Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Khorla Besi and Jagat

Kathmandu

Deng

4th November, 2019

Previous night, our guide briefed us about the day’s plan at the dinner table. His English is difficult to follow and he doesn’t know Hindi. It proved challenging for us to follow his words, but as the trek went through, we got used to him. The plan for the day was to walk up to Machhakhola, the next destination on the route. This was the first day of trekking. I finished the breakfast with corn flakes and milk, while others had pancakes or muesli. It was time to stripe up our respective backpacks and get going. Everybody carried two bottles of lukewarm water with them. The bags were ready, accounts were squared up at the tea house, the sticks were in our hands and we were ready to hit the trail.

Sotikhola, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We strode past other lodges and the trail moved gradually upwards. Mist rose from the valley and surrounded us.

The mist in the valley

It was cold to start with and we had our jackets on. However, as the sun came out and slopes headed up, we felt the warmth and had to peel off. Niladri in fact stripped down to his half pant, a trend that would continue for the days we were on the lower reaches of the trail. The Budhi Gandaki roared down the gorge and kept its presence felt with the continuous sound of its torrents. The early morning mist gave way to bright sunshine with clear skies. Walking was a treat in such surroundings. The slope was gentle, the sunshine was bright. The lush green forests were soothing to our eyes. The trail was still wide enough and there were tracts of tyres clearly visible to us, indicating that Sotikhola was not the last destination accessible by vehicles. I recalled Tej Gurung’s words last year during our Annapurna trek. “Visit Manaslu before road construction erases the trail!”. Sings were now visible that over the years to come, days of walking will continue to get trimmed off with the advancement of road. We were told that a road was being constructed from Machhakhola to Larkya La (the highest point on this trail), meaning a large section of the circuit trail will become redundant in the coming years. The future of the tea houses will also be impacted. Similar fate has been witnessed on the Annapurna Circuit trail, which now requires just 2-3 days of walking. Tea houses at the lower reaches have been made largely redundant as trekkers can now directly reach Manang by road.

Villages were nestled amidst the high slopes of the mountains. Houses were surrounded by terraced fields. Villagers were at work in the fields. Some kids passed by on their way to local school. We carried lozenges with us and were generous about distributing them to the kids whom we met on our way.

Waterfalls kept coming down the slopes. Some even crossed our ways. We had to be careful while crossing them. Though the torrents were not fast, but they were deep and we had to cross them by placing our feet over the precariously placed rocks that dotted the streams.

The first four days of the trek were supposed to be long, approximately 18-19 kms a day. Today was the start of it. With the weather playing fine, people kept their camera shutters rolling, but we also had to keep an eye on the time. Our past experiences in the Himalayas told us that the fine weather may not last in the second half and it’s in our interest to get to the destination before that eventuality.

Budhi Gandaki kept company all along. On our way, we came across a local shop along the road side. Samosas were being fried. Immediately, we all flocked around the seller, who was a lady. The samosas were big. We got to see the raw materials stacked around which included fresh green peas, boiled vegetables and potatoes. These lured us. She fried the samosas and kept serving. The taste was heavenly. A pickle prepared by grinding green chilies, salt and some local spices added taste to the flavor. The price was nothing when compared to the size of the samosas, their taste and above all, the surroundings. After a few bends, we got to see the distant houses of the Machhakhola village.

Picture courtesy – Dhananjoy De

Machhakhola would be the site for lunch. Initially, it was supposed to be the destination for the day, but en-route, our guide decided to carry on after lunch for another 1-2 hours. That should lead us to Khorla Besi and hence, curtail the distance for the morrow by the same amount. The plan sounded sensible and we agreed to it. After reaching Machhakhola, we ordered lunch, which was Nepalese thali that included rice, lentils, vegetables and green chilies. This is the staple food of Nepal across all regions and for most of our destinations along the route, we stuck to this diet. As we started off after lunch, a light drizzle started, which increased on our way and finally we had to pull out our raincoats. Dhananjoy was walking ahead of rest of us and soon moved out of sight. Clouds now moved in front and covered the hills surrounding us. With clouds coming on, the cold increased.

Machhakhola – picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

After walking for sometime, we saw Dhananjoy standing beside the road in a local shop. After reaching there, he dropped a bomb shell . He had left his water bottles at the tea house at Machhakhola. Our destination for the day was just ahead. The porters were reluctant to go back and fetch the bottles. After some deliberations, Dhananjoy himself went back. It was a tough ask at the end of the day, to go back the distance we just covered and repeat the same journey. It would take him at least two to three hours more. With all of us exhausted by the day’s walking, it was painful to even think of it, but he had no other option. We plodded ahead and reached Khorla Besi, a small village nestled amidst the hills with just a few tea houses. Our sweatshirts were drenched and we hung them on the wires, but with the moisture in the atmosphere, their chances of drying up were feeble. After arrival of Dhananjoy, Niladri pulled out the snacks and tea bags from his repertoire and we chatted along. Evening wore on and after dinner at 7 PM, we subsided to our rooms. We were sleeping at 1200 m.

5th November, 2019

I spent the previous evening sweating over how to get my clothes dried. Hanging them outside didn’t work, so I laid them under my blanket and slept over them (with the hope of my body warmth drying them up). However, they were still wet when I woke up the next morning. Getting clothes dried in time was crucial as we had to reuse them (may be not on successive days, but every alternate 2/3 days). Finally, Niladri gave the idea of hanging them on my back while walking. The days were usually bright and clear, so why not let the Sun do its job. 5th November, 2019 was the first day when I tried that option and it continued throughout the trek. Bags were packed and handed over to porters. Our morning tea session started with discussion about the day’s plan. It was a long one. To reach Jagat, our next destination, we’d have to walk about 20 kms and would take almost the entire day. We left Khorla Besi after breakfast at about 7 AM in the morning. The trail continued up along the banks of Budhi Gandaki amidst bright sunshine, traversing through the valleys, ravines and the gorges.

Sections of the trail were broken by land slides and the route was riddled with boulders, pebbles and loose grounds. We skid frequently, especially when the trail moved down towards the river bank. The views were ecstatic, but we had to focus on our feet while moving over unsettled grounds. The frequency of landslides, narrow trails, rock fall zones on this route gave a feeling that we humans are not always welcome in these “internal” areas of nature. As if it was giving us signs to stay away. It doesn’t like these relentless intrusions in its interiors in the form of ever increasing tea houses, tourists and the accompanying road construction. The trail now descended to the banks of the river, which roared down the gorges.

En-route Jagat

Herds of ponies kept crossing us and we had to make way for them. They are the lifelines to the upper reaches of the region. One has to be careful while encountering these herds. The trails are narrow and there’s no luxury of space. The ponies are often burdened with loads and they don’t tolerate any obstruction on their way as it’s very difficult to contain their momentum with loaded backs. Hence, it’s the pedestrians who have the make way for them on the way up or down. Things can get tricky on narrow blind bends. Since you can’t see the other side (hidden from your vision by the mountain walls), you may come across them unexpectedly. But the good thing is they have bells hung in their necks which keep ringing and can be heard from a distance. The moment you hear them, keep an eye to judge how far they are at the back or in front and whether you can cross the upcoming narrow passage before they reach that point. Paving way for them isn’t easy always as space is a luxury on these trails at many places and at times, you have to slant your body along the rising walls to give them passage. The key here is to reach a convenient point of passage early enough where you can stand decently and wait for them to cross instead of clamoring for space which can be precarious and dangerous at times.

The river gave us ample opportunities to shoot and our shutters kept rolling. People posed by standing on the boulders with the river in the background.

Picture courtesy – Dhananjoy De

Boulders studding the river bed, bore the signs of the flowing torrent over the years which carved its own sculpture and pattern over them. After walking down the banks, we came across a suspension bridge which carried us to the other bank and a steep hike followed. We passed along villages where people were engrossed in their daily work. That mainly involved working in the fields, taming the roaming herds of goats to guide them to the pastures or towards home. Kids continued to cross our ways and we obliged them by distributing lozenges. Greetings of “Namaste” (a standard Nepalese respectful greeting) were exchanged. This greeting would gradually change to “Tashi Delek” (the Tibetan word for welcome) in the upper reaches inhabited by Tibetan refugees who came across the high mountain passes from trans Himalayan regions to settle in those areas after Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Picture courtesy – Dhananjoy De

We gave a halt for sometime to drink water. Our guide informed that we were nearing our place for lunch. Another half an hour should lead us there. He gave us corn grains to chew. Apparently, this gives oxygen which is helpful in the higher altitudes. When we reached there, we saw just a few tea houses on the edge of a wide valley. The river Budhi Gandaki flowed through many streams spread wide across the huge valley that formed an amphitheater surrounded by hills. It was an exquisite place to have lunch.

We sat around the table as lunch was being prepared. The standard dal bhaat, the staple food of Nepal. Ranjan da pulled out his bottle of pickle made of green chilies. Every item on the menu was repeated as many times as we wished. We could see the walkway along the vertical rocky walls that rose above the valley of Budhi Gandaki.

The walkway – enroute Jagat

This walkway deserves some mention. The earthquake of 2015 and the changing courses of the rivers had devastating effects on the trail to Jagat. At times, these events eroded large sections of the old trail. For quite sometime, the access to Jagat was through steep rising trails followed by sharp and dangerous drops. People from the valleys of Tsum, Nubri and other remote areas are heavily dependent on supplies and aids from the lower regions which were difficult to reach since the trail between Machhakhola and Jagat got severely damaged by the aforesaid events. Then, a Swiss company was tasked to make the trail safe in this section. After a superb display of engineering and an arduous effort put in by the locals, they came up with what is now called the walkway. It is a level steel bridge supported by angular structures clamped into the vertical rocky walls that rose up from the valley. After lunch, we resumed our walk and crossed a stoned stair case to reach the newly built walkway.

It was a treat to walk on this and we thanked the efforts of the people who built this. It was almost like walking along a level footpath in the high mountainous regions. After the end of it, another stone staircase brought us down to the valley again and a gradual trail followed which led us to the base of another suspension bridge that carried us to the other bank of Budhi Gandaki. Helicopters were making trips to the other side of the valley indicating the presence of a helipad nearby. After sometime we could see the distant houses of the village of Jagat. As we entered its outskirts, we were welcomed by a board of Manaslu Conservation Area Project (MCAP).

Jagat

A map of the trek route was also on display with the prominent places, mountain peaks and passes marked out. Jagat is also the place where our permits would get checked. Our guide went to the MCAP office to have our permits checked.

We headed to our tea house. A single four-bedded room was allocated to us. Our bags reached there before. After changing to homewears, we sat on the beds with our usual tea and snacks session. Conversations involved our experience during the day, the new walkway, some friendly banters, leg pulling and the plan for the morrow, which would take us to the next destination Deng. The tea house had WiFi available and we called our respective homes to inform about our safe journey and health. A sense of relief, completion and satisfaction prevailed. After dinner, we went under the blankets. We were sleeping at 1370 m.

Kathmandu

Deng

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Kathmandu

Manaslu

Khorla Besi and Jagat

2nd November, 2019

The previous night went in discussing with other members about the luggage they were taking along. Speaking to different members led to different opinions about the number of items to be carried along. There was one problem to cope with. We won’t be coming back to the place where we start from. It was a circuit trekking. Unlike previous occasions, Kathmandu (neither Pokhara) won’t figure on our way of return. Pokhara won’t come at all, while Kathmandu was to figure on the route, only on our way to the Manaslu circuit. This did have a bearing on the luggage as we couldn’t have dropped some at a place to recollect on our way back. Given that, we had to go through varying altitudes, the clothes, particularly warm-wear would vary accordingly. The thermal inner-ware is useless in lower reaches. We also had to keep an eye on the weight of our luggage to be humane towards the porters who would carry them along for about eleven days. After many deliberations, each of us narrowed down to our respective luggage – leaving out what we thought to be unnecessary.

Just after breakfast, Ranjan da came down to my place with a cab and we both headed towards Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport. Dhananjoy was in touch with us all throughout. He started from his quarters and boarded the Airport Express Metro to reach Terminal 3. The boarding queue was long but finally, we made it through the check ins to the departure gate. We were careful with our seat selection in order to get window seats to get glimpses of the Himalayas as soon as the aircraft took off. Before boarding the aircraft, we spoke to Niladri on phone. His train was running late by an hour. After that conversation, he went out of contact as he entered Nepal from the Raxaul border. We were deprived of the views during the initial part as clouds held a veil in front of The Himalayas. The ranges of Garhwal and Kumaon eluded us, but gradually the clouds cleared up and once we were passing the ranges of Central Nepal, we could clearly identify Dhaulagiri, the peaks of the Annapurna range and the “double-edged” summit of Manaslu, our destination.

The Himalayas

Unlike their Indian counterparts, the Nepal Himalayas didn’t disappoint. We had our eyes glued to the range as the aircraft went past them and started it’s descent towards the Kathmandu valley. We could see the valley surrounded by distant mountains, dotted with houses and fields. Temples and Monasteries stood out among them with their golden tops.

Before the trip, I started reading about the Annapurna expedition by the first climbing French team led by Maurice Herzog. Back then, the Kathmandu valley or for that matter, Nepal was a land of mystery offering limited access to the Western world. In order to reach Kathmandu, people had to travel by rail, then by road to a point. From there, a trek to cross a pass and again by road. But even this mode of transport couldn’t deter the royals from purchasing the modern cars or riding them on the streets of Kathmandu. Cars were carried by huge teams of porters (or coolies as they were called) who devised innovative ways of creating a platform of logs. The car used to be placed and fastened on top of that structure. This entire setup got carried by coolies through the roads, across and beyond the passes to Kathmandu.

We landed at the Tribhuvan international airport at about 1 PM, local time. It appeared all so familiar this time. The sky was clear with a very comfortable warmth of a November sunshine. A taxi took us through the Kathmandu streets towards Thamel, the tourism district of the city. We went past the Pashupatinath shrine on our way and reached the hotel Tibet Peace Inn. It is located just a few steps away from our place of stay for the Annapurna trip. After the formalities, we were served a welcome drink and then a local staff led us to our rooms. A few moments later, we ventured out to the streets of Thamel for lunch. Our plan was to have lunch and walk down to the Royal palace, about 3 kms from our place. After visiting it, the plan was to go to Basantapur Durbar Square, a must visit on the list of local sight seeings in Kathmandu. Hot, steaming momo served good for our lunch and after that, we started walking towards the Royal palace but as luck would have it, it was already closed for the day (we missed it by an hour).

Narayanhiti Royal palace – Kathmandu

Nevertheless, a few snaps in front of the palace, gave us some consolation and we started off towards Durbar Square. There was a glassy mall right opposite to the Royal palace. This, to me, came across as a sign of declining stature of the royals in Nepal, who, till a decade ago, commanded a lot of respect from the general public. In those days, it was impossible to have a commercial building obstruct the clear views of Royal palace from distance. But those heydays are a thing of past in contemporary Nepal. The statue of the former king Mahendra continues to adore the crossing in front of the royal palace. So do metallic sculptures of the kings Mahendra and Birendra, in the courtyard of the Pashupatinath temple.Unlike what some people said earlier, the Durbar Square turned out to be quite far from the Royal palace. We kept walking and asking the locals till we finally reached there. It was a slice of ancient Nepal amidst the modern streets of Kathmandu.

Basantapur Durbar Square

The area was dotted with ancient temples and structures all around. Tourists from all around the world thronged the place. Shopkeepers were busy luring them with their “best deals”. Tourists enjoyed the local street food and the numerous monkeys kept constant vigil with the hope of confiscating them.

Durbar Square

Another attraction of the Durbar Square was the idol of Kal Bhairav – a deity that gets worshiped by locals, in the hope of warding off the evils.

Kal Bhairav – Durbar Square, Kathmandu

After the visit to the Durbar Square, we came back to the hotel to await the arrival of Niladri. We had to be present before his arrival as there was no way we could communicate with him on phone. Finally, when his figure entered through the door, it seemed to me, once again, a slice of Kolkata, my native place, with a freshness, arrived in my life after about six months (since my last visit during the summers)! We ordered tea as soon as he arrived and a tea conference ensued (first of the many that would follow throughout the trip). Niladri pulled out some snacks from his bag, in which he carried a load of items that included tea bags and a steel mug for each one of us. All of these were a part of a strategy to reduce cost (food costs go extremely high, especially at the higher altitudes). The hotel had WiFi, which allowed us to contact our homes to announce our safe arrival. I gave a call to Tej Bahadur Gurung of Nepal Alternative Treks to inquire about our permits. We also had to meet him in the evening to submit our passports and pay our advances for him to arrange for our permits. We met him in the evening at his hotel to hand over our documents. He would send his men to the permit office the next morning and it could take till noon to get them done. After that, he’d arrange for a vehicle to take us to Sotikhola, which is where our trek would start from. We arrived in Kathmandu on a Saturday, the weekly off day in Nepal. That’s the reason, the permits had to be done the following day. After meeting Tej, we had our dinner at a local restaurant in Thamel and returned to the hotel. Plans were drawn up for a visit to the Pashupatinath shrine in the early morning, the next day.

3rd November, 2019

We woke up next morning and after the morning bath and a small tea session, we headed for the Pashupatinath shrine as planned on the previous day. The taxi took us through the dark streets of Kathmandu to the shrine. We walked down the lanes, all familiar since our visit last year. The temple courtyard was bustling with devotees and monkeys alike. After a visit of the idol, we started a walk around the courtyard (a Parikrama). It was all the same as before. The temple, the morning tolls of it’s bells, the chants by the priests and also, the cremation ground at it’s backyard. We crossed over the Bagmati river to it’s other side to have a view of the temple complex from elevated banks on that side.

Pashupatinath shrine

On our way back to the hotel, we boarded a bus which took a different route that wandered through the streets of Kathmandu and dropped us at a place, from where we had to take a walk towards Thamel. On our way, we had breakfast. Finally, at about 11.30 AM, Tej Gurung gave us a call that our permits were ready. We took our bags to the place where the vehicle awaited us. We met our guide and one of the porters. Bidding goodbye to Tej Gurung, we started off on our journey. Another porter, Naveen, joined us en-route. The vehicle headed out of the Kathmandu valley along the highway to Pokhara. From Benighat, it left the Pokhara highway towards the town Aarughat. The afternoon was bright and the sun showered its golden rays over the paddy fields we passed by. The road started meandering up the slopes till it reached a point where Asphalt gave way to mud and boulders. We knew earlier that the secion of the road from Aarughat to Sotikhola was totally made of boulders, but it turned out that the stretch started much earlier, even before Aarughat. Evening was bearing on and we had to reach Sotikhola before dark. The vehicle kept bumping up and down on our topsy turvy ride. The road moved along the banks of the river Budhi Gandaki which came down the slopes with it’s water frothing along the rapids formed by it’s uneven bed. When we finally reached Sotikhola, the last trace of daylight was leaving the lower reaches of the valley, while the upper slopes of the surrounding hills still bathed in sunshine, a common phenomenon in the mountains. Our guide found a tea house and we subsided into our rooms. A tea session followed soon. Let me describe these tea sessions as it merits some mention. It usually started with Niladri puling out some tea bags from his repertoire. All of us then followed by pulling out some snacks (biscuits, chocolates, dates etc.) from our respective bags. We ordered a jug of hot water from the tea house. Mugs came out and tea got prepared by dipping the bags. Dhananjoy preferred having his tea bag dipped for at least 5 minutes before consumption. Apparently, that yielded a much better flavor (a fact which served as a basis of immense leg-pulling throughout the trip). It was then followed by candid discussions, friendly banters, leg pulling and plans for the coming days. We responded to a call for dinner at 7 PM to come out in the lawn in the chilly evening. The sky was pitch dark, studded with some stars. The guide gave us a lecture about the morrow’s plan (a pattern that would follow throughout the route). It had a fixed agenda and was spoken in a unique accent (more about it later) which was difficult to decipher. As per the plan, our next destination was Machhakhola. Finally, the day arrived when we’d hit the trail, once again! We subsided under blankets for the night. We were sleeping at 700 m.

Manaslu

Khorla Besi and Jagat

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu

Kathmandu

During the concluding phases of our visit to the Annapurna Base Camp, we were thinking about what could be our next venture. The target was obviously Nepal as it houses half of the highest mountains in the world. Though we are not a group of climbers, so the rankings of mountains by their heights shouldn’t mean much to us, but there’s no doubting the fact that they add to the aura. More often than not, it’s likely that they’d have a route to their base camps and they normally go through a wide range of altitudes and varying landscapes. The name of the mountain that came up this time was Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain of the world. The name Manaslu translates to the meaning “mountain of the spirit“. It is derived from the Sanskrit word manasa which means soul or spirit. Firstly, it belongs to the famed 8000-ers (the mountain peaks that reach 8000 m or more) and secondly, this trail is not about going to the base camp and returning via the same route. It is about encircling the Manaslu massif with the route likely to take us through the varied landscapes, flora, fauna and the culture of the people inhabiting the villages that are sprinkled densely (at the lower levels) and sparsely (at the higher levels) along the route. For the first time, we’d be taking a route that will not be the same on our way back. That is to say, on our way up and down, we’d be traversing “different” places.

The region

Mt Manaslu is the eighth highest mountain in the world with a height of 8163 m. It is a part of the Mansiri Himal (Himal: Sections or ranges of The Himalayas typically including many mountain peaks) lying in the Gorkha district of West-central Nepal. It lies about 64 km east of the Annapurna range of Central Nepal. Starting from Arughat to Larkya La (the highest point in the trek), the Manaslu region covers different climatic zones ranging from tropical & sub-tropical zones in the lower reaches, to temperate, sub-alpine and alpine zones. The flora and fauna varies accordingly. The valleys in the lower reaches are covered with lush green forests, which gradually pave the way for arid trans-Himalayan pastures finally reaching the snow line at its highest elevation at Larkya La, which is the passage from the Gorkha district to the Manang district or in other words, from the Manaslu Conservation area to the Annapurna Conservation area. The Manaslu Conservation Area Project was started in 1997 with the aim of conservation of natural resources and culture of the region.

There are many ethnic groups inhabiting the area, Nubri and Tsum being the primary two divides. The Gurungs inhabit the hills of the central area, while the Bhotias of Tibetan ethnicity can be found in the higher reaches dotted with serene monasteries, stupas and mani walls.

Climbing history

They say Mt Everest is the mountain of the British, but Mt Manaslu belongs to the Japanese. This is mainly derived from the fact that the majority of the initiatives to climb the former was driven by the British and ultimately, the expedition that tasted success for the first time, was also organized by them. Similarly, for the latter, the same applies to the Japanese (be it the majority of failed attempts, the first successful climb and even the first successful team of women on the mountain).

In 1950, H. W. Tilman led an expedition that trekked from the Kathmandu valley to Manang, which they used as a base camp to explore the valleys and mountains in and around the Annapurna massif. It was the same time when a French expedition team led by Maurice Herzog was exploring the regions between the Annapurna massif and the Dhaulagiri massif looking for options to climb any of the two who would lower their defenses first. While Maurice’s team tasted success on Annapurna Main, Tilman’s team made an unsuccessful attempt on Annapurna IV. During these efforts, when Tilman’s team was exploring the higher reaches of the river Dudhkhola, they were able to get a clear view of Mt Manaslu from Bimthang (now used as a stopover on the way down from Larkya La in the Manaslu Circuit Trek). Three months after that aborted attempt, Tilman, along with J. O. M. Roberts trekked to Larkya La and from there, had a clear view of Manaslu and its slopes. They concluded that there is a direct route to the summit, but they didn’t attempt it.

Between 1950-54, there were as many as four Japanese expeditions to the mountain. In 1952, a Japanese reconnaissance  team visited the area after monsoons. The following year saw a Japanese team of fifteen attempting to climb the mountain via the east side by setting their base camp at Samagaun. But the expedition failed with four members of the team having to turn back after reaching 7750 m. The 1954 team had to face a group of hostile villagers at Samagaun who thought that the Japanese expeditions of the previous years have displeased the God, resulting in avalanches that destroyed the Pung-gyen monastery, killing 18 people in the process (now a side trek destination from Samagaun that gives exquisite views of Himalayan peaks including Manaslu). The team had to make a hasty retreat to Ganesh Himal. They made generous donations towards rebuilding the monastery, but that failed to please the local inhabitants. Finally, in the year 1956, on May, the 9th, Toshio Imanishi of Japan and Sherpa Gyaltsen Norbu made the first successful ascent of Manaslu. This team too, had to face the wrath of local population (a leftover of previous expeditions). The next successful climb was only in 1971, again by a Japanese team, lending weight behind the term “Japanese mountain”. The next year, 1972, saw the first climb via the South-West face by Reinhold Messner. The same year saw one of the deadliest accidents on the slopes of Manaslu. Fifteen members of a Korean expedition were killed when an avalanche buried their camp at the height of 6500 m. In this topsy turvy history, if there were some lows, certainly there were some highs too. The year 1974 saw the first team of women succeed on the mountain. An expedition led by by Kyoko Sato, a team comprising of the climbers Naoko Nakaseko, Masako Uchida and Mieko Mori successfully climbed Manaslu on 4th May along with Jambu Sherpa. They were also the first team of women to climb any 8000 m peak.

The trek

A trek that now spans for 163 km, starts from Sotikhola and ends at Dharapani, on the Annapurna circuit route. The trek follows an ancient salt-trading route along the gorges of the Budhi Gandaki river. The slopes are steep in the lower regions till one reaches the village of Deng. The lower reaches go through dense forests amidst the river gorges and offers ample views of gorgeous waterfalls.

The slopes start becoming more gradual after Deng, after which, views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks start to appear. The village of Lho offers the first view of the double edged summit of Mt Manaslu.

After that, the route travels through the forests of the Syala village (that offers a 360 degree view of Himalayan peaks) to a slight descent to Samagaun, lying on the eastern base of Manaslu. After Samagaun, a flat trail with a steep rise at the end takes one to Samdo, the highest village in the Budhi Gandaki valley. The trail after that is along another valley bordering Tibet taking one to Dharamsala, the base for night halt before attempting to cross Larkya La, the next day. After crossing the pass, the trail enters the Annapurna Conservation area to descend to BimThang and then moving further down to Dharapani following the banks of Dudhkhola. From Dharapani, one can take a jeep ride to Besisahar. The trek takes you from an altitude of 600 m to a maximum height of 5106 m (Larkya La).

The trip

We returned from Nepal after completing the Annapurna Base Camp trek making a pledge to return to the Manaslu region next year. At the turn of 2019, I reached out to my regular companions Dhananjoy De, Niladri Sekhar Guha and Ranjan da (Ranjan Ghosh). They are the ones who have accompanied me in all my earlier ventures to Nepal. This time around, we were cautious about reaching out to others. We did reach out to other members of the erstwhile Annapurna team, but they were not able to make it for different reasons. But, unlike on last occasion, we didn’t try to convince many people and were content to limit ourselves to the “core four”. Our usual queries started flowing in different directions. Some to the tour operator, others to internet. People started watching videos about the trek. The views on the offering made us exited even more and plans were drawn out. Initially, we wanted to include Tsum valley, but had to drop the idea because of time constraints. According to the final plan, Niladri was to start from Kolkata on 1st November (a Friday) on a train to reach Raxaul on 2nd. He was to reach Kathmandu, the same day in the evening. The rest of us were to take a morning flight to Kathmandu on 2nd November. One the 3rd, we were to travel by a jeep to Sotikhola. The trek was to start on 4th. Successive days were to see us scaling heights and 13th was supposed to be the D-Day, i.e. the day to cross Larkya La. The bugle calls were on and so was our journey to the Himalayan nation Nepal for a third time on a trekking adventure! In my upcoming posts, I intend to take you along the journey through the gorges of Budhi Gandaki and Dudhkhola.

Kathmandu

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – au revoir

At her feet

24th October, 2018

At about 2 or 3 AM, there were some movements in the rooms. Ranjan da started to mount his lenses to his camera and then started working on the manual focus settings. That reminded me of the night ventures we were about to take. Full moon was nearby and we didn’t want to waste the opportunity to witness the moonlit views of the Annapurna range, especially when the weather showed promises of staying clear in the previous evening. Sounds of similar movements came up from the adjacent rooms. The daughters were deep asleep. We went outside and were greeted amidst what was nothing less of a paradise! All the surroundings were white, the place where we stood, the mountains, the roof of the lodges, everywhere. All of that and the surrounding mountains were placed against a pitch dark background of clear sky dotted with numerous stars. The ones who are familiar with the galaxies and their shapes (which I’m not) could might as well have recognized them easily. The moon was in the sky behind us in full glory, showering its light on the Annapurna range which we were looking at. People got started with the manual focus settings of their DSLR cameras as auto focus doesn’t work in such conditions. They got started with their snaps and each had to take multiple shots for a subject to get it to perfection after adjusting the shutter speed and exposure duration to the optimum. At the end, many did a great job in capturing as much as possible of what was at our disposal.

Annapurna range at night, ABC, pic courtesy – Niladri Sekhar Guha

Himalayan views at night are not very common, not at least in full moon. It gave us a sense of accomplishment since the trip was planned with meticulous details keeping many factors in mind and one of them was full moon. We started to plot the days after fixing the day at the Annapurna Base Camp, just before full moon and rest of the schedule was worked backwards from there.

Annapurna Main at night, ABC, pic courtesy – Niladri Sekhar Guha

After all that, we headed back to our respective rooms and slid under the blankets. Fortunately for us, there were no shortage of them, unlike at Bamboo. They were thick enough to give us enough warmth to sleep with reasonable comfort with all our warm wears on. Everyone was keen to make most of the night left with us before we start preparing for the famous sunrise and the descent, which were just about 3 hours away. The alarm went off at 4 AM and I started with the preparations. After setting aside the clothes for my daughter, I went for my morning duties. Just as I dipped the mug in the water stored in a bucket, it struck something hard and refused to go in. When I looked at it, I saw crystals of ice covering the entire surface of the water in the bucket. It was only after applying some pressure, I could dip the mug. I decided that there was no point making my daughter go through the pain so I let her sleep. Others got started too and as the time wore on for the sunrise, we went out. The place was already crowded with people from different lodges and teams. The sky started to acquire a tinge of blue. The mountains nearby still wore a dark outline. The peaks of the Annapurna range and their snow abode were clearly visible beyond the dark outline. After sometime, the outline gradually started to move down and the mountain tops became clearer. Annapurna South was the first to get the showers of gold.

Annapurna South at sunrise, Annapurna Base Camp

As if nature was gradually placing the crown of glory on her. The dark outline moved further down the slopes of Annapurna South as the crown gradually fit on its forehead.

Annapurna South at sunrise, Annapurna Base Camp

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

Annapurna range at sunrise, ABC, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De
Annapurna range at sunrise, ABC, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De
Annapurna range at sunrise, ABC, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

People crammed for spaces and positions to click their “best” shots. Shutters rolled on relentlessly and people were awestruck by the dazzling display of colors. I can continue uploading many more snaps but still have to admit that what we saw and hence, was imprinted in our minds and hearts, can never be depicted by the snaps. I recalled the words of one of the trekkers we met on our way up. Nowhere else in this world, one gets to witness nature’s beauty with such a short walk from the plains. Nowadays, even helicopters literally lift and ferry people to this base camp in matter of hours, but by doing that people are robbed off the views of the landscapes, forests, villages and pastures on the way that leads up to the base camp.

Annapurna base camp, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De
Annapurna Main, at sunrise, Annapurna Base Camp

After the extended photography session, we headed back to the lodge. It was time to get the kids ready, strap our backpacks and hit the trails as early as possible. The previous evening had witnessed heavy snow and the route down to MBC had to be negotiated carefully, given that we didn’t have crampons with us and the kids needed care too. I let my daughter go ahead with Niladri, Dhananjoy and rest of the group. I kept company with Ranjan da and Rumi (his daughter) and Raju followed us. From the lodge premises, a set of stair cases went down and merged with the trail below. There was no trace of land that wasn’t colored white. I tried to place my footsteps carefully trying to get some grip. In spite of that, I was brought down to my knees on one occasion. On our way down, I tried to walk along the edges of the trail which had some grass and pebbles that could offer some grip as opposed to walking down the middle which had already turned slippery, thanks to the melting ice. Ranjan da and even our guide Raju, met with the same fate a few times. The section of the trail till MBC had to be negotiated carefully. Beyond that point, the route was devoid of snow (at least not as much as the initial section). I could see the figures of my daughter and Niladri, both dwarfed by the distance they had moved ahead of us. Going by the looks, at least from the distance, they seemed fine. Rumi (Ranjan da’s daughter) was coming slowly but steadily behind me. In a bid to be extra careful, I asked her to follow my steps but slid at least three to four times. She must have laughed at the skills of her new “teacher”. Gradually, we passed the familiar site of MBC and entered the valley that was to take us to Deurali. We hoped to see Mona da there (going by the plans he shared yesterday) but there were no signs of him. He must have gone down further but the reason for that became clear much later in the day.

Deurali, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We stopped for breakfast at Deurali. Our destination for the day was Bamboo, which was still a long way to go. So we didn’t waste much time and hit the trail soon. After a few steps from Deurali, the forests reappeared and once again, after two days, we were walking under canopy cover. I caught up with Niladri and my daughter, who was back to her tantrums, but less than before. Skies gave ominous signs and chances of rain increased. By the time we reached Himalaya for lunch, it was overcast. Bamboo was still far down. We put on our rain coats. Soon afterwards, incessant rains started. The raincoat (or “poncho”, as they call it) of my daughter proved much bigger than what fits her. The fallout was, it almost covered her feet and shoes. She couldn’t even look where she was stepping in. It was proving difficult in these rainy conditions. The rocks and boulders had covers of moss, which now turned slippery with the rain. With the increasing intensity, visibility reduced and we finally had to halt at Dovan to give a chance for the rain to subside. After it subsided somewhat, we resumed our journey. Passers by kept asking whether my daughter went all the way up to the base camp and kept encouraging her for, what they thought, was an amazing feat achieved at her age. We reached Bamboo at about 5 PM in the evening. We started from ABC at 7 AM and after 10 hours, we were at Bamboo. We met Mona da and got to know that he came to Deurali on his way down, only to find that there wasn’t any place to sleep. He moved further down and met with the same fate at other lodges and finally at Dovan, he was allotted a bed in the kitchen. He hoped for a sound sleep after an arduous day, but the mice under his blanket kept him on guard and he could never close his eyes again. Fellow hikers who were sleeping in the kitchen, found his experience “exciting” but Mona da had a diametrically opposite view.

25th October

The day’s destination was Jhinudanda. Effectively, what took us four days to hike, was to get covered in two days on our way down. Walking down the hills is not as easy as it seems. On your way up, the knees and lungs bear the brunt. On the way down, the lungs get freed up, but knees have their share of stress. Moreover, in this route, there are hikes on the way down as well. From Bamboo, there is a hike to upper Sinuwa (though the slope is relatively gentle). The trail beyond it goes down the stair cases to the hanging bridge to reach lower Chomrong and then comes the long hike to upper Chomrong . Beyond that, the final set of stairs take you down to Jhinudanda. In short, its a topsy-turvy trail. The good part was that the day was sunny and we hoped to reach Jhinudanda no later than 2-3 PM. An added attraction there is a hot spring. Apparently, one could bathe in the lukewarm waters of the spring and all the pain of the trail is supposed to get alleviated. As usual, we started the trek after breakfast. The clear weather helped the cause and my daughter didn’t mind the gradual hike. We reached Sinuwa and ordered our breakfast. We wished to spend some more time there, but the other driver was to get to Jhinudanda as quickly as possible so as to have enough time for bathing at the hot spring. After Sinuwa, we moved down the stair cases to reach the hanging bridge over the river and then the hike to Chomrong started. We stared at the series of steps that moved up to the top of the hill, which seemed endless. To get a frequent sense of accomplishment and milestones, I moved up twenty steps at a time, halted and resumed to move another twenty. The pattern repeated till I reached a point from where the top of the hill (upper Chomrong) appeared a bit nearer. After reaching the top, we crossed the now familiar streets of upper Chomrong, the lodge where we stayed on our way up and finally started moving down the stairs that led us to Jhinudanda.

On the way down to Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The turns and bends seemed familiar and after crossing a few of them, we could see Jhinudanda, down below, with a bird’s eye view. By the time we reached the lodge, some of our members were already relaxing on the terrace, with their legs spread, enjoying cans of beer in the bright afternoon sun. After settling in our rooms, we joined the rest. Calls were made to our respective homes, reporting a successful completion of our trek, pleasantries were exchanged. The afternoon dragged on leisurely and no one (at least not me) was in a mood to hurry. People enjoyed their lunch. After that, we ventured out for the hot spring. For a moment, I thought to give it a skip (it was a downhill walk for about 20 minutes, which meant, another uphill hike of at least 30 mins to be back at the lodge), but the lure of lukewarm water dragged me on. We went our way down the hilly slopes through the forest, carrying our respective sets of clothes and towels. At the hot spring, there was a lot of noise with tourists from all over the world taking a dip in the artificial pools that have been created with hot spring water carried by pipelines into them. They were located exquisitely right beside the roaring Modi Khola river. As we immersed ourselves into the pool, it was an extraordinary experience.

Modi Khola, Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De


The lukewarm pool water gave the warmth and comfort to drain away all the stress and pain of the trail. Sitting in the warm waters, one can enjoy the site of the roaring Modi khola thundering down the gorge just by the springs. Time just flied as we jostled with others in the pool, teased each other or just laid down enjoying the warmth and comfort of the hot spring. After the bath, we hiked up the trail to reach the lodge. It was already dark.

26th October

We woke up early in the morning. Though the walk for the day was very short, we wanted to get to Pokhara as early as possible. Even at Jhinudanda, the cold was not insignificant and we had to put on our jackets. The sun was about to make its appearance and the color of the snow peaks beyond the hills of upper Chomrong showed the reflection of its movements.

Jhinudanda
Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

They were crowned with gold, a view, familiar to us by now. Though it wasn’t a view of the full range as we saw at the base camp, but still, it was the unmistakable brilliance of nature in The Himalayas, which we were witnessing probably for the last time on this trail. The moon, on the other side of the sky was preparing to leave the stage, handing over its reigns to the sun.

Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

A short walk took us to the nearest road head, Khumi. A bus from there went through the meandering roads of the lower forests, villages and lush paddy fields on our way down to Pokhara. Throughout the route, the entire Annapurna range kept its vigil on us, as if luring us to come back.

En route Pokhara, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

After reaching Pokhara, people dispersed in small groups to go for marketing. Some others, including me, went for a boat ride at the Fewa lake in the fading afternoon sun. A nice cool breeze greeted us at the lake as we embarked on our boat ride. As the boatman kept dragging the boat gently, sounds of splashes of water kept soothing our ears. We turned around to have a view of this huge lake.

Fewa Lake, Pokhara

On our left, hills moved upwards to a point where a few roads and houses were visible. That place is Sarangkot, one of the tourist attractions around Pokhara. As the sun started to call it a day, the snow peaks, marginally visible beyond the hills of Sarangkot, turned crimson.

Sanagkot, as visible from Fewa Lake, Pokhara

27th October

I woke up at 4 AM in the morning and went to Niladri’s room. They left for the bus stand to board a bus for Birganj. From there, a tonga was to take them to the Raxaul station to board the train for Kolkata. We bade goodbye to them as we did to Kunal and Arindam. They took the bus for Sunauli, in order to reach Gorakhpur to board their train for Delhi. Rest of us headed to Kathmandu. From there, the next day, we flew to Delhi. We came from different places, assembled at Kathmandu for our trip. Now, the reverse scenes were being played out with different groups heading for their respective home/work destinations. The objective of months of planning & discussion came to an end. But, for sure, as they say, The Himalayas will give their bugle calls and it will certainly reach the ears of mere mortals like us to respond!

At her feet

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – at her feet

The Fish Tail

Au Revoir

23rd October, 2018

I was still in bed, when Mona da suddenly came into our room and declared that he was starting for Annapurna Base Camp in the wee hours so that he could reach there before dawn to witness the famed sunrise on the Annapurna range and come back down the same day to descend to Deorali. His rationale was to get to lower altitudes as soon as possible. The idea of getting down seemed logical, but I wasn’t so sure about the wisdom of taking the strain of going up to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) and come down the same day. It would only add to his fatigue. However, if he can pull this off, then nothing like it. He can still achieve the objectives. He was to take one of the porters along with him for assistance. So he went ahead with this plan. As a matter of fact, most of the travelers do not stay at MBC. They start from Deorali and reach ABC on the same day. Some come down the same day to halt at MBC or even further down. Others stay at ABC before coming down. However, we planned for a halt at MBC on our way up for two reasons. Firstly, that would limit the daily hike on the last two days to just 2-3 hours, leaving enough time for rest. Secondly, the altitude gain (which rises sharply after Deorali) would be gradual. The plan also gave us ample time to spend at MBC and ABC. Clouds played spoilsport at MBC and we were deprived of the famed sunset views of the Fish Tail peak. Later on, we were more than compensated for it at the Annapurna Base Camp.

Though ABC was just two and a half hours ahead, we still decided to start early mainly to cover as much of the trail as possible before the sun gains in power. The amount of snow was expected to increase with height and it was advisable to cross it before it starts melting. We didn’t have crampons with us. As I got up and ventured out of the room, I was chilled to my bones. After I got myself prepared, it was time to get my daughter ready. She said she wasn’t feeling very well, but her voice didn’t reflect it. I suspected she overheard the conversation Mona da had with us and these were its after effects. I ignored these and pushed her to get ready. Dressing her up was an arduous task, especially at these altitudes. The umpteen layers of clothing made it cumbersome and tedious. The warm thermals formed the first layer, then came on the pant and shirt, followed by two sweaters and finally, the jacket (which we purchased from Kathmandu, where the vendor claimed that it could sustain temperatures as low as -5 degrees Celsius). After getting ourselves ready, we headed for breakfast. The first morning rays started to come into the valley as the skies started to light up gradually. That’s when the helicopter rotors started running again. The stranded travelers from the previous day didn’t waste anytime in this clear weather and the helicopter headed down for Pokhara through the valley. The porters strapped up our luggage and started early while we waited for the first rays of sun to fall on the Annapurna range, visible on the Western horizon as dark outlines. The mountains on all sides appeared imposing in the darkness of the early morning. Gradually, the line of darkness started moving down the slopes of Annapurna South and Annapurna Main and they were crowned with gold. The entire place resembled a cinema theater. All of the sides were dark with just a single ray of light illuminated the peaks of the Annapurna range. As-if a projector was running from behind the mountains in the back and scenes were playing out one by one on the Western horizon.

Early morning rays on Annapurna South, MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

At these situations, one cannot take their hands off the camera lenses as colors keep changing fast. Successive snaps yield different colors as the sun plays the artist on nature’s canvas.


Early morning rays on Annapurna range, MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

As if it is in a hurry to display all its colors in a short span of time. This plays out exactly in the opposite sequence during sunset. The crown of gold kept increasing its ambit engulfing other peaks of the Annapurna range.

Early morning rays on Annapurna range, MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We couldn’t have asked for better start for the day and we hit the trail after the sunrise scenes were played out by nature which culminated with all the mountains making their appearance in the bright sun, illuminating the entire valley and the route ahead.

Early morning rays on Annapurna South, MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The trail moved out of the premise of our lodge and gradually moved up through a series of sharp bends. All the members were in a jovial mood. I kept thinking about Mona da. Hopefully, we will encounter him en route on his way down. The slopes were covered with yellow bushes that were dotted by rocks and boulders. Our walk was interspersed by many halts as at any given point of the trail, one could stop and look around to get a treat to the eyes with snow covered mountains visible from all sides.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp

Members of our group took their time taking snaps against the surroundings. For a change, my daughter was walking with me, for the first time on this trail. She appeared to be doing fine. We tried rousing her interest by drawing her attractions to the mountains. She did cast a look, but didn’t forget to ask how far we had still to go to reach the destination. Gradually, snow started making its presence felt. At first, they appeared in patches beside the trail.

Icicles – en-route Annapurna Base Camp, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The river was making its way through the rocks, which had icicles hanging from their edges. The intensity of the sound of flowing river water reduced as we were getting closer to the snout of the glacier which formed the source of this river.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

At places, the river water flowed underneath thin transparent films of ice. Pools were formed where water became stagnant between surrounding rocks with their edges fringed by white powdery snow. The mountain peaks came nearer as we moved ahead and made their towering presence felt. On our left, Mt Hiunchuli stood upright beyond the edges of the nearby hills.

Mt Hiunchuli, en-route Annapurna Base Camp´╗┐

Even the glaciers that came down the slopes of the mountains were visible in their full glory, shining bright in the morning sun.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp

The amount of snow increased with height. After crossing a few bends, we across a jubilant Mona da on his way down from Annapurna Base Camp. He was looking fit and was ecstatic about the views of sunrise he witnessed at the Annapurna Base Camp.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp

We all felt good about the fact that his decision paid off. It was a win-win situation for him. He didn’t miss any of the places or views on offer on this trail but at the same time, his health was better and now was on his way down to Deorali. That should not only take him down to much lower altitudes, but also he’d have much of the ground covered, which we’d have to, on our way down. With all of us safe and sound, we moved ahead.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp

The trail was now completely covered with snow and we had to be careful with our steps. But given the fact, we were on our way up and the snow was still relatively fresh, we could have grip. Things would prove more difficult on our way down. Going by the trend, more snow was expected in the afternoon. All of that would get converted to ice during the night making walking difficult, the next morning.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp

There was snow on the trail, on the slopes and of course, on the mountains. There wasn’t an inch of land devoid of snow. Adults transformed to kids and started throwing snow balls at each other. The two daughters too, joined the party.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De
En-route Annapurna Base Camp

In the distant horizon, we could see the faint outlines of roofs of the lodges. That must be the Annapurna Base Camp. We tried to hurry the group to reach there as soon as possible. That would give us ample time to rest. It was also important because regardless of the sunshine, its almost guaranteed to snow in the later half of the day. Though the lodges were visible from here, we still had to cover some distance. Hence, there was no point wasting time. In the meantime, my daughter struck a unique deal with Niladri. She always wanted to pause, whereas we kept on pushing her. So, a deal was struck. She would walk for some distance and then rest, but only till the time it takes for her to dig four small holes in the snow with the lower end of her trekking stick. To keep things going, we agreed and the arrangement continued for sometime. After a while though, we realized that the time taken to dig a hole started to increase. Apparently, she worked with minute precision and perfection in digging “a particular hole”. No matter how long it took, the hole had to be perfect. The led to the suspicion whether her focus as really on precision or to buy more time for rest. We had to intervene and push her to move along.

En-route Annapurna Base Camp, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We left the main trail and moved up a bit to embark on a different trail along the slopes of the hills on the left side. We did so because this trail was somehow devoid of snow and we could move faster. The lodges grew bigger as we moved on but they were still not within our reach. Helicopters, in the meantime kept flying around, either for rescue operations or ferrying passengers embarking on helicopter tours. But the weather was deteriorating fast. The sunshine was gone. Clouds hovered above the mountain peaks, some of which were already engulfed by them. Just about then, we reached the premises of the Annapurna Base Camp, which had a few sign boards declaring the name along with some welcome messages.

Annapurna Base Camp

In spite of the name, the place didn’t resemble a base camp in its literal terms, rather appeared as a place of halt, no different that the ones we came through from down below. There weren’t any expedition camps as we saw them at the Everest Base Camp. Still, it was a land mark and people were satisfied after reaching there. It was indeed, a cherished goal to achieve, especially, with the little daughters. Finally, it seemed that all the hurdles were behind us. There were three lodges in the area. We went into one of them. The rooms were already allotted. Most importantly, there were enough blankets for all, which was a big relief. This is one thing to be aware of. In the peak seasons (like Autumn, the season we went in), lodges in this route are packed to the brim and very often they get overbooked. Trekkers often need to adjust and sleep in the dining area. In such conditions, there can be shortage of blankets. When in demand, the porters and guides get the priority before tourists (that’s the unspoken rule in this part of the world). So, tourists are advised to carry sleeping bags and enough warm clothing with them to adapt to such situations. We were fortunate enough not to face such eventualities beyond Bamboo.

Annapurna Base Camp

After we got ourselves settled in the lodge, we headed for the dining room and almost immediately, it started snowing outside. It started with tiny particles which increased in size and intensity as the day went ahead. It showed no signs of abating anytime soon. The entire lodge premises was painted white in no time. Though we enjoyed it from the warmth of the dining hall, I also started worrying about the next day. The conditions will worsen and we had a long way to travel.

Annapurna Base Camp

We enjoyed our tea within the cosy dining hall, while it continued to snow heavily outside. Suddenly, the lodge premises got to life with a huge band of trekkers coming in. All of them had white uniform with a badge, indicating that they were from some organization. They were young students from a school in South Korea, on an educational trip! We just thought ourselves to be fortunate to have enough blankets (not all of them had been dispatched to our rooms yet) and with this group coming in (there were at least fifty members), it would add to the already brewing crisis. However, to our relief, we came to know that the group would just spend sometime, sip cups of tea and then head down to MBC, the same day. While it gave us relief, I kept thinking about the problems we might encounter during our descent, the next day. Someone drew our attention to a thermometer in the dining hall that provided temperature readings from outside and inside. At about 2.30 PM in the afternoon, the temperature outside was -4 degree Celsius. Towards late afternoon, the intensity of the snow decreased and finally, it stopped. Some of us ventured outside the lodge into the lawn. I didn’t want to be that adventurous till someone drew my attention towards the Fish Tail peak which was now visible on the eastern horizon. Clouds started clearing up and the structure of Fish Tail began to emerge. I ran to the room immediately to fetch my camera in the anticipation of a glorious sunset. We were really fortunate that the snow stopped and clouds started to clear all around. The fading rays of sun provided a tinge of gold on the slopes of Fish Tail.

Fish Tail at sun set, Annapurna Base Camp

With my past experience in the mountains, I could identify this development as a precursor to well enacted and colorful sunset drama. Strong winds blew across the top of Fish Tail sending a plough of snow looking like a yellowish golden scarf. As the sun started to change its position, so did the colors of its rays. Nature came up with brushes of gold and red and started painting the Fish Tail peak in different shades.

Fish Tail at sun set, Annapurna Base Camp

The hues of gold turned more intense as time went by and our shutters kept clicking. Almost the entire population at the lodge came out to witness this extraordinary drama on the stage of nature.

Fish Tail at sun set, Annapurna Base Camp
Fish Tail at sun set, Annapurna Base Camp

Gradually, the color acquired a reddish tinge before fading out entirely. The Fish Tail peak and the surrounding range of mountains and glaciers now appeared clear and white.

Fish Tail after sun set, Annapurna Base Camp

After the sunset, we suddenly realized that our fingers were almost getting cutoff by the biting cold. We didn’t bother as long as the sunset act was being played out, but after that we immediately headed to the dining hall. Dinner got served at 6.30 PM. After that we subsided under our blankets. We were sleeping at 4130 m. At that time, the thermometer at the dining hall read -6.

The Fish Tail

Au Revoir

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – The Fish Tail

Beyond the tree line

At her feete

22nd October, 2018

This was the first day on the trail when I woke up without any frowns on my forehead. Daughter seems to have come to terms with the trail. Yes, she might still throw some tantrums during the hike, but hopefully, that should be manageable. At least, we know for sure, once she reaches the destination, she’s a transformed being. They key is to keep her engaged during the trek by constant conversation. The bulk of that task was thrust upon Niladri. He showed remarkable patience in dealing with her. It was him who suggested on the very first day to carry her along with him and asked me to follow keeping a distance, just far enough to be out of her sight, but close enough to be within my eyes. He stressed on it more when we started off from Bamboo (the day after that emotional outburst from her). The main reason was to not give her a chance to complain, which she obviously would, if I was in proximity. With just Niladri around, she’d have a perfect partner who would listen to her patiently, offer her enough rest when she needed, but at the same time, would urge her to move on. It was a bit of a stick and carrot approach, which might sound a bit rude, but was most appropriate for the situation. But such an arrangement can only work with a human being like him. Dhananjoy too and for that matter, all other members of the group (that includes my brother in law, Ranjan da, who has considerable influence on both the cousins) played their part to keep her engaged. They kept asking her if the music was still on (a joking reference to her constant whining). The passers by, dropped encouraging words. Some even asked me whether we seriously planned to take her all the way along. On our way down, she received a lot accolades for her successful visit to the base camp. She hardly paid attention to these as her sole query was to know how much more she had to travel to get some rest!

The morning wasn’t different than any other day. The tasks were the same, but the cold was biting hard. We were reminded that we were getting closer to her feet. The set top breakfast proved filling. I was having eggs in quantities more than what I was supposed to, but in these trips, one tends to forget diet restrictions. But someone in me told to tone down a bit since I take regular doses of medicines to control hypertension and that can cause problems with increasing cold and altitude. After breakfast, we gradually moved out of the lodge premises and started to climb the steps.

En-route MBC


Our destination for the day was Machchapuchchare base camp (aka MBC). Guide Raju assured us that the travel was likely to last only for about 2.5 hours. We’d just have to cross the upcoming valley beyond Deorali and at the end of it, lay MBC. We could travel at our leisure and still reach there before lunch. We should have the entire second half for rest. I quickly conveyed that to my daughter who didn’t believe a single word. 

En-route Machchapuchchare base camp (MBC)

As we moved out of the reaches of Deorali, we entered into a valley that was guarded on both sides by tall mountains. The trail moved up the slopes. On the opposite side, a giant snow peak was visible through the gaps of the hills in front. We were looking at Mt Machchapuchchare, but it appeared so different. The familiar shape of fish tail wasn’t there. That was because we were now looking at it from an entirely different angle. The mountain wall along which the trail was moving up, stood high.

En-route MBC

Though the sun was already up, but the high mountains prevented sunlight from entering the valley in between. Trees were not to be found amidst these barren rocks. We were engrossed in looking at Fish tail, but a sign board that stood beside the trail read clear and loud that we were traversing a rockfall zone. It caused us to expedite.

En-route MBC

Gradually the valley opened up and the bright rays of the morning sun illuminated the gushing river stream that flowed right through it. No trace of cloud was to be seen anywhere. Right in front of us, on the Northern horizon, the snow clad peaks dazzled in bright sunshine between a V-shaped opening of the valley between the surrounding mountain walls.

En-route MBC

It was a wonderful contrast of colors and was a treat to eyes! This is what people come here for. Someone we met on our way up to Bamboo, told us that there’s no other place as beautiful as the Annapurna Base Camp that lies so close to the plains. Let aside the world, even in the Himalayas, there is no other place as beautiful as the Annapurna Base Camp, that can be reached within three to four days from the nearby plains. He was spot on! As we moved ahead, the ‘V’ on the northern horizon kept widening.

En-route MBC

After sometime, we found ourselves in the mid of a wonderful valley with a charming river flowing through it. Bright rays of run poured gold in its waters and it danced its way towards Deorali. We left the trail and worked our way through the boulders to reach its banks. Some of us sat on the rocks, some others splashed its waters on their faces. We had all the time in the world to enjoy our time here. The shutters kept rolling, so did the mobile cameras.

En-route MBC

The lush green waters flowed through the rocks forcing their way through. The extent of the rapids showed that it was flowing on a rough bed. The yellow shrubs on its banks acquired a tinge of gold in the bright rays of sun. We hoped for a sunny afternoon. That should give us some chance to dry our clothes and also an opportunity to witness the famed sunset at MBC. Tales are ripe about how the rays of fading afternoon sun can bathe the Fish tail with crimson.

En-route MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Raju reminded us, though we didn’t have a long way to go, but we had to keep moving as afternoons, no matter what, were going to be cloudy. We couldn’t believe his words. How could that be? But, weather can change by a stroke of luck at anytime in the mountains. We regained the trail and started hiking again. Raju pointed to some distant objects high above on the northern end of the valley. After some effort, we could identify the blue tinned roofs of some of the lodges. That was MBC, our destination. The mountains came nearer as we kept moving up. They appeared dazzling white bathing in broad day sun. Even the glaciers at their base were visible.

En-route MBC

We kept moving up the bends and finally reached at the base of MBC. An upright board provided information about the place. That included a rough map of the trail with an indication where we were, the number and names of the lodges, the names of the Himalayan peaks visible from MBC and finally, the distance to Annapurna Base Camp in hours (a norm in this route that declares distances in terms of hours to reach, instead of km).

MBC

Some of the members of our team sat on the rocks nearby which gave an impression that the first lodge visible behind the board was our lodge to stay. But Raju pointed towards a different way. With the board in sight, we became impatient to reach our lodge. The trail circumvented the place and moved further up. My daughter constantly kept asking about how much more to go, but still, no lodge was in sight. After a considerable time, it made its appearance. It was about 1 PM. The first time on the trail when we reached our destination before lunch. Our luggage was already kept in our respective rooms. We entered the lawn and spread our arms and legs on the chairs. The tired legs demanded rest, but with the sun still shining bright, we thought of drying our clothes as sunshine was a rarity and could vanish anytime. So we forced ourselves into the rooms, pulled out the wet clothes from the bags and started to hang them on the wires. Raju came with a scratch pad (as was his norm) to note down our options for lunch. Soon, clouds started making their way into the valley and it even started to snow. How quickly, things can change in these parts of the Himalayas. Just at that time, we heard the sounds of the rotors of a helicopter. As we turned our heads, we saw a copter landing on the nearby helipad. A group of Europeans came out. They went to Annapurna Base Camp by a copter from Pokhara in the morning, but on their way back, they had to abort their flight due to lack of visibility and were forced to land at MBC.

MBC, pic courtesy, Dhananjor De

With clouds covering the entire atmosphere, we were forced to pull down our clothes and transfer them back into our rooms. After that, we kept ourselves confined to the dining hall. As lunch got served, it seemed the entire world was composed of dense white clouds with just a single lodge among them. As if we were dining in the air with nothing below us but the clouds. We considered ourselves fortunate to have reached the place before the snowfall. The fact of being able to stay within the confines of a lodge amidst wild weather at such altitudes made us feel blessed. We realized the hard efforts put in by the locals to give us such comforts. The efforts of the porters who carry all the materials from the plains on their wrenched backs to these heights formed the backbone of this infrastructure.

We engaged ourselves with cards and the daughters chatted among themselves after lunch. Suddenly, Monowar Hossein (Mona da, one of the members of our group) came along and dragged Niladri into his room. They went out in a fashion which sounded a bit strange. Niladri came back after a long time and we learnt from him that Mona da was facing breathing problems. That was concerning to know. The group stayed fit and fine till now and most of us were concerned about the two daughters. This was the first occasion of someone of our group facing altitude sickness. For the moment, Mona da preferred to stay in his room, trying to get some sleep. But after sometime, he came back to the dining hall as he wasn’t feeling comfortable lying down either. He appeared restless. It made us nervous as once altitude sickness kicks in, there’s not much of an option but to get the affected person down to lower altitudes as soon as possible. It could well be Mona da’s end of journey on this trail. But we thought to give him some time to settle with a hope of improvement. He sat quietly with his eyes closed. The frequent movements of his chest indicated that things were still not good enough. The afternoon moved ahead with clouds still hanging around. A nagging feeling crept in my mind. It was still snowing hard outside. That would mean, the trail beyond this point will be covered with more snow than desired and without crampons, it might prove difficult to deal with it on the higher slopes. We already heard in the lodges below, that the trail from hereon was likely to be covered with snow which makes walking difficult. With the little daughters to handle, nervousness started to kick in. Mona da’s state of health didn’t make things any better. However, we kept those thoughts at bay. Dinner, as usual, got served at 6.30 PM. Mona da ate very little. He felt a bit better, but still not out of woods. We went under the blankets. Me, Ranjan da, the two daughters and Niladri slept in a single room and rest of the five members (including Mona da) slept in another. Sounds of conversation kept coming from their room till quite late into the night and most of that was about Mona da. I wasn’t sure what was going on with him but tried hard to get some sleep. Finally, sleep overran my thoughts.

Beyond the tree line

At her feet

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – Beyond the tree line

Forests of bamboo

The Fish Tail

21st October, 2018

When I woke up, it was dark outside. I went through the usual tasks. Bathing was out of the list since Chomrong. A quick look at the sky revealed the stars. We were in for another sunny morning keeping with the trend so far. There was little time to lose & I got myself engaged with sorting out the clothing, both for me & my daughter. I woke her up & took her to the toilet. She walked with her eyes closed, almost sleepwalking. A quick apply of lukewarm water (stored in a flask) gave some life to her face. As I thrust the toothpaste & brush to her hands, she started off with the brushing procedure mechanically. When I was dressing her up, she was quiet. I was tense, thinking about her outburst the night before & dreaded it coming back anytime. I avoided any conversation about it and only talked about the daily routine tasks.

The breakfast table was busy as usual with activities. The staff of the lodge ran around serving the travelers with food and beverage. The trekkers were busy either with their food or strapping their backpacks to hit the trail. Some were headed up, others on their way down. Bread toast, eggs & ginger tea made for a heavy breakfast.

Bamboo

Clear blue sky awaited us outside as we came out of the dining space. The porters were ready with our bags on their backs. Few of our members were busy packing last minute items, some others trained their photographic lenses on the subjects and there were many. After a few minutes, the group started for the next destination. The day would see us reach Deorali, just beyond the tree line. The track left the premises of the lodge, heading towards the dense forest of bamboo trees. We had all our warm clothing on our bodies including the gloves. It was comfortable as we were still walking through dense forest with little sunshine reaching the ground because of the dense canopy above. Chirps of the birds grew as we walked along the trail. The forest was waking up.

En-route Dovan

Niladri went ahead with my daughter & I followed them. She wasn’t showing any discontent. Not at least for the moment. After sometime, we reached a waterfall. The water was flowing with some force and we had to cross over. There were some boulders distributed on the way. As others crossed it, we watched them carefully to identify the boulders that were stable enough to bear our weights. Some of them bore a green surface laden with moss. These were the ones that had to be carefully negotiated. I watched anxiously from one side as my daughter managed her way through the stream with the help of Niladri. Once they reached the other side and hiked up the slopes, I breathed easy.

En-route Dovan

After the gushing stream, the trail moved up the slopes. Mt Machchapuchchare kept a constant vigil on us from high up in the sky. It was shining bright in the morning sun and appeared much nearer as if welcoming us to her bosom.

Mt Machchapuchchare, en-route Dovan 

After about one & half hours, we reached Dovan (2595 m). Some of us thought that we could have continued till Dovan instead of stopping at Bamboo, the day before. That could have reduced our trek for the day. But it wasn’t of any use musing about it. We stopped for sometime at Dovan as I administered the regular doses of inhaler to my daughter (she was bearing chest congestion & cough since our start from Delhi & there was the risk of it getting acute with gaining attitude). It also gave us some breathing space & time to look around to enjoy the views offered by the surrounding hills.

Dovan

As we resumed our walk, the elevation increased and the steps reappeared. After the strenuous hikes through the steps of Chomrong & Sinua, the sight of steps gave us pain & immediately, my daughter started her tantrums. Her walks got increasingly interspersed by frequent halts which ate into the time. Niladri was patient enough to bear with these and prevented me from insisting her to move on.

En-route Himalaya

I feared the return of her previous night’s bout. But I also had to persuade her to keep moving in order to reach Himalaya, our destination for lunch, in time. The steps kept moving up the serpentine slopes amidst the forests that kept closing in.

En-route Himalaya

We reached Himalaya at about 12 PM, just about right time for lunch. It was crucial to finish lunch & leave as early as possible because the trend for past few days was to get cloudy in the afternoon with high chances of showers, a thing best avoided in such areas. We were the last batch of our group to arrive and spread our legs on the chairs. We gulped down some much needed water and lunch was ordered. The variety of cuisines offered at such remote corners of the Himalayas surprises one. After Himalaya, forest started thinning out as boulders made their presence felt. Numerous streams, small & large, made their way down the mountains.

En-route Deorali

The trail was narrow at certain strips and with multiple trekkers hiking up and down. At times it became difficult to give them passage. The sun disappeared from the scene & fog engulfed the surroundings. Halts increased for my daughter & our advance was constrained by her speed. She demanded rest after ascending every bend of the slope but we had no option but to oblige. As clouds moved in thick & fast through the valley, we got more jittery as no one had the appetite to walk amidst rain with drenched clothes. We kept moving and after sometime trees ceased to exist. Mountains on both sides had their slopes strewn with rocks & debris that came down almost like a river from the top which was beyond our views, thanks to the mist. I stopped at that place to have a look at it. It was a huge band of rocks, dust, mud and snow. Our guide Raju informed us that it was a site of a huge landslide and an entire swathe of the mountain wall slid down the slopes, uprooting many trees on its way and dumped the debris into the river below, which also changed its course after that incident. It occurred a few years back.

Deorali, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The river Modi Khola thundered down in leaps & bounds through the gorge, foaming like milk.

Modi Khola river

A few of our team members sat on the rocks round the corner & as our eyes met, they pointed their fingers forward. Following their direction, we could see signs of blue tinned roofs of the distant lodges. Finally, Deorali was in sight. Though it was still a long way ahead, but the sight of your destination always adds energy. The most pronounced effect was on my daughter. She left our hands & moved ahead alone. As I dragged on behind, I saw her leaping ahead, moving up & down the boulders that came in her way, climbing the last series of steps to reach the platform. Beyond which, lay the lodges of Deorali. 


Deorali, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

By the time we reached the lodge, we could barely see our own arms & it started drizzling hard. We moved to our allotted rooms & got busy with the regular job of drying our wet clothes & sorting out the dress for the next day. Niladri gave some advice on options to get our clothes dry. Hanging them on wires outside proved fruitless as the surrounding moisture never allowed them to dry. In fact, they absorbed more moisture adding to the cause of worry. He suggested we spread them beneath our pillows & blankets & sleep over them. However strange it might sound, it’s actually the best bet to get them dry with the warmth of the body. After settling in, we headed towards the dining hall, which was, as in all other tea houses on the route, buzzing with travelers from all over the world. At one corner, a group of Chinese travelers were enjoying their evening cup of tea & gossip. We took our seats, ordered our tea & got our pack of cards out. The Chinese got interested in the game and one of them showed desire to participate. Dhananjoy did his best to explain the rules to him. The lack of understanding of English made the task difficult for Dhananjoy and he had to resort to using gestures.

My daughter appeared to be in a jovial mood. She enjoyed her company with her cousin. They started playing Uno, a game played using a pack of cards, but not like the regular ones. They were engrossed deep into their play. The warmth of the place made her comfortable. Looking at her, no one would believe that she was the same girl who kept whining throughout the trail. With the pain of walking gone, at least for the day, she had the entire evening at her disposal & got deeply engrossed into it.

These tea houses are the main backbone of such trekking routes in Nepal. They make it possible to venture into these remote lands. In the Indian Himalayas, one can’t even dream of such facilities at even much lower altitudes. If a trek spans beyond a couple of days, one has to stay in tents, whereas here, in Nepal, one can expect a lodge, a warm dining hall, varied cuisines and most importantly, a bed to sleep on under a thick blanket, even at the Annapurna Base Camp! It has to do with the swarm of trekkers who visit Nepal, every year and the business they generate. Tourism is the mainstay of this country’s economy and they pay every attention towards the comfort of the travelers. There are counter theories too. Some blame this ever increasing tourist numbers and their demands of comfort for the ecological damage of these sensitive areas. The Everest region is known to have lost tree covers for entire valleys just to meet the ever increasing demand of firewood. Lodges have mushroomed left, right and center, crowding towns like Lukla and NamcheBazar. Things are somewhat better in the Annapurna conservation area. Firewood is banned in these places and all of their energy needs are met by LPG cylinders that are carried by porters from lowlands to the upper reaches. With trekking getting easier by the day, more tourists throng these areas, probably much more than these ecologically unstable areas can sustain. Nowadays, one doesn’t even have to walk on these trails. If you can shell out enough dollars, a helicopter can carry you from Pokhara right up to the Annapurna Base Camp within an hour or two. Earlier, helicopters were used mainly for rescue operations for bringing people who suffered from altitude sickness, down to lower altitudes. But now, it has turned into a lucrative business. Off late, some dodgy travel operators have also used them to frisk out trekkers from upper areas (who want to avoid walking), using the excuse of altitude sickness, billing the cost to the insurance providers.

We thought about talking to our respective homes. So I reached out to the lodge owner, handed her Rs 300 in Nepalese currency & my mobile phone. She typed in the WiFi password & we were all set to make internet voice calls to our respective homes. Speaking to home from these remote areas gives you a lot of relief. Pleasantries were exchanged and so was the news of our health. It gave relief at both ends. I had my daughter speak to her mother & she was happy. She didn’t mention about her emotional break down, neither did I. Dinner was served at 6.30 PM. It was early for us and we requested them to delay it, but looking at the rush, they couldn’t oblige us. After that, it was time to head to sleep. All seemed well when we went under the blankets that night. We were sleeping at 3230 m.

Forests of bamboo

The Fish Tail´╗┐