“Do you want to do the Manaslu circuit in Nepal?” asks Satya over the phone. Curiosity aroused, I ask, “When?” “In a couple of days,” is the answer.
I am flattered and bemused. Satya is a solitary trekker, one of the kind who carry their own tents and supplies. So hiking with Satya would mean carrying a backpack of well over 20 kilos for around 20 days. I decline the offer. But I wonder. Why can’t I do something solitary? Within a week, I am on a flight to Kathmandu.
The Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek is very popular. Sometimes done independently and sometimes as the pièce de résistance leg of the Annapurna Circuit trek, it is the archetypal made-for-the-westerner teahouse trek, nothing like which 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 Mt Annapurna. It is a relatively safe trail for the solo trekker, with the right balance of adventure and solitude.
The journey can be initiated from Nayapul, a short distance from Pokhara. The pastoral landscape becomes visible after you cross the bridge across the Modi Khola, a raging river that originates in the East Annapurna glacier and serves as 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 Gurkhas. Ghandruk welcomes visitors with a huge map of all the guesthouses in town. I know my destination but check to see if there is something 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 on the guesthouse wall acquires character with the Machhapuchhre peak and Annapurna South massif visible from the window by its side. Machhapuchhre 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 along the mountain before it dips into the forest and continues up the other side of the valley. Woodpeckers, babblers and minivets are visible, and you hear 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 you are in doubt. The trail is also a true cultural melting pot. There are Italians, Chinese, Malaysian, French and German trekkers and their guides and porters, with whom you can exchange notes after you greet them with the customary namaste. Public sanitation and toilet etiquette levels are exceptionally high on the trail and in villages, which I cannot say about Indian Himalayan treks.
Chomrong could be the most beautiful and indulgent village here. After this, there are no more villages, just a few spartan inns. I say indulgent because 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 in homes. WiFi signs hang from every nook and cranny. It is difficult to believe that this is trekking territory.
In Chomrong Cottage, I bump into a Swiss couple, Sylvie and Egon, who are on a backpacking tour of the world. They are currently returning from Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) where Sylvie was hit by altitude sickness. 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 wonderful 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 filled 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 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 bhat, I chat 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,” he says sagely.
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. Totally drenched, I reach Dovan and it is only a bite of the chocolate cake which Sushila’s daughter had packed for me, that manages to warm my shivering body.
If the skies are clear, the route from Dovan to Deurali which is an ascent of 800 metres, 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 an inn in Deurali, a hailstorm breaks out, soon replaced by a snowstorm. Across my table in the inn’s 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 you out of your inertia by declaring this as an avalanche area. The landscape changes dramatically: now it is mountain territory. The trail goes further up along the Modi Khola through a canyon with mountains on both sides. The journey can be painfully slow you climb 1,000 metres.
At MBC, under the gaze of the impressive Gangapurna mountain, the trail climbs left. Snowstorms over the past week have deposited a few feet of powdery snow and the landscape looks like a desert with rolling white sands that glitter in the sun. The sound of avalanches crackling down mountains is frequently heard. It is 2 pm and there is no one on the iced-out trail. Dark clouds roll in slowly and snowflakes gently waft down. I look out for shelter when I hear voices behind me. And at 2.30 pm, 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 massifs. The skies clear up overnight after a full evening of snow. 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 for climbers.
It is -2 °C in the morning and it 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 slowly roils . There is a memorial for 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 in 1997, nearby.
After 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 luxury. The Tibetan curio shops are delightful, but it is saddening to hear the stories narrated by the refugee Tibetans. Dhampuk also narrates the story of his father, a Khampa guerrilla, who fought the Chinese in a bloody conflict in Nepal’s Mustang region in the 1950s.
But this is what the Himalayas have come to stand for: Sheer exhilaration together with life’s daily hardships of life.
From HT Brunch, October 30, 2016
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