“Do you want to do the Manaslu circuit in Nepal?” asks a voice drily over the phone. Curiosity aroused, I ask, “When?” “In a couple of days,” answers the voice.
I am flattered and bemused. Satya falls into the category of solitary trekkers who carry their own tents and supplies. So hitchhiking with Satya would mean carrying a backpack of well over twenty kilos for around twenty days. I give it a profound thought and decline the offer. But that starts a train of thought. Why can’t something solitary be done on my own? In a week of that train in my mind, I am on a flight to Kathmandu.
The Annapurna Base Camp(ABC) trek or the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek is a sought after trek. Sometimes done independently and sometimes made as the ending pièce de résistance leg of the Annapurna Circuit trek, it is an archetypal made for the westerner teahouse trek, none of which really exists in India. It begins in Western Nepal and moves upstream along a valley through charming Gurung villages with captivating mountain views and ends at the most accessible location to summit the Annapurna mountain. It is a relatively safe trail for the solo trekker with the right amount of adventure and solitude.
The journey (Itinerary – Click) can be initiated from Nayapul, a short distance from Pokhara. The pastoral landscape of the region starts becoming visible after crossing the bridge across the Modi khola, a raging river originating in the East Annapurna glacier and also a navigational beacon till the end of the journey. It is a dusty path but quickly becomes a delightful ascent on the roughly hewn stone staircase to Ghandruk, a small cluster of slate-roofed homes inhabited by the Gurkhas. Ghandruk welcomes visitors with a huge map with all the guesthouses listed. I know my destination but just check to see if there is something that is fanciful enough to make me vacillate. Heaven View Lodge almost does it but my moral fibre stands the test.
The next morning, I discover the village to be a revelation. A previously dull painting has acquired character with Machapucchre peak and Annapurna South massif visible from the window of my guesthouse. Machapucchre is a conical mountain whose peak not only splits up like a fish tail but also twists like a half-closed bottle cap.
The switchback trail from Ghandruk to Chomrong, the next village, is a long walk alongside the mountain before it dips into the forest and continues up the other side of the valley. There are plenty of woodpeckers, babblers, minivets besides the calls of a plenitude of birds. The path is easy to navigate and the red and white signs painted on the dressed stones, an initiative by a couple of individuals in tandem with the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, miraculously appear when in doubt. The trail is also a true cultural melting pot. There are Italians, Chinese, Malaysians, French, Germans, their guides and porters with whom you can exchange notes after you greet them with the customary namaste. For all its governance issues Nepal is dubiously famous for, public sanitation and toilet etiquette is exceptionally high on the trail and in villages, none of which I have seen on the Indian Himalayan treks.
Chomrong could be the most beautiful and indulgent village in this region. Here after, there are no more villages but just a few spartan inns. Looking around, I realise there has been an invasion of contemporary cuisine in this village. German bakeries, pizza joints and beef steak houses dance in front of my eyes while beer cans line up the shop-fronts of homes. Wi-Fi signs hang from every nook and corner. It is difficult to believe that this is trekking territory.
In Chomrong Cottage, I bump into a Swiss couple, Sylvie and Egon who like quite a few European couples on the trail, are on a backpacking tour of the world. They are currently returning from Machapucchre Base Camp(MBC) where Sylvie was hit by altitude sickness, a common occurrence due to lack of acclimatisation to the low oxygen levels at high altitudes. As we share stories, Sushila, the owner of Chomrong Cottage reveals that her chocolate cake was featured in Time magazine. No more electricity is required in the room as our eyes light up.
The walk from Chomrong, down the wonderfully cobblestoned stairs, past the suspension bridge across the Chomrong khola with Annapurna South to the left and the river roaring down to the right, is eschewed with glittering possibilities of what could lie ahead. The track then goes further up to the crest of the mountain before plunging into a forest of about-to-flower rhododendron trees, oak and bamboo. From now on trekking groups become much fewer and the mule packs disappear.
It is quite dull and gloomy by the time I reach Buddha guesthouse in Bamboo for lunch. While having the staple dal baht, I chat up with an American about the Presidential primaries in the lunchroom. “We don’t need a revolutionary President at this point. We just need the status quo to be maintained”, the Chicagoan sagely says.
The route goes further up to Dovan via Long Steep Stone Staircase and by now a thunderstorm has enveloped the forest. Quiet rivulets have become uproarious with the rain and thunder down with rage while the slushy path becomes desolate and forays through thickets of dark forest. Totally drenched, I reach Dovan and it is only a bite of the chocolate cake which Sushila’s daughter had packed that warms my shivering body.
If the skies are clear, the route from Dovan to Deurali which is an ascent of 800 mtrs, can be the most beautiful section of the journey. A clearing in the forest appears intermittently to provide wonderful views of mountains and cascading waterfalls. As I hurry into the lunchroom of an inn in Deurali, a hailstorm breaks out which is soon replaced by a snowstorm. Across my table in the lunchroom, a boisterous gang of college students from Kathmandu is hunched up together in some kind of a scientific experiment. This region is also marijuana country. Anup gives me a quick lowdown regarding the ganja on the table and how it should be separated.
Ten minutes from Deurali on the way to MBC, a wooden board nudges one out of their inertia by declaring this as an avalanche area. The landscape changes dramatically and it is mountain territory all over. The trail goes further up along the Modi khola through a canyon with mountains lined up on both sides. The journey can be painfully slow because in the roughly 55 kms journey to ABC, this is where a height gain of 1000 mtrs is experienced.
At MBC, under the gaze of the impressive Gangapurna mountain, the trail climbs left. The snowstorms over the past week have deposited a few feet of powder snow and the landscape looks like a desert with rolling white sands that glitter neon-like in the sun. The sound of avalanches crackling down mountains can be heard frequently. It is 2 pm and there is no one on the iced-out trail. Dark clouds start rolling in slowly and snowflakes gently waft down onto the terrain. Preparing myself to be caught in a snowstorm, I look out for shelter when I hear voices behind. At 2.30 pm, we, an engineer from Dhaka and I plant our feet below the first signboard which proclaims our final destination.
ABC is a small plateau surrounded by Annapurna South, Fang’s Peak and the Annapurna massif. Typical of mountain weather, the skies clear up in the night after having snowed the entire evening. The Annapurna range becomes visible and it turns out to be a massive wall towards the northern side with no apparent breach anywhere in its rock face. It is easy to see why this is the world’s most dangerous mountain in terms of fatalities.
It is -2 °C in the morning and was -15 °C the previous night. Many trekkers are assembled for the golden moment when the first rays of the sun touch Annapurna. And when it does, Annapurna looks like a bride first kissed. Macchapuchre on the eastern horizon is still in the shadow while the South Annapurna glacier slightly ahead roils at glacial pace. There is a memorial of Anatoli Boukreev, one of the heroes or villains of the 1996 Everest disaster depending on whose perspective you believe, who was consumed by Annapurna on Christmas Day of 1997, nearby.
After having reached ABC, many trekkers head to Poon Hill, a side trek, while some like me head back to the lakeside precinct of Pokhara to indulge in its luxuriousness. The Tibetan curio shops are delightful to shop at but it is saddening to hear the stories narrated by the Tibetans regarding refugee life in Nepal. Dhampuk narrates the story of his father, a Khampa guerrilla who fought the Chinese in a bloody conflict in the Mustang region in the 1950’s.
But that is what the Himalayas have come to stand for. There can be sheer exhilaration coexisting with the daily hardships of life. The ABC trail provides glimpses of that.