Harini Chandra trekked the Annapurna Base Camp route with South Col Expeditions in April 2016. In this interesting and evocative post Harini describes her experiences on the ABC trek. This is an ideal post for first time trekkers wanting to find out what trekking in Nepal is all about!
- Sujoy Das
Hike, Eat, Sleep, Repeat…By Harini Chandra
It’s been a year now since I went on the trek to Annapurna Base Camp, a unique, mind-blowing experience that I’ve been meaning to write about ever since. I’ve always thought of writer’s block as a problem of mind over matter—until, of course, I sat down to pen my thoughts on this trip and couldn’t proceed beyond two paragraphs! This time, though, I’m more determined to get this all out—a fitting tribute, hopefully, to a memorable trip.
Some time around July 2015, I decided I wanted to get away for some much-needed “me time”—away from work and family—to do something I really enjoy. A trip to Darjeeling around the time, followed by the movie "Everest," sealed the decision in my unsettled mind: I wanted to do a trek. After some research, I settled on the Annapurna Base Camp trek, which would be challenging enough given my appalling fitness levels, but at the same time, not so challenging that it seemed crazy and out of reach. I had fond memories of a trek I’d done way back in college to the Kuari pass, which served as inspiration as I began my journey of getting fit physically and, this time, toughening up mentally (it would be the first time I’d be away from my younger son for so long).
After many months, which actually flew by much quicker than I’d expected, I landed in Kathmandu with my best friend, Ranjani, who had decided, to my delight, to join me. We felt excited--mostly in an I-can’t-believe-we’re-actually-doing-this way--as we spent our day buying last-minute supplies: hiking poles, iodine tablets, sun hats, head lamps, and other items suggested by our organizer Sujoy.
Then came the challenge of packing our duffel bag. For those of you who’ve never been trekking before, this is the point at which you realize two things: first, you have way more in your suitcase than you can ever imagine taking with you; and second, every inch of space counts! What to do? Cram in that extra packet of nuts, or sneak in that one additional pair of tracks that Sujoy specifically told us not to bother carrying? We called it a night early after an enjoyable dinner at a delightful outdoor restaurant, listening to live Nepali music and stories from earlier treks of Sujoy, and slowly beginning to wonder in what state we would return from our own expedition.
Day 1: Of hailstorms and expanding lungs
Ever since the earthquake of 2015, Kathmandu has been terribly dusty, with all the construction work going on, and a layer of smog constantly hung over the city. This always resulted in some uncertainty in flight schedules, and we had chosen to fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara, a journey that can also be made by road over 6-7 hours. Although the road journey is quite picturesque and enjoyable, we had chosen to fly to save ourselves that one additional day of travel. Thankfully, our flights were perfectly on time (contrary to the worrying newspaper article we saw in the paper that morning) and we reached Kande, our trailhead, a one-hour minibus ride from Pokhara, as planned.
The worrying newspaper article we saw before we flew to Pokhara
We began our adventure from Kande, climbing our way up hill (oh wait, I meant huffing my way uphill!) for the large part to Pothana, our lunch stop. We stopped by a beautiful Australian camp for tea, where the weather gods decided to give us a taste of their fickle mindedness, sending heavy, dark clouds our way. Luckily, we made it to our lunch stop just before the hail started pelting down (that’s right--hail on our very first day there). After a hot lunch of dal-bhaat (the traditional Nepali meal, consisting of rice, dal, veggies, pickle, and papad), we all scrambled to our duffel bags for the extra layers of clothing that had been packed deeply away, in the assumption that they wouldn’t be needed until Day 3 or 4, in the colder, higher altitudes. After making sneaky visits into the kitchen to warm up our frozen hands, we stepped outdoors to catch our first spectacular glimpses of the mountains—the sight that would egg us on through our weariness.
First sights of the glorious AnnapurnaJust as Indian bowlers know their home pitches, the Nepalese have a way of looking at the clouds and knowing which way the weather will swing. So when our guide, Shyam, gave us the green signal, we headed out again towards our first camp for that night at Tolka. It was a lovely walk, mostly downhill or flat, and barring a couple of falls due to the slippery rocks and stones, we made it to Tolka just before the light started to fade.
Stones piled up as a symbol of good luck
End of Day 1 at Tolka
Day 2: The last time I ever felt my back
We woke up in Tolka to the sight of looming snow-capped mountains and realized that every morning was going to look like that for the next 10 days! Sure, the water would freeze our hands while we brushed our teeth, but those mountains made every bit of it worth it!
We set out after breakfast towards Chhomrong, which became one of our favorite villages by the end of our trip. The first two or three hours that day were rather peaceful, the walk being largely flat and partly downhill, with gorgeous views of the Annapurna South. We were in a cheery mood despite the blazing sun, chatting away and making friends with the extremely cute Nepali children along the way. Then, all of a sudden, we didn’t know what hit us; it just got steep! We climbed for over an hour and finally got to our lunch stop, Jhinu, where our guide (very reassuringly) told us after we gulped down our nimbupani (lemon juice) that we had at least another 3 hours of climbing post-lunch!
That day was easily one of the hardest uphill climbs. We’re not sure if it was because our bodies were still getting used to the climbing, or whether it really was that hard! We realized over the next couple of days that every day would have a downhill walk followed by an uphill one, since we were essentially crossing over from one mountain to another. So we would have to lose some elevation, get across either on a bridge or some sort of river crossing, and then ascend the next mountain (what joy!). We left Jhinu after lunch, still exhausted but wanting to get done for the day rather than relax too long there. After plodding on for another hour, we met another couple with their guide who pointed out that Chhomrong, our destination for that night, was within view. Our delight knew no bounds; we quickened our pace and made it to our lovely guesthouse in Chhomrong well in time for a hot evening shower, hot chai, and pakoras. Heck, we earned it that day!
Gorgeous views that egged us on
View from our guesthouse in Chhomrong
There was something very quaint and appealing about Chhomrong. It was a village full of steps, with colorful little shops and cafes lining the sides like banisters. We even tried cinnamon rolls and chocolate croissants at a German bakery on our way back--not the best we’ve had, but a refreshing change nonetheless! Although it got cold late in the evening, we could still sit outdoors and enjoy the stillness and silence of the mountains, something we could not do as we went higher up. We met an adorable couple from Munich who, despite our warnings, ordered and gave their stamp of approval to the pizza at that guesthouse!
Day 3: Through bamboo forests and rain-filled clouds
After breakfast at Chhomrong, we set out towards Dovan. Our bodies clearly felt better adjusted by this day, and the walking felt less strenuous. The downhill stretches, at times, felt hard on the knees, but by the time the pain actually started making its way into the mind, the terrain changed and it would be flat or inclined upwards. To be precise, there’s no flat terrain; it’s all “Nepali flat”—a term that amused us to begin with but grew on us so much that by the end of the trip, we were correcting our guide every time he said "flat." "Nepali flat" refers to a constant sequence of ups and downs, none of them too steep. We walked under overcast skies through the villages of Lower and Upper Sinua, followed by bamboo forests, to land up for lunch in a village called Bamboo.
As we got done with lunch, the heavy rain clouds again decided to shower their fury on us. We ended up staying put for a couple of hours after lunch, watching the steady inflow of drenched trekkers of various nationalities, listening to fun retro music, and waiting for the rain to abate. Once it had settled down to a drizzle, we made our way in single file through another forest, focussing on our every step through the slushy path, all our moods seemingly reflecting the somber and grey skies. We reached Dovan much earlier than we expected, gulped down some hot chocolate, and settled down in the warm dining hall for the rest of the evening, since the temperature outside had plummeted thanks to the non-stop rain.
Long and shaky bridges
After reaching Dovan under rain-filled skies
This might be a good time to talk about the dining halls, as our trekking days after Dovan got shorter because of the altitude (3200+ m) and we began spending more time in these halls. These halls are basically designed with tables and benches in the center for people to sit and eat, and the sides lined with inviting diwans, complete with mattresses and cushions thrown around. You are more than welcome to nap there after lunch! We came across so many interesting people in these dining areas: a teacher for autistic children from America, students of medicine from Germany, a delightful retired couple from America, a Nepali man attempting to summit in three days, an extremely well-travelled Frenchman who visited Nepal every year, and many others. It was always fun to strike up a conversation with these people, understand what brought them there, and of course, answer the many questions that they had about India: its new Prime Minister, the beaches in Goa, and of course, Rajnikant!
The dimly lit, cozy dining hall packed with trekkers
Days 4 & 5: Upward to MBC
While MBC does bring to mind certain offensive expletives in Hindi, I assure you, this MBC was truly majestic! From Dovan, we made our way further up, stopping for a night at Deorali and then proceeding to the Machhapuchhare Base Camp (around 3700 m). As the altitude got higher, we trekked only for 4-5 hours in the morning and had the rest of the day to acclimatize and get used to the thinning air. Dovan to Deorali was again a climb through forests; this time, rhododendron forests colored in beautiful reds and pinks. Our views of the Machhapuchhare peak, commonly also known as the Fish Tail peak, became more stunning with each passing day.
The hike from Deorali to MBC was another hard one, the trail punctuated with avalanche-prone areas that we darted across without looking up! The guide had advised us to leave early that morning, so that we could get across these areas before the sun got too high and started melting all the mountain snow, thereby increasing the chances of an avalanche. We therefore reached MBC well before lunch, giving us sufficient time to take in the jaw-dropping panoramic views and even get some clothes washed (in that order!). By the time we could get done with the washing and drying, the clouds had moved up all the way, completely blanking out our view. I had a mild headache by this point (presumably the altitude doing its thing), so we settled down in the dining hall for the rest of the day to relax and give our bodies enough rest before the final climb up the next day.
Day 6: Heave ho, and up we go!
After having pep talk Whatsapp calls with the family the previous night (a surreal experience in itself, given where we were), we woke up fresh and excited to head to the summit. The final climb up to ABC (around 4100 m) was more of a mind game than actual physical strain. It was only a short two-hour walk up through snowy slopes, powered by adrenaline and jaw-dropping views. With the oxygen thinning further, we made our way up slowly, huffing every few steps and pausing to take in our surroundings. We soon made it to the top, bundled in various emotions as we stopped to strike many crazy poses with the "Welcome to ABC" signboard.
After we got over that dreamlike sequence, we made our way up to the lodge to get their WiFi password and inform the folks back home. To our disappointment, their WiFiwasn’t working, and we had to make our peace with not being able to relay our achievement that day. We grabbed a hot drink and then stepped out near the campsite to see some glaciers and enjoy the feeling of being surrounded by nothing but mountains. As we sat there taking in everything in disbelief, we would hear a loud crack every now and again--the sound of an avalanche making its way down some mountain slope.
When we took another stroll after lunch, the clouds decided to close in around us, leaving even our guide perplexed for a while on the route back to our lodge. With the views disappearing, we made our way back to the cozy dining hall for the rest of the day, retiring early that night so that we could wake up in time for the glorious 5 am sunrise.
We couldn’t get enough of those views
Day 7: A palette in the sky
We woke up early the next morning and rushed outside to see the sky filled in hues of orange, purple, golden and blue. Now, it’s at this point where I must emphasize that absolutely no words or pictures will ever do justice to the real thing. I’m sure you’re thinking, "It’s just a sunrise, what’s the big deal?" But that sunrise was really something else, and I’m sure I’m going to run out of adjectives in my attempt to describe it. The grey-blue pre-dawn skies blended themselves gracefully with the orange and purple hues that the sun was beginning to throw out. Gradually, as though someone was running you through a shade card in a paint store, those oranges melted into multiple shades of yellow and gold, as those first rays started to make their way upon the snow-clad peaks. It was beyond stunning, and standing there, I’ll never forget the shiver I felt run down my spine--this time, not because of the cold, but because of how tiny one felt amidst these regal, imposing mountains. Any problems or challenges felt miniscule and insignificant, as I watched nature work her incredible magic with such ease. With a slightly heavy heart and clearer mind, we finally made our way in to get ready and head back down once the sun had come out in all its fiery splendor.
A paintbrush sweeps the sky
All good things must come to an end…
While I can easily go on about the rest of the trek with many more details, I realize that this post has become much longer than I imagined it to be. The journey down was again a test of mental strength, as we had planned a slightly longer way back down in order to cover Ghorepani and Poon Hill as well. Aches and pains started feeling more pronounced but again faded away as we were rewarded with more spectacular sights (something we didn’t think was possible!) as we caught a dress circle view of the Annapurna range from Poon Hill, with the royal Dhaulagiri adding another gem to the already studded crown. I must make a special mention at this point of the (in)famousUlleri steps that we encountered on our way back down on the final day. A series of 3,500-odd uneven stone steps between Ulleri and Tirkhedunga, these steps had me convinced that I would tear a ligament in my knees by the time I made it down. If you’re someone who already has knee trouble, then you should seriously consider and reconsider taking this route. But, as they say, all was well that ended well. We made it back in great shape and raring to go again!
For treks organised by South Col do visit http://www.southcol.com/treks-nepal/