The risen sun is still behind the mountains. The swollen knee is giving me a hard time in every step that I take. It’s been 7 days since we started the tiring trekking and now is the decisive time; we are finally reaching our destination. Just an hour more. Turned one more ravine and there it is, Annapurna I (8091 M), the 10th highest mountain in the world, standing like a giant white wall in front, guarded by Annapurna South (7219 M) on the left and Gangapurna (7455 M) on the right. I see Ali coming back from the Base Camp with his lock of hair, wearing shorts even in this -1 degree climate. It is obvious from his smile that he had a great time up there watching the first rays of the day kissing these majestic mountains. This Dutch guy himself has no idea how many times he has been up here!
I look back; Aditya my cousin is not so behind walking up with his sprained ankle, cursing the mountain in every step that he takes. The unclimbed Machhapuchhre is standing tall behind him. For a mountain whose top looks like the fishtail from a distance, there is no other apt name than that. It feels like being inside a giant stadium, where the tall snow capped mountains take the place of the gallery as I walk further. The sound of a landslide happening somewhere nearby is echoing across the mountains. “Die you mountain, die” curses Adi!
It seems climbing down is far more difficult for me than climbing up with this swollen knee. How I will walk back all this distance in this condition with this heavy backpack was my morning thought. It wasn’t an easy journey for me to reach here; I managed to survive the economic emergency back in India and the HR manager’s last minute intervention to cancel the leave. But there is no time for all those thoughts now. Today we are going to sleep here in the valley under the starry sky guarded by the mighty mountains in the frozen climate. Did that thought rush my speed a bit? There it is, the base camp not far away. Finally…
The horrible news about 40 trekkers killed in the Annapurna range of Nepal due to the heavy snowfall of October 14th 2014 which swept across the Himalayas reached me and my friend Sudhin only by the time we came back to Delhi the following day after surviving through 22 kms trekking in the same deadly snowfall in Gangotri Gaumukh. Annapurna – that was the first time I ever heard of that name. The trekking up to its Base Camp (ABC) is regarded as one of the most beautiful and famous trekking route around the world. The decision was made by then but it took exactly 2 years for me to do it.
I am listing down the itinerary which we followed. A big thanks to all the authors of the blogs which helped me to get this done.
|Day of trekking||Place|
|NA||Bangalore (by train) – Gorakhpur 2 days|
|NA||Gorakhpur- Sonauli 3 hrs drive|
|NA||Sonauli – Pokhara 10 hrs drive|
|1||Pokhara – Nayapul(1070 m) – 2hrs drive – Hille/Tikhedhunga (1570 m) 5 hrs|
|2||Hille /Tikhedhunga – Ghorepani (2750 m) 7 hrs|
|3||Ghorepani – Poon Hill (3210 m) – Tadapani (2650 m)7-8 hrs|
|4||Tadapani – Chomrong (2170 m) 5 hrs|
|5||Chomrong – Himalayas (2920 m)/Dovan 7-8 hrs|
|6||Himalayas/Dovan – Machapuchare Base Camp (3700 m) 4-5 hrs|
|7||MBC – Annapurna Base Camp (4130 m) 3 hrs (1/2 day hike to glacier at higher elevation optional)|
|8||Annapurna Base Camp – Sinuwa (2340 m) 7-8 hrs|
|9||Sinuwa – Jhinu Danda (1780 m) via Chomrong visit hotsprings 7 hrs|
|10||Jhinu Danda (1780 m) – Siwai 6 hrs Pokhara 3 hr drive|
|NA||Pokhara – Gorakhpur 14 hrs drive|
|NA||Gorakhpur (by train) -Bangalore 2 days|
After escaping the dramatic scenes back in the office caused by the HR manager to cancel the trip at the very last moment, I reached Yeshwantpur railway station in Bangalore to catch the New Delhi bound Samparkkranti express. Aditya who came all the way from Mumbai was already waiting for me there. There was one more guy in the picture, Seby, my college mate and best friend. His plan was to fly from Kanyakumari to Gorakhpur (our current destination) by the time we reached there, though Fate had different plans for him. Indian government’s strategic strike on black money known as the currency demonitisation (withdrawal of 500 & 1000 Rs notes) which has been nothing short of a disaster so far has left us only about Rs 7000 in hand. But we were rich compared to Seby who had zero penny in hand though he had a fortune in his bank account. He had no other option but to cancel the trip. The dark powers had struck again. It was not the first time that I lose a partner at the very moment when the trip started!! To add more misery to that, my cell phone shattered into pieces just as I climbed the upper berth in the train as it moved away from the Garden City of India. Not a very good start..
The 34 hrs journey took us to Jhansi where we changed the train to catch the Raptisagar express to reach Gorakhpur. We somehow managed to survive the 12 hrs of journey sitting beside the filthy toilet, thanks to the non availability of seats. Gorakhpur – without the super moon it would have been completely dark even at 5 in the evening. For once I empathised with Adi who got sick of the London weather with its lack of sunlight especially in the winter season, while he was studying there a year ago.
Next destination – Sonauli the Indian border town. Though there are plenty of buses to go there (you can catch the bus just opposite the railway station) we decide to take the shared taxi (Rs250 per person after bargain) which could save us an hour. Well, we completely deserve it after that exhausting train travel.”The border will be closed by 10 PM for the vehicles but it will remain open for the pedestrians all night” says Ranbeer and Saurabh our new friends whom we met in the car. The vehicle rush through the recently renovated wide bypass roads to reach the last town on Indian border, Sonauli. My heart starts beating fast as I read the sign board ‘Indian Border Ends Here’.
This is the moment that I was waiting for, for a long time, to go out of the country for the first time. But wait! Nobody is asking for my passport. Ok, we Indians don’t need passport or visa to enter our brotherhood country Nepal, but at least take a look at my ID card! It seems the officials of both the countries are not in a mood to stop their friendly talk just to check four guys crossing the international border in the darkness!! What if we are smugglers??… Anyway.. bye bye motherland, see you back in 2 weeks, by the time I hope we have a hell of a story to tell. The last bus to Pokhara and Kathmandu leaves at 8.30pm. This leaves us with no choice but to stay at Bhairawa, the Nepal town beside the border. By the time we and Ranbeer have become so friendly that we decide to share a room for the night. The insufficient funds in our hand changed the original plan of going to Pokhara. We had asked Joe Nathan, my cousin Ammu’s former colleague in Kathmandu, to lend us some amount. For that, we have to go to Kathmandu early morning tomorrow.
Promising Ranveer to meet again in Pokhara, we got in to the first bus to Kathmandu (550 NC/person) at 4.45. Everything was going fine until they put on the dubbed South Indian movies in bus in high volume. Our hope to get some sleep simply vanished!! The distant view of the beautiful snow capped Himalayan mountains is the only good part in this long journey. One of them could be Annapurna, who knows? I said to myself, as the 6th movie hit the screen or was it the 7th? I thought we had left all this back in India. Feeling so sick now!
Kathmandu, the capital town of Nepal – it is not the feel that we were expecting from all the stories that we had heard about this city. The bustling, crowded, dusty Kathmandu is not much different from some North Indian cities, except for the fact that there are no auto rickshaws available here. Joe’s driver came and gave us Rs 10000 (Nepali currency). But the real joy came when we realised that I can withdraw money using my State Bank of India debit card from their ATM without the transaction limit the government had introduced a week before. Using the SBI ATM card you can withdraw up to Rs 25000 (NC) in one transaction from any of their ATMs in Nepal. Ola! Suddenly we are rich. Wasting no more time we headed to Pokhara by the last bus at 8.30 pm(550 NC/person) .
The comparatively better road helped both of us to get enough sleep by the time we reached the chilly morning of Pokhara at 5.30. A suggestion here….. if you have a day or two to spend in Pokhara, then head to Lake Side. It is a paradise for the travellers, with plenty of cheap hotels, markets, restaurants and coffee shops near the beautiful lake of Pokhara. But since we had no intention to stay in Pokhara, the decision to hire a room right in the middle of the city was easy to take (Rs 600 for 2 persons). After a short nap we started for the lake side to get trekking permission from the Nepal tourism office. We didn’t have to rush through; it opens only by 10.00 a .m. That provides us ample time to have breakfast from ‘Black & White’, the German restaurant, and also to have a glimpse of the calm greenish Pokhara Lake just opposite the restaurant.
For SAARC nationalities (which include India) the trekking permits cost just Rs 200 but it also requires Rs 600 worth TIMS card as well. They ask for 3 passport size photos for all of these but don’t bother even if you don’t have it, they have a photo booth right inside the office. Afternoon was reserved for shopping for the trekking gear including a good thermal wear, over coat and sleeping bags. This took more time than we expected and forced us to take a taxi rather than the public bus to our base point for trekking – Nayapul.
It is 1 pm already and what we are facing is a 2 hr journey by road to Nayapul followed by 6 hours of long trekking to Tikhedhunga (1577 M) our pit stop for the day. The fact that the chances to achieve all these is getting lower and lower gets me nervous as the cab rushes through the valley where Annapurna massif guards the right side. For a moment all those worries vanished as my sight fell on that big wall over there. Here we are against all the odds… Now it’s all up to our determination to conquer this. In the coming days we are going to spend our day and night somewhere there under the majestic mountains. The tyres laid to rest at last. After 4 days of tiring journey of over 4000 kms, started from a far place in South India, finally we are here, why? so that we can start our real journey!
That’s it. Bye bye asphalt road, now we are heading in to the muddy paths of a valley laid like the tentacles of an octopus, for the 10 days long trekking… The half an hour journey will take you to Birethanti where you have to show your permits at both sides of the river Modi Khola . The detour on the other side gives an option to go to Ghorepani to the left and Gandruk on to the right. Taking left we continued our journey. The path through the untarred road is relatively easy though we are certain it wouldn’t last long. The sun was eager to go home after the day and we saw the darkness spread quicker than expected.
Soon the mobile flashlight was required to continue the trekking. The 4 hours of journey finally managed to tire us. Tikkadunga seems a far dream, we have to settle somewhere for the day……any place where lights are turned on. Soon we heard a voice from the dark saying we are on the wrong route!! We should have taken the narrow path at the last U turn which was completely unidentifiable in the dark. You are an angel, sir.
We didn’t have to walk very far to get to the beautiful small village called Hille to make it our first pit stop during the trekking. We took a room in the first lodge that we saw where we were the only guests. The tiny wooden cabin for both of us is neat and cheap. Room rates are fixed across all the villages en route to ABC – Rs 400 for a 2 persons’ room, Rs 180 for dormitory. After a delicious dinner, before going into deep slumber, we promised each other to wake up the next morning as early as possible. Not even a tiny bit of disappointment is left on us for the fact that we couldn’t make it to the destination for the day..
Day 2 of trekking
Whatever we promised last night was a complete lie. In the morning chill of this alluring valley, it is ever so difficult to wake up from the bed even at 9 am. The last time we slept like this was in Bangalore 4 days before. Finally at 11 am we are all packed up and ready for the 7-8 hrs of trekking to Ghorepani (2874 M). Remember that timing is applicable from Tikkadunga where we are yet to reach. “It will be very difficult to reach Ghoprepani before dark” laughed the shop lady. “Don’t worry about us, we are super strong and super quick, we will make it” (Oh how I regret those words). Thadapani was just 30 minutes walk from Hille. Only if we had started our trekking yesterday a bit earlier we could have made it here pretty easily. There is another big village that we have to cross on the way to the destination – Ulleri (2070 M).
“You will enjoy the journey” There is enough of sarcasm in that European lady’s voice who just passed us by. It didn’t take long to realize what she meant, it’s the steps.. The untarred road has now given way to steps; countless, endless number of steps. Porters hired by other tourists are not climbing but running through them or is it just that I’m hallucinating a bit after the tiring climb? Every pound that we carry now comes adds to our luggage making each step harder and harder. Every corner that we take I hope this could be the end. But no, it’s still going on. The path to the heaven is filled with steps – literally! This has to end at some point for sure… All the breaks that we take are eating up the time so much, but we have no choice. At least we could make it useful for acknowledging and drinking in the beauty of this valley, flowered beautifully thanks to the autumn season. The pink flowered unnamed tree on the way has set a different vibrancy to the place altogether.
Tikkadunga is now far away down the valley. “It’s a very long distance that we have covered” Adi is right as I see the Ulleri around the corner. Almost as big as Tikkadaunga with rows of lodges and houses, Ulleri definitely can boast of being more beautiful than the former thanks to the snow capped mountains peeping through the narrow ravine. That could be Annapurna or Machhapuchhre. I’m yet to be familiar with these mountains. The dhal bhat’s power (the popular food of this region– grain curry with rice and veg curry) soon dried off after a few steps. “A little more distance and you have done with it” says the villager seeing us suffering. I hope she didn’t say that to comfort us.
But she is right. Soon the steps give way to muddy trails. The proper trekking trail at last. A canned dog from somewhere joins us and leads the way through the greenish forest. The black dog has so much more stamina even with its crooked leg. Every time we take rest he keeps coming back to us as if urging us to move on “Dogs are the most loyal thing in the world” “He is not being loyal, he is just scared to go alone” I argued with Adi. Anyway I am very happy to get a local company through the forest which is now getting darker every minute. It is almost certain that we two are the only two living souls on this route now. Apart from the dog of course. It seems we haven’t learned anything from the last night. And it becomes obvious when Adi sprains his ankle. The cell phone flash light isn’t sufficient enough on a path covered with pebbles and rocks. Our companion is now nowhere in sight. It just occurred to us that we haven’t seen any civilization after passing Ulleri. It is we who are scared not the dog!
Suddenly he emerges from the dark with a westerner. “Thuppali is his name, he stays in our lodge in Ghoprepani.” The stranger is patting the dog while he shakes his tail vigorously. “Ghorepani is still 30 minutes of walk from here”, the man says. But he immediately rephrases it to 20 minutes seeing Adi’s face. Surely he is saying this to comfort us. You don’t have to do that sir! Soon he disappeared into the cold night wearing nothing but shorts and T-shirt. That is an impressive evening walk. Here we are thinking of getting into the sleeping bag already.
The walk continues with Thuppali in the lead. The Big gate of Ghorepani which the stranger mentioned appeared in the darkness shortly, putting a big smile on our face. Adi goes up to check the room availability in the first lodge that we see. I am not going to move an inch until I get confirmation from Adi. As I hear his voice from the top, I climb up only to find him lying on the floor with everyone standing near him laughing at us. We told them the entire story while having Dhal Bhat.
The fact that we have to wake up at 5 in the morning to see the sunrise from Poon hill is so frightening but with the satisfaction that we reached the destination unlike last time, we can close our eyes for the day.
Like the other day we cannot snooze the alarm. If couldn’t reach the top of Poon hill before sunrise there is no point of coming to this place at all. This thought was sufficient enough to wake us up and do the morning choirs lightning fast.The morning chill give me all the reason to wear the heavy jacket which I carried from Pokhara. The steps become villain again on the way which leads to the Poon hill just outside our lodge. Collecting the 50 Rs ticket at entrance gate we continued the climb. Make sure you bring the wallet, otherwise it would be a painful walk back and forth.
The light has broken somewhere out there in the east. All the ghost alike looking mountains are now slowly finding their characters. As we go up the real picture of Annapurna massif is coming up nice and clearly. The 55 kilometers long giant massif is stretched up so wide with Nilgiri (7061 M) guarding the left and Machhapuchchhre on right. The first rays of the day started to kiss the ice coned mountains. In the golden light of dawn they look more beautiful. We are the last people to reach the crowded Poon hill. People from all over the world have gathered here in a tiny bit space on top of the hill, like one big family to see one of the nature’s greatest gift to the humankind called the Himalayas.
Annapurna’s side kick Dhaulagiri massif is out there far away with her 120 kms long stretched arms. There Dhaulagiri I is standing tall among its siblings with the height of 8,167 meters making its 7th height mountain in the world. My first memory of Dhaulagiri is from the well known book ‘The Snow Leopard’ by the renowned writer Peter Matthiessen. In late 70s he trekked all the way up to Inner Dolpo from Pokhara through these region along with the biologist George Schaller. The diaries which he wrote during his 3 month long journey to the Tibetan plateau hidden behind Dhaulagiri is a cult among the travel readers. The river Kali Gandaki which got countless mention in the book is flowing somewhere in between these tall massifs making her ravine the deepest in the world. I cannot see but I can sense her by observing the crevice she created out there. This time I have to settle with that but I will meet you one day Kali Gandaki, I promise.
Adi is having black tea to survive from the morning chills and I couldn’t resist. Soon we took the 45 minutes climb down to the hotel. During breakfast we met Jan Lan. The Dutch fellow is on his 37th visit to the Annapurna region!! Many of the building here has marked his name in front of it with the donations that he and his family provided over the time. “Not all the times donations are required, sometimes just talking will do.” Jan is having porridge before his meeting with the locals for building a community center for women. He is the Greg Mortenson of Nepal. Well, minus the cheating part of course!
It is Jan who suggests to take the less used forest trail to Thadapani (2630 M) which starts from near the Gate. I hope at least today we will reach the destination on time. Soon we had to climb up the same height of Poon hill again. The view from the top is astonishing as we climb higher and personally I find it more alluring than the crowded Poon hill. On one side you have the towering massifs and on the other hand its tropical forest and lovely meadows.
The journey continues after the lunch from Deurali (there are 3 Deurali en route to ABC, so don’t get confuse). . It is a climb down all the way up to Thadapani now. Soon we entered to the world of lush greenish forest with countless small waterfalls and streams. Together they make the air colder.The forest is getting thicker and thicker as we climb down. The monsoon clouds coming all the way from Indian Ocean sweep across Indian subcontinent only to get beaten by the giant wall of Himalayas here, creating heavy rainfall across sanctuary during the monsoon times. But the other part of the mountains becomes rain shadowed area making the land dry. Rest of the world knows it as Tibetan plateau.
Finally we reached Thadapani around evening 5. No more night trekking then, yay! Keeping a promise has its own joy. Small village of Thadapani is having only 4 lodges which all seems full. After a brief search we managed to get a tiny room around the corner. Giving few clothes for washing we went outside. Machhapuchchhre and Annapurna South are barricading the opposite side. From the valley of Machhapuchchhre something is illuminating like the fireflies. “The shepherds set it the old grass on fire purposefully to grow the new one for the sheep to eat” says the caretaker boy. The small dining room is filled already but still we manage to find a little space to have the veg noodles and pasta for dinner.
It is no more a problem for us to wake up early in the morning. Slowly we have started to understand the mountains. You start early, finish early. It is 7 hours of trekking waiting for us, to Chomrong (2050 M). My left knee is getting swollen a little bit, maybe because I am putting the whole pressure on it instead of the right leg which is having a hamstring. The climb down is relatively easy for me. “Everything is difficult for me” “But you look ok Adi, stop being a drama queen”. “Damn you!”
Passing the millet fields in the villages of Chuile and Siprong, the journey continues. Even after tourism boom the villages here rely heavily on agriculture. The fertile land of Annapurna, a Sanskrit name translated as Goddess of the Harvests, is truly keeping up with its name. The sun is on our side now making us sweat like mad. The worst part is that when you stop even for a minute to take some rest, the cold breeze coming through the valley makes you dance.
River Kimrong Khola lies between Siprong and Chomrong. We have to cross that to get to the other side of the mountain. The river crossing is the hardest and most frustrating part of the trekking. You have to climb all the way down to cross some small bridge across the stream to get to the other side, for what? To climb up all the way back again.
Many porters and tourists overtake us frequently due to our snail pace. The heavy weight they carry on their head is not an issue for them on their way across the mountains, even with the slippers that they wear on this terrain. Ok now I’m not deluding they are definitely running through these slopes! We are almost there at Chomrong, but still we have got 2 hours of daylight with us. Why don’t we push some extra miles so that we can reach Sinuwa, the next village? That will be a little less distance for us in tomorrow’s journey to Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC). The last part which included a number of steps almost broke by the time we reached the top of Chomrong. Here the traditional ABC route (from Landruk or Ghandruk side) and Poon hill route join together, making it the largest village in the mountains.
The writing on a shop reads ‘CPN Maoist controlled area’. Nepal was under the King’s rule till 2006 when the Maoist rebellions finally won a decade long civil war to form a constitution and a stable government. I have heard a lot of stories about the wars these people have fought over the years, from my parents during my childhood.
“Shall we stay here?” suggests Adi. “No we still have got some time left, why waste it? Let’s target Sinuwa”. The small village of Sinuwa is visible from here on the other side of the ravine with river Chomrong Khola flowing in between. You know what that means, right? The river crossing….. Unlike at Siprong, here it is the countless number of steps that is waiting for you on the Chomrong side to climb down to get near the bridge.
The check post midway down is where you have to show the permit for the 3rd time. We got some intelligence report already that the availability of room in Sinuwa could be a problem. The woman at the check post must have some good idea about that.
“Do you know about the room availability at Sinuwa?” “I don’t know.”
“What if we don’t get the rooms there?” “Ha ha I don’t know.”
Is there anything that you know?! They have written the number of lodges each village has got including Sinuwa on a board, but without contact numbers. Seriously how is that going to help Madam? “Let’s take the risk Adi, there must some rooms left I’m sure”. Thus we start the long climb down. Definitely it is the hardest part for me now. Each step is killing me. The physical pain is bearable I thought, when I heard a lady who Adi asked for help said “I am coming all the way from ABC, there are no rooms available anywhere!”
My head started spinning. Behind the draconian steps of Chomrong are laughing at us. What option do we have apart from climbing all the way back through them to get a room! Adi started to climb up promising to set the check post on fire while she is in there. A good for nothing check post. The pain on the legs is getting unbearable for both of us. Cursing the lack of information she provided us we both got in to the very first hotel that we saw.
The caretaker of the inn had his jaw opened wide as he heard we are planning to go to Machhapuchhre Base Camp the next day. “That is not possible. The maximum you can go is up to Deurali or Himalaya, that itself is a long walk.” Really? Then how could I have set the itinerary like that? Let me take a look again. Oh my gosh, he is right! As per my plan we should go and stay at Dovan tomorrow not at MBC. We have got enough days to cover all these. That inadvertent mistake nearly broke our legs. Adi is getting furious at me. “I’m never going to forgive you for this” “You should have also checked the itinerary, you lazy.” I tried to cover up my mistake.
The rift is not going to help us revert back whatever happened, so let’s take some well deserved rest now. The last rays of the day are hitting the Annapurna south. Soon the sky gets filled with countless stars as the night also gets colder . The ice cone spear of Machhapuchhre is glistening as the moon joins the party later.