“Sweet baby Jesus in a cradle!!! Another set of rock steps and I can’t see the top!!” Did I actually say that out loud? Quite possibly.
Beginning of the hike
We were hiking, or as we hear more frequently in Nepal, ‘trekking’. We had gone to the city of Pokhara, about 185km west of Kathmandu, and hit the trails of the Annapurna Conservation Area. We got our permits, chose to forgo guides and porters, and we were on the endless elevation-changing paths in the lower Himalayas. It was challenging at times, but it was actually going well. It turns out to be a massively excellent thing to do and we just stumbled into it. I wrote a post about logistics (including things I wish I had known beforehand) here. Basically, it is major bang-for-the-buck hiking because you not only get all the views and wildlife- in the Himalayas no less- but you can have all comforts of home without carrying the gear for them. Small hotels called teahouses exist along the paths to feed and house trekkers- you can even get apple pie! We didn’t budget well because we didn’t know the prices are jacked up compared to the rest of Nepal, but we were eating decently and sleeping in beds with blankets and pillows we didn’t have to carry. It was a dream and we are already talking about going back.
Anyway, we had started on a dirt and rock road at the village of Kande. We walked along the road and some locals directed us to a path as a shortcut through some agricultural fields. The fields are beautifully terraced (above), and there are stone houses sprinkled here and there. The path was made of rock with steps and some level parts. We passed goats, water buffalo, dogs. Further uphill, we came to a checkpoint at the park entrance, showed our permits, and then we were inside the park.
Beautiful Annapurna after the storm
We passed forests and meadows with less agricultural fields and hiked to a beautiful ridge called Pitam Deurali. It had been raining for an hour or so at this point and the wind was blowing strongly. We were warned of and actually saw downed trees. We reluctantly stopped for the night. The rain stopped but the wind kept blowing. The skies to the north cleared enough that we could see the rounded peak of Annapurna and, to the east, the pointed peak of Machapuchare or ‘Fishtail’ Mountain which, being declared sacred to Shiva and therefore off-limits to humans, has never been climbed. Much further to the east would be Mount Everest, not visible from here but a presence nonetheless. The cloudy view was far from perfect but took our breath away all the same. We were there in the shadow of the top of the planet! We ate dinner and slept in beds and rejoiced that we had to carry none of the gear to make those comforts possible. We were surprised at the food prices-two to three times those in Pokhara and Kathmandu- and realize we had to adjust and possibly shorten the trip to make our cash last.
The next day we had breakfast and headed towards Chinu and the hot springs. We walked downhill a disconcertingly long time, knowing that every step meant uphill trekking later on. We came to the town of Landruk, where children were heading to school for the day. We were back on the road for a time, then continued on more rocky paths and steps.
We went through more terraced farm fields and passed goats and water buffalo, past several high waterfalls, down to a river valley and eventually to New Bridge, where a shiny new footbridge did in fact exist. It’s not clear to me if the settlement there has that name or if the term notes the landmark, but we walked across the shiny metal bridge and happily continued on our way. It started raining a little and we stopped for lunch. Afterwards we continued on and passed a beautiful narrow waterfall cascading down the giant rock face of a cliff. The air was fresh and cool and clean. We decided to push on to the hot springs.
We made it there and after a short rest we dropped off our bags and headed to the springs. We got our tickets and followed the path. We walked for what seemed like a long time and while I was feeling tired and a little whiny, the kids skipped down like mountain goats. I was dismayed to see a very long staircase heading down to the river. Another rock staircase! But there was no turning back, and besides there were hot springs to look forward to. We kept going and soon saw the three stone pools next to the whooshing river. I changed and got in as fast as I could. The water was so warm and relaxing after hiking all day up and down those hills. It felt amazing to just be barefoot and buoyant. We met other hikers and soaked until closing time. The walk back to the teahouses was cold and unwelcome, but beautiful in all the lush forest with its moss and birds and the receding sound of the river below. We had dinner and fell into soft beds with warm blankets, sleeping especially well after the long day.
We decided to rest the next day and stay in Chinu. We went back to the hot springs in the morning and virtually had the place to ourselves. We spent the rest of the day playing cards, meeting other trekkers, and just relaxing. We changed teahouses to one that was uphill- we hadn’t realized there were places higher up and we certainly hadn’t wanted to hike higher than necessary when we’d first arrived. But now we were staying at a teahouse that boasted a great view from every room. It was still cloudy, but we did get some nice views the next morning. We made a plan to hike on the ridge trail starting the next day.
We headed back to the ridge in the morning. The hiking was easier and faster; there must have been more downhills. We found the ‘old bridge’ and traversed the rickety wooden crossing, feeling more adventurous than we did with the newer metal one. We rested and had lunch in Tolka, just past Landruk. Unfortunately, we didn’t notice the path from Landruk to Forest Camp, which would have saved us some hiking and put us further on the ridge trail. But fortunately, we made it to the ridge teahouses before a rainstorm that lasted most of the night. We also had some more amazing views from Pitam Deurali, including an early morning view of Dhaulagiri, which is about 100 meters taller than Annapurna but appears shorter, being behind it from this angle. We had breakfast and headed to Forest Camp, said to be four hours away.
The trekking here was different. The paths were more rocky and less sculpted. They appeared less trodden and we saw only two people, both locals, in five hours as we hiked. It was very green, festooned with vines, and had a carpet of moss covering almost everything. We went uphill at first then were relatively level as we walked on the ridge. This was delightful after all of the previous elevation changes of the hikes thus far. At times I felt like running along the path a la Maria in Sound of Music. But I controlled myself because there were roots everywhere and I would likely have done a very un-Marialike tumble. Due to the many trees and again the clouds, we did not have amazing views on the ridge, though we occasionally saw the hills on either side. Cleverly and I each separately caught a glimpse of a small deer we believe was a barking deer or muntjac. The forest felt ancient, quiet and cool and undisturbed. The air was delicious. Forest Camp with friends
After about five hours, we came to Forest Camp. We had hoped to continue hiking to low camp, two hours away, or even high camp, five hours away and from which you can hike to the Mardi Hawa base camp. However, after we ate lunch, the kids did not want to go another inch. Additionally, one of them had been resting frequently while hiking because she didn’t feel well. She later had a stomach bug in Kathmandu. We knew we could hike to the road from here, but not from points further on this trail, plus the austerity measures due to our low amount of cash were wearing thin. We wondered about the time estimates since we often took longer. DH and I talked about leaving the kids and going for the base camp in about 15 hours hiking on our own, but it didn’t seem like a good idea. We had to admit that it looked like we wouldn’t make it to the base camp.
We got comfortable there at a very picturesque teahouse. The kids were thrilled that there was a horse, a dog, and several water buffaloes, including baby buffs. A couple from Israel we had met previously on the trail were also staying for the night. We suddenly had more cash since we were leaving the next day, so we ate like kings. It started raining not long after we arrived and kept raining. We congratulated ourselves on our wise decision as the teahouse owners started a cozy fire in the dining room stove. We learned some Israeli card games and watched the rain from the warm dining room. It was a very pleasant evening.
The next day, our companions headed towards the base camp and we were, alas, headed back to Pokhara. We were somewhat consoled with a great breakfast. It felt like goodbye to the Annapurna park, but we still had some major downhill hiking to accomplish. And thus began the most downhill steps I ever hope to do in a day. The path to Landruk was actually very steep and not well kept, so we weren’t completely sad to have missed the experience of going uphill on it. We went through the little town for the third time and continued downhill. We crossed the river on another suspension footbridge at the bottom of the long, long descent. DH estimates that we went down a vertical mile. Our ears were popping. Eventually the path evened out somewhat. Looking behind us, we caught some excellent last views of the snowy peaks of the Annapurna range. We made it to the road, and after some haggling with a taxi driver and a bus, we decided to keep walking to the town of Birethanti, where we checked out of the park using our permits again and found a jeep taxi that took us to Pokhara. We ended the night eating all the things we had promised ourselves while hiking- falafel, chocolate, french fries, soup, ice cream. We were proud of the hiking we had done, and we were glad of low food prices and the nice, flat sidewalks of Pokhara.