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.
I was still in bed, when Mona da suddenly came into our room and declared that he was starting for Annapurna Base Camp in the wee hours so that he could reach there before dawn to witness the famed sunrise on the Annapurna range and come back down the same day to descend to Deorali. His rationale was to get to lower altitudes as soon as possible. The idea of getting down seemed logical, but I wasn’t so sure about the wisdom of taking the strain of going up to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) and come down the same day. It would only add to his fatigue. However, if he can pull this off, then nothing like it. He can still achieve the objectives. He was to take one of the porters along with him for assistance. So he went ahead with this plan. As a matter of fact, most of the travelers do not stay at MBC. They start from Deorali and reach ABC on the same day. Some come down the same day to halt at MBC or even further down. Others stay at ABC before coming down. However, we planned for a halt at MBC on our way up for two reasons. Firstly, that would limit the daily hike on the last two days to just 2-3 hours, leaving enough time for rest. Secondly, the altitude gain (which rises sharply after Deorali) would be gradual. The plan also gave us ample time to spend at MBC and ABC. Clouds played spoilsport at MBC and we were deprived of the famed sunset views of the Fish Tail peak. Later on, we were more than compensated for it at the Annapurna Base Camp.
Though ABC was just two and a half hours ahead, we still decided to start early mainly to cover as much of the trail as possible before the sun gains in power. The amount of snow was expected to increase with height and it was advisable to cross it before it starts melting. We didn’t have crampons with us. As I got up and ventured out of the room, I was chilled to my bones. After I got myself prepared, it was time to get my daughter ready. She said she wasn’t feeling very well, but her voice didn’t reflect it. I suspected she overheard the conversation Mona da had with us and these were its after effects. I ignored these and pushed her to get ready. Dressing her up was an arduous task, especially at these altitudes. The umpteen layers of clothing made it cumbersome and tedious. The warm thermals formed the first layer, then came on the pant and shirt, followed by two sweaters and finally, the jacket (which we purchased from Kathmandu, where the vendor claimed that it could sustain temperatures as low as -5 degrees Celsius). After getting ourselves ready, we headed for breakfast. The first morning rays started to come into the valley as the skies started to light up gradually. That’s when the helicopter rotors started running again. The stranded travelers from the previous day didn’t waste anytime in this clear weather and the helicopter headed down for Pokhara through the valley. The porters strapped up our luggage and started early while we waited for the first rays of sun to fall on the Annapurna range, visible on the Western horizon as dark outlines. The mountains on all sides appeared imposing in the darkness of the early morning. Gradually, the line of darkness started moving down the slopes of Annapurna South and Annapurna Main and they were crowned with gold. The entire place resembled a cinema theater. All of the sides were dark with just a single ray of light illuminated the peaks of the Annapurna range. As-if a projector was running from behind the mountains in the back and scenes were playing out one by one on the Western horizon.
At these situations, one cannot take their hands off the camera lenses as colors keep changing fast. Successive snaps yield different colors as the sun plays the artist on nature’s canvas.
As if it is in a hurry to display all its colors in a short span of time. This plays out exactly in the opposite sequence during sunset. The crown of gold kept increasing its ambit engulfing other peaks of the Annapurna range.
We couldn’t have asked for better start for the day and we hit the trail after the sunrise scenes were played out by nature which culminated with all the mountains making their appearance in the bright sun, illuminating the entire valley and the route ahead.
The trail moved out of the premise of our lodge and gradually moved up through a series of sharp bends. All the members were in a jovial mood. I kept thinking about Mona da. Hopefully, we will encounter him en route on his way down. The slopes were covered with yellow bushes that were dotted by rocks and boulders. Our walk was interspersed by many halts as at any given point of the trail, one could stop and look around to get a treat to the eyes with snow covered mountains visible from all sides.
Members of our group took their time taking snaps against the surroundings. For a change, my daughter was walking with me, for the first time on this trail. She appeared to be doing fine. We tried rousing her interest by drawing her attractions to the mountains. She did cast a look, but didn’t forget to ask how far we had still to go to reach the destination. Gradually, snow started making its presence felt. At first, they appeared in patches beside the trail.
The river was making its way through the rocks, which had icicles hanging from their edges. The intensity of the sound of flowing river water reduced as we were getting closer to the snout of the glacier which formed the source of this river.
At places, the river water flowed underneath thin transparent films of ice. Pools were formed where water became stagnant between surrounding rocks with their edges fringed by white powdery snow. The mountain peaks came nearer as we moved ahead and made their towering presence felt. On our left, Mt Hiunchuli stood upright beyond the edges of the nearby hills.
Even the glaciers that came down the slopes of the mountains were visible in their full glory, shining bright in the morning sun.
The amount of snow increased with height. After crossing a few bends, we across a jubilant Mona da on his way down from Annapurna Base Camp. He was looking fit and was ecstatic about the views of sunrise he witnessed at the Annapurna Base Camp.
We all felt good about the fact that his decision paid off. It was a win-win situation for him. He didn’t miss any of the places or views on offer on this trail but at the same time, his health was better and now was on his way down to Deorali. That should not only take him down to much lower altitudes, but also he’d have much of the ground covered, which we’d have to, on our way down. With all of us safe and sound, we moved ahead.
The trail was now completely covered with snow and we had to be careful with our steps. But given the fact, we were on our way up and the snow was still relatively fresh, we could have grip. Things would prove more difficult on our way down. Going by the trend, more snow was expected in the afternoon. All of that would get converted to ice during the night making walking difficult, the next morning.
There was snow on the trail, on the slopes and of course, on the mountains. There wasn’t an inch of land devoid of snow. Adults transformed to kids and started throwing snow balls at each other. The two daughters too, joined the party.
In the distant horizon, we could see the faint outlines of roofs of the lodges. That must be the Annapurna Base Camp. We tried to hurry the group to reach there as soon as possible. That would give us ample time to rest. It was also important because regardless of the sunshine, its almost guaranteed to snow in the later half of the day. Though the lodges were visible from here, we still had to cover some distance. Hence, there was no point wasting time. In the meantime, my daughter struck a unique deal with Niladri. She always wanted to pause, whereas we kept on pushing her. So, a deal was struck. She would walk for some distance and then rest, but only till the time it takes for her to dig four small holes in the snow with the lower end of her trekking stick. To keep things going, we agreed and the arrangement continued for sometime. After a while though, we realized that the time taken to dig a hole started to increase. Apparently, she worked with minute precision and perfection in digging “a particular hole”. No matter how long it took, the hole had to be perfect. The led to the suspicion whether her focus as really on precision or to buy more time for rest. We had to intervene and push her to move along.
We left the main trail and moved up a bit to embark on a different trail along the slopes of the hills on the left side. We did so because this trail was somehow devoid of snow and we could move faster. The lodges grew bigger as we moved on but they were still not within our reach. Helicopters, in the meantime kept flying around, either for rescue operations or ferrying passengers embarking on helicopter tours. But the weather was deteriorating fast. The sunshine was gone. Clouds hovered above the mountain peaks, some of which were already engulfed by them. Just about then, we reached the premises of the Annapurna Base Camp, which had a few sign boards declaring the name along with some welcome messages.
In spite of the name, the place didn’t resemble a base camp in its literal terms, rather appeared as a place of halt, no different that the ones we came through from down below. There weren’t any expedition camps as we saw them at the Everest Base Camp. Still, it was a land mark and people were satisfied after reaching there. It was indeed, a cherished goal to achieve, especially, with the little daughters. Finally, it seemed that all the hurdles were behind us. There were three lodges in the area. We went into one of them. The rooms were already allotted. Most importantly, there were enough blankets for all, which was a big relief. This is one thing to be aware of. In the peak seasons (like Autumn, the season we went in), lodges in this route are packed to the brim and very often they get overbooked. Trekkers often need to adjust and sleep in the dining area. In such conditions, there can be shortage of blankets. When in demand, the porters and guides get the priority before tourists (that’s the unspoken rule in this part of the world). So, tourists are advised to carry sleeping bags and enough warm clothing with them to adapt to such situations. We were fortunate enough not to face such eventualities beyond Bamboo.
After we got ourselves settled in the lodge, we headed for the dining room and almost immediately, it started snowing outside. It started with tiny particles which increased in size and intensity as the day went ahead. It showed no signs of abating anytime soon. The entire lodge premises was painted white in no time. Though we enjoyed it from the warmth of the dining hall, I also started worrying about the next day. The conditions will worsen and we had a long way to travel.
We enjoyed our tea within the cosy dining hall, while it continued to snow heavily outside. Suddenly, the lodge premises got to life with a huge band of trekkers coming in. All of them had white uniform with a badge, indicating that they were from some organization. They were young students from a school in South Korea, on an educational trip! We just thought ourselves to be fortunate to have enough blankets (not all of them had been dispatched to our rooms yet) and with this group coming in (there were at least fifty members), it would add to the already brewing crisis. However, to our relief, we came to know that the group would just spend sometime, sip cups of tea and then head down to MBC, the same day. While it gave us relief, I kept thinking about the problems we might encounter during our descent, the next day. Someone drew our attention to a thermometer in the dining hall that provided temperature readings from outside and inside. At about 2.30 PM in the afternoon, the temperature outside was -4 degree Celsius. Towards late afternoon, the intensity of the snow decreased and finally, it stopped. Some of us ventured outside the lodge into the lawn. I didn’t want to be that adventurous till someone drew my attention towards the Fish Tail peak which was now visible on the eastern horizon. Clouds started clearing up and the structure of Fish Tail began to emerge. I ran to the room immediately to fetch my camera in the anticipation of a glorious sunset. We were really fortunate that the snow stopped and clouds started to clear all around. The fading rays of sun provided a tinge of gold on the slopes of Fish Tail.
With my past experience in the mountains, I could identify this development as a precursor to well enacted and colorful sunset drama. Strong winds blew across the top of Fish Tail sending a plough of snow looking like a yellowish golden scarf. As the sun started to change its position, so did the colors of its rays. Nature came up with brushes of gold and red and started painting the Fish Tail peak in different shades.
The hues of gold turned more intense as time went by and our shutters kept clicking. Almost the entire population at the lodge came out to witness this extraordinary drama on the stage of nature.
Gradually, the color acquired a reddish tinge before fading out entirely. The Fish Tail peak and the surrounding range of mountains and glaciers now appeared clear and white.
After the sunset, we suddenly realized that our fingers were almost getting cutoff by the biting cold. We didn’t bother as long as the sunset act was being played out, but after that we immediately headed to the dining hall. Dinner got served at 6.30 PM. After that we subsided under our blankets. We were sleeping at 4130 m. At that time, the thermometer at the dining hall read -6.
This was the first day on the trail when I woke up without any frowns on my forehead. Daughter seems to have come to terms with the trail. Yes, she might still throw some tantrums during the hike, but hopefully, that should be manageable. At least, we know for sure, once she reaches the destination, she’s a transformed being. They key is to keep her engaged during the trek by constant conversation. The bulk of that task was thrust upon Niladri. He showed remarkable patience in dealing with her. It was him who suggested on the very first day to carry her along with him and asked me to follow keeping a distance, just far enough to be out of her sight, but close enough to be within my eyes. He stressed on it more when we started off from Bamboo (the day after that emotional outburst from her). The main reason was to not give her a chance to complain, which she obviously would, if I was in proximity. With just Niladri around, she’d have a perfect partner who would listen to her patiently, offer her enough rest when she needed, but at the same time, would urge her to move on. It was a bit of a stick and carrot approach, which might sound a bit rude, but was most appropriate for the situation. But such an arrangement can only work with a human being like him. Dhananjoy too and for that matter, all other members of the group (that includes my brother in law, Ranjan da, who has considerable influence on both the cousins) played their part to keep her engaged. They kept asking her if the music was still on (a joking reference to her constant whining). The passers by, dropped encouraging words. Some even asked me whether we seriously planned to take her all the way along. On our way down, she received a lot accolades for her successful visit to the base camp. She hardly paid attention to these as her sole query was to know how much more she had to travel to get some rest!
The morning wasn’t different than any other day. The tasks were the same, but the cold was biting hard. We were reminded that we were getting closer to her feet. The set top breakfast proved filling. I was having eggs in quantities more than what I was supposed to, but in these trips, one tends to forget diet restrictions. But someone in me told to tone down a bit since I take regular doses of medicines to control hypertension and that can cause problems with increasing cold and altitude. After breakfast, we gradually moved out of the lodge premises and started to climb the steps.
Our destination for the day was Machchapuchchare base camp (aka MBC). Guide Raju assured us that the travel was likely to last only for about 2.5 hours. We’d just have to cross the upcoming valley beyond Deorali and at the end of it, lay MBC. We could travel at our leisure and still reach there before lunch. We should have the entire second half for rest. I quickly conveyed that to my daughter who didn’t believe a single word.
As we moved out of the reaches of Deorali, we entered into a valley that was guarded on both sides by tall mountains. The trail moved up the slopes. On the opposite side, a giant snow peak was visible through the gaps of the hills in front. We were looking at Mt Machchapuchchare, but it appeared so different. The familiar shape of fish tail wasn’t there. That was because we were now looking at it from an entirely different angle. The mountain wall along which the trail was moving up, stood high.
Though the sun was already up, but the high mountains prevented sunlight from entering the valley in between. Trees were not to be found amidst these barren rocks. We were engrossed in looking at Fish tail, but a sign board that stood beside the trail read clear and loud that we were traversing a rockfall zone. It caused us to expedite.
Gradually the valley opened up and the bright rays of the morning sun illuminated the gushing river stream that flowed right through it. No trace of cloud was to be seen anywhere. Right in front of us, on the Northern horizon, the snow clad peaks dazzled in bright sunshine between a V-shaped opening of the valley between the surrounding mountain walls.
It was a wonderful contrast of colors and was a treat to eyes! This is what people come here for. Someone we met on our way up to Bamboo, told us that there’s no other place as beautiful as the Annapurna Base Camp that lies so close to the plains. Let aside the world, even in the Himalayas, there is no other place as beautiful as the Annapurna Base Camp, that can be reached within three to four days from the nearby plains. He was spot on! As we moved ahead, the ‘V’ on the northern horizon kept widening.
After sometime, we found ourselves in the mid of a wonderful valley with a charming river flowing through it. Bright rays of run poured gold in its waters and it danced its way towards Deorali. We left the trail and worked our way through the boulders to reach its banks. Some of us sat on the rocks, some others splashed its waters on their faces. We had all the time in the world to enjoy our time here. The shutters kept rolling, so did the mobile cameras.
The lush green waters flowed through the rocks forcing their way through. The extent of the rapids showed that it was flowing on a rough bed. The yellow shrubs on its banks acquired a tinge of gold in the bright rays of sun. We hoped for a sunny afternoon. That should give us some chance to dry our clothes and also an opportunity to witness the famed sunset at MBC. Tales are ripe about how the rays of fading afternoon sun can bathe the Fish tail with crimson.
Raju reminded us, though we didn’t have a long way to go, but we had to keep moving as afternoons, no matter what, were going to be cloudy. We couldn’t believe his words. How could that be? But, weather can change by a stroke of luck at anytime in the mountains. We regained the trail and started hiking again. Raju pointed to some distant objects high above on the northern end of the valley. After some effort, we could identify the blue tinned roofs of some of the lodges. That was MBC, our destination. The mountains came nearer as we kept moving up. They appeared dazzling white bathing in broad day sun. Even the glaciers at their base were visible.
We kept moving up the bends and finally reached at the base of MBC. An upright board provided information about the place. That included a rough map of the trail with an indication where we were, the number and names of the lodges, the names of the Himalayan peaks visible from MBC and finally, the distance to Annapurna Base Camp in hours (a norm in this route that declares distances in terms of hours to reach, instead of km).
Some of the members of our team sat on the rocks nearby which gave an impression that the first lodge visible behind the board was our lodge to stay. But Raju pointed towards a different way. With the board in sight, we became impatient to reach our lodge. The trail circumvented the place and moved further up. My daughter constantly kept asking about how much more to go, but still, no lodge was in sight. After a considerable time, it made its appearance. It was about 1 PM. The first time on the trail when we reached our destination before lunch. Our luggage was already kept in our respective rooms. We entered the lawn and spread our arms and legs on the chairs. The tired legs demanded rest, but with the sun still shining bright, we thought of drying our clothes as sunshine was a rarity and could vanish anytime. So we forced ourselves into the rooms, pulled out the wet clothes from the bags and started to hang them on the wires. Raju came with a scratch pad (as was his norm) to note down our options for lunch. Soon, clouds started making their way into the valley and it even started to snow. How quickly, things can change in these parts of the Himalayas. Just at that time, we heard the sounds of the rotors of a helicopter. As we turned our heads, we saw a copter landing on the nearby helipad. A group of Europeans came out. They went to Annapurna Base Camp by a copter from Pokhara in the morning, but on their way back, they had to abort their flight due to lack of visibility and were forced to land at MBC.
With clouds covering the entire atmosphere, we were forced to pull down our clothes and transfer them back into our rooms. After that, we kept ourselves confined to the dining hall. As lunch got served, it seemed the entire world was composed of dense white clouds with just a single lodge among them. As if we were dining in the air with nothing below us but the clouds. We considered ourselves fortunate to have reached the place before the snowfall. The fact of being able to stay within the confines of a lodge amidst wild weather at such altitudes made us feel blessed. We realized the hard efforts put in by the locals to give us such comforts. The efforts of the porters who carry all the materials from the plains on their wrenched backs to these heights formed the backbone of this infrastructure.
We engaged ourselves with cards and the daughters chatted among themselves after lunch. Suddenly, Monowar Hossein (Mona da, one of the members of our group) came along and dragged Niladri into his room. They went out in a fashion which sounded a bit strange. Niladri came back after a long time and we learnt from him that Mona da was facing breathing problems. That was concerning to know. The group stayed fit and fine till now and most of us were concerned about the two daughters. This was the first occasion of someone of our group facing altitude sickness. For the moment, Mona da preferred to stay in his room, trying to get some sleep. But after sometime, he came back to the dining hall as he wasn’t feeling comfortable lying down either. He appeared restless. It made us nervous as once altitude sickness kicks in, there’s not much of an option but to get the affected person down to lower altitudes as soon as possible. It could well be Mona da’s end of journey on this trail. But we thought to give him some time to settle with a hope of improvement. He sat quietly with his eyes closed. The frequent movements of his chest indicated that things were still not good enough. The afternoon moved ahead with clouds still hanging around. A nagging feeling crept in my mind. It was still snowing hard outside. That would mean, the trail beyond this point will be covered with more snow than desired and without crampons, it might prove difficult to deal with it on the higher slopes. We already heard in the lodges below, that the trail from hereon was likely to be covered with snow which makes walking difficult. With the little daughters to handle, nervousness started to kick in. Mona da’s state of health didn’t make things any better. However, we kept those thoughts at bay. Dinner, as usual, got served at 6.30 PM. Mona da ate very little. He felt a bit better, but still not out of woods. We went under the blankets. Me, Ranjan da, the two daughters and Niladri slept in a single room and rest of the five members (including Mona da) slept in another. Sounds of conversation kept coming from their room till quite late into the night and most of that was about Mona da. I wasn’t sure what was going on with him but tried hard to get some sleep. Finally, sleep overran my thoughts.
When I woke up, it was dark outside. I went through the usual tasks. Bathing was out of the list since Chomrong. A quick look at the sky revealed the stars. We were in for another sunny morning keeping with the trend so far. There was little time to lose & I got myself engaged with sorting out the clothing, both for me & my daughter. I woke her up & took her to the toilet. She walked with her eyes closed, almost sleepwalking. A quick apply of lukewarm water (stored in a flask) gave some life to her face. As I thrust the toothpaste & brush to her hands, she started off with the brushing procedure mechanically. When I was dressing her up, she was quiet. I was tense, thinking about her outburst the night before & dreaded it coming back anytime. I avoided any conversation about it and only talked about the daily routine tasks.
The breakfast table was busy as usual with activities. The staff of the lodge ran around serving the travelers with food and beverage. The trekkers were busy either with their food or strapping their backpacks to hit the trail. Some were headed up, others on their way down. Bread toast, eggs & ginger tea made for a heavy breakfast.
Clear blue sky awaited us outside as we came out of the dining space. The porters were ready with our bags on their backs. Few of our members were busy packing last minute items, some others trained their photographic lenses on the subjects and there were many. After a few minutes, the group started for the next destination. The day would see us reach Deorali, just beyond the tree line. The track left the premises of the lodge, heading towards the dense forest of bamboo trees. We had all our warm clothing on our bodies including the gloves. It was comfortable as we were still walking through dense forest with little sunshine reaching the ground because of the dense canopy above. Chirps of the birds grew as we walked along the trail. The forest was waking up.
Niladri went ahead with my daughter & I followed them. She wasn’t showing any discontent. Not at least for the moment. After sometime, we reached a waterfall. The water was flowing with some force and we had to cross over. There were some boulders distributed on the way. As others crossed it, we watched them carefully to identify the boulders that were stable enough to bear our weights. Some of them bore a green surface laden with moss. These were the ones that had to be carefully negotiated. I watched anxiously from one side as my daughter managed her way through the stream with the help of Niladri. Once they reached the other side and hiked up the slopes, I breathed easy.
After the gushing stream, the trail moved up the slopes. Mt Machchapuchchare kept a constant vigil on us from high up in the sky. It was shining bright in the morning sun and appeared much nearer as if welcoming us to her bosom.
After about one & half hours, we reached Dovan (2595 m). Some of us thought that we could have continued till Dovan instead of stopping at Bamboo, the day before. That could have reduced our trek for the day. But it wasn’t of any use musing about it. We stopped for sometime at Dovan as I administered the regular doses of inhaler to my daughter (she was bearing chest congestion & cough since our start from Delhi & there was the risk of it getting acute with gaining attitude). It also gave us some breathing space & time to look around to enjoy the views offered by the surrounding hills.
As we resumed our walk, the elevation increased and the steps reappeared. After the strenuous hikes through the steps of Chomrong & Sinua, the sight of steps gave us pain & immediately, my daughter started her tantrums. Her walks got increasingly interspersed by frequent halts which ate into the time. Niladri was patient enough to bear with these and prevented me from insisting her to move on.
I feared the return of her previous night’s bout. But I also had to persuade her to keep moving in order to reach Himalaya, our destination for lunch, in time. The steps kept moving up the serpentine slopes amidst the forests that kept closing in.
We reached Himalaya at about 12 PM, just about right time for lunch. It was crucial to finish lunch & leave as early as possible because the trend for past few days was to get cloudy in the afternoon with high chances of showers, a thing best avoided in such areas. We were the last batch of our group to arrive and spread our legs on the chairs. We gulped down some much needed water and lunch was ordered. The variety of cuisines offered at such remote corners of the Himalayas surprises one. After Himalaya, forest started thinning out as boulders made their presence felt. Numerous streams, small & large, made their way down the mountains.
The trail was narrow at certain strips and with multiple trekkers hiking up and down. At times it became difficult to give them passage. The sun disappeared from the scene & fog engulfed the surroundings. Halts increased for my daughter & our advance was constrained by her speed. She demanded rest after ascending every bend of the slope but we had no option but to oblige. As clouds moved in thick & fast through the valley, we got more jittery as no one had the appetite to walk amidst rain with drenched clothes. We kept moving and after sometime trees ceased to exist. Mountains on both sides had their slopes strewn with rocks & debris that came down almost like a river from the top which was beyond our views, thanks to the mist. I stopped at that place to have a look at it. It was a huge band of rocks, dust, mud and snow. Our guide Raju informed us that it was a site of a huge landslide and an entire swathe of the mountain wall slid down the slopes, uprooting many trees on its way and dumped the debris into the river below, which also changed its course after that incident. It occurred a few years back.
The river Modi Khola thundered down in leaps & bounds through the gorge, foaming like milk.
A few of our team members sat on the rocks round the corner & as our eyes met, they pointed their fingers forward. Following their direction, we could see signs of blue tinned roofs of the distant lodges. Finally, Deorali was in sight. Though it was still a long way ahead, but the sight of your destination always adds energy. The most pronounced effect was on my daughter. She left our hands & moved ahead alone. As I dragged on behind, I saw her leaping ahead, moving up & down the boulders that came in her way, climbing the last series of steps to reach the platform. Beyond which, lay the lodges of Deorali.
By the time we reached the lodge, we could barely see our own arms & it started drizzling hard. We moved to our allotted rooms & got busy with the regular job of drying our wet clothes & sorting out the dress for the next day. Niladri gave some advice on options to get our clothes dry. Hanging them on wires outside proved fruitless as the surrounding moisture never allowed them to dry. In fact, they absorbed more moisture adding to the cause of worry. He suggested we spread them beneath our pillows & blankets & sleep over them. However strange it might sound, it’s actually the best bet to get them dry with the warmth of the body. After settling in, we headed towards the dining hall, which was, as in all other tea houses on the route, buzzing with travelers from all over the world. At one corner, a group of Chinese travelers were enjoying their evening cup of tea & gossip. We took our seats, ordered our tea & got our pack of cards out. The Chinese got interested in the game and one of them showed desire to participate. Dhananjoy did his best to explain the rules to him. The lack of understanding of English made the task difficult for Dhananjoy and he had to resort to using gestures.
My daughter appeared to be in a jovial mood. She enjoyed her company with her cousin. They started playing Uno, a game played using a pack of cards, but not like the regular ones. They were engrossed deep into their play. The warmth of the place made her comfortable. Looking at her, no one would believe that she was the same girl who kept whining throughout the trail. With the pain of walking gone, at least for the day, she had the entire evening at her disposal & got deeply engrossed into it.
These tea houses are the main backbone of such trekking routes in Nepal. They make it possible to venture into these remote lands. In the Indian Himalayas, one can’t even dream of such facilities at even much lower altitudes. If a trek spans beyond a couple of days, one has to stay in tents, whereas here, in Nepal, one can expect a lodge, a warm dining hall, varied cuisines and most importantly, a bed to sleep on under a thick blanket, even at the Annapurna Base Camp! It has to do with the swarm of trekkers who visit Nepal, every year and the business they generate. Tourism is the mainstay of this country’s economy and they pay every attention towards the comfort of the travelers. There are counter theories too. Some blame this ever increasing tourist numbers and their demands of comfort for the ecological damage of these sensitive areas. The Everest region is known to have lost tree covers for entire valleys just to meet the ever increasing demand of firewood. Lodges have mushroomed left, right and center, crowding towns like Lukla and NamcheBazar. Things are somewhat better in the Annapurna conservation area. Firewood is banned in these places and all of their energy needs are met by LPG cylinders that are carried by porters from lowlands to the upper reaches. With trekking getting easier by the day, more tourists throng these areas, probably much more than these ecologically unstable areas can sustain. Nowadays, one doesn’t even have to walk on these trails. If you can shell out enough dollars, a helicopter can carry you from Pokhara right up to the Annapurna Base Camp within an hour or two. Earlier, helicopters were used mainly for rescue operations for bringing people who suffered from altitude sickness, down to lower altitudes. But now, it has turned into a lucrative business. Off late, some dodgy travel operators have also used them to frisk out trekkers from upper areas (who want to avoid walking), using the excuse of altitude sickness, billing the cost to the insurance providers.
We thought about talking to our respective homes. So I reached out to the lodge owner, handed her Rs 300 in Nepalese currency & my mobile phone. She typed in the WiFi password & we were all set to make internet voice calls to our respective homes. Speaking to home from these remote areas gives you a lot of relief. Pleasantries were exchanged and so was the news of our health. It gave relief at both ends. I had my daughter speak to her mother & she was happy. She didn’t mention about her emotional break down, neither did I. Dinner was served at 6.30 PM. It was early for us and we requested them to delay it, but looking at the rush, they couldn’t oblige us. After that, it was time to head to sleep. All seemed well when we went under the blankets that night. We were sleeping at 3230 m.
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.