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