At the conclusion of the bicycle portion of our Nepal trip on October 16th, we still had 12 days before needing to fly back to Kathmandu, box up our bikes and fly home. Bridget and I had discussed this before we left for Nepal and agreed to add this time since we both had noted that quite often following the ending of a trip things come up that you wish you had time to do but tickets home dictated that you couldn’t. We had talked about going down to Chitwan National Park where one can see elephants, rhinos, and many other animals plus a chance on a tiger, but the hot steamy weather there this time of year put us both off on the idea. We settled on a trek – staying in higher cooler climate since mountains are really what Nepal is all about for both of us. Since we finished at Pokhara, the easiest add-on trip logistically was a trek up to Annapurna South Base Camp since it was a relatively short bus or jeep ride from the city to the start of the trek. So a phone call to Nima during the last part of our bike trip brought him now to Pokhara with our permits in hand and a guide and porter set up to meet us on the 19th to start our new adventure.
After a big night out on the 16th, the rest of the group had left for their various homes, leaving JR, Bridget and myself in Pokhara with a couple of days before JR had to leave for home and we off trekking to ABC. We fed ourselves well at different restaurants throughout town, caught up on our internet needs, hiked up to the Peace Pagoda above town and just plain lounged around. On the evening before our trek, our guide Aital and porter Dawa appeared at the hotel lounge to meet us. The jeep would be at the hotel next morning around 10 to take us all to the trailhead above Ghandruk where we would begin on foot. We were both excited to be off moving again. We said goodbye to JR after breakfast, climbed into the jeep with Aital and Dawa and were off.
This trekking trail left the jeep tracks behind. Walking and mule trains only. All towns above Ghandruk on the way up and until Landruk on the way down were roadless. It really changes everything. The jeep trails on the Annapurna Circuit, while really primitive and limited, still add a lot of people, make goods much more available, and definitely change the culture. They are the wild west version of the more serviceable roadways of the future which will lead to development and more commercialization of the area. It is already happening there. Of course, these changes are in many ways great for local peoples economy, education and health care into the future. They do, however, change the experience for those looking for a romantic, quiet, pollution free trek into old world Tibetan Buddhist culture. We still found that on our stay in the Upper Mustang during our biking trip but not always on the rest of the Circuit. Bridget and I were looking for that experience here on the trail to Annapurna Base Camp.
We also had originally decided to really pare down what we took along so we could carry our own backpacks, however, when Nima lined up our two people we decided to “go with the flow” and combine our things into one duffle which Dawa would carry for us. That left us both with just day bags to deal with. I was fine with that since it meant we could employ two people and Dawa’s bag was quite light so I didn’t have to feel very guilty. Aital, our guide, would prove to be very helpful all along the way.
We learned early on what we really already knew – everything in Nepal is either really steep up……..or really steep down. One of our standing jokes here is when a Nepali describes some terrain as being flat. It’s really Nepali flat – / – which is certainly not to be confused with Minnesota flat – . As we worked our way down through villages along the river valley bottoms and up along the ridge tops we followed slate lined steps shaped beautifully over the centuries to help transport goods and people. Load ladened mules with bells jangling also trod along the same elevations – they were so well trained to their role that they expertly stepped around people, sheep and dogs. At one point we were adopted by one of these Buddhist dogs. She followed us along the trail for so long we were getting quite worried that she may never go home. At a couple of villages she had to fight her way around other dogs snarling to protect their territories but always appeared back with us undamaged by her encounters. Now, there weren’t many dogs here, but what dogs we found in Nepal were all very similar. Broad-shouldered, long haired black and tan with a shaggy tail curled up over the back described the canines we found on the Circuit and Upper Mustang. The dogs found on this trek were colored the same but the tails no longer curled up and over and they were not as large as those found above. One thing that was the same with all was their Buddhist temperament. We had no encounters with them on the whole trip. They merely watched us bike by if they noticed us at all. Most would lay along the side of the trails and often would sleep in the middle of everything moving, seemingly unperturbed by any danger. As bikers we have been chased, bitten and snarled at on every continent since most dogs find us fair game. I have dubbed these dogs Buddhist Dogs for obvious reasons and am sure I’m not the first to do so.
We were told an entertaining story by a Buddhist Head Llama named Kunga up in the Upper Mustang. He was giving us an impromptu tour of his Monastery and came to an abysmal looking carcass hanging from the low ceiling by old cord. It was a snow leopard which over a century or two ago had been roaming the monastery grounds at night, frightening everyone there. The village dog was unleashed and in the ensuing battle both animals died. The leopard’s remains are still hanging here in the monastery. A very large dog is chained outside in the middle of the monastery grounds. Maybe they expect another snow leopard some time soon.
On this trek we were staying in guesthouses along the way. It is an eight day trek up to Base Camp and back down to Phedi where the Jeep would bring us back to Pokhara. Unbeknown to us when we planned this additional adventure, this was a week-long Festival for all Nepalese. The government here has been promoting domestic travel to places like the ABC so we found that along with the normal amount of foreign trekkers, the addition of locals made this time very very busy. So busy that rooms were getting very hard to find. Our guide, Aital, did a great job in planning our days and securing places to stay as we moved closer to Annapurna. Many people were traveling with no reservations and ending up sleeping in dining areas and porter dormitories. One American’s reservation was taken when a group of 40 South Koreans descended on a small village and took all available beds. He ended up sleeping in a barn. Twice we found ourselves sharing a room with other foreigners whom we didn’t know. Two young Australians joined us in a tightly cramped four-bed room with little space for any of our belongings. It worked well tho with a combined spirit of cooperation necessary in small spaces. Another night we shared with an older gentleman from South Korea whom Bridget and I both enjoyed. He had a gentle disposition and was very intelligent. He was trekking here alone after an earlier trip in the Khumbu. He had retired from his job as an engineering firms group leader in the shipping industry in South Korea. Our last guesthouse on the way up was the Machhapuchhre Base Camp. This Base Camp consists of five guesthouses (none that big) which were all more than full of trekkers. Machhapurchhre is a sacred mountain which is more commonly called Fishtail for its unique forked top resembling just what the name infers. We found it to be our favorite mountain on this trip (along with Daulagiri). Since the area around the mountain was also considered sacred we started seeing signs as we got near Fishtail for no open defacation. We learned in the guesthouse menus that no pork, buffalo or beef was to be consumed within the sacred bounds. It is illegal to climb Fishtail despite a Base Camp located near its base.
We arose early and left MBC for a hour and a half trek up to Annapurna Base Camp. ABC is 450m higher than our treks starting point but since there is nothing really steep on the way, the walk seemed easy. This feeling was aided by the increasingly big bold mountain views as we got closer to our destination. Annapurna South (7219m) is an immense mountain face from our new vantage point. Although a number of large mountains are prominent in one’s field of view, Annapurna South towers over all else. Even Annapurna 1, despite its great height (8091m), is secondary from our view here. It is located much further away and generally approached by a different, more northernly base camp. Machhapuchhre and Hien Chuli are now behind us so their positions relative to the big mountain have changed. All of the big mountains on the Annapurna Massif, including Annapurnas 1,2,3 and 4, South, Gangapurna and others, are located within a huge glacier river system that averages about 22,000 feet of elevation and makes it hard to place each mountain geographically in one’s mind. Bridget and I both read (re-read in my case) the classic book Annapurna of the first 8000 meter peak ever climbed (1950) following our trek. One of the most difficult things for these climbers to conquer was actually to find the mountain itself. Maps of the day were wrong and the huge glacier fields masked the drainage systems needed as approach vehicles. It is truly an amazing book.
We spent several hours here at ABC, having breakfast and marveling at the great beauty in every direction on a blue bird day here in the mountains. Many photos. Too often clouds obscure mountain views but today there was none of that. They would come in later in the day and views be essentially gone. The pattern here was clear in the morning and gone in the afternoon mists. We both felt very lucky.
After the perfect weather we had at ABC, we discussed just how lucky we had been this whole trip weather-wise. In five weeks we never had a day we had to peddle or trek in the rain. Although cold at times, the late monsoon season left us with warmer than usual conditions and no snow on the Thorung La Pass (5416m or 17,800 ft) when we climbed up and over our biggest hurdle. We learned later from a group of young American cyclists that it snowed just a few days after we went over the Pass and they had to deal with the snow on their climb. One could spend a lot of time in the mountains and not have one day as perfect as so many of our days have been. As we moved along on our two trips, I kept referring to that big horseshoe we were carrying. It stayed with us the entire time there.
On our trek down, Bridget decided to count the steps leading up to one of the villages along our route. At 2000 she told me what she was doing and that she was tired of counting. I counted the remaining 308 steps. We only counted the vertical steps. Steep. It was not our longest step climb or our largest descent, but the total was telling as a barometer for just how much work it is to move along on these Himalayan treks and also how much work it is for people and mules to get goods up to the remote villages. Not too many washing machines are going to be found there. Essentials are the luxuries. Life is simple.
In Chomrong we got a room with a private bathroom and hot water. Wow, One certainly doesn’t appreciate these things until they haven’t been there. Also WiFi. It was heaven.
Nepal is now behind us but the experiences will stay with us. Each day there felt like it lasted so long and each week passed seemed like so long ago. A sign of a trip well taken and packed with the stories that make life interesting.