Ninety five kilometres up and down steep stone stair cases, “no problem!”
After hearing my brother’s stories about the Annapurna Base Camp Trek it became something I really wanted to complete while in Nepal. What an experience it turned out to be.
I shared the physical examination with a motley crew of fellow trekkers; at different times I hiked with Tristan from Guernsey, Iris from Rotterdam, and Rober and Lynda, who bizarrely live ten minutes from the new flat Michelle has secured for us in Amsterdam!
The trek began with just Iris and me leaving from the tiny village of Nayapul, reached by a two hour local bus ride starting at 6am in the lakeside haven of Pokhara. From Nayapul we were gently broken in to what was to come with a four hour hike to the hillside settlement of Ulleri. On the way we saw Nepali mountain farmers finishing off their harvest before the cold weather closed in, and took Chai in little tea houses with stunning views over the lush Himalayan valleys.
Approaching Ulleri we experienced the first of many seriously steep stone-cut staircases which climb the sheer mountain sides that cut these small villages
off from the valley below during winter.
Rooms in these villages are ludicrously cheap – 50 english pence, but due to the difficulty of transporting food stuffs up the mountains Daal Bhat, the food of all good trekkers and the Nepali staple costs three times as much as it does down in the valley. Daal Bhat is a big plate of rice , some Lentil Daal Soup, a little curried potato augmented by whatever vegetable is to hand, and a little spicy pickle. You can have as many re-fills as you like and it is the literal fuel that powers you through the day. As we tucked into the first of many Daal Bhat’s with incredible views, we were entertained by local children and their Gorkha themed master with singing and dancing as the fourth day of Tikar was celebrated throughout Nepal.
We quickly settled into a routine of rising very early and being on the trail by 6.30am. I was keen to avoid the many guided groups that left each settlement around 8am and blocked the paths and bridges with their teams of porters. We had chosen to go without guide or porter, carrying around 12 kilos
and using a trusty Nepali map, we were free to plot our own route and plan day to day. This also meant that as it was busy season we needed to be at lodges by around 2-3pm every day to ensure we could get rooms.
Day two was a short one, ending in the village of Ghorepani where our host welcomed us into her family “brother and sister feast” for the afternoon (see Tihar Blog) and blessed me as a brother for the day. At 5am the next morning we joined the single file line of guided groups in the hour long march to the summit of Poon Hill with the promise of a view right across the Annapurna range. Unfortunately cold, bad weather was setting in and our views were restricted to a few glimpses from behind the secretive cloak of cloud the Himalaya had wrapped herself in. These hints of the massifs we were hiking towards inspired the few days ahead as the climbs got steeper, the views got more dramatic, and the weather got worse.
Day five on the trail saw us arrive after a 10k hike at the high settlement of Deurali. Here the
weather changed dramatically. All day the cloud and fog had got thicker, and as Iris, Tristan and I warmed ourselves with a hot Massala Chai, the heavens opened and let loose the freezing rain. So cold was it up here at this altitude that as the rain ran from the corrugated tin roofs it froze into long icicles hanging down over the walkways.
Rising early as always it had snowed. A lot. We were the first on the trail and tramping over the path as if it were virgin was an amazing experience. Arriving at the lower base camp of Machapuchare (which is obsolete as the mountain is sacred and it is not permitted to climb it) the sky cleared and our route up to Annapurna Base Camp at 4,100 meters opened up in front of us. For the first time on the trek I gained the impression I was really in the High Himalaya, in front of me were two 8,000 + meter peaks and they were awesome, in the literal sense.
Two hours later we were holed up in the lodge common room with Hot Chai and a real menagerie of collected peoples. The weather had
closed in, making base camp a total whiteout, and it was well below freezing. There was nothing for it but to stoke the internal fire with Chai, Daal Baht and a front row seat on a kaleidoscopic view of humanity. Directly in front of me were four Japanese tourists watching cartoons on an ipad2 in between cooking their own noodles. To my left were two Indian doctors trying to flog cheap Diamox. Next to them were a four strong German team waiting for a weather window to attempt the summit of Hiyunchuli, and opposite them were two London lawyers begrudging conversation with anyone who tried, missing their home comforts.
Myself, Iris, Rober and Lynda were the only four who had come without guides, but Tristan’s was acting as an amiable waiter for us all. It was well appreciated.
The next day we made the short walk to the ridge above the glacier, and with clear blue skies watched the sunrise and illuminate the peaks of Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Annapurna IV, and eventually Machapuchare. It was quite a sight, and the few of us who had formed a group high-fived the effort to get there, and our good
fortune that the weather broke on that morning. Short lived due to the cloud chasing away our lucky view and again shrouding the peaks in mystery and suggestion we headed down, elated.
That day the group of us soldiered through our toughest day. 21k’s back down to the village of Chomrong – it finished with a final 3,000 step climb up a staircase that nearly finished us all. For the final three days it was just the three dutchies and me making our way slowly down the valleys we had slogged up (albeit by a slightly different route). Following a morning trip to some soothing hot springs at Jinhudanda the valley opened up and we had two days of beautiful rhododendron forests broken by high bridges over glacial rivers and glimpses of very rural mountain life. It was a real privilege, if by now a slightly grimy and muscle weary one.
Day nine saw us step down the final stone step off the mountain in to Phedi and a waiting Taxi. Heading back to the touristic town of Pokhara I could already taste the ice cold beer and steak that awaited me. Century Guest House (which has become
my Nepali home) welcomed me with open arms, took my laundry off my hands, guided me to a hot shower, and recommended a good barber for a much needed beard trim. That night Rober, Lynda, Iris and I feasted on red meat, chips and cold beer. We all looked human at last and finishing early it was a good night’s sleep that was had by all.
It had been a brilliant trek, shared with some brilliant people. Once again, as I learned on Kilimanjaro years earlier, it was less about reaching the target of base camp and more about the journey. The hills and mountains of the Annapurna range in the Himalaya are stunning. The trails are physically gruelling, but are worth every drop of sweat, and every expletive uttered at the eternal staircases in front of you. And, as is often the case, the people in every settlement along the way who place their palms together and Namaste you as you pass, who welcome you into their lives for the briefest of periods and give you the fuel needed to sustain your effort are those who make it such a special experience.
However, next time someone suggests
a ninety five kilometre trek up and down steep stone stair cases my response will be anything but “no problem”.
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