Friday, April 28, 2017

The Annapurna Semi Circuit (Part 1)

Walking up and down mountains and through rivers and valleys is a romantic notion. I really had no idea what to expect embarking on the 8-10 day trek in Nepal that someone else (thankfully) had arranged.

A brief background which provides some context to one of the most enriching experiences of my life and a reaffirmation of all that is good in this world.

Nepal, a mountainous land-locked Himalayan nation (adjectives much?) has a large porous border with India and surrounded by the latter on the North, West and South with the eastern border completely taken by Tibet (China).

The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) in Nepal has put a lot of heart and soul into the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (catchy acronym ACAP). 

The reason for boring you with these details is that the ACAP work stood us in good stead throughout our time in Nepal and one can only marvel at this organization’s efforts to mark often obscure trails to ensure no one gets lost.

Day 1 (14 km)
Pokhara Airport
In Pokhara, Mountain Monarch, our guide company efficiently distributes our duffle (or dufflel?) bags each containing within its cavernous interior a sleeping bag, jacket, blanket, a large plastic bag and the all important toilet paper.

Our walk starts with a drive. About an hour or so from Pokhara lies the small town of Nayapul. Most serious trekkers do the anti-clockwise route commencing from Besisahar to the east of Pokhara and complete the full circuit in ~16 days. Our group of five is a novice group and we elect to do the clockwise route but only half the circuit (hence the clever title). 

We have three porters and for some unfathomable reason - three guides though our ring leader Sachin had clearly instructed that we need three porters for our duffel bags, 2 porters to carry our day packs and one guide. Anyway, details details; we got what we got. Of the three guides, one of them is a teenage kid whose sole purpose is to carry a small red medical pouch which apparently houses cures for any and all deadly diseases we may encounter during our travels. With the colorful name Tasveer (picture in Hindi), he seems to serve no other purpose other than a free internship with our hapless group.

The porters on the other hand are made of sterner stuff. Each of our duffel bags weighs upward of 15 kg and the porters expertly tie two duffel bags together and effortlessly haul the loads and are off at a pace which we lesser mortals (with nothing to carry) can only dream of.

First Lunch
We trudge our way up grassy slopes and tree laden lands and ascend gradually, passing trekkers coming the other way, some passing us and we scarcely passing anyone. Greenery gives way to a muddy road cut in the mountain. We reach Tikhedunga for our first exposure to dal bhat  (lentils and rice), our comfort food for days to come. Blissfully unaware of the remaining hike to follow, I stuff myself with rice, lentils and noodles to account for 10 kms of walking (the furthest I have walked in a day). Needless to say, the second part of the hike is killing. For one, it is an incredibly steep incline heading to Ulleri our next stop. And my stomach isn’t quite right with the overload of carbohydrates and it reflects in my struggles to take on the never-ending steps of varying heights of unstable stone.

On the way to Ulleri
We make it to the sleepy town of Ulleri (elevation 1300 m) where we are welcomed by our first overnight stay hotel called Meera (tagline: Stay in a best place). Our group of two couples and a single guy is then asked to share a restroom (only one bedroom had an attached facility) which results in much friction (an ominous portend of the conflicts to follow) with the lead guide who provides us some amazing logic for our predicament. To add another level of excitement, my stomach is now in full rebellion and I spend the better part of the cold night on the throne.

Day 2 (10 km)
The day dawns bright and cloudless and we catch our first glimpse of one of the behemoths that Nepal is known for. Annapurna South, peaking at an impressive 7219 m looms over the the smaller mountains and it is one awe inspiring sight and I introspect human insignificance against the mighty mountains. Hiunchuli at 6441 m is the other large mountain that's clearly visible from our night abode.

Ghorepani Hotel
With my battle of the bowels still in play, we head to the next destination of Ghorepani. We stop for lunch at a beautiful wayside restaurant in Nangethanthi where we spend an obscene amount of time eating and resting. Here we discover the pleasures of Poon bread (also called Tibetan bread with apparently one more variation called Gurung bread). At about 2000 m elevation, we have left behind the dust and stones and are treated to lush hues of green on the soil as well as in the trees above. The ground we walk on is soft with the fallen branches and leaves and the natural moistness at this altitude. We keep comparing our surroundings to the Lord Of The Rings Shire, the home of the Baggins.

The Nepali definition of a gradual climb is not for the unprepared. Sometimes, not knowing what to expect maybe good as we complete the ‘gradual’ climb into Ghorepani by late evening. Here, at 2800m, we get a much better view of Annapurna South and it’s a view of which I could never tire.

With my tummy tribulations, I take lots of rest and very little food that night.

Day 3 (18 km)
The rest of the team decide to brave the elements (icy cold and a thick mist) at 4:30 a.m to climb up Poon Hill (3200 m) for a better view of the mountains. I opt to sleep in.

From the hotel in Ghorepani
Day 3 for me begins with one more conflict between the lead guide and our leader Sachin who takes exception with the arrangement of baggage carrying. Being blissfully unaware of the details, I’ll not delve into it further.

One thing you learn during trekking is that no one and no sign ever speaks of distances with the usual measures. Distances are always measured by time which is meaningless as our group stops for photos at the drop of a hat and takes frequent rest stops.

Ghorepani to Tatopani
Ghorepani to Tatopani
Suspension Bridge over Kali Gandaki
We are told this day will be our longest day which translates to 7 hours of walking. While relatively easy to do, walking downhill and descending 1700m pose their own brand of challenges.This I quickly discover as I place a foot on a not so cooperative stone and feel some pain as it twists in an unintended angle. Everything looks to be okay as our guide (now turned orthopedic consultant) makes me do some weird foot action and normalcy seems to be restored. More breathtaking views of Annapurna South and now Machhapuchhre and Dhaulagiri make our walk whimsical. The usual lunch fare is at Sikha another small hamlet on the way down.

During a restroom break in the great outdoors I catch a glimpse of a large snake but I’m unable to get a picture. We cross a steel suspension bridge hanging over the famous Kali Gandaki river. The last few kilometers are by ‘motorable’ road and we reach Tatopani (elevation 1100 m) after over 9 hours of walking, eating and resting.
Hotel at Tatopani

The 18 km walk in conjunction with my twisted foot replaces my stomach ailments and my foot feels like lead now. I still limp nimbly to the fabled hot-spring of Tatopani where we are met by a small rectangular swimming pool like concrete enclosure with predominantly topless men smoking and chugging down a few. Undaunted, we slide ourselves inside the pool which does indeed have warm water though I am suspicious that there’s an electric/gas heater powering this all.

Day 4 (10 km)
Our next destination is Ghasa, supposedly another 5-6 hour walk but of unknown distance. We come across a powerful waterfall (Rupse Chahara, 300m height) with a roar clearly being heard deep in the valley where we pause for our meals. The deepest gorge in the world - Kali Gandaki gorge is right here too.

A slight drizzle now turns into a regular downpour temporarily suspending further walking activities and we use this time wisely - eating and drinking some more in the small (German Bakery) tea lodge ensconced between the waterfall and the gorge. 
The Rupse Waterfalls
After the rains
The waterfall hitherto cascading pure white water now turns a chocolate brown indicating the severity of the rains in the mountains. My foot is now almost immobile and a stick and poncho are feeble measures against the elements and the sprain. The group takes a vote (without me) that I need to take a bus to Ghasa about a few kilometers away. We hail a passing bus which already is bursting at the seams and tilting dangerously to one side. The lead guide and I clamber on and miraculously make space for ourselves albeit standing. We also are the proud possessors of a doko which is a large bamboo basket holding all our day packs. The next fifteen minutes are the scariest of my life. The rain has not let up fully, the ‘motorable’ road is narrow and comprises of flowing mud and stones. Ghasa is higher up than Tatopani and with the Kali Gandaki river a few thousand feet below us, every curve we take I feel will be my last. The driver nonchalantly handles the bus like a kid would a RC vehicle and even turns back to exchange pleasantries with the conductor and other passengers. All this while dangerously maneuvering the bus through stomach churning blind turns and oncoming traffic which pretty much comes down in similar fashion.
Our hotel in Ghasa
We finally reach Ghasa (elevation 2100m) without incident other than the fact that the bus stops about 500m ahead of our hotel stop. With my poncho fighting a losing battle against the rain and wind, stick in one hand. limping terribly and the guide carrying the basket with two hands, we comically make our way back to the hotel.

I take a good nap waking up to hot tea and biscuits while the wife and the rest of the team have a chance meeting with a German that would irrevocably change our plans for the rest of our trip.

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