In Part II of my Annapurna Circuit trek blog, I left you in the warmth of the sleeping bag, falling once again into altitude affected dreams at Letdar at 4,250m. Nice to have you with me again as we pick up the trek on the way to achieving our goal, the ascent of the mighty Thorang La Pass.
We had a very cold and early start next day, day 10, but I was well set up with a delicious breakfast of apple pancakes with honey, 2 boiled eggs and masala tea. We then headed off on what was to be another gruelling day up to Thorang Phedi and then on up to Thorang High Camp, ascent all the way!
The landscape at this point is very barren indeed, there’s little vegetation, it is desolate, dry and cold, but stunning and expansive. The route to Thorang Phedi follows a vast and exposed, landslip prone slope, along the east bank of the Jarsang Khola gorge and the Marshyangsi headwaters. In case you were in any doubt it is signposted warning you to ‘Step Gently’. Stopping along this stretch, which Phurpu discouraged, was extremely hazardous and required choosing the spots, if a stop was absolutely necessary, where a boulder or rocky outcrop would hopefully serve as a shelter if the mountainside above decided to give way.
We climbed up past Thorang Phedi at 4,540m, where it seemed a lot of trekkers stopped, and had a micro break and quick snack seated on the helipad overlooking camp and soaking up the warmth of the sun before pressing on again, a steep climb all the way to Thorang High Camp at 4,900m.
Thorang High Camp was absolutely packed, and later at dinner there was to be standing room only for the majority in the common rooms. We heard stories of trekkers arriving and being turned away earlier in the afternoon. Some people were camping, obviously having come prepared for the overcrowding. Miguel was put up in the storeroom for the night amongst the beer and snickers bars, we reckon he got the last and best room, haha!
We lunched with a couple of really interesting North American chaps, one of whom was from Alaska. They regaled us with stories of wild camping in Wyoming and having a black bear nosing around their tent in the night, they could hear him breathing, because they’d forgotten to wash their hands after they’d eaten sandwiches! Just the smell on their hands attracted the bear. Crazy stuff.
I felt quite breathless walking around camp, which was extremely desolate and overlooked by enormous peaks, feeling tired and cold but on the whole okay and faring better than others apparently. It is not uncommon for trekkers to become pretty sick at this point and talk was there were some people who had to be taken down to the lower camp and Phurpu had to help another guide with a woman in another group who was unwell. The Lonely Planet guidebook warns that a night here can be ‘dangerous’ which is why people often stay at the lower camp. I however could not have imagined having to the do Pass from that lower camp! Our health checks, which were carried out in Miguel’s storeroom bedroom away from the hubbub of the common room, returned good O2 levels for all of us so we and Phurpu were happy.
We turned in for an early night due to the cold and the scheduled extremely early start, as Phurpu wanted us up at 3:30am to be on the track for 4am! Essentially, we slept in the entire underlayer of clothes, including hat (which we’d been wearing to bed since Manang), that we planned to wear the next day so that getting ready would entail simply putting on the outerlayers and boots. We also packed everything so there’d be little to do in the darkness, particularly as our room light had stopped working so we only had headtorches.
During the night, I had the strange feeling in my sleep again of not being able to get enough breath and in the pitch dark there were strange lights firing behind my eyes in my brain. It was quite bizarre. I wondered if it was radiation, astronauts describe the same thing when on Space Station.
The alarm went off at 3:30am and I rose feeling sluggish, with a blocked nose again, and a headache, feeling like I had a hangover; the cold was incentive not to tarry. At breakfast Miguel suggested to Phurpu that I should have a suck on the O2 but Phurpu checked my 02 which was 82% and so apparently quite acceptable and said no. I took some tablets and wanted to sit until my headache went but Phurpu again said no, a headache is normal and he said the best thing was to get walking as soon as possible, and whilst this felt like an immense struggle, he turned out of course to be right.
I couldn’t face the omelette that I had ordered for breakie but managed the sweetness of a muesli bar with my cup of ginger and honey tea but which was then to be the only fuel I was to have until we stopped for lunch around 1:30pm after the descent from the pass. Looking back, I don’t quite know how I managed that!
We set off just after 4am in the dark with head torches on and it was a very tough day indeed but our little mountain team and particularly Phurpu, was just amazing. He really kept me going, rubbing my gloved but nevertheless still cold hands to get them warm when we stopped, helping me get my water bladder out of my pack, and at one point at daybreak taking my pack for a bit, which I argued with him about but he insisted and wrestled it off me saying it was for the best and he’d give it back at the top, and generally geeing me along. He was absolutely amazing.
As we climbed in the dark I began to yearn for the light of dawn and just prior to dawn we were treated to an absolutely beautiful, purple pre-dawn light as the backdrop to the mountainscape. It was quite magical but even better when the Sun rose, warming our backs, it was simply an amazing, sustaining feeling.
A passing mule train again barged us into the side of the mountain, this time knocking us over and later on, a lady on a horse was led by us, back down the mountain, apparently it is an option if you are not feeling up to it. I have to say I was half inclined to ask for one myself! Stopping for rests and water was necessary but the water was so icy that it made my headache more when I drank it.
Despite a number of false summits which made the trail feel like it was going on for ever and ever, I eventually made it to the top and cried when I saw the rest of our team who had gone on ahead and Amy’s red puffy Rab coming towards me. We all hugged and Army got me a tea from the Thorang Top Teashop, which was just fantastic. We then had photos at the prayer flag festooned chorten and the sign congratulating trekkers on the ascent, and we had another little prayer flag hanging ceremony led by Phurpu once again, and which another trekker very kindly videoed for us; a really treasured memory captured forever. There was a lovely camaraderie up there of trekkers all assisting each other to capture their precious moments.
I do wish I’d been up to walking around a bit more and taking more photos and videos though as I don’t really recall appreciating the views as much as I’d have liked, the main feeling really was relief at making it to the top and particularly that we’d be descending now, no more up. I needed oxygen and I recall saying that I was never going to trek to altitude ever again. A vow completely forgotten by the time I had landed at Heathrow of course.
Anyway, I think we were only at the top for about 30 – 40 minutes, before we commenced what can only be described as a ‘brutal’ descent into Mustang District and our destination of Muktinath. Whilst the views were spectacular, the trek down, in all a steep 1600m descent, was nothing short of punishing. Thank Vishnu for trekking poles. Our day was to be another 4 hours to Muktinath so it was an extremely long day, 10+ hours of trekking, including the ascent. Fortunately, this was broken up by lunch stop at Chabarbu (at about 4,190m) where I had a Sprite which tasted like the most amazing drink on the planet.
On the approach to Muktinath, the knee-jarring trail eventually dropped into the grassy meadows of the Jhong Khola Valley and was welcome relief to the steep slopes and desolation of the high pass. As the village and its temple and shrines come into sight, the mountainsides are festooned with unfathomably long and high strings of prayer flags.
Muktinath at the much lower altitude of a mere 3,800m, is a very important pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists from all over Nepal and India and is the most sacred Hindu site in Nepal. As you enter the main complex there are shrines, temples and prayer wheels, at every turn and a giant Buddha. It is a colourful and vibrant place, bustling with pilgrims, tourists and locals. The trail down from the Buddha into town takes you past a huge helipad and lots of stalls selling trinkets, weaved yak shawls and blankets, and ‘saligrams’, 140million year old fossil ammonites enshrined in very smooth black rocks apparently found all over the Mustang region and which Hindu pilgrims believe to be manifestations of the god Vishnu, thus bestowing wealth, health and happiness.
We arrived at our teahouse a bit broken frankly but nevertheless in a very celebratory mood. We were able to have warmish showers and it was really nice to clean up after not having showered since Manang! Revived, our little mountain family regrouped in the common room and drank beers, whisky and local millet moonshine, Raksi and dined on sizzling yak steak with CHIPS, and ate the remainder of my Terry’s Chocolate orange for dessert. Oh my god, it was fab, the ill effects of altitude long forgotten in the glow of the euphoria of our achievement, and no doubt the additional oxygen in our blood helped.
Our final trekking day to Jomsom, like a game of rugby, was quite literally a day of two halves if there ever was one. We started the day with breakfast at a window table looking out on to the bustling high street. Our teahouse seemed to be the ‘rent a pony’ hitching post and we watched locals, ladies mainly, hoist themselves on to ponies lined up outside the window and trot away to whatever daily chores or jobs awaited them.
The first part of the trek and descent into the Kali Gandaki valley, with amazing views of peaks Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri (7061m), was very picturesque taking us through arable farmland, meadows and orchards, lovely autumnal trees, and loads of interesting wildflowers. We also spotted seabuckthorn bushes, our first time seeing the actual bushes, and which had flowers and hips on them.
However, beyond Kagbeni, after passing a rather familiar but out of place splash of red and yellow, a ‘YacDonalds’ restaurant sign, the trail descended further into the valley and the countryside whilst still stunning, turned into the monochrome, semi-arid and dusty desert of Mustang. The trail then gave way to a very wind blown and dusty road into Jomsom.
The classic AC trek used to be up to 21 days (and you can still do that) but a lot of guided tours, Kandoo’s included, now end the trek at Jomsom to avoid the last section of the circuit as a new, noisy and dusty road now follows the trek from this point. This is of course rather a shame but in my view the right one because just the trek into Jomsom was pretty unpleasant if truth be told and only alleviated ever so slightly by taking a detour along the massive and dry river bed of the Kali Gandaki when we failed to hail a bus.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, the wind in this valley is apparently notorious, caused by the flow of air between the Annapurnas and Dhaulagiri and so inevitable, and combined with the dust, sunglasses, bandana, scarf and hat are pretty much essential. Unaware of what was ahead, I did somewhat regret the timing of my much earlier gifting to Phurpu of my sunglasses, as his had broken when we were up the Pass. Consequently, I had no protection for my eyes from the dust. Phurpu did offer them back to me but it felt wrong to take them back at that point and he would have had nothing to shield his eyes.
This seemingly endless barren and dusty river bed, like a scene from the Martian, with the wind howling down the valley blowing dust directly into our faces, eventually gave way to the dust bowl of Jomsom town. Wind-blown and ravenous we ordered lunch and beer pretty much straightaway on arrival at the teahouse.
After a walk around town and the purchasing of obligatory souvenirs, all cleaned up, having utilised the once again purported to be hot but was not shower, our little mountain family all sat down for our last supper together. Phurpu handed out celebratory beers and certificates, we feasted on our last Dahl Baht, and some cheeky chilli fries, reminisced on the trek, talking about what we each personally liked best and what we would take away from the experience. We all gave thank you speeches, including Phurpu, Ox and Army. It really was a bittersweet but wonderful ending to the trek.
The next morning, we paid our fond farewells to Ox and Army at tiny Jomsom Airport and boarded our 14-seater, Tara Air plane for an Indiana Jones-esque flight to Pokhara. Sadly though, we were all seated on the right (wrong) side of the plane and missed the views of the Annapurna Himal.
Nevertheless, we were still afforded amazing views of the Nilgiri range and it was a very cool experience indeed.
At Pokhara we had a 2-hour window for some sightseeing and so jumped in a taxi to visit the dazzling white, Nipponzan Myohoji, Japanese World Peace Pagoda and Buddhist Temple, and gold Buddha statues atop the Min Hill. This tranquil site provides spectacular panoramic views over the lake, Phewa Tal, towards Machhapuchhhare / Fish Tail mountain (6,997m) and the Annapurnas, and our first and only sighting of the mighty Annapurna I Main.
On arrival back at the airport we found that our next flight to Kathmandu was delayed, due to a VIP travelling through KTM which closed the airport, apparently not an uncommon occurrence. We therefore wiled away a few hot hours in the airport, chatting, snacking, drinking beers, and catching up on messaging. Consequently, though we arrived back in Kathmandu late afternoon and so with not as much of the day left as we had hoped. We bid a fond and sad farewell to Phurpu and I shed a tear or two (again) at the parting and the realisation it was the end of a momentous experience.
After an absolutely luxuriously hot shower, with white fluffy towels, standing on clean floors, a sink to brush teeth in, a mirror, a flushing western toilet, toilet paper, hooks to hang things on, Amy and I had an evening mooch around Kathmandu. We purchased the obligatory The North Face Kathmandu t-shirts and then had dinner at Gaia Restaurant. As it is mentioned in Lonely Planet it’s a bit touristy but it was a lovely fairylight festooned garden setting, serving great food and Margaritas, and importantly just a stone’s throw from our hotel.
On our final day of the trip, at another Lonely Planet recommendation, Rosemary’s Kitchen, we planned our day sat in an almost Singapore Raffles like atrium breakfasting on a delish Nepali version of Eggs Ben, washed down with coffee which tasted like coffee! Heaven.
We then revisted café Mo:mo La Palpasa where we had visited on our first evening in Kathmandu. Over a flat white we chatted with the owner, Nildish who had lived in Australia and so therefore knew how to make a proper flat white. He was so helpful with suggestions for our day and recommended that we go to Patan Durbar Square in Lalitpur, and sorted us a taxi advising us that it was essential to bargain as the journey should only cost around 300-350NR but drivers will try for anything upwards from 500NR, and as much as 700NR to the unsuspecting.
Patan Durbar Square is one of the three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Packed with Buddhist and Hindu temples and idols, the main attraction is the ancient royal palace where the Malla Kings of Lalitpur resided and which houses the Patan Museum which has undergone a complete restoration after suffering from decay and damage from the 2015 earthquake. It is a vibrant and beautiful complex which carries a long, more than 2,000 years, history of civilisation. We rested our weary feet afterwards in the museum courtyard café, sipping on lemonade with Himalayan pink salt which was very pretty and quite refreshing but weirdly eggy, no doubt very good for you though.
It would have been a lovely spot to linger but after a spot of trinket shopping, we had to return to Kathmandu. We headed back to Mo:mo La Palpasa for their irresistible and ‘ to die for’ momo platter which is the best in town and not to be missed, washed down with beer. Nildish very kindly arranged for his friend at the adjacent Tattoo studio to draw up my Annapurna tattoo.
We then ended our last day in Kathmandu with a wonderful late dinner with Miguel and his wife and brother, who had arrived the night before, ahead of their onward trip to Bhutan.
The return to Heathrow was weird and I felt dislocated for some time. The call of the mountains is strong even after, at the time of completing this blog, nearly 5 months of being home, and especially so now we are all facing the movement restrictions imposed on us by the global Covid_19 Pandemic. I have become somewhat obsessed with everything mountain and hopefully this is something which is going to keep me sane over the coming months.
I came across these poignant words watching the docu film on Netlfix, ‘Mountains’ (2017) narrated by Willem Dafoe which perfectly describe how I felt coming back from Nepal: “Coming back to earth from the high peaks you can feel like a stranger, bearing experiences which are beyond expression, and beyond price. Time has flown over you but left its shadow behind…”. I do feel forever changed by Nepal. Who knows now when I will get back there, or even be able to climb some mountains closer to home, but the time will come again and when it does I will be ready!