My fiancee, Janet, and I spent 20 days doing half of the Annapurna trek in February, 1993. We went half way around, and then backtracked. We discovered that we could have gone all the way around, even at this time of year, but were discouraged by almost everyone we talked to before the trek. If we had wanted to go all the way, it would have been better to have gone counter-clockwise. Instead, we went clockwise. We had no guides and no porters. We carried sleeping bags and our clothing. Food and lodging is available every day on this trek. It’s called the “Tea House Trek” by the Nepalese. It’s the easiest and most popular trek, so I think it’s better to go off-season. Anyway, this was our itinerary:
Arrived Kathmandu from Bangkok (where we got our 30-day visa) and checked out the city for a few days while we rented sleepings bags and boots. We already had our packs because that’s what we used for travel baggage. You can rent or buy excellent hiking and camping equipment at a great price in either Kathmandu or Pokhara.
Arrived in Pokhara by bus from Kathmandu (hair-raising 8-hour ride) and checked into a small hotel. Our host took care of the trekking permit for us because we didn’t want to deal with it in Kathmandu. We each changed $200 to small rupee notes so we could eat, drink, and sleep on the trek. We spent two nights in Pokhara which is a popular international destination because it has the closest overland access to the high Himalaya.
We set out in the back of a Chinese truck to Birithanti (ellevation ~3000′) where we picked up the trail. This “trail” is actually the major trade route between India and Tibet, and is often paved with stone and includes stone stairs on the steeper pitches. This makes it easier for the many porters, donkeys, horses, bulls, and yaks that carry the cargo. After a great Dahl Baht (Rice and Lentils) lunch, we set off for Gorepani (Horse Water) but didn’t make it that day. We stayed in a small guest house, had a great Dahl Baht dinner, and went to sleep thinking of our destination, Muktinath, the Buddhist/Hindu pilgrimage temple at 13,000′, which would take 9 more days to reach.
The next day, after meeting some fellow trekers from around the world, we set out on the tough climb to Gorepani (just under 10,000′). We had heard that this is a “dangerous” section of the route due to its long stretches of uninhabited jungle. We had seen posters and heard tales of two lone trekkers disappearing in this area, and were advised not to travel alone, although a two-person team is safe. We suspect that these whispers of bandits are a device used by the one-day porters who offer to carry your pack up the steep climb and to guide you “safely” to Gorepani in exchange for a few (50-100) rupees. Still, these two trekkers had disappeared, and we did meet one caravan driver who was walking along with his Gorkha knife in his hand. Since we had grown to a loosely strung-out party of 8 for this day (coincidently?), we had no problems. However, we did become involved in an interesting situation which, in retrospect, might have led to a different conclusion under different circumstances. A young couple, who were carrying their infant daughter down the trail, stopped Janet and myself to ask for medicine for the child’s burns. She had been playing in the kitchen and had toppled a pot of hot liquid all over her side, or so the story went. She was not crying, did not seem to be in any pain, and the “burns”, though ugly looking, seemed to be quite old. We started to attended to them anyway, and were aided by a Med. Tech. in our group who came along a few minutes after us. Later, we heard that this is a common ploy to get single trekkers or duos to open their packs, and while they are distracted by the job at hand, someone quietly goes through the packs. Although this sounds paranoid, we had been warned not to give medicine to people who ask for it along the way.
We finally arrived in Gorepani and settled in to a guest house with our new-found friends. It had a wood stove (rare luxery), and we all splurged on rosti potatos, apple mo-mo with custard, and lots of local brandy with our tea and hot lemon. That evening, the village was celebrating the passage of winter into spring with a street dance lit by kerosene lamps and enlivened with local music. The women of the village placed garlands of herbs and winter flowers around our necks. When they heard that Janet and I were on our way to Muktinath, they urged us to make offerings of our garlands at the temple to help the spring season along.
After the exhausting hike, the brandy, and the late night’s entertainment, we were ready for a good night’s sleep. We lay down hoping for clear skies in the morning so we could get our first good look at the Annapurnas and Dhaulagiri. Neither of us slept a wink the entire night. This, we learned, is one of the signs of altitude sensitivity. Boy, were we bummed in the morning! That is, until I got up and opened the shutter to be smacked fully in the face by Annapurna South. “Oh my God! Look at this! It’s magnificent!” We hastily pulled on our clothes, noisily stumbled down the stairs, and started hustling up to Poon Hill where we could catch the sunrise with an expanded view. It was another 1000′ up from Gorepani, and we panted and puffed our way up, overcoming the altitude headaches, nausea, and giddiness with our enthusiasm. We didn’t quite make it for sunrise, but we did get to bathe in the glorious vistas of the high Himalaya at the snow line for an hour or so before the cold and our need for food and liquid forced us down.
We had a big breakfast which included eggs, drank a lot of tea, and added iodine and Gatoraid powder to our water bottles. We then set off at about 11:00 for Tatopani (Hot Water) at about 3000′. Yup, we had to lose all that altitude we had just gained. Of we went, just the two of us, because our friends had passed up Poon Hill in favor of getting an early start (their loss). Down, down, down, endlessly down, thighs burning, backs aching, knees wobbling, down, down, down. We stopped for lunch, briefly considered staying in that village, but pulled ourselves together for the push to Tatopani where the hot springs would cure our aches and pains. With double the discomfort, and half the strength, we were nearly at wit’s end when we rounded a rocky cliff and walked through a stone archway to be greeted by the steepest and scariest descent of the day. We dropped in near exhaustion and were contemplating crashing then and there for the night when a small girl approached us from her house with a big smile, a “Namaste”, and two fresh lemons each. We sucked those down, finished our water, and thought we just might be able to make at after all. We scrambled down the steep slopes with high hopes, but quickly lapsed back to near exhaustion. Janet was at the end of her rope, so I carried both packs for the last hour. Finally, we reached the Kali Gandaki river at dusk, and discovered that Tatopani was still a half hour up-river, but another guest house was only 10 minutes down-river, so we opted for that one. It was more like 20 minutes. In full darkness, I saw the guest house on my right as I started down a set of stone stairs, and discovered that my brakes had failed. I didn’t have enough energy left to stop with all that weight on my back. My momentum carried me down the steps where I slowly ran out onto the flats like a tractor trailer rig coasting to a stop. We took a room, slugged several bottles of Coke, and went immediately to sleep without dinner.
When we awoke after one of the deepest sleeps we’d ever had, we opened the shutter to a view up the Kali Gandaki river from a perch at the top of a 100 foot cliff. At the bottom of the cliff we saw a shallow pool fed by the natural hot springs. It was filled with men, women, and children bathing, and was surrounded by women washing clothes, children playing games, and men discussing important matters. Oh, did that look inviting! But first, we needed some food, so we forced our stiff and sore bodies out of our sleeping bags and limped out onto the covered porch and sat down at a rough-hewn table. The menu slate offered swiss rosti (fried eggs over mashed potato with a little yak cheese and onions) for me and oatmeal for Janet. A young girl of about 8 delivered our food and sat down to watch us eat. Janet took a spoonful of her oatmeal and spit it right out. “Yuk!, this tastes like kerosene! Here, you try it.” So I tasted it, and it sure did taste like kerosene. We asked for another bowl explaining our problem. It was soon delivered with the explanation that the kids had been playing around with the sugar bowl and had spilled some kerosene in it. Whether it was because the Nepalese can’t afford to waste anything, or because the kids had to pay for their error, we saw two toddlers eating what we had sent back while our little friend giggled. After we finished our meal, she starting reading from her school text book, in English! It was a picture book full of three and four-letter words, and she was matching them up. After a while she sang us a few songs in Nepalese, and then danced off out of sight.
We scrambled down a steep trail to the hot pools, and managed stick our feet in the hot one for a few seconds at a time while a woman sat in it for 10 minutes and splashed the scalding water all over herself. We soaped up and rinsed under a pipe spout that had a bit of cold river water mixed into it. After a couple of hours of relaxing and chatting with the other people, we packed up and headed out for Tatopani hoping to meet up with our friends. At only took an hour to get there, but that hour was enough with our sore muscles. On the way, we crossed our first large suspension bridge. It was about 200 feet long and 100 feet high, and it swayed and lurched with each step.
As we sauntered into Tatopani, we saw a few of our friends sitting outside under the roofed in the eating area. We decided that this is where we’d stay, so we got a room for 50 rupees which had an electric light bulb powered by a small hydroelectric generater. Around the two-storey stone lodge were orange and lemon trees full of fruit, and poinsettia trees full of red. We ordered “Mexican” burritos (beans, onions, and yak cheese in a flour tortilla with a tomato based sauce) and rice – yummy! It went great with our beer. Then we had lemon morangue pie with our coffee. This place was great!
After our meal, we headed down to the hot springs we’d heard about days before. We paid our 3 rupees apiece and settled into a well-built stone pool, level at the bottom, neck deep and 20 feet on each side. There were about a dozen other people in the pool, both trekkers and locals, all laughing and telling stories. If you wanted more heat, you moved over to the hot spring inlet. If you wanted it a little cooler, you moved over to the river water pipe. If you got thirsty, you bought a beer at pool-side. Ahhhh… and look, there’s Dhaulagiri right there in front of us up the river and framed by those impossibly high and steep walls of the ravine. Well, after all, this is the deepest gorge on the planet.
After our long long soak we washed our clothes and then, since our muscle felt better, we strolled through the village looking at the various arts and crafts indigenous to the area. We met up with some more familiar faces, so we joined them for some apple chang (hard cider) and worked up an appetite for a second full meal. We had a mousaka which was very similar to the Mexican burrito we’d had before, except there was a lot more of it. Of course, at this place we had to try the chocolate cake. You see, the lodges in Tatopani all have their trademark meals and desserts, and good-naturedly vie for the descriminating trekker’s patronage.
The next day, after another soaking session, we ate a big, rich, high calorie, high fat, high carbohydrate, high flavor, high cost breakfast, and set off up river with a British friend who had decided to keep pace with us for a few days. According to the maps, the first part of this day would be long, but not difficult. We walked along at a steady pace, looking at the countryside, and marvelling at how the trail (road) had been cut into the side of the cliffs. In some places, there were three surfaces to this road; a floor, a wall, and a ceiling, carved out of nearly solid rock on a sheer cliff hundreds of feet above the roaring river. There were even a few short tunnels which cut through an outcropping of rock. We saw the hydroelectric plant which consisted of a long pipe raceway falling down several hundred feet of steep slope, and into the generator building. It was simple, efficient, and provided enough electricity for several villages up and down the river. When we stopped for lunch, it started to rain, so we moved inside and ate our Dahl Baht. When we finished our hot lemon, it had stopped raining. That was the only precipitation we encountered on the trek.
After lunch, we started up the narrow, steep section of the road leading up to Ghasa, our day’s destination. The river was running in a very deep gorge, and was very narrow, so it was thundering and cascading down over boulders and ledges. This was the heart of the deepest ravine on earth. The slopes up from the river were truly awesome, and there was ample evidence of occassional landslides. The road is routed on one side of the river or the other depending on where the most recent landslide has occurred. While one side is used, the other side is under slow repair. This few miles of the trek contained the most carved roads, the longest drops, the fastest running water, the steepest cliffs, and the most confusing clues to perspective. We just don’t normally experience such scales of natural formations. Everything is so BIG, it constantly confounds and amazes.
We finally arrived at the Eagle Nest Guest House which sported a wood stove (a luxury, believe me). We had a good meal, and some apple mo-mo for dessert. I then settled in to a few games of chess with an Austrian who, with one other person, had come from the other side of the Annapurnas over a little-used, and treacherous pass which had been waste deep in snow. He was very glad to be with us. At 8:30, the owners kicked us out of the lodge, so we went to bed.
Before we went to sleep, we kept the wooden shutters open for awhile and gazed at the high ridge above us lit by the glow of the waxing gibous moon. We talked about the group of people assembled in the river bed that day. We had, at first, wondered what they were doing, but concluded, as we had approached, that they were about to light a funeral pyre. This final ceremony celebrating the life of a loved one, amidst the emensity of the high himalaya, underscored the ephemeral nature of life. Yet how fitting that the substance of one’s spent body be returned to the earth through air, fire, and water fueled by a few sticks of wood and a pile of hay. With every resource precious in this high country, there is little wood to spare, all available flat ground is used for crops, and the modest streams flowing from the glaciers are tapped for power, irrigation, and drinking.
We also talked about what I had seen outside the kitchen before we had eaten dinner. One of the men had grabbed one of the free running chickens, slit its throat with a ghurka knife, drained the blood into a bowl, and brought both into the kitchen. We suspected that the meat would be used for a meal and that the blood would be used for a food supplement, although blood is an important part of religious rituals practiced by some of the tribes.
We realized that, tomorrow, we would be walking into the Himalayan rain shadow, so the terrain would change from rain forest to desert in one day. The rain shadow is caused by the high peaks. The moisture laden air flowing north out of India meets the south side of the high peaks, and drops nearly all of its moisture as it ascends along the rising slopes, particularly during the monsoon season. Along north/south river valleys, such as the Kali Gandaki, the moist air reaches farther into the mountains, but eventually dries out before reaching the altitude of the Tibetan plateau. We would be ascending to Lete and Kalopani by noon. These villages mark the southernmost terminus of the Tibetan plateau.
With these thoughts, we closed the shutters, and fell asleep.
Awakening to a partially overcast day, we packed up and filled up with coffee and oatmeal. Janet, our British friend, and I donned our packs and started walking at a brisk pace. We chatted as we went, and our spirits were high. We knew that, although we had to gain some altitude, it would be an easier day than yesterday. After an hour or so, the skies cleared, and we were treated to some bright sunshine. This brought out the emeralds of the still-fertile fields, the umbers of the soil on the ridges, the dark greens of the conifers, the radiant white of the snow-covered higher peaks, and the purple of the low peaks. The valley was getting wide enough to support some broad irrigated fields stepping up the slope beside the river. It was evident that these were meticulously tended, and were separated and protected by tall stone walls. They bore rice, barley, wheat, oats, and assorted other grains and vegetables. The occassional clutch of a few farm houses displayed beautiful gardens of poinsettia, lemon trees, flowers, vegetables, and brambles to keep the horses out. We were emerging from the rain forest of the lower regions into a more temperate zone.
Soon, however, we began a steeper ascent through a beatufil forest of conifers. These, we realize, are part of the Annapurna protected forest. The forest is tended by wardens, and only trees which are especially marked, or damaged beyond hope, are harvested. Unfortunately, we noticed that many of the trees near the path were damaged by axes enough to allow growth for only a short time longer. They, too, would then be “beyond hope”, and therefor legal for harvest. If this form of poaching continues, there will be no more beatiful forests, no self-sustaining silviculture, no lumber for building, no sticks for cooking fires, and no roots to hold the soil in place preventing landslides. It was evident to us that a few of the landslides we saw were recent, and were likely caused by overcutting.
But, even with these realizations, we were energized by the views as we slowly climbed out of the lower Kali Gandaki gorge. The High peaks were beginning to show themselves over the ridges. We caught glimpses of Nilgiri, northernmost of the the high Annapurnas, and the wide, uniform massif of Daulagiri’s lower neighbors. The bright white freshly fallen snows were blowing in clouds off the peaks.
We rounded a shoulder of a ridge and met a smiling man who stopped us to chat. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he began telling us about how he was on his way down to a hospital a few villiges away. He was in the Army unit which was on maneuvers in Lete, and was told to report to the hospital because he was insane. He was alone and seemed proud of his mission. As we listened to him talk in his quite understandable English, we had to agree with his superiors. He seemed to be, by all indications, stark raving mad. We bid him good luck, and continued on. We soon met a peace corps volunteer on her way down from Jomsom. She was on a short holiday from her duties, and loves Nepal, particularly when she can arrange a few days like these. A little further along, we crossed a short timbered footbridge built in the cantilevered Chinese arch style, and looked up the stream to see a few closely-spaced stone huts which housed grindstones driven by waterwheels. Young girls were scooping whole grain into the center and scraping the ground grain into sacks along the edges of the wheel. They were smiling and singing and invited us to watch and take pictures as they labored. After the obligatory “Namaste, mitai,” we entertained them as they practiced their English.
We hustled along up and down a few tough stretches, and finally looked across a deep ravine at a steep ascent featuring seven switch-backs. We could see that we had finally reached the high plateau. A tremendous cataract thundered down a steep washed out area into the gorge we had to cross. But, at the top of the cataract, just slightly higher than our position, we could see that the river valley was much flatter and a good deal wider. Knowing that we would be on nearly flat terrain for a few days, we scrambled down the few hundred feet to the bottom of the gorge, crossed the suspension bridge, and chugged up the switch-backs to one of the stone rest stations where we looked back down into the cascading Kali Gandaki, knowing that the river would take on an entirely new character as it meandered along on the Tibetan plateau. A few minutes later we were in Lete and stopped at a guest house for lunch after checking in at the police station where they note your name, passport, trekking permit, and accept a few rupees donation.
We sat outside in the warm sun, and had an unobstructed view straight up the side of Daulagiri and into the famous, and treacherous, Daulagiri ice-fall, where many climbers have lost their lives. It looked like a fairly short hike up to the base of the ice-fall, but actually takes over a day to reach if you’re lucky. We ate a fine lunch while listening to the soldiers shouting and joking inside as they drank theirs. As we were leaving Lete, we noticed a group of children playing in the hay spread out in the warm sun. One of the youngest was naked, and all were screaming and running and tumbling. When they saw us, they all ran out to us to have their pictures taken. What a happy little troup. Shorlty thereafter, we came upon a crew of men building a house. I couldn’t resist asking for a photo. The oldest gentleman kindly nodded his head and posed with a satisfied smile in front of the stone house which was, in turn, in front of the entire western Annapurna range.
Kalopani was a fairly short walk from Lete. We passed through without much notice, and had to cross the river yet again. We were confronted with two bridges and two large bulls. The first bridge was in a sad state, but looked passable with care. The second bridge was obviously newer, but had the two bulls snorting on the far side. I decided to cross the first bridge, but Janet and our friend thought I was crazy and moved along to the second one since the bulls didn’t seem to be doing anything. After I had crossed without mishap, Janet ventured on to the other bridge. Just as she started, one of the bulls charge over the bridge straight at Janet. Picture a full-grown bull charging full tilt at you on a wobbly 2-foot wide suspension bridge. Janet shrieked, and bolted back off the bridge and around the corner as the bull came thundering past. Since everyone was safe, we all had a good laugh, even the Nepali who was driving the bulls. I almost wish I had crossed the other bridge, just to have had that unique experience.
We now stood, for a fact, on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. The river valley was wide and flat, filled with rounded stones and sand, rimmed by paths used during wetter times, and populated by various groups of two and four-legged creatures. We chose to walk in the river bed, so off we went soon learning to watch where we placed our feet to avoid turning our ankles on the loose stones.