Having only a few weeks in Nepal we settled on the Annapurna Base Camp Trek (also known as the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek), as it’s relatively short while still getting incredible views of the High Himalaya. We opted to add a few day side trip to a famous viewpoint called Poon Hill, where you can supposedly see both the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges at sunrise.
Our trip started early, splitting a taxi to the bus station with a British woman we’d met at our hostel in Pokhara and her porter. We all hopped on the local bus to Naya Pul, a 2 hour journey to the start of our trek taking us up into the foothills of the Himalaya. We hiked with them for about half an hour before reaching a split in the trail, where they headed off directly towards Base Camp up the Modi Khola river valley, while we headed west on our circuitous route. We spent the day climbing, the first half on a recently constructed road, the second on a seemingly endless stone staircase. According to our guidebook, it had something like 3600 steps.
During our walk, we got our first real taste of the Nepali hill culture, with terraced mountainsides and women working the fields with hand scythes. It’s a completely different experience than anything back in the states. The hiking itself is very different as well. About every hour or so, there is at least a restaurant, more likely a “tea house”, the local name for a place with both food and lodging. In general, you sleep very cheaply, but are expected to eat at least dinner and breakfast there. The costs are all fixed by the Trekking Association, dependent on distance from supply points. This was a relief as it made it much less stressful to find a place when we stopped for the day.
We stayed in a truly charming lodge in the village of Ulleri (2020 m, 6848 ft). As the first arrivals, we got an awesome room with 3 walls of windows looking out towards Annapurna South and Hiun Chuli, towering over the intervening hills.
We had our first (of many!) dinners of dal bhat (rice with lentil soup and vegetables) along the trail. We stuck with this simple meal for a few reasons. One, it’s made from local ingredients and so is more environmentally friendly. Second, it’s what all the guides, porters, and staff eat, so they’re always happy that they don’t have to do a special order just for trekkers. Since it’s plentiful, you’re always offered generous seconds (as big as the firsts), so you’re always full. Finally, it’s prepared fresh daily and has no meat, so it’s much less likely to give intestinal distress. Plus, it’s really tasty! (and varies quite a lot between lodges and localities). After stuffing ourselves we jumped into bed by 7:30 pm and slept soundly before waking to sunrise over the mountains.
For the first of many times, we would experience completely new scenery as we hiked further up into the mountains. The terraced hillsides gave way to an almost jungle atmosphere, with dense foliage and bridges crossing several rivers and waterfalls.
After a short day’s hike, we arrived at the high point of Ghorepani Deorali (“pass”), a surpringly developed “swarm of lodges”, to quote our guidebook. We found a cute place with a wood burning stove in the dining hall and once again a room with fantastic views overlooking the village and the Annapurna range. We were glad we got in early, as a front moved in and blanketed everything with cloud. The temperatures dropped quickly, our first taste of a regular occurrence in these mountains. After warming ourselves, we decided to have a wander around town, stopping into an internet cafe (in the mountains of Nepal!) to send off a quick note to our families. We also checked out some bookstores, the local basketball/volleyball court, and caught a herd of sheep running through the village square.
After this, I made a fatal blunder, sticking my camera in a jacket pocket, but neglecting to zip it. Later in the evening, as I went to the bathroom, the camera slipped out, and right down the hole of the (pit) toilet. I sort of stumbled back to our room with a shocked look on my face and told Alina what had happened. She immediately looked at me like I was an idiot and sent me back with rolled up sleeves to go on a retrieval mission. Well, long story short, I got the camera back, and we tried for several days to clean it and dry it out. In the end, everything worked again except the image sensor. Meaning two things: first, I now have a very expensive paperweight, and second, we couldn’t take any pictures after this point. We’ll try our best to describe what we saw and experienced though. On the plus side, the memory card was fully functional, so all our pictures so far were saved. And, as soon as we got back to Pokhara, I bought a new camera (same model, 50% more price). Thanks mom and dad for the extra traveling money; it’s already been put to good use! Luckily this is a very popular trek and we were able to find many images from other trekkers that very closely resemble exactly what we experienced. We’ve included some of these to give a sense of the beauty.
The next morning we woke up early in order to get on the trail up to Poon Hill (3210 m, 10531 ft) by 5:30 am for supposedly fantastic views of the sunrise. Well, we could tell 20 minutes into the climb that we weren’t in for a treat. The clouds of the previous day hadn’t lifted and didn’t look ready to burn off. In a bit of good luck though, we got a brief clear window of Annapurna South just as the rising sun was bathing it in pinkish light. Then the clouds settled back in for the duration. After that, we decided we’d had enough of the early morning cold and headed back into town for another delicious breakfast before heading out for the day, a pretty long one. We had a lot of very steep up and down as we climbed and then traversed the ridge towards Tadapani and the Modi Khola valley, before dropping back down to a beautiful lodge in Chuile (2309 m, 7575 ft). The clouds blanketed our views of the mountains all day, and left a chill in the air as we walked, but couldn’t dampen the views of little villages nestled among the rhododendron forests and rivers flowing ever downward. We even were passed on the steepest section of trail by a pony caravan climbing upwards with supplies for the lodges. At the rear was a rider, perched at such a crazy angle that I can’t see how he remained in the saddle as his mount clip-clopped up the uneven stone and log staircases and switchbacks.
Besides the chill and clouds, the lodge at Chuile was charming and we made the acquaintance of a few other travelers; a British ex-pat from Canada who has been trekking in Nepal since the 80s and offered us lots of advice on side trips off the beaten path, a German who related horror stories about his trip to India and absolutely swore we wouldn’t be able to get in again on our visas (we had no problem), and an Australian couple who had just completed the much longer Annapurna Circuit trek and who we’d continue to bump into at lodges up and down the trail for the next week. We had a lovely series of conversations in a delightfully warm dining hall, heated by a big wood-burning stove cranked up high, all the locals crowded around as well.
We knew the next several days would be fairly rough, as from our map they clearly covered a lot of ground, and from our planning, we had estimates of about 7 hours each. Furthermore, we’d have to cross several tributaries, each involving about 500 m of elevation loss and then gain, and then on the second day, climb about a vertical mile up the river valley, above treeline, and into the sanctuary itself. In the end, the hiking wasn’t that bad and we made excellent time, though our knees began to complain fiercely beginning with the seemingly endless stone stairs descending from Chhomrong to the Chhomrong Khola and then back up the other side to a high point at Sinuwa. The clouds of the previous day continued, so our views towards the snow-capped peaks of the sanctuary were thwarted. However, we knew we’d be coming back this way in a few days for a second chance at the same spectacle, so weren’t too disappointed. We were also hoping the camera might spontaneously resurrect itself by then, so there was an air of hope for some great pictures later in the trip (sadly, it was not to be).
We eventually dropped down through a young bamboo forest along a muddy trail mercifully free of the monsoon season leeches that are said to be prevalent, and stopped for the night in Bamboo (2310 m, 7579 ft) amidst drizzling rain, enjoying a particularly excellent meal of dal bhat after refreshing ourselves under freezing showers ($1 for a hot shower? too expensive!).
The hike up the Modi Khola towards Machhapuchhre Base Camp (M.B.C., 3700 m, 12139 ft) was another new experience in that it was pretty consistently uphill for 5 hours straight. We followed the river upstream on our right, marveling at the difference in its current flow and the clear extent of the wet season riverbed. On our left, we passed a series of avalanche chutes (dangerous later in the season once snow has built up on the peaks above.) In one place, a cave of snow had been naturally carved out of the remnants of a slide at the base of one of these chutes. For the first time, we began to get chilly while hiking as the altitude increased. With an hour or so left to hike, it began to snow lightly, covering our packs and the landscape in a thin white blanket. We had mixed reactions to this, as it’s always a bit unnerving to head up into falling snow (especially after our adventure in Iceland), but at the same time, it was another fabulous change to the scenery that I felt really lucky to get to experience. As we passed the invisible gates between the peaks of Hiun Chuli to the left and Machhapurchhre to the right, we entered the sanctuary proper, and all of a sudden were surrounded by white peaks on three sides, the vegetation falling away to scrub as we finally climbed above treeline.
That afternoon was a frigid one, after arriving at M.B.C. Alina immediately dove into her sleeping bag, as I valiantly if perhaps foolishly took a bucket shower using a bucket with ice crusting the rim. All running water was frozen, and by morning, most of the containers had frozen over as well. We huddled up, warming ourselves slowly before deciding to join our fellow trekkers in the dining hall, where we pooled our body heat, sitting around draped in our sleeping bags. Some of us read, some traded outdoor stories, I related the sad tale of my camera and I carefully disassembled and cleaned every piece of it to no avail. We had originally planned to make the short 1.5 hr. hike up to Annapurna Base Camp the next day and then spend 2 nights there in the center of all the high mountains before descending. However, now, thanks to the chill in our bones, we amended the plan. Along with the others, we’d wake before dawn to make the trek up to catch sunrise and then flee back to lower and hopefully warmer elevations. Knowing we had an early rise, we got to bed by 7, wrapped in our many layers, hopeful for a clear morning.
On the trail by 5:15, we set off amidst an absolutely clear and freezing sky, ablaze with stars. The snowfields on Annapurna South were awash with starlight as we headed upward, our headlamps lighting the path ahead. Amusingly, I felt in some small way like the many descriptions I’ve read of summit attempts, as climbers trudge upwards through the snow, completed isolated, with just that one point of light guiding them. Of course it was totally different, but it made me mindful of that experience. Alina said later that the view of my silhouette walking ahead against the backdrop of the moon and starlit mountains was just amazing, and we both agreed that this early morning journey was the highlight of our trip, and the view better than the sunrise to come. After an hour or so, it did indeed come, the sun rising over our backs to shed a pink glow over the wall of peaks in front of us, as we passed far enough to skirt the moraine walls and catch sight of Annapurna I (8091 m) towering to our right.
As it is mostly just the highest summit point on a ridgeline, Alina was unimpressed, preferring the perfect double pyramid of the aptly named Macchapucchre (“fish tail” in Nepali). I, on the other hand immediately started thinking of the books I’d read on its ascent, and what routes people must have followed, and looking along the icefall and glacier as they dropped off the side of the mountain still miles away and flowed down past us to form the river below.
As we arrived at Annapurna Base Camp (A.B.C, 4130 m, 13550 ft), a cluster of 4 lodges on a snowy and rocky plain, the sun rose higher, and bathed more of the mountains in the early morning light. We joined the crowds on a ridge adorned with chortens and streaming prayer flags and took in 360 degrees of awesome mountain splendor surrounding us. In all, we could see (clockwise from South to East) Hiun Chuli, Annapurna South, Bharha Chuli, Annapurna I and it’s long high ridge, Khangsar Kang, Singu Chuli, Tharpu Chuli, Tare Kang, Gangapurna, Annapurna III, and Machhapuchhre.
It really is an incredible feeling to be surrounded by mountains of such magnitude on all sides. After one last look behind us we were ready to depart to warmer climates.
We left at a trot back down to M.B.C for a yummy chapati and honey breakfast, and then set off on the knee jarring descent back to Bamboo, a loss for the day of 1820 m (5971 ft). The clouds held at bay throughout the morning, and we were treated to incredible views of the receding mountains as we regularly looked back on the way we’d come. Having gained 2 days through our aversion to the cold up high, we decided to take it very easy on the way out, with short days and long, hopefully sunny and warm restful afternoons. As we made our way down the valley over the next few days, the views subtly changed, flashing different faces of the mountains as we wended our way South. Returning through Chhomrong, we faced a climb of 1852 +/- 20 (I was bored and counted) steps from the riverside to the Chhomrong Cottage, home of scalding hot free showers and the best chocolate cake in Asia according to a Times Magazine article in 2010.
We happily sampled both, and both were amazing. Over dinner we struck up a nice conversation with a guide, Angdawa Sherpa, who told us of his aunt living in New York City and of the trekking opportunities in his home region of Khumbu, around Mt. Everest. Next time!
Heading onwards and outwards, I felt a bit deflated hiking as it seemed our goals were now behind us, but there were still incredible new views to be had and cultural traditions to experience. Crossing the Modi Khola on a long, semi-rickety suspension bridge, walking through newly harvested terraced fields, views of Dhaulagiri (8167 m) emerging above the ridges to the northwest. In Landruk, the festival of Tihar was in full swing, with groups of children traveling between lodgings, performing traditional dances amidst firecrackers. At the same time, mid-level clouds rolled in, making the mountains high above them seems truly enormous. On our last day, we trekked to within an hour of the highway, staying in Dhampus, with views now to the East and the Manaslu (8163 m) range. Our stay was marred slightly by Tibetan refugees trying to sell handicrafts at vastly inflated prices, but overall it was a relaxing finale to a great trip. In the morning we hiked out to the highway at Phedi, and caught a series of buses back to Pokara, where we would spend the next few days relaxing and building up mental strength for the return to India.
I think it would be fair to say that both Alina and I were blown away by our time in the Himalayas. The sights, sounds, and even tastes changed on a daily basis, showing us something new at every turn. We knew we’d fallen in love with Nepal when we were already planning in detail our next trip back and our next trekking itinerary while we were still in the middle of our first. Besides, if we don’t return, how will I ever make amends for our woeful lack of pictures of one of the most beautiful natural places we’ve ever been.