Pokhara and Annapurna Sanctuary Trek

Trip Start Feb 07, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

We hit the Nepalese border in the dark, later than anticipated and joined the fray to get stamped out of India and purchase a visa for Nepal - the usual bureaucratic process ensued. We then negotiated with 3 cycle rickshaw wallahs to take us the 4km up the highway to a hotel - quite a weird journey as Tim's man is drunk and he sings some weird tunes the whole way inbetween fumbling with the bike chain that keeps coming off!

The next morning we head to the bus station to find a bus to Pokhara and embark on the 2nd day of big bus journey. It's a government bus, so we're in there with the chickens etc. and the passengers cram in or sit on top of the bus. I can't help feel for the goats that are unceremoniously put in the boot where it must be like an oven in these hot temperatures. Nepal looks like paradise after India - it's much greener and cleaner and people (especially women) look much happier here. We soon start climbing into the foot hills with beautiful views along ravines and to the rivers below. Plenty of crashed trucks and frightening drops from the road, but we seem to be making good time - until we break down.... The poor goats are clattering against the door as the bus sits stationery on a hill side in the boiling sun - the roasted mutton will be ready to eat by the time when we get to Pokhara! The bus driver runs off down the road to get a new fuel line to fix the bus and finally we're on our way again. We're ready for the touts who chase the bus as at arrives at the bus station, haven't spied our packs on top of the bus. We dodge them more effectively than the previous time we arrived here and are soon luxuriating in our guesthouse on Lakeside.

Pokhara really is Easy Street. Everything that you could possibly desire is on your doorstep - kushy accommodation, chocolate brownies, beer, endless souvenirs, adventure shops, cool lake waters to swim in. It's a bit of a shock after India where comfort is so fleeting. We were lucky enough to get a view up to the Annapurna ranges on the second morning here, even though this isn't the best time of year for crystal clear vistas. We've spent the last couple of days vegging out, floating around on the lake and organising our trekking. We've decided to do the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, which will take us all the way to Annapurna Base Camp (fingers crossed!). We'll be trekking for about 10-12 days and up to an altitude of about 4150m, staying in tea house accommodation. Myself, Tim and Simon have employed a very experienced Nepali guide called Chandra, but we won't have any porters, so we're carrying our own stuff (which we've limited to just day packs). We're expecting to see some awesome views, but apart from that we don't really know what to expect! We leave early tomorrow morning up the mountain in a car to our starting point so there's no turning back now.

We made it back from our trek to Annapurna Base Camp yesterday. It's been 9 days, 130km, and 4130m .... However, this doesn't paint a very accurate picture of the ups and downs of our trekking route. Read on if you want to know more!
Day 1: Pokhara (820m) - Ghandruk (1940m)
Myself, Tim and Simon left Pokhara with our guide, Chandra in a taxi for the hour long drive into the foot hills of the Annapurna ranges to a town called Naya Paul. We were soon on our way and it all started out pretty easy, our first steps up the valley of the Modi Khola river. However, it wasn't long before we were confronted by the first of many endless sets of rugged, steep rock steps. How else did I think we'd get to the roof of the world?! I guess I was trying not to think about it too much! We paused for a lunch of dhal bhaat halfway up the steps and continued on with full bellies to our first stop in the village of Ghandruk. Despite breaking my hiking boots in during the London winter, wearing flip flops for the last few months doesn't bode well and I already have a angry looking blister developing on my heel. We soon got into the trekking routine of bedtime at 7.30pm, as they turn out the lights and there's shit all else to do!

Day 2: Ghandruk (1940m) - Chhomrong (2100m)
Up before 6am to catch a view of the sublime Machhhapuchhure peak (6993) as well as Annapurna South (7219m) as the sun rises. We've got  fairly hazy conditions, but are hoping for the best! Today's climb starts with a gradual incline through pretty rural country - lots of tiered fields and mountain streams. Then it's 'down, down, down,' as Chandra says, on a rugged path of loose stones and wet leaves to the tiny village of Kimrong in the river valley below. Many of the rocks here are a dazzling silver, as if someone has spray painted them.
In my simple conception of trekking to Annapurna Base Camp, I envisaged trekking 'up, up, up'. However, the basic theory is that you you go up and down over and over in order to get 'up, up, up'! A sobering thought, because every time you go down, it dawns on you that this is adding to the amount you have to go up! Infuriating! So the elevation of the starting point and finishing point is deceiving, because inbetween these points you make and lose ground. My blisters are strapped, but throbbing all the same and we get in the habit of removing shoes and socks so they can dry off in the sun during lunch breaks. Above us there's an enormous landslide that happened two years ago - it looks ominous and becomes more so when Chandra points out that the path has to divert higher to pass over the top of the landslide! We tackle the dreaded path which winds up the mountainside until I think I can't take anymore! Then we begin to descend through some magical farmland where potatoes, garlic, wheat, corn and various other crops are being grown in the tiny tiered fields perched on the face of the valley. We make our next destination, Chhomrong, where we glimpse the Annapurnas through the afternoon haze.
Day 3: Chhromrong (2100m) - Bamboo ( 2335m)
Up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun catch the peak of Annapurna South, a bit of motivation for the day ahead. Porridge and Tibetan bread is a pretty good way to start the day up here - my appetite is enormous with all the exertion. I've already run out of tape to strap my blisters and our mission this morning is to find some more, which we finally manage with Chandra's help. Our descent into the next valley is down 2135 stone steps of various sizes and shapes. Porters are everywhere and somehow manage to balance their loads  (some over 40kg) in baskets that are strapped to their foreheads. Most of these guys are wearing flip flops, but still make us look like bumbling idiots. As we go down, all I can think about is coming back this way and having to tackle these steps from the other direction! Of course once we cross the roaring river at the bottom, we have to face a new ascent up the trail to Sinuwa (2340m) where we stop for some well-earned hot drinks. Onwards, we pass through some beautiful forest (rhododendron, bamboo and moss is a stunning combination!). There's streams and waterfalls everywhere, fresh with the overnight rainfall. The track begins to descend again. There's a kid porter (not more than 10) walking the descending trail with us, his basket full of class coke bottles - I don't know where he gets the energy as he's tiny, but we see him later charging around the village playing with his friends. It starts to rain as we come to our destination - the aptly named Bamboo. We're starting to feel the cold now as we get higher, but we manage to get some hot water here for a much needed shower.
The guesthouses have very basic rooms which get very cold at night, so you're given a manky blanket to put over your sleeping bag. There are small communal 'dining halls' where food is served and if you're lucky a kerosene lamp is placed under the central table in an alcove in the ground. There's a blanket around the table to keep the heat  from escaping  and this is how you keep your legs and feet warm and dry your boots, socks and anything else that is wet! The kerosene steals every iota of oxygen from the room, so after dinner everyone is feeling pretty whoozy and ready for bed by 7.30pm! The menus are based on a basic list of ingredients that are carried up by the porters (mainly rice, noodle and pasta dishes - all very stodgy fare, which is just what you need!). Local committees assist with the creation of the menus and set the prices - it's all very organised.
Day 4: Bamboo (2335m) - Deurali (3200m)  

Finally! An awesome view! We're so excited that it is finally clear and we can see where we're going. Unfortunately Tim lost his sunglasses the day before - a necessary piece of the equipment because of the snow glare ahead. We set off hoping we can beg, borrow or steal something between now and then. We head through the steep valley through gorgeous and very dense forest. It's very rocky and damp with loads of streams and waterfalls flowing down the valley side - meaning we have to cross loads of shaky bridges. We can see the snow not far away now - a sure sign that we are getting closer to our destination. Finally, some stunning views of Machhapuchhure - the most beautiful mountain I have ever seen. We soon hit the 'avalanche track' where we have to cross what looks like a dirty glacier, but is in fact snow flowing down the valley side from the peaks and valleys high above. It's precarious crossing over and we have to cross 4 in all. We pass the small Baraha temple on the rocky trail then stop for hot drinks at Himalaya (2920m). After this the trail becomes very steep and irregular. Finally we glimpse our next destination (Deurali) up above us. However, it's deceptively far away, and first we have to haul ourselves up an endless line of steps past Hinku Cave before we can liberate our sorry feet from our hiking boots. There's some excitement in the little village as a woman up the trail (we're just about in the snow line now) has been injured. 6 porters are sent up with an upturned table with a bit of foam on top. Turns out it's a older English woman who was with a tour group. A while later she is bought down strapped to the table by the very capable porters. Her husband, who is surprisingly calm, explains later that she has dislocated her hip. A runner is dispatched down the mountain to arrange a helicopter to pick up the woman the next day. Meanwhile, she's plonked in a cold room with no electricity to while away the hours.
No hot water and minimal electricity now. There's some excitement when a tour group of older English people come down with news that one of their party has dislocated her hip on the snow trail above. Six porters spring into action, collecting an old door and placing a mattress on top, they head up to rescue her and later bring her down the mountain side. She is put into one of the rooms while a runner heads off down the mountain to organise a helicopter to pick her up the next day.  It soon starts to rain and we retire to the dining hall for yet another dose of kerosene comfort.

Day 5 : Derauli  (3200m)  - Annapurna Base Camp (4130m)

This is the big day. We wake up before sunrise to see the moon lighting the huge ridge above the guesthouse.  It's pretty damn cold, but we soon warm up after our staple breakfast - most people go for porridge, boiled eggs, Tibetan bread etc. I've already consumed about a litre of honey on the trek, but I seem to need the sugar as I spend most of the time feeling ravenous! There are committees in each area of the Annapurna area that assist the local people set up their resthouses. They help them write the menus based on some staple ingredients that the porters are able to lug up the valley. The idea is that the locals get the most out of the trekking trails and that minimal impact is made on the local area. This means that the menus in most places have pretty much the same choices - including some more exotic dishes like 'Snickers spring roll'! It beats cooking on a camp fire and there is no meat served above a certain spot as the region is regarded as sacred - so plenty of veg food. 

We soon set off for the day's trekking and it's either altitude or nervousness that is making my heart beat quite fast! The foliage thins out as we go and the snow is creeping in around us. We pass one of the most risky avalanche paths where a group of German and Israeli trekkers died a couple of years back - at a similar time of year. We divert as far as possible from the risk area, which means 'scrambling' over an area of boulders, which is pretty hard going. We get some awesome views of Machhapuchhure (Fishtail) mountain from this part of the valley. The patches of snow are getting bigger now and it's extremely slippy in places as the morning sun hasn't reached this part of the valley and there is a thick layer of ice on top of the snow, which is very compacted. Not being very experienced with snow, I make a bit of a mess of things and keep getting stuck in slow motion slides down steep inclines! Luckily, our guide Chandra always seems there to drag me up to get a footing! Thankfully I have my trekking stick to help me out of a few situations as well! The slope below looks incredibly enticing until you notice the rocky river bed far, far below in the base of the valley. I was pretty nervous about this whole avalanche thing, especially as I watched a local guy with an ice axe coming from the other side slipping as he tried to hack into the worst of the ice to make some grip. Being a rock climber Simon takes off above the ledge to try and cross and there's a tense moment when he knocks down some clumps of snow/ice onto us below. We make it over no problem, but there's a few more challenges to worry about today. The narrow and slippery trail continues and we're fully in the snow now. 
Finally Machhapuchhure Base Camp (3703m) comes into view!  The views from here are fabulous and we take some tea and rest up for 20 minutes. We set off for the final 2 hour ascent through the snowy valley to ABC (Annapurna Base Camp). It's clear when we start and it's hard to not keep stopping and dropping your jaw into the snow as you take in the views. The snow is fairly soft and deep, filling the valley up which we are walking. It's quite amazing how quickly the clouds pour down from the ridges above and soon the weather begins to look quite ominous. We rug up as much as possible and press on. I've developed a monster headache and I'm fighting a feeling of drowsiness which is urging me to curl up in the snow and have a nap! It's snowing lightly as we make it up the first really steep bit. As we turn the bend the fabled ABC comes into view, but looks such a long way off as we sink at every step into the snow. We push ourselves up and up and the last 100m is incredibly difficult. Finally we make it, and just as well as the snow really starts coming down - just as we indulge in a hot bucket wash (which is actually quite bloody freezing!). We've made it to 4130m and spend the rest of the day trying to keep as close as possible to the kerosene lamp under the dining hall table and feeling very drowsy and headachy. Apart from that we eat and have an early night, though there's no sleep in store for me - just an altitude-induced racing mind and a restless night's sleep! The snow continues to come down all night and is banked up outside the window of our little stone-floored (and bloody freezing) room. The lightening is very dramatic and flashes on and on, lighting the little room purple. I go to sleep with all my clothes on and my heard completely zipped into the sleeping bag! The water to flush the outside squat toilet is frozen and there's ice on the floor, making a night time trip to the toilet somewhat perilous!

Day 6: ABC (4130m) - Bamboo (2335m)

Today is the morning we have been waiting for that makes all the pain disappear! It doesn't disappoint. The snow is banked up everywhere and the resthouse is just about buried, with icicles dripping down from the overhangs. We stand in knee deep snow next to the glacier that flows nearby the resthouse. The moon is still up and looks incredible shining down on the snow. You can really see, now that the pre-dawn morning sky is perfectly clear, that we are in a natural amphitheatre of stunningly beautiful peaks. Somehow this numbs us to the -10 degree C temperatures that envelope us. The sun comes up and the higher peaks glow pink. We can see 10 in all looming above us, including Annapurna I (8091m), Biraha Shikhar (7647m) and Annapurna III (7555m). We enjoy the view for as long as straining circulations will permit then head for a warm breakfast and another dose of kerosene stupor! After that it's time to pack up and leave, excited at the prospect of shaking the altitude headache some time later in the day (though pretty freaked out about going back over that icy ledge!). We are sent off by some of the locals who throw snowballs at us as we set off down the valley. The bastards manage to get snow down my collar... We continue to be entrance by the views, stopping frequently to take in every possible angle from the snow blazing valley. It's a lot of fun descending in the new powdery snow fall and we make complete clowns of ourselves! As we get further down the bamboo covered in snow creates some beautiful scenery. It's still in shadow down here and I have quite a few slip and slide slow motion falls with Chandra managing to catch me most of the time! I don't even realize that I'm on the dreaded ledge till Chandra says something like "It's not as bad today" and I only have about 3m to go! The snow has made it much easier to traverse. We slip and slide down the remaining snow, scramble the rocks, pass the scary avalanche path and on and on and on and on... down, down, down till it feels like our knees will explode.  I can't believe we trekked UP this! Everyone coming up looks so haggard. Lucky it's up first, as I would never agree to climb up the trail having gone DOWN it! We cross lots of streams along the rocky trail and finally make it to Bamboo (descending almost 2000m) where we have a hot shower and gorge ourselves on food.
Day 7 - Day 9: Bamboo (2335m) - Finish
I guess the rest is a bit of an anti-climax after making it to the top, especially as a lot of it is retracing your steps (knowing what's coming ahead isn't that great either!). On Day 7 Chandra managed to find Tim's sunglasses on the much-tread path, where they had been somehow camouflaged by some leaves! They'd been sitting there for 4 days, so we were pretty impressed! The same day we have to face the DREADED and infamous steps up to Chhromrong - 2135 in all. These steps are hard going and stretch above you like some infinite biblical trail that you must climb to escape hell! Maybe I was just delirious, or maybe the my throbbing blisters were effecting my brain? Having got up there, we have to then go down (whose idea was that?). The good news being that our destination was Jhinu Hot Springs. The boys indulge in a night on local rum (Khukuri XXX) with a bit of culture thrown in as we get to sit and watch some local folk dancing and singing. In the morning I wake them at 5.45am for the trek down to the hot springs beside the river, apparently not that great for what they were suffering, especially as we hiked back up the hill for breakfast!
On Day 8 we have an easy day - heading along the river valley, taking in some beautiful rural areas and having lunch amongst the tiered fields next to the river. We've read that there's 'flat' and there's 'Nepali flat', because we think all the ascents and descents are over and it's easy street from here, but I don't think there's such thing as flat ground out here!
Day 9 is home day and we have a super easy walk along a wide trail to our end point for the trek. The drive back to Pokhara is interesting - about 10m visibility around hair pin bends! And we thought we were safe now we had left the avalanches behind! We have a great night in Pokhara - the boys indulge in steaks and we later head out to celebrate New Year at a local festival with Chandra.

Back in Pokhara
Since we've got back we've helped our trekking guide set up a basic website. He's a real gem of a guy and if anyone is thinking about trekking in Nepal, he comes very highly recommended. You can check out his website (it's a work in progress!) www.geocities.com/chudamani_2000

On Sunday we hired some motorbikes to visit Chandra's family up on the mountain (what we thought would be a leisurely ride). It actually involved a hard ride up the mountain on a sealed road (with some mad truck overtakes), then along a rocky track to Chandra's village. Our bikes we just small light weights with me on the back with Tim and Simon on the back with Chandra. Chandra and Simon had a small stack on the dirt road, but luckily we weren't going too fast! We met Chandra's wife and children and had lunch sitting on mats out the front of his family hut, a little baby goat milling about and a bunch of children staring at us! We then went on to meet his extended family up the hill. They are Hindus and name new babies on the 9th day after it's birth, so there was a bit of a celebration going on. We met lots of family members, who were very welcoming, and we smiled at each other for a while as only a couple spoke any English! The trip back down to Pokhara involved more rocky track and i'm surprised that my brain isn't scrambled from that trip! We didn't do much else in Pokhara but relax after our exertions...

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Where I stayed
Annapurna Base Camp
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