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Last Trek Report

TREK REPORT – Annapurna Circuit, November–December 2009

9 November
Liz Dobson arrived on the 4th so we had some fun just hanging out at Kopan. Liz taught the littlies at the Bright Future Community Centre each morning and we had delicious breakfasts at Niru’s home with Isabel each morning. Niru’s latest project is a market garden for tomatoes so we made the most of them for breakfast each day. Frank Jones arrived on 7 November, much to Isabel’s delight as he’d brought lots of things from Geelong to improve the computers at the Dreamland Computer School. He spent some time with their computer guru installing more memory and rationalising what they had. Good work Frank and Liz.

The four of us took a day-trip out to Pharping where my friend Julie is building a ‘retreat hut’ (read deluxe, two-storey town house). It was a clear, sunny day and the trip only takes about 45 minutes. The Himalayas were very clear at that distance and we could see all the way from Manaslu to Everest (was that Everest??).

Bob Dominy and Jon Bowden came in on 9 November. The usual rooms at the Shambala were all booked up so the guys shared one of the swanky apartments. Dorje took the new guys up to Kopan to stretch their legs After the flight. Liz and Frank accompanied Isabel to see the King’s Palace. Since the king was deposed about a year ago his palace has been open to the public. ‘Faded glory but well worth a visit’ was the consensus.

We walked over to Bouda for dinner. It was draped in fairy-lights (‘bit tacky’ thought Frank). Fine dinner at the Garden Café.

Boudha Nath Stupa

10 November
Today was the usual schmozzle of permits, banking and gear shopping. I bought myself a new Minus 20 degree superdown sleeping bag and a lightweight superdown jacket and, eventually, a new 35 litre day pack from North Face (the real one). I am in love with the new sleeping bag. Not only light to carry and very warm but surprisingly lightweight to sleep in, with room to turn over inside. I’m impressed.

The guys bought jackets and drink bottles, sunglasses and walking poles. In and out of the Weizen all day as usual. While Dorje and Mangal took the crew around Assan Thole and Indra Chowk for a look at the real Kathmandu markets, I organised our return tickets at Greenline Bus depot and, amazingly, sent out the Trek Report for the recent Langtang Trek. I surprise myself sometimes.

We held the Trek Briefi ng over dinner and the clients went off early to finish packing. I was still shoving things in bags at 1 am. Definitely no time to wash my hair!

11 November

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Old lady in her garden, Bahundanda

Our minibus was ready for us at 7 am but breakfast was nowhere in sight. Finally berated the cook into making 5 plates of toast/butter/jam and then we were away. Progress was quite swift until we got out of the valley. We then hit a traffic jam for about 2 hours. Every time we got down for a walk the traffic moved a bit and we piled back into the bus optimistically. To no avail. We arrived at the Hamlet for breakfast mid morning. Quick omelettes and away. This time we had no hold-ups and made Dumre before midday.

Our driver took a little time-out to get the front tyre sorted and we cruised into Besi Sahar without any problems. Lahar and Kaji were there to meet us. It was already 3 pm so we decided to overnight there at the Mongolian Hotel. The guys all headed out to climb a small nearby ridge – just couldn’t wait to go trekking. We had our dinner on the upstairs balcony on a very mild evening. Good so far!

12 November
A bit overcast this morning, otherwise all fine. Very early jeep (6.30) to Bhulbhule. It’s a rough but scenic ride. Purna is to join us later tonight so we took Yem for the day. (Purna’s Mum had her gall bladder out just yesterday, surgery went very well).

We ate a good breakfast in the garden at Bhulbhule, Lahar had checked our permits through, so we were finally ‘on trek’. Great walk today. Really scenic with lush vegetation and golden rice ready for harvest in the fields. Lots of kheti-batte (rice harvesting) going on. Haystacks being erected everywhere with studied precision. The sky darkened ominously in the aft ernoon, and it did eventually rain just a little, but not before we made it to the lodge at Bahundanda (Brahmin Ridge). It’s quite a stiff little climb up to this village but none of our group struggled. We hope the rain isn’t falling as snow higher up. Frank and I took a turn about the village and found ourselves in the local grain mill which fi red up as we were passing. We then spent a delightful spell out of the rain on a dear old lady’s porch. Her view was sensational and the house very traditional. Purna arrived this evening.

Spent a very pleasant evening with new friends, drinking a little, under the big old mango tree which spreads its shady branches over most of the outdoor tables.

13 November
We got an early start to make the most of the cool morning but it was rather cloudy anyway. After big bowls of porridge in the garden we were off down the far side of the huge ridge which this village straddles. This is stunningly picturesque country with rice-terraces as far as you can see up the steepsided valleys. I dropped off some photos from last season at our usual tea stop in Lili Bhir. Liz and I followed a man with a doko (basket) full of pomelos to his home in the next village. His yard was full of goats and his wife had a new hand-operated juicer. Fresh juice was great.

Soon afterwards we saw a charter helicopter land at Ghermu Phant. When we arrived on foot it had been there for half an hour already so I went to see if I could be of any help. As I got through the crowd to the chopper itself I saw Dorje had one end of a stretcher and was loading an unfortunate German lady into the back seat of the chopper. Her screams will stay with me for ever. She had fallen down the stairs during the night and broken her leg – rather badly. Dorje had persuaded them to move her despite her screams (it had to be done). I was so impressed with him. Really proud.

They were soon airborne. We’ve since heard that the woman is back in Germany and doing well.

Half an hour later we reached Syange. These days this is the jeep terminus and also a hydro power station. The dining room here almost hangs out over the river – and they make the best veg noodle soup and chips.

Fortifi ed, we set off in mild conditions for Jagat. Some of the roadworks above the trekking trail were a real hazard. We were a large enough group (10 people) to halt work for a few minutes but the area we had to traverse was diffi cult. It was made up of a large jumble of jagged rocks with barely a track on it. Meeting donkeys half-way across it didn’t help. The trail into Jagat was quite easy After the roadwork area as we were on a completed section of new road – as yet unused by vehicles.

Jagat is a strange village. Quite large, its lodges are mostly 3-storey, painted in lurid colours. The renovations were complete at the Eco Home so we decided to give them another chance. Last season it was a bit of a ‘work in progress’. Unfortunately the solar hot shower hadn’t seen much sun that day and the bathroom walls were thin enough to hear the expletives.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Haystack with poinsettia fl owers, Bahundanda

Tom, from England was a new friend here. A genial, well-spoken young chap who made ‘a decent living’ betting on sport, particularly Formula 1. Unusual!

14 November
A slower start today as Jagat to Tal is not so far. It is quite hard however and we were soon sweating. The sun was in and out all day. The trail seemed pretty easy at first on a newly-built road but a few stiff climbs before lunch made us all hungry. We took a good veg curry and rice at Chamje on the trailside table. I like to sit here, watching the passing parade of people and animals.

After lunch the trail was a lot steeper. Exciting too. The trail winds around the cliff above the raging Marsyangdi River. The roaring sound of the water accompanied us until just before Tal. At some point the river just disappears underground for a while. It was strangely quiet as we crested the ridge which sometimes holds back enough water to form a lake (tal). The usual riverside trail was in fl ood but a new high (too bloody high) trail has been constructed well above the river.

We decided on a new lodge this season at Tal. (The cooking wasn’t that good at our usual one.) Checked out the first one we came to, the Father and Son Guest House. The paintwork was impossibly garish – turquoise/salmon-pink/purple. Use your imagination. However, the rooms were lovely. New lino (matching the paintwork), clean attached bathrooms with porcelain squat toilets (my preferred choice). The ‘hot water’ was barely tepid but we were sweaty and dusty so we didn’t really care. As I write this at 4.30 on a mild, cloudy aft ernoon the river is gliding quietly past my window and traditional music is drift ing up from somewhere nearby. Cool.

The music turned out to be from the big sound system in the dining room so we had a bit of cultural exchange of dance moves After dinner. Great fun. Jon’s ‘spider dance’ was especially popular.

15 November
We did try for an early start today with 6.15 bed tea, but the breakfast took a while so we started, as usual, around 7.40. At first this trail is right beside the river. At the first suspension bridge Dorje realised he had left his head torch behind and had to go back 20 minutes to Tal. Jon was pretty sure this was Dorje’s ‘karma’ for putting rocks in Jon’s day pack the day before – but that was only because he didn’t know who really put them there. (Sorry Jon!).

Mangal and Lahar accompanied the rest of us onwards while Kaji and Purna sat with the bags. The trail gradually deteriorated over new roadworks. The gelignite passed us by the boxload, along with armed soldiers. We had to pick our way through workmen putting gelly in hand-drilled holes. The trail became treacherous and my heart was pounding as we clung to the cliff side (quite literally at times) on the narrowest of trails. On the far side of this roadwork we saw the end of a higher trail for donkeys. Would gladly have taken this safer option if we’d seen the start of it anywhere. Something to bear in mind should we need to descend via the same route. Hopefully not.

After a slow but pleasant lunch in the sunny garden at ‘Hotel The Seven’ (where do they get these names?) we set off on a well-made road. Nothing but foot traffic on the road so quite handy for us. The views across the valley are spectacularly steep, covered in pines with the occasional village perched at an unlikely altitude. There was snow on the nearby peaks and, as we entered Danakyu, Manaslu was clear and brilliant.

As I write this report Manaslu is positively glowing in the late afternoon sun. (I took the photo out of the window of the lodge.) It has become a little chilly as we’ve reached 2300 metres. All the group are in good health and good spirits. Our lodge, the Himalayan Guest House is a rather old, very traditional, twostorey timber structure which seems to move slightly every time someone walks along the upper gantry. Very cosy though and our first ‘hot table’ was a welcome treat.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Tea shop lady

16 November
Great breakfast today and an early start. Passing a very recent rocky landslide I noticed that it has changed the course of the local stream somewhat. The first climb of the day was a pig. Luckily, it doesn’t last long and we are soon in a deep shaded forest of rhododendrons, ash, elms and oaks. The going was soft underfoot at we reached the tea-stop at Timang by 9.30. Here I got out all the great pics of kids I had taken last season. The trail here has a great view back to Manaslu but it clouded up pretty early. It was cloudier still as we reached Th anchok, a medieval wreck of a village. The houses were all timber with a trail right through the middle, liberally strewn with many kinds of ordure – animal and otherwise. Still, Liz and I found a beautiful mother with a baby in a basket to whom Liz gave a dear little pair of shoes. The mum was delighted and the baby cracked a smile to die for.

Our boys helped prepare the lunch as we had agreed on daal bhat all round. Dorje made a potato curry with dried wild mushrooms (a bit of speciality of his). It was the best daal bhat of the trip so far.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Manaslu viewed from Danakyu

It was mostly gentle downhill trekking from Th anchok to Chame but starting to get quite chilly. Broke out the thermals and put our new sleeping bags to their first real test – with good results.

Lots of the people we met on the trail today were at the Marsyangdi Mandala Lodge so we had a cosy evening around the stove with people from Switzerland, Holland, Italy and France. A few knitted Nepali hats and gloves were hastily purchased as the temperature plummeted in the evening. The internet was fast and most of us got our emails read and replied to before dinner.

17 November
This was our first spectacularly clear morning and Chame was a good place for it. Lamjung Himal was looming over the town when we awoke and we were all cheered to see great big snowy white peaks. The long steady climb out of Chame looks deceptively easy but it still took almost two hours to reach Bhratang for morning tea, with a short stop to help the poor teacher from Manang who was as sick as a dog by the side of the trail. He was trying to get home to his son in Chitwan – some days travel away. I did what I could but I fear the man was seriously ill. I hope he made it home.

After the cliff -hanging trail to the bridge and a short but stiff climb up the opposite bank of the river we bought a packet of biscuits to keep us going. Liz and I sat and shared them with Mangal and Lahar in a quiet grove of Buddhist shrines with the wind singing gently through the pines. One of those special little moments one hopes for an any trek. We soon caught up with the rest of our team at Dhukure Pokhari. This little village is booming with four new lodges, a bakery and a timber-mill. Our veg noodle soup was good but when we tried our porters’ food in the kitchen theirs was better.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Good morning Chame!

With a cold wind at our backs we rugged-up for Pisang. It only took 35 minutes. I was soon snugged up in our little cabin while the rest of the group headed off to Upper Pisang for a look around. Being a bit off the main trail this quaint old place is really unspoiled by tourism.

We had a large group of Koreans for company in the evening and we were amazed at their food. Traditional Korean tucker – fish, chicken and even apples from Korea. While the apples they gave us were very nice it did seem a trifl e odd given that sweet small apples from local orchards were just harvested and on sale everywhere. The same deal in the morning as they were given individually wrapped Korean instant coffee to put in their hot water. We had organic Nepali fresh-brewed coffee. Thanks Lahar!

We rounded off our evening with Khukri Rum and Coke and sat around a nice warm stove. Out of the blue, as Liz and I were reading last thing at night, I got a call from Eric in Germany. The miracle of modern technology. Nepal Telecom seems to have better coverage than Telstra and Optus combined.

18 November
Now we are really in the high Himalayas. We awoke to clear skies and snowy peaks. The weather held all day and the views just got better and better and… Annapurna III was beside us all day on our left and the distant villages of Gyaru and Ngawal looked a million miles away across the valley on our right side. The trail was easy but quite long: 12–15 kilometres was the best guess. Nothing is measured in kilometres in Nepal. In the countryside people use Kos, the distance a person can walk in half an hour.

At Humde, where there is a small airstrip, we found fresh cinnamon rolls and chocolate croissants at the ‘Airport Hotel’. The big morning tea kept us going but with the altitude and the kilometres we were allin when we reached Braga. While our lunch of vegieburgers and chips was cooking some of us ducked over to the amazingly beautiful village of Braga for a look around. A 14th century gompa and houses that looked about the same vintage, clinging to a snug in the hillside. Exquisite.

Annapurna Circuit Trek

Our lodge at Manang was a beauty. Three storeys around a central courtyard. Attached bathrooms (loos anyway) and a hot, hot shower. All this with views of the mountains that looked close enough to touch. Damn cold though!

19 November
This was our rest day in Manang. Brilliant sunshine in a cloudless sky illuminated a wondrous array of white peaks this morning. Breakfast was deliberately slow. The team headed off with the porters to climb out of town to the first chorten on the trail to the gompa for an even better view. After basking in the morning sun for a while they came down for a huge morning tea of fresh ‘bakery items’. Refuelled and with laundry out to dry, with hair washed in REALLY HOT WATER we headed over to the lake at the base of the Gangapurna Glacier. We hadn’t intended to climb to the lookout – too hard was the consensus. However, when Frank climbed up to the first flag for a better view it was too much for me and I soon joined him. We kept going a bit higher, and then a bit higher, till I thought ‘what the hell’. It took another half hour to chug up to the top but the view was truly wonderful. Heaps more of Annapurna III’s various peaks were visible as were Thorong Peak and Muktinath Peak. I was pleased to note that there was very little snow up towards the pass.

I wrote this at 5 pm and it was ‘ freezing’. I heard that the stove in the dining room was lit – see ya! Over dinner we met up with Paul and Naomi (from Bhulbhule) and met James and Anna who we would keep running into over the pass. There was an air of barely-suppressed excitement amongst the gathered visitors. We were about to do something big and we knew it.

20 November
Wow! What a day. We reached 4150 metres through some of the best mountain scenery I’ve ever seen. We climbed gradually up to Tengi, another crumbling medieval village of stone houses on three levels, interconnected by notched log ladders.

It was quite hard work until lunch at Gunsang and a bit too hot at times in our warm clothing. Most of us had set off in lots of clothes, even thermals, and half an hour out of Manang we were way too hot. While it was a bit too early to contemplate lunch (10.45) we knew we might not fi nd anything else open for the next 2–3 hours to Yak Kharka. As it turned out there were several lovely tea stalls and we stopped at most of them. We saw tiny black rabbits, fl ocks of the ‘elusive’ blue sheep and lots of yaks grazing. Jon and Bob saw their first really big lammergeier riding the thermals. A member of the vulture family and not a true eagle, these birds can span three metres. Frank was first into the lodge today, a full hour ahead of Liz and I. However, the pull of all that scenery today was what slowed us down. Chulu West was a frighteningly steep crag of dark grey rock with a thin line of snow outlining the top, contrasting stunningly with the bluest of blue skies. Hard to believe that Dorje had climbed it several years ago with a group of Australians. The glaciers and icepacks on Annapurna III and then Gangapurna were hard to leave behind. Certainly hope to pass by this way again – April next year??

Our lodge was a sturdy stone construction and our room had three windows. I was pretty pleased about this as I’d spent a lot of time stargazing the night before. There being no moon, the peaks were gently illuminated by the starlight. Sensational stuff . As I write this journal the sun has just dropped behind the nearest ridge and the temperature has plummeted. I am in my sleeping bag in my room wearing a hat and a down jacket. The entire team is in great shape at 4150 metres. Success on the pass looks likely. However, we met a few people today who had to retreat. Sometimes your body just will not co-operate with nature and you just have to respect that. None of us is ‘dieing’ to get over the Thorong La.

21 November
Another amazing day. Very, very cold this morning. Ice on the water bucket in the loo and quite a bit of old lumpy snow still sitting in the garden.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Frank and Lahar above the Gangapurna Glacier lake near Manang

It took almost an hour and a half to reach Letdar due to a delay at a tea stop along the way. A rather slight female porter felt unwell and just collapsed in front of us with numb hands and an ashen face. Seriously worried, Mangal and Kaji set to work rubbing the poor girl’s hands and a bowl of hot soup was quickly provided. When their French group leader arrived on the scene she asked ‘who is she?’ not recognising her as one of her own staff . I’m afraid I was rather rude to her. I gave the girl my spare fleece pants and Jon proff ered a lovely blue wool jumper. The girl soon had them both on. Underfed and underdressed. No excuse for that.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Houses at Tengi Manang

The trail became cold and windy and, when we arrived at the bridge (the furthest point I had been up to before) it became almost dangerous. A steep descent to the bridge and then a stiff climb back up was hard work at altitude. We then had to traverse a really exposed rocky ridge, part of which was a landslide area. With frequent trickling small rocks due to the high wind it was a bit challenging, especially when a long mule-train came the other way. The porters were a great help.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Room with a view – Th orong High Camp
Annapurna Circuit Trek
Dorje with hot chocolate near Th orong High Camp

We made it into the lodge at Thorong Phedi in time for a big lunch – mostly garlic and potato soup. The rooms here had mud-lined walls and plywood ceilings so they really kept the draughts out. Which was just as well. The outside temperature was probably about minus 5 degrees and the wind chill factor made it feel even colder.

We climbed part-way up tomorrow’s trail as an exercise in acclimatisation. Just a hundred metres perhaps, not really enough but it was HARD. The idea is to gain more altitude than you sleep at.

Perhaps it was enough.

The scenery at Thorong Phedi had an austere beauty with huge cliffs and ridges surrounding the camp. There was deep snow on every shady ridge. Outside my small bedroom window (warmer than a big one) is a giant wall of ice and snow – I can’t see the top from here. Everyone is feeling on top of their game. One or two minor headaches and a fair bit of breathlessness on exertion. I think we are going to make it.

22 November
It was too cold to start early so we stayed in bed, although we had all been woken by the exodus of trekkers between 3 and 4 am. Many people make the Thorong La pass from this camp as sleep can be elusive at the High Camp located at 4800 metres. We set off on the short but brutal climb at 9 am. Only one hour and twenty minutes later we could see the High Camp from a ledge just below it. We were a bit surprised to see it so soon. Dorje surprised us even further by jogging down the track with a thermos of hot chocolate. We guzzled it appreciatively while basking in the morning sun. Out of the wind it was actually quite warm. Our rooms were very basic, but snug, with totally mind-blowing views.

The dining room seemed warm in the afternoon sun but, as the day wore on and the sun set, the lodge owner informed me that there would be no fi re. ‘Wood is very expensive – has to come all the way from Pisang’ he said. With about thirty customers shivering in the dining room he was looking at around 50,000 rupees of income (nearly $1,000) for the night. Unbelievable. We managed to get blankets but he was annoyed at having to hand them out – and he had masses of them. A total jerk!

We crammed around the tables for the warmth of each other and put on all our clothes. It was almost successful. Bed and a warm sleeping bag was the best option. We had made some good friends around the dining table. These were the people we would climb with next day. In an atmosphere of mixed emotions – apprehension and excitement – we bid each other goodnight. A VERY BIG DAY TOMORROW!!

23 November
We didn’t sleep that much last night. It was a very cold, clear, starry night. We were all awake when the boys called us at 4.30 am. I had suffered an extremely bad headache all night and was pretty much decided on going back down. A big hot mug of coffee perked us all up a bit and I decided to go over the top with the team. The Doctor at the Himalayan Rescue Association talk in Manang had said that even if you have some symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) at High Camp you should consider going over the pass if you feel strong enough. I just had the headache. My breathing was good, my co-ordination unimpaired. If you do the pass you only have to climb for 3 hours, gain just another 600 metres and then it’s down, down, down for 1650 metres. Th is descent is the best thing you could do for your body and the pass is the quickest way to get down to a reasonable altitude again.

In pre-dawn light, very warmly dressed, we set off . First hurdle was just outside the High Camp. We had seen it in daylight the previous day. A narrow ledge of a trail with a terrifying drop-off , covered in snow and ice. The porters took our bags first then came back to hand-hold us as we side stepped along with head torches on. It was possibly only 5 or 6 minutes to cross it but it felt like an hour. Luckily it was too dark to see the gully below us!

After the snow the uphill trail was a relief but still a big effort. And these little uphill trails, which didn’t seem so bad, just led to another little uphill trail. I was reduced to making 35 steps and then a rest, the best I could do. Liz had a technique where she didn’t stop at all but just took really small steps. I started to use the ‘rest-step’ and found that useful. We edged up over 5,000 metres – slowly.

After about an hour and a half we reached a very rustic tea shop. But what a great mug of tea that was. Just getting inside, out of the biting cold wind, was heaven. Soon the sun rose over the peaks. Sensational to see everything glowing pink and then golden – but it didn’t make things much warmer. The effort kept us warm so that soon only our faces were freezing in the bitter wind which drove icy particles of wind-blown snow into our faces at a ferocious rate of knots.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Lahar and Liz at the summit, Thorong La Pass

Annapurna Circuit Trek
The Thorong La summit team, 2009

There was an amazing air of excitement as we neared the summit for the pass. Thousands of brightlycoloured prayer flags were flapping in a frenzy as we hugged and cried. I hugged some people I didn’t even know. It was a joyous moment I will treasure all my life. Frank Jones and I looked at each other and we both yelled into the wind in unison ‘We knocked the bastard off !’. Perhaps we were getting a bit carried away, but that was how we felt, as if we’d climbed Everest itself.

We put up prayer flags, struggling in the vicious wind to tie the strings together. We took lots of photos with everyone grinning from ear to ear. Very special. The hardest but best trek I’ve ever done. The shabby tea shop was serving steel mugs of black tea and biscuits. I can’t recall a more delicious lunch. The place was barely held together with bits of rope, wire, sacks and bits of plastic. The fl oor was rocky and strewn with litter, old thongs and various nondescript debris. I loved it.

The first hour of the descent was murder, on patches of very slippery, hard-packed snow and ice ravaged by the wind. The gusts of wind seemed to suck the breath out of your lungs. After an hour we stopped in the shelter of a really big rock and just threw ourselves on the ground. We basked in the warmth like seals. Snacks were shared as we marvelled to each other at what we had just done. Naomi, one of our climbing companions for the day, was with us.

The rest of the descent seemed endless but was actually quite manageable technically. We stopped a few times to rest our aching knees. Jon was out in front, as he was most of the day while Liz totally (like, totally) overcame her fear of steep, slippery downhill. Down, down, down to the tea shop at Muktinath Phedi. Pots and pots of tea and mountains of fried rice were lustily consumed. I think we had just burned up about 5,000 calories each.

Only an hour remained into Muktinath and we set off in good shape. We even stopped in to see the temples on the way down.

Lots of other people crossed the pass that day but I reckon we did it in style. Bob, at age 73, was an inspiration, especially to some of the younger kids on the circuit. We arrived in Muktinath not, as one might expect, on our last legs. Not gasping for breath or looking shattered. Tired and dirty yes, but otherwise in extraordinarily good shape. Well done everybody!

The Mona Lisa Lodge at Muktinath deserves a big tick. A lovely old house, really well-kept. Great food (lots of chips) and the hottest hot-table I’ve ever had. Our boys even presented Bob with a katta (silk prayer scarf) as a sign of respect.

One of the best days of my life!

24 November
Of course we started slowly today. Breakfast was particularly good and the entire day was as scenic as you could want. It is dry, rather bleak country up here, but with a scale and grandeur of unimaginable proportions. The trail was easy, if a bit long, but with show-stopping views all day it was never, ever tedious. Ancient Buddhist villages in impossible locations partly crumbling into ruin. Wind-eroded ridges, forming endlessly-repeated patterns. And always the shining white peaks behind them as far as you can see. But nobody can really tell you what this place is like – you need to experience it for yourself.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Muktinath Phedi

Annapurna Circuit Trek
View from the gompa at Jharkot

Liz, Frank and I seemed a bit slower than Jon and Bob today, especially After we stopped in Jharkot for an hour to poke around this interesting little village. By about one o’clock we were in the New Asia lodge at Kagbeni. Another medieval relic of a town.

As I write this, Liz is snoozing quietly in the other bed. Shattered! Frank has gone up towards Th iri in Upper Mustang for a look-see. Bob and Jon have gone out to check out the village and possibly visit Yak Donalds. 5 pm. Time to get the dinner order in and nobody is here. I think I need a chocolate bar to keep me going. No matter what you eat up here it all gets burned up on the trail.

Our friends from Manang (and the pass) Anna and James, turned up on the trail today, as did ‘Pommie Dreadlocks’ (since found out his name is Rich). Anna and James had a very diff erent crossing than ours. Leaving Thorong Phedi at 6 am (very late) they were the last people across the pass for the day. They saw nobody, the tea shop was closed at the pass itself and they made Muktinath at 7 pm in the pitch dark. Terrifying. We had so much help, guidance, advice and encouragement from our boys, Lahar, Dorje, Purna, Mangal and Kaji. Thanks boys – you were marvellous.

25 November
Awoke to another fine day. Liz and I were half packed before the bed tea arrived. Breakfast was soon on the table and by 8 we were away on a crisp, beautiful morning. We did the flat walk to Jomsom in under 3 hours with a quick cuppa at Eklai Bhatti and a sit down near the river close to Jomsom. Still wearing thermals, it was a bit warm at times – but still bloody cold in the shade. The lunch took over an hour to prepare at the Marco Polo as the power was cut off in the whole town. Our plan to hit the cyber café while lunch was cooking failed miserably. However, Frank got a hair-cut and we shopped around for bits and pieces (mostly junk food). The lunch, when it finally arrived, was sensational. They make the best veg koft a here.

We sent Purna/Kaji/Dorje ahead with the bags and had a very long walk down the new road. Stopping by Mangal’s house for tea was very cosy. His Mum and Dad are real treasures. Buff eted by the famous gale-force winds that kick in around midday we were relieved to hit Marpha for more refreshments. Bob and Jon bought bandanas to keep out the grit in the wind and we set off again. Just outside Marpha we crossed on the wobbly old suspension bridge to Chairo and walked on a small trail on the East bank of the Kali Gandaki. We were in the pines and through small farming communities – out of the wind and off the road – rather lovely. Frank had already passed the bridge when we saw him and was barely discernible as a dot on the landscape disappearing around a ridge a kilometre up the road. See you in Tukuche Frank. Forty minutes before Tukuche we crossed back to the road on the big new suspension bridge. We were quite lucky to get in by dusk. It’s a long trek from Kagbeni to Tukuche, about 25 kilometres we reckon. Not too far but with quite a few ‘interesting’ obstacles. The sunset on Nilgiri South was heavenly and I just had to keep stopping to look back over my left shoulder for another glimpse as the peak turned deeper and deeper red.

The Tukuche Guest house is in a very beautifully preserved old salt trader’s house. The tiny rooft op rooms have immaculate attached bathrooms with hot showers. Not totally appreciated due to the lack of electricity (Liz showered by candlelight without a problem). I am writing this After dinner (great stewed apple with custard for dessert) and the power is back on now. I have a much bigger room, and my bathroom is not attached, but it’s in the old part of the house with little carved wooden windows overlooking the main street of Tukuche. I love it.

26 November
We took an early tour around the village. It’s such an interesting little place. We were advised to seek out the alternative trekking trail (as opposed to the road) down to Kalopani. It was wild and windy on the river bed. We walked on sand, and wet sand, mud, stones, pebbles and an earth trail in the woods. Nothing like a bit of variety. The little humpy of a tea-shop on the river bank in the middle of nowhere was rather special. Very, very rustic but somehow neat and clean inside. And a very good cup of tea! Shortly afterwards we discovered a grove of sibuckthorn bushes and women stripping the fruit from the branches. A delicious juice – fifteen times the vitamin C of oranges they say.

The log bridge which connects this trail to the larger one was GONE. Whoops! It didn’t take too long to locate something of an alternative route and we were soon in Kokethanti for lunch.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Sundown on Nilgiri

Naturally Sweetie was not ‘best pleased’ that we were staying at the See You Lodge in Kalopani but I explained that our group was too big for her little place (OK, so I lied). She showed us the new baby girl – Saskia. A sister for little Sonic (I know, what was she thinking?). We walked along with Shyam from the Kalopani Guest House and then saw Laxmi as well – all doing well.

We were trying the See You Lodge on Dorje’s recommendation. As I write this I haven’t had dinner yet but the rooms are amazingly good. Imagine a 3- star ’80s motel at home.

Bob’s knee was a bit sore today so he jeeped down with the boys. He is much better this evening. Paul and Naomi were there too and James and Anna had been spotted earlier. Vegie burgers and chips ordered for dinner.

The food turned out to be excellent and the company was fun with our old friends plus Amy and Austin.

27 November
It was another rather long walk down to Tatopani but we took a good few breaks and made it quite comfortably. Some time After morning tea, when Liz and I lost track of which route our group was taking, Dorje, Khaji and Purna took the bags down by bus. It’s a pretty rugged little road but every now and then a pretty rugged little bus comes trundling past. Liz and I thought we’d been left behind so we charged off down the main road trail. We had a great day with a tea stop just above Rupse Chhahara at a tea-shop run by a very sweet lady with a beautiful 2-week-old baby. She also had 10-gramme ‘tolas’ of very black hash which a fellow trekker, a very sadlooking German boy with blistered feet, snapped up for 1,000 Nepali Rupees ($15). Given the condition he was in, we agreed that it was for ‘medicinal purposes’.

We lunched under the big apple tree with the pretty view at the old Rupse Lodge. The new road now goes above the old village but a tiny sign led us through the vegie plots to this old favourite of mine. It was the best veg noodle soup of the trek. While we ate, the husband cut long daikon radishes into continuous twirls for drying. No gadget required.

We took a fresh orange juice at the Cabin Lodge in Dana. I was a bit worried – being a Group Leader (as I am known here) without a Group. Couldn’t catch up to the rest. Pushed on hard and finally got a signal on my mobile phone. Just as I was dialling Dorje the bus lumbered past with all three of our porters on the roof. At least our bags would be in Tatopani I thought. Arriving there ourselves half an hour later we were a bit surprised to fi nd no Bob, Jon, Frank, Lahar or Mangal. More worried now. It turned out they had taken the old trail on the East bank of the river and had enjoyed their somewhat more challenging trek down. They showed up well After 5 pm and looked pretty tired but happy.

Nepali high-school kids were staying at our lodge as well as most of our new trekking mates. Singing and dancing was really rowdy After dinner. Great to eat a huge salad today – hope to have another one just like it tomorrow. This lodge makes the best chips in Nepal and serves fresh orange juice off the trees in our own garden. No jackets, no socks – it was really balmy at 1130 metres.

28 November
What a lazy day this was. Stayed in Tatopani and did just about as little as was humanly possible. I ordered up a pot of tea and a Danish in my room and didn’t get up till nearly 9am. We all washed a few clothes and then sat around reading, strolled through the village a couple of times and that was about it. Only Jon made the effort to have a bath in the hot springs that give the village its name (Tato Pani – hot water). He came back looking like a lobster and feeling great. We all looked clean beyond recognition. Huge meals were consumed all day in readiness for the ‘big up’ next day. Most of our trekking friends have baled out at Beni. Pikers!

29 November
Our nice early getaway saw us across two big bridges before 8 am. The first, a sturdy new bridge, the second, a rather worn-out ‘Indiana Jones’ kind of bridge with creaking planks and gaps in the wire-mesh sides. I powered up the road only to fi nd I’d lost my Group – again! After a couple of quick dashes back down the trail to fi nd them I realised they had taken the new ‘alternative track’. Uncertain of the new trail, I stuck with the old route and soon rejoined the posse at the pass at Durbin Danda. Little kids selling oranges plagued us along the way. It was soon warm and sunny – almost hot – as we climbed through delightfully fertile farms and villages of traditional houses. With two good tea-breaks we reached Sikha at 12.30. Over a long lunch break to recover from our 800 metre climb, we toyed with the idea of going all the way up to Ghorepani. For about fi ve minutes. It was at least another 800 metres and would take a good 4 hours so we made camp at the Moonlight Lodge in Sikha.

A good-sized, if rather unfortunate, buff alo had been slaughtered in a fi eld below the lodge. As we waited for our daal bhat on the rooft op dining area we observed the ritual division of the beast, mostly using a heavy axe. Butchering is not the refined art we are accustomed to in Australia. Eleven piles were hacked out and quickly sold off as locals fl ocked to buy fresh meat. As I write this, a pack of fi ve, almost identical dogs are cleaning the place up. At nearly 2,000 metres it was cold when the sun set and it set pretty early behind a steep ridge nearby. There was a big slow-combustion stove in the dining room so it was yet another very cosy evening.

30 November
We had been at Kalopani (Black Water) and Tatopani (Hot Water) and now headed uphill to Ghorepani (Horse Water).

It was a fairly long, hard push up to Ghorepani. At first we climbed up through villages and farms. Harvest was almost finished and everywhere the villages were busy preparing foodstuff s for the winter. Radishes, cabbage, cauli, chillies and potatoes were some of the things I saw laid out on rattan mats to dry. Millet was being winnowed and vast piles of millet and rice-grass were being stacked for animal fodder and domestic use. The Dhaulagiri Lodge at Chitre finally hove into view and we took a very long, sunny lunch break with splendid views back to Dhaulagiri itself.

The sign over the lodge door said it was 2 hours to Ghorepani. Sure! We rather surprised ourselves by taking exactly that long. It was very steep towards the end though extremely pretty as the trail wound through rhododendron forest. Revived by a hot chocolate we combed the village for interesting books and snack food. Didn’t fi nd much of either. I bought some totally tasteless cheese and we scurried back to the warm lodge as a dense, cold fog enveloped the town.

Warmed by a rum and Coke we ate a good dinner – they always get the food right at the Sunny Lodge. Lahar and I hit the dance-fl oor first and we soon had the joint jumping. It was a GREAT NIGHT, as usual at the Sunny Lodge, although I wished I could remember all the moves for the Macarena. (Liz came to my Birthday on 1 January and brought with her a card with the moves on and made sure I’d got it down pat – thanks mate!).

1 December
I woke everyone up early to see the beautiful sunrise on the peaks. A cold mist soon appeared over the hill so nobody fancied Pun Hill. We had all had enough climbing by this stage (except Frank) so we decided to go down the conventional route to Hille. From Ghorepani to Banthanti was on a soft descending trail through the rhododendron forests. Fine. Lunch at Banthanti on the way was a very welcome break. Shortly After lunch it became a long, torturous descent over thousands of stone steps to Tikedungha. Ugh!!

After a quick cuppa at Tikedungha – we needed a few of those today – we pushed on the last twenty minutes to Hille in the twilight. I am writing this in fading light in a rustic little lodge with gorgeous views out of the back windows of steeply terraced farmland. A farmer has just finished ploughing with a pair of oxen. I’ve had a lukewarm shower – not that comfortable but much-needed. It had been 7 days since I’d washed my hair at Kagbeni and I was starting to enjoy ‘going feral’.

We hope that Frank is having a great trek. He and Purna have gone to Tadapani today, or maybe Ghandruk if they really get going. They plan to join us for the ride down from Nyapul to Pokhara tomorrow.

We passed a pleasant evening in the Susma Lodge with all mother’s little helpers singing their hearts out in the kitchen. The hysterical Singaporean ladies group are driving us nuts in the dining room so we are turning in early. The crickets are going ballistic outside – a sign of impending winter I’m told. Frank later reported that he and Purna first had to tackle a climb of about an hour straight out of Ghorepani, which took them to the top of a ridge from where superb views were obtainable in the clear weather. A passing trekker who had been to Pun Hill earlier that morning said the view from this spot was even better! A scenic ridge top walk was followed by a mostly downhill trek into Banthanti (another one), and one last uphill slog into Tadapani.

By then it was 1.30pm but it had become quite cold and foggy; with nothing to see, the thought of spending the rest of the afternoon in a lodge dining room did not appeal. With plenty of daylight left , they decided to continue on to Ghandruk. The next hour or so was through a delightful stretch of dense rhododendron forest, with eagle-eyed Purna spotting lots of monkeys.

Good time was made on the all downhill trail to Ghandruk, with eventual arrival on the outskirts of Ghandruk at 4.15pm. Purna sussed out one of the first lodges in town, reporting that there were few or no guests and that there would be no-one for Frank to talk to at the dinner table – a very thoughtful and appreciated gesture! Another 15 minutes took them to the large Trekker’s Inn in the centre of town, which was a handy base from which to explore this large Gurung village for the remainder of the aft ernoon.

2 December
Everything went according to plan today. We dawdled down the valley, taking a nice morning tea in a manicured garden which is sometimes used as a camping chowk. The lawn was kept down by a docile old white horse.

Meanwhile, Frank and Purna decided to spend more time looking around Ghandruk in the morning. They managed to visit a Gurung museum, a local gompa and admired the view from the helipad behind the medical centre before setting off at 9 am to rendezvous with our group at Birethanti.

It took our group exactly 3½ hours to reach Birethanti. Th e lodge here is special with big cane chairs overlooking a gully full of bananas and palms and bamboo. As we tried to imagine just how long it would take Frank to join us, he strolled in – looking very pleased with his little jaunt. As he’d made it all the way to Ghandruk the day before, he’d had no trouble joining us by the 2 pm deadline we had made. He arrived about 12.45 pm, had some lunch and then we trekked the last 40 minutes out to the road together. Our bus was bang on time and by 2.15 we were speeding along the winding road down to Pokhara. Without a stop it took a bit over an hour to reach the Lake Diamond Hotel. Sadly, Mon Kumar’s son had died in Darjeeling so he and Sanu were away at the funeral. Th eir daughter Anila was there to greet us and encouraged us to stay anyway.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
Rhododendron forest between Tadapani and Ghandruk – watch out for the monkeys!

Showered and wearing our last remaining items of clean clothing we hit Lakeside for dinner. The guys wanted the FULL MEAT THING so Dorje took them to the Everest Steak House for a big meatfest – no yak steaks unfortunately. Liz and I headed for Moondance and an avocado salad and chilled chardonnay. Super banana splits too.

Pokhara was cloudy but peaceful – and so-o-o-o-o warm. No sleeping bags tonight!

3 December
We had a relaxing day off today. A bit too cloudy for any serious sightseeing but Frank still headed off with Lahar to paddle across the lake and climb up to the Peace Stupa. Th is landmark white stupa on the hill across the lake from Pokhara has four divine Buddha statues donated by various Buddhist countries.

The rest of us just shopped and ate and then shopped and ate some more. We visited Lahar’s house to hang out with Loyan, his wife, and their three gorgeous kids – Sopana (Lahar’s smile looks great on an 11- year-old girl), Sagar (the quiet one) and cute-as-abutton Sanchok.

After spending a spell on a typical little round wicker stool I found I couldn’t get up, except with a withering amount of pain. After trying to manipulate my wonky hip back into place, and nearly fainting a couple of times with the effort, I hopped (quite literally) into a cab home. The Group dined out with the porters and checked out the cultural show at the Boomerang. Not quite as professionally-presented as one might hope for, but always ‘interesting’ if only for the kitsch factor.

I thought I would need to stay in Pokhara for a day or so but, miraculously, I woke up in the middle of the night to fi nd the problem had resolved itself. So I got up and did my packing. Strange, but a huge relief.

4 December
The bus to Kathmandu left ten minutes early since we were all aboard. Rocketing through the mistshrouded countryside in a comfortable coach was very relaxing – no effort at all. We were making good time till Damauli at 9.30. The Maoists (bless ’em) had called a local 2-hour banda (strike) on the road. 30–40 chaps chanting rather half-heartedly and a bit of string across the road was enough to call a halt to all progress along the road. We used the time to take morning tea at a local café and then strolled about this surprisingly well-kept bustling market town. Once we got going we quickly skipped the scheduled tea stop and belted down the road to the buff et lunch at the Riverside Lodge. With the odd truck breakdown making passing diffi cult, we arrived in Kathmandu around 4.30 (1½ hours late). Not bad by current standards. We had arranged to get down from the bus at the Swayambhu turn off and our luggage was, rather thoughtfully, on the top of the stack. Twenty minutes later we were under extremely hot showers at the Benchen Monastery’s Guesthouse. The dining room was packed this evening so we ate on the garden terrace with candles on the table. (Power cuts again).

Big, wide beds. Clean, white sheets. Heavy cottonfi lled quilts. A good night’s sleep all round. The ‘monkey problem’ was not an issue. Apparently, a Princess of the old royal family is now our neighbour. Freaked out by recurring acts of aggression by these marauding bands of simians, she’d persuaded the army to shoot several of the alpha males. I know of two people personally who had been bitten or scratched recently. This had necessitated rabies prevention injections – not pleasant in itself. I am sorry to say I’m not mourning the loss of these big, aggressive macho-men of the monkey world.

5 December
Some of us woke up at 5.30 to the sound of drums booming gently from the Gomba below. There are over 150 monks here these days. We took breakfast on the terrace and then walked down into Thamel. Walking through Kimdol, crossing the poor, degraded sewer of a river. I can remember sitting on the banks of that river in lovely countryside in 1984. Such a pity. There are more than 3.5 million people living in the Kathmandu Valley these days and the environment has paid a heavy price. Still, I was pleased to see that the far bank of the river was no longer a rubbish dump with fat black pigs rooting through the fetid refuse. The road was newly-paved and new apartment buildings are popping up everywhere.

Fresh cinnamon rolls were being brought from the oven as we entered the Weizen. We shopped and shopped, ate a huge lunch and shopped some more. Dorje took Frank to Pashupati with its strange holy men and burning ghats.

We had bought Australian wine for our dinner and my friend Julie joined us on the garden terrace. We were all a bit tired. Shopping is much harder work than trekking.

6 December
Liz left this morning. Always sad to see a group ‘breaking up’. We had become a tight little unit, being such a small group – just 5 Bideshi (foreigners). Having undertaken such a serious challenge together – Thorong La was no picnic – we had formed a mutually-supportive little band. Bye Liz, see you in Oz.

Liz’s departure was not plain sailing. After breakfast at Mangal’s house we had learned that the Maoist strike was full-on. No transport whatsoever. We were prepared to walk to the airport if necessary, with Mangal as porter. We walked down to Thamel first, hoping for a rickshaw at the very least. Luckily, the government had laid on a shuttle bus service to the airport. It wasn’t easy to shove Liz into the bus and thrust her backpack in After her, but we managed – somehow. Liz was defi nitely smiling as she waved from deep inside the crowded coach.

With the roads and lanes completely free of traffic it was a good afternoon to visit Durbar Square. Some of the pagodas are 600 years old and exquisitely proportioned. Even the Kumari, the Living Goddess, made an appearance at the window of her beautiful old home.

With our farewell dinner in town now out of the question we arranged to eat at the Vajra. It turned out to be a good choice. Their atmospheric dining room had an open fi re and our table was almost on top of it. Mangal and Dorje came with us, as did Julie. The wine was French, the food was excellent, the company engaging. Nice way to end the trek.

7 December
OK everybody – GO HOME! We had to duck into Thamel as we’d been unable to do the last-minute souvenir shopping the previous day due to the strike.

Frank had a list and sped up and down the road ticking items off the list. Calendars, Gurkha knife, Nepali cap, singing bowl. No worries. Mission accomplished, our mini bus appeared and whisked us all off to the airport.

Annapurna Circuit Trek
See you from Thorong La!

So long guys. Loved trekking with you Jon, Bob and Frank.

I’ll see Frank and Liz in Melbourne (I already have) but hope to catch up with Jon and Bob next time I am in Perth. Our growing band of customers in Perth deserves another visit.

Till next time, ‘Annapurna Circuit November 2009’


Thanks to Frank Jones, Desktop Dynamics, Geelong for editing & layout.

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Trek Report – 2009

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Read also trekking report – 2006 and 2007