#4 Nepal

#4 Nepal

Namaste!

In true Nepalese fashion our flight into Kathmandu from New Delhi was delayed due to bad weather. After circling above the city for 20-30mins and almost having to be diverted we landed in Nepal – a country I have been eager to visit since a child. This may stem from being a New Zealander, meeting the great Sir Edmund Hillary as a kid or just a general love for being in mountainous areas. What ever it was, in planning the EPIC Adventure, Nepal was the country I was most excited for and I was happy to finally be here.

The weather was a reminder that we were heading into the Himalayas, a place where nature was always going to be the boss.

In the lead up to Nepal we had done some research on the various regions and treks that were available. Reinforced through a number of recommendations we decided to trek the Annapurna Circuit (AC) in the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) – historically voted as the best long distance trek in the world. With the construction of a connecting road around the circuit nearing completion the full impact of this on the trek is unknown. We were after a long distance trek that we could do self-guided (for freedom and to reduce costs) and for that the Annapurna Circuit came out on top, a decision we will never regret.

From Kathmandu we headed to Pokhara, Nepal’s second biggest town and a base for those venturing into the ACA on various treks. It is a very touristy town and therefore a very comfortable place as a westerner with all types of cuisine and adventure sports on offer. The tourists congregate in Lakeside where every second shop is selling trekking equipment, with the others being made up of cafes, bars and restaurants. We acquired a few required clothing items, hired some down sleeping bags to get us through the cold nights, ate a ton of food, purchased a map and were then ready to head off on our walkabout.

We had always thought we would do the trek self guided but as time got closer and we started speaking with people in Kathmandu and Pokhara we started considering whether a guide or porter was in fact a good idea in case we got in any strife, especially given the elevation we would be trekking to. After much deliberation we decided that we should be fine oursleves. With a medical kit, sim card for emergency calls and some altitude sickness medication along with a decent understanding of trekking in high altitude we thought we were well equipped (especially myself with a personal doctor in tow).

With our bags packed with what we needed for the estimated 21 day trek we caught a “Tourist Bus” to Besisahar – the starting point of the AC. Upon boarding the bus it quickly became apparent that our seats had been sold 4x over so we took any seat we could as it became a first in, first served basis. Many late arrivals weren’t happy about this, as the 5hr bus ride just became a little more uncomfortable for them. In true Nepal style as soon as the bus left the Tourist Bus Park it started stopping to pick up a number of locals (and the varying goods they were carrying). Within 30mins I had someone resting on my knee, another backpacker seated in the isle intermittently dozing on my arm, as people hung out the doors. Surprisingly a local managed to get his booked seat (albeit after 10 minutes of arguing with another local as the bus sat idle waiting for the near physical dispute to end). Upon exiting the bus it was nice to know that we would be relying solely on our own two feet as a mode of transportation for the coming days and weeks.

We set off from Besisahar and found the New Annapurna Trekking Trail (NATT) at the edge of the town. Along with the construction of the road came fears from some guesthouse owners that trekkers wouldn’t want to walk along a dusty road so a number of NATT trails have been developed to avoid the road and lead you up and down (and up and down) through amazing natural scenery and remote villages. We had downloaded a pdf guide to help us follow the NATT trails, also aided by the red and white markings. These beautiful trails ensured we spent less than 5% of the time on the dusty road and the road did not detract from our experience at all.

Not too far into day one we crossed our first of many swing bridges. We saw another couple from the bus (yes they were also allocated our same seats) heading off in a different direction so I tried to wave them back. I don’t think they saw but quickly realised themselves and backtracked slightly.

They were a lovely American-Hungarian duo, Michelle and Gabor, whom we walked with for the rest of the day and then for the entire trek (after the essential “are we a thing?” conversation). Over the course of the coming weeks we developed a very strong bond as we jointly experienced the ups and downs of a long distance trek. Together we were stronger as four and formed a good team that motivated each other along the way and supported each other’s anxieties, which were inevitable given the challenge ahead of us. Hiking around 8 hours a day and eating 3x meals a day together is recipe for quickly developing a close friendship and we thoroughly enjoyed their company and support.

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Our trekking buddies Michelle and Gabor (in the Annapurna Sanctuary)

The first few days, starting at 740m elevation, took us through a tropical hot, humid and hazy rainforest environment, following a raging river that led us from village to village. Having never really trekked with a heavy pack before, a few hours in I was already wondering how I was going to lug the 14-16kgs over the 5,416m pass! Thankfully the back muscles strengthened and after few days started to become trek fit. That said our scheduled breaks every 2 hours provided much needed relief for the shoulders.

As we climbed through 4 different climatic zones, each with its distinct vegetation, wildlife and culture, the haze began to lift. Once above 2500m we were spoilt by never ending Himalayan views of pristine peaks and majestic mountain ranges.

The experience of the AC extends beyond that of natural beauty. The trek leads you though small villages and towns along the way where you can stop at teahouses for food and then sleep at a guesthouse when you are done hiking for that day. The rooms are very basic and are often free so long as you buy dinner/breakfast at the guesthouse. As they are very frequent this also allows the flexibility to walk as much or as little as you like each day. The menus are very similar offering simple local food at prices that rise and fall with the elevation (due to the cost of getting supplies in). The Nepalese are just lovely people and we were always greeted with a smile and “Namaste” as we passed farm workers, guesthouse owners and other locals on the paths. This is a unique trekking experience as you can trek for weeks without having to carry food, lots of water, tent etc. and also experience the Himalayan way of life.

Religion is also a big part of their life and given the close proximity of the ACA to the Tibet border there is a strong Tibetan Buddhist influence. We visited some amazingly remote and ancient monasteries, temples and stupas, sometimes 4,000m+ high.

It was not only the natural beauty, friendly locals and culture that made the experience so memorable but also the trekking itself. Having done a few overnight hikes in Latin America and numerous day hikes this was something else. It was more technically and physically challenging than I was expecting and therefore more rewarding.

We were now starting to hike in an environment where you had to take precautions. One of our major concerns before and during the trek was altitude sickness – especially as I had constant headaches at altitude in Peru. Once I felt it coming on (around 3,000m) I took Diamox to help the acclimatisation and from that day on experienced the side effect of intermittent intense tingles in my fingers and toes but thankfully no more headaches.

As time was on our side we were able to do a couple of side treks to help with the altitude acclimatisation process. One in particular to Tilicho Lake, which added 3-4 days, was an amazing but somewhat sketchy experience. To reach the Tilicho Lake basecamp (4,200m) you have to hike along a very narrow path through a landslide area – at times stepping through moving piles of gravel that are covering the ~40cm wide track. We followed the guidelines in the NATT book and passed through here first thing in the morning before the sun heats up the rocks and things really get moving. Thankfully we only experienced rocks up to the size of a tennis ball hurtling down the steep slope but others were not so lucky. We heard many horror stories throughout the rest of our trek where other hikers got stuck in landslides with rocks the size of two basketballs, had shoes completely knocked off and gone forever, tendons damaged and by all accounts were lucky to be alive. On the walk up to the Tilicho Lake I saw some large rocks moving at speed and can only imagine the damage they would do if you got in their way (luckily no one was in this instance).

At the base camp we experienced a snowstorm and awoke to a couple of inches of snow. As we started our slow ascent to the 5,020m Tilicho Lake Charlotte began to feel very out of breath, dizzy and lightheaded with a growing headache. Selflessly she made the call early on to turn back (we could still see the guesthouse) and stay at the base camp altitude for further acclimatisation. This meant that I could tackle the switchbacks with Michelle and Gabor as we took in the snow-laden view back down the valley. At the top we experienced some snowfields about 1-foot deep, icy paths and strong winds. Thankfully we timed it well (as others turned back early) and at the lake were greeted by beautiful sunshine and dying winds. It was a magical and serene place that was well worth the side trip.

The night before the pass there was a lot of altitude sickness talk amongst trekkers, some who were really starting to feel the effects. We had been very sensible in our acclimatisation, spending a number of nights above 4,000m and often climbing high and sleeping low. All in all we were feeling pretty good. That said there was still a lot of nervous energy amongst the 4 of us as we went off to bed early to prepare for the early start.

By now it was day 13 of trekking so we were well into our routine of wake – eat breakfast – hike – eat lunch – hike – air clothes – drink tea – eat dinner – play cards – sleep (normally in bed by 7-8pm!). Pass day however was a little different; we had to wake before dark to start the climb. Sleeping at 4,500m we had a 900m-elevation gain to the 5,416m Thorong La pass and then a big steep decent to 3,700m on the other side. With headlights lighting the way and wearing all of our layers we started the switchbacks. Near the top the breathing was tough but standing on the pass in the glorious sun after 13 days of trekking was a massive sense of accomplishment that (literally) brought tears to my eyes – just a couple. There were high 5s and hugs all around, prayer flags were hung and a happy birthday to our German trekking friend Frank was sung. We were all feeling great we even stopped to have a noodle soup spending about an hour to take it all in as other hikers came and went (some in need to get down quickly). With spirits high we then started to descent down to Muktinath were we were greeted with our first rain shower in two weeks and the first meat for some time (we ate vegetarian most of the time).

Once through the pass we entered an (unexpected) extremely dry high altitude environment. It was barren like a dessert allowing the irrigated towns in the riverbed to stand out like an oasis in the desert.

With the highs came the lows. After long days of descending I had somehow developed a blister on top of a blister on the outside of my little toe. Admittedly it sounds like nothing but it grew to a size that had to be lanced (a couple of times as it reformed) and unfortunately gave me a lot of grief. On day 17 I resorted to trekking in jandals (aka thongs or flip flops) as the pain was too much and I was beginning to get knee pain from an altered gait. Day 18 was a much needed rest in Tatopani at the natural hot springs (our only rest day in 25 days of hiking) but unfortunately it wasn’t quite long enough and I was back in jandals on Day 19.

By this point we had decided to trek longer and join Michelle and Gabor in heading up to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC or Annapurna Sanctuary) but due to the blisters this plan was in jeopardy. We still had an option to head back to Pokhara but I decided to have one last crack and thankfully it had healed enough to carry on and I was able to finish the trek to ABC in shoes.

The next few days brought many steep stairs as we hiked up and down through bamboo forests and valleys on our way to the Annapurna Sanctuary. Due to the lower elevation it was hot and sweaty, with the views once again impacted by the haze. As we were feeling pretty fit by this point we were able to cover a fair distance each day and were back up to 4000m with clear views and freezing cold nights in no time.

Standing amongst the Annapurna Sanctuary was amazing – nestled in amongst towering peaks peering down at us, we were surrounded and humbled. The view was mesmerising and it is easy to see why the great Sir Edmund Hillary said that this was one of the best places to view mountains. Once again the sense of accomplishment washed over me – I was glad that I had pushed on, as this would have been such a shame to miss.

After the final sweaty days descending again through rainforest on day 25 we exited the ACA. Since the pass many other hikers had began to exit in jeeps along the newly constructed road. From the outset we were committed to walk until the bitter end and felt a great sense of accomplishment when we finally caught a local bus in Nayapul heading for Pokhara. It was here that we gorged ourselves for a number of days and I implemented a daily ice cream regime to replace the large amount of weight I lost over the 25 days (I didn’t need to unbutton my jeans to take them off!). The beer drought was broken and as we were finally able to let our hair down a little with our new friends Michelle and Gabor. Since the trek we have kept in contact, sharing travels tips etc. and I am sure will stay in contact and plan future adventures together.

Trekking in Nepal was one of the best things I have done in my life. For anyone that is a lover of hiking in the mountains I am sure that Nepal is on your hit list, if not: add it. Now is a good time to visit – post earthquake combined with economic impacts of a newly signed constitution (i.e. fuel/gas shortages) means the tourist dollar is very welcome.

Nepal was all that I had hoped for. It is a nation that draws you in and holds you in its arms knowing very well that you will return. For me I know that I will be back, for this was only a teaser. There are many amazing hiking regions to explore and we already know where we are going next time – the Everest region.

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