Annapurna Sanctuary Trail : October 2010


The Annapurna Sanctuary lies deep within the Annapurna Range in Nepal. It is most accessible from the city of Pokhara which is a 25 minute plane ride from Kathmandu , or a bone jarring, bus dodging, cliff riding bus ride which can take anywhere from 6-12 hours. The peak season of trekking is the months of October and November, during which time tea houses and lodges are filled to the brim with hikers (and would-be hikers). During these months, the Rhododendron (Nepali national flower) are not in bloom, however, some of the trees do display a hint of fall colours. Grand mountains aside, the other natural attractions of the walk include the vast diversity of flora and fauna encountered along the journey. At its base, there are several options to hike in and out , however, all paths converge at a town called Chomrong from which there is only one route in and out of its final destination ; Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). The route we took was that laid out by the local company Himalayan Encounters (the partner for Intrepid Travel).

Our group was relatively large in comparison to previous experiences. 6 couples from Australia, New Zealand, USA and the UK. Our group leader’s English was very good, our assistant guide’s knowledge of the local area and people also superb, and our 4 porters (each carrying 2-3 bags) tireless and constantly smiling throughout the journey.

Having done the Everest Base Camp trek in 2006, I was constantly making comparisons in my head between the two regions. The sanctuary trail is as lush as the Everest trail is vast. It is flowing with streams while Everest is barren save for the rivers at valley’s drop. There is far less Tibetan and Buddhist influence on this trail (if any at all).  Both treks offer unbelievable panoramic views at their endpoints, however, the sense of grandeur can be tempered by the prevailing weather conditions. The sanctuary trail is less severe in altitude with a high point of 4130m at ABC, while the viewing point from Kala Pathar is well over 5500m. This was important for us as Marianne had not been able to ascend past 4900m on the previous trip. The altitude map on the Everest trek is far gentler with a gradual ascent to each location followed by a long descent back to its start point. The sanctuary trail however, often includes long descents as part of an overall ascent. Finally, our interest in photography was far less keen in 2006 meaning that for our Everest trek, I was carrying only clothes, drinks and a camera on my back. For this trip, adding in a tripod, 2 other lenses and various filters resulted in approximately 11-13 kg on my back for the trip.

Day 1: Nayapul to Tikhedhungga (1500m)

The first day is really an introduction to the area. The small town of Nayapul lies about 1.5 hours from Pokhara along the highway to Bagulung. It is a congested area with trekkers beginning and ending treks of varying durations in the mountains. The ascent is relatively easy ; 500m for the day. The path is well paved for the most part, and altitude not playing a role in fatigue at all. As is usual for a first day’s trek, conversations are fast flowing with ‘getting to know each other’ types of questions. There were no views of the peaks in the area yet but we were all still enthusiastic and fresh without a hint of sore muscles. At the end of the day, it was a surprise to end up at a guesthouse with showering facilities! I remember not having any on the EBC trek except at Namche Bazaar ,so this was a luxury. The mountain food quality was not compromised at this location and we would find that it wouldn’t be compromised for the entire journey to ABC. The only variable was the rising price along the trail which rose accordingly with altitude and rising difficulty transporting goods there.

The sun falls behind the mountain ridges on the first day of trekking

Day 2: Tikhedhungga to Ghorepani  (2850m)

This day felt like a ‘test’ day to see if we could make the rest of the journey. Even though altitude was only starting to play a part toward the end of the day, 1300m ascent does strange things to willpower and unused muscles. Most of the group were pretty stiff and sore by the end of the day. We were however, encouraged greatly by the first peeks of Macchapuchchre along the way. Reaching Ghorepani from the bottom is a little deceiving and it was a pattern that we would find with many towns along the way. Many towns on the trail were spread out over a hundred metres of altitude. As it turned out, our tea house, the Sunny lodge, was located at the top of Ghorepani. After yet another unexpected hot shower and the facility to dry clothes over a stove, we settled down to rest. For some reason, I decided to play basketball with some of the local children which resulted in instant calf cramps. Sunset looked promising however there was only a momentary glimpse of the mountains during the amazing light. Another pattern that developed on this trek was a very early night after the day’s walking. We were all in bed by 8pm hoping to get to Poon Hill the following morning for dawn.

Barely visible mountains from Ghorepani

Day 3: Poon Hill (3200m)/Ghorepani to Tadapani (2630)

A 4am wake up call for a 430am start up to Poon Hill in the dark. Once again there was a sense of quiet expectation but along the 45 minute walk, the visibility changed from clear starry skies, to complete cloud cover with sprinkles of rain. When dawn came, only parts of the Annapurna Range were visible and nearly none of Dhaulagiri. Breakfast was a welcome relief after hiking down in half the time it took to climb. During the day, the hiking was typical of hills section of the trek with many uphills and downhills making up the dreaded “Nepali flat”. Waterfalls and raging streams were abundantly flowing through the jungle. At one point, our group, which contained at least 4 keen photographers, stopped to shoot some of the flowing water. At which point , another group of American tourists stated “What is they are seeing? Is it really that beautiful?”. An interesting comment. It made Marianne and me wonder whether people do this trek (and other treks) just to have another “tick box” filled for treks around the world rather than appreciate the beauty of the trek proper. By the end of the day, we had ascended 900m to descent a net 400m. The clouds passed in and out over the mountains but we were entertained by a supposedly renowned elderly porter who was very keen to interact with us and pose for pictures. He had been challenging all manner of comers that day to a race at ABC.Another early night, another grey dawn.

We were forewarned that nearly everyone on the trek would fall ill at some point on the trek and this was almost true to form. Two of the group had hacking coughs while many others had the sniffles. At this point, I had developed diarrhoea (which I presumed was from drinking cold milk that morning for breakfast). Thankfully, it was self limiting and only lasted one day. We were all quite religious with our water purification and tried to trek with the ecology in mind by not buying plastic bottled drinks and only taking showers where heating wasn’t provided by burning wood.

Annapurna Range from Poon Hill at dawn

Cascades along the walk to Tadapani

Day 4: Tadapani to Chomrong(2170m)

Much of this day was walked in grey , misty conditions with sprinkles of rain in between. Packing for this trip was very different from the Everest Base Camp trek. The almost tropical conditions all the way until at least heading past Bamboo meant that most of our clothes were sweat drenched by the end of the day. We did not have this concept at the start of the trip. I had brought three T-shirts but decided that completely soiling one was the way to go. Rain did not help matters as wearing our goretex waterproofs meant that we were drenched with sweat rather than rain. No matter how much goretex claims to be breathable – it simply isn’t. The nights were somewhat cooler above 2000m but we found that our heavy duty sleeping bags were unzipped for all but 1 or 2 nights. We were also glad that we had only packed one set of fleece and we really only needed it the last day of ascent. Our pattern at the end of each day was to rinse our clothes, wring them dry, then sleep with them underneath our sleeping bags to dry them. The following morning, donning damp clothes was somewhat unpleasant, but they were usually dry within an hour of walking, if not redrenched with sweat!

It was not a day for taking sweeping landscapes at all.

Day 5: Chomrong to Bamboo (2310m)

Chomrong is a relatively large town located at the junction of several routes from the south. Our guesthouse (Excellent View Guesthouse) was located at the top of the town. We were told that from here on end, there would be little western food and so, to order out last western meal if we so desired. It turned out that the meals were actually pretty standard throughout the trek. All of the menus were printed with certification from the ACAP and were pretty much standardised in content and price according to altitude. At Chomrong, there was also the luxury of internet access for 10 rupee/minute. Ah the luxuries of modern life.  After the previous damp day, our spirits were yet again buoyed by views of the mountains through shifting cloud in the morning. It was always a calming experience to sit back and watch the clouds and mist shift rapidly around the mountains and through the valleys.

The day’s trekking was once again typical with steep ascents and descents. The paths really started to narrow from here which led to several problems. First of all, these paths were also livestock routes which meant that the freshness of the mountain air was soiled with the smell of dung. Secondly, the same livestock would also congest the trail leading to many jams along the way. Finally, as Chomrong was a convergence of paths toward ABC, human traffic was also significantly higher and we found that overall, people seem either too focused on their own walking to give way to faster walkers, or they simply won’t give way to break rhythm. Our previous experiences in Tasmania, New Zealand and South America were that most hikers are willing to give way as the first option rather than hoping that someone else will adapt to another’s rhythm or give way first. Perhaps it’s a symptom of its own popularity and growing accessibility that those who don’t usually trek are now beginning to use the trail.

Along the way, we passed a town of Sinuwa for lunch where our guide displayed clear fondness for the guesthouse owner’s daughter. She clearly attracted a lot of the guesthouse’s traffic and our group even made the extra yards on the way down to this location, in part, for the amusement of watching our guide in action!

Sleepy village of Bamboo

Day 6: Bamboo to Deurali (3200m)

The previous day had included a steep downhill to Bamboo in the rain. That meant altitude needed to be regained. On this day, the ascents were steep and once again done in inclement weather. There were several river crossings which were bridged by rickety wood bridges. In many cases, the better option was to hop across rocks rather than risk falling in through the so called planks. We noticed that there was far less pony traffic to ferry goods to and from ABC but in their place, porters carrying heaving baskets all the way from ABC to Chomrong in a day.We also noticed that there were no yaks on this trek which was a little sad as we had taken a liking to them on the previous trek. By the day’s end, we were still deep in a valley with no clear views of the mountains and accordingly, group spirits were a little low. At 3200m, the altitude not only played havoc with breathing patterns, but also with micturition. In the course of the evening there, I must have voided 2L in 5 visits to the toilet. Several others in the group were also suffering from similar problems. The only good to come of those frequent visits was being out in the night when it finally cleared to a brilliant moonlit night and shortly after moonfall, a dark starry sky. The following morning dawned clear for our ascent to ABC.

Deurali in the mist after dark

Day 7: Deurali to Annapurna Base Camp (4130m)

A clear crisp morning and more damp rancid clothes to dry off in the morning’s walk. In the clear of morning, we could see that we were ascending above the vegetation line where the land was starting to look more barren and covered by heath rather dense jungle. To our right, we caught fleeting glimpses of Macchapuchchre through gaps in the lower mountains. By morning tea , we had huffed, puffed and sweated our way to Macchapuchchre base camp (MBC) at 3700m. In retrospect, I should have suspected that Marianne’s tolerance of altitude was starting to flag as she had not finished the previous night’s dinner nor lunch at MBC. However, the rush of seeing Macchapuchchre close up and mild hypoxia meant that I tended to ignore these signs. After lunch, it was only several kilometres to ABC at 4130m but this took us over 2 hours due to the altitude and the carefully slow pace of our guides. Once the camp was in sight, I walked on ahead and reached ABC in the mist. I watched the locals playing volleyball thinking that after one rally I would be heaving up blood from pulmonary oedema. The porters were still in good spirits and I could see the rest of the group approaching , so I headed back down with tripod and camera to frame that misted moment. Marianne seemed good – not cyanosed, not breathing too hard and even able to run the last few steps up to ABC to a greeting of high fives from all.  When we were summoned in the tea room for compulsory garlic soup, it was easy to tell that the altitude had taken its toll on nearly all of the group. Most looked lethargic, some holding their heads and everyone universally at least 10db quieter in speech. Our guide then took us walking to a slightly higher altitude where the most eventful night of the trip began to unfold.

The Group at ABC

Marianne was starting to feel unwell on the acclimatisation walk and returned to the dining hall once again not looking like she did at EBC when she was very unwell. I walked on to a very steep crest overlooking Annapurna south’s glacier. Even though cloud shrouded the area, I could imagine that when it was clear, standing in the middle of these enormous mountains would have been a sight to parallel standing atop Kala Pathar.  On the way back down, I lingered a little longer with 2 other members of the group hoping for some clearing of the skies when another member of the group ran up to indicate that Marianne was feeling worse. Along with the group leader, we took her outside of the dining hall and after some breaths of fresh air, she seemed to be better. Once again, not cyanosed, no headache, heart rate a healthy 80bpm and not breathing fast at rest.

Dinner time came and all she could stomach was the soup of her vegetable noodles while I polished off everything put in front of me and the rest of her dinner. At bed time, in retrospect, I did notice that even getting things out of her sleeping bag and brushing her teeth resulted in shortness of breath but she no longer felt like vomiting. We went to bed in the cold room with damp clothes under us again. Some time in the middle of the night, I noticed Marianne get out of bed, presumably to visit the toilet. I fell back asleep and was woken by our assistant guide saying that ‘Santoshi’ (Marianne’s christened Nepali name for the trip) was not well. I jumped out of bed and found her a little short of breath, in tears and dry retching. Later, I found out that in that previous half an hour, she had arisen nauseated and tried to get help from the local staff who seemed to have been drinking and could not really understand that all she wanted was to discuss her condition with our group leader. By this time at midnight, it was pitch black, the weather unpredictable and MBC a good 2-3 hours away in the dark. We decided to see if we could go down a little way to discover at what altitude her symptoms woudl resolve. Altitude sickness is a strange condition and seems to have a very precise line for each individual as we had only walked down about 50m in altitude when Marianne started to feel better. The assistant guides brought some blankets down from the dining room and set up a bed atop a rock (ironically shaped like a bed) and together, we intended to sleep there overnight. The temperature had plummeted by now to below zero. Condensation from our body heat and breath frosted around us and on top of our sleeping bags. During the course of the next few hours, I got no sleep but more importantly, Marianne did. I made 5 trips back to ABC firstly to get our sleeping bags, 2 trips the rest of our gear down so that the group could move the next morning, 1 more for Marianne’s camera gear for the morning, and finally, one more trip back up to take dawn from the previous day’s vantage point knowing that Marianne was safe and well.  During the night under the stars, the clouds cleared to reveal sights I can’t describe and which I hope the following photographs might give a sense of. Moonlit mountains, a myriad of stars, shifting clouds and pure darkness in the pure mountain air.  Once Marianne was OK, I didn’t care that I was cold and sleepless – I would stay up just gawking in awe at this amazing scenery.

Our bed of stone under the full moon and stars

Macchapuchchre at night

Macchapuchchre at night

 

Blazing dawn over the Annapurnas

Day 8: Annapurna Base Camp to Sinuwa (2360m)

Overnight, all of the mountains surrounding ABC were visible. Clouds crept in after dawn lit their tops but the sensation of satisfaction was glowing in all of us as we now felt that all of that hard work was worthwhile. Taking images of the area was a separate matter with hundreds of people standing around. In some cases, using iphones trying multiple occasions to take the impossible image posing subjects staring into the sun and sky. I’m afraid that if 5 attempts aren’t successful, the next 5 probably won’t be either.

I high fived a now hungry and healthy Marianne on my last trip down to the rock and saw her off as she headed down to MBC ahead of the group with one of the assistant guides. The rest of us managed to walk down to MBC in 45 minutes what had taken 150minutes the previous day. As we descended, knees were jarred, a few close calls for falls went by, alternating sun, rain and mist intervened. We had descended 2000m to Bamboo and made the final walk to Sinuwa up steep steps where we arrived at 5pm , just before the sun had set. At the same tea house, there was a large Japanese camping group who had used up all of the tea house hot water in the showers and were taking up much of the space in the teahouse itself. It seems odd to me that a camping trip still uses up the same tea house resources and more. In my rush to get clean, I used a concrete washing platform and managed to knock my head on the tap resulting in an embarrassing scalp wound which bled more than it was severe.

Since Marianne and I had spent the last night on a rock, our  group leader was kind enough to offer us one of two double rooms for the evening while 2 groups of 4 shared rooms. The two of us and the guides slept very well that night. We were entertained by the looks between our guide and the guesthouse owner’s daughter as well as his 4 year old daughter dancing for us to some upbeat nepali music. Consistent with the constant cry of “Sweets” from the Nepali children we passed, the girl received a couple of twix bars from her father following the performance.

Our guide with "love interest" ...ahem

A little girl dances for us at Sinuwa

Day 9: Sinuwa to Jhinu (1780m)

After the previous day’s long slog, we all appreciated a slight sleep-in with the day’s walking starting at 9am instead of the customary 7-730am. The rain managed to stay away for the whole day but due to the lower altitude, we were still sweating crazily by the end of the day. Moods were lighter, conversations brighter and all of us just feeling that little bit  healthier from the descent. We were even allowed to stride up to Chomrong at our own pace. I made it up there in 24 minutes just behind one other member of the group while the last person walked in at just over 40 minutes. Not a bad spread of times for the group in terms of how relatively close we all were in terms of fitness.  After lunch , a long descent to Jhinu and a further 15 minutes’ walk to the hot springs after settling in to the guest house.

I found it a little amusing that after all this time on the trek, after all of this dirtiness and hard work we had done, that there was still a bit of a rush for perceived comforts. Certain people want downstairs rooms, certain people want upstairs rooms, some want rooms with views etc. Marianne and I decided that we would wait for it all to settle and take the room that was away from everyone else and furthest from the amenities. This suited us as there would be no discontent from the group, and, more importantly, after this long with a group, we were starting to wish for our freedom again (despite the group being one of the better and more carefree groups we have travelled with). I guess we’re not made 100% for group travel.

The hot springs at Jhinu were a fantastic way to sooth aching muscles and relax. The water was just right and its popularity meant that the two pools were absolutely packed with locals and travellers alike. Our porters and guide looked as though they had been savouring this moment for the whole trip having saved up soap for a very foamy and thorough clean. While we were bathing there, a deaf and mute masseuse started massaging me without asking. I feared that he would then ask for a fee but he ended up doing the rounds of our group members giving a very firm and seemingly professional massage. His gratis ploy worked as later in the evening, two of our group enlisted his paid services for what I hear was a very worthwhile experience. Later that evening, a cultural show had been snapped up by one other tour group (who had been with us the entire way) so we had the pleasure of watching our porters and guides perform their own renditions of folk songs including the ever popular Resham Phee Ree Ree. Some of the group got stuck into the local liquour (Raksi) which smelt a combination of  petrol , methylated spirits and a good watering down. I think we all slept quite well that night with soothed muscles and feeling good that there was only one more long day of trekking in sight.

The congested hot springs at Jhinu

Day 10: Jhinu to Pothana (1890m)

It was the usual cool start to the day and damp clothes from the previous day’s hot springs bath. We descended immediately to our low point for the day of 1300m before steadily climbing for the rest of the day to the high point of Deurali at 2100m. Along the way, the relatively large towns of Landruk and Tolka provided great photographic opportunities and food breaks. We must have all been in quite a rush to get to the final location since the forecast 7 hours of walking time compressed into 5.

Previously , I had written about ACE (Asian Compositional Envy) when hiking in China. While I tend to refer to it in a derogatory tone, it actually isn’t. There were a couple of people on the trek who wanted to know how I was taking pictures and asked. That’s the difference. If people ask, I have no photographic secrets to hide. But when people try to copy without asking and trying to be all furtive about it, I get annoyed. I mention this because I had stopped to take a picture of one waterfall which required a small scramble off the path including a large step and some slippery stones. A huge group of Italian trekkers going the other way saw me off the trail and all decided that it would be a great photo spot. One by one 5 of them proceeded to slip face first into the dirt , not learning the lesson from the other. I hope they took an image that was satisfying and worth the black faces.

What was satisfying for us was finally reaching Deurali up the last gruelling hill that seemed to go on forever and ever. At the top, we experienced the dreaded rapid cooling from sweat drying that had us all pushing on to Pothana as soon as we had caught our breath. Marianne and I had previously been to the start of the Annapurna trekking route in 2006. We independently walked to Pothana before finding our way back to Tanchok and Lumle and bussing it out. By some stroke of luck, our group were staying in the same guest house in Pothana! Our guide was good enough to even let us have the same room for sentimental purposes. As it turned out, it was next to the toilet and had no washing line but that didn’t matter now! The day’s clothes were going to the soiled clothes bag as far down as we could shove into our backpack and somehow I had managed to spare one set of relatively clean clothes for the trek out. Coincidentally as well, the weather turned misty , rainy and then cleared over night to give us a great dawn the following morning in exactly the same way as it had in 2006.

A slightly sour note now to end the trek. Everything was going to the usual routine until there was the mention of tips for the end of the trek. Our guide made mention that porters should get 6000RS and the assistant guides 8000RS. The trip notes had mentioned that tipping the tour leader was at our own discretion but if so, the recommended was 2-3USD per person per day. This was where interpretation led to disagreement. To cut a long story short, my advice to future groups about the tipping issue is to step back and think “Am I imposing my values and what I believe to be correct – on to others in the group and on to those receiving the tips?”. If the answer is a vague yes – then step back, no one is going to stop you from contributing what you believe is fair, you just may have to do it on the side separately from the group. The lowest common denominator will always apply and trying to enforce various degrees above that ALWAYS results in some degree of resentment even if unspoken.

Marigolds and the Annapurna Range from Pothana

Day 11: Pothana to Pokhara

Exit! We were all glad! Glorious sunny sweaty weather for the final descent from 1890m to 1000m and then a quick bus ride back to Pokhara and hotel amenities! The walk down was in glorious conditions where the clearly visible mountains beckoned us to stay. Sad to leave, glad to leave was my sentiment. Along the bus ride back, we found that we weren’t the only ones glad. The porters and guides seemed even happier and broke out into song and dance on the 40 minute trip back to Pokhara from Phedi. ( I like to think that there was an element of spontaneity about it rather than doing it for our sake).

That afternoon, we spent our time getting clean, destunk, rested and finally out for a night of tame celebrations at the Phewa Park Cultural show. Some residual elements of displeasure with tipping was evident but on the whole I don’t think it ruined the night. I think it was a shame that such a material issue could slightly taint a journey that was really about anything but material values. I will remember nearly every step along the way and hope that the photographs and videos will inspire us to return and hopefully, others to visit the area for the first time. Forget pride, forget western values, forget achievement, forget competition – just venture out there and appreciate. We will be back to Nepal again in the future though I don’t know when or where as yet !

-D

Paragliding in Pokhara as part of relaxation post-trek.

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Posted on October 30, 2010, in How we..., M&D Corner, Nepal, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Amazing pics & account of your awesome adventure in the Himalayas ! Thanks for sharing your passions, poetic genius and artistic superlatives with us — especially those who can only live those precious experiences through your lenses. I only have this quote to share:
    “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” ~
    Marcel Proust

  2. Thanks once again auntie – we will be doing a coffee book for our own purposes 😉
    We will probably be writing another article for the australian photography magazine on iceland though.

  3. So proud of you both! It is never too soon to start building that impressive bio and a legacy of aesthetics and adventure. I am sure the coffee table book will be a huge success!

  4. Great story! I am going this October / November 2011. Could you please tell me the part of the month you were there? Early October or later in the month? You mentioned rain and mist often and I had assumed that end of October was dry.

    Thank you for sharing your trip.
    Dan

    • Hi Dan,

      Thanks for your comments. We did the trek right in the middle two weeks of October, but the Annapurna Sanctuary trail is known for its picturesque meanderings through rhododendron forests and scattered with streams at the lower altitudes. It can be close and humid at times, and there are no wide vistas until the last couple of days on the trail. October/November is meant to be the best time to trek as the days are generally dry and sunny, and in fact, when we did the Everest Base Camp trek in late October 2006 we did not see a single drop of rain. But – the guides told us that the group who did EBC just two weeks before us did not even see Everest during their whole time on the trail.

      So… I guess it just depends on the weather gods, and which trail you choose. The ABC trek is completely different to the EBC one, much warmer, more undulating hills, more vegetation, and less prayer flags and stupas. It has more livestock, but you won’t see a single yak. It’s worth doing both the treks.. but maybe not during the same holiday. 😉

      Cheers,
      M

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