The Annapurna region is one of the two great trekking areas of Nepal (the other being the Khumbu where Everest is located). Pointy mountains, magnificent valleys and pretty villages have made it popular with trekkers for many years but a new road penetrating as far as Muktinath has kind of changed the game…
Nepal is a country of twisty, often unsurfaced roads clinging to vertiginous and crumbly precipices. As we’re done with the terrifying bus thing at only US$55 a pop it seems insane not to fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara – although we do have some misgivings when we see the size of the plane (see image below left) and ours is not the only nervous laughter to be heard as we board.
We’re flying with Yeti Airlines – only one of many small and wonderfully named airlines in Nepal. Others include Cosmic Air and Buddha Air but my favourite has to be Agni Airlines; Agni being the Hindu god of fire!!! What a wonderfully, fate-tempting name for an airline. We arrive 30 mins later only slightly terrified rather than after 7 gruelling hours with our fingers chewed down to the first knuckle.
Pokhara, the gateways to the Annapurna region, is surely one of the greatest cities on Earth. Situated at around 900m above sea level and with a backdrop of seven and eight thousand meter peaks, the awesomeness of the view from here cannot be overstated. Add to that a beautiful lake, high quality but cheap digs & eats and you can see why some people simply fail to leave. One such long-termer is ex-environmental consultant and record breaking dope smoker Bob with who we made acquaintance during an overnight stay on the ‘other side’. We’d taken a walk up to the Peace Pagoda, set on a hill on the opposite shore of the lake from Pokhara town, and on the way had paused for a drink at ‘The Open Air’ guesthouse. Independent travel being the wonderful and spontaneous thing that it is we thought it would be a good idea to spend the night there to, hopefully, get a good sunrise view of lake and mountains the next day. Sunrise obliged (see image below right) and over breakfast we got chatting to Bob who invited us over to see his ‘house’ that he had just finished painting. Well his house certainly has a great view if nothing else; it’s a shed (a freshly painted shed) of one room containing a bed and table. No bathroom, kitchen or other furniture, but Bob is probably too stoned most of the time to notice or care. And it is one hell of a view…
We manage to get our trekking heads on and after only 4 days are ready to head off into the great known. I say ‘known’ as opposed to ‘unknown’ as we have actually trekked in this region before when we completed the Annapurna Circuit eight years ago.
This time we’ve decided to fly into Jomsom and walk back, an easier undertaking than the circuit, but unlike last time now there’s a heavy camera and tripod in the bag. Although an extra 3kgs each doesn’t sound like much, believe me it is and we plan to pace ourselves accordingly, with shorter walking days and more rest time.
Day 1: Pokhara – Jomsom – Kagbeni
You might be forgiven for thinking that the flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara would have prepared us for what was to come. It didn’t and the 30 minutes we are air bourne between Pokhara and Jomsom are among the most memorable of my life, but not in a good way. I am still just about composed enough to be aware of the great views outside the window whilst Rich is busy wishing we would crash just to get it over with. My fingers do have to be prised off my bag where they’re frozen in a death grip however… Imagine being a bug riding in an empty crisp packet in a hurricane – our plane felt like that crisp packet! We nevertheless survive to eat another dhal bhat and once we’ve got our pulses down from danger level we heft our bags and start walking – something that we are going to be doing an awful lot of over the next 2 weeks!
The walk from Jomsom to Kagbeni is normally about two hours – it takes us three and a half today due to much fiddling with bag straps and water bottles, plus a break for some tea. Our trekking route for the next week between Kagbeni and Tatopani follows the Kali Gandaki river and is an ancient trading route between India and Tibet. It also has a good claim to being the deepest canyon in the world – with Annapurna 1 (8091m) and Dhaulagiri (8167m) facing each other across a river bed at 2520m. Kagbeni, our destination on this first day, is north of the Annapurna massif and geographically in Tibet – and it is indeed very dry and moon-like (see image above left). It’s incredible to put it bluntly and neither of us can really believe that we are back in this wonderful place. In Kagbeni we find a room in a 300 year old monastery that’s been converted into a guesthouse. It’s still got some old prayer wheels in the hall and even better… HOT WATER! Hurrah!!!
Day 2: Kagbeni – Jomsom
Following a very productive morning taking photos from the roof of our guesthouse we retrace our steps back to Jomsom in super quick time but decide to spend the night here and have a half day rest which turns out to be a good call as it pours with rain most of the afternoon.
Day 3: Jomsom – Marpha
We wake up this morning to the sound of the Pokhara flight coming in to land. It’s not as windy as the day we flew in and the landing looks pedestrianly routine – I wonder what our landing looked like? Probably exactly the same as this one regardless of how it felt inside the aircraft! The turnaround is only a few minutes but plenty of time to grab the camera and video the plane taking off on its flight back to Pokhara.
Today’s walk should be fairly short and straightforward except that we get a little lost… There’s one major change in this area since the last time we walked here – the road. It’s now possible to take a bus all the way from Pokhara to Kagbeni and onto the pilgrimage site of Muktinath. Traditionally the area we are walking through was only accessible on foot, part of its charm and the satisfaction of trekking here. We have already noticed that there is a definite scarcity of trekkers now and we’ve seen foreigners as well as locals on buses and jeeps. It’s a knotty issue this one – who are we to deny locals access to goods and transport so as to preserve our authentic 3 week holiday experience? And the area’s awesome villages of Kagbeni, Marpha, Muktinath and the amazing natural spectacle of the Kali Gandaki valley are now open to those who can’t or don’t want to walk. Although the road will certainly be the death of the famous and hugely popular Jomsom trek (pretty much the route we are doing now), sadder will be the drop in popularity and/or purity of the Annapurna Circuit, that marvellous circumambulation of the entire Annapurna massif. Anyway, the guys at the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) recognise that trekkers don’t want to walk by the roadside dodging motorbikes and buses and are trying where possible to create trekking paths, usually on the other bank of the river. We think we’ve found one today but it turns out to be a dead end so we have to backtrack a couple of miles delaying our arrival in Marpha and thereby our consumption of some of its near legendary apple crumble. Yum!
Day 4: Marpha – Kobang
Marpha is a charming and very well kept village and this morning I get up early to take some pictures from the monastery. After breakfast we’re on the move and manage to get off the road again today, without getting lost; the trekking path is clearly marked this time. The landscape is literally changing before our eyes; it’s becoming greener and more alpine and losing that Tibetan high altitude desert bleakness. We pass through Tukuche, just a small cluster of houses today but historically the hub of the trade route between India and Tibet. This is the point where the valley closes in and Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri are at their closest. We are far too interested however in the friendly tabby cat that lives at the place where we stop for lunch to spare more than a glance for the monumental scenery. He’s a lovely boy – very vocal and doesn’t mind having his ears scratched (see image above right)!
We’ve been a bit blasé on this trip and come away with no guide book – only a map. We come a little unstuck today – the place we’ve planned to stay the night, Kobang, is a right dump and we end up in total flea pit! That’ll show us!
Day 5: Kobang – Kalapani
Leaving the horrors of Kobang behind we continue south through an ever greener valley. It’s real alpine scenery today with a bit of time spent walking on the riverbed. Rich likes this particularly as he enjoys looking for treasure and in fact the area is famous for fossils. There are some fun and wobbly bridges to cross (see image left) – all in all a great day’s walking.
A real treat is awaiting us in Kalapani – one of the best rooms we’ve had on our whole trip! And it’s Rps400. Rps400!!! That’s £3.20 – between us! Kobang is already a distant memory.
Day 6: Kapalani – Ghasa
It’s pretty much more of the same today. The weather has been pretty great although there is a trend for clouds to come in during the afternoon. We have some rain again after lunch which matters not a jot as we are ensconced by then at the lovely ‘Eagles Nest’ guesthouse in Ghasa. It really makes sense to only walk in the mornings at this time of year as afternoon rain is not uncommon. The photographer in me is cross about the lack of sunsets – since Kagbeni we’ve had none – but then a few clouds can actually make a picture and in October it’s mostly clear skies all the time. It’s a bit of a trade off really – clear skies in autumn or clouds and flowers in spring…. The jury is still out on that one for me.
Day 7: Ghasa – Tatopani
Today sees a huge drop in altitude to around just 1100m. I’m expecting great things of Tatopani as this a one of the main gateways to the Annapurnas but in fact it’s a bit so-so. Accommodation isn’t anything special (we’ve been very spoilt so far, Kobang aside of course) and is quite expensive. Its main redeeming feature is the wonderful hot springs which Rich enjoys to the full although I sit and sulk because I didn’t want to carry my swimmers… I do allow myself a break from the ubiquitous dhal bhat and veg noodle soup and enjoy a surprisingly good spag bol though.
Day 8: Tatopani – Shikha
Today we get down to some serious uphill. The trail has been gradually descending over the last week but we are about to climb again.
Our destination is Ghorepani, which at around 2900m is actually higher than Kagbeni and we’re planning to break the climb up over 2 days. Each day involves an altitude gain of 900m, but frustratingly it’s rarely all up; there are always eye rolling bits of down just to make the day a little bit more difficult! The midpoint is Shikha village which turns out to be a very pleasant surprise. We find a simple but OK room with really hot water and an amazing view, which jogs my memory of last time we walked this route. Last time we were not only 8 years younger and carrying less stuff but we also had a third party in our team, Sam, who cracked the whip at our heels to keep us moving every time we started slacking. We were walking the last few days of the Annapurna Circuit and she was eager to get back to Pokhara’s internet cafes to get the lowdown on her love life; a highly motivating factor and she wasn’t going to let our perceived dawdling get in her way! We stopped at Shikha for lunch on that trip and I remember thinking how great is would be to spend the night here and get the sunrise view over Dhaulagiri in the morning light. Ironically our morning here is one of the few that isn’t clear but instead we get a pretty good sunset and some nice pictures (see image above right).
Day 9: Shikha – Ghorepani
For some reason the second day of the ascent is much harder and I’m really flaked out by the time we stagger into Ghorepani. Although the climb has been strenuous I’m quickly very cold and for a while think my fingers are going to fall off – they are all numb and white. I wouldn’t be typing this now if they had of course so there was a happy end to that story! We’ve now left the Kali Gandaki valley and are in a slightly different trekking area – one that is still very popular and doesn’t have roads, so suddenly there are loads of trekkers and our guesthouse of preference is full. We find an OK place though, with great hot water and after our showers break open the whisky. Today is a very special day, you see, it’s Rich’s 40th birthday and booze and biscuits is his makeshift present from me. Trekkers start to gather in the dining room as the stove is lit and as the snow starts falling outside (see image above left) it’s all very cozy.
Day 10: Ghorepani – Tadapani
One of the most famous panoramas of the Annapurnas is that from Poon Hill and Ghorepani is its ‘base camp’ if you like. Although it’s only a 400m climb, at 5am that’s the last thing you want and it’s with grumbles and groans that we climb out of our lovely warm sleeping bags this morning. The snow has stopped falling outside and there’s about 2 inches of snow on the ground creating the winter wonderland from heaven, complete with rhododendron forests and 8000m peaks. It’s a pleasure to be alive and in Nepal on days like this! Invigorated by the loveliness around us we set out after breakfast with a hop, skip and a jump on the road to Tadapani. On arrival we again struggle to find somewhere to stay and end up having to take a room without bathroom. There’s much whinging and moaning I can assure you but in fact this highlights just how amazing the standard of accommodation has been throughout. When we did the Circuit we never had attached bathrooms and even our room in Kobang (which now has enough distance that we can mention it with a wry smile) had a loo, however unhygienic!
Day 11: Tadapani – Ghandruk
We’re treated to another wonderful sunrise this morning and I happily snap away (see image left), this time in the company of a South Korean chap who tells Rich that he’s been up half the night taking multiple images of the Milky Way which he plans to merge together in some clever software. His tripod looks a bit wobbly to me so I have doubts about how it’s going to work out for him… Then it’s off again along the track to our last port of call on this trek, the much anticipated Ghandruk. I’m a big fan of the British landscape photographer David Noton; Rich and I went to his exhibition several years back at the OXO Tower in London and I’ve followed his work ever since. Remembering his wonderful image of a village in the Annapurna region I did a search for this image and found it was Ghandruk, so it’s with a great deal of photo anticipation that we arrive in town.
Photographic interest (it has been called obsession) aside, Ghandruk is a charming place. Spread out over a hillside with a Lord-of-the-Rings-esque view of Annapurna South and Machapuchhare on either side of the steep sided valley leading to the Annapurna Sanctuary, there are many traditional Gurung houses (see image right) here and a dizzying array of terraces, some with gently waving wheat, other still waiting to be filled. But as luck would have it the weather is about to turn against us…
Days 12 – 14: Ghandruk
So as we reach the pinnacle of my photographic ambition on this trip suddenly the weather goes completely to sh*t and we end up spending 4 nights here waiting for a decent sunrise. It’s incredibly frustrating as we’re within 4 hours or so of Pokhara with its balmy sunshine, comfortable beds and lemon meringue pie… Doesn’t bear thinking about really. I know I’m driven by a passion to acquire images so the real hero here is Rich who patiently plays round after round of whist while we sit in the fog waiting for the weather to lift.
Our time is far from wasted in fact as we have a mission to accomplish whilst here. A former colleague of mine recently married a Nepali from a village near here and instead of traditional presents they requested money from their wedding guests, which was donated to a school in the village of Uri, around a 2 hour walk from Ghandruk. Hearing that I was going to be in the vicinity she asked me if I could get some photos of the new kindergarten that their money was paying for. Of course we were happy to oblige and I think the kids enjoyed it too (see image above left) – except possibly the girl in the middle who looks a little glum.
Day 15: Ghandruk – Pokhara
So our trek comes to a end; a short walk then a 2 hour jeep drive sees us back in Pokhara and with food being forever and foremost in our thoughts we’re straight out of the jeep and into Everest Steak House (Pokhara branch) before the thought of finding a place to stay has ever entered our heads…
Although I did seem to be constantly feeling that the weather was against me on this trek once I got back to Pokhara and started editing my images I realized that it had actually been a very productive and successful trip photographically and it’s hard to chose one image over any of the others. In the end, in deference to the amount of time we spent in Ghandruk I think it has to be an image from there and this was taken on a fairly clear morning (although I was grumbling at the time I didn’t realize that the next two mornings would be far worse!). Machapuchhare is obscured by cloud (top right) but I still think that the gentle quality of the light makes the picture even though this fairly dramatic component is missing. The image itself is fairly straightforward: 1/30 sec at f/11 using a 2 stop ND grad and of course, my beloved tripod. And I’d like to end with a big thanks to Rich who carried that tripod (carbon fibre but still heavy!) all the way from Kagbeni – a good 100kms or so. Thanks Big Bear!!!