Saturday, December 10, 2011

Around the Annapurnas in ten days, part three

Day six - Sunday, 20 Nov 2011, Manang (3600m) to Yak Kharka(4050m), 9km, 3.5 hours
Asheesh, on the way to Yak Kharka
Another beautiful sunny morning at Manang, another sumptuous breakfast at the Tilicho - I promised myself I will come and stay here for a month someday and a write a book. Ganesh, the waiter at Tilicho who loved us because we were the first Indians he had seen in years, promised to get me the room with the best view, whenever I decided to come again.
Starting at Manang, you can either stop at Yak Kharaka, or at Letdar, which is an extra hour's trek from Yak Kharka. We were wary of AMS after the multiple urban legends of death and destruction floating around, so we decided to do the short stretch this day. Manang to Yak Kharka is a treeless, dusty path, and it is beautiful in morbid kind of way. You can see the Annapurnas II, III and IV peaks from Yak Kharka.
We stopped at the Gangapurna Teahouse, which we thought had the prettiest  dining room in the circuit. How do they get so many lovely rugs and curtains so far up? All they have is yaks and mules, and they've managed to create so much impressive splendour! The teahouse also had a bookshelf where I exchanged my third book and picked up a fourth.  We spent the day sitting around the fire, talking an reading. This kind
Gangapurna Lodge, Yak
of acclimatization is so much better than hauling yourself up to Ice Lake over seven hours!
Day seven - Monday, 21 Nov 2011, Yak Kharka to Thorang Phedi (4450m), via Letdar, 6 km, 3.5 hours 
Another crucial decision awaits at this point. Should you sleep in Thorang Phedi (4450 m) or the High Camp (4850m)? The former offers the advantage of the lower altitude, so there's a good chance that you might sleep well. But you will have to start at 4 a.m., to miss the high winds which begin at 11a.m. at the top of the Thorung La. Staying at the High Camp, means less ascent in the morning. And it offers some great views of the surrounding mountains. We chose Thorang Phedi, and when we heard the horror stories the next day, of friends who did not sleep a wink at the High Camp, we were very glad we did.

We left Yak Kharka at 8.30 a.m. Its a bleak three and a half hour climb to Thorang Phedi. The climb is not terribly steep, except in some parts, but be prepared for some breathlessness and tiredness, now that the celebrated 4000 meter mark has been crossed. This day we walked even less than the previous, but it will be more than made up for, tomorrow. Tomorrow is the Day of The Pass.  

The path to Thorang Phedi
Thorang Phedi is reached after three hours of walking among a landscape that begins to resemble the moon. Even the small bushes that we saw till yak Kharka have all but disappeared. The last 45 minutes of the trek is on the side of a cliff, which is well known for landslides and has multiple loose stones. The sight of the two lodges in Thorang Phedi is a welcome relief. People lie around dozing in the sun, reading and talking lazily till it becomes too cold to sit outside, which happens very early in these areas. Then you move into the dining hall, which has a fire and great food and coffee.

The Thorung La lodge in Thorang Phedi, is run by two brothers, both of whom look like Bob Marley. I feel terrible that I have forgotten their names now. They run a lovely place on top of cold, unfriendly mountain, make great apple pies and coffee, and play some great rock and roll music in the dining room. The contrast is interesting: biting winds and bleak rocks outside, warm light from orange lanterns, smell of freshly brewed coffee and sound of forty animated conversations inside. The most common question is - "What time do you plan to start tomorrow morning?".... We intend to start at 4 a.m. Tomorrow will be the hardest day so far - we will climb for 4 hours to the Thorung la pass at 5416 metres, and then downhill to Muktinath, another 4 hours trek. I had a little headache since the morning and the1000m ascent the next days was alarming.
Thorung La Lodge, Thorang Phedi

Day eight - Tuesday, 22 Nov 2011, Thorang Phedi to Muktinath
Sekhar was hyperexcited at 4 am: "Guys! This is the day we've been working towards! Literally the 'high point' (air quotes and giggle here) of our trek!". Breakfast at the Thoring La Lodge was a surprisingly cheery affair even at that hour, with one of the Bob Marley brothers playing something I did not recognize on his guitar. I confess I wore five layers of clothes that morning. With headlamps on, Abhilasha said we looked more like miners than trekkers. 
Almost there...

Thorang Phedi (4450 m) to High Camp: 1 km, 1 hr: We climbed in silence and darkness, for an hour, till we reached High Camp at about half past five, where I gave voice to the truth - "This is hard!!!". They say I looked quite angry when I said this. I don't think I was angry, but it had been a surprisingly steep climb, and it was so cold that the water had frozen in my water bottle. We continued plodding over the zigzag pathways, through the loose rocks and screes. It almost feels like walking on the moon. 
High Camp (4850 m) to Thorung La Pass: 5 km, 2.30 hr: The sun rose by about 7 am, things started looking almost beautiful at this point, and there came into view a blessed teahouse! I will not forget the taste of that coffee as long as I live, and the fact that I was barely able to hold the cup, my hand was shaking so much. I remembered reading that it's important to find your pace and stick to it. It's good advice. Abhilasha and I talked and bonded as we climbed, and we joked about how our next holiday would have to be at a warm place to get this cold out of our bones. Twice we got all worked up and excited because we thought we saw the pass, and it turned out to be yet another place to cross. But we were having fun walking in that barren beauty now, and were almost surprised when we reached the chorten where we saw two of our Isareli acquaintainces from the day before dancing. We had reached the Thorung La. The large chorten is photographed with a vengeance, by every one who has shed blood and sweat (and seen it turn to ice) in trying to make it here. A couple runs a tea shop here too.
It's a long way down.
Thorung Pass (5416 m) to Muktinath (3800m): 10 km, 4 hrs: The descent is rather steep. The path seems endlessly long, but has some great views of the Dhaulagiri, and some delightful photo opportunities. You can stop for lunch after about 3 hours of descent, at the place the locals call the Phedi, but the map calls Charabu. The descent continues after Charabu, less steeply, and vegetation starts to appear. Muktinath is known for its temples, and those are the first structures to appear. The lodges are about a half hour's descent beyond the temples, so you can visit them now, or the next day. We decided on the latter.
There are about 15 lodges in Muktinath, and we were too tired to care where we stayed, so we walked into almost the first pretty looking structure, and we picked a winner. The Bob Marley guest house boasts of a chef who has worked in Melbourne for over ten years, and man, the food was delicious. And the hot shower felt like a blessing from the heavens.

Day nine - Wednesday, 24 Nov 2011,Muktinath to Jomsom by jeep
We visited the Muktinath temple complex at six in the morning. It has buddhist gompas and hindu temples in a walled enclosure. One of the most interesting among these is the Vishnu Temple, a recent addition to this place, which is built just below a spring believed to be sacred. 108 water spouts surrouns the small temple, and devotees shower under all the spouts - it is believed to wash away the sins of all your past lives. My friends did braved the cold and take the holy shower. I'm told it's as cold as I imagined - there were icicles formed under the taps! I figure my sins are not too many, I can live with them.

The path to Jomsom is no longer the trekker's path. We took a jeep - it costs 330 NR per head to Kagbeni, which is about halfway to Jomsom, and is strongly recommended for its castle and monastery.
Kagbeni: Kagbeni is a village on the border of Mustang, at the confluence of two holy rivers, and hence quite sacred. We met Dara, who works at the Yak Donald's (yes) teahouse and will take you for a guided tour of the village for 1000 NR. It was a very good deal. I will remember the place for its 600 year old monastery and the ruined palace where we met the grandson of the erstwhile king. He was repairing parts of the castle for his family to stay in and invited us to sit in the room where six monks were chanting prayers for the village. The village also has the border checkpost for the Mustang Circuit trek. The checkpost doubles up as a museum, and does everything in its power to convince you that Mustang should be the next trek you plan. We had lunch at the Yak Donald - Maxine tried the Yak burger, and she said it was good. But then she likes most things so her opinion is hard to credit. The local apple brandy was terrible and I do not recommend it at all. The jeep from Kagbeni to Jomsom cost us 660 NR each, because we had to book the entire jeep. One seat costs 330 NR, and the driver won't move until he has all seats full, so if you don't want to wait forever, you may have to buy multiple seats.
The dusty road to Marpha

The jeep ride from Kagbeni to Jomsom was packed with excitement, and not just because of the cute Belgian guy sitting next to me. The road exists only in the mind of the driver - he drives over boulders and rivers like he doesn't see them, all the while playing the cheesiest hindi songs at the upper decibel limit of human hearing. The high point of the ride has to be Sekhar explaining to Maxine, what the song "Chunari-chunari" was about. I'm laughing even now as I'm writing and remembering -
"So he's saying he wants to touch her shawl..."
We reached Jomsom at six in the evening at stayed at the Trekker's Inn. Also recommended. Good food, good apple brandy, extremely friendly and talkative owners, and the ATM machine is across the road. It works intermittently.

Day ten - Thursday, 25 Nov 2011, Jomsom to Marpha and back
We walked to Marpha, the apple capital of Nepal the next day. I had insisted on this leg because I had read that the best food in the circuit was to be found in this village. It was certainly good. And we gave a lot of business to the local trinket sellers - the tibetan style knick knacks were irresistable.

Thakkali Thali
Friday, 26 Nov 2011: Jomsom to Pokhara by flight. Let me just say that the domestic flights in Nepal are one of the must have experiences, just like the jeep rides. And also, the Nepali thakkali cuisine is killer. Must try.

Saturday, 27 Nov 2011: Pokhara to Kathmandu by flight And all good things come to an end. But we did have one last night painting the town red, pub hopping and listening to the local bands belt out Pink Floyd and Bruno Mars in almost the same breath. And yes, I recommend the cookies made at Hot Breads in Thamel.

Sunday, 28 Nov 2011: Kathmandu to Delhi.
I'm back in the other world, the world of clean clothes and hot showers, and friends and family. But there's too much clutter. It's clutter that I love and need, but it's clutter still. Life was so much more fun, when all the decisions I needed to take were around how much weight I want to carry, how much I want to walk and what I want to eat. But it's ok, I'll go to that world again. Soon.

Next year: Mustang Circuit. Amen.


  1. Nicely documented but what I feel is, u could write one more page to it...end is like killing all the exictement :(..but anyways luv the line "my sins are not too many, I can live with them" :P...& yes all the best for yur next trek if it is Mustang :)

  2. AWESOME. . . . definately labour of love!!! :))). . . and Amen we will go again!!

  3. Aww! Didn't want your tale to end. Super stuff. Didn't get to know why the 2nd trekker (Nisha - I presume) didn't make it. AMS again?? The terrain reminded me of the time I spent in Leh. What is it about mountains that are so enticing??

  4. Promod sir: Super catch! It's like old times again! I miss working with you. I will edit, and add Nisha's story tonight. Tell Pronil I dream of being a travel journalist too :)

  5. Day 8 that must have been us 4 Aussies dancing "havenu shalom Aleichem" with 2 Israelis I found.
    It's on YouTube briefly to see. .

    Love your narrative will foward it on.

    The simplicity of the trek reminds me as analogy to the movie "hurt locker". The Trek Locker. It's tough, commaraderie we are all united with a common objective and the same challenges which unite and Energise us.

  6. "The dusty road to Marpha" is surreal. The story in 3 parts was like a series to which I was addicted.


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