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Published: March 27th 2014
As the taxi driver drove slowly passed the tourist bus station looking for my one to Pokhara it soon became apparent that this was less of a 'station' and more a street lined with bumper to bumper buses - I stopped counting at 25! The main differences with a 'tourist bus' seem to be that a) you get a seat, although as I and a few others discovered not necessarily the one you were expecting and b) you leave on time(ish), skipping the painfully slow curb crawling around town whilst the drivers side kick hangs out the door heckling everyone who passes until every seat is full.... in theory anyway! It was 6.30am and the 'bus station' was busy with passengers and vendors alike - men pushing bikes overladen with oranges and grapes, others with trays of pastries balanced on their shoulders and women selling cups of milk tea (i.e. with a teabag vaguely waved in its direction) poured straight from a boiling saucepan. I opted for an overpriced (I still struggle to bargain my way out of a paper bag) cinnamon roll (not very Nepalese I know but better than the western chocolate bars on offer!), and hopped on the
bus. Foolishly I'd confused Nepal with other places I've traveled where you might get a quick loo break on a long bus journey - here I was to discover we'd barely go 90 mins before stopping for refreshment!
Some 8 hours of bumpy road plus lots of tea breaks later saw us pulling into Pokhara bus station to be besieged by hotel touts - 'stay at my hotel miss and the taxi is free', except somehow it nearly always transpires that they don't own the hotel and your room rate is suddenly elevated to cover the taxi fare. Before we could get to 'ahh your hotel burnt down last week line...' I grabbed my rucksack and headed into town with Jason, a Korean guy I'd sat next to on the bus. According to the guide book it was a 20 min walk and I figured if I couldn't carry my bag that far then I was in serious trouble for my trek!
The main tourist area of Pokhara lies along lake Phewa, although the hotels and restaurants are set back a few streets which makes for a peaceful walk along the waters edge, watching some 30 or more
para-gliders slowly circling above the surrounding hills. Looked lovely but err not for me! Out on the lake brightly colored wooden canoes dotted the water, some tied up awaiting hire, others ferrying groups of tourists, more being used by locals to transport everything from shopping, vegetables for market and piles of bricks! Others had seen better days and lay sunk to the lake floor but still visible ghost like through the clear water. With its lake views, laid back atmosphere and ubiquitous happy hour signs (seriously you could do a happy half day if you could manage to make it between bars!) this part of town has an almost beach town feel to it. We had a late lunch at what seemed to be the only cafe with tables right by the water and got chatting to Ruth, an English girl, who we co-opted into a sunset canoe ride. There was a pedalo option but they looked harder work, not that that really mattered as we planned to pay a man to paddle us round. Except it turned out that the man was a 12 year old boy - the look on my face had the other boatmen (with an
average age nearer 40!) laughing but despite my reservations he paddled us all around well. The views from the lake by that point were stunning - moody rain clouds encroaching the hills at the far end and the snow covered mountains occasionally breaching the cloud cover at the the near end.
The following morning the three of us headed off to the mountaineering museum, fantastic for its black and white photographs of old expeditions and examples of the actual gear used - the size (and therefore i assume the weight) of the boots they wore were huge! No one has feet that big! Back in town I left the others to do some last minute shopping for my Annapurna Circuit trek. I'd always planned to do this trek alone, as much as you can do in the second busiest season of the year anyway. I'd done my research, got a map and route guide and was confident that I could do it - tourist, guide and porter all rolled into one! Then I had my confidence knocked, first by a UK tour operator saying the rules had changed and I had to have a guide and then by some
local guides and operators, who granted had a vested interest, telling me I really needed one and wasn't safe otherwise. Whilst I've traveled solo many times I've never been trekking or hiking on my own - the one time I tried saw me receiving unwanted attention from a local man and hotfooting it back to town pronto! Anyway the upshot was last minute panic shopping in Pokhara combined with me ripping the relevant pages out of my guide book to take along - I am possibly slightly OCD when it comes to my books with excommunication awaiting anyone who borrows one and dares fold a page corner or leaves it open upside down, let alone tearing pages out :-) Hence 6.30am the next day found me waiting for my bus with a bag that was somewhat heavier than it should've been but filled with more than enough reading material!
The 5 hours to Besisahar were uneventful other than for the nice man from Pokhara sat next to me. He kindly asked for the ear blasting DVD that was playing to be turned down, with a comment to me that there was no need for everyone to be disturbed and
people should use ear phones if they wanted it loud. I smiled and nodded in agreement. After an hour sat listening to his one man karaoke show I found myself seriously contemplating pleading for restoration of the Nepalese boom boom music!!
Once in Besisahar a few of us headed to the edge of town where the trail starts. In 2005 the Nepalese government decided to build a road along the original Annapurna walking trail, ultimately reducing the trail only part from 215km to 30km. Alternative routes which dodge sections of road have been developed but there's no escaping the road completely. So as we stood looking at the shadeless, dusty, stony road ahead of us we took the only sensible option and hopped on another bus! We'd discussed whether getting a bus to the next town was technically cheating and decided it was... but then suddenly there was a bus and it was about to leave and... Ah well. To be honest I was glad we took it. I'd known about the road building and was intrigued to see the impact - benefits in terms of access to health and trade, negative on tourism businesses. However it seemed I'd
missed the memo about the dam and hydroelectric plant construction. If we'd started walking from Besisahar I'd have been ready to throw in the towel by the end of the day!
Off the bus in Bhulbhule we followed a little stone path through the village and across the first of many suspension bridges. All was lovely but we soon encountered construction work. The sandy road was home to a constant stream of massive trucks from both directions a few hundred metres apart, the drivers stopping for the obligatory chat as they passed, interspersed with the occasional vehicle whose job it was to spray water over the road, and indeed anything else that got in its way. There were a few more villages with guest houses along the way separate from the camps were the hydroelectric workers lived. Chatting to one of the guest house owners he described how, unsurprising, his business had been devastated (who wants to stay alongside a construction site?!) - two more years to go and they operate in 12 hour shifts 24 hours so it never stops.
Reaching what appeared to be the end of the road we were somewhat stumped. On a number
of occasions over the trek I was asked by tour groups how I managed without a guide. I have to say this was the one time I felt I needed help but how to get through the hydroelectric works perhaps wouldn't have been the best use of their skills! We accosted a local who tried to convince us that we needed to go round the edge of a massive deep pit at the bottom of which sat a digger busy excavating further. Seriously, through a construction site?!? Erm health and safety??! Needless to say we didn't believe him! But as we stood looking slightly confused the digger driver stopped his engine and waved us round in that very direction! ! The helpfulness of locals was a recurring theme on this trek - if ever you looked slightly like you might take a wrong turn someone between the age of 6 and 60 generally appeared to wave you the right way, often before you'd even asked! So we gingerly edged our way round the rather large hole in the ground, along a zig zag slope passing two guys with pick axes who were repairing the 'path' and finally down a steep
slope, the edge of which was marked by a string of coloured banners which disguised the barbed wire underneath! Lovely. A no trespassing picture would have done. Not quite what I expected for my first day of trekking! Therein after it got much better :-)
The last part of the day was lovely, off the road and on a track that rose steeply up through terraced fields, passed dome snapped haystacks and villages. The rain started but was welcome given the climb and we finally reached the top of the ridge, the village of Bahundanda and a welcoming committee of local guest house owners - they'd had plenty of time to spot us walking up! We followed one to a basic guest house with walls so thin you could hear the conversation two rooms along, cold water showers and wafer thin mattresses. But the family were really nice and in the rain I was in no mood to look elsewhere. Plus the room was 'free' provided you ate your meals there.... refer back to the rain! So after an excellent dal bhat, the Nepalese set meal that was to become a staple of my diet, I was tucked up
in bed for 8pm. Whoop whoop, the rock and roll lifestyle of trekking :-)
Day two continued as the first had ended, only this time with blue skies and sunshine. Descending steep stone steps behind the guest house I had my first glimpse of the snow capped peaks in the distance. Being the dry season many of the surrounding terraced fields were dry earth awaiting the monsoon rains but a few were lush green making for a stark contrast on the landscape. It was early and there was a seemingly endless stream of school children on their way to lessons, all moving far more adeptly than I along the winding narrow path, but all with time for a 'namste' before rushing off with their friends in giggles. As the path turned back towards the river there were waterfalls to see and a few more suspension bridges to cross, including one where I startled a group of monkeys back into the trees!
The afternoon featured more road and a merciless set of switchbacks in the sun with nowhere to hide. Fortunately there was a tea shop not long after with a stunning view where I met up with Jill
and Nathan, an English couple I'd been walking with on the first day. The final part of the day had us leaving the road and river below to climb through what the guide book described as a 'romantic forest'.... well the trees were nice and it was lush and green but I think I lucked out on the romance! Passing the posh lodge which had been taken over by Team Malaysia we continued to Chyamche, pretty much collapsing into the first guest house we hit!
Day three started badly. I'd been almost skipping along at times yesterday, clearly becoming overconfident in my trekking abilities because this morning felt like someone had put rocks in my backpack and concrete in my boots. The next village, Tal, was a funny place sitting along a wide sandy valley which pretty much seemed to consist of tourist lodges and not much else! As time went on I discovered guest houses are generally easy to spot even before reaching a village with paintwork of pink, lilac and turquoise, often all together. Other buildings in the village were a somewhat more traditional grey stone colour, whitewashed at a push but definitely not lilac!
after Tal the route was stunning, the wide valley narrowing increasingly until the river rushing just below us was again squeezed between towering steep slopes. Then it was back on the road until the small village of Karte - perhaps everyone was working in the fields, maybe it was too early in the season, but the place felt deserted and there was no sign of anyone at either of the guest houses. So I continued along the narrow path and crossed back on another suspension bridge (I'd already stopped counting by this point!!) to the village of Dharapani where I caught up with a group of English girls I'd chatted to along the way. One recurring item we'd all seen on the menus was a Snicker's roll... after much discussion over whether to try the Snicker's or the Mars version, and a little bit of guilt over the potential airmiles on my dessert, I shared one with Claire - kind of what you might expect, deep fried in a dough but rather tasty!
I expected day four to be long, more so than the 5-7 hours of hiking and 5pm arrivals of previous days anyway. Leaving Dharaphani the road
rose first through the village of Bagarchhap and then Danakyu where the streets seemed to be ruled by chickens, goats, donkeys, cows indeed every kind of animal was roaming around. Up until then the views had been great, the route mostly tracking the river which twisted and turned its way through an increasingly narrow valley such that you were never quite sure what the view might be ahead or around the next corner. On the way up from Danakyu you were greated by stunning mountain views that were hidden as the path went through a lovely forest. Reaching the forest first involved navigating a wide fast stream. Option a) a steep descent to a wooden bridge - I have a slight major phobia of falling so that wasn't appealing or option b) rockhopping across the stream, at which point I could see myself either falling off and having soggy boots for the next day or knowing my luck twisting an ankle! So I went for option c) taking my boots off and paddling across. At various points in the previous days, usually after a steep climb in the sunshine, I'd found myself thinking 'ohh wouldn't it be nice to go
for a swim in the river'. Ha. Never again. Flipping freezing! It took a good 5 mins for my toes to defrost! The path out of the forest led across another bridge - this one took me a good 10 mins to cross because the views were just staggering, snow capped mountains rising all around, green trees on the lower slopes and birds of prey flying above.
When I finally made it into Timang it was lunchtime and with a plate of veggie Momos (Tibetan steamed dumplings) sat looking at a view out to Mount Manaslu and the surrounding peaks I decided it was too good a view to leave. So l checked into the guest house I was at and, with the exception of an hour spent exploring the village and it's surrounds, spent most of the rest of the afternoon looking at the same view as the clouds rolled in and the sun set.
Next up.. Snowed in at Manag and sledging at 5000m!
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