The Tribune - Spectrum


, February 17, 2002

Awe-struck by Annapurna

In Central Nepal, the Kali Gandaki river cuts a deep gorge between the great Himalayan ranges of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. Santanu Paul writes about his experience of trekking down the length of the spectacular valley, from the windswept barren wilds in the north to the green foothills near Pokhara.

The South Peak of Annapurna
The South Peak of Annapurna

WE had been trekking from seven in the morning. It was now 4.30 in the afternoon. My wife and I were in Jharkot, high up on the Himalayas, on the first day of our trek to Muktinath. We were on the verge of a collapse, so exhausted, cold and feverish were we. As I lay on the hard bed, 10,850 ft above sea level, surrounded by mud-plastered walls, I brooded on the madness which had brought me to northern Nepal. A feeling of dread seized me as I realised I would have to do this for six more days.

It had all started when a friend, had shown me the pictures he had taken of the Annapurna mountains. He had suggested we trek to Muktinath, the Hindu pilgrimage site situated north of the Annapurna range in Nepal. Since I had never been to Nepal, I had jumped at the suggestion. Our plan was to fly from Pokhara (which was 210 km west of Kathmandu) to Jomsom (8,400 ft), trek up to Muktinath (11,500 ft) and then descend on foot to Pokhara.

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The trip had been smooth so far. At Jharkot, my wife and I, both first-time trekkers, felt that we had obviously overestimated our physical capabilities. Mercifully, this would only be a transitory feeling. Surrounded by Nature’s splendour, the trek, part of the famed Annapurna circuit, would turn out to be intensely fulfilling. Most tour guide books say it is one of the greatest treks in Himalayas and one can easily recommend this trek for all young-at-heart adventure tourists.

A lone trekker in the wilds of the Kali Gandaki valley.
A lone trekker in the wilds of the Kali Gandaki valley.

Five minutes after our flight took off from Pokhara, we were in the midst of the Annapurna range. The small 18-seater aircraft seemed to barely clear the towering snow-capped peaks as it bobbed and weaved between the peaks. We fell into a number of air-pockets and the feeling that we could crash into the mountains was very real. After 25 minutes, we landed at Jomsom airfield, the runway an unpaved bare strip in the high altitude desert of screen and dirt. Even though the sun poured down from a cloudless blue sky, it was intensely cold.

Here at Jomsom, we found out that the morning flights from Pokhara was the event of the day. Groups of hotel agents, porters, vegetable and fruit vendors all viewed us eagerly, in the hope of business. Jomsom consists of a main street running north-south, with a cluster of hotels near the airport. Our hotel, the Xanadu Guest House, overlooked the airport and we spent sometime in the restaurant watching planes take off and land.

Jomsom is the quite the last outpost of civilisation here on the far side of the Himalayas. Beyond stretches the land of Lobas, a people of Tibetan descent, and the district of Mustang, an extension of the arid Tibetan plateau. There are no roads here, just tracks for mules and horses. The houses are flat-roofed with bundles of fuel wood stacked on the terrace. By 10 or 11 in the morning, most outdoor activity stops for it is then that the fierce wind, an unrelenting cold blast, that blows all day starts. It stayed with us all through our trek, stinging our eyes and chapping our lips and hands.

Our trek took us through one third of what is called the Annapurna circuit, which takes about three weeks to trek. The circuit begins and ends at Pokhara, circling the Annapurna mountains, one of the main Himalayan ranges. The route that we trekked upon runs up the Kali Gandaki river basin, between the soaring mountains of the Annapurna and the Dhaulagiri.

The circuit clings to the Kali Gandaki till as far as Kagbeni, about half-a-day’s march north of Jomsom, then turns eastward to Muktinath and beyond. At seven next morning, on a beautiful cloudless day, we started from Jomsom. We followed the east bank of the Kali Gandaki, walking sometimes across the actual river bed. The river bed is almost a mile wide at places, the river is split into a mosaic of swift-flowing shallow streams. These streams wander over a waste of gravel. Towering to the east of us was the enormous snow-capped Annapurna range. On the west were bare yellow cliffs, the sides of the cliffs were flayed to their bones, into deep vertical irregular grooves by millions of years of ferocious sandstorms.

The Annapurna circuit

Getting there: Pokhara is easily accessible from Kathmandu by bus (210 km; 6-7 hours). There are also regular flights to the city.

Flights from Pokhara to Jomsom are usually heavily booked during peak season, so one must book in advance.

Best season: April-June, mid-September to mid-December.

Accommodation: While Pokhara has a host of hotels to suit every pocket, the towns on the Annapurna circuit all have clean, basic lodges that offer rooms at reasonable rates. The restaurants serve good food at rates fixed by the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP).

Trekking gear: With most villages on the Annapurna circuit having hotels, there is no need to cary sleeping bags. Use a rucksack to carry essentials, which must include a heavy jacket, raincoat and a torchlight. Most trekking equipment can be hired at Pokhara.

After breakfast in a tiny settlement called Eklaibhatti, we headed for Kagbeni, reaching there by midday. Kagbeni, where we had lunch, looked distinctly medieval with closely packed mud houses, twisting alleys and imposing chortens. From the village, the trail to Muktinath climbs steeply up the Jhong Khola river valley.

It was the steepest climb in my life. The trail was about a foot wide and the gradient was, more often than not, 60 degrees plus. Panting, wheezing, stopping every few minutes, we finally made it up to a windswept plateau. It was bitterly cold here, the strong wind chilled our lungs and though our chests heaved, we felt robbed of breath.

We forgot our agony when we looked around. Far below us the Kali Gandaki snaked its way through giant interlocking buttresses, while immense snow-capped peaks towered above. As we admired the view, a band of pilgrims overtook us; with them was a very old woman, and every time during that first day of the trek when we felt like giving up, we would be shamed by her, trudging just ahead of us, driven by an indomitable spirit.

The rocky hills beyond the plateau supported only a few tussocks and occasional bushes of juniper or buckthorn. Despite the sparse vegetation, a shepherd grazed his flock. He used no stick to herd the sheep; smartly aimed stones did the trick. We reached Jharkot at around four, utterly exhausted. At Jharkot, as we sat at a kodatsu, a Japanese-style table covered with a blanket, warming our feet from the heat of a charcoal brazier. We met a middle-aged German couple. Intrepid trekkers, they were making their twenty-fifth trip to Nepal. For the man, who had also visited Tibet several times, this was his fifth trek around the Annapurna circuit. "It is such a lovely experience," he said, "I just can’t help doing it over and over again."

The next morning we had tremendous views of Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri (an Annapurna range peak). As we headed towards the Muktinath temple, the snow-capped Nilgiri loomed ever larger, eventually towering over us. The temple, reached after ascending a long flight of steps, is a pagoda-style brick-and-cement Vishnu shrine. Obviously a new structure, it was perhaps built over the ruin of an old temple. Surrounding the shrine are 108 waterspouts, cast in the shape of a cow’s head. A short distance below is the ancient Tibetan Jwala Mai gompa, with small lighted spouts of natural gas inside.

Our journey back was a long four-day trek, mostly descending. We were to proceed on foot virtually all the way to Pokhara, not taking the flight from Jomsom, where we reached before dusk that day. One delightful village where we stopped for breakfast next morning was Marpha: it had spotlessly clean streets, paved with flagstones and an extensive underground drainage system! The village even had a library. We had breakfast sitting in the sun on the terrace of a restaurant. Some distance away the Kali Gandaki flowed noisily even as the fragrance of drying apricots and apples wafted in the breeze: it was pure contentment!

Some distance from Marpha, the dry, bare mountainscape changed into forest green: we had crossed the Himalayan hump and were now on the windward side of the mountain. Reaching Tukuche by afternoon, we checked into a small lodge with carved windows, doorways and balconies. The village had great views of the spectacular Dhaulagiri peaks; the next morning, we saw the rising sun light up the snowy summits in orange hues against a clear blue sky — a truly unforgettable scene.

The scenery was no less spectacular at Kalopani where we had lunch: Annapurna I, the Nilgiri and Dhaulagiri. Beyond Kalopani, the trail passed through the narrowest and steepest part the canyon. At one point, the entire hillside was a bare yellow. This was the Kali Gandaki gorge, the deepest in the world, cutting its way between the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna ranges. Tatopani, which means hot water, lay just beyond the gorge; the village sits precariously on a shelf above the river. There were hot springs here and the food at the hotel where we stayed was fabulous.

The last day of our trek almost turned out to be our last on earth. We had just walked through a tunnel when we found the track blotted out by a landslide. Any further progress required mountaineering skills. Sick with fear, we looked down at the roaring river below; the slightest misstep and we could crash into it. My heart pounding, my hands clammy with sweat, I edged along, my body flattened against the rock face, outstretched hands gripping jagged corners. Over on the other side, I collapsed in relief.

That evening we finally made it to the roadhead of Beni, from where Pokhara is a short bus ride away. I was glad to be back in one piece but greatly depressed that our adventure was over!