandu, are congested due to ongoing work and it could take more. We didn’t waste any further time and boarded the vehicle, which started it’s journey towards Pokhara.
Our way took us through the streets of Kathmandu and we passed by the Narayanhiti royal palace and of course, the Pasupatinath shrine. Streets of the Nepalese capital were already abuzz with activity. The city almost looked like any other on the plains, but for the sight of the surrounding mountains. The van took a road that gradually moved up the slopes, one of the exits from the Kathmandu valley and very soon we found ourselves meandering through the serpentine roads of the mountains. Guide Raju and 4 porters accompanied us in the van. Another porter would join us at Pokhara before we start the trek. The morning chill went away as the day progressed. We had to abandon our mild woolen wears. Time went in a fly with gossips among ourselves and leg pulling of some of the members. After about 2 hours, the van halted at a place for breakfast. We got a chance to free our legs as we got down. Out of the items available in a roadside shop, fried onions and boiled grams (mixed with spice, freshly cut onions and hot chilies) took our attention. The latter would have us in its grip for the entire trip and we had this delicacy of the lowlands of Nepal at many other places. The daughters too, seemed to like it along with tea. The roadside shelter was being run by a local family, who had their homes in the backyard. There was an open balcony where they had put pickles and other spices for drying up in the sun. Beyond the balcony, the slopes went down towards the banks of a river. The slopes on both sides of the gorge and the entire valley was lush green. Terrace farms decorated the plains on both the banks of the river. The morning sun cast its golden touch on the crops, which stood firm on the fields, yet to be harvested.
The breakfast along with tea, gave us some boost and we boarded the van to embark on our journey once again. The road went by the banks of the Marsiangdi river. Rural lowlands of Nepal revealed its beauty as the vehicle moved on towards Pokhara. The banks of the river were flanked by terraced fields abundant with crop yields. Most of them were paddy fields. The morning sunshine poured its brightness amidst the ripe crop. The van made its way through the serpentine roads. Time went by and the vehicle halted at a road side shelter for lunch. All of the members were in good health and they waited for lunch. As it turned out, the best available option was a local Nepalese meal that involved rice, lentils, some local vegetables and fried fish (apparently freshly pulled out of the river near by).
I sat with my daughter, mainly to ensure she eats well to be fit enough for the journey which still required us to travel for another 3 hours at least. The road to Pokhara from Kathmandu goes via some important junctions. One such junction has a diversion towards the famous national park of Chitwan. Another such junction before Pokhara is Bandipur. A diversion from here leads to the town Besisahar, which is an important place on two famous trekking circuits of central Nepal, the Annapurna circuit and the Manaslu circuit. The roads started to get bumpy as we moved closer to Pokhara, but that was mainly due to ongoing construction work. Though it slowed us down, but we were still able to reach there by around 3 PM in the afternoon. On our way, we crossed the Pokhara airport and went by the banks of a huge lake, the famous Fewa lake of Pokhara. The water glistened in the rays of afternoon sun, boats plied around with tourists. The town was neat and clean and most importantly, much less crowded than Kathmandu. Wide roads and evenly spaced houses gave a sense of planning. It was heartening to see Pokhara in such a shape even after its meteoric rise as a tourist destination in recent years and related development (normally, such developments lead to massive deforestation with houses and lodges mushrooming left, right and center). Finally, we arrived at the Golden Gate Hotel, our place of stay. We got our Wifi passwords, that allowed us to make calls and send messages to our homes via WhatsApp. After settling in our respective rooms and freshening up a bit, we ventured out again. The same vehicle that carried us to Pokhara was to take us for some local sight-seeing of the town. The first such site was a waterfall named “Devi’s fall”. We went with great expectations of a Himalayan waterfall, but were disappointed. The fall wasn’t as big as we expected. It had a park surrounding it, maintained with manicured gardens and sitting chairs. None of it was particularly captivating. There were many souvenir shops around. I bought a token from one of them to pacify my daughter. We boarded the van again. The next stop was Bindabasini temple. After feeling a few drops of water on my body, I looked up and saw dark clouds hovering in the sky. As the van moved towards the destination, clouds poured in. Though it was a welcome break from heat for the locals, it didn’t particularly please me. What if the clouds didn’t clear up before the next morning? No one wants to trek amidst rain, not at least on the very first day.
The rain subsided and after we returned from sight-seeing, some members went for shopping and rest of us just roamed around leisurely. Pokhara has restaurants of every kind that offered a varied cuisine. It also has numerous shops sporting trekking and hiking gear. We scoured some of them and bought a few essential items. One such gear was a rain cover for my daughter that could cover the entire body along with a small backpack. The Lakeside walk was pleasant with much cooler temperatures than Kathmandu. There were many lodges and restaurants on the banks, some of which had live musical bands performing to delight the crowd, who were enjoying their evening beer and snacks by the banks of the lake.
After sometime, all the members assembled at the front of the hotel and we went for dinner at a nearby restaurant. After giving orders, we had a very long wait. Gradually, our patience started running out. We needed to finish it off to sleep early. We had to start early enough the next day. The idea was to hit the trail as early as possible. It wasn’t to be a long walk, but still, it was the first day of trek and I was anxious to see how the two little daughters fare. We finally ended dinner very late. After returning to the hotel, there were more work at hands. I carefully weeded out the items that weren’t required during the trek and put them into a separate bag to be left at the cloak room of the hotel. Some items always border on the essentials, but I took a hard look and left them. As I went to sleep, I was a tad nervous. One disturbing element was the weather. The other thought was about the daughters. How would they cope with the strain of walking? The first day was going to be crucial as it was to set the trend for the rest (or so I thought). I kept thinking about these and at some point sleep overran my thoughts.
Sleep eluded me for a majority of the previous night. Nepal prevailed in my minds. Hopefully, this time around, all should go well. Altitudes are lesser than those of the Everest route. Going by the plan, the trek this time was more evenly paced. The only cause of concern was how the children would react. They have not yet reached the age to be able to immerse themselves into the beauty of nature, ignoring the physical exhaustion. Both me & my wife had counselled our daughter to listen to elders, & be patient. Once on the trail, there was no option to turn back in between. Even to do so, one still would have to walk a long way to at least reach the next place of halt. I woke up at 4 AM, brushing aside all such thoughts & got myself ready. I took a bath in warm waters (we’d have two more chances of it before the actual trek starts). After my daughter got ready, we headed downstairs for the cab and met Ranjan da & Rumi (his daughter). Anindita came down to see us off. We were in constant touch with Dhananjoy en route, but met him only at the check-in counter. He was on his way to wrap his check-in baggage, which had a walking stick. That prompted us to stuff our sticks within our baggage to avoid the extra wrapping cost (Dhananjoy had to pay Rs 350 to wrap, which was the same amount he paid to buy the stick). We couldn’t get window seats, but by the looks of the passengers who were fortunate, it was clear that The Himalayas didn’t disappoint them with their gorgeous display once the aircraft gained height. Going by prior experience, I knew that the show starts with the Garhwal Himalayas, followed by peaks of the Kumaon region, Western & Central Nepal and just as the peaks of the Everest region start making their appearance, the plane takes a turn to start descending towards the Kathmandu valley. The plane landed on the runway of Tribhuvan international airport. The clear weather & a clear view of the mountains surrounding the runway added to the upbeat mood. Baggage reclaim always takes sometime at this relatively small airport. After completing the immigration formalities, we ventured out of the airport. Then it was the familiar way to Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. After about 15 minutes, we reached Kathmandu Garden Home, our hotel of stay. The ambiance looked good. It’s as new hotel built from scratch by Tej Bahadur Gurung. After getting keys of our respective rooms, the hotel staff helped us by transporting our luggage. We were delighted to meet our friends from Kolkata, who came back to the hotel from their morning stroll. We didn’t have much time to waste as a cab was already waiting outside to take us for local sight-seeing. As soon as we boarded it, the cab was on its way towards Bhaktapur Durbar Square.
Bhaktapur is one of the oldest of the kingdoms in Nepal. It is an old city and was once the capital of Nepal during the time of the great Mallas, who ruled Nepal. Bhaktapur has a distinctly different dialect of the Nepalese language which is called Newa. Because of its rich culture, temples and courtyards adorned with wood, stone and metal art works, it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As soon as we entered the place, we encountered a temple which still gets scores of visitors and they perform animal sacrifices to pay back their debt to the deity as a mark of respect on the occasion of fulfillment of their prayers. It was the time of Durga puja and Dussera was looming near. Hence, a lot of sacrifices were being offered and such signs (blood stains, slain throats of goats and buffaloes and their other mortal remains forced us to make a quick exit from the scene).
After purchasing the tickets, we entered what was a spread courtyard surrounded by many temples, court rooms and other old structures resembling pagodas and were adored with rich artifacts of wood, metal and stone.
We roamed around the place leisurely. The weather was pleasant with abundant sunshine that was mild in its intensity. Some of the structures were being repaired (it was heavily damaged during the 2015 earthquake) and things were getting back to their normal keeping the dreadful memories behind.
The place was devastated by the earthquake of 1934, which destroyed majority of the structures. What remains today are the ones that somehow survived the wrath. It is said that out of 99 courtyards, only 6 remain today. Out of which, there is the famous golden gate of Bhaktapur, which is world-renowned.
Once we entered the gate, we were greeted with many idols lying around carelessly on the floor. Some of them are from 17th Century. One such idol was that of Ugrachandi which resembles that of Goddess Durga.
But the way these idols were lying around, suggested there wasn’t much care being taken to preserve them. Most of them had some or the other elements broken or damaged. One couldn’t be sure whether these damages are from past or have been acquired recently due to negligence. After roaming around for sometime, we reached an elevated pedestal which could be reached by climbing a number of stairs. One could get a view of the entire courtyard from its top.
We were told that the top had a temple which was destroyed by earthquakes. Time has stolen a lot from this place, but a lot still remains and is worth preserving as such works aren’t possible today.
After Bhaktapur, we headed for Pasupatinath temple, another important shrine of the Kathmandu valley. The cab driver informed that there are ample shops near the shrine where we could have our lunch. The time was ripe to have lunch since we hadn’t gobbled anything after the morning breakfast we had in the aircraft. As we reached the shrine, we first searched for a place to have lunch, but most of the shops were closed. We ended up walking a lot in search of food, but finally had to contend with “chole-bhature” (a form of puri). It wasn’t the best we hoped for, but we ignored that and headed for the shrine.
The Pasupatinath temple is the most famous shrine of Kathmandu valley. It is the seat of Nepal’s national deity, Lord Pasupatinath (another name of Lord Shiva). The temple was erected afresh in the 15th century after the previous temple building was destroyed by termites. While it is not known exactly when this was built for the first time, but history of the temple dates back as early as 400 BC. The deity here is considered to be the lord of all beings (pashus), living and non-living. Legend has it that once Lord Shiva and Parvati took the guise of an antelope and roamed in the forests of the east bank of the Bagmati river. The other gods later caught up with the lord and grabbed him by one of the horns forcing him to return to his divine form. The broken horn started getting worshiped as Shiva Linga but over time it got worn out and lost. Years later, some astonished herdsmen discovered that one of their cows showered the earth with milk. Getting curious, they dug up the site to discover a Shiva Linga. The current temple is believed to be erected on the same site.
Near the entrance, there was a place where thousands of pigeons jostled around. Some kids were playing with them and some others, offering them food. The scene took me back for about thirty-four years when I was a kid of ten, visiting Kathmandu for the first time with my parents. This act of feeding pigeons dates back a long time and it was the same scene, back then. The place must have changed a lot since then and I couldn’t really recall what has changed, but the pigeons were still there. We had to submit our shoes, bags, camera and other leather items at a counter as these items are not allowed inside the shrine. The entrance still looked the same and I remembered that we took a family snap (or rather got clicked by a professional with his instant hot-shot camera as we didn’t have our own those days).
After entering through the gate, there was that famous metallic idol of “Nandi” (the bull of Lord Shiva). It appeared so familiar. Numerous monkeys were displaying their acrobatics through the branches of the surrounding trees, the temple walls and bell chains. One had to be careful from them, especially while carrying a puja (flowers and offerings) as they always have their eyes trained on them and can snatch anytime. We weren’t faced with that problem as we weren’t offering a puja. That was totally unexpected and we got a bit annoyed with the cab driver. It so happened that the time we reached the shrine, it was closed for the day. So, we couldn’t offer a puja even after visiting the most famous shrine of the Kathmandu valley or even entire Nepal. Nevertheless, we moved along the circumference of the temple and reached it’s backyard. The backyard of the temple had a cremation ground on the banks of the river Bagmati. We saw a few cremation proceedings that were underway. Nepal is a country where majority of its residents are Hindus. So, the cremation process is the same as anywhere in India. Going by the Hindu mythology, its only appropriate that Lord Shiva (to whom the shrine of Pasupatinath is dedicated) resides amidst or near a cremation ground. I suddenly recalled, this is also the place where many members of the royal family (the then king of Nepal, Virendra, his queen and other members) were cremated after that fateful incident of mass killing in the royal palace.
Everyday someone breathes his/her last just as someone comes to this world. This process of life is the same everywhere and this place is no exception. We were visiting this place with tranquility in our minds and some excitement for our upcoming travel to Annapurna. At the same time, the relatives of the deceased who have been brought for cremation must be grieved and with heavy hearts, are continuing with the routine religious rituals. We left the scene and moved towards our vehicle whose next stop was Swayambhunath, the famous Buddhist shrine of Kathmandu. As we moved out from Pasupatinath area, we came across a Durga puja pandal. It was a welcome scene and we were all excited (most of us were from Bengal) to witness a Durga puja celebration away from Bengal, in Nepal. The idols looked the same, so did the ambiance.
The vehicle meandered through the crowded streets of Kathmandu to reach another side of it and started to ascend the zig-zag roads of a low hill, the top of which housed the Swayambhunath shrine. It ascended a significant section of the hill to a point from where the entire Kathmandu valley was visible.
Swayambhunath is another site, which rekindled my memories from 34 years ago. I recalled the huge dome with large eyes painted on all four sides of it. The eyes, they say, are a witness to all ups and downs of the Kathmandu valley that they oversee from the top. It was also the place of shooting for the famous Hindi film “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” – the ambitious project of the legendary Hindi film producer and actor Dev Anand, who was very fond of Kathmandu and Nepal. There were some shots in and around of the shrine. The site is one of the oldest in Nepal and was founded in the beginning of 5th century CE. It is said, that emperor Ashoka visited the site in third century BCE and built a temple on top of the hill, but it was later destroyed. Every dawn, many Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims ascend the steps and perform clockwise circulations around the stupa to pay their respect.
It was getting colder as the sun gradually went down the horizon and we headed back for the hotel after the day’s excursion. In the evening, we roamed the streets of Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, for some marketing. For some of our members, it was the last chance as they won’t be returning here on their way back.
After marketing, we had our dinner and headed back to the hotel. Our legs were tired and we yearned to sleep. We had to wake up very early the next day as some of us planned to offer puja at the Pasupatinath shrine. The next day shall take us to Pokhara, the base from where our trek would start.
There are many interpretations of the name. It can imply “One who provides food”, “One who’s replete with food”. The locals there interpret it as “The Goddess of harvests” and there are many more. The name, as you might have guessed it already, is “Annapurna”. It mainly refers to the Himalayan mountain peak which has a height of 8091 m. However, when it comes to the section of the Himalayan range where this peak resides, the name covers a larger boundary. It refers to what they call as the “Annapurna Massif” or “Annapurna Himal”. The word Himal refers to sections or ranges of The Himalayas and they typically include many mountain peaks. For example, some of the Himals of Nepal Himalayas are Mahalangur Himal, Ganesh Himal, Mansiri Himal and others. The Mahalangur Himal stretches from the Nangpa La to the Arun river and includes the mountain peaks of Mt Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu and many others. The Mansiri Himal is the home of the famous peak of Mt Manaslu.
The Annapurna Himal (massif) lies in north-central Nepal and it is surrounded by Kali Gandaki gorge on its west (the world’s deepest river gorge that extends to a depth of about 1 km), the Marsiangdi river on its north and east and the Pokhara valley on its south. The massif includes Annapurna I (or Annapurna main, 8091 m), many peaks in the range of 7000 m and 6000 m. The other peaks include Annapurna II, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Machhapuchchhre (fish tail, because of its resemblance to the tail of a fish from some angles), Gangapurna and many others. The massif and its surrounding areas are covered under the Annapurna Conservation Area project. It is one of the first and largest of such projects in Nepal. This region has a varied landscape and has ample attractions for trekkers and travelers making it one of the (if not the) most visited regions of The Himalayas. One can say this even after considering the glamour and craze of the Everest region of Nepal.
In the climbing fraternity, the mountains of the Annapurna region are considered among the most dangerous mountains to climb. Out of the fourteen peaks reaching 8000 m or above, Annapurna has one of the highest mortality rates. Till date, there have been only about 200 summit ascents to Annapurna main (I) compared to thousands on Mt Everest during the same time period. Particularly, climbing the south face of Annapurna main is considered the most difficult of all the routes to the summit. The mountain also has the highest fatality to summit ratio (i.e. average number of deaths for a successful summit) of about 32%. Snow storms and avalanches are way too common on the mountain and account for most of the fatalities on its corridor.
In spite of the challenges, Annapurna I was the first 8000 m peak to be climbed. On 3rd June, 1950, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal from a French expedition, were the first to climb the summit. It remained the highest climbed summit till the first successful ascent of Mt Everest in 1953. Though, mountaineers attained higher non-summit points on The Himalayas even before that in the 1920s (mainly due to their attempts on Mt Everest). The south face was first climbed by Don Whillans and Dougal Haston in 1970. They were a part of a British expedition led by Chris Bonington. The year 1978 saw the American Women’s Himalayan expedition team reach the summit making them the first ever Americans to reach there. The first winter ascent was achieved by the Polish climbers Jerzy Kukuczka and Artur Hajzer in 1987. This was special on any mountain, especially Annapurna, considering its near vertical ice walls and relatively higher rates of snow avalanches. There have been 52 deaths during ascents and nine during descents. The ratio of 34 deaths per 100 safe returns is the highest among all the 8000 m peaks in the world. Out of the many climbers who perished on its flanks, one name strikes me the most, Anatoli Boukreev. He was the famous guide from Scott Fischer’s group that attempted Mt Everest in the fatal spring of 1996. The expedition that saw its leaders and other clients perish on Mt Everest. Boukreev drew a lot of flak for not using supplemental Oxygen while guiding the clients. Though he saved the lives of some of the clients single-handedly, but debates raged afterwards around whether he could have saved more, had he used supplemental Oxygen. Since that expedition, Boukreev made several successful summit attempts on Mt Everest, Mt Lhotse and many other 8000 m peaks till he thought of attempting Annapurna in the winters. In 1997, Boukreev, along with fellow Italian mountaineer, Simone Moro, started to climb the south face of Annapurna I. On December 25th, around noon, when they were fixing ropes on a high couloir, a huge ice cornice broke off from the Western wall of Annapurna and triggered an avalanche down the slopes. It knocked down Moro, but he somehow managed to stay above the avalanche and managed to dig himself out of the debris. But he could see no signs of Boukreev. After a fruitless search, Moro descended to the base camp and was evacuated to a Kathmandu hospital by a helicopter. Search attempts on camp 1 (the disaster site) could not commence due to bad weather and it was only by 3rd January, 1998, search parties could reach camp 1 which had an empty tent. That was the end to an illustrious mountaineering career of Boukreev that spanned just 10 years and saw him scale the summits of 11 mountain peaks of 8000 m or above. Some of them, multiple times, via different routes.
There are many trekking routes in and around the Annapurna Himal, but three stand out prominently. The Jomsom route (that takes one to the Muktinath shrine), The Annapurna Sanctuary route that takes one to the south base camp of Annapurna I and the Annapurna circuit that surrounds the Annapurna Himal itself. The last one takes you through varied landscapes and altitudes spanning lush green forests in the lower regions, the arid rain shadow areas of Annapurna in the lower and upper Mustang regions, finally taking one to the Muktinath shrine after crossing the Thorang La on its way. The region sees the highest influx of trekkers in the Nepal Himalayas (even overshadowing the famed Everest region). Trekkers have also had their share of the wrath of Annapurna and the worst disaster came in 2014 when 43 were killed and at least 170 injured when snow storms and avalanches in and around Annapurna hit the region hard.
My interest to the region got incited way back in 2014 when I saw some pictures of someone else who visited the region with his family. At that time, I haven’t even visited Nepal, not at least as a trekker (I went there as a 10-year-old child with my father, but that was only to Kathmandu). Since I saw the pictures, Nepal started to set in my minds. If I could trek in other parts of The Himalayas, why not Nepal? Talks started with my friends and the excitement infected them too. We debated about the best time to visit the region – spring or autumn. Each had its own charm. Spring offered the best views of the forests that were abundant with Rhododendrons, whereas autumn provided the best weather when clouds stayed clear off the mountains. At that time, all of us thought about taking our families along with us. So, apart from getting leaves from our respective offices, we also had to consider leaves from schools of our children. After a lot of discussion, the autumn of 2015 was chosen as the window. I got in touch Tej Bahadur Gurung of Nepal Alternative Treks and shared a lot of communication discussing the itineraries, cost and many other aspects of the proposed visit. But nature had its own plans, which stuck hard in the form of a devastating earthquake in 2015 and Nepal went out of the tourist map, at least for the time.Towards the end of 2015, interest started to revive (primarily due to the information that was shared by Tej about the resumption of treks and travels in Nepal Himalayas). However, by that time, my interest shifted to Everest (a detailed description of that travel can be found here). Once that was done successfully, it was only a matter of time that the Annapurna Sanctuary trekking (aka Annapurna Base Camp trekking or ABC) had to be undertaken. By this time, many of our friends, who initially were part of our discussions in 2014, moved out due to different reasons. Some others joined the bandwagon. The initial group now had five persons – me, Niladri Sekhar Guha, Dhananjoy De, Ranjan Ghosh and Shk Monowar Hossein. The first four were also part of the Everest Base Camp trek and the last person rued missing out on Everest after he saw our pictures from that trek. He joined us for Roopkund trek, which we did in 2017 and was determined to visit Annapurna. Head hunting started with the main aim to increase the members to keep the costs at a reasonable level. Each of us reached out to our friends and contacts to tap their interests. Parallel conversations ensued with Tej seeking price quotes for different group sizes. Initially, many showed their interests and at some point in time, the group size went up to 14. That made us ecstatic. But things changed as the time of our visit came closer. Me, Ranjan da and Niladri decided to take our children along. The decision was primarily driven by the fact that the trek involved going through much lesser heights than Everest and having company of other children would keep them engaged throughout the trek. Nildari’s kids had to pull out as exams came in their way. I purposely decided to hide that news from my daughter and preferred to keep her along. This was going to be a life time experience for her and if things went right, hopefully, she might develop an interest in the mountains. Tej Gurung also obliged us with a lesser price for children than the adults. The group size was now 12. Communications went on with Tej, so did the iterations about the itinerary. We chose to start on 17th October, 2018. Our friends from Kolkata would start on 15th and were to reach Kathmandu on the evening of 16th. Once we join them on 17th, the entire group was to go for a sight-seeing of the Nepalese capital (something which we could not do during Everest trekking because of our delay at Lukla – a description of that can be found here). On the 18th, we’d start off for Pokhara in a private vehicle. The trek was to start from Pokhara on 19th with a drive to Khumi (the farthest one could go with a vehicle on the route), followed by a 2-2.5 hour climb to Chomrong. Successive days would see us reach the places of Himalaya, MBC (Machhpuchhre base camp) and Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). The plan was such, that we were to spend a full moon night at ABC to have a shot at the moonlit night views of the Annapurna range. We also kept an extra reserve day at ABC (in case we missed any of the desired views due to weather or needed extra rest on the way). On our way down, we were to halt at Bamboo, Jhinu Danda and reach Pokhara on 26th October. The team was to disperse there with our friends from Kolkata would head towards Birganj, some to Sunauli border (to catch trains to Kolkata and Delhi respectively) and the rest to Kathmandu. A flight on 28th October would carry rest of us back to Delhi. All seemed well planned, but Ranjan da pointed out a flaw. The second day of the trek was to see us gain an altitude of more than a 1000 m. That could be a tough ask, especially with children. He suggested to split the climb with more halts. For the time being, we chose to ignore it, but we had to heed to this during our trek (something to be told later). As the trek loomed, some of the members got jittery and phased out. This created some problems with price negotiations as a lot of expenses on the trek are shared and with reduction in team members, cost per head goes up. After the reductions, the team size now stood at 10. In a way, this was good as we now had members who were fully committed and chances of late desertions were remote.
Finally, the day arrived and our friends started off from Kolkata on 15th by Mithila Express to head towards Raxaul, the town on the India-Nepal border. They reached Kathmandu on 16th evening. I went to sleep that day with goosebumps in my belly. The Nepal Himalayas were calling again.
As we moved out of Dole, the next morning, trees started to reappear. They increased in numbers and we could once again see the blooming Rhododendron flowers, though lesser in numbers than what we saw on our way to Tengboche from Namche. That told us, we were re-entering the reaches of the forests near Namche. The Khumjung village (the place that has a monastery with supposedly a “Yeti scalp”) is not far from Dole. Forest cover increased and it gave a refreshing feeling of homecoming of sorts with the increasing Oxygen levels.
En-route Namche from Dole
We kept moving through the forests in the outskirts of Dole till we reached a junction. There were some tea stalls. Our cellphones started capturing their signals again and we spoke to our respective homes after a gap of eight days! We were very excited to tell our tales and to their relief, they came to know we were safe and sound! Raju pointed towards a steep hike that would take us to a top, our place for lunch. That would probably be the last hike of the day and the good part was, after lunch, the trail went down the slopes. We continued our hike till we reached a lodge and spread our legs and arms on the chairs out in the sunshine as we waited for our lunch to be served.
After lunch, it was an easy stroll down the slopes. The terrain looked familiar to the regions we crossed on our way to Tengboche. We reached a junction where one trail moved up towards the Khumjung village. We headed down the other trail to reach another junction. This was familiar to us. We crossed this on our way up to Everest Base Camp. Now we reached the same place coming down the other trail from Gokyo. Our trail now merged with the main path that led to Namche. The sky was overcast and it started to drizzle. The minor ups and downs, corners and bends, were all familiar to us. After taking a turn, we could see the helipad of Namche on a distant slope. We found ourselves at the Hil-Ten lodge once again and made ourselves comfortable in its dining space. This was almost like homecoming. The hotel staff asked us about our journey and we shared our experiences. It had the same buzz as we found on our way up.
13th May, 2016
It was time to bid goodbye to the Hil-Ten lodge and the main Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar. We spent sometime taking snaps with the lodge owner while he shared some of his mountaineering experiences. Apart from Everest, he has been to the Annapurna and other regions of Nepal. However, he realized that the risks involved far outweighed the gains. Hence, he setup this lodge and now runs it successfully. We left the outskirts of Namche on our way down. The day was going to be long for us. We had to reach Lukla, the same day. The trail that took us 2 days to hike, had to be covered in a day. It was going to be tiring. We entered the woods and walked down its slopes. It was a steep walk down which put pressure on our legs. It was in these woods, we came across the huge fat person on our way up. He was being assisted from both sides by his guides. Not sure how far he was able to get beyond Namche. Then came the double-decker bridge at the confluence of Dudhkosi and Imja Khola rivers. It was here where the Japanese trekker suddenly skid across the edges and was promptly saved by his guide. We walked along the banks of Dudhkosi to reach Jorsalle and hiked up to reach the gate of Sagarmatha National park.
As we exited the gate, it felt we were bidding goodbye to the Everest region. Then came the cultivated fields of the Sherpa villages. It all looked so familiar and we reminisced the memories and incidents from the days when we went through these regions on our way up. As if, a movie was being played out in reverse from its last to the opening scenes. We stopped at Phakding for lunch. This is where we inquired about the status of Lukla flights for the last few days. Answers were mixed but at least they were operating with some being canceled, but that was the norm. All of us had a hidden tension about the flights for the next day. Everyone hoped to leave this place early in the morning before clouds start playing spoilsport in the later half.
Fields – SoluKhumbu
It started raining and we had to put on our raincoats. Though the track was level, our legs were tired. We dragged on and finally, reached the outskirts of Lukla. As we meandered through the clumsy lanes of Lukla towards our lodge, I came across a pub that was named “Mallory–Irvine” pub! Even after eighty years of their disappearance, they continue to be remembered by the people of this region despite of the fact that they never took this route to reach the mountain which made them famous. The evening was spent at the lodge, dining with the porters and guide. It was our last days with the porters. It was time for some celebrations by treating them with food and beer and giving tips for their help in making this trek successful. We subsided to our beds with the hopes of hopping on an early morning flight, the next day.
14th May, 2016
In spite of the tiredness, all of us woke up early. We could hear the ear-splitting roar of the morning Lukla flights which gave us hope. At least they were operating. Our flight was slated at 10 AM. Flights in Lukla operates in batches of four. For every batch, four flights take off from Kathmandu one after another. After reaching Lukla, the same head back to Kathmandu. Similar patterns repeat for subsequent batches till they are allowed to operate (by the weather?). After breakfast, we left our lodge for the airstrip, which was just a few steps away. We stood in a queue and checked in our baggage in the make-shift check in counters. Well, at least they were checking in the luggage, so the flight must be on. After security checking, we went to the departure area eagerly waiting for our flight. Boarding was on and passengers were getting into the aircraft. We followed them in a queue, which is when guide Raju told us that this wasn’t our flight. Our turn was to come next, i.e. in the next batch. Which implied that these aircrafts will fly to Kathmandu to off-board the passengers and come back again to Lukla with passengers from there, which is when we’d get chance to board. It appeared just to be a matter of a couple of hours as it takes just about 25 minutes to fly to Kathmandu.
We eagerly awaited the flights from Kathmandu. The expected time came and went away, but there were no signs of an aircraft. We heard sounds of rotors, but they turned out to be from helicopters that were landing on a helipad near the airstrip. In the hours that followed, anxiousness and agony started building up. We met people who were stranded at Lukla for four-five days, some even more than a week, without any chance of getting on a flight. Everyday they’d come hoping for a seat, only to get frustrated and return to their lodges. There was a group from Indonesia who had to cancel and re-book their connecting international flights from Kathmandu just because of this delay. They were at the end of their wits and appeared helpless. Time and most importantly, money, was depleting thick and fast. People come to this remote land with limited money and there’s a limit beyond which that cushion ceases to exist. Every extra day spent implies extra cost for lodging and food. While flights were not to be seen, but there were no dirth of helicopters. Every now and then, one or two helicopters appeared on the horizon, landed on the helipad only to fly back again. Most of these flights were bound for Kathmandu, some to the higher reaches of Namche, Gorakshep and other places for rescue operations. Cancelled flights at Lukla means a significant section of those passengers shift to helicopters as an emergency measure. But every ride costs at least $2500. It has to be a group of at least five people to make that cost reasonable. Finally, the Indonesians gave in as they couldn’t afford to miss their flight from Kathmandu and opted for helicopter rides. In the meantime, it was declared that rest of the flights have been cancelled for the day. We went back to reclaim our baggage and headed back to the lodge with frustrated, dreary steps.
Lukla airstrip – awaiting that non-existent flight
The freshness and the sense of achievement that was prevalent in the previous evening, gave its way to anxiousness. Our return train tickets were booked from Raxaul on 17th May. Which meant, we had to reach Kathmandu no later than 16th. That evening, we huddled to discuss the situation. If we were to reach Kathmandu by flight, tomorrow was our last chance. But the system of allocating seats for delayed passengers gave us little chance. If flights were to resume the next day, the passengers slated for regular flights for the day would get first chance to board and the ones from delayed flights will be allocated in rear batches. That implied, the passengers from delayed flights could only be allocated in the third slot of the flights, possibly even later, depending on the queue that gets augmented everyday with each cancelled flight. Moreover, people from AASEAN nations were offered flights at discounted rates, but it also meant that the first two batches were reserved for Europeans, Americans and other non- AASEAN citizens. So, it’s close to impossible to get a flight in successive days, once you miss your normal slated flight. That’s when the helicopter companies kick in. The rush of passengers then shift to helicopter and they charge them at their will. Limits cease to exist for hikes to the fares. Someones’ necessity turns into lucrative cash business for others. Charges get paid in hard cash currencies, but the rates are in US dollars. Local guys start playing foreign exchanges deciding exchange rates on the spot.
The lodge owner gave us a suggestion to cancel our return flight tickets and book for a helicopter ride to Phaplu, a nearby airstrip and from there, embark on a road journey to Kathmandu. That seemed logical, looking at the grim situation of flight queue. But for that, we’d have to pay $200 each with some extra money to the lodge owner for extending this offer. We agreed and went to sleep with tense minds.
15th May, 2016
Next day we inquired about the helicopter ride for Phaplu and were told that we would get our chance after a few rescue rides by the copters to the higher reaches of the region. No flights landed at Lukla that morning and it was cloudy all around. Our decision for the Phaplu ride appeared to be judicious. The lodge owner asked us to go to the lounge at the airstrip to wait for further information but nothing came our way. He crossed us multiple times, but couldn’t offer any encouraging news. Standing at the lounge proved fruitless, so we moved to the helipad. All of us stood there waiting for that seemingly illusive Phaplu ride. Every now and then, helicopters landed on the helipad, they were fueled from drums from a nearby storage, only to fly back again to Kathmandu. Given the flight cancellations, copter rides were in high demands. Rides to Kathmandu can fetch much more, so the copter companies weren’t interested in Phaplu rides. I and Niladri kept standing there, showing our faces to the copter pilots and the coordinator who was managing the rides and collecting fares. We even requested him multiple times, but he paid no heed to our cause. We were at the end of our wits. Clouds cleared and the sun came out in the afternoon. Snow peaks peeped out beyond the nearby hills, but we had no mood to muse over such scenery, given the ground reality. Meters were running down for us, resources were at the end, but no solution in sight. The entire day went waste and once again we returned to the lodge. We contacted Tej Gurung, the organizer of this trek, but he couldn’t be of any help either. Once out of Kathmandu, things get beyond his reaches and he can just be a spectator to the events that unfold. Up here, in this village, its the locals who hold the sway. That night, everyone was tensed. To get out of that mental state, we tried playing cards, but I couldn’t concentrate. We decided not to extend any further stay at Lukla, even if it meant walking down to Phaplu, which would take another two days to reach.
16th May, 2016
Next morning, another local guy turned up at the lodge and claimed that he could arrange for that ever illusive Phaplu ride, but in exchange of another $200. We had no option as declining that offer would imply extra two days of walking (and more importantly, missing the train from Raxaul) which would have thrown up the entire schedule into a toss. We went to the helipad and saw a helicopter standing. But we were not the only consumers. There was a bigger group of at least fifteen people. They too, approached the coordinator with their request and it was up to him to oblige. Here, he gave his weight behind us mentioning to the other group that we were waiting for two whole days at the helipad waiting for a ride (finally, laying siege by me and Niladri paid off). Once we boarded the cockpit, there was no other person in this world who was more free than us! It was the first helicopter ride for me. It took to the sky and sailed over the hills covered with dense forests in the lower reaches. Bright sunshine bathed the mountains and the forests. Chances were ripe for Lukla flights to resume that day, but given the waiting queue, we had no guarantee of a place in any of them. After about 15 minutes, we landed at Phaplu.
The lodge owner at Lukla arranged for a jeep. We immediately boarded it and started off for Kathmandu. As the jeep meandered through the snaky roads that embraced the hills, the only feeling that reigned in our hearts was freedom! It was unfortunate, after being awarded with such breathtaking views in the higher reaches, the only feeling that remained, at least for that moment was freedom from the Lukla maze. The jeep took us to Kathmandu, where Tej Gurung greeted us with certificates of accomplishment. We headed to the bus stand and the night bus took us to the border town Birganj, the next morning. There we crossed over the Indian border to reach Raxaul railway station to board our train for Kolkata. During our trek, we crossed Dugh la, Cho la and hiked to Kala pathhar, but it was not them. The toughest pass to cross in this region posing most of the troubles, was Lukla! The so-called modern facilities and humans gave us most of the pain, not the distant villages in the higher reaches under the constant watch of Chomolungma, the Goddess mother of earth! We bowed to her and bade goodbye.
Our group was a relieved lot, now that Cho La was behind us and with it, probably the last of the risks involved in this trek or so we thought at that time. Readers who’ve been patient enough to stay with me till now might have noticed this disclaimer “so we thought” at multiple places. The reason for that will become clear when I describe the end of this long-awaited trek. The heaviest blow was dealt to us by humans and not nature. Coming back to the story now, we slept a little longer last night since the travel to Gokyo from Dragnak wasn’t supposed to be very long and shouldn’t pose much difficulty. We woke up to a bright sunny morning. As usual, after breakfast, we hit the trail.
The route from Dragnak went through a valley strewn with boulders. There wasn’t any track as such, we just followed the porters who started before us. Patches of snow lay here and there from last night’s snowfall. Though the gradient wasn’t steep, we had to be careful because of melting snow. The boulders too were slippery. It was an act of hopping over them. The high mountains on both sides of the valley prevented the sunlight but the distant peaks at the end of the valley were bathing in bright sunshine.
We kept moving through the valley till the route started moving up along the left ridge. As we reached the top of the ridge, an entirely different view greeted us. Vast swathes of tracts were dotted with cracks and crevasses, with pools of water lying in between. The gaping crevasses exposed the underlying snow beneath the layer of dust and rocks that camouflaged the surface of the vast Ngozumpa glacier, one of the sources that fed the Gokyo lakes system.
Our track descended into the bed of the glacier. The descent was steep and we had to go one by one on the skiddy surface of dust and pebbles. I had to take the help of Doranath, one whose help proved crucial on the Cho La pass, the day before. After he guided me down, we all started to walk along the edge of the glacial bed. The tract was uneven. It was essentially an act of stepping up on a stack of boulders, come down to go up again. There wasn’t any track per se, we just followed our porters who made their way through this maze. Tracks and routes in these regions often change over days, at times within a day. New cracks open up, rocks fall from the top of the mountains, a new glacial pool emerges – these are everyday events. A route in a particular year ceases to exist in the next. One then has to find a new one. We were told, this was one of the areas severely affected by the earthquake of 2015. Even the porters found it difficult to find the route.
We kept on following the porters up and down the stack of boulders as we traveled through the glacial bed to cross over and move to the other side. We were told, beyond the ridge on the other side, lay Gokyo. In order to reach there, we would have to climb up the ridge and descend on the other side. The ridge on the other side appeared to be very dusty and fragile by its look. When we reached near it, the porters told us to hike as soon as possible in a diagonal fashion. The entire area was a rock fall zone and we had to cross it as soon as possible. Their words were supported by boulders and pebbles that kept coming down the slopes. It was a tough ask. The gradient was steep which slowed us down, but we didn’t have the luxury to move at our own pace as we had to get out of this rock fall zone as soon as possible. We did our best to hike and after sometime, the gradient eased a little and to our relief, the porters signaled to us that we were out of danger. As we neared the top of the ridge, mountains from the other side started to appear.
As we reached nearer to the top, mountains from other side kept leaping up as if someone was taking the curtains up and a beautiful pristine lake at their base started to appear. We were seeing the second largest lake of the Gokyo lake system, which comprises of six lakes. The pristine lake with its turquoise blue water was spread out at the bases of the high mountains that surrounded its banks. Light breeze was sweeping over the surface raising ripples in its waters. It appeared as a huge amphitheater surrounded by high mountains with the lake at its base. I was thankful to our friend Santanu, who suggested to include Gokyo in our itinerary. All the pain went down the drain with the view at our disposal.
Gokyo lakes are a system of lakes in the higher regions of Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park. Their waters have lower algal production and hence, is clean with high drinking water quality. Such waters also have high quantities of Oxygen. Gokyo lakes form the highest fresh water lake system in the world and is composed of six main lakes. Out of them Thonak lake is the largest, followed by Gokyo lake (or Gokyo Cho as it is called locally). The village of Gokyo lies on the eastern flanks of the Gokyo lake, which is where we were headed. These lakes are fed by nearby glaciers and are considered to be highly unstable. This is because they lie in a very ecologically unstable zone. One of the main sources of water for these system of lakes is the Ngozumpa glacier which lies to its east. A stream coming down from the Renzo La lying in the North-West of the region, is also one of the main sources.
While standing at the top, we made a decision on the spot. We would be taking a stroll around the lake’s circumference. We followed the porters towards the lodge. It was a big new structure right on the banks of the lake. The furniture and its polish were smelling fresh. After settling in our rooms, we went to the dining hall for tea. The dining place was covered with glass windows on all sides with the lake visible from all angles. It was tempting to just relax, enjoying the views, sipping a cup of tea. After all the hard walking in the last several days, the body yearned to have rest in this beautiful place and do nothing else. But someone said weather will change quickly and its likely to snow. With the lake bathing in bright sunshine, it was difficult to believe, but locals knew this place as the palm of their hands and distant clouds did appear ominous to them. Hence, if we were to take a stroll around the lake, we had to depart immediately.
It was just an act of treading along amidst the boulders on the banks. At times we walked over the sand along its banks, while in other cases, the trail moved way above the banks. As we moved along, the lake kept changing its appearance, both because of the angle as well as the changing mood of the sun, which gradually started to hide behind the clouds. Winds gathered pace and swept along the surface of the water.
Niladri went ahead, while I carried along with Dhananjoy. The tracks gradually moved up along the slopes and we found ourselves walking along a narrow edge. To be able to enjoy the view of the lake, we often had to stop as it wasn’t possible to walk without having a close and concentrated look on the path. The lodges on the banks got dwarfed by the huge mountains. They appeared as matchboxes from a distance amidst this huge amphitheater.
Clouds started closing in and within moments, the bright sunshine gave way to a setting of a dark evening (though it was just past noon). Fluffy innocuous clouds that were floating around moments before, now started looking ominous. We were only half way through our stroll, but were far enough from the reaches of the lodges. Suddenly, it started to look like a race against time. We still had to cover the remaining half of the lake. The urgency among us didn’t seem to reflect on the yaks those were grazing lazily along the banks. They had faith in their thick fur for their protection and continued enjoying the grass.
Grazing yaks – Gokyo
As we reached the other bank, snow balls started coming down our way in thick and thin. We kept moving and finally just about reached the doors of the lodge when it started to snow in full flow. We sat at the dining place enjoying the snow outside. It snowed with intensity for about half an hour and by then the entire nature changed from color to a black and white film. The yaks too changed their skins to white.
We had to abandon our plans to hike to the Gokyo Ri (a nearby top which offers a panoramic view of the mountain ranges and glaciers of the Khumbu region) and spent the evening at the lodge playing cards. It was a day with most leisurely time with us. We reached Gokyo relatively early in the day and had the entire day to rest and enjoy the views. No other day on this trail was as relaxing as this one. Given that the lodge was new and there weren’t any other occupants, we got to use the power points to charge our cell phones and cameras – the only place on this trail where we had this luxury. After reaching Gokyo, our trip reached a turning point. The next day would see us descending on our way back to Dole. Successive days would take us to Namche and Lukla. We’d be sleeping at 4750 m.
11th May, 2016
The sleep was peaceful last night and probably the best I had on this trail. The morning was bright. Clouds stayed away. I came out of the lodge to have another view of the lake. As I turned to my right, I was stunned with the majestic appearance of a snow peak! I didn’t realize yesterday that it was that close! It appeared almost within a stone throwing distance. It was crowned with silver. Snow covered its entire body, right to the base. “Mt Cho Oyu” – whispered a local as I was gazing at it, awestruck! The sixth highest mountain in the world at 8188 m, stood right in front of us!
Cho Oyu translates to “Turquoise Goddess” in the Tibetan language. It is considered to be the easiest to climb in the 8000 m club among the mountaineers and registers the second highest number of climbs, second only to Mt Everest. It is the western most peak in the Khumbu section of Mahalangur Himal, a section of the Himalayas lying in North-Eastern Nepal bordering Tibet. Thinking about climbing, Rheinhold Messner’s name crossed my mind. He, just as he did for all other thirteen 8000 m peaks, must have stood at the top of this mountain, some day! He was the first to climb all fourteen sans artificial Oxygen, a feat achieved even before the Sherpas.
Back to the story, we exited the lodge at Gokyo carrying lovely memories of the place. I looked upwards along the mountain on the opposite bank and saw the little figure of a man coming down the zig-zag trail down the slopes. It was the trail coming down from Gokyo Ri. The lodge owner told us about him. He was from Japan. He woke up early in the wee hours, hiked up to Gokyo Ri and was now coming down. A hike that takes half a day to complete, was completed by him in just a few hours. But little did we realize, he had more surprises in store for us!
On our way out – Gokyo region
We walked beside the Gokyo lake on our way out, but instead of turning with the banks as we did the day before, we took a different route on our way out. It was a level terrain with the gradient moving gradually downwards. We crossed another small lake and reached a crossroad where two tracks moved in two different directions. We waited for our guide Raju who was coming behind with some of our members in the rear. Following Raju’s instructions, we took one of those trails till we reached a small pool over a thundering stream. After we crossed the pool, the trail narrowed, but was wide enough for two persons to walk together. Though we moved downhill, the tracks were still devoid of any vegetation. We were still above the treeline. On our way down, I thought of taking some snaps, which is when I discovered that my lens cover was missing. It was loosening for last few days and must have fallen somewhere on our way. Later on, Raju found it on his way and returned it to me. That gave me some relief!
We saw a stupa with Mani stones and prayer flags round the corner. Raju said, we would have go down beyond that point deep into a gorge between two hills. We could see houses and lodges. That was Machermo, our place for lunch. We gradually went down, crossed the houses and fields to reach a lodge. It was a pleasant walk so far, but our legs were aching. One the way up, its your lungs and joints who bear the brunt. One the way down, its the turn of the lower limbs to feel the force of gravitation. After having tea and lunch, we hit the trail again. This time it was climbing up the opposite hill to regain the trail again which we left to come down to Machermo. There was another stupa with prayer flags. This pattern of a stupa marking the beginning and another one, the end of a village would repeat for the villages to come. They are meant to act as guards to protect the villagers from all perils. These customs remind us that the Sherpas are the descendants of early Tibetans who came to Nepal from the Tibetan plateau, lying to the north of the Himalayas. The Sherpas were a nomadic tribe, who came from Tibet, crossing the Himalayas through many high mountain passes, Nangpa La being one of them, about 600 years ago. They settled in the SoluKhumbu region of North-Eastern Nepal. But later on, different groups moved from one place to another within Nepal and settled in other parts of it. In earlier days, their main source of income was raising yaks (both for dairy products as well as meat). That forced them to migrate around in search of pastures. Traditionally they are used to living in extreme altitudes and harsh weathers. From the early days of expeditions, they were trusted aides to expedition teams as guides, porters and climbing assistants. In those days, many of them migrated to the Darjeeling area in India with hopes of getting hired as expedition porters and guides. Darjeeling was the base where most of the expeditions started. Later on, with Nepal opening its doors to the Western world, the SoluKhumbu region saw major growth in adventure sports, tourism and mountaineering with Everest being the primary source of attraction. With Nepalese government granting more and more expedition permits, Everest became one of the main sources of their livelihood. With no other source of income to sustain their lives throughout the year, the Sherpas were forced to risk their lives in such expeditions. What the Westerners view as adventures and their dream of life, is viewed as necessity by the Sherpas with many of them summitting Everest multiple times. Apa Sherpa holds the world record of 21 summits to Mt Everest.
They start their mountaineering career pretty early in their age as porters, cooks and guides, gradually gaining prominence as climbing sirdars (the Sherpa who leads the other Sherpas in an expedition and leads the summit attempt). Their value (and hence, the pay) in the trade gets amplified with each successful summit of Everest. Despite the risks involved, each Sherpa in this trade yearns for opportunities to summit. They are held in high regards by the mountaineering fraternity because of their tremendous climbing skills (part of which comes from their genetic adaptability to high altitudes because of staying at these places for years) and their strength. Often they carry loads amounting more than double their own body weights to camps at high altitudes along the slopes of the mountains. A climber, on an average, has to cross the deadly Khumbu ice-fall four to five times during an expedition, whereas the Sherpas have to cross it at least 15-20 times, with tremendous loads in order to stock resources up in the higher camps, which they setup themselves. They are the ones who are prone to most of the risks posed by Everest. The money they make during one/two months of climbing season, is just enough to sustain them for the rest of the year. Things have changed to some extent after the relentless efforts of Sir Edmund Hillary through his Edmund Hillary trust and the Himalayan trust. Many schools and hospitals have been built in the Khumbu region. In spite of all that, Everest remains as their main economic source even to the present day. A mountain, to which they pay respect as Goddess mother of Earth, Chomolungma. Everest remains as their main savior and a guardian who keeps guarding the slopes of SoluKhumbu region from all evils. They leave no stone un-turned to keep it happy. At the start of every expedition, they organize a religious prayer to seek permission from the revered mountain to enter into its interiors. They believe that no human can set foot atop the mountain unless it grants permission to do so.
We kept crossing many such Sherpa villages on our way through the Khumbu region till we reached a point from where the trail moved down below into a river gorge. We stood at the corner to have a look below. There were lodges on the other side of the river. It was the Dole village, our place of stay. As we waited for other members in the rear, our Japanese friend from Gokyo (who hiked the Gokyo Ri in early morning, the same day) crossed us, shared a smile and sped down the slope. Within minutes, he was on the banks of the river below. He kept hiking its other bank and went out of our sight. We came to know later, that he was headed for Namche, the same day! The distance which we would cover in 2 days, will be covered by him in a single day and that too, after an early morning hike to the Gokyo Ri!
Later, in the evening, when we sat for tea at the dining space of the lodge at Dole, suddenly, the entire lodge and its furniture got a sudden jolt. Before even we could react properly, the vibration ceased. The lodge staff said with a cool head that it was an earthquake tremor! Memories of devastation in 2015 came back back to haunt us for a few moments. That night, I had some sleepless moments, still thinking about the jolt and the mayhem it could cause in these parts of the world. It was a reminder from nature that we were at its mercy. We may forget amid the daily events of life, but it’s there, very much there! No one knows when it can strike! We were sleeping at 4038 m.