The Himalayan Traveller: ‘Trek Reports’ 5 – The Annapurna Circuit November 2001

‘This is not country that must be seen to be believed, but rather believed to be seen’: (N Scott Momaday – writing on the American West, but still relevant)

But 2001 – that was going to be a good one…

The itinerary for the Annapurna Circuit October & November 2001

My thought for 2001 was to put a group together and trek into the Khumbu, but it didn’t prove feasible – flights were, in theory, fully booked very early on and it was unrealistic to expect people to make the commitment that I was asking of them in the time scale I had.

Where to go? What to do? The Annapurna Circuit had been in my mind for some time and since the time scale for this trek is much the same as Khumbu I could use a ticket that I had. E-mails criss-crossed the miles between Lincoln and Kathmandu and I was committed… The only problem (apart from the Royal Family shootings and the Maoists) was that Dendi had left Shiva Kailash and so wasn’t available… ‘But don’t worry, Tim, I have got my young nephew Tendi – he is very good – I will tell him all about you’ (!?). And so on Tuesday 30th October I appeared at Heathrow Airport for the evening Qatar Airways flight to Doha and on Kathmandu.

There are advantages in travelling on your own, not least that, as a photographer, you can go off and ‘do your own thing’ without worrying about other people. It was fate that my arrival coincided with full moon. Walking to the Kathesymbhu temple that first evening I found festivities in full swing, and the next morning, in Durbar Square I found the same thing.

Packing for the trek was interrupted by photography, meeting Tendi and getting back into Nepal mode. It was obvious from the start that there would be no problems with young Tendi. I’m always a bit nervous with new people but the ice was soon broken. The conversation began: ‘Ah, Tendi, your Uncle Dendi has told me all about you!’. ‘Oh, yes, sir, he has told me all about You!’. Oh, dear. ‘How old are you Tendi?’. ‘Twenty-one, sir’. ‘I’m old enough to be your father, aren’t I? And stop calling me ‘sir”. ‘There are no problems. I will call you ‘Papa”.

On the Friday morning breakfast was early, as Tendi arrived with the ‘Land Cruiser’ at 7.00am. The drive to Dumre (1,444′) was as gentle as it can be, once we were clear of the Kathmandu valley: we were there by 11.30. My guide books (not all that old) gave dire warnings about the drive to Besisahar (2,700′). I was to be pleasantly surprised: instead of a dirt track the road was good ‘blacktop’ and by 2.00pm we were there. (Sorry, ‘we’ meant [in those days] a fifty-something, overweight, balding photographer, a 21 year old guide [Tendi] and a 25 year old porter [Nuri], who was having a ‘holiday’ from real portering and running his farm by carrying for me).

We started the trek properly the next morning, an early start taking us up the new road along the Marsyangdi, before we crossed the river onto a ‘short cut’ avoiding Khudi. Lunch was at Bhulbhule and we made Ngadi (3,051′), our first nights stop, by 2.30pm. (A short day, OK, but the first days of any trek always seems hard – and it was hot).

Our next day took us up the hill to Bahundanda, a pleasant climb without the morning sun, and then down again, but now in the sun, and onwards to Syange, taking us into the first of the Marsyangdi gorges. It was hot, and by Syange I was suffering. A proud man might resist the offer to have his rucksack carried; I eventually gave in and was glad to reach Jagat (4,311′).

On day three was more (hot) up and downs through the gorge, but the arrival in Tal, in its’ silted up lake bed, made up for the hardship. This is a strange place, the most southerly in Manang district, and with clear Buddhist influences. Here you realize that you are approaching the mountains. From Tal the trail finds a way through canyons, crossing and re-crossing the river, and passing the famed ‘Hotel Dorchester’ before arriving at Dharapani (6,375′). The afternoon walk was spoilt by low cloud and drizzle – fortunately this cooled things down for us, but the weather seemed to be changing.

A little way on from Dharapani a trail comes in from the Larkya La on the Manaslu circuit. We had met a number of groups finishing this adventurous trek, but from now almost all the travellers we would see would be going in our direction. On this fourth day of walking we again would be making lots of little ascents and descents as we passed through yet more of the gorge. The weather was threatening and as we walked into Chame (8,901′) the temperature was dropping noticeably and snow seemed possible. Chame… I knew there was something about Chame when I saw a lodge owner with a large rat trap. My lodge (no names, no pack drill) was by the river and was upmarket – there was a large boulder in my room with the beds built round it. There were gaps around it and I thought I saw something scurrying… Oh well, leave some biscuit crumbs out for it. (In case anybody is wondering, I can think of two other lodges that I’ve stopped in that have had rats about).

The next morning was overcast but reasonably fine – a little bit warmer than the previous day, but there had been some snow and we wondered what the day would bring. Walking through pine forest we came to Bhratang and shortly after this we crossed the river and started a wearisome climb. The threat of snow had receded, but the pine branches still carried some which tried to fall down our necks. Eventually we came to a view of the Manang or Nyesyang valley: a flat-bottomed, broad, arid valley, but with a covering of stunted pines and low-growing juniper. To the north rose Pisang Peak (19,984′). The gentle downhill walk to Pisang (10,450′) was a pleasure – there was a feeling that, after the days of plodding up the tracks through the gorge, we were getting somewhere. We arrived soon after lunch and, after the obligatory mug (or two) of hot lemon I explored. Pisang (and its near neighbour of Upper Pisang) were a delight – the photographs justified the effort.

Pisang is one of those places which I feel ‘give the lie’ to the guidebooks. You can make lots of plans, or have lots of ideas, looking at the guide at home, but when you get there the realities start to take over. I had thought that, if I was going well I would take the ‘upper route’ from Pisang to Manang. Yes, I was going well, but suddenly the desire to do it seemed to go – why waste energy when the lower route was so delightful? The walk to Manang (11,650′) was another short day, with little altitude gain. We walked at first was through pine forests, then the valley opened out, with the mountains of the Annapurna Himal forming a great wall to the south.

At Manang altitude starts to take effect and you are advised to spend at least two nights here, to try and get accustomed to it. And what to do whilst you acclimatize? You could sit around drinking beer and eating apple pie, chatting up the girls with stories of your past (or future) exploits in Phuket (not me, I might add), but really you should go for a walk. There are a number of walks, of varying length available from Manang. On the north side of the valley are a number of gompa, and you can also walk back to Braga to visit the gompa there. To the south a sharp drop into the valley is followed by a sharper climb up to a pine clad ridge with views back to the south east – there is a tea shop on top. (Similar views can also be gained by walking up to Tengi, which you walk through on the way to the Thorung La). Another walk is up towards Tilicho lake. The lake is too far away to visit in a day, but the village of Khangsar is worth visiting. I had hoped to get to Khangsar, but unfortunately had to settle for ‘Pine ridge’; but I did get involved in a local funeral – a very moving experience.

All trekkers heading for the Thorung La should take the opportunity to visit one of the lectures held most afternoons by the medical staff of the Himalayan Rescue Association. These talks will probably scare the pants off you, but they are important as they do reinforce the need to acclimatize properly, and tell you of the symptoms of altitude sickness. (They may also point out that older, larger trekkers may adapt better than younger, slimmer ones; but we knew that already…). Incidentally there is an information point at Manang. You would probably be as relieved as I was to see a large sign saying ‘Thorung La is Open: Enjoy!‘.

As you leave Manang you are psyched up for the climb to the Thorung La, and the sensible way is to do it slowly, taking two days to reach Thorung Phedi. The walk takes you uphill through Tengi, but in the morning, certainly, you look back at the fine retrospective view over Manang, with the sun shining through the smoke rising from the village. After the initial stiff climb the walking became easier, on a well made track. The views in all directions were good; blue sheep could be seen on the hillsides, and there were also yaks to be seen. There are a number of tea houses and lodges along the way. People seem to take Letdar as the overnight stop on this section, but we stopped at little short at Yak Kharka (13,018′)(Very cold, Yak Kharka).

Depending on how you are going you may push on to Letdar, but you won’t save a lot by doing do, as the next days’ walk to Thorung Phedi is short: only three hours. (Incidentally the walk to Yak Kharka is probably the last day when you’ll feel you want to walk in shorts – although I did see [New Zealand] trekkers wearing them on the way to Thorung Phedi). This walk is easy, but altitude is taking its effect. It is worth noting that the track divides some distance short of Thorung Phedi, the old track dropping off to the river. This was the path that Tendi and I followed and it is easy, except for one or two places where there have been landslips. The new path keeps its height, but then drops steeply to the river on zigzags and climbs to Thorung Phedi (14,534′). These zigzags look as if they could be treacherous after snow.

There are lodges at Thorung Phedi (quite good ones, too) but a thousand feet or so up a scree slope are the huts of Thorung ‘High Camp’ – Tendi said that this was a cold place, and we stopped at the lower. There are ‘pro’s’ and ‘cons’ over which one to stop at. High Camp is cold and and (I thought) rather dirty – but it does save you a cold, dark climb up the scree in the early morning. Thorung Phedi is nicer, probably warmer, but you have that climb in the dark. (You can, if you like, stop at Thorung Phedi and walk up to ‘High Camp’ for a drink, returning to the lower altitude to sleep). Having been filled full of horror stories about acclimatization problems you may find that evening rather stressful – will you get up? Will I have to ride up? (Horror, horror). Will my companions be able to get up? The only thing to do is sit back, drink your tea and try not to worry. (If this seems a little flippant: no, I was worried too, and as much about the 5,000′ descent as the 3,000′ climb, and I had seen altitude sickness at Gokyo in 1992). When do you start? 3.00am, 4.00, 5.00? 10.00? You don’t want to be too early because of the dark and the cold, but you don’t want to be too late, because it is a long day.

Nuri woke me with tea at 3.30am, when I was in the middle of a dream in deep sleep. We got away from Thorung Phedi at 4.45 and joined the long crocodile of trekkers and porters climbing up the scree. The climb was not as long as it seemed, but it went on for long enough. Fortunately ‘High Camp’ arrived at the right time, and with it a welcome hot drink. When we set off again (at 6.05am) it was in the half light of dawn – it was cold, yes, but I’ve been colder in the English mountains in winter. There was a little ice, and some snow.

You plod on, going at your best, steady speed. Eventually the sun’s rays touch the first mountains and you suddenly realise that day is coming. You realize too that, if there is snow, you’re going to be glad that you’ve got snow goggles. We found the track easy to follow, but there was little snow. If there had been more, then it would have been different, but there were so many people on the trail that the trail would have been easily trodden down. The trail traverses rocky slopes, crossing moraine ridges and all the time working a way upwards. After an hour or so there is another welcome halt at a hut, serving tea, coffee, hot lemon, rum and (hot) chocolate cake! (It is worth remembering that this hut [in 2001, at least] did not offer beds – as some trekkers found to their dismay: they ended up walking back to Thorung High Camp for the night). (I have been asked to point out, for legal reasons, that I did not actually taste the cake – a friend was once given chocolate cake stuffed with garlic. TJH)

As you walk on there are many false cols to cross and you may wonder if you’re ever going to get there. I found, though, the entire walk a joy. I had acclimatized reasonably well and I was well equipped against the cold. Around me there was the grandeur of the high mountains, and there was the realization that we were higher than the summit of Mont Blanc. It was good to be alive. Eventually the summit col came into view, with a large, untidy cairn with many streamers of prayer flags, and another tea hut. As we walked up Tendi spotted pug marks off to the left – snow leopard?

We reached the summit (17,732′) at 8.32am. It is traditional to leave prayer flags on high passes – the wind, touching the prayers, is blessed, and goes on to bless everything that it touches. On this day, November 12th 2001, as the Northern Alliance entered Kabul, it was perhaps apposite that I should offer a prayer that this blessing be so, and that Peace should come to our tattered and divided world. (And, revising this in January 2020, with more talk of wars, and rumours of wars, I can think of no better reason to go back – to put some more flags in the high places).

The descent to Muktinath was easy but long, some 5,000′ in total and for anyone who doesn’t like going downhill it could be a purgatory. Snow had fallen and thawed, but a thin film of ice had formed on some of the ledges. (I have in front of me an unused film cartridge – bent beyond salvage when I slipped on one of these ledges and sat on it). I know some people got down a lot quicker, but it took Tendi and myself five hours to drop down to Muktinath, although this included a lunch stop, and also plenty of time for photography and just looking at the views. It is a fact that the best views are often not from the summit of the pass but from lower down.

As we dropped so the views opened up: the Kali Gandaki valley becomes visible, but it wasn’t that that drew my eye – it was the views across into lonely Mustang, and across to the mountains of Dolpo, and even further towards Jumla. The valley of the Dzong Khola becomes visible, and then on a ridge – Jharkot, and the realisation that you will soon join onto what you trekked in 1997. And finally, Muktinath is in sight, and that the day’s journey will soon be over. Nuri appeared from nowhere – he’d left at the same time as Tendi and myself but had reached Muktinath by 9.00am, and looked disgustingly fresh (‘But Tim, there is no need for a rest day at Muktinath – Nuri will have rested’ – ‘Yes, Tendi, but what about Papa … he will need to rest’ – ‘Oh, yes. Sorry’).

It was a relief to be in Muktinath (12,500′). This had been our target in 1997 when we failed so narrowly and soon I would be joining familiar tracks. There was a certain satisfaction to reaching it, both as a physical place, but also in its spiritual sense as a place of pilgrimage. Many pilgrims will come up the Kali Gandaki, of course, and their trail is a good one, but our route, with its trials and tribulations was so much better. Tendi did not, perhaps, appreciate how important it was to me to be here, and to visit the sacred groves. The next morning, after one of those wonderful spontaneous evenings of friendship and entertainment that can only ‘happen’ and not be created, he walked with Nuri and myself the short distance up the hill to Muktinath proper. I was happy that morning to let the experience flow over me: to wander, to look, to listen to Narayan Dotta Suvedi, the resident sadhu, and to receive his blessing, and to take photographs. No more can be said – this is one of those places that must be believed in order to be seen.

The descent to the valley of the Kali Gandaki (or Thak Khola) was one of those downhill walks where you lose height very quickly, but very gently, and where you keep looking back. The moment when you round a spur and find you can no longer turn and see Muktinath is a sad one. To me this land is magical. There was beauty all around as we dropped into a land of contrasts. Jharkot on it’s ridge made a wonderful foreground, with the snow covered mountains to the west of the Kali Gandaki as a backdrop. The hillsides seemed barren, but there were apple orchards and peach trees. Irrigation streams fed the fields: yaks could be seen hauling ploughs. The gorge of the Dzong Khola is deep and narrow; former cave dwellings can be seen in it’s cliffs. It would be easy to think that you are on the Tibetan plateau as you look across at the yellow ochre slopes, bare of vegetation. We reached Kagbeni (9,200′) by lunch time.

I find Kagbeni a paradox – welcoming, but also threatening. There are irrigation streams feeding orchards and fields, and the place is clean and (at first glance) reasonably rich. The old village is different though, narrow passages run between the houses and little side alleys, with snarling dogs, lead you away from the main route. There are threatening statues of guardian deities, whilst some of the houses, and the old fort (‘dzong’) are starting to crumble, and you wonder what it must be like to live here. Probably OK if you’ve got the money, but if you’re poor… I made my way through the village until a view opened out to the north, up the valley of the Kali Gandaki, towards Mustang. There is a long mani wall and at the end an open platform; to the right is the police ‘check post’.

This is the entry to Mustang proper: unless you have a permit you may go no further. I had no permit. (It is worth saying though, that if you can’t get to Mustang, this area may probably do just as well. Very few trekkers stray from the main trail: there are the villages around Muktinath and on the West side of the Kali Gandaki to look at, and there are other ways up the Kali Gandaki from Kalopani. Think about it, go, but don’t spoil it for the rest of us, please. Incidentally, if there is a road into Mustang from the Tibetan side, things are going to change there anyway.)

That afternoon passed quickly and the next morning brought the realisation that I would, in effect, be on the homeward lap, even through there were nine days trekking left. We left Kagbeni and turned towards the lowlands. There then came the dreadful discovery that I had half a reel of film left in the camera and no spare on me, for a day that would offer good photography. (Fortunately I was able to buy more in Jomosom where, incidentally, it was possible to send e-mails home). I was in no mood to hurry. The walk from Kagbeni to Jomosom (or vice versa) is easy and spectacular, constantly changing and with side valleys and villages that must be worth going back to, to explore properly. The feeling as I left the gravel beds and started to walk across the flats to Jomosom was one of sorrow and regret.

(As an aside, there is no road from Kagbeni down the Kali Gandaki – this was just wishful thinking on the part of some novice trekkers who thought that once they’d crossed the Thorung La they’d done the Annapurna Circuit , and could get a bus back to Pokhara from Kagbeni. My good friend Les Peel assures me that when he trekked here in Spring 1983, [what must it have been like to have trekked here then?], some people in the party thought they’d finished when they walked south from Marpha). Jomosom had changed. I remembered it as dirty, with a rutted path through the centre. Money has been invested here: the path is now paved and buildings spread along both sides of it for much further than they did in 1997. The airport had been rebuilt and the runway resurfaced.

To my surprise there were at least six agricultural tractors to be seen, together with a ‘JCB’ excavator – all presumably brought in in bits, slung below helicopters. What had not changed though was the wind, and the three of us walked to Marpha in the face of a very strong wind; possibly the worst weather conditions that we experienced on the circuit. Once we reached Marpha though, the wind disappeared as we walked into the narrow streets of the village.

Marpha has changed, and possibly not for the better. The place still has the narrow paved streets which can be roofed over in winter, and the place was clean and the hotels were good. Signs like ‘Marpha Shopping Complex’ jarred rather, and the ‘Night Club’ with the sheep’s’ head (with cigarette) went a little too far. (Although Tendi & Nuri enjoyed the pool table). What I had forgotten was that the light would go quickly here, and photography was not really possible. Although we still had over a week of trekking left it is easy to get complacent and to think that the journey is almost over. The long, easy walk down the valley of the Kali Gandaki does lull one into a false sense of security.

From Marpha the walk, at least for the next day, was simple – just following the river valley and gradually losing height. There were many more trekkers and, of course, the continual pony trains moving up and down the valley. Lunch was at Larjung – more developed now than I remembered from 1997, and then we made our way across the river and down to Kalopani.

Kalopani again was ‘developed’, but the only problem was that there were no (or few) trekkers. The money invested in the tourist infrastructure was producing a poor return. For personal reasons I wanted to avoid stopping at Tatopani, and so the next day we finished our walk at Dana. A strange walk, this one, where having been lulled into a false sense of security by the gentleness of the days in the upper valley, you suddenly find yourself going up and down again. First the comparatively gentle stretch of trail down to Ghasa, and then on a trail high above the river before a dusty drop down to Kopchepani (Made worse by ponies in the thousands coming up). It was along here that I noticed graffiti supporting the Maoist movement – the first of the trek. Further along the trail had been washed away and so there was a scramble over boulders before arriving at Dana. I was very tired that evening, and had problems sleeping, despite the beer and fresh apple pie. Is it a coincidence that this was the one place where the sleeping mat was inadequate and I had to use my own?

Tatopani is a dump. Well, that’s my opinion, and if you don’t like it, tough. (In 1985 I was told: Namche is a dump – it still is). My plan was to walk through Tatopani and press on up the hill towards Sikha and Chitre. It didn’t quite work out like that as we couldn’t find anywhere decent for lunch below Sikha (but there is, because I’ve stopped there – but lodges alter from year to year, don’t forget). So it was a late lunch and then a short walk up towards Phalante for a lodge for the night. This was the third time I’ve walked up this hill – it doesn’t get any less steep. The photographs are still there, and with good light there are good shots everywhere. The villages here are not as sophisticated as might be expected. Is it now that they are ignored to a degree with many people trekking out from Tatopani along the Kali Gandaki to Beni? And so next morning up the hill to Ghorapani for lunch. I suppose it must be a sign of my natural contrariness that I did not bother to climb to the summit of Poon Hill that afternoon or the next morning, preferring to do my photography from the lower slopes. It was good to be back, though, and to see the snow mountains, missing from the dusty country around Muktinath, and to see trees and fields.

It would be nice to say that the next (last) three and a bit days were a superb end to a superb trek. They weren’t. I had caught a cold and was suffering, but more and more I was aware that this is an overtrekked area. My memories take me back to 1985 when we were one of the first groups to trek from Ghorapani to Tadapani and Ghandrung. It is still a good walk, through good hill scenery, but it is not trekking. Go if you must, enjoy it you will, but … it is not trekking. (Possibly it would have been better to have gone ‘down the hill’ from Ghorepani to Birethanti, or taken the low level route from Tatopani to Beni, after spending more time in the Muktinath area).

And so, a last night at Dhampus with a ‘party’ and ‘baksheesh’ and raksi and singing, and then, next morning, that last packing of the kitbag, which seems to close a lot easier than it had at Besisahar three weeks before. There’s a road to Dhampus now, but the old trail is still there, steeply down the hill side and after 21 days on the trail you can feel slightly superior to those struggling up.

There will be sadness, too, because you know that the trek is ending and soon you will be saying ‘Good-bye’ to Tendi and Nuri. Tendi, you know, has no more work until January, and Nuri will be returning to his wife and children on the farm. At Suikhet Phedi you hear the sound of motor horns and find yourself fighting back tears, and then there’s just time for a quick drink before we squeeze into a taxi for the ride into Pokhara and ‘Good-bye’s’ and a room with a bed and a hot (sorry, lukewarm) shower and a beer and tea and a walk through strangely deserted streets. Strangely deserted, because there are very few visitors there and, frighteningly, the Maoists have called an end to the ceasefire and all hell is about to break loose. But you don’t know that then, and you’re content to walk about town with a strange expression on your face, and go into an internet cafe and send ‘I made it’, and sit and drink beer and think about the next time …