Dayara Bugyal – a picturesque getaway – Part 1

Ever since I started my ventures in Nepal, I had the challenge to maintain a proper balance between family trips & trekking. The latter normally didn’t involve family members. The Diwali break was coming up & I planned to use it judiciously. Most of my Himalayan getaways started with long weekends. But over the last ten years, most of the common hill stations of Uttarakhand & Himachal have been covered. Also, over these years I’ve preferred to stay away from common destinations as their accessibility has led to their “downfall”. Swarm of travelers flock to these places leading to massive build up of hotels & deforestation. Traffic snarls are very common in places like Manali, Simla or Nainital. Some years ago, I’ve tried my hands with shot treks with family. It started with a hike to Chopta from the picturesque Deoriatal through the woods of the Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary. I thought about exploring that option once again. This was in November 2017, a year ago before Annapurna happened. While scouting for options of easy to moderate grade treks, I came across “Dayara Bugyal”. It’s in the Uttarkashi district of the state of Uttarakhand. The accounts available on internet seemed to suggest that it easy, often done with family. I reached out to my contacts (guides whom I knew) in other parts of Uttarakhand & at the same time my search continued on internet. Finally, I came across Balbir Singh Negi. Discussions continued with him. Finally, an itinerary was drawn up. We were to start from Dehradun. A vehicle was to take us to the town of Uttarkashi. The next day would see us hiking up to Raithal, our first halt. The next day would take us to Dayara Bugyal, a high altitude meadow in the upper Himalayas. We’d camp there for a night & then come down via a different route via Barnala. We still had two additional days at our disposal & we thought to spend them at Harsil, a beautiful hill station before Gangotri. I booked the GMVN rest house at Harsil & the railway tickets to Haridwar. Later, based on Balbir Ji’s advice, I changed them to Dehradun. That would save us about 2 hours of travel.

On the day, Mussourie Express was running late. After leaving Haridwar it moved on gradually through the dense forests of Rajaji National Park. The solar rays made their way through the dense canopy of the forests. At some places it was even dark during the day. I’ve traveled this section many times before but it never fails to fascinate. Phases of dense forests are interspersed by river beds & streams which came down the slopes of the Shivalik hills that are visible on the horizon. Finally, the train reached Dehradun station about 3 hours late. It was 12 PM. Though I enjoyed the journey, but at the station I felt we were robbed off at least 2 hours. We could have reached our destination by noon, but it will be at least afternoon. We boarded the vehicle which started it’s journey from the railway station.

At first it struggled to make it’s way through the crowded streets of Dehradun, but as it hit the Mussourie road, the ride was smooth. This section of the road was familiar to me as I’ve traveled in this region on multiple occasions. On one occasion we drove to Mussourie all the way from Noida. That was the first time I drove on the mountain roads. It was a thrilling experience but I didn’t enjoy the traffic snarls at Mussourie. Places like Kempty falls near Mussourie are now notorious for long queue of vehicles, thanks to the weekend rush from Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and other areas of the plains. The vehicle moved up the road that winds itself along the mountain slopes. After a few bends, houses of Mussourie started to appear. Fortunately, the road still has some forest cover and concrete hasn’t quite swallowed the forests to the extent it as done in other hill stations. But Mussourie is known for the pomp and show of its hotels. As salaries increased, so did the living standards and the allied expectations of comforts of urban life. With increase in accessibility to hill stations like Mussourie, more and more people flocked towards them on long weekends. With them, they carried their ever-increasing expectations from modern urban life. The tourism industry hoped to cash in on this by attempting to meet them. Little did they or the governments and local authorities realize that these places cannot sustain such demands, not at least by keeping their serenity intact. This is a harsh truth faced by almost all the areas of the Himalayas which has become more accessible due to increased connectivity. Mussourie, for example, was a place known to receive snowfalls regularly. However, over the years, uncontrolled constructions has seen it losing a large section of its forest cover and today, in some years, winters go by without any snowfall. Fans and air conditioners are common in the hotels and lodges there, which people never had to install earlier. But, with some of the territories earmarked under forest department, Mussourie has been able to put some check to uncontrolled urbanization and fares a little better than places like Simla.

The vehicle meandered around the serpentine roads of Mussourie town. It kept off the Mall road and followed the streets that took us through the cantonment area and we came out of the Town to hit the road that goes towards Dhanaulti. It was a short cut through the town, avoiding the crowded tourist areas. We kept moving till we reached a junction. At the junction, one road goes ahead towards Dhanaulti. But we took the left turn that is headed towards Uttarkashi. It was now going down down the slopes through the forests. This is a relatively new section of road that connects Dehradun, Mussourie to the road leading to Uttarkashi and Gangotri. The road took us to the banks of the Tehri dam reservoir, a large dam built on the Ganges, causing much disbalance in the local ecosystem. The rising waters of the reservoir drowned the old town of Tehri and it had to be relocated to higher reaches of the hills as “New Tehri”. The vehicle moved along the banks to reach Chiniyalisaur, an important junction town on the route. It is here, the road from Haridwar and Rishikesh joins the Gangotri road. It is also where a different road takes pilgrims and tourists towards Yamunotri, another important pilgrimage site which is also one of the famous “Char Dhams” of the state of Uttarakhand. After Chiniyalisaur, the road went by the banks of the Ganges, a pattern to be followed for rest of the trip. It was our first view of the river on this route and here it appeared no different than any other river in the mountains, making its way down the rocky and bumpy slopes of boulders through the gorges. Gradually, we passed the town of Uttarkashi, the district headquarters and reached Gangori (not to be confused with Gangotri). Balbir Singh met us at a nearby market and boarded the vehicle, which left the Gangotri highway to move up the slopes of a narrow road. This is the route that goes towards the famous Doditaal lake. The vehicle took us to a place where paved road ends. Beyond this, it is a trekking route to Doditaal and beyond. We disembarked here and headed up towards our place of stay, the Kaflon camp.

Kaflon

The Kaflon camp is located in a valley surrounded by high hills on all sides. They have a few tents set up with comfortable beds and attached toilets. The lawn in front bathed in bright afternoon sun. We were greeted with lemon juice by the staff at the camp. As we were shown the tent, it lifted our spirits. The tent had a proper bed, was very clean, airy and there was enough sunlight in it.

At the camp, Kaflon

We had the entire afternoon at our disposal, at least 2-3 hours of bright sunshine to bask in. However, a quick conversation with the camp staff revealed that sunshine doesn’t stay that long in this camp, thanks to the high mountains that surrounds the place. They are also the reason due to which sunlight reaches late in the valley in the morning. Nevertheless, we still had sometime and we sat on the chairs to enjoy the afternoon. Tea was served with delicious onion fries (pakodas, as they call it, in this part of the world). We sipped the warm tea and the pakodas played a perfect match.

Kaflon

As evening wore on, the chill increased and we subsided to out tent and after dinner at 7 PM, we slid under the blankets. After chatting for sometime, sleep overran us.

The next morning, when we were served breakfast and tea, it was already 8 AM, but the sunlight was yet to reach the valley. Balbir Singh came over to meet us along with his son Arvind, who’d be our guide on this trek. We left some of our luggage at the camp and carried just the essentials along. We walked down the trail and reached the road head, where a vehicle was waiting to carry us to Raithal, the point where our trekking was to start from. The jeep moved down the road to reach Gangori, where rations and supplies were loaded (raw materials for food, cooking utensils, tents, sleeping bags, matrices, kerosene and other equipment). A drive of two hours took us to Raithal, where we were surprised to find a GMVN tourist rest house. Had I known about it before, we could have halted here instead of Kaflon. That could have saved us sometime. Nevertheless, we started our hike at about 11 AM. It was a bit hot, but a nice cool breeze gave us some comfort after we started. The initial route went amidst the houses and the fields of the Raithal village.

En-route Goyee

The route was paved with stones, but over a period of time, it has worn out, but it was still a well laid trail that zig-zagged upwards. We couldn’t keep our jackets on for long. So, we had to fasten them around our hips to give us some comfort while walking. My daughter and wife were faring well. It was just the start and there was some way to reach our camp. The distance wasn’t anything compared to what we’re accustomed to during treks of a higher grade. The walk for the day wasn’t likely to exceed 4 kms, whereas 8-10 or even 15 kms a day is quite normal in treks. Clouds stayed clear off the sky where we could see the peaks of the Bhairathi range of the Garhwal Himalayas.

After crossing the Raithal village, we entered the woods that covered the route right up to the top where Dayara Bugyal lay. That gave us some respite from the blazing sun, whose rays were intense even in this time of the year when winter was knocking the doors.

As the gradient increased, breathing became harder and halts increased for my daughter. They increased to a point where I had to intervene and take her along with me instead of letting her progress on her own pace. Though we had time at our disposal, but it had to be kept under control. At her age, one cannot expect the urgency and maturity that is required for treks. I urged her to look around in the surroundings where, on the horizon, Mt Bandarpoonch was visible in clear sky.

Mt Bandarpoonch

After sometime, guide Arvind handed over the packed lunches to us. We had our lunch at one of the bends, chapatis and sabzi (curry). I didn’t have much appetite and confined myself to minimum. After lunch, its always difficult to regain the momentum to walk but we got into our grooves again. The rays of sun acquired a tinge of yellow as afternoon wore on. My daughter became increasingly impatient , but the camp was nowhere to be seen.

We dragged on for another hour till we reached a point where we could see our tents at Goee, our place of halt for the day. The tents were in front of a shepherd hut, which was to serve as the kitchen fr the night. It was a small meadow spread out on the laps of the hills that led to Dayara Bugyal. Sun was preparing to leave the stage.

Mt Bandarpoonch, Goee

Shadows gained grounds quickly, but the peaks beyond the distant hills still bathed in the afternoon sun. My years spent earlier in the laps of the Himalayas told me the time was ripe for the sunset colors to play our their drama over the snow clad peaks. The yellow tinge of the solar rays acquired intensity and then crimson came in the mix. Mt Bandarpoonch was the nearest and largest visible from the camp.

Mt Bandarpoonch at sunset, Goee

We were handed our evening tea. I kept my focus on the distant mountains where the sunset scene was being played out. The entire Bhagirathi-Gangotri range turned crimson in the fading rays of sun.

Bhagirathi range at sunset, Goee

The guides and porters set up camp fire with the help of twigs collected from the nearby forest. We spent time sipping our evening tea and warming our hands till the fire died out. As soon as it was dark, dinner got served, after which, we subsided to our tent. The tent proved inadequate for two adults and a kid. There wasn’t enough space to turn around, especially with the sleeping bags, which I never felt comfortable with. Silence engulfed the place with only strange sounds coming from nearby forests. My daughter kept asking whether tigers or leopards were a common occurrence in the surrounding forests. She went crazy with sounds around the tent which came from a stray dog which was roaming around and finally as he slept with his back against the wall of the tent, my wife got the jitters as she was leaning against the other side. But, we soon got used to it and the rest of the night was peaceful.

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – au revoir

At her feet

24th October

At about 2 or 3 AM, there were some movements in the rooms. Ranjan da started to mount his lenses to his camera and then started working on the manual focus settings. That reminded me of the night ventures we were about to take. Full moon was nearby and we didn’t want to waste the opportunity to witness the moonlit views of the Annapurna range, especially when the weather showed promises of staying clear in the previous evening. Sounds of similar movements came up from the adjacent rooms. The daughters were deep asleep. We went outside and were greeted amidst what was nothing less of a paradise! All the surroundings were white, the place where we stood, the mountains, the roof of the lodges, everywhere. All of that and the surrounding mountains were placed against a pitch dark background of clear sky dotted with numerous stars. The ones who are familiar with the galaxies and their shapes (which I’m not) could might as well have recognized them easily. The moon was in the sky behind us in full glory, showering its light on the Annapurna range which we were looking at. People got started with the manual focus settings of their DSLR cameras as auto focus doesn’t work in such conditions. They got started with their snaps and each had to take multiple shots for a subject to get it to perfection after adjusting the shutter speed and exposure duration to the optimum. At the end, many did a great job in capturing as much as possible of what was at our disposal.

Annapurna range at night, ABC, pic courtesy – Niladri Sekhar Guha

Himalayan views at night are not very common, not at least in full moon. It gave us a sense of accomplishment since the trip was planned with meticulous details keeping many factors in mind and one of them was full moon. We started to plot the days after fixing the day at the Annapurna Base Camp, just before full moon and rest of the schedule was worked backwards from there.

Annapurna Main at night, ABC, pic courtesy – Niladri Sekhar Guha

After all that, we headed back to our respective rooms and slid under the blankets. Fortunately for us, there were no shortage of them, unlike at Bamboo. They were thick enough to give us enough warmth to sleep with reasonable comfort with all our warm wears on. Everyone was keen to make most of the night left with us before we start preparing for the famous sunrise and the descent, which were just about 3 hours away. The alarm went off at 4 AM and I started with the preparations. After setting aside the clothes for my daughter, I went for my morning duties. Just as I dipped the mug in the water stored in a bucket, it struck something hard and refused to go in. When I looked at it, I saw crystals of ice covering the entire surface of the water in the bucket. It was only after applying some pressure, I could dip the mug. I decided that there was no point making my daughter go through the pain so I let her sleep. Others got started too and as the time wore on for the sunrise, we went out. The place was already crowded with people from different lodges and teams. The sky started to acquire a tinge of blue. The mountains nearby still wore a dark outline. The peaks of the Annapurna range and their snow abode were clearly visible beyond the dark outline. After sometime, the outline gradually started to move down and the mountain tops became clearer. Annapurna South was the first to get the showers of gold.

Annapurna South at sunrise, Annapurna Base Camp

As if nature was gradually placing the crown of glory on her. The dark outline moved further down the slopes of Annapurna South as the crown gradually fit on its forehead.

Annapurna South at sunrise, Annapurna Base Camp

As the sun changed its position, the crown spread its influence on the surrounding peaks of the Annapurna range, almost like a wild fire.

Annapurna range at sunrise, ABC, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De
Annapurna range at sunrise, ABC, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De
Annapurna range at sunrise, ABC, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

People crammed for spaces and positions to click their “best” shots. Shutters rolled on relentlessly and people were awestruck by the dazzling display of colors. I can continue uploading many more snaps but still have to admit that what we saw and hence, was imprinted in our minds and hearts, can never be depicted by the snaps. I recalled the words of one of the trekkers we met on our way up. Nowhere else in this world, one gets to witness nature’s beauty with such a short walk from the plains. Nowadays, even helicopters literally lift and ferry people to this base camp in matter of hours, but by doing that people are robbed off the views of the landscapes, forests, villages and pastures on the way that leads up to the base camp.

Annapurna base camp, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De
Annapurna Main, at sunrise, Annapurna Base Camp

After the extended photography session, we headed back to the lodge. It was time to get the kids ready, strap our backpacks and hit the trails as early as possible. The previous evening had witnessed heavy snow and the route down to MBC had to be negotiated carefully, given that we didn’t have crampons with us and the kids needed care too. I let my daughter go ahead with Niladri, Dhananjoy and rest of the group. I kept company with Ranjan da and Rumi (his daughter) and Raju followed us. From the lodge premises, a set of stair cases went down and merged with the trail below. There was no trace of land that wasn’t colored white. I tried to place my footsteps carefully trying to get some grip. In spite of that, I was brought down to my knees on one occasion. On our way down, I tried to walk along the edges of the trail which had some grass and pebbles that could offer some grip as opposed to walking down the middle which had already turned slippery, thanks to the melting ice. Ranjan da and even our guide Raju, met with the same fate a few times. The section of the trail till MBC had to be negotiated carefully. Beyond that point, the route was devoid of snow (at least not as much as the initial section). I could see the figures of my daughter and Niladri, both dwarfed by the distance they had moved ahead of us. Going by the looks, at least from the distance, they seemed fine. Rumi (Ranjan da’s daughter) was coming slowly but steadily behind me. In a bid to be extra careful, I asked her to follow my steps but slid at least three to four times. She must have laughed at the skills of her new “teacher”. Gradually, we passed the familiar site of MBC and entered the valley that was to take us to Deurali. We hoped to see Mona da there (going by the plans he shared yesterday) but there were no signs of him. He must have gone down further but the reason for that became clear much later in the day.

Deurali, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We stopped for breakfast at Deurali. Our destination for the day was Bamboo, which was still a long way to go. So we didn’t waste much time and hit the trail soon. After a few steps from Deurali, the forests reappeared and once again, after two days, we were walking under canopy cover. I caught up with Niladri and my daughter, who was back to her tantrums, but less than before. Skies gave ominous signs and chances of rain increased. By the time we reached Himalaya for lunch, it was overcast. Bamboo was still far down. We put on our rain coats. Soon afterwards, incessant rains started. The raincoat (or “poncho”, as they call it) of my daughter proved much bigger than what fits her. The fallout was, it almost covered her feet and shoes. She couldn’t even look where she was stepping in. It was proving difficult in these rainy conditions. The rocks and boulders had covers of moss, which now turned slippery with the rain. With the increasing intensity, visibility reduced and we finally had to halt at Dovan to give a chance for the rain to subside. After it subsided somewhat, we resumed our journey. Passers by kept asking whether my daughter went all the way up to the base camp and kept encouraging her for, what they thought, was an amazing feat achieved at her age. We reached Bamboo at about 5 PM in the evening. We started from ABC at 7 AM and after 10 hours, we were at Bamboo. We met Mona da and got to know that he came to Deurali on his way down, only to find that there wasn’t any place to sleep. He moved further down and met with the same fate at other lodges and finally at Dovan, he was allotted a bed in the kitchen. He hoped for a sound sleep after an arduous day, but the mice under his blanket kept him on guard and he could never close his eyes again. Fellow hikers who were sleeping in the kitchen, found his experience “exciting” but Mona da had a diametrically opposite view.

25th October

The day’s destination was Jhinudanda. Effectively, what took us four days to hike, was to get covered in two days on our way down. Walking down the hills is not as easy as it seems. On your way up, the knees and lungs bear the brunt. On the way down, the lungs get freed up, but knees have their share of stress. Moreover, in this route, there are hikes on the way down as well. From Bamboo, there is a hike to upper Sinuwa (though the slope is relatively gentle). The trail beyond it goes down the stair cases to the hanging bridge to reach lower Chomrong and then comes the long hike to upper Chomrong . Beyond that, the final set of stairs take you down to Jhinudanda. In short, its a topsy-turvy trail. The good part was that the day was sunny and we hoped to reach Jhinudanda no later than 2-3 PM. An added attraction there is a hot spring. Apparently, one could bathe in the lukewarm waters of the spring and all the pain of the trail is supposed to get alleviated. As usual, we started the trek after breakfast. The clear weather helped the cause and my daughter didn’t mind the gradual hike. We reached Sinuwa and ordered our breakfast. We wished to spend some more time there, but the other driver was to get to Jhinudanda as quickly as possible so as to have enough time for bathing at the hot spring. After Sinuwa, we moved down the stair cases to reach the hanging bridge over the river and then the hike to Chomrong started. We stared at the series of steps that moved up to the top of the hill, which seemed endless. To get a frequent sense of accomplishment and milestones, I moved up twenty steps at a time, halted and resumed to move another twenty. The pattern repeated till I reached a point from where the top of the hill (upper Chomrong) appeared a bit nearer. After reaching the top, we crossed the now familiar streets of upper Chomrong, the lodge where we stayed on our way up and finally started moving down the stairs that led us to Jhinudanda.

On the way down to Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The turns and bends seemed familiar and after crossing a few of them, we could see Jhinudanda, down below, with a bird’s eye view. By the time we reached the lodge, some of our members were already relaxing on the terrace, with their legs spread, enjoying cans of beer in the bright afternoon sun. After settling in our rooms, we joined the rest. Calls were made to our respective homes, reporting a successful completion of our trek, pleasantries were exchanged. The afternoon dragged on leisurely and no one (at least not me) was in a mood to hurry. People enjoyed their lunch. After that, we ventured out for the hot spring. For a moment, I thought to give it a skip (it was a downhill walk for about 20 minutes, which meant, another uphill hike of at least 30 mins to be back at the lodge), but the lure of lukewarm water dragged me on. We went our way down the hilly slopes through the forest, carrying our respective sets of clothes and towels. At the hot spring, there was a lot of noise with tourists from all over the world taking a dip in the artificial pools that have been created with hot spring water carried by pipelines into them. They were located exquisitely right beside the roaring Modi Khola river. As we immersed ourselves into the pool, it was an extraordinary experience.

Modi Khola, Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De


The lukewarm pool water gave the warmth and comfort to drain away all the stress and pain of the trail. Sitting in the warm waters, one can enjoy the site of the roaring Modi khola thundering down the gorge just by the springs. Time just flied as we jostled with others in the pool, teased each other or just laid down enjoying the warmth and comfort of the hot spring. After the bath, we hiked up the trail to reach the lodge. It was already dark.

26th October

We woke up early in the morning. Though the walk for the day was very short, we wanted to get to Pokhara as early as possible. Even at Jhinudanda, the cold was not insignificant and we had to put on our jackets. The sun was about to make its appearance and the color of the snow peaks beyond the hills of upper Chomrong showed the reflection of its movements.

Jhinudanda
Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

They were crowned with gold, a view, familiar to us by now. Though it wasn’t a view of the full range as we saw at the base camp, but still, it was the unmistakable brilliance of nature in The Himalayas, which we were witnessing probably for the last time on this trail. The moon, on the other side of the sky was preparing to leave the stage, handing over its reigns to the sun.

Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

A short walk took us to the nearest road head, Khumi. A bus from there went through the meandering roads of the lower forests, villages and lush paddy fields on our way down to Pokhara. Throughout the route, the entire Annapurna range kept its vigil on us, as if luring us to come back.

En route Pokhara, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

After reaching Pokhara, people dispersed in small groups to go for marketing. Some others, including me, went for a boat ride at the Fewa lake in the fading afternoon sun. A nice cool breeze greeted us at the lake as we embarked on our boat ride. As the boatman kept dragging the boat gently, sounds of splashes of water kept soothing our ears. We turned around to have a view of this huge lake.

Fewa Lake, Pokhara

On our left, hills moved upwards to a point where a few roads and houses were visible. That place is Sarangkot, one of the tourist attractions around Pokhara. As the sun started to call it a day, the snow peaks, marginally visible beyond the hills of Sarangkot, turned crimson.

Sanagkot, as visible from Fewa Lake, Pokhara

27th October

I woke up at 4 AM in the morning and went to Niladri’s room. They left for the bus stand to board a bus for Birganj. From there, a tonga was to take them to the Raxaul station to board the train for Kolkata. We bade goodbye to them as we did to Kunal and Arindam. They took the bus for Sunauli, in order to reach Gorakhpur to board their train for Delhi. Rest of us headed to Kathmandu. From there, the next day, we flew to Delhi. We came from different places, assembled at Kathmandu for our trip. Now, the reverse scenes were being played out with different groups heading for their respective home/work destinations. The objective of months of planning & discussion came to an end. But, for sure, as they say, The Himalayas will give their bugle calls and it will certainly reach the ears of mere mortals like us to respond!

At her feet

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – at her feet

The Fish Tail

Au Revoir

23rd October

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.

Early morning rays on Annapurna South, MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.


Early morning rays on Annapurna range, MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Early morning rays on Annapurna range, MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Early morning rays on Annapurna South, MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp

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.

Icicles – en-route Annapurna Base Camp, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Mt Hiunchuli, en-route Annapurna Base Camp

Even the glaciers that came down the slopes of the mountains were visible in their full glory, shining bright in the morning sun.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp

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.

En-route 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.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp

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.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp

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.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De
En-route Annapurna Base Camp

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.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Annapurna Base Camp

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.

Annapurna Base Camp

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.

Annapurna Base Camp

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.

Fish Tail at sun set, Annapurna Base Camp

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.

Fish Tail at sun set, Annapurna Base Camp

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.

Fish Tail at sun set, Annapurna Base Camp
Fish Tail at sun set, Annapurna Base Camp

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.

Fish Tail after sun set, Annapurna Base Camp

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.

The Fish Tail

Au Revoir

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – The Fish Tail

Beyond the tree line

At her feete

22nd October

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.

En-route MBC


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. 

En-route Machchapuchchare base camp (MBC)

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.

En-route MBC

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.

En-route MBC

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.

En-route MBC

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.

En-route MBC

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.

En-route MBC

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.

En-route MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

En-route MBC

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).

MBC

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.

MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjor De

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.

Beyond the tree line

At her feet

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – Beyond the tree line

Forests of bamboo

The Fish Tail

21st October, 2018

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.

Bamboo

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.

En-route Dovan

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.

En-route Dovan

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.

Mt Machchapuchchare, en-route Dovan 

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.

Dovan

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.

En-route Himalaya

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.

En-route Himalaya

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.

En-route Deorali

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.

Deorali, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The river Modi Khola thundered down in leaps & bounds through the gorge, foaming like milk.

Modi Khola river

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. 


Deorali, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Forests of bamboo

The Fish Tail

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – forests of Bamboo

Chomrong

Beyond the tree line

20th October, 2018

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. 

Chomrong, pic courtesy Dhananjoy De

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.

Sunrise on Annapurna South – Chomrong

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.

Chomrong – pic courtesy Dhananjoy De

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.

En route Sinuwa

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.

En route Sinuwa

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.

En route Sinuwa

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.

En route Sinuwa, pic courtesy Dhananjoy De

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.

En route Bamboo, pic courtesy Dhananjoy De

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. 

En route Bamboo, pic courtesy Niladri Sekhar Guha

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.

En route Bamboo, pic courtesy Dhananjoy De

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.

Chomrong

Beyond the tree line

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – Chomrong

Pokhara

Bamboo

19th October, 2018

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.

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Fewa lake, Pokhara, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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!

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Mt Machchpuchchare (Fish tail), pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

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En route Khumi, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

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Modi Khola, Ulleri, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

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Along the trail, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

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Terraced fields, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

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En route Jhinudanda, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

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En route Jhinudanda

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.

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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.

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En route Jhinudanda, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

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En route Jhinudanda

It would take us to the other bank. Beyond that, I could see steps that we would need to ascend to reach Jhinudanda.

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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.

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Jhinudanda, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

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En route 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.

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En route Chomrong, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

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En route Chomrong, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

Pokhara

Bamboo