Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – Kathmandu

The buildup

Pokhara

17th October, 2018

Sleep eluded me for a majority of the previous night. Nepal prevailed in my minds. Hopefully, this time around, all should go well. Altitudes are lesser than those of the Everest route. Going by the plan, the trek this time was more evenly paced. The only cause of concern was how the children would react. They have not yet reached the age to be able to immerse themselves into the beauty of nature, ignoring the physical exhaustion. Both me & my wife had counselled our daughter to listen to elders, & be patient. Once on the trail, there was no option to turn back in between. Even to do so, one still would have to walk a long way to at least reach the next place of halt. I woke up at 4 AM, brushing aside all such thoughts & got myself ready. I took a bath in warm waters (we’d have two more chances of it before the actual trek starts). After my daughter got ready, we headed downstairs for the cab and met Ranjan da & Rumi (his daughter). Anindita came down to see us off. We were in constant touch with Dhananjoy en route, but met him only at the check-in counter. He was on his way to wrap his check-in baggage, which had a walking stick. That prompted us to stuff our sticks within our baggage to avoid the extra wrapping cost (Dhananjoy had to pay Rs 350 to wrap, which was the same amount he paid to buy the stick). We couldn’t get window seats, but by the looks of the passengers who were fortunate, it was clear that The Himalayas didn’t disappoint them with their gorgeous display once the aircraft gained height. Going by prior experience, I knew that the show starts with the Garhwal Himalayas, followed by peaks of the Kumaon region, Western & Central Nepal and just as the peaks of the Everest region start making their appearance, the plane takes a turn to start descending towards the Kathmandu valley. The plane landed on the runway of Tribhuvan international airport. The clear weather & a clear view of the mountains surrounding the runway added to the upbeat mood. Baggage reclaim always takes sometime at this relatively small airport. After completing the immigration formalities, we ventured out of the airport. Then it was the familiar way to Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. After about 15 minutes, we reached Kathmandu Garden Home, our hotel of stay. The ambiance looked good. It’s as new hotel built from scratch by Tej Bahadur Gurung. After getting keys of our respective rooms, the hotel staff helped us by transporting our luggage. We were delighted to meet our friends from Kolkata, who came back to the hotel from their morning stroll. We didn’t have much time to waste as a cab was already waiting outside to take us for local sight-seeing. As soon as we boarded it, the cab was on its way towards Bhaktapur Durbar Square.

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Temple – Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur is one of the oldest of the kingdoms in Nepal. It is an old city and was once the capital of Nepal during the time of the great Mallas, who ruled Nepal. Bhaktapur has a distinctly different dialect of the Nepalese language which is called Newa. Because of its rich culture, temples and courtyards adorned with wood, stone and metal art works, it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As soon as we entered the place, we encountered a temple which still gets scores of visitors and they perform animal sacrifices to pay back their debt to the deity as a mark of respect on the occasion of fulfillment of their prayers. It was the time of Durga puja and Dussera was looming near. Hence, a lot of sacrifices were being offered and such signs (blood stains, slain throats of goats and buffaloes and their other mortal remains forced us to make a quick exit from the scene).

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Entrance – Bhaktapur Durbar Square

After purchasing the tickets, we entered what was a spread courtyard surrounded by many temples, court rooms and other old structures resembling pagodas and were adored with rich artifacts of wood, metal and stone.

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Mini Pasupatinath temple – Bhaktapur Durbar Square

We roamed around the place leisurely. The weather was pleasant with abundant sunshine that was mild in its intensity. Some of the structures were being repaired (it was heavily damaged during the 2015 earthquake) and things were getting back to their normal keeping the dreadful memories behind.

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Metal work -Bhaktapur Durbar Square

The place was devastated by the earthquake of 1934, which destroyed majority of the structures. What remains today are the ones that somehow survived the wrath. It is said that out of 99 courtyards, only 6 remain today. Out of which, there is the famous golden gate of Bhaktapur, which is world-renowned.

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Golden Gate – Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Once we entered the gate, we were greeted with many idols lying around carelessly on the floor. Some of them are from 17th Century. One such idol was that of Ugrachandi which resembles that of Goddess Durga.

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UgraChandi – Bhaktapur

But the way these idols were lying around, suggested there wasn’t much care being taken to preserve them. Most of them had some or the other elements broken or damaged. One couldn’t be sure whether these damages are from past or have been acquired recently due to negligence. After roaming around for sometime, we reached an elevated pedestal which could be reached by climbing a number of stairs. One could get a view of the entire courtyard from its top.

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Bhaktapur Durbar Square

We were told that the top had a temple which was destroyed by earthquakes. Time has stolen a lot from this place, but a lot still remains and is worth preserving as such works aren’t possible today.

After Bhaktapur, we headed for Pasupatinath temple, another important shrine of the Kathmandu valley. The cab driver informed that there are ample shops near the shrine where we could have our lunch. The time was ripe to have lunch since we hadn’t gobbled anything after the morning breakfast we had in the aircraft. As we reached the shrine, we first searched for a place to have lunch, but most of the shops were closed. We ended up walking a lot in search of food, but finally had to contend with “chole-bhature” (a form of puri). It wasn’t the best we hoped for, but we ignored that and headed for the shrine.

The Pasupatinath temple is the most famous shrine of Kathmandu valley. It is the seat of Nepal’s national deity, Lord Pasupatinath (another name of Lord Shiva). The temple was erected afresh in the 15th century after the previous temple building was destroyed by termites. While it is not known exactly when this was built for the first time, but history of the temple dates back as early as 400 BC. The deity here is considered to be the lord of all beings (pashus), living and non-living. Legend has it that once Lord Shiva and Parvati took the guise of an antelope and roamed in the forests of the east bank of the Bagmati river. The other gods later caught up with the lord and grabbed him by one of the horns forcing him to return to his divine form. The broken horn started getting worshiped as Shiva Linga but over time it got worn out and lost. Years later, some astonished herdsmen discovered that one of their cows showered the earth with milk. Getting curious, they dug up the site to discover a Shiva Linga. The current temple is believed to be erected on the same site.

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Pasupatinath, Kathmandu

Near the entrance, there was a place where thousands of pigeons jostled around. Some kids were playing with them and some others, offering them food. The scene took me back for about thirty-four years when I was a kid of ten, visiting Kathmandu for the first time with my parents. This act of feeding pigeons dates back a long time and it was the same scene, back then. The place must have changed a lot since then and I couldn’t really recall what has changed, but the pigeons were still there. We had to submit our shoes, bags, camera and other leather items at a counter as these items are not allowed inside the shrine. The entrance still looked the same and I remembered that we took a family snap (or rather got clicked by a professional with his instant hot-shot camera as we didn’t have our own those days).

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Pasupatinath shrine

After entering through the gate, there was that famous metallic idol of “Nandi” (the bull of Lord Shiva). It appeared so familiar. Numerous monkeys were displaying their acrobatics through the branches of the surrounding trees, the temple walls and bell chains. One had to be careful from them, especially while carrying a puja (flowers and offerings) as they always have their eyes trained on them and can snatch anytime. We weren’t faced with that problem as we weren’t offering a puja. That was totally unexpected and we got a bit annoyed with the cab driver. It so happened that the time we reached the shrine, it was closed for the day. So, we couldn’t offer a puja even after visiting the most famous shrine of the Kathmandu valley or even entire Nepal. Nevertheless, we moved along the circumference of the temple and reached it’s backyard. The backyard of the temple had a cremation ground on the banks of the river Bagmati. We saw a few cremation proceedings that were underway. Nepal is a country where majority of its residents are Hindus. So, the cremation process is the same as anywhere in India. Going by the Hindu mythology, its only appropriate that Lord Shiva (to whom the shrine of Pasupatinath is dedicated) resides amidst or near a cremation ground. I suddenly recalled, this is also the place where many members of the royal family (the then king of Nepal, Virendra, his queen and other members) were cremated after that fateful incident of mass killing in the royal palace.

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The cremation ground – Pasupatinath, Kathmandu – pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Everyday someone breathes his/her last just as someone comes to this world. This process of life is the same everywhere and this place is no exception. We were visiting this place with tranquility in our minds and some excitement for our upcoming travel to Annapurna. At the same time, the relatives of the deceased who have been brought for cremation must be grieved and with heavy hearts, are continuing with the routine religious rituals. We left the scene and moved towards our vehicle whose next stop was Swayambhunath, the famous Buddhist shrine of Kathmandu. As we moved out from Pasupatinath area, we came across a Durga puja pandal. It was a welcome scene and we were all excited (most of us were from Bengal) to witness a Durga puja celebration away from Bengal, in Nepal. The idols looked the same, so did the ambiance.

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Durga puja – Kathmandu, – pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The vehicle meandered through the crowded streets of Kathmandu to reach another side of it and started to ascend the zig-zag roads of a low hill, the top of which housed the Swayambhunath shrine. It ascended a significant section of the hill to a point from where the entire Kathmandu valley was visible.

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Swayambhunath shrine, Kathmandu

Swayambhunath is another site, which rekindled my memories from 34 years ago. I recalled the huge dome with large eyes painted on all four sides of it. The eyes, they say, are a witness to all ups and downs of the Kathmandu valley that they oversee from the top. It was also the place of shooting for the famous Hindi film “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” – the ambitious project of the legendary Hindi film producer and actor Dev Anand, who was very fond of Kathmandu and Nepal. There were some shots in and around of the shrine. The site is one of the oldest in Nepal and was founded in the beginning of 5th century CE. It is said, that emperor Ashoka visited the site in third century BCE and built a temple on top of the hill, but it was later destroyed. Every dawn, many Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims ascend the steps and perform clockwise circulations around the stupa to pay their respect.

It was getting colder as the sun gradually went down the horizon and we headed back for the hotel after the day’s excursion. In the evening, we roamed the streets of Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, for some marketing. For some of our members, it was the last chance as they won’t be returning here on their way back.

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Markets of Thamel, Kathmandu – pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

After marketing, we had our dinner and headed back to the hotel. Our legs were tired and we yearned to sleep. We had to wake up very early the next day as some of us planned to offer puja at the Pasupatinath shrine. The next day shall take us to Pokhara, the base from where our trek would start.

The buildup

Pokhara

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – the buildup

Kathmandu

The region

There are many interpretations of the name. It can imply “One who provides food”, “One who’s replete with food”. The locals there interpret it as “The Goddess of harvests” and there are many more. The name, as you might have guessed it already, is “Annapurna”. It mainly refers to the Himalayan mountain peak which has a height of 8091 m. However, when it comes to the section of the Himalayan range where this peak resides, the name covers a larger boundary. It refers to what they call as the “Annapurna Massif” or “Annapurna Himal”. The word Himal refers to sections or ranges of The Himalayas and they typically include many mountain peaks. For example, some of the Himals of Nepal Himalayas are Mahalangur Himal, Ganesh Himal, Mansiri Himal and others. The Mahalangur Himal stretches from the Nangpa La to the Arun river and includes the mountain peaks of Mt Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu and many others. The Mansiri Himal is the home of the famous peak of Mt Manaslu.

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The Annapurna range – Pokhara tourist bus stand

The Annapurna Himal (massif) lies in north-central Nepal and it is surrounded by Kali Gandaki gorge on its west (the world’s deepest river gorge that extends to a depth of about 1 km), the Marsiangdi river on its north and east and the Pokhara valley on its south. The massif includes Annapurna I (or Annapurna main, 8091 m), many peaks in the range of 7000 m and 6000 m. The other peaks include Annapurna II, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Machhapuchchhre (fish tail, because of its resemblance to the tail of a fish from some angles), Gangapurna and many others. The massif and its surrounding areas are covered under the Annapurna Conservation Area project. It is one of the first and largest of such projects in Nepal. This region has a varied landscape and has ample attractions for trekkers and travelers making it one of the (if not the) most visited regions of The Himalayas. One can say this even after considering the glamour and craze of the Everest region of Nepal.

Climbing history

In the climbing fraternity, the mountains of the Annapurna region are considered among the most dangerous mountains to climb. Out of the fourteen peaks reaching 8000 m or above, Annapurna has one of the highest mortality rates. Till date, there have been only about 200 summit ascents to Annapurna main (I) compared to thousands on Mt Everest during the same time period. Particularly, climbing the south face of Annapurna main is considered the most difficult of all the routes to the summit. The mountain also has the highest fatality to summit ratio (i.e. average number of deaths for a successful summit) of about 32%. Snow storms and avalanches are way too common on the mountain and account for most of the fatalities on its corridor.

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The south face of Annapurna Main (I) from base camp

In spite of the challenges, Annapurna I was the first 8000 m peak to be climbed. On 3rd June, 1950, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal from a French expedition, were the first to climb the summit. It remained the highest climbed summit till the first successful ascent of Mt Everest in 1953. Though, mountaineers attained higher non-summit points on The Himalayas even before that in the 1920s (mainly due to their attempts on Mt Everest). The south face was first climbed by Don Whillans and Dougal Haston in 1970. They were a part of a British expedition led by Chris Bonington. The year 1978 saw the American Women’s Himalayan expedition team reach the summit making them the first ever Americans to reach there. The first winter ascent was achieved by the Polish climbers Jerzy Kukuczka and Artur Hajzer in 1987. This was special on any mountain, especially Annapurna, considering its near vertical ice walls and relatively higher rates of snow avalanches. There have been 52 deaths during ascents and nine during descents. The ratio of 34 deaths per 100 safe returns is the highest among all the 8000 m peaks in the world. Out of the many climbers who perished on its flanks, one name strikes me the most, Anatoli Boukreev. He was the famous guide from Scott Fischer’s group that attempted Mt Everest in the fatal spring of 1996. The expedition that saw its leaders and other clients perish on Mt Everest. Boukreev drew a lot of flak for not using supplemental Oxygen while guiding the clients. Though he saved the lives of some of the clients single-handedly, but debates raged afterwards around whether he could have saved more, had he used supplemental Oxygen. Since that expedition, Boukreev made several successful summit attempts on Mt Everest, Mt Lhotse and many other 8000 m peaks till he thought of attempting Annapurna in the winters. In 1997, Boukreev, along with fellow Italian mountaineer, Simone Moro, started to climb the south face of Annapurna I. On December 25th, around noon, when they were fixing ropes on a high couloir, a huge ice cornice broke off from the Western wall of Annapurna and triggered an avalanche down the slopes. It knocked down Moro, but he somehow managed to stay above the avalanche and managed to dig himself out of the debris. But he could see no signs of Boukreev. After a fruitless search, Moro descended to the base camp and was evacuated to a Kathmandu hospital by a helicopter. Search attempts on camp 1 (the disaster site) could not commence due to bad weather and it was only by 3rd January, 1998, search parties could reach camp 1 which had an empty tent. That was the end to an illustrious mountaineering career of Boukreev that spanned just 10 years and saw him scale the summits of 11 mountain peaks of 8000 m or above. Some of them, multiple times, via different routes.

Trekking

There are many trekking routes in and around the Annapurna Himal, but three stand out prominently. The Jomsom route (that takes one to the Muktinath shrine), The Annapurna Sanctuary route that takes one to the south base camp of Annapurna I and the Annapurna circuit that surrounds the Annapurna Himal itself. The last one takes you through varied landscapes and altitudes spanning lush green forests in the lower regions, the arid rain shadow areas of Annapurna in the lower and upper Mustang regions, finally taking one to the Muktinath shrine after crossing the Thorang La on its way. The region sees the highest influx of trekkers in the Nepal Himalayas (even overshadowing the famed Everest region). Trekkers have also had their share of the wrath of Annapurna and the worst disaster came in 2014 when 43 were killed and at least 170 injured when snow storms and avalanches in and around Annapurna hit the region hard.

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Trekking through the Annapurna sanctuary to the south base camp

The trip

My interest to the region got incited way back in 2014 when I saw some pictures of someone else who visited the region with his family. At that time, I haven’t even visited Nepal, not at least as a trekker (I went there as a 10-year-old child with my father, but that was only to Kathmandu). Since I saw the pictures, Nepal started to set in my minds. If I could trek in other parts of The Himalayas, why not Nepal? Talks started with my friends and the excitement infected them too. We debated about the best time to visit the region – spring or autumn. Each had its own charm. Spring offered the best views of the forests that were abundant with Rhododendrons, whereas autumn provided the best weather when clouds stayed clear off the mountains. At that time, all of us thought about taking our families along with us. So, apart from getting leaves from our respective offices, we also had to consider leaves from schools of our children. After a lot of discussion, the autumn of 2015 was chosen as the window. I got in touch Tej Bahadur Gurung of Nepal Alternative Treks and shared a lot of communication discussing the itineraries, cost and many other aspects of the proposed visit. But nature had its own plans, which stuck hard in the form of a devastating earthquake in 2015 and Nepal went out of the tourist map, at least for the time.Towards the end of 2015, interest started to revive (primarily due to the information that was shared by Tej about the resumption of treks and travels in Nepal Himalayas). However, by that time, my interest shifted to Everest (a detailed description of that travel can be found here). Once that was done successfully, it was only a matter of time that the Annapurna Sanctuary trekking (aka Annapurna Base Camp trekking or ABC) had to be undertaken. By this time, many of our friends, who initially were part of our discussions in 2014, moved out due to different reasons. Some others joined the bandwagon. The initial group now had five persons – me, Niladri Sekhar Guha, Dhananjoy De, Ranjan Ghosh and Shk Monowar Hossein. The first four were also part of the Everest Base Camp trek and the last person rued missing out on Everest after he saw our pictures from that trek. He joined us for Roopkund trek, which we did in 2017 and was determined to visit Annapurna. Head hunting started with the main aim to increase the members to keep the costs at a reasonable level. Each of us reached out to our friends and contacts to tap their interests. Parallel conversations ensued with Tej seeking price quotes for different group sizes. Initially, many showed their interests and at some point in time, the group size went up to 14. That made us ecstatic. But things changed as the time of our visit came closer. Me, Ranjan da and Niladri decided to take our children along. The decision was primarily driven by the fact that the trek involved going through much lesser heights than Everest and having company of other children would keep them engaged throughout the trek. Nildari’s kids had to pull out as exams came in their way. I purposely decided to hide that news from my daughter and preferred to keep her along. This was going to be a life time experience for her and if things went right, hopefully, she might develop an interest in the mountains. Tej Gurung also obliged us with a lesser price for children than the adults. The group size was now 12. Communications went on with Tej, so did the iterations about the itinerary. We chose to start on 17th October, 2018. Our friends from Kolkata would start on 15th and were to reach Kathmandu on the evening of 16th. Once we join them on 17th, the entire group was to go for a sight-seeing of the Nepalese capital (something which we could not do during Everest trekking because of our delay at Lukla – a description of that can be found here). On the 18th, we’d start off for Pokhara in a private vehicle. The trek was to start from Pokhara on 19th with a drive to Khumi (the farthest one could go with a vehicle on the route), followed by a 2-2.5 hour climb to Chomrong. Successive days would see us reach the places of Himalaya, MBC (Machhpuchhre base camp) and Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). The plan was such, that we were to spend a full moon night at ABC to have a shot at the moonlit night views of the Annapurna range. We also kept an extra reserve day at ABC (in case we missed any of the desired views due to weather or needed extra rest on the way). On our way down, we were to halt at Bamboo, Jhinu Danda and reach Pokhara on 26th October. The team was to disperse there with our friends from Kolkata would head towards Birganj, some to Sunauli border (to catch trains to Kolkata and Delhi respectively) and the rest to Kathmandu. A flight on 28th October would carry rest of us back to Delhi. All seemed well planned, but Ranjan da pointed out a flaw. The second day of the trek was to see us gain an altitude of more than a 1000 m. That could be a tough ask, especially with children. He suggested to split the climb with more halts. For the time being, we chose to ignore it, but we had to heed to this during our trek (something to be told later). As the trek loomed, some of the members got jittery and phased out. This created some problems with price negotiations as a lot of expenses on the trek are shared and with reduction in team members, cost per head goes up. After the reductions, the team size now stood at 10. In a way, this was good as we now had members who were fully committed and chances of late desertions were remote.

Finally, the day arrived and our friends started off from Kolkata on 15th by Mithila Express to head towards Raxaul, the town on the India-Nepal border. They reached Kathmandu on 16th evening. I went to sleep that day with goosebumps in my belly. The Nepal Himalayas were calling again.

Kathmandu