A tale of trekking, mountain volleyball, Indiana Jones-style-bridges, making momos, leeches, midnight runs in the rain to the outdoors toilet and soaring snow capped Himalayan peaks…interested? Let me elaborate…for the past twelve days I have been hiking the Annapurna Sanctuary trail in Nepal to Annapurna Base Camp. My guide, Sunita, was lovely, really friendly and very funny, especially on our last night when I made her share two beers and a Mustang coffee, turns out Nepalese women, not so used to alcohol! As I was the elder, certainly not the wiser, I became didi (older sister in Nepalese) and she was bahini (younger sister). I’m almost at a loss as to where to begin, it has been such a brilliant twelve days.
We began at Naya Pul and from there trekked up via Hille to Ghorepani, over across to the sanctuary route and via Chhomrong up past Doban, Deurali and to Machhupuchhre Base Camp (MBC) and finally Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). The heights given for the various villages and guesthouse stops are hugely misleading on the map. For example when you look at Ghandruk village at 1900m and then Landruk at 1595m, you think, great, only 400m to descend for the morning. Only once you actually look at the path it turns out that actually you are going to be descending about 850m to cross the river at the base of the valley and then climbing all the way up the other side. My knees are currently looking in to divorcing the rest of my body for malpractice! The scenery however was fantastic, climbing up and down stone pathways through small Gurung villages, getting occasionally jostled out of the way by munching Buffalo or run over by hoards of locals carrying huge bundles. Sunita thought it was hysterical to get me to try carrying the local’s baskets or huge mounds of grass every now and then whilst taking photos, I thought I was doing pretty well lugging my 10kg rucksack, nothing to what the villagers carry around! We also trekked through Rhodendron forests, groves of bamboo trees, across mountain streams, along hillsides, passed terraces of rice and millet and finally up through the scrubland and boulders to 4130m which is ABC.
This is my idea of trekking. You walk four to six hours in the day and when you reach your destination there is a friendly guesthouse with stone rooms, clean (usually) sheets, toilets, occasional hot water and meals on request. For twelve days I have eaten large steaming bowls of porridge, pancakes, pizza, momos (Sunita persuaded the cook at the guesthouse in Chhomrong to let us watch (and help) him make momos for lunch so I could see how it was done!), dal bhat (Nepali rice and curry), noodles, rosti (fried potato pancake things topped with cheese and egg) and drunk a hot cup of Mustang coffee every evening. Now Mustang coffee is basically the Nepalese perversion of an Irish coffee. It contains the local alcohol made from Millet, smells and tastes like paint stripper with caffeine but definitely puts fire back into the body after a hard day’s walk. On our last evening Sunita and I drank cold beers whilst overlooking the hills surrounding Pokara and I then I suggested we both had a final cup of Mustang Coffee. Turns out Sunita is not as used to booze as myself and got quite tipsy! We were sitting in the smoky kitchen of the family who owned the guesthouse, listening to Hindi songs on her mobile phone and trying to get their 15 month year old son to mimic our Bollywood dance moves!
the dark side of trekking
It wasn’t all fun and games, we had four days of torrential rain, whatever the weatherman says the monsoons have definitely not left Nepal. It takes some will power to get out from inside a warm sleeping bag when you can hear the rain of the corrugated roof of the guesthouse and you know that all your trekking gear from the day before is still damp and cold. Plus when you venture out onto the path, the earth has turned into a bog of squelchy mud, the stone steps have become slippery steps of doom and the leeches are out and looking for blood. I’m not joking these buggers get everywhere, in your socks, onto your walking poles and I even found one particularly big one having a grand old time sucking on my neck.
friends and family
Even though the season has not fully begun we met a fair number of people along the way, villagers, porters, other tourists and Sunita is extremely friendly to everyone and as the all-female trekking group she belongs to most people had heard of her, or know who she was! Chhomrong was one of my favourite places, I ran into three Israelis and an Irish girl; Aviv, Sagiv, Ben and Jenny with their guide Bush for the second time when I arrived at a beautiful guesthouse overlooking two valleys. Persuaded by the nice rooms, excellent food, stunning views and, I like to think, first class company they decided to spend the afternoon and night there instead of hiking down to the bottom of the valley. So we sat drinking beers and eating Pizza on the terrace, looking out over the mountain sides and relaxing away the afternoon. They had all come from the Annapurna circuit so had been going for nearly three weeks…actually I think Jenny’s magic red pills (whatever they were) had been keeping Ben going at least! In Deurail at 3100m Sunita and I arrived early and were staying overnight to acclimatise to the altitude (she was carefully monitoring my water intake to make sure I got through at least three litres and wasn’t letting me have any Mustang Coffee that evening!) so we ended up playing mountain volleyball with the other guesthouse owners for a few hours. Mountain volleyball is just the same as regular volleyball only it’s played on the side of a mountain, figures! The Nepalese Sunita’s been teaching me on the trek definitely came in handy although most people seemed hugely amused by my blundering attempts at the local lingo. Still it got us free tea and corn at one teahouse and when in Ghandruk we dressed me up in the traditional Gurung dress and I asked one old lady how she was doing in Nepali, I thought she was going to choke on her cigarette!
“This morning we awoke again to brilliantly clear blue skies and after my usual breakfast of strong black coffee, porridge with apple and chapatti we set off to climb the two and a half hour path to reach MBC at 3700m. The trees had all but disappeared by now, occasional small ones cropped up between the ferns, wild flowers and scrub. About one hour from MBC we got our first sight of the awesome peaks of the Himalayas, Fishtail spearing up into the blue sky and the achingly white peak of Gangapurna straight ahead of us. By the time we reached MBC after a short detour to take photographs of me posing by a huge ice bridge over the mountains stream, the sheer circle of the mountains was unbelievable. How can I describe the feeling of standing surrounded by moss and grass covered hills with snow and ice covered peaks reaching up around you? It’s enormous, magnificent, beautiful, nature on a truly awe-inspiring scale, totally untouched, unaltered, and in the case of Fishtail, unscaled by mankind. We spent about two hours at MBC eating garlic soup and Gurung bread. As we sat warming ourselves in the sunshine the clouds began curling and rolling their wag in again over the mountain tops. Two ravens briefly soared overhead before disappearing down the valley. Around 1pm we said farewell to the English couple I’d been chatting with and started up the final path to ABC. The shrubs had now gone, replaced with thick, white-tipped grasses rippling and flowing in the wind. A gushing noisy stream tumbled and tripped down its rocky bed to our left, tiny brown sparrows jumped up from out of the grass beside us. In-between the grasses grew tiny violet buds, tall dark purple flowers like foxgloves, large yellow wild daises and red and green wild con. Huge boulders lay strewn across the valley as if disguarded by giants. In the distance through the white clouds rapidly overtaking us, we could just make out the outlines of the guesthouses ahead. As we got closer they seemed to tantalizingly slip further and further from view. The altitude had begun to kick in now and although my legs felt fine my head felt compressed by a prevailing dizziness and it was possible to walk only at a snail’s pace, putting one foot in front of the other as slowly we climbed the track. Finally the entrance sign bidding us welcome to ABC appeared and a short flight of stone steps brought us into base camp.”
Sadly the following morning began the two and a half days of torrential downpours so we didn’t get to see the final views from ABC but all in all I was still pretty damn chuffed!
Today was the hardest trekking, partly because it was the final day and mainly because it rained like the very final monsoon last night and the steep steps all the way down to Phedi were slick as the sweat on my skin. But we made it and I am now showered, smelling less like I’ve been wearing the same sweaty t-shirt for two weeks (I have), and relishing the prospect of a comfortable warm bed tonight, I might even go and find myself a real Irish coffee!