It was agreed very early on that some sort of foray into the mountains was a must; they are some of the biggest ones in the world after all. Fortunately Callum has trekked a few miles and scaled a few peaks in his time and was hugely generous in his supply of advice, equipment and support to a pair of novices.
With the Himalayas being a highly popular tourist destination it is possible to tailor virtually everything to your desires, from spending weeks self-sufficient in the wilds to a few days strolling from teahouse to teahouse in the foothills with a train of porters carrying everything including the kitchen sink behind you. Our itinerary erred safely towards the latter but we set ourselves a fairly challenging schedule considering the terrain: fifty-five kilometres at elevations ranging from 1000 to 3200 metres in four days when some people allow six. We chose to stay in teahouses and took a guide and one porter to share between the three of us but as this was the first decent exercise I would see since leaving England I elected to carry almost all of my supplies in my own pack (safe in the knowledge that I could fall back on the porter if it turned out I had overcooked it). My Gerber tool was in my pack and I had read a few salient chapters from my copy of Essential Bushcraft during the journey from Baku: I was ready for anything.
Kathmandu is in the middle of a large valley, towards the north side of which Pokhara is a popular staging town for reaching Annapurna range of the Himalayas and you can fly between the two by light aircraft in well under an hour. As they have the fastest ‘planes on the route we booked our flights with Yeti Airlines but other fabulous names to choose from include Buddha Airlines and; if they get back into business as suggested; Cosmic Airlines. Sitting on the starboard side of the dinky Jetstream 45 ‘plane gave us a superb view of the mountains while our stewardess miraculously found time to distribute peanuts, cola, sweets and; most importantly; cotton wool earplugs during the twenty-five minute flight time.
Once landed at Pokhara’s similarly tiny airport we were met by our guide, Jeevan and our porter, Budi (apologies for any spelling inaccuracies): two fine fellows who completed our travelling party in very good-humoured style. After a couple of brief stops in town to collect my hired sleeping bag and change some money we set off for Nayapul: the set-down point for our trek. The drive lasted about an hour, during which time we encountered beautiful mountain gorge scenery, little boys selling crimson red rhododendrons by the roadside (Nepal’s national flower) and a water buffalo running straight for us as we rounded a bend (no animals were hurt in the making of this blog posting).
Arrival at Nayapul was easy to judge as the open road suddenly became hemmed in by an unbroken line of wood frame and corrugated metal that housed numerous shops and trading posts. The main street of Nayapul (a dirt track leading down from the road to the river) was much the same but only lasted ten minutes or so, soon after which we crossed a suspension bridge to the opposite bank and more open territory. The trek had begun.
We got off to a gentle start. Around an hour of mostly flat terrain following the river lead us to Birethani (1050m) where we stopped for lunch. Birethani is a gateway on the edge of the Annapurna Conservation Area and a fork in the road where several trekking routes start, finish and cross. From here we headed north-west along a lesser river valley to follow the Ghorepani/Ghandruk triangle in a clockwise direction; our destination for the first night’s stop: Tikhedhunga (1575m).
We followed a road of roughly dressed stone through a terraced, agricultural landscape and it soon became clear that while a Londoner could say that we were walking through the wilderness we were actually on one of the main trunk roads of the area. When we hit heavy traffic it was caused by numbers of water buffalo or goats (or a small group of other tourists) rather than cars. Electricity reaches the numerous villages and dwellings by cable but everything else arrives on foot. We saw people carrying loads as large as themselves on their backs using head-straps (kitchen sink-sized trekker packs included) but the real Eddie Stobart/Willi Betz haulier of the area is the mule train. On first encounter it was puzzling to hear what sounded like bass-tuned sleigh bells in the middle of the green Himalayan Spring but when the lead animal rounded the bend all became clear. Carrying anything from sacks of dry goods to cylinders of propane gas, the first of anything up to a dozen animals will come plodding past you with its companions sometimes strung out many metres behind, all following the sound of the bells. The mule driver usually comes last; an occasional cause of delay in a mule train traffic jam on particularly narrow tracks and believe me, you can come across these animals covering the most challenging terrain (perhaps the original “best four by four by far”?).
The Open Road, Annapurna-style and Mule Train Traffic
We made good time to Tikhedhunga and arrived feeling well exercised but not overly so. Repairing to the terrace for a quick round of Nepali chiya (tea with so much milk and sugar it makes builders’ tea look like water) soon revived us and we set about preparing for the evening. I will warn my sensitive compatriots now: a teahouse in Nepal bears little resemblance to the premises of the same name in England. A room for the night can be no more than a small cell made of wood with walls about an eighth of an inch thick and no furnishing save for a simple bed and perhaps a small table. Nepali mountain people are hardy folk with very little by way of ‘modern’ building materials at their disposal and they do a superb job in constructing what they do; bear in mind that a similar degree of hardiness may be required of the visitor in certain establishments. Personally I was perfectly happy with the accommodation: it was a warm, dry night spent in a picturesque Himalayan valley.
Come the morning I was less happy with the cockerel that seemed to be announcing daybreak from a vantage point only twelve inches from my ear but seeing as we had a good day’s walking ahead of us I endeavoured to thank him. Day Two was our serious climbing day. As we set out into the crisp morning air and crossed a couple of suspension bridges Jeevan cheerfully announced that we had three thousand seven hundred and fifty-eight steps to climb. Can’t say I was jumping for joy at the prospect; don’t think either of the other two was either but the superb sunlit views down the valley kept our spirits up.
Three thousand seven hundred and fifty-eight steps later we reached the village of Ulleri (2073m). We were still many hours, many kilometres and many steps away from our destination. We were also pretty knackered and thinking rather dark thoughts about the joker who decided to allegedly count all those steps so far and then leave us with umpteen thousand uncounted steps between us and our beds for the night. One sobering thought that helped us keep a perspective: during our climb we were frequently passed by primary school children in neat uniforms skipping down the steps. According to Jeevan they travel the full set of steps down and then up again every school day (six days a week) and once they reach secondary school age they add an extra hour in each direction to reach a school further down the valley. Try telling that to today’s London child who gets driven two hundred yards down the road to school and back by Mother Monday to Friday.
View along the valley from near Ulleri
As we climbed out of Ulleri the number of dwellings dwindled, the track became rougher and steeper and we could start to feel that we were leaving the main population behind us. Our path took us up through beautiful rhododendron forest (not quite in full bloom alas) into the cloud base and into the remnants of the Winter snowline. Chiya was taken not on the terrace but in the fire-heated communal room when we finally reached our teahouse in Upper Ghorepani (2850m). Dinner was accompanied by traditional dancing, Khukri XXX Rum and green chillies (don’t ask), all of which combined to take some of the altitudinal chill off my night’s sleep in the Andrew Flintoff ‘suite’ (all the rooms were named after international sports stars, with varying degrees of accuracy).
Day Three was scheduled to be our longest day in terms of distance and started with a pre-dawn ascent of Poon Hill (3210m) to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Waking up so early in the dark with no light other than a torch at one’s disposal felt a little less than brilliant and wading through the already thick crowd of tourists scaling Poon Hill grated a little (it must be hellish in high season) but reaching the summit makes all the effort worthwhile: watching the sun rise over some the world’s highest mountains is an experience worth labouring for. For crystal clear views one is recommended to visit in October just after the monsoon season has finished cleaning the air but let me assure you that the relatively cloud-shrouded March vista is a sight to behold.
At three thousand two hundred and ten metres Poon Hill was officially the highest point of our trek. Apparently it is from three thousand metres upwards that people can start feeling the effects of altitude sickness but be it through brevity of elevation or strength of constitution none of us felt any illness. We had the occasion to feel a distinct measure of the altitude though: there can’t be many places in the world where you can stand on solid ground and look down upon scheduled passenger aircraft at cruising altitude but we certainly looked down upon the Jonsom route ‘planes as we returned to Ghorepani.
Sunrise over the Annapurnas as viewed from Poon Hill
Just in case Poon Hill pre-dawn had not been challenge enough the rest of our longest day threw almost everything at us. Leaving Ghorepani we started by walking through rhododendron forest and flirting with the snowline atop sun-warmed ridges looking out over sprawling vistas. Hugely steep descents and ascents of sheer-sided valleys soon followed though, our travel made at once glorious by the increasingly flowering rhododendron trees and perilous by the heavy rain and even hail showers that made the earth trails treacherous as we descended below the cloud base once more. By the time we reached Ghandruk (1950m) in the late afternoon my thigh muscles and my knee caps knew I had descended twelve hundred metres the hard way and I was ready to collapse.
The advantage of the day’s rain became clear the following morning when we woke up to breath-taking clear views of the snow-capped mountains in bright sunshine and a near-cloudless sky. As we continued our descent towards Birethani and Nayapul we started our day on eye level with the eagles ascending the morning thermals. The pains in our bodies were far from assuaged by the signs we saw declaring that we had twelve thousand steps to cover before reaching Birethani but we didn’t care. The sun was warm, the views were fantastic and the knowledge that we were in the process of successfully completing a full and varied journey through the Himalayas; even if but a small corner of them; was enough to keep our mood buoyant.
Returning to Nayapul’s dirt street in the early afternoon felt like arriving in a metropolis after the relative solitude of Ghandruk in the morning. The minibus drive along the open stretches of mountain road provided just enough of a cushion to re-adjust as we headed back to Pokhara.
Rhododendron Forest and Snow-Capped Peaks