Around Annapurna – Reaching Manang

Upper Pisang

12th October

When we pulled the curtains on the sole window in our room before sliding under the blankets in the previous night, it was still drizzling. After the alarm went off in the morning, I slid the curtains to have a glimpse of the sky, but was disappointed to watch the clouds having an upper hand. Forecasts aren’t always accurate and they can be off by a day or two. While it doesn’t take anything off the forecasters, but that could derail our schedule entirely. We may reach a state where we might be forced to trade off Tilicho lake to ensure Thorong la stays on schedule. We went about our morning business as usual and packed our bags to keep them ready for porters to carry. As we ventured out of our rooms to go towards the dining place, we were in for a pleasant surprise. Snow clad slopes of the mountain peaks were visible on the horizon. Clouds gradually steered away and the mountains started to unfold. For the first time on this trip, the sun made it’s presence felt. The moon was yet to leave the stage, but morning rays of sun started to crown the peaks.

Upper Pisang

I went outside the tea house in my slippers to capture the moments as the sun started its journey up in the sky. Morning and dusk offer the best shades of color on snow clad peaks, but they change by the flip of the eyes.

Upper Pisang

After breakfast, we decided to visit the local monastery of the village. After leaving the lodge, the trail went up the slopes through an alley amidst the local houses. As it moved up, mountains opened up even more and our guide declared that we’d be taking the upper route (via Ngawal) to Manang. That boosted our hopes for the days to come. Our best wishes went to the forecaster who was right on the money. The trail reached to the premises of the monastery. It was a wide and open area with mountain views at display for 360 degrees. Now that most of the mountains removed their veil, our guide went about making us aware of their identities. Starting from extreme left in the corner, we could see Mt Manaslu, Annapurna IV, Annapurna II, III, Gangapurna, Mt Tilicho, many others in between and on the extreme right, towering above the village, was the Pisang peak. The family from New Zealand was enjoying and kids played and ran around the place. Bright sunshine added to their upbeat mood.

Pisang Monastery
Upper Pisang

Despite enjoying the views, we had to cut our stay short and we headed back to the tea house, strapped our backpacks and hit the trail, amidst full sunshine, for the first time on this trip. It was to stay the same for the rest of it. The trail was flat as we exited Upper Pisang. As we went past the bends and looked back, the entire village of Upper Pisang lay in front of us along the slopes of the hills.

Upper Pisang

After sometime, the trail reached a place where some porters and guides assembled for gossip and smoke. I greeted them and went ahead when someone screamed from behind and pointed upwards. I couldn’t understand, but later realized that he was pointing towards a trail that moved up the slopes. I was about to take the lower route, which was wide enough for vehicles to ply, but it wasn’t the correct one. The trail that moved up, was narrower and moved through a series of steep switchbacks, right up to the top of the hill where we could see terraced roofs and stupas, all diminished in their statures. Looking at the route, it appeared daunting. That village at the top was Ghyaru. Going by what our guide said, beyond Ghyaru, a flat trail awaited us, which would take us to Ngawal, our place for lunch. After Ngawal, the trail would descend and the final stretch was a flat track to the town of Manang. The words “flat” and “down” sounded as bells to our ears. It all boiled down to this hike up to Ghyaru.

En-route Ghyaru

After crossing a bridge, we started on the hike. To be fair, the trail was divided into many switchbacks, generating many small milestones for us. Mountains of the Annapurna range grew in their stature as we moved up the slopes.

Annapurna range – en-route Ghyaru
En-route Ghyaru

After every bend, we stopped to enjoy their views which kept changing. There were some shortcuts that stitched across the switchbacks, but the effort proved too daunting to be time savers. I gave up and resumed along the normal trail.

Switchbacks to Ghyaru

Fresh snow covered the slopes of the distant peaks. The last few days of weather heaped much of them along the slopes and as a result, we were presented with awe inspiring views! Its appropriate to say, days of darkness leads to light at the end of a tunnel.

Annapurna mountains – en-route Ghyaru

Looking above, I could see many switchbacks ahead. The entire route above, was sprinkled with trekkers from other groups, at different stages of their journey. I stood for sometime to take a look (also give some respite to my lungs and knees) and it appeared as a snapshot of life where at any given point in time, different people are at different stages, some just about to start, some already underway and yet others, about to conclude! After crossing a few switchbacks, we came to a place where some trekkers assembled for some rest. One guy was trekking with a bare body. That drew a lot of attention from passers by, given the climate. Regardless of the bright sunshine, it was a bold act. A few more switchbacks took us to the doorstep of the monastery of the Ghyaru village. The lawn of the monastery offered a bird’s eye view of the valley, the Marshyang di river valley. Beyond the valley, rose the mighty peaks of the Annapurna Himal. A huge Himalayan Griffon vulture was flying high up in the sky. I took some moving shots following the bird on its trail, which provided some wonderful shots in the backdrop of the surrounding snow clad peaks.

Himalayan Griffon – Ghyaru

After spending some time at Ghyaru, we resumed on our trail, which went through an undulating terrain. Walking was now comfortable. We treaded along nicely in the warm and bright sunshine. After crossing a few bends, we came across an entrance gate adorned with mani prayer wheels. The trail went through the gate and we could see it’s entire serpentine trail along the mountain slopes which ended in a distant village with a few tea houses. “Ngawal” someone declared from the group that was travelling beside us. It lay leisurely along the barren slopes of the mountains.

Ngawal

It was a picturesque village and the closer we moved towards it, the more we loved it. After sometime we reached the tea house and settled in its dining room. “Dal bhats” were ordered. The valley around was wide open and surrounded by mighty snow clad peaks of the Annapurna Himal. We basked in the warmth of bright sunshine amidst the picturesque grandeur of nature.

Ngawal

After lunch, we hit the trail once again. The section of the rail we were now treading upon, was paved with concrete and to our relief, it gradually started heading downwards. During our lunch at Ngawal, strong winds forced me to put on my jacket, which now started to prove cumbersome and I had to take it off. Vegetation reduced drastically after Ngawal and barren and rugged mountain slopes became more frequent. Years of corrosion by strong winds flowing through the valley carved out awe inspiring sculptures out of the rocky walls. At times they appeared like huge termite mounds.

Sculptures created by winds

As the trail moved down, we could see the other track coming from lower Pisang. Beside the track, lay the Humde air strip, which serves as a local airport for Manang. The airport also has a helipad, an important piece of infrastructure which supports Helicopter rescue system which frequently comes to use in these areas of high altitude to evacuate trekkers and mountaineers to lower regions or to cities of Pokhara or Kathmandu for urgent medical treatment. High altitude mountain sickness or painful sprains or fractures are often causes of such rescues. Nepal has a well-oiled rescue system supported by such helipads in these areas or even higher reaches.

Humde Airstrip – Manang

As our trail reached down to meet the other track from Lower Pisang, forests with sparse vegetation re-appeared. The afternoon sun cast its glows over the trees and we walked over a flat trail meandering through such forests on both sides. Beyond the tree line, mighty snow peaks prevailed. They came forward to meet the trail as we moved closer to Manang.

Road to Manang – picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

The snow walls made a contrasting backdrop for the low lying pine forests with their tops rinsed with golden afternoon sunshine. Our walk was interrupted repeatedly with many such views and shutters kept rolling on relentlessly.

Trail to Manang – picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

The closer we moved towards Manang, the more imposing postures the snow peaks assumed. We had ample time to go at a leisurely pace. The sunny weather played a perfect foil to this enjoyable walk.

Road to Manang

The trail passed through the village of Munji and another 2 kms of walk took us to Bragha, the village before the town of Manang. We saw the trail towards ice lake that moved up along the slopes. Ice lake was one of the available options for day hiking for the next day which was supposed to be our acclimatization day at Manang. After another 20-25 minutes of walking, we came into a wide open valley. Numerous yaks grazed around the field amidst the backdrop of the distant mountains.

Manang

After moving past the fields of grazing yaks, the trail gradually moved upwards through a gate that welcomes the trekkers to Manang. As we moved along, we went past the jeep stand, the termination point of the vehicles that ply on this route from Besisahar. This gravel road that goes all the way from Manang to Besisahar is a lifeline for the villages that dot the route. Hotel Tilicho was our slated tea house. It was a grand tea house. It had its own bakery and coffee shop, apart from the standard dining space. It was a double storeyed tea house with a square open area surrounded by bed rooms on all sides. We were allotted a three bedded room at one corner. The room had enough space. We settled in the room. Dhananjoy headed for a hot shower. After settling in, we went around the village to have a walk. The sun was still out. Wi-Fi allowed us to make calls to our respective homes. We informed that this was probably going to be the last place with such facilities. The owner of the tea house was also not sure about what to expect at tea houses at Tilicho Base camp, Thorong Phedi or even at places like Sree Kharka or Yak Kharka. That news was received with some nervousness at our homes. It meant we were going to be out of reach for next four to five days till we reached Muktinath on the other side of Thorong La. Fortunately, we were proved wrong with our assumptions. We had a feeling of home at Manang and that had a lot to do with the facilities at the tea house and also with the fact that for the first and the only time during our trek, we’d spend two nights at the same tea house. We made enquiries about the route beyond Manang in both directions (Tilicho lake as well as Thorong La). Tilicho lake still had a lot of snow on the route, but Thorong La was clear and many people have crossed it over the last few days. After dinner, we slid under the warm and comfortable blankets. We were sleeping at 3519 m.

Upper Pisang

Around Annapurna – Upper Pisang

Chame

Reaching Manang

11th October, 2022

The drizzle stopped last night and we could get glimpse of some stars. We noted that while returning to our room from the dining space. The day started with a “somewhat” clear sky. Clouds didn’t give up their claims on the upper reaches of the mountains totally. As I looked around, I was greeted with a mix of clear skies and cloud covers but wait, what was that! Wasn’t it our first glimpse of snow on this trip? Amidst the “V” opening between distant hills down the valley, there appeared a mountain peak. It wasn’t fully visible with it’s top still covered by clouds. Nature’s finally showing some mercy! Others also cast their gaze at this view and pretty soon there was a buzz around the place with sounds of mobile clicks and camera shutters. Our guide stated “Manaslu”.

Mt Manaslu – Chame

It was difficult to recognize it since it appeared very different from what we saw from places like Lho or Samagaun (the famous double edged view) during the Manaslu Circuit trek. We all got excited, but Dhananjoy, more so. He’s normally interested in their names and makes sure he remembers them. Every video that he records, contains utterances by him citing the names of the mountains as his camera hovers around. Our breakfast was simple with noodle soup and we hit the trail at 7.45 AM. The day’s destination was Upper Pisang. Once we reach there, we’d move beyond the tropical zone and enter the rain shadow area of the Annapurna range. Places beyond that are expected to be drier, but much colder and windy. Going by forecast, weather was supposed to clear up from 12th. After exiting the tea house area, we crossed a pool and were greeted with apple trees in local orchards.

Chame

Fully grown red apples hung from the shoots and the tree was having a tough time keeping upright. The fruits were bathed in fresh morning dew! Weather was good with some sunshine and walking was comfortable. We continued to face sections of mud and had to tread these carefully. The trail was undulating, moving up and down gently. This is generally considered as “flat” by locals in these areas.

Chame

I kind of agreed with their assessment, in hindsight, now that I’ve seen the later sections of the trail. Clouds started hovering above again and we reached a section where the trail moved under an overhang of rocks. Water droplets kept coming down their edges dripping the trail below. It was difficult to skip these droplets and we got rinsed by them despite lack of a drizzle.

Route to upper Pisang

The trail continued along the banks of the Marsyhang di and we reached a place where we left the road to take a detour along a foot bridge. The trail was to short circuit the jeep road, eventually rejoining the road at a later section. The rest of the group was busy taking photographs, while I moved ahead of them and suddenly found myself walking alone. After crossing the footbridge, the trail moved up the slopes through multiple switchbacks though a dense pine forest. It was well above the road. For a certain time, I was alone on that trail, with no signs of rest of the group or for that matter, any other person. Did I took the wrong turn? I crossed a few locals who were on their way down. Asking them didn’t reveal much as they couldn’t understand my language and their answers were circumspect and terse. Nevertheless, I move ahead with the belief that mountain roads normally meet up somewhere. Though it was moist, walking through forest cover is always welcome.

The detour from jeep road – en-route Upper Pisang

Despite moving through the forest, we could hear the roar (somewhat muted) of the Marshyang di river. Eventually, the trail joined the main road once again and we reached Bhratang. The road through Bhratang was lined by apple orchards on both sides and we reached a farm house. It’s a place where people consider taking halts. Trees were full of fruits. There were trees of red as well as green varieties of apples. The orchards ran from the road, right up to the mountain walls that surrounded the valley on both sides. The lush green orchards with red and green fruits abundant in the trees, formed a contrasting backdrop against the dark clouds hovering above.

Apple orchards – Bhratang

We stopped for sometime at the Bhratang tea house and bought some fresh apples. Moving ahead, we came across a view of the Paunga Danda, a smooth rock face, rising above 1500 m from the river. Local call it “Swarga dwar” or gateway to heaven. They believe that the spirits of the deceased must ascend the wall of this to reach heaven!

Bhratang

After crossing the orchards, the road moved amidst the valley and we were offered with another short route up the slopes allowing us to leave the jeep road. Though these are steeper, but short circuit the distance and offer much needed relief from the jeep road. They also move through dense forests. It was here, I once again found myself walking alone, ahead of the group. After sometime, the trail rejoined the road, where there was a tea shop. There were still no signs of the remaining members. So, I thought of waiting. There were members of other groups who passed by along another detour that moved up the slopes, giving another escape route from the jeep road. After about 10 minutes, my group members started making their appearance and I resumed my walk along with them. This second detour was shorter and we soon joined the jeep road in a flat section. Our guide informed us that Dhukur Pokhari, our lunch spot, was just about half an hour of walk from that point. It was a comfortable walk from that point and we reached the tea house. By that time, a steady drizzle had already started. As usual, we ordered our “Dal bhat”s and awaited their arrival.

The day before, at Timang, I felt cold during lunch. That prompted me to carry a jacket in my backpack. It was a jacket suited for higher altitudes, but I had no other jacket for lower altitudes. I put on the jacket during lunch. That gave some respite but I knew that I had to take it off before resuming walk after lunch. The dining space was big and we enjoyed resting there awaiting lunch. However, the drizzle outside converted to a steady downpour and we still had another two hours of walk to upper Pisang. We saw some jeeps plying on the roads. That implied that the blockages in the lower areas have been cleared. Lot of local Nepalese people visit Tilicho lake. They normally take jeep rides till Manang (some even beyond that, till Khangsar). From thereon, they walk to Tilicho base camp and then on to the lake. We saw some jeeps with locals carrying the Nepalese national flag.

Dhukur Pokhari

After lunch, we resumed our walk. After sometime, the trail split with one track ahead towards lower pisang. But we took the trail that moved away from the lower track. That one moved up directly towards upper Pisang. Both upper and lower Pisang have tea houses and both the routes ultimately reach Manang. The lower route takes much less time and has less hikes but the upper trail offers much better views. We opted to stay at upper Pisang. Whether we take upper or lower routes to Manang had to depend on the weather. In bad weather, there’s no point taking the upper route as mountains won’t be visible anyways. As we moved towards the upper trail, we came to a lake (Dhukur pokhari) and went along the trail along its banks. Visibility reduced very much due to rain. Fortunately, the hike towards upper Pisang was not very steep. After a few bends, we came across a gate with mani wheels. After crossing the gate, we had to walk for some time before we could see the stone houses and tea houses of the upper Pisang village. We waited in the lawn of the first tea house, allowing our guide to reach and then followed along with him to our destined tea house.

We were allotted a three bedded room with an attached toilet. The room barely had space for three but considering the circumstances, it seemed a luxury. After reaching tea houses towards the end of a day, one part of our minds urged for some rest but the other urged to get the clothes changed as soon as possible to avoid cold. Always better sense prevailed and we went along with the latter. It was no exception here too. After settling in, we asked for warm water and started preparing tea. Snacks and biscuits came out of our bags and tea session was on. After tea, we went to the dining space, which was on the upper floor. We hung our wet shirts on the balcony. Later on, we took them with us near the fire place with the hopes of drying them. Climbing stairs proved difficult with tired legs but once we reached the dining space, we could spend the whole evening there, enjoying the warmth of the place. That’s what most people do. After dinner, we headed to our room. Sinceit was only 7 PM, we chose to play ludo. Niladri downloaded the game on his mobile and we enjoyed a few sessions of the game. It brought back the excitement of childhood among us and more importantly, helped to kill time as after darkness falls, there isn’t much left to be done in these remote areas. There are two routes to reach Manang. We deferred the decision to the next day, depending on the weather. Wi-Fi proved to be a good vehicle and so far, we’ve been able to keep our homes informed and that continued in upper Pisang too. We hoped to do the same till Manang at least, beyond which, it remained uncertain. We knew there were snow peaks all around the place, but we couldn’t get any glimpse due to the weather. We kept the game going for sometime and then slipped under the blankets. We were sleeping at 3310 m.

Chame

Reaching Manang

Around Annapurna – Chame

Dharapani

Upper Pisang

10th October, 2022

Yesterday, when we reached Dharapani, I was keen to look out for the tea house where we stayed in the year 2019 on our way down from Manaslu. We woke up to a cloudy morning, though it wasn’t raining anymore. After getting ready, we packed our bags before heading for breakfast at the dining hall. The idea is to have the bags ready for our porters to pick them up. To my dismay, the previous evening I discovered that the lower section of my bag was wet. Though it was covered with water proof sheet, but apparently, it wasn’t enough. Clothes that were stuffed in that section also got wet, something very disturbing, given that we didn’t have many to start with. These also included inner warm wears. Such items, once rinsed, do take long to dry up. I reckoned it must have happened during crossing of the flowing torrents. Poor porters must have had a hard time negotiating them, while trying to keep the sanctity of our luggage – a tough ask under such circumstances. Today’s destination was Chame. After breakfast, we assembled for a group photograph and then hit the trail.

Tea house, Dharapani, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

While we walked ahead, our guide went to register our details at the ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) office. They enter the details of each trekker that passes through the trail. Such entries are made at multiple places along the route to keep a track of entry and exits. Such details are tallied at entry and exit points of the trail and any mismatch results in addition to the list of missing trekkers. These apparently scenic trails can turn dangerous in no time due to foul weather.

Trail towards Chame

We still walked along the jeep road, but given that they weren’t plying beyond Taal, it gave some respite from dust. However, there was no respite from mud and it was very messy at many places along the route. It proved tough to negotiate these sections without having our boots soaked in mud. It required careful selection of stepping stones to avoid getting our shoes submerged. After exiting the tea house, the trail meandered around the local Dharapani town. I kept looking for our previous tea house amongst many that dotted both sides of the trail. Finally we came to the confluence of the Marshyang di and Dukhkhola (river of milk – in Nepali) rivers. The Manaslu circuit trail came down along the banks of DukhKhola to meet the Annapurna Circuit trail at Dharapani and there, along the banks of that confluence, I could identify the tea house! It almost felt like homecoming to me. I gave a glance at the serpentine route that went up along the banks of Dukhkhola. Hiking along that route would take one to Bimthang and beyond it, lay the rockfall zone, at the end of it lies Larkya La (5106m). After crossing it, one could enter the Gorkha district of Nepal – aka the Manaslu conservation area. Back in 2019, while heading down towards Besisahar in a jeep, I remember casting a glance along the Annapurna circuit trail thinking that someday, we’d ply that route and now in 2022, we were doing it! The old walking trail ran in parallel, on the other side of the river. It appeared as a small thread moving up the slopes (much higher than the road on which we were walking) of the hills on the other side. Many sections of it were damaged and blocked by debris of rocks and mud that came down the slopes probably during the rains in past few days. However, we could see moving dots of multiple colors along that thread. Some hikers did indeed prefer taking that route despite the odds of facing challenges. After sometime, the trail moved down a little and reached closer to the banks of the Marshyang di river. The valley too, widened. Few houses here and there and some farming fields indicated a new settlement. We reached Bagarchap.

Marshyang di river – Bagarchap

The river flowed through the valley with ferocity and the gloomy weather added to the mood. But the greenery around toned it down somewhat and we took time for photography at the place. After the valley, the road started moving up the slopes and at the turn, we had our first sight of apple trees in the area! It came as a surprise as we weren’t aware that Manang district (and so is Mustang, as we’d discover later) is one of the largest producers of apples in Nepal. After a few more bends, we reached a waterfall. Fortunately, this wasn’t sending down it’s torrents over the trail. Hence, we were able to enjoy its expanse.

En-route Chame

Beyond the waterfall, our guide asked us to leave the jeep road and take a winding trail up the slopes. It started with a series of steps. Apparently, that was a short route to cut the down the distance. We started moving up the stairs but bushes closed in around us. Though the moist environment added to the cool of the atmosphere, but it also added to the gloom. In my mind, I was constantly thinking about the potential delay we could face, if weather didn’t clear up. The walking trail goes via Thonche village and our initial plan was to have lunch at that village. The series of stairs moved up through the forest. Thanks to the tree cover, there wasn’t any dearth of Oxygen and hiking was comfortable. Nevertheless, we had our halts and kept fluids flowing into our bodies. After sometime, the trail intersected the jeep road once more where we came at a bend. The paved concrete road gave in under the barrage of boulders that were dumped on it from the upper slopes. A metallic bridge that once carried travelers over a seemingly innocent stream, now lay crooked and twisted bearing brunt of nature’s wrath. But as they say, life doesn’t stop and especially, the needs of locals in these areas force alternatives circumventing the conventional routes. We embarked on one of them and reached the other side to regain the road.

Road caves in

The fury of the streams in these lower areas are a testament of the amount of precipitation received in the upper reaches, which we were yet to reach. We kept moving on. We stayed on the jeep road for a few bends. After which, we left it again for another shortcut through the village of Thonche. As we hiked towards it, our guide asked if we wanted to have lunch. We had just walked for about three hours and it felt a bit too early for it. However, we asked if the porters wanted to halt for lunch. We learnt our lessons from our Manaslu trip. On that occasion too, on our way to Deng, our guides and porters requested to halt for an early lunch and we chose not to. That resulted in reaching the next available tea house at about 2 PM in the afternoon, which proved taxing for our porters. We didn’t want to repeat that mistake on this occasion. After confirming that the next halt wasn’t more than an hour or so and more importantly, the porters were fine continuing, we chose to give a short halt at Thonche to have some tea.

Streams, en-route Timang

Niladri and Dhananjoy resumed their business of preparing tea (using tea bags that they carried in their backpacks) with the help of hot water in the flaks that we were carrying. After tea, we popped mango bites into our mouths and resumed hiking up the trail. We finally reached Timang at around 12 PM. We headed for the first tea house we encountered in the village and settled in the dining room. It was crowded with a lot of trekkers, guides and porters. Though we ordered our “dal bhats” as soon as we reached, it took a long time to get them served. While we waited for lunch to arrive, I looked around the dining space. There were many groups sitting around. Some in the process of having their lunches, some awaiting them. Tea houses in these trails have people coming from different parts of the world. Many languages can be heard. The cuisines served at these tea houses match the number of languages too, which is amazing! I watched outside and saw that a drizzle had already started. While I wasn’t feeling during my walk, but now I started feeling cold. I realized, I didn’t have any warm wear in my backpack. The only thing that was present, was a raincoat. I was a tad worried about that. However, as our lunch got served, we dived in. After lunch, we all slipped under our raincoats. The cameras and mobile phones went into our backpacks as we didn’t see any possibility of taking any photographs as the drizzle converted to moderate rain. Walking turned uncomfortable but we had to continue. Chame was at least another couple of hours away. The trail was already muddy at many places and it became murkier now with the steady rain. Vapors gathered on my glasses and I had to repeatedly clean them, causing halts to increase. Our steps had to be careful to avoid slips and dips into the mud. However, we got used to it and kept plying.

After an hour or so, we saw a few huts and to our relief, the main gateway appeared after a bend. Every village or town in these areas contains a main gate at its entry with a set of Tibetan prayer wheels to our right. We always entered through these gates spinning the wheels on our way. Chame appeared to be a big town with many tea houses and some government offices and check posts. We made our way through the lanes to our destined tea house. We were allotted a three bedded room on the first floor. While one of our porters had arrived, the other was yet to reach. That meant me and Niladri having to wait for our main bags to arrive. After they arrived, we could have access to dry and warm clothes. Dhananjoy headed for hot shower immediately, but we couldn’t muster enough energy for it. After settling in, we called our respective homes through Wi-Fi to inform our safe arrival. We had tea and snacks as we recounted our experience of the first full day of trekking. There isn’t much to do in the tea houses in the evening apart from sitting at the dining hall to wait dinner. So, we headed to the dining space which was buzzing with trekkers from different countries. There was a fireplace and people gathered around it to get much needed warmth. We fetched our wet outfits (socks, sweat shirts and other stuff) and hung them on chairs scattered around the fireplace with hopes of drying them up. While we sat at the place, we had conversations with other groups. Some were headed just for the Annapurna circuit, others had Tilicho lake in their itinerary too. Some of them planned to spend extra days in different villages on their way down from Muktinath. There are some beautiful places like Kagbeni, Marpha, Tatopani and others on that route, but it all depends on the number of days in your itinerary. It turned out, some of the trekkers were students from European countries and they’ve taken breaks from their studies to explore different places in the world. There were many people from Germany, some from Norway and other Scandinavian nations. We had our dinner with noodle soups and headed for our rooms. We were sleeping at 2650m. Another night at another tea house. The next day was to take us to Upper Pisang which is slightly beyond sub-tropical zone. It should take us approximately the same time as it took for Chame (at least that’s what our guide told us). Hence, the start time would remain the same (i.e. at around 7.30 AM).

Dharapani

Upper Pisang

Around Annapurna – Dharapani

Besisahar

Chame

9th October, 2022

The alarm went off at 4 AM in the morning & I started with the morning duties. That included shaving & bathing (probably for the last time till we reach Pokhara after completing the circuit). I took ample time for both the activities, given that warm water was available at our disposal. After that, I woke up Dhananjoy (this was a pattern that’d repeat throughout the trip). After waking up, he takes about half an hour for activities like exercise & meditation. As we got ourselves prepared, the day broke gradually. The drizzle stopped & the sun made its appearance. Weather definitely has an impact on human minds, especially on trips like this, where it holds all the aces. We packed our bags & backpacks by segregating necessary items. Our guide Brian came along. We were meeting him physically for the first time & he seemed to be a jovial person.

A quick enquiry at the local jeep stand revealed that jeeps have started plying on the route till Taal. I advised Brian to leverage that (instead of walking from Besisahar). That should save us a day. He wasn’t keen to change the itinerary, but we insisted. Finally, I had to call up Tej Gurung to convince. According to him, the road was still risky for vehicular traffic, but he left it to us to take the risk. Despite his caution, we stuck with the plan to take a jeep ride till Taal. Brian arranged for a jeep, but went to get more cash from local ATM. In the meantime, we had our breakfast with noodles & black tea. As we were about to leave, the hotel owner asked for breakfast bill payment. That was contrary to the clauses of online booking (which claimed to include breakfast in the charges). We called up customer care & after a lot of deliberation, we had to pay for food. It didn’t go down well with us but we didn’t want to waste more time & boarded the vehicle.

The vehicle moved ahead out of the main town area & hit the road towards Dharapani (this road goes straight up to Manang). The road wasn’t new to us. We came by this road to Besisahar from Dharapani on our way down from the Manaslu circuit trek, back in the year 2019. Dharapani is an important town in this area. It’s the place where two different trekking routes converge (the Manaslu & Annapurna circuits). As soon as we moved out of Besisahar, paved roads disappeared. This was we expected. The road from thereon right up to Manang was rocky & only four wheel drive vehicles can ply. Though the sun was out, we could see the damage that was inflicted on the road by the recent showers in last few days. It was broken at many places & the driver had a tough time negotiating it. The recent rains gave birth to many new waterfalls, many of which flowed over the road with considerable force. One can’t judge the underlying terrain below the flowing current. At many places, the dumps of boulders heaped on the road by landslides seemed unsurmountable by a vehicle. The driver used a combination of accelerator & hand brake to crossover these sections. The vehicle tossed around like a pendulum, precariously close to the steep drops on the other side. A quick look on these sections took our vision straight down the deep gorge where the Marshyang di river roared down reacting furiously towards the resistance offered by the rocks on its bed. It fumed & foamed with anger. We heard that this river has its source in the glaciers around the Thorong la. It’d keep company all our way through to that mountain pass. After crossing it over, when we’d descend to the Muktinath valley, Kali Gandaki would join us on our way down. We were still going through areas that had enough forest cover and were treated with enough greenery. That told us we were still going through the sub tropical forests and the Annapurna rain shadow area was still far beyond. As the jeep continued with its topsy turvy ride, we went through the bends and turns. On the other side of the river, a parallel track ran through the mountains and we could see distant villages and houses. That was the old trail for Annapurna circuit and some trekkers who walk all the way from Besisahar, use that route. We were also supposed to take it, if we hadn’t boarded the jeep. We could see Bahundanda on that side (that’d have been our first halt). Clouds started closing in as the day bore on. After plying for about four hours, we halted at a roadside tea house at Chamche for lunch. The tea house was located on the banks of the Marshyang di river and just beyond the river, on the other side, a huge waterfall roared down the slopes into the river gorge. It was so close, water droplets filled the air all around, making the atmosphere moist.

Chamche waterfalls

The halt gave us some respite from the tough jeep ride and we ordered “Dal bhat” for all of us. As lunch was being prepared, we descended the slopes to get as close as possible to the waterfall to get a closer glimpse of it. As we moved down, the roar increased and we got sprayed with droplets. A look at the sky revealed that rains were about to unleash any moment. After lunch, we had to reach Taal, beyond which there was at least two-three hours of walk before Dharapani. Our guide assured us that slight drizzle was the max we could expect and raincoats should suffice. Getting drenched is the last thing you want as clothes were limited and keeping them dry in moist mountain weather always poses a challenge. The meal was delicious with rice, lentils, vegetables & pickles. Green and hot raw chilies added to the delicacy. After lunch, jeep ride resumed and we reached Taal in about an hour.

En-route Taal – picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The surroundings were covered with lush green forests with villages nestled within them.

Taal

The place where the jeep stopped was called Taal Danda (Danda in Nepali means a hill top). Looking at the other side, we saw another settlement, low in the valley, on the other bank of the Marshyang di. That was Taal. The village of Taal appeared to be very cosy, nestled amongst the high mountain walls. Our guide revealed, a few years back, a sudden burst of flood in the Marshayng di, caused the entire place to be cordoned off by the high flowing water currents and many trekkers were stranded for many days. They had to be evacuated by helicopter. With that context, when we looked at it again, the river seemed to flow dangerously close and such flash floods are quite common in these areas. Slightly higher precipitation (rains or snow) could very well result in swelling of the currents in these lower reaches wreaking havoc in no time. Waterfalls were abundant in the route and many of them have been recently created by the rains in last few days. We were relieved to be off the jeep. After disembarking, we strapped our backpacks, held our poles and started walking.

About to start – picture courtesy Dhananjoy De

En-route Dharapani

After a few bends, we were encountered with another waterfall, this time, on our side of the road and the currents flowed above the walking trail. There was no other option but to remove our shoes and enter the torrent barefoot. As we contemplated the move, my thoughts were around the torrent speed and how to negotiate it while crossing. I entered the water and immediately the primary problem to address was the biting cold. I was forced to pace up to get rid of the pain induced on my legs by the ice cold water. Relentless flow of water made the underlying rocks slippery and it was difficult get purchase on them. I somehow managed to reach the other side and rested on the roadside, sitting on a dry rock. As I waited on the other side, other members of our group crossed over. In this whole saga, our guide lost one of his slippers as the torrent carried it away down the slopes.

Waterfall crossing – video courtesy Dhananjoy De

Just as I put on my shoes, the guide said there was another fall shortly down the way which would require us to repeat this activity again! Anyways, walking barefoot all along wasn’t feasible, so we continued and had to repeat the same sequence of events at the following waterfall, though this was less severe.

Waterfall

Beyond the falls, we came across two huge landslide areas where debris of rocks and mud blocked our way. A narrow way was etched out beside the main trail, marked by footsteps of the forbearers. It moved up the slopes but overhanging rocks hovered over our head and we had to bend our bodies to squeeze ourselves through the narrow passage. As we passed along, we saw JCBs at work to clear up the road. It gave an indication that jeeps shall soon start plying to Manang. In these remote areas, they can’t afford to keep roads blocked for long as people living in the remote areas get cutoff from basic needs for which they need to travel to towns like Besisahar in the lower areas. Small droplets started to fall as clouds made their move towards the valley. After crossing a few bends, we got to see the roofs of distant tea houses of Dharapani. As we moved ahead, they came nearer and more of the lodges became visible. Finally, we entered our destined lodge at about 4 PM in the afternoon. It took us about four hours to reach Dharapani from Taal. By the time we reached the lodge, a moderate drizzle started. We were allotted a three bed room with an attached toilet, a luxury in these areas. To his delight, Dhananjoy came to know that hot shower was available for free (i.e. included in the room charges). But there was a queue in front of the shower room. Despite waiting for considerable time, his turn never came and out of desperation, he settled for bathing in cold water in the attached toilet. I tried to dry my shoes and socks (thanks to the waterfall crossings on our route to Dharapani, they were soaked with water). Niladri and Dhananjoy took out tea bags and prepared tea (hot water was fetched from the dining place). This was a pattern to be repeated every morning and evening throughout the trip and it contributed to saving a lot of money (food gets costlier as one moves higher up on the slopes). The dining place was warm and bustling with many people (as is always the case in these tea houses). We gave our orders for dinner as well as breakfast for the next morning by 6 PM. We made Wi-Fi calls to our homes to inform about our safety to our family members. After dinner, we retreated to our rooms, sorted out clothing for the next day and subsided under the blankets. Sounds of water on the roofs indicated a moderate drizzle was on. We prayed for better weather for the morrow as we went to sleep. We were now, officially in the district of Manang and were sleeping at an altitude of 1860m. The next day’s destination was Chame. According to the guide, that would require about seven hours to reach. That raised a question in my mind. How come the initial plan (shared by Tej Gurung) was to reach Chame in a single day from Besisahar (a drive to Dharapani, followed by walk)? Was it even feasible (even if jeeps plied to Dharapani)? Anyways, such thoughts were anyways futile, now what we’ve already changed to plan B, thanks to the road closures. Not sure what weather had in store for us, but if forecasts were to be believed, improvements were not to be expected for another three days. We kept praying for not having to face heavy rains, even if that meant walking in a drizzle. We couldn’t afford further delays.

Besisahar

Chame

Around Annapurna – Besisahar

Back in the Himalayas

Dharapani

7th October, 2022

It was a working day at my office but I kept as little as possible for me, which was mainly about attending meeting & that too, as an observer/listener. I’ve been working towards it since last few weeks by trying to wrap up all active tasks assigned to me, at least a week before our departure. I did an online booking for hotel Gangapurna at Besisahar to avoid having to search for hotels late at night. While the online booking website gave us a confirmation, but we didn’t hear anything from the hotel itself, which was weird. The offered online rates were too cheap to be true. It was just 1500 INR for five persons, including Wi-Fi & breakfast! I tried calling the hotel, which went unanswered. I then called up customer care of the travel website & they confirmed that the hotel has been informed about the booking. Time went past & Niladri’s train departed from Kolkata terminal. One of us was finally on his way! I called up the other person who was supposed to accompany me from Delhi to fix up our meeting point at the Anand Vihar railway terminal.

I had a chat with Tej Gurung about the weather conditions in the area. It transpired that two of his other groups were stranded due to heavy snow. One had to return from Tilicho base camp to Manang & the other from Thorong phedi (the halt before the actual pass). Roads beyond Besisahar have been damaged at many places & jeeps weren’t plying. To avoid risk, his suggestion was to walk from Besisahar itself, which would require us to halt at Bahundanda & Taal, before Chame. That’d mean losing the reserve days upfront, but that’d serve two purposes. Firstly, it’d allow us to advance, despite bad roads & secondly, it’d delay our advance to the higher reaches by a few days. If weather forecasts were to be believed, skies were to clear up from 12th. So far, both Tilicho lake as well as Thorong la were closed. I called up my cab to fix up my departure time. As soon as I hung up, Dhananjay called in to inform that another member would be dropping out due to some family exigency. I couldn’t believe him as I spoke to the guy minutes before his call & everything seemed perfect. With just about 30 minutes remaining to depart, I wasn’t sure about what to do. Conversation with Gurung revealed that refund wasn’t an option this late as all arrangements (porters & guide) were already made. He offered an option to reduce one porter with a constraint of not burdening him with more than 20 kg, but we opted not to go for it (it sounded infeasible for a team of three). Nevertheless, I bade goodbye to my family & headed towards the railway station. The cab meandered through the crowded streets of Noida with the help of Google maps to etch out the fastest possible route. Just as I reached the platform, the train arrived. I made myself comfortable in a lower berth. It was drizzling outside. Normally we welcome rains in this area (as they’re scarce), but I wasn’t feeling good about it with news of rain & snow coming in from Nepal. With the whistle of the guard, rolled the wheels & so did our journey to Nepal. From the inception, the train wasn’t running well & interruptions caused many halts. By the time it reached Ghaziabad, it was already delayed by 30 minutes. Dhananjoy was supposed to board it from Lucknow at 1.30 AM, which was late enough, but it looked more grim. Unfortunately, he won’t have much time for sleep. A quick check revealed that Niladri’s train from Kolkata was running on time. Every halt of the train triggered a calculation in my mind way up to Besisahar for an estimated time of arrival. After sometime, I diverted my attention away from this to have some sleep.

8th October, 2022

At about 2.30 AM, I woke up hearing Dhananjoy’s voice. Finally, the train had arrived at Lucknow. He had a painful wait at the railway retiring room since 10 PM, the day before. It’s difficult to get cabs in the late hours of night and he had to reach station much before the slated hour. To add to his agony, the train was delayed by more than an hour and a half at Lucknow. Going by the running history of the train, it typically reaches its destination about 70 minutes late. This fact was corroborated by the passengers on the train who frequented the route. As daylight comes along, local trains start plying and this train has to compete for priority when it comes to getting platforms at destined halts. This often translates to the train having to wait before the stations at many places. We woke up to a gloomy morning with cloudy skies. The village fields were flooded with rain water with recent showers in the area. A look at the sky told us there was more in store. The train wasn’t running any better. We got in contact with Niladri and asked him to book a vehicle in advance (given that his train was running on time till that point). Finally, we were obliged and the train arrived at Gorakhpur Junction at 10.15 AM (delayed by three hours). After getting out of the station, we headed towards the main station exit and there he was standing (Niladri) with all the backpacks, walking poles – all ready for the trek. Seeing him at another place other than Kolkata (the native town we share) always gives me pleasure. I saw him talking to a local taxi driver and he looked a bit agitated. When we reached near him, the reason was apparent. The taxi driver insisted in getting into his vehicle (as opposed to the cab of his rival) citing he’d drive just three of us and won’t take any other passenger. In lieu of that favor, he’d charge us 400 per person (instead of 300, as quoted by his rival). Niladri wasn’t convinced and he kept on refuting his claims. But the driver was adamant and almost forced us into his cab. One reason we were lured into what later turned out to be a trap was time and we wanted to get going towards Sonauli as early as possible. Later on it turned out that he had other passengers waiting at an interim petrol pump and all his promises went out of the window. He took his own time waiting for those passengers to arrive (adding insult to our agony) and wasted a further 45 minutes at Gorakhpur before embarking on the journey towards Sonauli border post. We had to spend an additional hour for one of the passengers to be treated for an injury at a local Doctor’s chamber. After reaching the border post, we converted a reasonable amount of Indian currency into Nepalese rupee for our impending expenses for the trip. Fortunately, the driver had an accomplice, who helped with the conversion without any charges (thanks to him for that at least, regardless of the loss of time due to his delays).

We reached the border at about 2 PM. Across the border, it took us little time to negotiate and hire a vehicle for Besisahar (simply because there weren’t many to choose from, given that many vehicles were off route due to Dussera or Dasain, as they call it in Nepal). We started off at about 2.30 PM. The vehicle plied along the roads between lush green fields, freshly bathed from recent showers. With the sun coming out, all looked bright and shining with distant hills luring us to get into their laps.

Green fields of Terai

We saw the signs and directions for Lumbini, the birth place of Lord Budhha. Its just 21 kms from Sonauli border post. The vehicle meandered through the roads between the fields of Terai, but roads started to get bad. Apparently, roads were being widened to accommodate increasing traffic in the area, but that’s still a work in progress. We had to stop for lunch somewhere and the driver promised a halt outside the reaches of the towns & cities, up in the hills. Gradually, the roads left the plains and started moving up the slopes. Dense forests covered both sides of the roads and it was a wonderful ride despite horrible road conditions. The driver informed us that we shouldn’t expect any respite from road conditions till we reached Narayanghat, an important town beside the Narayani river. After plying for another 30 minutes, the vehicle stopped beside “Lumbini tandoori hotel” – a roadside eatery. It was a welcome break and we went inside. “Dal bhat” was ordered for all of three of us. They took sometime to prepare, but as soon as the meals arrived (rice, lentils, vegetables, pickles), we lapped them up in no time. What added to the flavor was hot and melting ghee that was served along with hot rice. Our stomachs now put to rest, we restarted the journey. After sometime, the road started to move down the slopes and we hit the plains once more. Forests kept us company. We crossed many streams and rivers on our way. Gradually, the sun went down and we reached Narayanghat under the darkness. Just before entering it, we crossed the humungous Narayani river. Though it was dark, but we could sense its immensity and the large volumes of water it was carrying down from the slopes above. After Narayanghat, roads stared to move up the hills again and their conditions improved too. After traveling for another hour, we stopped for tea break at a roadside shop. I made calls to home to inform our progress. We were still looking at at least two more hours of travel (or so we thought). After tea, travel resumed and we reached a junction from where we turned left. Another hour of travel took us to Dumre. Dumre is an important junction on this route. From here, one road goes towards Pokhara and the other, towards Besisahar. The driver was confident so far to reach there no later than 8 PM. However, a quick check with the locals revealed that road conditions for Besisahar were far from optimal with landslides at many places (thanks to the recent showers) and that would mean adding at least another two hours to the travel. We were now staring at at least 11 PM to reach Besisahar. Traveling on these roads at night isn’t easy, especially with damages at many places. I was somehow feeling uncanny about the hotel booking at Besisahar as so far, no one contacted us from there. Finally, after sometime, we got a call from the hotel asking about our whereabouts and whether we were likely to reach the same day. That gave some relief. It soon turned out that the driver has never traveled this route at night and was starting to feel uncomfortable with the worsening road conditions. He became increasingly concerned about the damage it might inflict on his vehicle. It wasn’t a four wheel drive model (which is a necessity on these roads). With increasing concern for his vehicle, he slowed down further, adding to our travel time. Finally, we reached a point where the road was closed. A call to the hotel revealed that we had to take an alternative route through a cantonment road, which remains closed to ordinary traffic otherwise. After many twists & turns in the dark, many calls to the hotel, the driver was finally able to reach hotel Gangapurna at Besisahar. We thanked him profusely. At the hotel, we were allotted a three bed room. After settling in, we subsided for the night. It was 11 PM.

We were told by our guide over phone that the last few days were sunny at Besisahar, but as soon as we reached, it started drizzling. Looking at the sky, we could sense dense clouds even at night. Nevertheless, we went into our beds quickly to get some much needed sleep. We were sleeping at an elevation of 760m.

Back in the Himalayas

Dharapani

Around Annapurna – back in the Himalayas

Besisahar

Some might wonder, has this blog died altogether? After the last post about Manaslu, it went silent. After that memorable travel, came the pandemic, which, like many other aspects, put a brake on mountain travel (for that matter, travel altogether). If I don’t travel, material dries up for this blog, just like disappearance of a glacier dries up the rivers emanating from it. However, it’s not entirely true that I didn’t travel at all. I did go to Sandakfu in 2020, but it wasn’t hiking up a trail, but a jeep ride to the top. 2021 saw me going to Goecha la (the famed pass in Sikkim that offers closest views of Mt KangchenDzonga from India). However, unfortunately, I couldn’t complete the trek and I had to return from Thansing due to unforeseen circumstances. One could argue that I could have put some details of those travels (particularly, the latter, as it did have some interesting aspects due to bad weather), but nevertheless, it would have been futile.

The Annapurna Circuit

However, in 2021, before venturing out to Goecha la, our initial plan was to try out the “Annapurna circuit” – the famed round trip around the Annapurna range that starts from Besisahar and ends up in Pokhara. This trail was once voted as the best long distance trek in the world, in it’s “initial” form. It’s important to highlight the word “initial”. Back in those days, it used to take around 23 days to complete this trail, when road construction wasn’t there to the reaches as they are today. The trail used to take one from lower sub-tropical regions (at about 600m) to arctic like climes of Thorong la (the highest point on the trail at 5416m). The cultural variety ranged from Hindu villages in the lower foothills to Tibetan cultures at higher reaches of Manang & Mustang. Since those days, with ever increasing road network, the walking trail has shortened and the villages too have acquired a more cosmopolitan culture with more tea houses springing up to serve international tourism. Today, road network has reached Manang & Muktinath (on either sides of the Thorong la) and strictly speaking, one can just walk for three days to complete the entire circuit. But most of the trekkers avoid doing that for two reasons. Firstly, they don’t want to get robbed off the chance of walking on this once (& still) beautiful trail despite having to walk on the same roads where jeeps ply. Secondly, they prefer to give better chances of acclimatization to their bodies. So they’ve opted for best of both worlds to advance their starting point by taking rides to either Dharapani or Chame and then start their trek. For the first part of the trek (during ascent to the Thorong la), the trail goes along the  Marshyangdi river valley. After crossing Thorong la, you leave Manang and enter Mustang to descend to Muktinath. From thereon, you enter the Kali Gandaki river gorge, which deepens up to 1 km at places, making it the deepest in the world. In the entire course, one has to cross the districts of Lamjung, Manang, Mustang, Myagdi, Baglung, Parbat and finally Kaski (Pokhara). Mostly, this route gets traversed anticlockwise as that makes the altitude gain much slower and crossing the Thorong la, easier. One gets to see many mountain peaks from close quarters along the route and that includes the Annapurna massif (Annapurna II-IV), Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Gangapurna, Tilicho peak, Pissang peak, Chulu peak and many others in the range of 6000-8000m. While on the Manang side, one gets to view the Annapurna range, Gangapurna, Tilicho etc., Dhaulagiri makes it’s first appearance as one heads to Mustang after crossing Thorong la as soon as one enters the Muktinath valley. The trekking trail gives glimpses of subtropical forests, village fields, giant waterfalls & high mountain cliffs.

Marshyangdi river gorge

The Annapurna area was opened to foreign tourists in 1977 after a peaceful settlement between the CIA and local Khampa guerilla groups. Since then, the character of the villages on the route (which were earlier solely dependent on agriculture) have undergone a drastic change with an entire infrastructure developing to support foreign tourists. Numerous lodges have come up along the route to cater to their needs. Today, facilities like Wi-Fi, hot showers, multi-national cuisines are available in tea houses in almost every place on the route on both sides of the Thorong la. Places like Manang offer the best of the bakeries on the route today. However, with this development, also came in the hazards of environmental degradation. In order to address that, the Annapurna Conservation Area project came into being in 1986. With its inception, alternative forms of energies (instead of firewood) were looked at and implemented. Community development programs were implemented to address health, educational and sanitation needs and a committee also got setup to look after & conserve the area’s forests. While many argue that with these developments, the route has lost much of it’s ethnicity (which is still visible in less frequented routes like Manaslu circuit), but the mountain scenery continues to mesmerize the tourists as they did in earlier times when road network was nascent in the area.

The Annapurna circuit trail

In 2021, we drew up plans for the Annapurna Circuit, with an additional detour to Tilicho lake (a high altitude lake at 4900m). It was moving ahead smoothly till one of our members faced leave problems and found challenging to spare two weeks (the least number of days needed to complete the schedule). We dropped the idea and headed for Goecha la instead. However, it was a decided fate, that Annapurna circuit lay in store for us in 2022. Its important to note that our attention was drawn to Annapurna circuit not because of the circuit trail, but Tilicho lake. That’s what started the discussion. Strictly speaking, one doesn’t have to complete the circuit to just visit Tilicho lake. To do that, it’s much easier to drive to Manang, hike from there and return by the same route. But we wanted to complete the trek via Muktinath, which meant we were looking at Annapurna Circuit with Tilicho lake as a detour. Back in 2021, it seemed a long wait, but time goes on and a year on, we were looking forward to the journey. Discussions started as early as in June/July and a team of six was formed. Negotiations went on with Tej Bahadur Gurung of Nepal Alternative Treks. After his initial quotes, one member had to drop out and the team reduced to five. Our plan was to travel to Gorakhpur by train (one member, Niladri was to travel from Kolkata and another, Dhananjoy, was to board our train from Delhi at Lucknow). From Gorakhpur, we were to travel to Sonauli border (a jeep ride for 2.5 hours). From thereon, another vehicle ride (of approximately 10 hours) should take us to Besisahar. Our porters and guide would join us there. The next day, another ride of four hours should take us to Chame, which was to be our starting point for walk. Discussions went ahead about preparations and equipment. One question came to my mind, which was whether or not to carry crampons (or micro spikes, as some do today to avoid the cumbersome use of crampons) as there are likely walks to be done over snow covered ridges/slopes along the route. Speaking to Tej (and later, the assigned guide) and also to my team mates, I was convinced, it was not required. That is a decision I rue today and will continue to rue for the rest of my life as it meant, I had to give up the hopes of visiting a very critical section of the trail (a tale for later).

After initial discussions with Tej, our initial itinerary came up like the following:

  • Day 1: Drive from Besisahar to Dharapani and then a hike to Chame (approximately four hours)
  • Day 2: Walk from Chame to Upper Pissang (approximately 6 hours)
  • Day 3: Walk from Upper Pissang to Manang (approximately 6 hours)
  • Day 4: Acclimatization day at Manang (which would include hikes to local attractions like ice lake/Gangapurna lake along with some local sight seeing of the Manang village)
  • Day 5: Hike from Manang to Tilicho base camp and stay at the tea house there (approximately 5-6 hours)
  • Day 6: Hike from Tilicho base camp to Tilicho lake, spending some time there and hike down to base camp, have lunch and walk down to Sree Kharka and stay there (approximately 8-9 hours)
  • Day 7: Walk from Sree Kharka to Yak Kharka (approximately 4-5 hours) and stay
  • Day 8: Hike from Yak Kharka to Thorong Phedi (approximately 5 hours) and stay
  • Day 9: Hike from Thorong Phedi at the wee hours of the day, cross over Thorong la, descend to Muktinath (approximately 9-10 hours) and stay
  • Day 10: Walk down to Jomsom from Muktinath (approximately 2-3 hours) and stay
  • Day 11: Drive from Jomsom to Pokhara and stay

This schedule should leave us about two extra days which could either be used for rest at Pokhara (if not used on the route due to delays) or could be added to the itinerary to have some extra halts. Tej’s suggestion was to include extra halts at Kagbeni (between Muktinath & Jomsom) and Marpha (after Jomsom) – two picturesque villages on the route from Muktinath to Pokhara. We contemplated within the group about how to use these extra days. While some agreed to spend at Kagbeni and Marpha, others advocated to spend them at Pokhara, enjoying its hospitality & food after completion of an arduous trek. We chose to defer that decision at run time.

Unlike our earlier trips to Nepal, we won’t be traveling to Kathmandu as there were no flights involved. Three of us from Delhi, were to board a train from Anand Vihar railway station destined for Gorakhpur. Dhananjoy would board the same train from Lucknow. Niladri, on the other hand, would board a train for Gorapkhpur from Kolkata. We all were supposed to reach Gorakhpur on the 8th of October, no later than 8 AM (assuming to delays by Indian railways). A local vehicle should take another two hours to port us to Sonauli border. Hence, we were looking at boarding a jeep from the border no later than 10-10.30 AM. A ten hour drive (including lunch and other necessary breaks) from there should take us to Besisahar (no later than 8 PM). All seemed perfect at that time.

The first jolt came in the form of weather news updates from Central Nepal. There, avalanches swept the slopes of Mt Manaslu, claiming lives of some sherpas and mountaineers of aspiring expedition teams. This forced abortion of all expeditions in the Manaslu region temporarily. The Annapurna region isn’t far from that area and weather started to acquire grip on that area too (in fact, expeditions at Dhaulagiri also had to be suspended). Members of our household started to panic a bit and we also kept close watch on weather updates from the region. News came that incessant rains have forced many groups out of their planned schedules, both in Annapurna circuit and sanctuary (south base camp) routes and many were on the verge of return. We kept our fingers crossed and kept checking the weather forecast for the region. In the meantime, on the night of 6th (the day before we were about to depart for Gorakhpur), one of our members developed high fever and opted out of the trip reducing our team to four. These late desertions disrupt the preparations and more importantly, the cost, as some of the expenses are shared. But there’s nothing one can do for such unexpected medical situations. We contemplated informing Tej, but decided against it (after a long video call between us) since reduction of porters wasn’t an option (given the needs of the remaining number of members). That night I went to sleep with a mixed feeling – getting a few goosebumps about the upcoming trip, some concerns about team reduction and more importantly, concerns about how the weather would play out (which it did, as we found out later) during our trek.

Besisahar

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – au revoir

At her feet

24th October, 2018

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, 2018

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 power. The amount of snow was expected to increase with height and it was advisable to cross it before it started to melt. 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 illuminating 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 still had 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 encountered a jubilant Mona da on his way down from the Annapurna Base Camp. He was looking fit and was ecstatic about the views of sunrise he witnessed there.

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, it’s 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. 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 the holes. No matter how long it took, the hole had to be perfect. This led to the suspicion whether her focus was 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 right 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 plying 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 feet

22nd October, 2018

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. The 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 of 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 there. 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 the 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, Dhananjoy 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. We were sleeping at 4000 m.

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 

In 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 mountain slopes.

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 the night before. 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