It had only been a few weeks since I got back from the Mardi Base Camp trail. The phone rang and a voice from the other side said, “bhai, Annapurna round circuit handim nata dajubhai”. When one Ghumante says to another, “Let’s hit the Annapurna Round Circuit trail”, you just don’t say NO. The buzzing of World’s Highest crossable pass “Thorong la”, Tilicho lake, the whole of the Annapurna Range to walk side by side, soul craving for adventure, my heart was already up there in the mountains.
Bags packed. Our hearts were aching to roam in the mountain’s high, and we were ready to roll. The first stop of the trail was at Besisahar, Lamjung. We celebrated the reunion of our two brother’s 16 years of friendship. Had local spirit. We experienced several colorful moments, making our stay much more interesting. It was a great way to start what was to become the wonderful 10 days. “BesiSahar”, Gateway to heaven, I love you but with nerve wrecking off trail road waiting, we didn’t explore Besisahar as much as we had hoped. It was already time to leave for the Mountains. Riding through the tunnel for the first time in my life, we left Besisahar for Chame.
You need guts to drive along those off roads. Maybe that’s the reason most of the jeep drivers were young and carefree. Ours was 19. If any sort of accident was to happen, I don’t think they would find either the parts of vehicle or the bones of the passengers. With Marsyangdi flowing by your side, or sometimes thousands of meters below you, people were overthrown with hysteria. An abrupt encounter with some alluring waterfalls, chanting bluish rivers and Mountains playing “peek a boo” with you, soon blues of off road rides turned into warm fuzzies.
Chatting with locals, exchanging laughs, watching the mountains, I don’t know how time flew during that jeep ride. The Jeep ride that started at 10 am from the humid Beshisahar, ended at 6 pm in Chame. The mountains were already shining with moonlight when we reached Chame, district headquarter of Manang. As we drove in with the breeze from the mountains faintly brushing our cheeks, we began to notice the exhaustion our bodies felt due to the bumpy ride there. Soon after we made sure to store some warm food into our bellies, and finally we were off to sleep.
Waking up to the hustling noise from the city area far behind us and the gushing waves from Marsyangdi River, tiredness from yesterday’s ride was long gone. We explored Chame for a while, and even had Jeri Puri up there, which was unexpected. After wandering around for some time, we left Chame. The landscapes, lifestyle, and culture were gradually changing as we progressed through our trail. With every new face I was confronted with, I could feel the vibes. Sometimes travel is not only about the landscape or trails, its much more about the people you meet along the way who touch your heart with just a simple eye contact.
With the presence of cool breezes and the sparkling sunshine, we were ready to take on the whole Annapurna round circuit ahead of us. I love apples and eat them on a regular basis but never had I actually come across any apple trees. However, this was the day I finally saw, not only one, but 70 thousand apple trees in an apple farm between Chame and Pisang.Another item that we didn’t expect to come across were Samosas. Fortunately, it was available in every teashop! I was pretty amazed. With Marsyangdi frolicking around in front of us, we were having the time of our lives walking through the evergreen pine forest. As the sun was about to set, we arrived in Pisang.
Leaving our warm blankets, we raced to have our cup of tea, and then departed from Pisang. With only a few hours of walking under our belt, we had reached Humde. With the company of plain grass fields, white snow capped mountains on one side and Rocky Mountains on the other; we had a splendid time. We purchased apples for Rs.5 there. It was fantastic. Humde, which not only offers a gorgeous landscape, apparently has an airport too. As we left the green forest behind us, the altitude rose gradually. As we trekked up towards further north, the people were more Tibetian in ancestry, and Buddhism the main religion they followed.
With fir trees long gone, there were bushes to replace them.The landscape was changing as we moved away from Humde. Tibetan monasteries, spinning wheels and prayer flags were seen more. Local kids and their smiles would just be a sigh of relief to our tired bodies. With the presence of mountains high and low, Yaks grazing in the grassy pastures by the trail, the atmosphere was pure bliss. While walking along the trail besides the river, we had reached Brakha. We decided to stay put, here in Brakha for the day, as recommended by one of the fellow travelers we met earlier while walking along the trail. Following his suggestion, we decided to venture into Ice Lake, which is off the trail. Early next morning, the sun was still shining so we checked in, left our backpacks, got the cameras and left for Gangapurna lake, Manang. Within 30 minutes of our walk we reached Gangapurna lake lying in the laps of Gangapurna peak. Breathtaking blue waters, whistling rivers, winds flirting with prayer flags, the setting sun, it was peace like you had never felt before. It was a moment of pure “Nirvana”.
I was amazed to see a beach football ground up there. I decided to walk up to the top of the hill in order to capture the whole of Gangapurna lake and the peak into one frame. I somehow managed to get to the top crossing fences, while walking along rocky patches and slippery gravel. I was so focused on not falling down the trail that I don’t remember how I got down. By the time we finished exploring Gangapurna, the sun had gone down and the moon was rising. We went back to our hotel in Brakha. With warm hands, warm food and hearts full of excitement for the future adventures to come; it was time to call it a night.
It’s recommended that after 3000 metres, you should ascend no more than 350 metres a day after 3000 m to prevent AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). But we were heading towards Ice Lake which was located more than 1000m above us. With our stomachs full from three Cinnamon rolls, a few chocolate bars and 3 bottles of water; we gathered our cameras and left for Braga. Our journey up without a backpack was easy at first as we left them at our hotel. However, with an increase of elevation, the mountains were so close that within a few hours of walking, we were confronted with a loud crashing sound. It was an avalanche in one of the Annapurna peaks. In fact, we witnessed three avalanches that day, giving us the opportunity to re-tell interesting stories after our trip.
As we gained altitude, we slowly paced ourselves. With the lack of tea-houses in between, we stopped for a moment, caught our breath and grabbed a bite of chocolate before we proceeded to move up. We even gave our fellow Italian traveler a Snicker bar, as he hadn’t packed anything to eat. Every time we thought we had reached a mountain top and a lake was about to show up, we ended up being wrong. There was always another one to trek over. Every once in a while we’d get the feeling of backing out. With several moments of contemplation, we finally reached at the Ice Lake. All I can say is, it was all worth it. Two lakes; frozen, on the altitude of 4600m, monuments and mountains guarding the lakes faraway from every thing you know. It was a moment of sheer joy. Every single pain and thought of going back was no more felt as we replaced it with a smile in our hearts. Every trekker was having one of the best moments they have ever had, and we finally ate a cinnamon roll to celebrate (which is now my favorite piece of bread). After spending half an hour around the lake, it was time to go back to Brakha. Unfortunately, there were no tea-houses to stop by near the Lake. The trail in which we spent 5 hours to hike, only took 2 hours to return.
Upon reaching back to our hotel, our plans changed. Due to the unpleasant weather and rainfall forecast which was yet to come, we decided to visit Tilicho some other time. Although we were excited to move towards the World’s highest crossable pass “Thorong la Pass”, our bodies felt numb. We decided to go to bed. Keeping our promise to visit Tilicho next time, we bid farewell to Manang. Although vegetations were a rarity as we moved upwards, the mountains close by and the valley looked beautiful. I had my first sip of sea buckthorn juice and it was incredible – loved it to the last sip. Highly recommended, while you are on a trek towards the mountains. Moving along, we only had few interactions with fellow travelers. It was a slow paced walk until we reached Yak Kharka. It was not difficult to get lost in thought in that wilderness. It seemed like it was the day for me to taste new things. Every last morsel of yak Mo:Mo was savored. We paid an astounding Rs 800 for one plate, but it was totally worth it. The night was frigid than that of Manang, but we slept well.
Awakened by the warm sun rays coming through the window, it was time to leave for Thorong La high camp. Continuing along the trail, we did not need to ascend much to reach Thorong La Phedi. The trails were somehowt narrow consisting a glimpse of gravel every now and then. We reached Thorong Phedi with ease. We rested there for a while, filled our bellies and soon after, we were on our way to Thorong La high camp. It wasn’t a long distance from High camp to Phedi, however it took approximately 45 minutes to an hour due to the steepness of the path. While hiking up, we came across wild Bluesheep grazing just besides the trail. While traveling, there are moments where you get the feeling that all your problems simply don’t matter because of the atmosphere that surrounds you. Simply because of where you are and the way you see. This moment was one of them. Being the only lodge in the high camp, the owners were not as friendly as they were in the lower regions. We booked our room, dropped our bags and headed towards the high camp viewpoint. It was incredible. With the mountains all around you, and Thorong Phedi way below, our faces were all smiles. We had dal bhat with a large group of fellow travelers – who were just as excited as we were for tomorrow’s adventure towards the almighty Thorong La pass. We crawled into our warm beds in the chilly nights of High camp. Most people find it difficult to sleep in high altitudes, unless they’re accustomed to it. We were no different. We became extremely restless after a couple of hours of sleep. I plugged in my earphone, cranked up the volume. The iPod played “Born to be Wild” as I tried to sleep during odd hours of the night.
The alarm went off at 4:30 am. We arose feeling groggy and tired. We began to feel better after many sips of tea. By 5am we were already rolling. For hours, the trail consisted of a bunch of travelers in single file, snow filled trails, and a dark sky. We slipped around every so often, our hearts racing and hands feeling numb. We stopped to catch our breath. When we looked back, it was really beautiful. People shared a similar amount of enthusiasm while trekking, as torch lights flashed in a line in those dark hours. I don’t think I will ever forget that moment – I felt infinite. The dark sky faded away as sun began to show its face. We could barely breathe with the rise in altitude. I felt like my head was about to explode and each step I took felt as though I was walking on air. As we pushed on, each turn brought us with a new expectation of being at the top.The final few hours were damn hard but when we finally reached the pass, an adrenaline rush took over and we were on cloud nine. As soon as our eyes were set on the Tibetan flags fluttering around, it was all about celebration. Smiling faces; eye-gasmic, group photos, and an aura of happiness surrounded the area as everyone was proud of this achievement. Standing there, I wondered, looked around, not below, but above, at all the other peaks that were around us. Questions came flooding in my mind, why do climbers, mountaineers and trekkers return again and again to the Himalaya and maybe, maybe I understood a little….
We commenced our downhill journey from Thorong La pass to Mustang Valley. Our knees were starting to fail, as we slid down the gavel slopes. The views of the arid mountains in the distance were stunning, as was the feeling of finally walking on flat ground as we approached Muktinath (sacred site). It was my first time in this holy place so I decided to shower myself in the holy waters of Muktinath. With the Go-Pro in one hand taking a video –the freezing water,I ran through all those water taps as fast as I could. I took dips in two freezing ponds . Wait, I might have taken more than one dip in the ponds for a better photograph each time, lol. Anything for that perfect picture, right? After spending some holy moments, it was time to leave for tonight’s stop at old Kagbeni “Ekley Bhatti”. On the evening we strolled along the gorge of the Kaligandaki river.
Early next morning, we woke up to the sound of a rooster. It was time for a walk. As we strolled through the valleys and white-walled villages, listening to Tibetan prayer songs in the fields of Kaagbeni, it felt heavenly. Hidden doors, Tibetan monasteries, and what not; it was gorgeous. I was in awe of how the landscape of Mustang was unlike anything I had seen in the Himalayas. After one fine lunch in EkleyBhatti, we left for Jomsom. Walking by the side of Kali Gandaki river, the only song – as you can imagine playing in our head– was “Jomsomai bazar ma baraabajeyhawasarararaa….. “. Maybe being in the mountains for all these days, witnessing such heavenly mountains, Jomsom didn’t bring about the same feeling inside me. It didn’t capture me. We went for a walk in the evening. It felt different seeing so many people after so many days of being away. We bought souvenirs for Mom. And with sip of Marpha Brandy and tired legs we went to sleep in the laps of sleeping god.
With a new day in civilization, it was time to go back to reality. We caught a bus home from Jomsom. Now, as the scenes through the dusty bus window was kept changing, my body was at peace. Several thoughts began to seep through my head. Flashbacks of the mountain trails, eyes full of stories, heart full of mountain love, living the best moments of our lives; we bid farewell to Annapurna Circuit round.