I’m just back from my 3-week solo trip to Nepal, trekking round the Annapurna massif and into the Annapurna Sanctuary. I first did this 28 years ago (minus the Sanctuary) with my friend Martin, and it was fascinating to see the difference. Some people say that the road has diminished the experience – to me, it is still one of the best treks in the world, certainly for anyone not wishing to carry a tent.
As with my previous treks in Nepal, the trip began with a flight into Kathmandu. I was seated 2/3rds of the way back, and contrived to be the very last person off the plane. This meant a relatively long wait in the visa queue, and by the time I was clear it was too late to get my TIMS and ACAP permits, so I took a taxi into Thamel and headed for the Potala Hotel where Nancy and I stayed 2 years ago on our Manaslu/Tsum Valley circuit.
2nd May 2013 Kathmandu to Besi Sahar
The following morning I was at the Tourist Office ready for the 9am opening of the ACAP office where it was no problem to get the relevant permit, but I then had to wait for the 10am opening of the TIMS office (later that day some people managed to get theirs on the spot in Besi Sahar). Armed with both permits, I took a taxi across town to the Gongabu bus station with my new Russian friends, Oleg and Anastasia, and arrived in time for an 11am minibus to Besi Sahar. Five and a half hours later, we rolled into town to find that the last minibus to Syange had already left. Not particularly feeling like another bouncy 2-3 hours, we opted to stay in town and head out as early as possible the next day.
3rd May 2013 Besi Sahar to Shri Chaur
Without going to the extra expense of hiring a jeep, this turned out to be 11am, and I could feel another day slipping by. Some trekkers had opted to take the bus to Bhulbule and walk from there, but I wanted to get higher as I knew that in early May it would be very hot walking at lower altitudes. Our transport was pretty threadbare (especially the tyres), but it was the stub axle that turned out to be the weak link when it sheared on a bumpy descent. Fortunately, the driver had a spare one (and knew how to fit it) but it was nearly 3 hours before we got going again – it would have been quicker to walk the remaining 10 kms! I needed to burn off some energy, so did a quick power walk to the nearest hotel which turned out to be a friendly place in a little strip of houses call Shri Chaur.
In traditional fashion, here I managed to leave behind my first item of the holiday – a lightweight towel – and subsequently had to use the spare pillowcase in my room to dry myself. From the hotel, the road zigzags upwards and follows the Marsyangdi river through Jagat to Chyamche, where we had enjoyed a pleasant meal on our descent from Manaslu 2 years before. The place wasn’t as nice as I remembered, but I still had a tasty breakfast omelette and felt myself drifting into the trekking rhythm. From Chyamche, you cross the river away from the road and there is a steep climb before a short descent to Tal, a pleasant relaxed town on a beach by the river. Near the top, I met 2 young Danes (accompanied by a Norwegian and a German) who were carrying guitars, which I thought was crazy, but it turned out quite a few people bring their musical instruments – whether they can play them is a different matter. I had intended to stop in Dharapani, but it felt dark and damp so I opted to push on towards Danakyu. Realising that I was somewhat dehydrated, and that it was about to start raining, I ended up at a rather tired hotel in rather tired Bagarchhap.
I reached Chame, currently the end of the motorable road, around lunchtime and felt that it was too early to stop for the night (though it had rained mid-afternoon every day so far). The engineer had mentioned Bhratang, but when I reached it there was a terrible run-down feeling among the ruined houses so I pressed on although it was already 3ish. Crossing the river took me through a beautiful tract of old forest (uphill, unfortunately) and then a lovely descent to Dikhur Pokhari. I was very happy to have made the extra effort as there was a good choice of hotels, and enjoyed a good chat with a dope-smoking Italian pizzeria owner who lived in Thailand.
With a steep hill coming up, I made another early start the following morning. By the river there was frost on the ground, and I wore gloves for a while, but this turned out to be the lowest temperature until the day crossing the pass. I had chosen the ‘high route’ away from the main track, and was rewarded with stunning views of Annapurna 2 and 4 across the valley. All throughout the trek there had been hints of the big mountains, but up here they were truly in your face. Despite the early start, it was hot going up the hill to Ghyaru, so I rested there and had a chat with a lovely Swiss girl, Celine, and her Nepali friend Bobin, and ended up trekking with them for the next 4 days (though I tended to rise earlier and walk quicker).
After an early start (you can spot a theme here) I took it steadily on the 650m ascent to Ledhar at 4200m. I was there before lunch and took the opportunity in the afternoon to climb up the hill behind. There was a really impressive blue sheep ram in a nearby gully, but he completely ignored me. To date I hadn’t seen many mammals, and birdlife was good without being great, but I knew things would get better when I saw a Pale Weasel back at the tea house. I had a very mild headache here, but took an Ibuprofen and it was gone within minutes. Never lost my appetite, which is always a good sign for me.
9th May 2013 Ledhar to Thorung la High Camp
Just before 8am I reached the cairn at the Thorong La pass, and waited while people took their summit photos. Celine and Bobin arrived after 30 minutes or so, so we took a few pictures together. I had a good chat with a Kiwi and ex-pat Nepali who, with their guide and porters, had come through Naar and Phu. Their opinion was that Naar was great, but Phu wasn’t worth the extra effort. I dropped down from the pass with these guys, feeling very happy that I had my trekking poles. It took at least 2 hours less to descend the 1600m to Muktinath than for many of the people who had also been on the pass.
Although being of great spiritual importance to Hindus and Buddhists, Muktinath is a curiously ramshackle place, so I kept on moving after lunch. Two reasons: Kagbeni is a much nicer place in my opinion; and the following day it would let me avoid the dusty winds that blow up the lower valley from late morning onwards. I reached Kagbeni mid-afternoon, having descended a total of 2600m, and delighted to reach this charming oasis town. You can bypass large sections on the road on the descent, passing through fascinating old towns, but it’s best to rejoin for the final escarpment. Some people took the higher path to the north, and said that the views were spectacular.
11th May 2013 Kagbeni to Kalopani
As planned, I took advantage of the calm morning to do the dusty slog across the valley floor to Jomsom (fine views of the Nilgiris though). It has a Wild West feel to it, so I went straight through, dropped down to river to avoid the road, and made my way to the lovely little town of Marpha. It’s known for its apples, but is also beautifully laid out and would be a great place to stop. Having had a delayed breakfast here (apple pancakes and apple lassi), I pushed on across the river on the old track, enjoying the pine forests and soft ground. There’s a short steep climb and descent on one section, though this can be avoided when the river is low. Here I was fortunate enough to see my first lammergeier of the trip, as well as a Kalij pheasant scuttling into the undergrowth. This was the only day I got caught in the afternoon rain, but it was fairly dramatic with pea-sized hailstones and sheet lightning, and I rather enjoyed it.
It ended up being a long day with the meanderings of the old path, but I rolled into Kalopani in mid-afternoon, having been walking for the best part of 10 hours, including breaks. It’s a long dark town (curiously, this is my memory from the first trip), and was the first place where I didn’t meet up with any convivial fellow travellers. Nevertheless, food was good, and the welcome friendly, and it was my first properly hot shower of the trip.
12th May 2013 Kalopani to Tatopani
Next day, I chose the road for the first 2 hours as the path climbs high to avoid a landslip, so was in Ghasa, a much nicer town, for breakfast. Again the track crosses the river onto the old route, and here I caught up with Canadian Mike and Finnish Janne, whom I’d first met on the other side. Together, we enjoyed a speedy descent into the sub-tropical heat of Tatopani.. I arrived pretty dehydrated, and should have stopped en route to filter some water, but we were on a roll so I pushed on. Lemon tea and Fanta remedied the situation, but 2 hours in the hot pools by river sucked all the moisture out of me again. I was happy to have avoided the temptation of a beer as it would have led to a big hangover. I had already decided that I was going to have a rest day in Tatopani as I had put in quite a few miles in last 3 days, and knew that the 1800m climb to Ghorepani was best tackled with fresh legs.
Pottering about town and reading my first novel of the trip worked wonders so my customary early start to avoid the heat of the day took me up 850m, to a charming tea house in Shikha for breakfast. The heat and humidity were building up so I pushed on to the relative cool of Ghorepani at 2860m. There was a lot of rain that afternoon, but I had a fascinating chat with an epidemiologist studying malaria near Choma in Zambia where we will be passing through this August! Ghorepani is a start point for the Annapurna Sanctuary (Base Camp) trek, so I started to get my head around the new portion of my trek.
15th May 2013 Ghorepani to Chhromrong
It was rainy and overcast the next morning, and I had already determined to avoid Poon Hill, so set up towards Deurali Top for peeks at the summits of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna South. There is some beautiful mature forest here with giant Rhododendrons, a few of which were still in flower, though it was really too late in the season. Very Middle-Earth. A steep descent and ascent took me to breakfast in Tadapani, from where there is another steep descent to the Kimrong Khola. It was here that I picked up my only leech of the trip, though I didn’t realise it until I stopped for lunch at Ghumrung (different spelling on the map) and felt my blood-soaked sock. In some ways, it’s nicer not to find the leech, though I fancied that I had had a slight tightness in that calf for a while – probably psychosomatic! Another climb, and I was sorted for accommodation at Chhomrong, where I was unfortunately the only guest. Nevertheless, I had a good chat with Alastair from NZ and Sam from the US who were sheltering from the rain.
17th May 2013 Deurali to Annapurna Base Camp
Trying to get the best possible view of Machapuchhre, I left before 6 and headed up to the Base Camp. The entire valley floor was filled with rockfall from the towering cliffs above, so I had to concentrate on my footing, but nevertheless managed to spot a musk deer on the ascent, a curious creature with a face like a kangaroo (excluding the long canines!). Once at MBC, I also spotted two small herds of goral (wild goats) on the mountainside. My main focus though was on the steadily revealing face of Machapuchhre. From the Base Camp you get a hugely foreshortened view of the mountain as it towers above. I actually found this more impressive than Annapurna.
18th May 2013 Annapurna Base Camp to Jhinu
The next morning dawned overcast, and I pondered how long to wait before descending, but by 6.30 am everything had cleared. I spent a good hour enjoying the fabulous views (and photo opportunities), but left in good time to once again get up close to Machapuchhre. As it began too cloud over again, I started my descent, all too aware of the 2600m I was planning to go down to the hot springs at Jhinu. However it seemed that everyone descending was in cruise control as it was so much easier on the descent. Partly this was due to the decreasing altitude, but also things were helped by the number of steps. Although a pain on the ascent, it is possible to ‘trot’ down the steps safely, reducing the stress on your knees. I certainly didn’t feel like I had gone down such a height.
After a much-anticipated apple pie in the German bakery at Chhomrong, I ascended and descended to Jhinu in good time for a soak. What I hadn’t realised is that it’s a further 20 minutes down to the hot springs on the river! It’s a beautiful setting, but the water is only lukewarm and the climb back up negates all the newly-achieved cleanliness. Nevertheless, Jhinu has some lovely tea houses and I seriously contemplated staying an extra day – I just wouldn’t bother going for a soak.
19th May 2013 Jhinu to Pokhara
A late departure the next day after a lazy start on my final day left me walking in the heat and strength of the midday sun, so it was harder work than it should have been. I only stopped the once and had a fun talk with a young Dane (?) who had just discovered birdwatching. His 2 Nepali companions told me they had seen bears at MBC and I was very envious until they said there had been 4 of them, they were white, and were probably polar bears. Too much ‘Northern Lights’!
The trail I was following wasn’t shown on my map, but it is possible to descend the length of the Modi Khola without having to gain (and lose) too much height. A new road starts soon after the Beehive tea house and I just got into cruise mode and occasionally trot mode as I made for the roadhead at Nayapul, determined to finish my trek without public transport.
The rest of my journey was essentially part of the homeward journey, from Nayapul through Pokhara to Kathmandu. Having had such a great time in the mountains, I enjoyed neither of the cities in spite of the improved amenities, and was keen to get back on the plane.