Five long years were to pass before I returned to Kathmandu. A change of lifestyle meant that I was now able to spend more time travelling and it was natural that I should look to Nepal. But where was I to trek, and how? The how was easy: ‘lodge’ trekking, with a guide and porter.
But where…? Various ideas were thrown about but all were rejected. In the end the final decision came very easily – a return to the Annapurna Himal, walking up the Kali Gandaki to Muktinath, but using my previous experience of the area to put in enough variants to make it other than just following the straight ‘tourist’ trail.
For this trek I was joined by my old friend Mick Melbourne and this was to be the first trek that I was to do that was organized by Pawan Tuladhar of Dharma Adventures. It was also to be the first trek where I employed Dendi Sherpa. Dendi came with us on that trek as a ‘guide’, but we parted as friends and have remained so ever since. Our little party of four (including one porter) travelled from Kathmandu to Pokhara by bus (where both Mick and I were shocked by the changes to the town) and then on by taxi to Beni – no, we started by taxi, but finished in the cab of a lorry, leaving a broken taxi and sorry looking driver by Baglung bridge. My comment on that mornings journey is that we took less than 4 hours to travel what had taken six days to trek in 1985.
From Beni we spent a long, hot afternoon trekking to Tipylang. Trying to reconcile memories of 1985 with this walk are difficult. There were certainly more trekkers about, but the trail then was nothing like it is nowadays. Tipylang was still a little village in 1997. The next day we had a shorter walk to Tatopani, and then we were into what was new territory for both of us. We took three days to walk up the Kali Gandaki to Jomosom, and then a further morning to trek up to Kagbeni. The walk through the gorge from Beni to Kagbeni is one of total contrasts, as might be expected. Beni is sub-tropical, and the walk through the different vegetation and climatic regions to the high mountain desert of the upper Kali Gandaki is a joy.
The next morning we set off for Muktinath, but altitude started to take its effect and we decided to stop for the afternoon and night at Jharkot. The climb from the river up to the villages is steep at first but enjoyable. This mornings’ walk through an ever-changing landscape of grays and browns, with just a little green and yellow in small patches of fields, and under a pure blue sky was one of the highlights of the trek.
Unfortunately things started to unravel a little, as that night I was stricken by a violent attack of ‘Jharkot Jumps’ and that put paid to plans to walk to Muktinath the next day. Why we didn’t wait an extra day at Jharkot I don’t know, as we still had 11 trekking days available, but we didn’t, which is why the original ‘Pilgrim Trail’ slide presentation had no photographs of Muktinath in it.
We made our way down the slopes to the Kali Gandaki and retraced our steps to Tatopani, finding as we did that it is true that photographs can be found behind you as well as in front.
At Tatopani we faced the long climb to Ghorepani. This was the second time I’d climbed that hill – it doesn’t get any easier, but the photography is superb. We reached Ghorepani at lunchtime on the second day, collapsing in the lodge and demanding tea. We didn’t go up Poon Hill for sunset or sunrise. The evening was cloudy and in the morning we preferred to stay in the warmth of our sleeping bags (but you can get good photographs through windows – honest).
The trail to Tadapani I knew from 1985, but it had changed. Then it had been little more than a ‘trod’, now it was a a substantial highway. Where had previously been shacks were lodges, with pizzas and pie. Tadapani was a revelation. I keep saying that in 1985 there were two shacks there; now there were lodges and tea shops, and a viewing tower, and a craft market – ‘You have no money Sahib? No problem – I take Barclaycard’. But that days’ trail had been a delight (it still is, if you can avoid the crowds) and the views from Tadapani are good…
The trek was coming to an end and the next morning we dropped down through the forest to Ghandrung, and then to the Modi Khola. If you go down then you must go up, and so we climbed steeply up to Landrung for the night. A storm in the Annapurna Sanctuary soon gave way to a brilliant sunset on Annapurna South.
Our last morning trekking was spent climbing up the hill to Deurali, a stiff climb, despite that we were fitter, and then we dropped through the woods on the well worn trail to Pothana and Dhampus. Surprisingly, we had a problem finding accommodation in Dhampus, but we eventually found a lodge at the end of the village. As Dendi said, ‘She greeted us with ‘Namaste’…’. It was rather a basic lodge but worth it for the view to the north – a classic view of the Annapurna range, with houses flanked by marigolds in front.
The next morning, the last of the trek, we dropped, all too quickly, through terraces to the road. We left the lodge at 8.00 – by 10.15 we were drinking coffee in a hotel garden in Pokhara.
And so back to Kathmandu and five glorious days of photography in the Valley.