"The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why" - Mark Twain
It was 28th of November, 2016 when after 3 months of planning and preparation, I started my journey to Nepal. I was skeptical at first, because it was my first ever trip to outside India, let alone a solo one. With dilemmas in brain and curiosity in my heart, I leaped.
A high altitude trek comes with its own preparations. And the checklist gets lengthened being the circuit in Nepal. Here I will try my best to note down all minor and major problems I had faced throughout my journey. Hope this will help you in future.
Some golden resources
- New Annapurna Trekking Trail guide book by Andrées de Ruiter and Prem Rai.
- Annapurna Conservation Area Project(ACAP) map. Note: this map doesn't have clear route towards Tilicho Lake. I will try to upload a scanned copy of the newer one I purchased in Nepal.
- Approximate distances between villages in Manang district. This board is put up just before Tal, the first viallage of Manang along the trail. Check this too.
Day -1: Nov 29, 2016
I was travelling to Pokhara by road via Gorakhpur-Sonauli-Bhairahawa route. Grabbed a UP roadways bus near Nana saheb chowk. It costed INR 99 and 3 hours to reach Sonauli.
Try to reach Sonauli by 10-11am. And if you want, exchange INR to NPR at either side of the border. Conversion rate is 1 INR = 1.6 NPR. They shouldn't charge any commission, however the reverse conversion is chargeable.
Believe it or not, I crossed the border in a ricksaw! Though later I realized it wasn't even required, the border was so close to Sonauli bus stand.
Pokhara is a beautiful hill station at an elevation of 820 meters. If you have traveled to Nainital in India, Pokhara will be familiar for you, but with a western touch. Lakeside is the most popular place to stay for tourists, having lots of restaurants, bars and shopping places. I had a reservation at Puskar Guest House, which charged NPR 400/night for a bed in 8 occupancy mixed dorm. Got two Scottish and a Brazilian girl as my roomie, who were travelling to Nepal to see the beauty of mighty Himalayas.
Day 0: Nov 30, 2016
Today's agenda was simple:
- Get trekking permit.
- Exchange currency.
- Buy essentials like trekking map and some medicines.
For trekking in Annapurna, you need a ACAP permit and a Trekkers' Information Management System(TIMS) card. Go to Tourist Permit Office at Damside. Took me around 30 mins by walking to go there. It stays open from 10 am to 5 pm round the year except on public holidays. I got my ACAP permit for NPR 200 and TIMS card (for Free Individual Trekker) for 600. Non-SAARC nationals need to pay more. It's better to have 2 passport size photos with you. (They have facility to click photos though, so don't panic)
On my way back to guest house, I bought a map of round Annapurna trail (1:100,000) for NPR 230. Any book shop on Lakeside road has a collection of maps. Grabbed some band-aids and Acetazolamide tablets (aka Diamox) from a medicine shop for NPR 120. Don't forget to buy a lip balm of any kind. I didn't consider this on this first time and had to pay the price later :(
Now money exchange. Frankly speaking, forex rates in Pokhara is not good at all. The day I arrived, 1 Euro was equal to NPR 116.59. But to my surprise all the exchangers on Lakeside was giving NPR 112.4 only! Amrit, the owner of Puskar Guest House gave me a better rate of 113.5 and I bought NPR from him. You may go to Nepal Rashtra Bank directly. They might give you the best rate at a cost of boring paperwork.
It takes 4 hours to reach Besisahar. Don't forget to check-in the tourist check post there. Now it's up to you, from where you want to start the trek. Choices are
- Start from Besisahar itself.
- Grab a bus to Ngadi.
- Take a jeep, and go to a place of your choice till Manang.
The third option takes you to the upper elevation in smallest possible time, but it's not worthy. You won't get a chance to see the greenery of Lamjung and lower Manang district and sudden rise in elevation won't help you to get acclimatize later. Moreover the jeep ride is bumpy as hell.
I took a bus at 11 am in front of check post at Besisahar and reached Ngadi (spelled as Na-di) around 12:30. It costs NPR 200, don't pay extra even if they force you to. Take the route on the right of Marsiyangdi Khola for Bahundanda. For the rest of the trek, walking trail will normally go on the right whereas motor road will stay on the left of river bank.
Reached Bahundanda at 2 pm, checked-in at ACAP check post and started walking towards Syange. The trail goes down a bit after crossing the village, offering a nice view of Marsiyangdi river. When I entered Ghermu Phant(1130m) it was 3:30 pm. You can see the village of Syange from here, and the beautiful waterfall. So I decided to stop here for the day.
Day 2: Ghermu - Syange - Chamje - Tal - Karte (1850m)
Schedule for the rest of the days will be simple:
- Start within 9 o'clock.
- Make a target for the day by consulting map.
- Walk for 7/8 hours each day till 4-4:30 pm.
- Reach there, find lodge, and slip under blanket.
- Go for dinner around 6 pm, have a long conversation with the family.
- Go to bed around 8.
So I started from Ghermu at 8:30 am after having a little breakfast. Today's goal was to reach Dharapani via Jagat, Chamje, and Tal. You have to cross Marsiyangdi at Syange, where the trekking trail meets with motor road, and walk on the road till next village of Jagat and Ghatte Khola. This was the first time I walked on a suspension bridge! And it was exciting :)
Just after Ghatte Khola there is a signboard where trail leaves motor road. Follow that path, you'll find a waterfall on your right and just after that the village of Chamje. I reached there at 11 o'clock and stopped for a small break. The trail to Tal goes steep down to cross the river on suspension bridge, leaving motor road on left. Now, any guidebook or map will tell you that this distance is of 2 hours, but it took almost 3:30 hours for me! I nearly fainted on the way for all those ups and downs. I was so exhausted that I threw away some stuffs from my backpack to make it lighter. Frankly speaking, this was the hardest part of the entire trail for me, even harder than Tilicho or Thorong La.
Stay hydrated. Later I realized, I chocked at Tal just because of dehydration. Always carry some water. You'll find plenty of water sources beside the trail in Lamjung and Lower Manang. Water from springs are pretty much safe. Still if you want, add one chlorine tablet per litre.
When I was about to give up, I saw a gate which says, "Welcome to Manang District". And just after crossing the gate, I finally saw Tal. It is perhaps the most beautiful village of Lower Manang, sitting beside Marsiyangdi Khola. All the hard work got paid off!
I bought a litre of ozonated water from Safe drinking water station for NPR 40. ACAP committee have installed these stations in selected villages on the trail. They provide clean water at a nominal cost. After having some water, I got my energy back ( can you believe that? just water!) and started again towards Dharapani. It was already 3 pm.
Day 3: Karte - Dharapani - Danaqyu - Thanchowk - Koto (2600m)
I started fresh after a long 10 hours sleep. You'll wonder how can you sleep for so long in these treks. Today's target was Chame via Dharapani, Danaqyu (Da-na-kyu) and Thanchowk. After having a good breakfast, I hit the road at 8:45 am.
The village of Dharapani is just half an hour away from Khorto. I checked in ACAP check post at 9:15 am. Trekking trail to Manaslu (8,163m) circuit diverts from here towards Karche. There is a micro hydro-power house just after Dharapani, near the village of Bagarcchap. Most of the hilly regions of Nepal are equipped with this type of power sources.
Danaqyu(2190m) is another half an hour from Bagarchhap. It's a wonderful little hamlet with a Buddhist monastery and many colorful prayer flags.
After Danaqyu, the road climbs up to the tiny village of Timang(2750m). It's a moderate ascent. There were two waterfalls on the way and the stream was flowing over the motor road. On the way you'll start seeing this peak:
This is none other than Mt. Manaslu(8,156m), the 8th highest mountain in the world!
Thanchowk(2400m) is a little descent from Timang. The trail gets separated from motor road just before entering. You have to go a steep descent along the trail to cross a long suspension bridge, and finally ascent again to reach the village. Manaslu will be watching you here!
As you move further towards west, Manaslu will fall behind you and you'll start seeing glimpses of another one in front of the road. Just near the next village, the name of which I forgot, the obstacle in front got cleared and I saw her for the first time in the shades of sunset.
I finally reached Koto(2600m) around 3 pm. Koto is a beautiful little village full of pine forests. And the reward is Annapurna II, Lamjung and Koto himal all are visible on the western side, and Manaslu on the east. So. I decided to stay here for the night. Got a room for NPR 100 in Petunia Guest House, the last one beside the police check post where the trail to Nar-Phu valley gets diverted. Nepal govt recently declared Nar-Phu as Restricted Area, and you need a different permit to go there, that too with a team. There is a gompa just beside the check post, but it was closed at that time.
Staying in Petunia was one of the memorable nights for me. Initially I was very quiet when I went down to dinning before dinner time. Didi (Hindi term of elder sister) invited me to the kitchen as it was very cold outside. I didn't realize when I became so fluent with them. Her two daughters were so charming! We had a long conversation regarding so many things, be it Atif Aslam, Arijit Singh or their love about dancing, even about their Buddhist culture. I found a home away from home.
Day 4: Koto - Chame - Dhikur Pokhari - Upper Pisang (3300m)
Planned to start early today but Didi managed to call the old person who had the key of the gompa. He took me there and gave a nice tour of the ancient books, collections and Llama rituals. Don't forget to donate when you visit a monastery, it contributes to their major financial source.
When I finally started walking, it was 9:30 in the morning. Chame(2670m) is just 30 mins away from Koto. Here trekking trail crosses Marsiyangdi through a beautiful suspension bridge full with prayer flags. But unfortunately, motor goes with it too. So whenever a jeep comes in, you'll have free "Nepalese powder" (the road dust!)
It was created due to heavy winds along Marsiyangdi river gorge. You can fell its power when you'll cross the little bridge to go to left bank. I finally reached Dhikur Pokhari(3060m) around 1:30 pm. It's the first three-thousander village of this trail.
From Dhikur Pokhari, trail gets forked towards Upper and Lower Pisang. Both of these village are on the lap of Annapurna II, but Upper one is 100 meters higher, giving splendid views of himals. So, I choose to go to Upper Pisang.
The route from Ghyaru to Ngwal (Na-wal) goes through the hill without considerable altitude difference. However after Ngwal, it goes steep down again to Braga(3439m).
TIP: There are at least 3 possible alternative trails to Braga from Ngwal. Two of them descends to Mungi whereas one goes straight to Braga. Consult map.
Braga(3439m) is 2 hours away from Ngwal. But I lost the trail in between and reached here around 4 pm. There was a beautiful guest house with bakery named Pie in the sky. Unfortunately, I didn't find anybody there and so decided to continue to Manang(3540m). It takes half an hour more to reach there.
Day 6: Manang - Khangsar - Sri Kharka - Tilicho Base Camp (4150m)
The traditional schedule says to stay at Manang for one more day for better acclimatization. There are three things to explore if you take a rest day at Manang:
- Kicho Tal, also known as Ice lake (4600m)
- Milarepa's Cave
- Gangapurna Tal
Trail to Kicho Tal and Milarepa's cave gets separated from Braga itself. Milarepa's Cave will fall on left and Ice lake will be on right on the way to Manang from Braga. There will be markers along the trail, so don't worry. Trail to Gangapurna Tal goes from Manang. In fact you can see the glacier which formed the lake from Manang.
But I had plans to make it to Tilicho Lake if possible. The lodge owner informed me that Tilicho Base Camp is open. So, I headed towards Khangsar without a second thought. As I already had an experience before of this altitude, it didn't seem logical to me to spend an extra day here.
If you are traveling in off season, ask somebody in Manang or Khangsar about Tilicho Base Camp, route towards base camp and the return trail from Sri Kharka to Yak Kharka. If they give green signal in all three, go ahead. Normally after 3rd week of December, base camp gets closed. It depends on snowfall, so better to inquire it beforehand.
My plan was to stay at Sri Kharka today and then head towards base camp on day 7. Khangsar (3734m) is 1:45 hours away from Manang. The main Annapurna circuit trail gets separated from Tilicho trail just after the village, where Thorong Khola is meeting with Khangsar Khola to make Marsiyangdi river. ACAP marked all side trails with Blue-white signs, so it's not trivial to get lost. The trail crosses Thorong khola on a suspension bridge and heads towards far west.
I reached Khangsar at 10:30 am and took a small break. My main concern was the availability of blankets in Tilicho base camp as I was't carrying a sleeping bag! So I asked a villager, and he ensured that they will provide it. He also referred me a lodge at base camp. Referral works here too!
The trail to Sree Kharka (4020m) goes flat till Thare gompa, from where it takes a sharp zigzag ascent to the village. Sree Kharka is the first four thousander village on the trail, equipped with 3 beautiful lodges. The Grand Barrier is standing like a wall in front with Khangsar Kang (aka Roc Noir, 7485m) peak. When I reached here, it was only 12:30 at noon. Tilicho Base camp is another 2:30 hours walk from here, with only 100 meters more ascent. So instead of halting, I decided to give it a shot.
Trail to the base camp is a little bit tricky. As we already moved into the rain shadow zone, there were less trees, and as a result rocks and soil are too loose to fall. There are two routes to base camp according to map. The higher one is a bit longer but safer. But when I reached there, the signboard said no trail via the higher route. So I had to embrace the scary lower one.
The frozen crust started melting as sun went high. If you sit quietly, you can hear the ice breaking. I took countless photos here, still felt like not able to capture the greatness.
Day 9: Yak Kharka - Ledar - Thorong Phedi - High Camp (4925m)
I hit the road at 9 am after having an apple pancake in breakfast. Today's plan was to reach Thorong Phedi (4525m), the base camp of Thorong La. This part of the trail goes in parallel with Thorong khola without any steep climbs. The next village of Ledar (4200m) is one hour apart from Yak Kharka. On the way you'll see yaks grazing here and there. Ledar has a few guest houses, and most of them were closed at that time.
Now the High Camp is almost 400 meters higher than Phedi and it takes 1 hour to reach there. Though I had ample time but as I was ascending from Yak Kharka which was only 4050m, gaining almost 900 meters in a day wouldn't seem go to me. Still I took a chance as I already went to Tilicho which was even higher than this .
The walking distance from Phedi to high camp is only 1 kilometer, with 400 meters ascent! This is by far the steepest gradient of the entire trail.
I got this tip from a guide there, so I'm sharing with you too. Don't ever look to the top. Just go slowly counting every step of yours. The more you look up, the more it appear to be far from you. It won't help in any way except demotivate. Apply this mantra at any trek, and the trail will appear as a cakewalk.
Yes it was one hell of an experience. After clicking countless number of photos for almost an hour, I finally decided to go down.
The downhill trail descends very steeply to Chambar Bhu (the phedi on the opposite side, 4180m) within just 8 kilometers! It has campsites on the way for the trekkers doing Annapurna circuit clockwise. A walking pole or two will save your knees here for sure. And as you go down, you'll feel noticeable change in temperature. So after a long boring hike we finally reached Chambar Bhu at 1 pm. The village of Muktinath (3800m) can be seen from here. After having lunch, we started again at 2 pm and reached Muktinath around 3:15.
Muktinath is a small village famous for its temple. It is well connected by jeep with Jomsom. There are lots of lodges to stay. The most famous one is Hotel Bob Marley for its delicious food. The room was charged more than NPR 100 (NPR 300 actually) for the first time.
After getting refreshed, I came out to have a quick look at Muktinath temple. It's a big premises that not just contains temples of Hindu gods, but also Buddhist gompa and statues.
The main temple of Muktinath premises
The sunset from Muktinath temple. The mountain on the left which is standing high like a tent, is the same one I showed you while descending from Throng La.
He is none other than Mt. Dhaulagiri (8,167m), world's 7th highest, ultra-prominent eight thousander peak.
Day 11: Muktinath - Jhong - Putak - Kagbeni (2810m)
Today's stop is Kagbeni. There two ways that leads to Kagbeni from Muktinath.
- Via Jharkot and Khingar
- Via Jhong and Putak
The first route is mainly the jeep road to Jomsom. This is shorter and takes around 2 hours only to reach Kagbeni. The second trail, which is also known as the northern road takes around 4:30 hours to reach, but goes through the barren lands of Mustang, offering an outstanding view of Dhaulagiri. But remember, you'll hardly find someone on this road except from the villages. I freaked out a bit when found myself walking as a lone ranger in middle of a dessert. Yes, it was literally a dessert.
I took the second trail. It crosses a small river to go to opposite side of Muktinath, and then continues straight towards west. Dhaulagiri is so high that you can see it from almost anywhere on this route.
This trail is well marked till Putak. After crossing Putak, it enters into a no man's land. It's not only just dry, but also very windy.
Kagbeni is a beautiful Thakali village just beside Kali-gandaki river. Because of the river, it gets too windy after noon. There are lots of lodges available as well as cafes! I took a room at The Green Kitchen for NPR 200. It was only 3 o'clock, so I decided to roam a little in village.
Day 14 & 15: Dec 14-15, 2016: Pokhara
The main attractions of Pokhara are World Peace Pagoda and International Mountain Museum. There are other places like Davi's falls, Tal Barahi temple, Bindhyabasini temple etc. Visit as per your likeness.
If you have interest in mountains and mountaineers, do visit International Mountain Museum. Its vast collection of exhibit demonstrates everything about mountains, be it the tribal lifestyle, geographical information or impact of climate change in Himalayas.
World Peacce Pagoda on the other hand, is a Japanese style pagoda on the top of nearby hill. It's not only just serene but also scenic. The entire range of Annapurna along with the entire city are visible from here. Do make necessary plan to be here at sunset.