Around Annapurna – the Thorong la, descent to Muktinath

Thorong high camp

18th October

We were fortunate enough to get three lower births (yes, births) as we were the first to enter the room. Later in the night, the other births on the upper floor were occupied by three other travelers. Space was crammed but under the conditions, the accommodation couldn’t have been better. Sleeping under blankets within a room (and not a tent) is in itself a luxury at these altitudes. We paid up our bills after dinner on the previous night to allow us to start immediately after breakfast. Throughout the time when we had our breakfast, Thorong la played in my mind. The dining space was warm with many travelers roaming around, some still having their meals, others, about to embark on the hike.

After breakfast, just before we were about to hit the trail, our guide reran the dos & don’ts. We were strictly advised to stay together. While it didn’t mean walking side by side (it wasn’t at all feasible on this trail), it did mean staying within “calling” distance with each other. After we moved outside, a chilling wind greeted us which shook us to the bones. A serpentine line of torches moved up the slopes. Unlike the route to Tilicho base camp, the trail was entirely covered with snow right from the beginning. However, the slope wasn’t steep to start with, at least. Numerous stars studded the dark sky. We’ve crossed two mountain passes of similar height before. Both of them in Nepal. The first was Cho La, on our way to Gokyo from Lobuche in the Everest region. The other was Larkya La, the highest point on the Manaslu Circuit Trek. Crossing the latter was also a long day & we expected this to be a similar experience. The descent too, similar to that of Larkya La, was expected to be steep. In case of Larkya La, the entire descent was through a rock fall zone. I wasn’t sure about the terrain in this case. Another factor weighed on my mind was the expected amount of snow on the other side. For the moment, I swept those thoughts aside & focused on the hike. The dark silhouettes of the surrounding mountains appeared gigantic. Our boots sunk deep into the snow. With the help of our head torches, we looked for footmarks of other travelers and tried to follow them. Fortunately, the snow was dense and we could get grip on the surface. The idea was to cover as much ground as possible before the sun came out. While we walked, we felt perspiration within our body, but the moment we stopped for rest (which was necessary to fill our lungs), biting cold sent shivers through the body. Apart from our layers of warm clothing, sips of warm water were also crucial to keep our blood circulation going. Darkness started to dilute and edges of the surrounding mountains started becoming clearer. We could now see a light glimpse of the trail ahead. Metallic poles indicated milestones at regular intervals and there were a series of them. The trail had many lower summits, each one of them decorated with strings of prayer flags. Whenever any of them appeared on the horizon, some of us would ask the guide whether that was the pass and answer was an emphatic “No”. I was aware of this phenomenon. Thanks to many blogs & videos on the internet, I was aware that there were many “false” summits on the way up to the pass & people often get frustrated by these & it could add to their fatigue. By this time, the sun was fully out in the sky. There wasn’t any patch of black anywhere on the trail, which was only recognizable by a series of footmarks. Series of travelers trekked along the path. It was a moving line with ever diminishing size of humans. The last visible prayer flag at the distant top appeared as a miniscule pole, but even that wasn’t the top.

En-route Thorong la, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We focused on the next pole nearby. Every step had to be dragged on, partly because of the fact that our shoes got submerged, partly also due to the altitude & cold. The air around was a tad caustic and we felt thirsty after a handful of steps. After sometime we reached a tea shop en-route the top. No one expects to find a tea shop at such altitudes, but that’s Nepal for you. A much needed cup of tea to get our blood circulations going, was more than welcome. We found a similar tea shop on our way to Larkya la during our Manaslu Circuit Trek. We made our way into the shop and ordered tea. The desire was to spend some time in the warmth of the shop amidst other trekkers, but an eye had to be kept on time. The top was yet to be reached (about forty percent of the track still remained).

Reaching Thorong la, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We ventured out of the tea shop and resumed our hike. The hike wasn’t steep and started leveling out. It was an indication that we were approaching the pass. The sky was clear and bright sunshine bathed the slopes all around. Cold wasn’t biting anymore with the sun shining bright on our backs. Fortunately, there wasn’t any wind. Our guide declared that the pass was nearing and we could see the prayer strings hanging from a distant pole. Though initially, I wasn’t convinced, but I saw many moving figures around that place, which indicated that he was correct. With increased hopes, our walking speed increased and after a stroll on the snow, we reached there.

Thorong la, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Many travelers were already there, taking snaps against the backdrop of the board that depicted the name and height of the pass. We were standing at 5416 m. All of us were ecstatic about reaching the highest point of the trek. The Thorong la was a junction that connected Manang with the Mustang district of Nepal. Both of these were arid and dry, lying in the rain shadow areas of the Annapurna massif. However, Mustang bore a drier look. The mountain ranges of Mustang spanned throughout the distant horizon. The track gradually moved downwards on the other side of the pass. We’d be treading that path on our way down to Muktinath. The trail down was also covered with snow, leaving any doubts, whatsoever. To our surprise, there was a tea shop at the top as well! We took turns to take snaps (both individual as well as with the group) at the Thorong la.

Thorong la, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The time came up and we started our descent. The track moved down gradually in its initial stretch. As soon as we started our descent, we felt the gusts of strong wind which threw up puffs of fresh snow from the trail. I walked carefully, once again, tracing the tracks of earlier travelers. Other travelers crossed by, most of them having the support of crampons or micro spikes, while I treaded on carefully.

Way down to Muktinath, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Slopes were still gentle but wind was picking up pace and at one bend it blew off my hat which went down the slopes within a blink of an eye. Dhananjoy and Niladri went ahead and pretty soon were out of my vision. The slope started to increase and I also felt the ice harden under my feet. The shoes started to give minor slips and my steps became more circumspect. One has to move at a minimum pace to avoid generating more than desired pressure at a single point, which could result in slipping down the slopes. Interestingly, some groups came up the slopes from the other side. That was interesting as normally, people do not cross the Thorong la from Mustang as the hike is much steeper and takes longer. Some of them cautioned the guide (who was walking besides me) that the trail ahead was somewhat risky. I saw an alley going steeply down amidst the snow. Reaching at the top of it, I realized why he said so. The ground was totally covered with ice which was showing cracks and water trickled from them. For once, I thought of lying down on my back and try to slid along but the guide advised against doing it. Despite taking careful steps while going down the slope, I slid a few times and regained my steps. It was a long ordeal before I finally negotiated the slope to reach a junction. The trail beyond that point moved on different grounds. It wasn’t hard ice, but fresh, loose and powdery snow which offered minimal grip. I could see Dhananjoy and Niladri treading ahead carefully. Observing their steps, it became apparent, they found it difficult to walk stably. The first step that I placed on the snow led to a slide and I slid down considerably. The guide was prompt enough to arrest my slide by hold me by my armpit. To complicate matters further, strong winds displaced snow under our feet trying hard to dislodge us. The guide sought the help of one of the porters, who, by that time, had already crossed over to higher grounds beyond the snow. He was considerate enough to heed the call and came down. Both of them gave me support and I somehow managed to tread the shaky grounds to reach beyond the snow. Travelers rested under a shed and I rejoined Dhananjoy and Niladri. I was still breathing hard. We spent sometime to exchange our experiences but to our relief, one of the guides from other teams declared that this was the last stretch of snow. Beyond this point, the ground was rocky and dry. It was still steep but devoid of snow. I quick sneak into the trail ahead, revealed he was correct. That was another huge sigh of relief for me on this trail (the other one was when I discovered a wooden bridge that joined a yawning crack on our way back to Shree Kharka).

En-route Muktinath, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We still had a long way to go down, but now I could walk freely, at my own pace. The track was full of switchbacks. The trail was strewn with stones and boulders. One had to walk carefully to avoid a slide, but it was much better than the rockfall zone at Larkya la. I could see Dhananjoy and Niladri as small creatures, making their way down and beyond them, the tea houses of Phedi were now visible. I took sometime to look back at the trail which we covered till now and thanked nature that Thorong la was behind us. Easy grounds awaited us on our way down. I could feel the fatigue in my legs. The upper half of it pained as I made my way down, but I was happy. There are times when pain is sweet! I made my way through the maze of switchbacks to reach the tea house at Phedi and spread my arms on a chair. Niladri and Dhananjoy were already seated. It was 2 PM. We had enough time to relax while our lunches got prepared. I dried up my jacket in the sun. My knees trembled as I attempted to move. Lunch took long to get served, but there was nothing to complain as we had ample time. The downhill walk from the tea house to Muktinath was to take another two hours. From Phedi, the trail moved towards a valley and once we reached there, the ground was flat. It feels so comfortable to walk on flat grounds on such high altitudes. For the first time in this trek, we walked together as we meandered through the valley to join a road that led us down to the town of Muktinath.

En-route Muktinath, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We could see the domes of the Muktinath temples, considered holy by both Hindus and Buddhists. We followed the steps down to the courtyard of the famous Muktinath shrine. A wide panorama of Mustang mountain peaks were visible from the courtyard which was full of devotees, many of whom bathed in the small pond in the middle of it.

Muktinath shrine, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The most prominent among the mountains visible from Mustang was Mt Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain the world. After spending sometime at the temple courtyard, we made our way down the steps that descended towards the Muktinath town.

Muktinath shrine, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha
Mt Dhaulagiri

It was a long series of steps that led to the area of the tea houses. Some of them turned us down as they were full. We finally found one and reached our allotted rooms. Much to our delight, warm showers were available and we made full use of it. Calls were made to our respective homes informing them of our successful culmination of the trek. The food tasted delicious and we spent our last evening of the trek with peace and leisure. Vehicle was booked by our guide, which would drive us to Pokhra, the next day. We started the day at 4800m, reached 5416m and then descended to 3762m.

Thorong high camp

Around Annapurna – Yak Kharka and Thorong High camp

Tilicho lake

Thorong la

16th October

The previous day was tiring and I had my body aching, especially after reaching the tea house and after allowing time to relax, the entire upper section of my limbs ached as and when I had to climb up or down the stair cases to reach the dining room or move to our allotted rooms (something that’s normal in these tea houses). The dinner was refreshing and so was the chit chats in the dining area. We got chance to recharge our cameras, mobile phones once again. 16th October was once again, a bright morning. Since our start from upper Pissang, weather forecast has been spot on. With Tilicho lake behind us (though I didn’t reach there personally, my companions did), the only high point that remained in the trek was Thorong La. We were to cross it on the 18th. There was a tad nervousness in my mind about the way down from Thorong la, especially about the amount of snow to be expected on our way down to Muktinath from Thorong La. I asked different people en-route and got varied answers to that. Some said, the amount of snow on the other side was less as the Mustang district (the other side of Thorong La) is expected to be much drier than Manang. However, others had contrarian views. Nevertheless, we kept those thoughts at bay and went for the breakfast.

Shree Kharka

Once again we were treated with a lavish display of mountains through the glass windows of the dining room. We wished we could spend an extra day relaxing at this place, but we had to move ahead. Luggage was reshuffled once again as we merged with the left overs on our way up to Tilicho base camp. After that, we hit the trail. After going downhill for some distance, we tread on flat ground. Initially, we headed down the same trail we took on our way up, but after sometime, we left the trail towards Manang and diverted left towards Yak Kharka. It was still flat but was muddy as a stream of water flowed right through the middle of it. After sometime, we had to go through some bushes and walking was a bit difficult negotiating the bushes which were thorny and the ground was muddy too.

En-route Yak Kharna, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Looking down the valley, we could see the flow of the river though the middle of it, heading towards Manang. In fact, we could see its houses on the left banks of it. When we started from Shree Kharka, we felt like putting on our jackets, but we resisted that temptation as we knew, after walking in the sun for sometime, we had to peel off. After walking for sometime, we reached a bend, beyond which, the trail started moving up. It was devoid of mud and we enjoyed the gradual hike. The top was visible and there were a few houses adoring the it. We stopped there for sometime to enjoy the surrounding views. Annapurna IV and Gangapurna bathed in bright sunshine.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De
En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

From thereon, the trail moved down quite steeply and we could see it was covered with snow. It was evident, that the trail from Shree Kharka to the top was exposed to the sun and hence, was devoid of snow, but on the other side, the sun was yet to exercise its power and hence, snow ruled the roost. The initial section had a clear track amidst the snow on both sides, but after that, it was almost fully covered. The trail headed downwards to reach a stream, beyond which, lay a tea house. After that, it moved up again to merge with the main track to Thorong La coming from Manang (used by trekkers who skipped Tilicho lake). We could see it entirely. The trail after the tea house was devoid of snow.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

I started moving down carefully through the stretches of snow, but fared much better than earlier stretches of Tilicho base camp or lake. The key again, was to tread upon footsteps of previous travelers, which was an indication of solid ground. There were slippery grounds, as expected while walking over melting snow, but things were much better, also probably because, may be, I was finally getting used to it. Niladri and Dhananjoy strode ahead. After traversing through multiple switch backs, we finally reached the stream that separated the two tracks (the one coming from Tilicho lake from the one coming from Manang). We stopped at the bridge to take some photographs of the gushing stream and then headed towards the tea house to rest there and have some tea.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We ordered lemon tea and relaxed around. We had time at our hand and were likely to reach Yak Kharka before lunch. That should leave the entire second half at our disposal to lurk around and hopefully, gain some acclimatization before our hike to Thorong La. We kept pushing our guide to advance our halt to Thorong high camp (for the next day), instead of Thorong Phedi (the option opted by most of the travelers). He kept deferring the decision to later. The obvious advantage of staying at high camp is to gain distance and having to traverse much less on the day of crossing the pass. However, it also increases the chances of high altitude sickness and understandably, the guide opted to take that decision later, after observing our fitness. As we sipped our tea, other groups came along. We knew many of them as most of them have been hiking with us right from Dharapani.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After tea, we resumed our hike. It was difficult at the start because of the pain and fatigue in the upper sections of my limbs. However, after walking a while, it became easier. The trail moved up, as expected, to merge with the main trail from Manang. The hike was gradual and wasn’t difficult. We took ample time to cross the stretch, enjoying the views and taking photographs on our way up. After sometime, we regained the main track from Manang, which was relatively flat and walking became much easier. Yak Kharka wasn’t far and we reached there before lunch. The place had a few tea houses and we entered into one of them. Our allotted room was on the first floor and we went up the stairs and settled in it. After changing to room wears (which wasn’t much different from our trekking wears, given the altitude), we came down again and reached the dining space. Lunch was ordered and we lurked around in the sun, sitting on the benches. Utilizing the bright sunshine, we dried up some of our wet clothes. After lunch, we sat around chatting with members of other groups. There were quite a few locals (many of them were also coming on their way down from Tilicho lake). It came through one of the discussions, there are two Phedis on both sides of Thorong La and snow was to be expected on the track between both the Phedis. After the sun went down, cold increased drastically and we headed to the dining room. Ludo gave us company till dinner got served. We stuck to the staple “Dal Bhaat” meal. After reaching our room, we spent some more time gossiping with each other and then slid under the blankets. We were sleeping at 4100 m.

17th October

After the alarm went off, we completed the morning duties, packed our bags and headed to the dining room for breakfast. We clearly communicated to our guide and he agreed, that our halt would be at Thorong high camp. We hit the trail at around 7.30 AM . Though the distance wasn’t long, but we wanted to reach as early as possible to give ourselves enough time to rest and acclimatize at the high camp. We also knew that walking would be slower, especially after Thorong Phedi, on our way to the high camp. Given that we already crossed the tree line, sources of oxygen would be scarce amidst boulders and snow. When we hit the trail, the sun was behind the mountains and we felt the biting cold. We had to put on our jackets and gloves to keep ourselves warm. The surrounding slopes of the mountains were dotted with bushes and brown grass. After walking a while, the sun came out from behind and walking was comfortable, though we had to peel off some of our warm wears. The trail still moved along flat tracks.

En-route Thorong Phedi

After sometime, some movements caught our attention along the slopes of the mountains. After giving a careful glimpse, we finally recognized that they were a flock of mountain sheep, the same species, notorious for their act of sending down streams of stones along the route to Tilicho base camp. Here though, in the bright sunshine, they appeared quite innocent and quiet, grazing around in the bright sun. While they were having their merry time, we took our chances to get as close as possible to get better snaps. They didn’t disappoint. A giant Himalayan Griffon was doing its rounds in the clear sky and I trained the lens of my camera to try for a moving shot.

En-route Thorong Phedi

Flocks of these birds also dotted the surrounding slopes. They keep reminding us of the fact that this is their habitat and we’re intruders. Is it that what caused them to do their rounds in the sky to keep an eye on us?

Himalayan Griffons – en-route Thorong Phedi

These are scavenger birds which are very common at higher altitude regions across the Himalayas. We kept treading ahead till we reached a junction where two trails headed in different directions. One of them, moved forward, while the other headed down towards the river that flowed through the valley. We waited for our guide who was following us and going by his advice, we took the trail going down. We learnt later, both the trails merged at Thorong Phedi, but went along different sides of the mountain. The one that was relatively flat, went through higher altitudes and as we found later, was entirely covered with snow in its later sections. It was also the route towards Nar Phu valley, which diverted from another junction, a little ahead.

En-route Thorong Phedi, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We could see the route on the other side of the mountain, climbing up from the river bed. Members of other groups were visible as little creatures, appearing like actors of a silent film that was being played out on the slopes. Silent, because the roaring stream silenced everything else. That trail, though devoid of snow, was barren and exposed and went through patches of landslides. We moved downwards and reached the stream and started hiking up the slopes on the other side of it. There were patches of snow here and there. At the start of the landslide area, a guide from another group kept strict vigil by looking upwards. He kept insisting us to cross the area as quickly as possible. The meaning and reason behind his constant gaze at the top was clear. After crossing the zone, the trail was good once again and we could see the tea houses of Thorong Phedi.

Thorong Phedi, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

As usual, having a glimpse of the distant tea houses, added to our energy and we moved ahead steadily towards them and finally settled in one of them for lunch. The lodge was big and so was its dining space. With glass windows all around, it was a marvelous place to dine at this high altitude. After giving our orders, we sat leisurely, awaiting our lunch to arrive. The owner of the lodge was an interesting character. His appearance resembled that of a Texas cowboy with a typical hat and long hair. Western rhythmic music was playing in the background and he was swaying his body in sync. He kept doing so all along while taking orders from us, serving the lunch and after completion, even while taking the payments.

Thorong Phedi, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

After lunch and some much needed rest, we hit the trail again, which, from hereon, only went up steeply. We could see the flags that adorned the Thorong high camp.

Thorong Phedi, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

The trail moved up steeply and we plied along it. We could see, it moved via a series of switchbacks, finally, disappearing behind a set of rocks, beyond which, lay the Thorong high camp. It seemed quite near, but it would take us at least a couple of hours (if not more), to reach there. That’s primarily because of the altitude and the steepness of the trail.

En-route Thorong high camp, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

I split the trail into smaller milestones, effectively, every switchback turned into one. I’d cross each of them, halt for sometime, at times gulp down a few sips of water, and then move ahead. My thirst was increasing and so were my halts. Obviously, altitude was playing its part, but it was manageable. After spending an arduous two hours, I finally reached that gully, which went straight up among the snow and at the end of it, we could see the tea houses of Thorong high camp.

Thorong high camp, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

It was a delightful sight, though we still had some height to gain, but it seemed within reach. After plodding along for some more time, we finally reached the place. Initially, we were assigned a room (exclusively to us), but for that we had to traverse down the slopes again. Hence, we rejected that option in favor of a room at a higher altitude, closer to the actual trail towards Thorong La. The room had double births and we occupied three of the lower ones. Space was crammed, but it was more than welcome at these high altitudes.

Thorong high camp, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Every rooftop, toilet huts, kitchen, all of them wore a blanket of snow. The sun was shining bright and the afternoon was warm and enjoyable. As we lurked around the place in the afternoon sun, I kept thinking about the hike for the morrow. It was going to be long, but at the end of it, it would take us down to Muktinath, well beyond the reach of snow. It was a mixed feeling – a tad disappointment of ending the trek, along with relief of reaching the place where we could ply on a vehicle to take us down to Pokhra. While we had our evening tea, we saw a traveler limping towards the tea house, hinging on the support of two porters. He had a fracture and after sometime, was rescued by a helicopter which took him to Manang and from thereon, to Pokhra. Seeing that, a few elderly travelers contemplated skipping Thorong La to go down the same route they ascended, but we persuaded them against doing so. After dinner, we completed our payments as it was slated to leave the place at 3.45 AM to give us ample time to reach the Thorong La early enough. We were sleeping at 4800 m.

Tilicho lake

Thorong la

Around Annapurna – Tilicho Lake

Tilicho base camp

Yak Kharka and Thorong high camp

15th October

Alarm went off earlier than other days as we planned to head out earlier. As advised by other travelers, we planned to start in the dark hours to make as much progress as possible before the sun rose to take advantage of frozen snow which would provide more grip on the surface. We tried to convince our guide Brian to start at 4 AM, but he was reluctant and we settled for 5 AM, much to our dislike. But there’s no point forcing them against their wishes in these altitudes as they’re supposed to act as our custodians on such stretches. We put on additional warm wears to deal with the cold which was expected to be several notches higher than what we’ve faced so far. Deep in my mind, I was nervous about the snow and the fact that we weren’t wearing crampons or spikes. I shook my head heavily, as if to shove away such thoughts out of my mind. After completing our morning duties, we headed for the dining room to have breakfast. My appetite was almost absent. It could either have been because of altitude (which is known to have such an impact) or the thoughts about the trail up the slopes. Actually, going up was relatively easier. But the more we go up, greater would be the distance to cover while coming down with melting snow under our feet. After filling ourselves with breakfast, we headed out of the lodge. The plan for the day was to hike up to Tilicho lake, come down to the base camp, have lunch and head back to Shree Kharka for night stay. It was supposed to be a long day.

While having our breakfast, we saw moving streams of head torches already heading up the slopes. Other groups have already hit the trail. After breakfast, we strapped on our head torches and headed out. As we stepped out of the warmth of the dining space, we were greeted by waves of cold wind which pierced the uncovered sections of our bodies (which anyways, were minimal, given the clothing we put on). But that was enough to indicate what was awaiting us in the upper reaches. The trail meandered through the by lanes between other tea houses before crossing a small wooden pool above a flowing stream. After which, it started moving up gradually. It was a considerably long stretch up before the first switchback. The trail was still over rock and soil with snow lying by the side. After reaching that point, we sipped a few gulps of warm water and resumed our hike. The trail was rendered muddy with narrow streams of water flowing through it, but we were still walking over soil, nevertheless. It was still dark and we could see trails of head torches moving up the slopes in front of us. It was a long trail with distant lights that could be seen as far as we could see. The trail of rock and soil started to get thin as we moved up as snow started closing in from both sides. We had to cross multiple places where patches of snow lay on the trail itself. Such patches interspersed the trail and had to be negotiated carefully. There were places where we would sink knee deep into the snow. Such patches increased in frequency as we moved up till the entire trail got covered by snow and no trace of rock or soil was visible from thereon. We paused at places to turn around and darkness was gradually subsiding. A glimpse of light started to spread across the sky. The dark silhouettes of the high mountains became visible. After sometime, the sky became clear and wore a shade of azure but the Sun was yet to make its appearance.

En-route Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

As light became available, we could see the trail in clarity and switched off our head torches. Giving a good look at the trail revealed holes dug into the snow by previous travelers. Some were deep and wore a light blue appearance. They had to be avoided. The idea was to place our feet on boot marks left by earlier travelers. Those were solid grounds with some purchase available for our feet. I became more conscious and gradually my entire attention got drawn into the trail. It was only when I stopped, I could enjoy the beauty around. On one such occasion, I saw the first rays of sun gracing some of the peaks, lining them with gold.

En-route Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The trail was just wide enough for one person to tread up or down. If one met another coming the opposite way, it needed to be negotiated carefully by leaning against the slope. Giving passages like this on a narrow trail covered with snow, was very tricky. Groups which moved faster, caught up with us and we had to make way for them. The snow under our feet was still hard.

En-route Tilicho lake

Gradually, the sun came out and bathed the entire trail with its rays. It was all monochrome around with snow playing the dominant part. It was a beautiful sight to watch, but my mind was caught in the thoughts of getting down the same trail with the sun in its full power over the snow. We reached a place where suddenly, it struck our guide Brian, to climb up the slope on our right to some extent and pose for a photograph leaning against the snow. While it might have been a maverick idea, but climbing proved difficult, especially, with his weight. While making attempts, he slid multiple times which prompted us to refrain him from doing such antics at these slopes. Looking down the other side, just beyond the edge, gave us horrors.

Route to Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We kept moving up the slopes and I slipped a few times during that, but these were minor as compared to the ones faced during our way down. As the sun increased its power, the effect became increasingly visible under our feet. We were reminded of a familiar statement from Physics from our school days – “Friction is a necessary evil”. The necessity part of it was quite evident. Thoughts increased in my mind as I kept looking at my mobile phone for time. It was already 9 AM, when we reached a place which had a small wooden shelter by the trail. People took rest and had sips of warm water at that place before resuming their hike. I looked at the trail above and ascertained from our guide, it would take at least two hours to reach the lake from there with the speed that I was moving with. A quick calculation of time made me rethink my priorities. I didn’t want to increase the length of the trail to cover on the way down and after going through some tough trade offs between safety and the missed opportunity of visiting the lake, the very purpose of this trek, I chose to side with safety and decided to wait for the group to come down and rejoin them on their way back. Others tried to cajole me otherwise, but I decided against it. While they moved ahead, I stayed on, taking turns to stand or sit.

Note: The remaining part of the hike to Tilicho lake is not sourced from my own experience, but from those of my fellow travelers.

Remaining journey to Tilicho lake

Dhananjoy and Niladri resumed their journey bidding goodbye to me, along with our guide Brian. The trail increased its gradient after the wooden shelter and they negotiated their way through the snow. After another hour or so, the gradient decreased, giving an indication, that destination was nearing. There were still a series of switchbacks ahead.

En-route Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Mt Tilicho looked as if it was at a stone’s throw distance. It’s slopes were entirely covered with snow, unlike other mountain peaks which had stripes and patches of black rocky surfaces amidst the snow. The trail, however, was nearly level now. With reduced gradient, walking was easier. Dhananjoy was ecstatic in his expressions with expectations increasing with every bend. After trolling along for some more time, they crossed a bend and came across some frozen water bodies.

Nearing Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The entire landscape was covered with snow with Mt Tilicho standing guard at the background. These water bodies were a prelude to the main lake and after a few turns, they came across the vast expanse of pristine azure water surface bordered on all of its sides by mountain peaks. They had finally reached the coveted Tilicho Lake. Some christen the lake as the highest lake in the world, though its not confirmed. It lies at 4919m (placing it higher than Gokyo system of lakes lying in eastern Nepal’s Solu Khumbu district).

Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Snow bordered on all sides of the lake, but the lake itself was devoid of it, makig it look even more beautiful. The lake is considered holy and pristine by both the Hindus as well as Buddhists. There are metallic statues of both Shiva and Lord Budhha on the shores of the lake. Dhananjoy and Niladri took their turns to have pictures with both the deities.

Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

They spent time to take pictures of the surroundings. Shutters rolled on endlessly as pictures always seem not enough to capture the beauty placed at their disposal by nature. They’ve visited Gokyo lake earlier, way back in 2016, but it seemed, the backdrop and surroundings of this high altitude lake had no match. One could see the glaciers coming down the slopes of Mt Tilicho which lay on the left banks of the lake.

Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

One wants to spend more time with this glorious display of nature, but time was ticking and at sometime, they had to turn back. The entire route that they hiked up, now lay ahead on their way down with the full power of sun playing its tricks on the snow beneath their feet. They tread along the path till the point above the wooden shed where they left Indranil on their way up. Was he still around, awaiting their return? Dhananjoy tried a different trick to negotiate the slope. He glissaded over the slope and almost in no time, landed near the wooden shelter. But towards the end of his slide, he had to anchor using his walking pole. Without that trick, chances were ripe, he could have slid over the trail, down the slopes on the other side into the abys!

The way down for Indranil

The wait for Dhananjoy and Niladri seemed eternal. I kept thinking, had they started on their way down? They started early and were now heading down. While I awaited the return of them, many groups started coming down. One of the guides stopped by me and informed that he was instructed by Brian to guide me down the slopes. I followed him with nervous steps. He advised me to walk side ways. According to him, it provided better grip on the snow, but I somehow never felt comfortable with it. He asked me to move faster as the more I delayed, chances were ripe for me to skid on the snow. He helped me tread the slopes but at times, he was literally dragging me down and I had a couple of falls on my way. After sometime, he said he needed move down faster as his clients were waiting for him and I let him go. Fortunately enough, by that time, I had covered significant stretches and reached a point, beyond which, the trail of rocks and mud was visible. On his way down, Dhananjoy caught up with me and we moved down to base camp and on reaching the tea house, spread our legs in the warm sun. We also spread our clothes over the bushes to allow them to dry up in the sun. After having our staple “Dal bhat” menu, we resumed our journey back towards Shree Kharka. As we headed out of base camp, the land slide area greeted us again with its barren slopes. What starts, ends too and so did the stretch of the landslide area.

Landslide area, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

While crossing it, Dhananjoy and Niladri had another close shave. A cricket ball sized rock came streaming down the slopes and missed them by a whisker before tumbling down the other side! After crossing the landslide area, we started climbing up the slopes to reach the hanging bridge and I was delighted to watch from above, the broken end of it was fixed temporarily by the locals and we didn’t have to circumvent down the slopes! I heaped a lot of blessings to whoever did that act. After crossing over to the other side, the walk towards Shree Kharka was pleasant amidst the afternoon sun as snow reduced to a great extent. We walked, relaxed in our minds and reached the tea house at Shree Kharka, but our legs were very tired and it pained to climb the stairs up or down. The evening was pleasant and after dinner, we headed to our room. We were sleeping at 4045m.

Tilicho base camp

Yak Kharka and Thorong high camp

Around Annapurna – Tilicho Base Camp

Manang

Tilicho lake

14th October

Bright sunshine greeted us the next morning. The day was critical as it would take us to Tilicho base camp. It is a critical section of the route and a large part of it goes through a land slide area. The mountains are dry and rugged in the area that bears more resemblance to Tibet than Nepal, since it lies entirely in the rain shadow area of the Annapurna range. The trail moves up and down steeply in certain sections where gravels and pebbles are abundant. The slopes have big heaps of rocks. Endless erosion caused by strong winds and snow over years have cut their edges morphing them into strange shapes and architectures. At times, they appear as huge termite heaps. One has to keep a constant eye on the upper slopes and cross the area as fast as possible under the circumstances (speed is a scarce commodity in such altitudes). The vigil is required to watch out for streams of rocks and pebbles that keep coming down and can dislodge the travelers any time. In their least pervasive form, they can cause damage like fractures. Even a small pebble coming down the slopes from high above, can wreak havoc because of its momentum. Such streams of rocks can be generated simply by winds sweeping the surfaces or herds of Himalayan Blue Sheep, which roam around in the high slopes. They move around swiftly while navigating the slopes. Fights too, are common among competing males for drawing attention of females. All such activities can cause problems for trekkers navigating the trail. After all, we’re intruders in this area and they’re the original claimants.

En-route Khangsar

After leaving the hotel, the track reached a junction where it diverged in two directions. One went down towards the valley. That went towards Khangsar, SreeKharka and beyond towards the Tilicho Base Camp. The other route went up towards Yak Kharka, Thorong Phedi and beyond towards the Thorong La. We’d be joining that route after returning from Tilicho lake. In a way, Manang marks an end of the relatively easier section of the trail. From here on, trails would only go up, so will the quantity of snow. As if we were getting closer to the bosom of the Himalayas. The sunshine was warm and the trail meandered through the wide valley. The river cut through it. High mountain peaks rose above its banks.

En-route Khangsar, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After the valley, the trail started moving up the slopes. We could still see some vegetation, but they were fast depleting with the advance of the snow line. After reaching the top of the nearest hill, we reached a meadow. Dhananjoy gave some of his acrobatics while we clicked on the pictures. From there, we could see the route on the other side that went towards Thorong La. We could see electric posts on that route, raising our hopes of finding connectivity there. On our side of the route, we could see homes and lodges nestled in the higher slopes. That must be Khangsar (not to be confused with another village on the Leh-Manali highway). A vehicle road also plied along the lower sections of the valley. We moved along and after sometime, found ourselves in the village of Khangsar. Although smaller than Manang, Khangsar was big enough. Routes emanated from it towards Yak Kharka and beyond that, to Thorong La. We walked through the lanes amidst tea houses and crossed a couple of ornate gates with prayer wheels. These are typical of the villages in this area. We left Khangsar behind and plodded ahead. The trail moved up gradually, but walking was still comfortable as it was wide enough. Bushes still lined along the trail. Patches of snow started appearing on the path. These are remnants of the past rough weather that plagued the area for a few days before we arrived. We tried to imagine the plight of the tourists who were trapped in these areas for days with no way to go up (routes to both Thorong La and Tilicho Lake were blocked due to heavy snow fall) or down (trail below Manang was broken at many places due to landslides and heavy downpours, some of which we witnessed while coming up). We were fortunate enough. As the trail went up, the mountains of the Annapurna range came closer and grew in stature. Mt Tilicho, in particular, increased in size in leaps and bounds with every bend of the track.

En-route Sree Kharka

After sometime, we crossed a monastery and when we looked up, we could see the homes and lodges of Sree Kharka at the top of the hill. We were nearing our destination for lunch. Looking at Sree Kharka, I had a strange feeling. We’d be heading towards it, in the afternoon, the next day, on our way back from Tilicho Base Camp. The lodges looked cosy, especially their dining places.

En-route Sree Kharka, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After crossing a few, we entered the one destined for us and ordered our “Dal bhat” meals. The dining place was marvelous. It had glass windows on all three sides through which we were presented with grandiose views from outside. We could see the glaciers along the slopes of the mountains or their ice falls. They were at that close quarters! While our lunches were getting prepared, we relaxed and enjoyed the majestic views at our disposal. Our guide Brian came up to inform that we’d have to rearrange some of our luggage to leave some of it at this lodge. Since we were supposed to stay at the same place on our way back, there was no point carrying all the luggage over to base camp. That meant some re juggling across our bags and leaving behind stuff that was deemed unnecessary. By the time we finished these adjustments, lunch got served and we jumped over it.

Sree Kharka, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After lunch, we hit the trail once more and started walking leisurely. The track moved out of Sree Kharka. After we moved beyond the tea houses, patches of snow started to appear along the sidelines of the trail. Even at the tea houses, small heaps of snow remained within the alleys between the adjacent rooms. They were remains of the rough weather that plagued the area a few days back. These small heaps still managed to survive the heat of the sun.

En-route Tilicho base camp

The track moved along level grounds for a few yards before taking a turn downwards after a bend. Here, the trail moved in towards the mountains, forming a ‘U’. There was a steel wire bridge that connected two ends of the trail bridging the gap created by a waterfall that came down the slopes. It was a long, hanging bridge, nothing surprising in Nepal. We’ve seen them in all its parts we’ve visited so far. But the other end of the bridge was supposed to meet at a stair case, which was non-existent. It somehow touched the other end, with the steel ropes clinging on to the bare rocks that were ripped out of the surface by a recent landslide. Footsteps of travelers created a roundabout way of circumventing the staircase below the ropes to join it back on the left side of the bridge with the remaining part of the trail. The “workaround” trail created by local travelers formed the shape of a “heart”. We could see people treading that part very carefully along the slopes of the hill barely able to keep both of their feet side by side. The sight sent some chills down my spine but I went ahead. My boots were skidding while tried to negotiate the “round about” and with the help of the guide, I somehow managed to pull myself up on the other side to rejoin the original trail, which moved up with a series of switchbacks. After reaching safe ground, we all took some time to take stock of the area. Immediately, thoughts poured in me, that we’d have to traverse it once again on our way back (but we were up for a surprise).

Hanging bridge, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After the area, the trail assumed a very different look on the other side. While we had vegetation in the form of bushes lining the trail earlier, now the hills on its sides bore a fully desolate look. Rocks were bare and dry, devoid of any vegetation. Acts of wind blowing through the areas, carved out mesmerizing architectures out of barren landscape. Huge rocks appeared like termite heaps. We came across our first stretch of snow over the trail. I became very skeptical (as I always do) on such trails. I constantly looked for support from my guide, holding his hand, while I treaded the path. At one point, my boot went straight in but fortunately, the snow wasn’t deep and I was able to pull it out. After reaching the other side, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Landslide area, en-route Tilicho Base Camp, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

A placard lay by the side with a label stating that the area ahead was a landside zone and we were asked to cross it with caution. We entered a place where rocks on the route almost created a tunnel and the track went through a facade. Railings were present on the left side, apparently to keep travelers from skidding, but the track moved down steeply and the surface was sprinkled with pebbles and gravels. It was very difficult to get purchase on such a surface and I took my steps carefully. Nevertheless, I moved on and after sometime, was greeted with almost a level (though narrow) track along the slopes. When asked about the length of the landslide area, our guide Brian responded “~3 kms”. The good part was that the weather was bright and sunny and we walked comfortably amidst the afternoon sun. But a constant vigil was required as people looked up towards the hills frequently to watch out for falling rocks. I paused at some places to take photos of the amazing landscape that was at the disposal, but time was precious as we had to get out of this area as soon as possible to avoid danger.

En-route Tilicho Base Camp, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After treading along for some more time, we reached another placard that marked the end of the landslide area though the trail beyond it wasn’t much different. Dhananjoy and Niladri walked ahead of me and they stopped suddenly to look up. After a pause, they ran as quickly as possible to move ahead and just as they moved out, a mid sized rock fell on the trail, toppled over and went down to the abys on the other side. It was a stern reminder, what was at stake! Heaps of snow re-appeared and we had to tread through them. Some were knee deep and after sometime, we could see the lodges at Tilicho Base Camp. Normally, this raises energy levels, but a look around the place, somewhat gave me an idea, that this wasn’t a natural place for habitation and we, the humans were forcing our way through it. So sooner or later, nature would have her way of sending us out. It was a strange feeling. We went towards our slated tea house which had heaps of snow lying all over. The cold was biting as the sun moved behind the surrounding mountains but we could see the afternoon glow on the peaks. Mt Tilicho was imposing in its stature and we could see the trail towards the lake along the slopes. It was all white with patches of black. We were certainly looking for hike amidst snow for the morrow.

En-route Tilicho Base Camp, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After dumping our back packs, we headed for the dining space which was packed with travelers from different groups. We met some locals from Nepal who were traveling from Kathmandu valley. They visited the lake that day and were on their way down. They advised us to start very early in the morning (preferably by 4 AM) to avoid the risks of walking on melting snow as much as possible.

Tilicho Base Camp, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Then there was a group from Bangladesh and their advice was the same. Going up was one thing, but coming down the slopes was a very different story with melting snow under your feet. They were made worse by groups that slid their way down along the snowy slopes, making them more skiddy for the walkers. For the first time on the trail, I rued not having brought crampons or microspikes. It was very foolish to heed to the guide, sitting in Delhi, who advised not to carry them. Anyways, I tried to keep my focus out of the discussions to keep my morale up. After dinner, we slid under the blankets, adjusting the alarm clocks an hour earlier for the next morning. We were sleeping at 4919 m.

Manang

Tilicho lake

Around Annapurna – Reaching Manang

Upper Pisang

Manang

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

Manang

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