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

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – till we meet again

Larkya La

In the previous evening, a Sherpa guide from Solu Khumbu tried to impress us with some playing card tricks. He couldn’t quite succeed fully to generate the awe in us as he would have expected. The reason is, some of our team members were well aware of the skills and in fact they returned him the favor by showing some to him. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the evening.

14th November, 2019

We woke up to a relatively clear sky. Though clouds still hung around, the mountain peaks were visible all around Bimthang. It is a picturesque valley and deserves a day or two in its own right. It can be a good place of rest or even hiking around if one had interest. While I went to wash my face, I could see the solar rays streaming out breaking through the hanging clouds from behind the towering mountain peaks.

Bimthang, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

I had my sleep last night and felt fresh. I stood for a moment to look around the mountain ranges surrounding Bimthang. One of the peaks was supposed to be Mt Manaslu, but I couldn’t recognize it since the famous double edged view that one gets to see from Samagaun isn’t available from Bimthang. The peaks on the Western horizon are from the Annapurna range.

Bimthang

It could have been a day of leisure for us, given that it was to be our last day of walking in the mountains, but we had a long way to go. Though downhill, Dharapani was quite a distance away from Bimthang. The breakfast did have some more variety, but I stuck to corn flakes with milk and apple. Our guide gave us an overview of the day’s walk. The trail follows the Dudhkhola river, traverses through the lush green pine forests and villages like Yak Kharka, Goa, Tilije and finally, culminates at Dharapani, where it meets the famous Annapurna Circuit trail that comes down from Manang. The route beyond Dharapani is said to be motorable, but as we found out later, its not a paved road. It has just been widened to allow vehicles to ply, but many trekkers prefer to walk in that section too. Though, plying vehicles with nothing but somewhat leveled rocks to roll upon has made it a nightmare for walking. With ever advancing road network on both sides (Sotikhola as well as Dharapani), the fate of Manaslu Circuit trek is at stake. Similar to what has transpired on Annapurna Circuit route (which now doesn’t offer more than three days of trekking), its a grim future that awaits the circuit. Very soon, many lodges and tea houses along the route can face extinction as it has happened to places on Annapura Circuit once vehicles started to ply till Manang.

Bimthang, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We put on our gears and at the insistence of Dhananjoy, posed for a group snap and headed down the trail. The route meandered lazily out of the village of Bimthang into the wilderness of the banks of the roaring river Dukhkhola. The many twists and turns of it, the sandy banks sprinkled with boulders and pine trees, the not so distant mountain ranges formed post card frames at every round and corner. This added to the time as most of us rolled our shutters on as we moved through the valley.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

One seldom gets to hear about this section of the trek. Most of the blogs, descriptions and itineraries of Manaslu Circuit mainly focuses on places like Lho, Samagaun and Larkya La, but what we realized on our way down that the descent was equally charming. After a few bends, a board welcomed us to the Annapurna Conservation Area. We were now going through the district of Manang. The river flowed through the valley in twists and turns. Its banks were flanked by a layer of boulders on both sides, beyond which, there were bushes and shrubs of brown, yellow and at times, red. Wild flowers bloomed amidst them. The name Dukhkhola (not to be confused with DudhKosi, which comes down from the Everest region) was very appropriate, thanks to the rough bed on which the water flowed upon, creating multiple rapids and turbulent currents causing the water to acquire the color of white (resembling milk or “Dudh”, as they call in Nepalese). The term “Khola” means river.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

A signboard displayed that the next place Yak Kharka (Chauli Kharka, as some call it) is about 1.15 hours ahead and so was Bimthang, but in the direction where we came down from. As always, small milestones do help to set targets in a long journey and for us, Yak Kharka was the immediate next. When we started from Bimthang, the vegetation was sparse as Bimthang falls in a rain shadow area and receives less rainfall. But as we moved downhill, trees started to increase. The trail now moved into increasingly dense vegetation which lent stability to the track. Appearance of vegetation meant the track was not just composed of gravels as was the case in higher altitudes, but had soil as well which were held by the roots of the surrounding trees.

En route Yak Kharka

A look at the sky revealed that clouds were making their way through. While they were yet to cover the snow peaks, but their colors revealed that rain might not be far away. We stepped up our gears in order to make it to Yak Kharka as quickly as possible. But the nature at our disposal made it difficult. We couldn’t help not stopping for photo shoots and our guide kept urging us. His idea was to get to Goa as soon as possible (yes, you heard it right, but its not the beach holiday destination of India, but a mountain village). Goa was to be our place for lunch. He had his reasons to think that way as the more close you get to Dharapani with sufficient time at hand, the better.

En route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

On our way through the forests, we often noticed, tree trunks lay down across the trail and we had to cross over or at times, under them, to make our way through. It gave an ominous sign. Not all of them appeared to have been brought down by storm or landslides but indicated a human hand behind their fellings. When we reached Yak Kharka, the structure of the newly built tea houses made us believe that they were the consumers of the felled trunks. The irony is that this area is supposed to be a “Conservation Area”.

Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We didn’t stop at Yak Kharka except for a few minutes to gulp down some water. After Yak Kharka, the guide made us aware of a land slide zone lying ahead. Now that we’ve crossed many of them, it didn’t cause me worry and I plodded ahead along the banks of the river amidst the forest. The path gradually moved downhill and as soon as it came out of the forest, we were on the banks of the roaring Dudhkhola and we could see the entire land slide zone ahead of us.

En-route Dharapani

A huge swathe of land as if has been sliced away by the river exposing the inner lining of the rocks. In absence of a proper trail, a much narrower track mainly marked by foot steps of trekkers and mules formed a zig-zag way up the banks till it regained the original track way ahead. Before reaching this place, we kept coming across felled logs and trunks and we wondered whether these acts were the reason behind this landslide. Though such incidents are common in a young mountain range like the Himalayas, but they might as well have accelerated the process in this area at least, which is otherwise densely surrounded by forests which should have lent relative solidity to the ground.

Land slide area, en-route Dharapani, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We had to reach the banks of the river and then a steep ascent awaited us along its sides on a dusty, gravel-stridden track. It was difficult maintaining grip with ever sliding dust and pebbles threatening to unsettle every moment. I trained my eyes in front where I could see other members who already were beyond this stretch and were resting on the ground above. That did two things for me. One, it did take away my attention from the ground below and two, it gave me some motivation to reach that point as soon as possible. When I finally ascended and regained the original track, I looked behind and stood for sometime to look down below to have a glimpse of the track that I just traversed.

En-route Dharapani, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

As we approached Goa, the number of settlements started to increase. We could see herds of mountain goats grazing amidst the forest. After a few bends we could see the settlements of Goa, our destination for lunch. A trekker who passed by me whispered “Wow, there’s food ahead! I might as well head down fast.” and almost ran down the slopes. In a moment, he was out of my sight.

En-route Dharapani, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After I reached the outskirts of Goa, I found Niladri waiting for us and the guides to know about the tea house where we were headed, but Dhananjoy was not in sight. He seems to have moved ahead. The guide reached after sometime from the rear and we followed him to the destined tea house. After washing our faces, we sat on a table for a much needed rest. The sun played hide and seek with the clouds as we awaited our staple lunch of the Nepalese “Daal bhat”.

Goa, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

When we were having our lunch, our guide took a shower at the tea house. That prompted some of us to think about it. But the cost involved in it, prevented us. It’s quite tempting since the last time we had a shower was back in Kathmandu and we yearned for it. Our guide told us that the trail beyond Goa is relatively level and wide enough as it’s been widened for vehicle travel, which should soon reach the place in the years to come. Our next milestone was Tilije, about two hours ahead of Goa. The trail moved on relatively less steeper grounds. Consistent with our guide’s statement, it did indeed widen up and we walked along pleasantly in the fading afternoon sun. I walked aside Niladri for some distance and we mused about our next trekking destination. Kanchenjunga appeared in both of our minds, but question was whether we should attempt its base camp via Nepal or go to Goecha La via Sikkim. The route via Nepal takes longer (almost three weeks). In that sense, Sikkim might be more preferable. But that was for future (at that time, future meant the next year, which, unfortunately, didn’t quite turn out that way).

Tilije, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Tilije was a relatively large village and there were quite a few houses. It was almost a town with many alleys and we went through them to reach the other bank of Dudhkhola. Our guide told us that most of the tea houses in this section of the trail (i.e. from Larkya Phedi to Tilije) are owned by members of this village. During the trekking season, they go up and man the tea houses and come down again as winter settles in. Beyond Tilije, we could see JCBs working their way out by tearing apart blocks of mountain walls to pave the road for vehicular traffic. As a result of that, the road was dusty. We yearned for the sight of Dharapani settlements and sped along. After about 1.5 hours of walk, we crossed over a bridge to the other side of the river and could see some settlements. We breathed a sigh of relief but knew little that the huts we saw, belonged to a different village named Thonche.

Thonche, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

As we moved through the streets of Thonche, children from the local village gathered around us and we obliged them with toffees (as we had done throughout the trail). Beyond Thonche, we had to cross another river (the Marsyangdi khola) to reach Dharapani finally. The rooms allotted to us were quite spacious. We hung up the wet clothes and changed gears. At the evening tea session, people were all relaxed and were celebrating. We exchnged greetings with the German couple, our companion for this entire trek. Porters started singing as we captured their videos. We made calls to our respective homes to announce our arrival and the completion of the trek. After arranging a vehicle for the next day to take us to Besisahar, we moved to our respective rooms. We were sleeping at 1860 m.

15th November

Dharapani, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We woke up to a relatively clear morning at Dharapani. Instead of spending time at breakfast, we thought of starting early. We could see the vehicles plying on a dusty road slightly above the ground where our tea house stood. A few steps got us to the jeep that awaited us. Before that, we had to show our permits to the Annapurna Conservation Area office where they made entries about our details in their journals and off we went towards Besisahar.

At Besisahar, we bid goodbye to our guides and porters who headed towards Kathmandu and we took another vehicle towards the plains. Along the route, Marsyangdi khola kept company and so did the distant mountain peaks of the Annapurna range. I could hear them calling “When do we meet again?”

Larkya La

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Larkya La

Dharamsala

Till we meet again

I understand it’s difficult to collate the threads (both for me as well as the readers) to stitch the way back to the story when there’s a significant gap between episodes. I apologize to my readers for that. Okay, so we paused at Dharamsala and had to resume our journey towards “the” Larkya La, the important pass that connects the Manaslu region with the Annapurna region of Central Nepal.

13th November, 2019

The pain in my throat kept increasing through the previous night as I kept tossing around in search of some elusive sleep. I only know too well, the pattern of these pains & infections. Swallowing will get tougher and a feeling of a growing lump will keep increasing and will reach it’s peak in the morning hours. However, as the day progresses, it will subside giving a false feeling of comfort only to return at night. I never actually got to sleep, but was able to reach some sort of half-consciousness and that’s when the alarm went off at 3 AM (tuned an hour earlier than previous days). As I sat up, I saw the dark outline of Dhananjoy engrossed in his meditation. Niladri and Ranjan da were still asleep. I mustered enough courage to venture out of the hut, dark into the night. The place was bustling with many travelers already awake, some even about to start their hike. The kitchen was also active. The flashing head torches from different travelers as well as support staff made the place appear as a coal mine, albeit the temperature reaching the opposite extreme. As expected, the stream of water near the toilet had already frozen. After my return to the room, I saw rest of the members also underway with their preparations. While they went about with theirs, I thought of utilizing the “valuable lead” that I had over them to lie down within the blanket which now appeared more cosy.

After sometime, our guide made an appearance at the door and asked if we were prepared to go. The initial plan was to start at 4 AM, but since we were all ready, he proposed to start even immediately and we readily agreed. We eventually started at 3.45 AM through the darkness through the meandering path beyond the tea house which gradually moved up the slopes. The sky had nothing more than a soft glow coming out of the moon, which was no more than a couple of days past the new moon phase.

In the dark of night, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

As planned earlier, our pockets were loaded with cashew nuts, raisins, almonds and a few chocolate bars. The store of nuts and raisins were given to us by Dhananjoy after diligently creating packs for all of us during the previous evening. There won’t be any tea houses till we descend to the other side of the pass and that wasn’t likely to be before lunch. Hence, the idea was to keep munching these along with gulps of water. It was better said than done. In practical, it wasn’t easy to pull out the gloves, then put our hands to the pockets to bring out the nuts. All that seemed to be a load of work which was best kept at bay in the bitter cold. What ended up happening was we kept plodding ahead for sometime to take a halt. All the activities of food and drink was completed as early as possible and then resume the journey. This pattern kept repeating. There were no sounds other than heavy breathing of our fellow travelers. We could see a moving beeline of head torches ahead of us, which gave us a rough idea of the path ahead. The trail was fairly gradual considering the altitude. Tinkling bells hanging from the necks of grazing yaks kept coming along. Our breaths condensed as soon as they left our nostrils, but our clothing, by and large, kept us decently warm. Nights are anyways longer during this part of the year and we were in Central Nepal. Hence, sunlight was still somewhat distant. The ascent to the pass and the descent beyond, kept looming around (going by my prior experience with Cho La, another high altitude pass that connects the Everest Base Camp trail to the Gokyo region) in my mind. I tried to force them away, but the darkness around, didn’t help the cause as there wasn’t much to look upon to divert the mind. After plodding ahead for some more time, a feeble light started to trickle in on the eastern horizon and the outline of the mountain ranges started getting clearer. Our steps skidded at times over the frozen mist and ice that lay on the trail and we tried to avoid those patches carefully as we moved along. The morning light started to spread fast which added to our energy levels.

En-route Larkya La, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

The tea stall – en-route Larkya La, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

At about 6 AM in the morning, we reached a temporary tea stall (yes, you’ve heard it right, a teat stall indeed in that God forsaken high altitude). Trekkers flocked around the place. It was a make shift shelter created by stacking up boulders on all sides with a tin shed. When asked about the price, it came out as a bolt from the blue, 300/- in Nepalese currency for every cup of tea. But, considering the circumstances, it gradually settled in and suddenly the price started looking “cheaper”. At first, we went inside where a kerosene stove was burning with a pan of water constantly getting boiled. The place was covered with smoke resulting due to insufficient combustion of fuel at the high altitude. A number of people cramming in that small place in the hope to get some warmth (not just from the steaming mug of tea/coffee, but also from the burning stove) also didn’t help the cause and we were forced to come outside to get some fresh (though rarefied) air. Every hot sip literally helped bolstering our energy levels (as if every sip gulped down helped reducing the trembling by some proportion). Despite our want to spend some more time at the place, we continued our journey with the aim of reaching the pass before the sun started melting the overnight snow.

En-route Larkya La, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

The route now meandered through rocks and boulders which were now more increasingly covered with overnight snow, but fortunately, the trail was still somewhat clear, mainly due to footsteps of earlier travelers. Iron poles were erected at regular intervals. At sometime they must have had metal plates to indicate direction or distance towards the impending pass, but snow and wind must have reduced them to their current state. Though we couldn’t assess the distance, but merely their presence indicated progress in some imaginary units. The sun was now up in the sky, which made the cold somewhat bearable.

En-route Larkya La, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

However, at the same time, it kept playing on my mind that melting snow, especially on the side of descent would pose an increasing challenge. Guides and porters had already warned us about the presence of a large rock fall area on the way of descent as soon as one crosses over the pass. I tried hard to keep such thoughts at bay and bask in the fact that the ascent to the pass was relatively gradual (as far as it can be in such altitudes). There was no trace of vegetation (not even a slice of grass) all around as snow and boulders held their sway. We could clearly see the tracts of the glaciers coming down the slopes of the mountain peaks surrounding the place. A slightest of glance around could tell anybody that these are not stable landscapes. The topography, shape and size keeps changing constantly aided by avalanches, land slides which bring down the debris from the upper slopes down to the bed of the glacier camouflaging its surface under which lies years of accumulated and solidified ice.

En-route Larkya La, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After sometime, the trail headed down towards a small and relatively flat ground that appeared unusually white in appearance and it turned out, part of it was due to snow and the rest due to white sand and gravel. It appeared almost like a football ground and we were amazed to walk on “level” grounds at such an altitude, though walking was not as easy, thanks to the hardened ice over its surface.

Apparent football ground, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We spent sometime taking snaps of each other. When we cast a glance around the place, we found it to be encircled by mountain peaks, glaciers came down their slopes right to the ground where we stood upon. Narrow streams also made their way through the slopes and over the ground (a clear sign of melting ice in the sun).

En-route Larkya la, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After crossing the place, we started moving up along the slopes on the other side of the ground. I trained by eyes towards a distant iron pole, the next milestone. My sense told me that the pass shouldn’t be far from there. I could also see other climbers moving up the slopes (though diminished in stature because of the distance). After reaching that pole, I was very pleased. Not because I could see the pass in front (which was still beyond my sight, possibly a few more such poles away), but I saw some prayer flags, a welcome sign in such areas that informs the travelers about the proximity of a mountain pass.

En-route Larkya la, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We could see some Mani stones, which were nothing more than some stones stacked up together just strong enough to hoist a string of prayer flags. Regardless of the regions, all passes in the higher Himalayas or Karakoram bears the same look. Their frequency gradually increased as we crossed a few more poles till we finally got to see a crowd who were shouting and celebrating their arrival at the most coveted Larkya La.

Larkya La

It was unlike Cho La, where the ascent was very steep and here a gentle slope gradually ascended to a place, which was flat enough to house significant number of people and prayer flags. We too, finally entered the pass. The photograph point (the place where there is a signboard that announces the name of the pass and its height 5106 m) was already occupied with different teams taking their turns to take snaps with the writing in the background. We also had to await our turn and we four went up along with our guide and porters. Members from other teams helped us out with snaps as we returned the favor to them.

At Larkya La, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

I cast a glance at both sides of the pass and looked at the metal plate that announced the end of Manaslu Conservation Area and welcomed us to the Annapurna Conservation Area. The pass also marked an end to the Gorkha district and the beginning of the Manang district. The Western horizon was marked with numerous mountain peaks of the Annapurna region.

On the way down from Larkya La, mountains of the Annapurna region, picture courtesy Niladri Sekhar Guha

We started our descent on a ground that was somewhat gradual to start with, but very soon the slopes increased and the majority of the surface was covered with snow (fresh and soft, which was a relief). The trail again was created by footsteps of earlier travelers.

On the way down from Larkya la, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

On our left, lay a huge glacier. The trail over the snow covered part was relatively less steep, but the one that avoided the snow, had steeper slopes, but I chose to stick to that part. Despite the grand view at our disposal all around us, we had to focus on the track that led us down to the valley below. The snow, fortunately didn’t cover a large section of the descent and I was elated to find that. However, my excitement didn’t last long as snow gave way to extremely unstable, gravel laden, skiddy and narrow path that moved steeply downwards. The trail was marred with multiple switch back bends.

The rock fall zone, picture courtesy, Dhananojoy De

These kind of tracks demand good balance. You can’t walk too slow by pressing on your feet, trying to gain grip, which is non-existent (and can, in fact, trigger small slides over loosely placed gravels). Hence, it is advisable to maintain a reasonable speed so that you don’t rest your feet too long on a surface that inevitably fails you. The caution there is to control the momentum which can go out of control. The local guides and porters virtually ran down the surfaces and I often had to make passage for them on their way down, especially when they had loads on their backs.

On our way down from Larkya la

At this stretch, all of our members got separated from each other by their respective speeds, but all were in sight of each other, regardless of their positions (the ones with faster pace were visible two or three levels below, while others were behind by the same distance). It was a treacherous ground to tread upon. As if nature deliberately sprinkled the track with loosely placed gravels and was trying to relish your fall. Our guide kept a constant vigil on me and on more than one occasion, had to hold me by my backpack in order to prevent me from slipping. After crossing a few bends, I heard a sound which appeared to me as a thunder coming from a distant place. Many other travelers too heard it and were looking at a particular direction. The sky was clear, so there was no chance of a storm. After peeping out from behind of other travelers, I understood the cause. Dust of snow was still rising up from the debris that came down the slopes of a distant glacier. Avalanche!

Avalanche, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

As we stood there, more bursts of it came down the slopes to add to the snow dust and rubble in the glacial bed. No doubt it was a treat to watch with your own eyes, but at the same time, you thank nature for not serving it down the place where you stood. A quick recall of the videos that came out of the Everest Base camp in May 2015 sent a chill down the spine. Keeping those thoughts aside, we looked around to see the awe-inspiring views of the snow peaks of the Annapurna range. We mused over the fact that the previous year, we saw them from the Annapurna base camp and this time around, we were looking at them from a different angle altogether!

En-route Bimthang from Larkya la

After moving down further, we could see a glacial lake among the accumulated debris all around. It was soothing for our eyes amidst the sights of destruction all around. As if, nature was protesting our intrusion in an area entirely private to her. After many more minor slides, I finally reached a relatively stable place where our guide asked me to move down slowly, while he moved back up again to assist another member of our group who was still up the slopes. If we are able to tell our tales today, it’s because of their tiring and often thankless support on these tough terrains.

En-route Bimthang, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Every ordeal has an end and so did this. The slopes gradually reduced and after sometime, we reached a place called Larke Fedi, the first set of tea houses one encounters immediately after the descent from Larkya La. We gradually made our way into a tea house and ordered our lunch. We were in no hurry for the lunch to get served despite the fact of not having a formal breakfast in the morning. More time taken implies more rest at the place. All of our minds were much lighter because of the fact that Larkya La was now behind us.

En-route Bimthang, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

The trail from here on, was going to head down successively. The travel would be long, but we’d be losing altitude by the day. During lunch, we recalled our journey from Dharamsala all through the way down to the place where we were sitting at that point, the thicks and thins of it. A couple of travelers entered the inn and straight away went for the beds without even bothering to remove their gears and they enjoyed their sleep all through the time when we were having our lunch. After lunch, we didn’t lose much time as there was still about a couple of hours of travel left to reach Bimthang. So, we hit the trail once again. After moving down for sometime we saw tree trunks (not leaves) reappearing – a sign of decreasing altitude. Niladri and Dhananjoy strode ahead while me and Ranjan da followed them at our own pace. Now the restlessness was to finish off the remaining track as fast as possible to reach Bimthang to have some time to relax at the end of a tiring day of walk. We kept crossing multiple bends with the hope of sighting the houses of Bimthang after every crossover, but it kept us guessing. Asking about the remaining distance to our guide was of no use as they have their own standards of measuring distance which often doesn’t match with those of us from the plains. But as they say, whatever has a start, meets its end, we finally got to see the tea houses of Bimthang from a long distance but that was enough to get us energized and we sped ahead towards the hutments.

Hutments of Bimthang, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Bimthang is located in a wide valley surrounded by high mountains all around and offered spectacular views all around it. We retired to our respective rooms. Temptation was there to immediately lie down on the bed for sometime, but I resisted it and changed my gears and prepared the backpack for the morrow till the inertia lasted.

Bimthang

The evening tea party of that day was really enjoyable. All of our minds were light and filled with a sense of achievement. At the dinner table, a Sherpa guide from a different team showed us some magic tricks using playing cards. After that, we subsided under our blankets and for the first time in this trek, I immersed into deep sleep. We were sleeping at 3590 m. The nest day’s walk would take us to Dharapani, the last place to be reached by foot.

Dharamsala

Till we meet again

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Dharamsala

Samdo

Larkya La

12th November, 2019

Sleep eluded me for a greater part of the night and it was only towards the morning, I was starting to get some sleep. My mind was preoccupied with the thoughts about crossing Larkya La. It is the pinnacle of this journey. Treading on slopes laden with snow keeps playing on my mind. I recalled a similar experience about crossing the Cho La, the pass we had to cross to reach the Gokyo region from the Everest base camp trail. I had some tough time dealing with the fresh snow and even developed a limited form of high altitude sickness. But I had excellent support from our guide & the porters. They were more experienced than the support staff we had this time. Another cause of concern was availability (or rather, potential scarcity) of blankets at Dharamsala. There’s only one tea house. The capacity of accommodation was much less than any other place in this route. We did have our own sleeping bags, and might need to fall back to them in case blankets weren’t available. It’s crucial to have some sleep because the next day, we need to embark on our ascent in the dark hours of the night (no later than 4 AM). It’s crucial to cross the pass before the solar rays gain power and the ice starts to melt.

En-route Dharamsala, the trail visible on the right

Just beyond Samdo, the trail was level and walking was easy. It went along the slopes of the mountains, caving in and out following the edges. Samdo and its tea houses were still visible even after covering a long distance. After sometime we reached the junction from where, one track turned north towards the Tibetan border. and we continued westwards. There were many tea houses at this place. The place was called Larkya bazar. Many travelers who stayed there last night, were now preparing to start their journey. Beyond Larkya bazar, the trail started to move up the slopes. To the left of the route, the steep mountain walls dived straight into the glacial bed. A huge river of ice and snow stared at us. The surface of it was white due to fresh deposit of snow at some places, dark at others due to a cover of boulders. It was the birthplace of the river Budhi Gandaki.

En-route Dharamsala, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Fortunately for us, clouds stayed clear. We spent sometime in  sunshine in a valley. Manaslu wasn’t visible anymore. In fact, it went out of our views midway through the route from Samagaun to Samdo. It won’t be visible until we reach Bimthang after our descent from Larkya La. Herds of mules kept coming from both directions and we kept our vigil. I hoped we’d see less of them after Samdo, but I was wrong.

En-route Dharamsala, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

They are the lifelines in these areas as they keep the supply lines running. The same responsibilities get carried out by yaks in the Everest region. Yaks are present in these regions too, but they’re not used to ferry loads, they’re mainly herded for milk, fur and meat. On the contrary, mules don’t get used at all in the Everest region. In fact one seldom gets to see them there. Herds of yaks are a measure of wealth and relative prosperity in these remote villages primarily inhabited by people of Tibetan origin, whose predecessors came down from the North fleeing their homes during Chinese invasion of Tibet.

En-route Dharamsala

We kept crossing the bends and finally reached one, beyond which started a long stretched landslide area. Beyond that stretch, the tea houses of Dharamsala were faintly visible. We spent sometime to breathe and drink some water. The water, which was lukewarm when we filled our bottles at Samdo, now turned cold. But for some reason, warm water doesn’t help to quench my thirst. So, I felt satisfied even though the water was very cold. It was to have its effect on my throat for the remainder of the journey. The first symptoms of it started at night at Dharamsala.

Dharamsala

After some rest, I took a concentrated look at the stretch ahead. The initial section was a narrow trail of loose dust and pebbles, followed by another stretch of boulder heaps fed by landslides from the upper reaches of the mountain. Many small streams of water permeated through the loosely held heaps to cross over the trail and disappear down the slopes on the left. Some parts of the trail had a fence in an attempt to arrest the slides. But they appeared to be more of mental satisfaction than anything more concrete. After all these sections, the landslide zone ended and relatively safer track continued to the tea houses of Dharamsala. I started my walk along the trail, trying to control my momentum down the dusty slopes. I then continued over the boulder heaps, at times casting a glance on the high slopes to the right and finally reached its end to breathe a sigh of relief. We plodded ahead over the gentle slopes to reach the tea houses.

Dharamsala, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Our porters kept our bags outside. We waited for sometime expecting allotment of our rooms. We were finally allotted one room for all four of us. The room was just about comfortable for all of us to sleep. The entire floor was covered by a thick mattress spread over stones, somewhat leveled. Our bags had to be kept along the sides and the shoes & slippers occupied the space between the mattress and the door. We stuffed the shoes, our walking sticks, water bottles and small backpacks in that narrow space between the mattress and the door. No matter how crammed the space might sound, it’s very pleasing, considering the circumstances. We were at the base of a mountain pass and there was a mattress to sleep on. That’s good enough and what more can we ask for? They’ll provide blankets too, at a charge of 200 Nepalese rupees. Most of us spread our wet clothes to dry them up, hung up our shoes and put on the slippers to free our toes and headed for the dining space. There was a single toilet a few steps ahead downhill. The day was pleasantly warm.

Dharamsala, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

The dining space was a small room just enough for about 10 people to dine. We enjoyed our usual lunch of the Nepalese staple “dal bhaat” accompanied by the chilly pickle from Ranjan da. Thanks to the clear weather, the room bathed in bright sunlight which helped to buoy the mood.

Dharamsala, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Just outside the kitchen and dining space, towering mountains encircled the place as if we stood on an amphitheater guarded by the mountains.

Dharamsala

After lunch, we lied down in the sun to bask ourselves till it lasted. Contrary to my expectations from a distance, the bed wasn’t grassy, but rocky and the edges of the stones didn’t make for a comfortable sleep. I kept tossing around hoping to find a balance between the underlying pointed rocks, but finally gave up. I spent rest of the time sitting while others had a comfortable nap covering their face from the sun by their hats.

Dharamsala, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The mountains formed a wall in front of us. Ice falls came down their slopes to meet the glacier at their base. Beyond the tea houses, multiple tracks went up the slopes and one of them must be the route that should take us to Larkya La. This was our last night in the Gorkha district. After crossing the pass, we’d enter Manang, an important district of Nepal’s Annapurna region. Larkya La also marks an end of the Manaslu Conservation Area and the beginning of the Annapurna Conservation Area. That’s the reason one requires two permits for these two conservation area projects to cover this trail. Dharapani, the final destination of this journey, is also an important junction, where the Manaslu circuit trail meets the other famous route, the Annapurna Circuit trail.

I envied the other members of the group, who were enjoying a comfortable nap in the warm sun, lying down along the slopes. sometime later, I turned my focus around the surrounding mountains and right behind us, along the slopes, many trekkers from other groups enjoyed their hikes to the top. I identified the German couple among them. They seemed to exploit the most of their presence in the Himalayas. As I might have cited before in this series, they toured the Lang Tang region of Nepal, before turning their attention to the Manaslu Circuit and they’ve been traveling in Nepal for almost a month. As the evening advanced, the shadows of the mountains elongated and the sun lost its grip on the day’s proceedings. The cold winds, as if waiting for their turn, started to blow. In some of the distant valleys, visible from where we sat, we could see yaks grazing around. The fading sun did little to distract them.

Dharamsala

From sometime during the afternoon, I started to feel a slight pain in my throat while swallowing food and water. I didn’t give much importance, but it started to increase with passing time. I soon realized that my act of gulping down sips of cold water (apparently to quench my thirst properly) started to have its impact. It made me a tad nervous as I knew from prior experience, it would only aggravate by every passing hour.

It was declared from the kitchen, that dinner was to be served at 6.30 PM (instead of 7, as had been the norm in the tea houses down under). The reason was obvious. No one prefers to stay awake late as most of the travelers (and hence, the support staff at the tea house) would rouse early in the wee hours of the night to start off for the hike to Larkya La. I realized that I forgot to collect some of my clothes (spread out for drying) before darkness and the lost moisture reclaimed their place. I wrapped them up and forced them down at the bottom of my backpack. Chances of wearing them again in this journey became remote.

After dinner, we brushed our teeth (to save time for this act in the morning) – a practice I started since Namrung (thanks to Dhananjoy’s advice). For that we had to walk down the slope to reach near the toilet which had a water pipe fixed up nearby on a rock. During the day, we saw water coming out of it relentlessly, but now, the stream was thin. A quick glance on the ground with our head torches told the story. The stream of water on the ground have started to freeze. Chances of having running water in the next morning were out of question. We subsided into our rooms and started packing up our backpacks and getting things ready for the morrow. Our guide made an appearance to give us an outline for the next day’s travel. We’d have to start no later than 4 AM. Head torches would be crucial. Though the kitchen staff usually gets ready, but we’d not waste anytime for breakfast and first meal of the day would be the lunch at the first halt just after descent from the pass on the other side. Since it was going to be a long gap, we prepared small packets of dry fruits and biscuits to carry along with us. The idea was to munch them at regular intervals in small amounts to keep not just hunger, but also high altitude sickness at bay. Some chocolate bars also made their way into the packs. Sugar, as they say, generates more energy. Our guide also warned us to keep sipping water at regular intervals, not just during the travel but also throughout the night to keep our blood circulations normal at these altitudes. The blankets were warm, but we went in with our thermal inner-wares. I must say, it was comfortable under the circumstances. I thanked the Nepalese people for their humongous efforts to keep the trail well oiled and running even under adverse conditions. Sleeping on a bed, under a warm blanket at an altitude of 4450 m, was a big ask and it’s only possible in a country like Nepal. My throat caused more pain and I gulped down a tablet of Paracetamol as a caution. Larkya La loomed in my mind and possibly others’ too.

Samdo

Larkya la

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Samdo

Pungyen Monastery

Dharamsala

11th November, 2019

Our last evening at Samagaun was spent very well. Time just flew. There was some wonderful music presented by the porters & guides of different teams. Going by our guide’s statement, the walk from Samagaun to the next destination Samdo was supposed to be easy & short. More importantly, on level ground! It shouldn’t take us more than three hours to reach there. We could have left Samagaun a bit later after having some more sleep, but we chose not to. It’s always better to start early. We could spend time en route with photography, reach the day’s destination with enough time in our hands to relax. Manaslu didn’t disappoint us in the second morning as well. The same acts of sunlight was repeated as we enjoyed our morning tea.

Samagaun

The breakfast had the same items. None of us enjoyed it much as it was mainly a matter of forcing something down the throats to fill our stomachs. Just enough with some fluids to keep our blood circulation going. Appetite wasn’t great at these high altitudes. We handed over the bags to our porters and hit the trail which meandered through the streets of Samagaun village before entering a wide valley.

En-route Samdo

Manaslu was shining like a silver blaze and was visible from everywhere, as if keeping a strict vigil on us, the foreigners in her territory.

En-route Samdo

We were still in the Gorkha district, but were gradually nearing its end as we moved closer towards the Larkya pass. The day would take us to Samdo and the day after, to Dharamsala, which was at the base of Larkya pass (or Larkya la, as they call it in Tibetan language).

En-route Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

As we moved on, the valley widened and it almost gave us a feeling of walking on level ground, but for the boulders spread across the tracks. We could still see trees around us, but their heights kept diminishing, but the flora was colorful.

En-route Samdo

Members of our group kept rolling their shutters on and rightly so. The surroundings offered ample opportunity. The morning was bright with no trace of clouds. I too had my share of photography but I kept plodding ahead and after sometime I found myself walking alone.

En-route Samdo

Members of some other trekking groups, who started later than us, caught up and moved ahead. All of their faces were now familiar. I watched the German couple walking past. They always started late, but reached the destination way ahead of us and also had time for side excursions & hikes in the afternoon. The valley was wide open and the river Budhi Gandaki flowed through one of its sides. We were approaching towards it’s origin. It has its origin in the glaciers coming down the slopes of Larkya La.

En-route Samdo

The vegetation acquired a red color, but it wasn’t the flowers, but the leaves. It was that period of the year which was just before the winters when these leaves would drop off and the entire area was to get blanketed by snow. The thought of snow gave me some worries about the quantities we were likely to face at the pass. Going by the narration of our guide, the ascent to the pass is relatively gradual but after crossing it, there lies a large rockfall zone which is expected to be steep and the presence of snow could add to the challenge. I brushed aside those thoughts and diverted my attention towards nature’s gorgeous display of splendor.

En-route Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The sun was now high in the sky, which forced us to peel off our jackets. The trees diminished in their size & stature, giving way to shrubs, bushes & finally it led to the barren land of boulders. That’s when I saw the huts of Samdo which lay at a great distance adoring the top of a hill, still a long distance away.

Samdo

That hill was to be the only hike for us in a day which was otherwise marked by walking on relatively level grounds. I could see trekkers (who were reduced to the stature of ants from this great distance) and lines of mules dotting the switchback trail that moved up the slopes of the hill towards Samdo. We gradually started to move down towards the banks of the river and reached a wooden bridge. Budhi Gandaki criss-crossed the trail to move towards the left and we started to hike the hill.

Samdo

The trail was barely wide enough for one person and one had to be careful while giving passage to others coming down from the opposite direction. After crossing a few bends, I heard the “now disturbing” sounds of the bells. It was obvious that I was in front of a line of mules with loads on their backs, fast catching up. I wasn’t particularly welcoming them but I had no choice. A quick look below revealed that they were just reaching the previous bend and I had to reach the next, as fast as possible to get to a place which would just about allow me to stand to give passage to the herd. I hiked as fast as I could to reach there as early as possible and just as I reached there, still gasping for breath, the first of the mules appeared at the bend. They moved upwards, hopping, jumping and at times, skidding on the slopes. At times more than one of them tried to move in parallel, giving a tough time to me, who was just about aligned to the wall. The herd seemed never ending. Every time I thought I’d seen the last one through and attempted to get rid of the place, another one popped up at the bend, forcing me to abandon the idea. Finally, I heard the whistle of the man who was bringing up the rear. Once he passed over, I resumed my journey. After a few more bends, I finally arrived at the top of the hill and was glad to find the ground relatively level and wide.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The entrance gate of Samdo greeted us as we entered the village. I now had sometime to take a break to look down the trail and the wide valley below, which we just traversed to reach Samdo.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The group members and our guide & porters were yet to reach. I had to wait for them to be able to get to the tea house designated for us. It gave me some opportunity for photography. Straight down the valley, right at the end of it, a mountain peak dazzled in the backdrop of pastel blue sky.

Samdo

Towards my right, I could clearly see the track of Budhi Gandaki river. Samdo just comprised of a few tea houses and beyond that, the trail moved along the sides of the mountains to reach a junction point. From there, two distinct routes were visible. The one towards north, went towards the Tibet border, a five hour walk. The other, went Westwards, towards Dharamsala, our destination for the morrow. After reaching the hill top, I walked in the company of a Sherpa guide who hailed from the Limbu region of eastern Nepal, the region famous for the trek towards the base camp of the world’s third highest mountain, Mt Kanchenjunga. He was a sturdy guy. I inquired about that trail, which isn’t frequented by many, but is beautiful with its flora, fauna and above all, the majestic views of the mountains of the Kanchenjunga group. From his narration, it appeared that the region is not as well equipped with tea houses as other parts of Nepal and trekkers have to resort to tents at many places. Their destination was Larkya Bazar, a place just ahead of Samdo. We parted ways and I rejoined my group. By now, the porters had arrived and placed our bags at the tea house. We went ahead and occupied our respective rooms. We still had a good half a day at our disposal and got engaged in hanging our clothes in the bright sunshine with the hope of drying them up. At this stage of the trek, we were down to 2-3 sets of attires, having to alternate them every other day. Hence, drying them up was very crucial. The dining place was not at the same tea house. We had to walk down to the neighboring one for lunch. Fortunately for us, since Namrung, our days of walking has been short, leaving the second half mostly for rest. This day was even shorter.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After lunch, many trekkers (including the German couple) headed for hiking a nearby mountain. We never could muster the energy and rather preferred to relax. But that didn’t stop us from venturing on level grounds, which took us to a nearby barley field from where we could see through the valley which we traversed.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We could clearly see the trail towards Samagaun and the trajectory of the river Budhi Gandaki. It was a strange feeling to think about the river which gave us company right from Soti Khola, through the lower reaches of the trail and now, its almost time to bid adieu to her when we embark for Dharamsala.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Same goes for the Gorkha district which has provided hospitality to us through these arduous days of trekking. The sunshine attained a golden yellow shade and so did the mountain slopes and the distance peaks. The color told us that time was ripe for sunset, but the place was not suitable for such views with the peaks just peeping from behind the towering walls of the mountain nearby. The glow of the fading rays of sun showered on the fields instead and also on the trail of the river which disappeared at the far end behind a bend.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Around us, there were many places where streams of rocks and boulders came down from the top exposing the bare interior of the mountains. They bore the signs of past devastation, sudden landslides, which are very common in these ecologically and geologically unstable areas. The slope of the hills on which these tea houses reside aren’t much safer either. It’s just by the grace of nature, they’ve been spared its wrath, but that’s never a guarantee. Trails and villages in these areas are ever changing. I looked at the trail for the next day, which moved gradually upwards in the Westerly direction. It appeared as a narrow tape along the slopes till it disappeared behind a bend on the wall of the distant mountain. My mind went along with it. The next day, just as we reached Samdo, we’ll take the exit route, following that trail. Somewhere beyond that bend, and after crossing many of them, lies Dharamsala, nestled somewhere in the slopes. The launching pad for our ascent to Larkya La.

As evening wore on, we headed to the dining place. Biting cold gripped the place. After dinner, our guide gave us a glimpse of the next day’s trail. It should take us about 4-5 hours to reach Dharamsala. The slope is expected to rise, though somewhat gradually in most of the cases, steep at times. After all that, a landslide area should greet us. After crossing it for about two kms, we should be at Dharamsala. Landslides again! They never seem to end and why should they? We’re now approaching the pass and they have all the more reason to be around. With some speculations about the next day’s trail, we went under the blankets at 3690 m.

Pungyen Monastery

Dharamsala