Annapurna Trek Week 3–Alphabet Soup

When our last blog ended, we were in Ghorepani on Monday, Nov. 21, after completing our portion of the Annapurna Circuit and beginning to make our way towards the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) area.  Ghorepani is a pretty popular destination for people who only want to do a small trek because it is right at the foot of Poon Hill, which offers good mountain views and can be reached in only a couple of days out of Pokhara.  Like most people, we decided to go up for the much touted sunrise before moving on Wednesday morning.

Our day began bright and early…er, actually dark and early…when we hit the trail of the frosty hill at 5:00 AM, along with about 200 other people.  The trip to Poon Hill takes about an hour from Ghorepani, and I imagine we looked similar to the large donkey trains that we had seen so often back on the circuit.  I got drenched with sweat on the way up, only to freeze for the next half hour while we waited for the sun to rise; this really stunk because all of the dust in the air during our last couple of days on the circuit had filled my lungs, and I had developed a nasty hacking cough.

The best thing about a sunrise is usually the sudden breath of life out of the peaceful darkness; Poon Hill was not peaceful.  It was crowded and noisy, with people jockeying for good camera positions.  The views were very nice–Annapurna South, Himulchi, Annapurna I, and Machhapuchhare (Fish Tail) dominated the horizon.  It was not, however, the moving experience that other people rave about; I was glad to have gone up to see the view, but we got views just as good from other vantage points along the main trail, and we have shared prettier sunrises in the serenity of the mountains at home.

Back at our guesthouse, we watched the Swedes down one more breakfast of porridge–they couldn’t get enough of the stuff and thought we were crazy for eating anything else–before it was time to say goodbye to them.  We had enjoyed their company, and we hoped to see them again someday.

Our hike for the day would take us to a village called Tadopani (not to be confused with Tatopani, the place we had left two days earlier).  Not far from Ghorepani, the trail ascends for about 20 minutes, leading to a great viewpoint of Fish Tail; it was near here that we met up again with an Italian father and son, Mario and Stefano, that had stayed at the same place as us the night before.  We decided to hike together, and it was a fun day.  Making friends along the trail has been one of the best parts of our trekking here.

After cresting the hill, we descended most of the day along a river with forested surroundings.  The weather was comfortably warm, and it was nice to have a somewhat leisurely day after several rather tough ones.  Our tea house for the night, the Grand View, lived up to its billing, and we stared wistfully at the same mountains as on Poon Hill from our rooftop while snacking on spring rolls and watching the sunset…so I got my serenity.  🙂

Wednesday was what I have affectionately coined “The Day of the Million Stairs” because we climbed up and down steep stone staircases almost literally all day.  Today was Nov. 23, and in order to get back to civilization by the date we had given our families, we were combining a few of the days of the suggested itenerary into a shorter time, which meant today would be a long one.  The entire day was like trekking a giant rollercoaster–the trail would descend steeply down towards the river only to climb every bit as steeply right back to the same elevation on the other side.  It was, however, sort of fun to be back in the tiered farmland during the morning, which I appreciated even more once I realized that these villages would be the last that I would see before heading back out–all of the remaining “villages” on the way up to ABC were really just clusters of guesthouses.

 

The normal stopping point for the day, Chamrong, is fairly large and tempted us with some great looking baked goods, but we would have to wait for the return trip to enjoy them.  It was in Chamrong that we climbed and descended the most gigantic staircase I have ever seen…Lonely Planet says that it is only about 150 m elevation difference, but their math is wrong…it clocks out to be more like 350 m, and it all takes places in about 1/4 mile!  On the way down, I fell flat on my butt but miraculously found the one spot not covered in cow dung on the entire staircase.  We were not, however, looking forward to climbing that thing at the end of a long day on our way back!

Once you descend to the river (you guessed it), you climb right back up the hill; another 1.5 hours of steep hiking got us to our destination of Sinuwa, where our tea house was pretty grungy but had a nice hot shower and good egg-fried rice.  We met a nice American couple named Patrick and Claire that want to move to Oregon, and we had a nice visit with them.  I tried to get them to order some of the “Snakes” on the menu, but they weren’t in the mood for chips or crackers…

Thursday was the last day before we hit Base Camp, and it was also Thanksgiving; this was our first major holiday away from home, and it was difficult.  This holiday has become a big deal in our families; Sarah’s parents usually fly out to Portland, and my parents usually make it down for either dinner of for our traditional wine tasting tour the day after Thanksgiving…two years ago, Sarah’s brother and his wife even made it out.  Not to mention, I have been known to consume pounds of bird, taters, and stuffing only to emerge from the kitchen several hours later with every leftover I could possibly imagine squeezed between two pieces of bread slathered in gravy.  Needless to say, we really missed home all day.

The hike itself was really pretty, taking us through bamboo forests and beside some beautiful waterfalls as we climbed up (but did not descend as often) more stone staircases.  We got into Himilaya, our destination, around noon, and enjoyed sitting in the sun all afternoon.  That night, we feasted on Nepal’s main staple, dal baht, which is a platter of rice, lentil sauce, and curried vegetables.  It was actually pretty good, but I had no desire for sandwiches from the leftovers.

Friday was the day we were waiting for…we were about to trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary, where we would be nestled into a panorama of enormous Himilayan peaks, most notably 8,091 m Annapurna I!  Thus far, this part of our trek had not been as enjoyable for us; the scenery is still amazing, but we miss the little farming villages, and this section is also full of large guided groups that aren’t always the most thoughtful of other trekkers.  That being said, today was the day that we hoped would make it all worth it…and the Annapurna Sanctuary did not disappoint us!

The first hour of the hike was actually the most difficult; the trail climbs steadily and steeply up the hill through a small town called Deorili and on to a great viewpoint at Hinka Cave, which is formed by a huge overhanging rock.  After crossing the river several times on some of the sketchiest footbridges I have ever seen, we got a great view of Fish Tail as we entered the “sanctuary gates”.  Around us, we were beginning to see quite a bit of snow in the hills, but the trail was nice and dry.  Fish Tail is fascinating because even a change in vantage point of a few meters can give the mountain an entirely different appearance–sometimes looking like a giant pyramid, an actual fish tail, or even a super long, thin knife’s edge.

Before reaching the final trail up to ABC, you first reach MBC–Machhapuchhare Base Camp.  Interestingly, this is not actually a base camp at all because the government will not allow anyone to attempt to climb this mountain; one organized attempt occurred in the late 50’s, making it withing 50 m of the summit before turning back.  In fact, this majestic peak has most likely never been climbed.  Anyway, we climbed an…um….steep stone staircase up to MBC and found a room.  Our plan was to drop our heavy bags at our hotel and have some lunch before progressing, sans weight, up the remaining 400 m to ABC.  With the sun shining brightly and no threat of wind at 3700 m, MBC was a fine place to stay in itself, offering its own panoramic view of the surrounding Himilayas.

The trip up to ABC from MBC is not too difficult, especially since we were already well-acclimated after our first trek; it simply climbs up a riverside trail towards a large moraine at the base of Annapurna.  After a little over an hour, we found ourselves at the cluster of tea houses and prayer flag-clad stone memorials that is known as ABC.  At 4130 m, we both had to laugh because there the summit of Annapurna stood towering over us at almost double our current elevation–it really is enormous!  We sat down on a ridge for a few minutes and simply took it all in; sitting among these majestic mountains, we found ourselves in what was one of the most beautiful places we have ever been.

After a restful night back at MBC, we began something of a sprint back to civilization.  Saturday found us making our way all the way back to Chamrong, the place with the horrific staircases that we had passed through three days earlier.  After struggling up into town around 4 PM, we checked into a tea house that was voted to have the best chocolate cake in Asia by Time Magazine (they were right) before trekking the rest of the way out on Sunday and hopping back on a bus to Pokhara. We had enjoyed our trekking experience immensely, but 3 weeks is a long time, and one can only eat so much veg-egg fried rice or veg-noodle soup, and our bodies were becoming quite tired after so many consecutive days–Sarah added it up, and we averaged almost 8 miles a day lugging our heavy packs and covered an elevation gain that was higher than Mt. Everest’s summit, and we were ready for a steak, a beer, and some rest!

 

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