Business India, May 17-30, 1999
Annapurna, an extreme close up
Nepal provides unparalleled trekking opportunities in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas for even rookie trekkers
If one wants to be in the serene presence of magnificent snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas without being hardcore climbers and trekkers then the best area is around the Annapurna range in north central Nepal bordering Tibet. The range includes such giants as Annapurna I - 8,091 metres, Machhapuchre (Fish Tail) 6,993 m, Niligiri-7,061 m, Dhavalgiri -8,167 m, Tukuche-6,920m, Tilicho - 7,134 m and so on. The most endearing aspect of trekking in the Annapurna region is the handshaking distance from the awe-inspiring peaks.
The trekking routes in the area originate from Pokhara, a major city in Nepal. The city itself is located in a valley (altitude 833 m) and is blessed with the beautiful Phewa lake. Here you will have the unique opportunity of boating in the Phewa tal surrounded by green hills like Sarangkot (1,600 m) while actually gazing at the Annapurna and Machhapuchre peaks, nearly 8,000 metres up in the sky. There are many options for a trekker in this region depending on his physical capabilities and the time he can spend, starting with a two-day trek to week long treks and even two and three week long treks.
If you have a week at your disposal then there are two options. One is to start from Pokhara, go to Ghorepani (2,700 m) and come back. The other is to reach Jomsom (2,700 m) and fly back or fly to Jomsom and trek back to Pokhara. The Pokhara-Ghorepani-Pokhara trek is known as the Annapurna sanctuary trek. This trek takes you into thickly-forested areas from the tropical to the rhododendron forests. The brightly-coloured pink and red rhododendrons are the national flowers of Nepal and blossom in April, brightening up the whole forest. As you near Ghorepani one then rises into coniferous forests as well. Needless to say, one gets darshan of the Annapurna range intermittently as a lot of paths are in the valleys. One is also constantly surrounded by not only flora but also mountain springs and waterfalls. 01 course since there are many steep climbs and downhills on this route you better have strong knees. You feel the pinch especially when coming downhill. It is definitely advisable to take a guide-cum-porter.
On day one you reach Sarangkot, stay there, get up early and see the glorious sunrise on Annapurna and then walk down to Navapool on the Jomsom-Baglung highway. From Navapool cross over to Birethanthi which is at the confluence of the rushing waters of Modi and Bhurungdi. One can continue from Birethanthi along Bhurungdi river and can end day two at Ramghar. Since most of this trek is in the valleys, it gets dark pretty fast and a sweaty afternoon turns pretty quickly into a freezing evening even in May. By 7:00 pm one might actually end up sitting around the boiler in an inn to get warmed up. Due to the presence of thick forests in the area one frequently encounters sudden rains and hailstorms in the afternoons.
On the third day one rises up from the river valley and climbs the step steps of Tikhedunga and stop at Ulleri (2,073 m). The climb involves a rise of more than 5,000 feet in one day by climbing over 3,000 steps. The glorious views of the valley compensate for the huffing and puffing. But huff and puff shamelessly so that the body gets as much oxygen as possible and as quickly as possible. The fourth day you climb up from Ulleri to Ghorepani (2,700 m). Stay at Ghorepani and next day morning rush to Poon Hill nearby, which is another 500 feet up. The panoramic view of the whole Annapuma range from Poon Hill is unbelievable. On the fifth day start climbing down from Ghorepani and reach Tadapani. The path goes through thick forest and when you reach Tadapani in the evening, with every limb aching, there is a glorious view of the Machhapuchre waiting for you at about 7:30 pm. When the valley is dark, the peak is lit up with the unearthly golden yellow rays of sunset. It will be one of those sights in your life which cannot be written about, nor captured in film, but which remain imprinted in your mind.
On sixth day you start from Tadapani and reach Ghandrung (1,951 m), a lovely village full of gurungs. On day seven travel down from Ghandrung via Shoule Bazaar to Birethanthi and Navapool. At Navapool one reaches the Pokhara-Baglung highway, and one can provide the luxury of a one-and-a-half hour bus ride back to Pokhara to one's aching limbs.
Dhavalgiri, shaligrams and…..
The other option, if you have only a week to ten days is to fly from Pokhara to Jomsom and trek back to Pokhara, which is known as the Annapurna circuit. Jomsom (2,700 m) is the headquarters of Mustang district bordering Tibet. The place is also the nearest airport to thefamous Muktinath peak (3,800 m) which is a major pilgrim centre mentioned even in the Mahabharat. The pious rich who want to visit the Vishnu temple at Muktinath can also charter a helicopter from Jomsom perform their puja and get back to Jomsom the same day. By trekking it takes three days, mainly due to acclimatisation required at the high altitude.
Jomsom town lies in the valley of Kali Gandaki, a river apparently older than the Himalayas. The mountain flight from Pokhara takes only 20 minutes but gives you memorable views of the Himalayas and even the brightly-coloured rhododendron forests. When you reach Jomsom, the towering peaks of Nilgiri and Tilicho watch over you at all times in the clear mountain air. The closeness of the mountains can be guessed from the fact that a snow avalanche on the Nilgiri North peak could easily be heard from Jomsom town. Once you reach Jomsom spend a day in the town to acclimatise yourself. There is a well documented eco-museum where one can spend at least an hour or two fruitfully. The museum depicts various aspects of history, geology, botany, culture and legends of Mustang district.
Scattered pearls of wisdom
How to get there by Air: Fly to Kathmandu and then take a local flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara. For the last leg take a mountain flight from Pokhara to Jomsom.
By Rail and Road: Reach Gorakhpur by rail from where the Nepal border at Sunauli is three hous away. Cross the border and get a bus or a taxi to Pokhara. (5-10 hours depending on the mode of transport). One can drive an Indian registered vehicle into Nepal; however the authorities at the border take away the Indian number plate and provide you with a temporary Nepali number plate.
Travel documents: Indians do not need a passport or visa and Indian currency is widely accepted all over Nepal.
Special Tips: If you are going to cross the border by road then be prepared for harassment form Indian customs and police when you are returning. You can be saved a lot of embarrassment it you register mobile phone, cameras and any other electronic goods that you are taking into Nepal with the Indian customs post at the border right when you are entering.
Accommodation & food: There are a large number of inns that provide decent accommodation in every village around Annapurna. The rooms cost anywhere from Rs20 Nepali (Rs100=Rs160 Nepali) to Rs300 N. The inns more than make up for it in their food bills, which can run up to Rs500 N per person per day. A coke which costs Rs15 N at Pokhara can cost Rs 60 N at Jomsom or Ghorepani as it has to be hauled up on mule back. It is best to stick to dal - bhat, Nepal’s national dish and Tibetan bread with honey or eggs. In fact, it is always safe to stick to the local dish, since the cooks know it best! People who have eaten masala dosa in Delhi and parotha or puri-bhaji in Tiruvananthapuram would swear by this wisdom.
Drink: Try hot lemon juice and even tato pani (hot water) after a tiring day or even in the early morning. If you are a tea drinker from India ask for Nepali chay. It is inexpensive and exquisitely brewed with tea, ginger and cinnamon. If you want to try local alcoholic drinks, go for home-made millet brews like chhang or rakshi. In villages like Marpha an Tukuche, there are local distilleries that manufacture brandies from locally- grown apricots, apples and oranges.
Guides and porters: If you are past your twenties and are used to a sedentary lifestyle then it is better to hire a guide-cum–porter at Pokhara. They charge anywhere from Rs.400 N to Rs.1,000 N a day.
Equipment: Nothing, except a camera or a camcorder to record at least a tiny bit of the natural splendour. Because of the abundance of inns for trekkers at every village on all the trekking routes, one does not need tents or even a sleeping bag unless one is going to Tilicho lake.
Interestingly at Kagbeni near Jomsom on the way to Muktinath, one can still find 100 million-year-old fossils of marine animals. These fossils are major evidence for the theory of continental drift, according to which, 65 million years ago there was a sea where the Himalayas stand today and the Indian tectonic plate came and hit the Tibetan plate leading to the formation of the Himalayas. A common fossil one finds in ammonite rocks is that of a conch. These fossilised conches are revered by devout Hindus as symbols of Vishnu and are called shaligram. If you are not lucky enough to find a shaligram on the Kali Gandaki riverbed then you could always buy one from the numerous Tibetan souvenir traders that you will find on the trek.
On the Jomsom-pokhara trek, start from Jomsom after spending a day at Jomsom. Reach Tukuche (2,591m) by evening after passing through Marpha. On day two, go from Tukuche via Kalopani to Ghasa (2,031m). The second day provides you with unparalleled panoramic views of Dhavalgiri and Tukuche peaks from the Kali Gandaki riverbed. While trekking in the Kali Gandaki valley, a strong wind starts everyday at about 11:00 am till about 3 pm which carries a lot of dust. So make sure that you start as early as possible.
On day three start from Ghasa and reach Tatopani (1,189 m). This stretch passes through the world's deepest river valley which is over 7,000 feet deep. Tatopani means hot water and the name is derived from the hot water springs there, where one can wash away the tiredness from one's limbs. Tatopani also provides the best food in the entire route. On day four, start from Tatopani and reach Ghaleshor. If the first three days were more or less on level ground at about 10,000-8,000 feet along the Kali Gandaki river valley, the fourth day involves steep climbs up and down and the temperature also climbing as you come down to about 3,000 feet from 8,000 feet. The next day it takes a two-hour trek from Ghaleshor to Beni from where one can get a bus ride to Pokhara. The bus takes about four-and-a-half hours to reach Pokhara and goes through several steep ups and downs. A day's rest in Pokhara and boating on Phewa lake can top your trek.
For the more ambitious trekkers there is a 14-day trek from Pokhara to the Annapurna base camp (4,500 m) and back. There is a 28-day trek around Annapurna from Besishahar to Pokhara via Manang, Thorungla pass (5,416 m), Muktinath, Jomsom and back to Pokhara via Ghorepani or via Beni. If you have only seven days but want to do high altitude trekking then one can also fly from Pokhara to Hungde near Manang and trek to Tilicho lake and back. Tilicho is a glaciated lake at about 15,500 feet and is one of the highest lakes in the world.
In short the Annapurna range is a goldmine for trekkers and can cater to all varieties from city slickers who want to stretch their limbs a bit, to hard core trekkers. What attracts literally lakhs from around the world every year to this region is of course the glorious views of the mountains and the friendly people. In fact one is yet to hear of a robbery or any sort of crime against trekkers in this area. So what are you waiting for, pack your rucksack, take a few thousand rupees and get ready to be overwhelmed by the Himalayas!