Nepal – Part 2

Annapurna Circuit – Marsyangdi Valley

Thursday April 18, 2013 – Day 1 – Besi Sahar (820m) to Bhulbhule (840m)

From the ACAP checkpoint at Besi Sahar we made our way down the sloping dusty road, across a small wooden suspension bridge then along the road to Bhulbhule some 9kms away which took 2.5 hours. This first day of the trek, although relatively easy, still made us aware of how unfit we’d become living on a boat. Luckily for us we had plenty of time to do the trek and would make sure we didn’t overdo it.>02-Annapurna (14)

Friday April 19, 2013 – Day 2 – Bhulbhule (840m) to Ghermu (1140m)

After a reasonable sleep at the Thorong La Guest House in Bhulbhule, still at a low altitude, the slow 13km walk to Ghermu took about seven hours including many stops along the way for photos and a lunch break. One little girl on the way wouldn’t let me go and pestered me about giving her sweets. With two hands she firmly held onto my pinky and index finger and I had to pry her away. Her dad finally yelled something to her and she shied away. Once more, trekkers are asked by authorities not to encourage the children by giving them sweets or chocolates. I think that’s a really good idea as we’ve seen what kids turn out like when spoiled with goodies, particularly through Indonesia.02-Annapurna (16)

We lugged our way up very steep stone steps on the final leg to Bahundanda. Halfway up a deflated soccer ball came flying overhead and bounced down the steps. I grabbed it and decided to take it back to the top where I threw it to the delighted kids at the top. We then stopped at the Police checkpost – which is a requirement along the trek – to have our permits recorded. At the North Pole Restaurant we fed ourselves with a lunch of potato soup and veggie momos (momos are similar to Australia’s dim sims) and topped up on a couple of litres of water.

After a restful lunch we continued walking for another hour or so, arriving at the edge of the village of Ghermu. A group of young trekkers had chosen a venue to have lunch, and we decided we may stay the night. After inspecting the sleeping conditions and when told that the shower was in fact the outside water tap where an older woman was soaping her breasts and washing her bits next to the hungry trekkers, we decided to keep walking to find another suitable abode for the evening. Surely they can’t all be like that!

Within twenty minutes we’d arrived at the Peaceful Hotel at Ghermu run by a very enthusiastic owner and his young family. We had a feed of potato curry and rice, chapatti and pot of black tea. The small room at the guest house had two comfortable single beds and we tucked in for the night.

Saturday April 20, 2013 – Day 3 – Ghermu to Chyamche (1385m)

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Porters servicing the villages have enormously heavy loads on their backs or in the dokos (wicker baskets) on their backs. These loads are held on via their foreheads with traditional head-straps. Some loads can be up to 60kgs or more. They seem to carry anything from rocks, wood, fridges, TVs and very heavy bags of rice and supplies. As I was putting on my tidy 15kg backpack one morning, I was humbled by a very old woman who had a wooden cradle on her back with two huge granite blocks stacked on it.

Wayne is still not well. He’s had diarrhea for a couple of days which he’s dubbed ‘the Terrible-Awfuls’ (those who’ve read ‘The Help’ will understand).

Walking is pleasant in this temperate climate, while in the afternoon the rains tends to fall. Passing through the village of Jaget, the owner of a local guest house explained to us that the new road, which has basically replaced the original Annapurna walking track, has reduced the number of trekkers visiting villages along the way to Chame. Instead trekkers are taking jeeps to Chame to begin the trek from 2700m. His and other businesses have suffered as a result of this so while we chatted we bought a couple of drinks of Coke and Fanta.

The trek has been widened into the new road. The NATT trails are a good alternative.

The trek has been widened into the new road. The NATT trails are a good alternative.

To guide us on the journey we purchased an Around Annapurna map that includes the New Annapurna Trekking Trails (NATT) which avoid the road. The NATT trails are clearly marked with red/white paint marks on rocks for the main trail and blue/white marks for the side treks. They usually begin at villages, cross the rivers and take trekkers away from the dusty road and through very scenic and sometimes longer and steeper terrain before returning to the next village via a strong metal suspension bridge.

Supporting the map is an information guide on the NATT trails compiled by Andrées de Ruiter and Prem Rai and can be found here.

At this point in the track there are no snow-covered mountains to be seen but there is plenty of foliage and small villages. Alongside the track at this altitude is a carpet of green marijuana. We’ve noticed along the way the porters stop carrying their heavy loads stop every now and then for a pipe before continuing on their journey. Now we know why!

Picking up the pace we continued on to Chyamche before the heavens opened up. As the main road through the village turned into a river of mud, we decided to remain at the comfortable Hotel Chyamche guest house to dry off and have a yummy feed of potato soup and momos. A fellow yachtie back in Krabi suggested we take pepper or Tabasco sauce to Nepal to spice up the meals. Tobasco makes the momos just that little tastier, although I would suggest taking soy sauce for momos and rice dishes.

Sunday April 21, 2013 – Day 4 – Chyamche to Dharapani (1900m)

It’s around 8-12 degrees and there’s fresh snow on nearby mountains. From Chyamche we stopped at the pretty village of Tal for lunch before continuing on to Dharapani for the evening. We walked 11 kms that day and it took seven hours with all our stops along the way. We stayed at the colourful 7 Hotel in Dharapani.02-Annapurna (17) The region around Dharapani grows a lot of vegetables and grains which is generally transport by porter to the other villages further up the valley. Our guest house had concrete floors and walls which made it very cold. So cold in fact we were both tucked in our sleeping bags by 6.30pm just to keep warm! The bathroom had cold water only so for a hot gas shower we paid an extra Rp50 to the shed out the front of the guest house. It’s all very basic but enough to get clean, fed and rested. Most guest houses don’t have fireplaces to warm up, and the kitchen is the central place to sit by a hot fire.

Monday April 22, 2013 – Day 5 – Dharapani to Chame (2710m)

Day five and we’re both noticing the cobwebs around our muscles are dissipating as we become stronger through regular walking.

Potala Guest House at Chame

Potala Guest House at Chame

Leaving Dharapani at 8am we went to the ACAP checkpoint but we had to wait behind a guide who had about eight ACAP permits to have checked off. As such we didn’t get away until 8.30am. The guides do a lot for their clients, from ordering meals, getting permits stamped and liaising with locals, while the porters carry ridiculous loads on their backs allowing trekkers to walk freely with day packs or nothing at all.

The next leg of the trek was a steep ascend up hundreds of stone steps through trees to the small village of Temang where we would stop for lunch. Unfortunately before the steep incline, I had to run swiftly into the bushes for a bout of the Terrible-Awfuls. But fortunately it wasn’t on the narrow steep climb with all the other trekkers. Timing is everything.

The trek from Temang to Chame took a few more hours. We finally reached the prayer wheels and mani wall at the village of Chame and decided that the Potala Guest House was the place to stay for the night. With broken English, the owner invited us in and showed us our room on the first floor. Most places have a first floor only with cooking and dining areas plus other guest rooms on the lower floor. Today was a big day ascending from 1900m to 2700m. Given we want to slow the pace down while we approach the 3000m mark, we will stay another day in Chame.

Tuesday April 23, 2013 – Day 6 – Rest Day in Chame

Wayne’s stomach problem hadn’t eased and with a bad case of the Terrible-Awfuls, he decided to rest. So while he took it easy upstairs, I decided to enjoy the first day of real sunshine we’d had and get some washing done. I also waited until the power had returned to visit the internet café next door to the guest house and typed up some pages for my diary using a very crappy keyboard. The power situation is similar to that in Kathmandu in that it’s sporadic, however, many of the small villages have their own hydro power stations utilising the flow of the Marsyangdi River to generate power, but that isn’t always reliable.

I then went for a morning walk – so easy and enjoyable without my backpack. I walked passed mules and villagers also washing clothes then over the suspension bridge to the chorten outside of the village of Chame. Many trekkers left Chame for the journey to the village of Upper Pisang, some three hours walk away. Mules were loaded up to drop supplies at the many villages along the way. The blue sky was the perfect backdrop to the impressive snow-capped Annapurna II and I took plenty of photos.

We met a French couple, Olivier and Sonia, who are doing the trek in 12 days, with a porter to help them of course. I invited them to join us for dinner and we had a lovely evening sharing stories of trekking around the globe. They had previously lived in Australia for two years so they could share some stories about their time down under as well.

The owner of the Potala Guest House, Bhisal, although confident when speaking English, it was a little basic, but we could generally understand him. The two of us sat in the sun talking and he explained to me that he was 14 years younger than his wife which is unusual in Nepal. He’s 31 and his 44 year old wife and he have no children.

Wayne felt a little better in the afternoon so before sitting down for a dinner of garlic soup and corn bread, we sat with Bhisal watching the Indian Premier League Twenty20 cricket on satellite TV. Now, before I continue, I don’t enjoy cricket and unfortunately like in Australia, TV remote controls in Nepal are usually under control of the men-folk. Needless to say there was no any chance of me watching a repeat of Titanic. So instead we watched West Indian Chris Gayle reach the highest score ever – 17 sixes, 263. Okay, moving right along…

In the summer monsoon period when the trekkers are few, Bhisal makes medicine from local plants. He spent some time telling us that he owns yaks somewhere in the hills and showed us photos of his baby yak. With his confident but broken English, he had us confused by constantly referring to his ‘yak looking man’. This continued on for a while until we realised that he was referring to the ‘man who looks after his yaks’! Apparently Bhisal does so well throughout the year that he supports his ‘yak looking man’s’ children by sending them to boarding school in Kathmandu. This phrase would stick with us.

This trek is not what I expected, although I wasn’t exactly sure what I was to expect. There are many paradoxes in Nepal, as there are in most developing countries, between traditional and modern. For example as we progress further into the trek along the steep Marsyangdi valley, the locals dress traditionally, but wear plastic Crocs on their feet; they have houses made from stone and mud, but have satellite dishes on top; they cook on wood stoves but have WIFI. Either way it’s all very progressive and certainly much more interesting than I expected. The original trek was replaced by the dirt road only three years prior. It certainly has diluted the incoming stream of trekkers for the local businesses along the beginning of the trek from Besi Sahar to Chame. Although the businesses up to Chame can now receive frequent supplies, they have less customers and are disappointingly aware that the trek may have lost its former appeal.

For anyone considering the trek, I would highly recommend beginning the trek from Besi Sahar as the walk either on the road or the NATT trails are really most enjoyable.

Wednesday April 24, 2013 – Day 7 – Chame to Upper Pisang (3310m)

The 13km walk from Chame to Dhukur Pokhari was a gain of 500m in altitude. Arriving at 1pm we stopped at the Kamala Hotel for lunch to rest for a while before continuing on for another hour to reach Upper Pisang for the evening.

Popcorn at the Yak and Yeti Hotel, Upper Pisang

Popcorn at the Yak and Yeti Hotel, Upper Pisang

From the ‘Yak and Yeti Guest House’ in Upper Pisang we had great views of Annapurna II and the village of Lower Pisang. The guest house is old, but warm and friendly as the owner cooked up popcorn on a wood fire and prepared food for other guests, guides and porters.

After dinner we all sat in a small dining room and although we all spoke different languages, we all laughed at the silly antics of Bear Grylls’ ‘Man Versus Wild’ as he outrageously manoeuvred his way over rivers, canyons and glaciers, only to build himself a raft of old cans, spit, chewing gum and sticks to carry him over the sea to be rescued. Now THAT was terrible-awful!

Thursday April 25, 2013 – Day 8 – Upper Pisang to Ngawal (3680m)

We’re now over 3000m – an important altitude to be mindful of the symptoms of altitude mountain sickness (AMS). To avoid AMS it’s wise not to sleep higher than 300m altitude from the day before. Our trip this ANZAC Day would see us ascend from 3300m to 3660m, with the highest point to pass at Ghyaru 3710m.02-Annapurna (43)

The walk from Upper Pisang was pleasant for most of the time but the last hour or so up to Ghyaru was very steep. We stopped at a tea-house for a rest and cup of tea before continuing on to Ngawal where we would stay for the night. Our room at the new Tibet Guest House opposite the gompa, had an adjoining bathroom and was Rp600. A sharp increase from the Rp200 we’d been used to paying! Either way it is ridiculously cheap. Included in the room were the thickest blankets I’ve ever had the fortune to use – we were so warm that night!

The lovely gompa at Ngawal overlooking the Marsyangdi Valley

The lovely gompa at Ngawal overlooking the Marsyangdi Valley

Friday April 26, 2013 – Day 9 – Ngawal – Bhraka (3450m)

A little weary, with budding blisters and a slight headache, we left the pretty village of Ngawal and walked three hours to Bhraka (or Braga). We could have walked to Manang but we’d read that Bhraka is actually a little nicer to stay than Manang.

Each day the trek offers different views. The foliage is sparser as we head into the rocky terrain surrounded by snow-capped mountains up to 8000m in height. It’s hard to believe those mountains are four kilometres higher than where we are!

We ambled into the Himalayan Guest House and Super Restaurant in Bhraka, and had ginger tea and a cinnamon bun for lunch. There is a nice sun room at the back of the guest house and a warm fireplace in the main dining room at the front.02-Annapurna (29)

Saturday April 27, 2013 – Days 10/11 – Rest day in Bhraka

It’s a sunny day so we took a break and stayed another day to acclimatise. I’d had a bad headache for a couple of days and wanted to be sure all would be okay.

With the sound of distant drums filtering through the town of Bhraka reminding me of the madcap game of Jumanji, we walked up to the stone village on the hill near the 500 year old Bhraka gompa to witness the Archery festival, an annual event held in spring for the locals. It was a very steep, slippery walk on the dust up to the archery area. There is a huge field below the village, making me wonder why they held the event on the rooftops of the stone village homes and not in the big paddock below. Maybe they were scared of shooting a cow? Approaching the archers as they prepared for the competition, we had to be careful as they were shooting from both directions including our direction!

The owner of the guest house has a daughter who studied and now works as a nurse in Melbourne. Actually she lives in the suburb of Sunshine West, coincidentally where Wayne used to live in his teens. The owner’s son speaks very good English and also wants to travel to Australia to study accounting; an interesting choice I thought. He said he learned English in the boarding schools in Kathmandu. Apparently the government schools in Nepal are not very good, and boarding schools are preferred for a good education and to learn English. He amazed me by telling me that he doesn’t speak Nepalese as well as he should and doesn’t write it as well as English.

One of the drugs I purchased in Kathmandu was Diamox, which helps reduce the incidence of AMS by tweaking up the body’s way of managing CO2. As my headache was getting worse without any rise in altitude, I took my first tablet of Diamox before I went to bed.

After drifting to sleep to the sounds of Jumanji, during the night I woke with the worst headache; so much so that I thought I’d have to descend to get better. Twice during the night I doped up on Ibuprofen and miraculously woke up feeling pretty good. Diamox is a diuretic so I was up peeing all night too. It also made my fingers, toes and lips slightly tingly. I continued to take 250mg of Diamox each morning and night until I began my descent.

Monday April 29, 2013 – Day 12 – Bhraka to Manang (3540m)

The walk to Manang from Bhraka is only about 20 minutes but Manang is the larger of the two villages. The Himalayan Rescue Association in Manang hosts a lecture on altitude sickness each day during the trekking seasons. Even though we’ve read a lot about AMS, HACE (high altitude cardiac oedema), and HAPE (high altitude pulmonary oedema), it’s always good to listen to these talks. I also wanted to ask a few questions of my own, given the headaches I’d had the few days before.

An interesting thing to note about the guest houses and food along the trek is that they’re all pretty standard. Most have the same menus, prices, receipt books, sugar bowls, and room costs. As the accommodation costs are very cheap, it’s standard practice (almost compulsory in most cases) to eat breakfast and dinner at the lodges where you stay, as that’s where they make their money.02-Annapurna (54)

The cooks at the restaurants are surprisingly good and can whip up a variety of food from scratch and I’m pleased with the quality of the food (mind you I’d eat cardboard if it was smothered in tomato sauce!). The food is basic and stodgy but just what we need on a trek to keep up the carbs. The food is mostly fried and usually contains at least carrots, cabbage or egg but overall it’s good enough fare to fill your belly in the evening and keep your kilojoules up – fried potatoes, eggs, omelettes, porridge, sweet black tea and coffee, Yak burgers, pizzas, macaroni and cheese, chow mien, apple pie and custard or chocolate pudding and of course cinnamon buns. Beer and liquor is also available too. Some trekkers go a little overboard by carrying vitamins and minerals for the trek, but they’re probably just the sensitive Gen-Ys (wink!).02-Annapurna (55)

Unfortunately the food at the Hotel Yeti in Manang wasn’t the best and after a serve of garlic soup for lunch (supposed to be a very good fix-all meal), I ended up once more with a case of the Terrible-Awfuls.

The locals in Nepal – both men and women – can often be heard throughout the day, but particularly in the mornings, hacking and spitting large goobies onto the streets. I sort of got used to the sound, but I never got used to it when I heard the sound coming from the kitchens…

At this altitude the days are sunny but the nights can be very cold. We brought old North Face down sleeping bags with us which are still very warm after all this time since we bought them in San Francisco 22 years ago. We also brought along our Goretex bivvy sacks which although we could have lived without, certainly added a bit more comfort.

Important items to bring are trekking poles. I learnt to love my poles a few treks ago and wouldn’t trek without them. Wayne bought a cheap pole in Kathmandu and supplemented it with a bamboo stick he found for the remainder of the trip. Another must-have item is a water filter. The water in Nepal should not be drunk unless it’s been purified and filtered, and of course with over 64000 tourists each year, NTNC-ACAP want to reduce the amount of plastic bottle waste. Wayne bought a Katadyn filter unit in Kathmandu and it’s great to filter water in no time at all. Of course given we’ve both had the Terrible-Awfuls, it just goes to show how easily you can get sick here. One more important item is sunscreen. Apparently with every 1000 metres increase in altitude, UV levels increase by 10% to 12%.

Tuesday April 30, 2013 – Day 13 – Manang to Ice Lake (4600m)

Ice Lake at 4600m

Ice Lake at 4600m

Both feeling good so today we got up early and tackled the trek to the Ice Lake. An 1100m climb from Manang at 3540m to Ice Lake at 4600m. I thought if I could conquer this I could definitely continue on to complete the pass.

The trail to the Ice Lake above Bhraka was very steep, narrow and long.

The trail to the Ice Lake above Bhraka was very steep, narrow and long.

We left the Hotel Yeti by 6.15am to reach the Ice Lake before the wind and clouds rolled in sometime in mid-morning. Walking back to Bhraka to begin the hard climb we made our way up the very steep scree slope ascending slowly but steadily over four hours to arrive near the top by 10.30am. After half an apple Danish and half a Snickers bar, I left Wayne resting in the sunshine and walked to the scenic Ice Lake to take some photos.

After admiring the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, we descended in two hours (half the time) but it was hard on my knees. The reduced oxygen at this altitude didn’t really bother me as we had only day packs, but it was surprising to think we were up at 4600m.

Weary at the end of the side-trip to the Ice Lake, we staggered into the Himalayan Guest House Super Restaurant for a cup of tea and snack but still feeling the effects of yesterday’s garlic soup, I didn’t feel like eating and was very tired. We paid our bill and shuffled back to Manang and threw ourselves on our beds for a rest – boots and all. We woke at 5.30pm for a hot shower before hoeing into a stodgy dinner of egg and cheese sandwich, spring rolls and chips – my appetite had returned.

Wednesday May 1, 2013 – Day 14 – Manang

02-Annapurna (56)Another sunny day so I washed clothes before having coffee and stale bickies at Sannas Bakery. Now I don’t want to bore you with a list of all the ailments we’ve had so far on this trip, but in two weeks our health has improved but we’re mindful that a dose of diarrhea or any other problems may impact our chance of going over the Thorong La Pass. As such, we decided to book a porter from Manang to the top of the pass.

The rise in elevation to reach the pass would be 2000m from Manang. Even though we had no tent or cooking gear, 15kg packs are still reasonably weighty at altitude, especially when you’re a little unfit. A stop at Mavis’s outdoor store in Manang had us chatting with the delightful owner and former teacher who spoke English very well. We asked her how we would find a porter and later that day she arranged for us to meet Bhes Bahadur Rai, a young guy who agreed to stop farming for a few days to carry our pack. We would leave the next morning.

Thursday May 2, 2013 – Day 15 – Manang to Letdar (4200m)

Bhes has a wife and a two year old daughter and took time off from his potato farm to carry one of our packs to the top of the pass. Bhes was delighted because ours was the lightest pack he’d ever carried for a client. We spread our load by giving him my backpack with both our sleeping bags, bivvies, clothes and other bits and pieces – not more than 15kgs of stuff. All he had for himself was a small daypack and a bottle of water. I had a small day pack we’d bought in Manang and carried water, raincoat had and other things, while Wayne carried his backpack, clothes, water filter, iPad and associated gadgetry. The three day engagement was a good earner for Bhes – a small sum for us but a huge sum for him. By helping us get to the top of the pass, he’d have enough time to get down to his family. If we hired him all the way down the other side to Muktinath, he’d have to walk back up the horrendously steep climb to the top of the pass and would have taken at least two days more.

Our porter on the right, father-in-law on the left and friend making necklaces in the middle.

Our porter on the right, father-in-law on the left and friend making necklaces in the middle.

The three of us arrived at the small village of Yak Kharka by 11.30am. It was quite an easy walk and we could have done it with our full packs. Stopped at the Gangapurna Lodge and Wayne and I shared a yummy chicken burger and fries. As we were stuffing our faces with the much needed carbs, it began snowing outside.

Through the cold and light snow, we reached the Snow View Lodge in Letdar, which is owned by one of Bhes’ friends. This particular guest house has no electricity and the walls were made with dried mud but blankets they provided to put over our sleeping bags kept us toasty.

Friday May 3, 2013 – Day 16 – Letdar to High Camp (4850m)

The walk from Letdar to Thorong Phedi at 4400m took two hours and was quite straightforward. We stopped for a black tea and half a Snickers bar each. After a rest, Bhes chatted with the locals while we continued on to High Camp to get a head start. We were a lot slower than he was and it wasn’t long before he caught up with us.

The trek to High Camp only took one hour of slow and steady uphill walking till we reached 4850m. It was a beautiful sunny day and the highest altitude we’ve ever been. There are a few other couples trekking and given our age and fitness (or lack of it), we did fine keeping step with them. Wayne’s pack must weigh no more than 12kgs and he’s doing very well considering he was going to keel over a couple of weeks before.

Arriving at High Camp – the last place before the pass – we had a cold but comfortable enough room to spend the night. Apparently one guy owns all the accommodation at High Camp. For lunch at the High Camp dining area we had apple pie and custard (because we could) and a pot of black tea. Dinner was a yummy feed of pasta with sauce smothered in cheese.

As with most toilets in these regions, fresh water is usually available instead of toilet paper, however the water provided at High Camp toilets is collected from the run-off from the camp, including the run-off from the toilet blocks. Needless to say take plenty of toilet paper and hand disinfectant in this part of the world.
high camp

I had a fitful night’s sleep adjusting to 4850m as the oxygen at this level is almost 50% of that at sea-level. I took my regular dose of Diamox and two Ibuprofen during the night to stem the pulsating headache. Laying awake in the eerie silence, I could hear my heart beating slowly – so slow that I thought it may stop if I went to sleep. I was wide awake at 3am and unfortunately had to go out in the cold for a pee in the smelly toilets, taking my head-torch so I wouldn’t trip over into the muck and slip into the run-off drain.

Bleary-eyed we got up at 4am, had breakfast of fried egg, toast and sweet tea and left camp by 5.15am. As dawn began to break the sky was clear and the snow covered mountains towering above looked spectacular.

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