Adventure

A teahouse trek to catch the sunrise

Print edition : June 22, 2018

Trekkers on the trail to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The first rays of the sun on the Annapurna range. A glacier can be seen in front. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

On the way to Jinu Danda, on the first day on the Annapurna Base Camp trail. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The climb to Chamrung. The rough-hewn stone steps leading to the village seemed never-ending. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A trail near Annapurna Base Camp. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Porters are the lifeline of trekking tourism in Nepal. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A porter carrying a water tank meant for tourists, near Siwai. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Machhapuchhre, one of the peaks of the Annapurna range. The name comes from its pointy fishtail shape. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Corncobs left out to dry in Chumrung village. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Prayer flags at the base camp. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Dovan, one of the villages on the trail. Like most villages, it is located in densely wooded, dark jungles. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A bridge on the trail. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

In Chumrung, with Annapurna forming the backdrop. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

THE mountains seemed to have been lit up with a string of festive fairy lights, all bobbing up and down and snaking their way up the steep slopes in the inky darkness of a moonless night. The effect was magical, as though we were witnessing a grand theatrical performance, one where the theatre itself was the drama. Of course, this was the mighty Annapurna range, nature’s own theatre, but the light effects came from human intervention, not fireflies as I had originally thought. These lights were from trekkers’ headlamps as they stumbled their way up the mountainside to reach Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) in time to catch the first rays of the rising sun. It was the most defining moment of our 24-day trek to ABC and Lo Manthang in October last year, one that lingered in our memory for months afterwards. Most trekkers to ABC elect to stay at Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) because facilities at the former are limited, and set out at 3 a.m. to wend their way up to ABC before sunrise, stumbling past rocks and through scree and keeping as far away as possible from the river roaring menacingly on one side of the trail.

For us three women from India, the previous seven days’ trek from Pokhara up to this point seemed a breeze compared with this stretch, which took every ounce of our energy and resolve to traverse. At 12,135 feet (3,699 metres), the air is rarefied, the trail rocky and treacherous and, in this darkness, we felt like bats sans echolocation. What kept us going was the glorious sight of the winding, moving glowing lights, reassuring us that there were kindred souls out there eager to have a glimpse of the first brush of golden sunshine on the snowy peaks.

The Annapurna range is a chain of mountains 55 kilometres long and comprising a galaxy of snowy eminences: Annapurna 1 to 4, Gangapurna, Himchuli, and so on. Machhapuchhre, perhaps the only male in this female pantheon, is made up of millions of tonnes of impressive granite armour; he is their sentinel, keeping a watchful eye over them from a ridge across. In fact, Machhapuchhre seems to stalk every trekker huffing her way up to ABC. He seems to accompany you from Pokhara itself, tracking your every move, towering above you at every turn and twist, following you through every crest and scree. Occasionally, when he disappears from view, you wonder if you have lost your way, but then the moment you come round the bend, he will be there, in all his stunning starkness with his pointy fishtail peak, which gives him his name.

For the three of us—Parvathi from Bengaluru, Suhasini from San Diego and this writer from Delhi—the trip had commenced long before we reached Nepal from our respective homes. The ABC trail is truly treacherous, far more challenging than the arduous trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC), which I had attempted in 2016. We had to prepare months in advance, sweating it out in the gym and equipping ourselves with accessories to aid us along the way. Yet, there were surprises galore and obstacles aplenty.

The first was the bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara, much of it with the Trishuli river on one side and the verdant slopes of the mighty Himalaya on the other. It would have been a truly memorable journey but for the impossible traffic snarls that caused us to take 12 hours to cover a distance of just 200 km on the Prithvi Highway. The road was narrow in most parts; there were several single-lane bridges to cross, a long line of vehicles piled up on both sides. The non-existent roads in many stretches ensured that we were tossed like pebbles in a rattle, every bone in the body creaking and complaining.

If you survive the road journey to Pokhara, you will be swept by the sheer beauty of Pokhara town, nestling on the shores of an alpine lake. Machhapuchhre towers over the lake, which is studded with sailboats. When you glance up, you can see hundreds of paragliders floating gracefully against the backdrop of snowy peaks. And you can feast on some of the most delectable desserts this town’s fancy eateries come up with.

Porters

After a day in Pokhara to stock up on trekking accessories, we began our climb from Nayapul, some 80 km away. Padam, Krishna and Rahul lugged our backpacks while the suave Dinesh was our guide, alternating between cracking the whip and cajoling us to keep moving. Porters are the lifeline of trekking tourism in Nepal. They carry packs twice as big as themselves, balancing precariously on the steep boulders, sometimes wearing only rubber sandals. We saw porters struggling up the slopes with water tanks and washing machines on their backs, presumably to cater to the needs of trekkers. The cosmopolitan composition of trekkers has given rise to demands for international cuisine and modern comforts, which teahouses do offer. After 24 days of trekking in Nepal, we concluded that trek tourism was extracting a huge price, paid mostly by those hapless porters and the environment.

Nayapul is a bustling village where you can stock up on bananas and sundry eats to see you through your first day. You need to produce your Annapurna Conservation Area permit and Trekkers’ Information Management card before you can commence your trek. Much to our delight, the initial climb was gentle. The slopes were studded with fecund farmlands ripe with paddy and vegetables. But then, after ambling for about two hours, we realised that most of the trekkers, including the experienced-looking ones, were whizzing past us in jeeps and SUVs. After some investigation we realised that most trekkers usually began their climb from Siwai, riding in a jeep from Nayapul to the trekking point. We managed to flag down a jeep and piled into it. Our porters climbed in, too, and the luggage was dumped on the roof of the jeep and left unsecured. After all, it was just a short ride, maybe half an hour to Siwai where the rutted mud road would end. We should have known better. Two of our bags had tumbled down somewhere along the way, and it was only when we reached Siwai that we realised the bags were missing. But this is Nepal; nothing gets lost here. Half an hour later, the bags arrived with minimal damage, and we were on our way again. Having lost so much time along the way, we had to terminate our first day’s trek in New Bridge village, a good three hours away from our planned halt at Jinu Danda.

The second day’s trek took us up to Chumrung, perhaps the most picturesque village on the entire trail. The rough-hewn stone steps leading to the village seemed never-ending, though. After counting some 2,000, I lost interest. There were just too many of them and more kept coming. Initially, we craned our necks to see how high we needed to climb, braced ourselves for the haul, and ascended with determination, smug in the belief that we would soon reach the crest, only to find at the top another stretch of steep ascent and yet another. This went on and on, or at least so it seemed. Our calves and thighs protested, but this was only day two. We had six more to go before we reached our destination. To make matters worse, it was also quite warm, this being the foothills. There was nary a tree or shrub to shield us from the relentless sun.

Chumrung

But Chumrung amply compensated us for the effort. It is a quintessential alpine village where farm produce was left to dry in front of homes, children skipped in yards, women winnowed paddy and men worked in terraced fields. The village wore a festive look with freshly harvested corncobs hung out to dry in neat lines on the terraces. When we went up to the roof of our teahouse, it seemed as though we had arrived at the base of Annapurna herself. All the snowy deities lined up to cheer us. They seemed close enough to be touched. Thick rhododendron forests carpeted the mountainsides. Yonder, way below, a river wound its way around the mountains, like a sluggish serpent.

Most treks in Nepal are called teahouse treks because villages en route offer trekkers board and lodging. What might once have been a wayside tea stall is now a full lodging facility with many rooms, built as extensions of homes. These teahouses provide trekkers with all their meals. To cater to the international clientele that passes through these trails, the teahouse menus accommodate different palates: breakfast would often include pancakes and porridge, and lunch and dinner, pizzas, pastas and Chinese fare apart from the local staple, Nepali dal bath, akin to the Indian thali meals. In fact, to a weary trekker, a teahouse spells comfort and security, food, Wi-Fi, toilets and hot tea.

Several minutes before you actually come upon a village, your cell phone beeps to life, assuring you there is habitation ahead. Seldom has a beep sounded more welcoming! The next telltale sign that there is a village ahead is the flutter of prayer flags. These are Gurung Buddhist villages, each with its own set of chortens, prayer wheels and a little altar at the entrance. Each village may have a dozen or so houses, half of which would be teahouses. Chumrung, of course, is a big village with dozens of teahouses, a school and many fashionable cafes offering cookies, cappuccino and espresso.

There is no advance booking for teahouses; trekkers have to take a chance, arrive and find a room. If the teahouses in a village are full, as they are often likely to be in peak trekking season, you have no option but to plod on gamely to the next village, perhaps a three or four hours’ climb. Mercifully, that never happened to us since one of the porters would skip ahead and block our beds. When the crowd gets really big, trekkers are accommodated even in the dining areas of teahouses. In fact, no one in dire need of a bed is turned away, which reflects the hospitality of the local people.

Trekkers come from as far away as Mexico and Canada. Most ubiquitous are Chinese nationals, who come in groups and individually. Most European languages can be heard on the trail. In October, when we went, not many Indians were about, which was surprising considering that Nepal is eminently accessible to Indians.

The next few days saw us huffing and puffing our way up through villages named Lower Sinuwa, Upper Sinuwa, Dovan, Bamboo and Himalaya, all located in densely wooded, dark jungles. Until you actually stumble into the village, it is not even visible. Even the ever-present Machhapuchhre went into hiding from time to time. Unlike in the EBC trek, this time the ascent got tougher with every passing day. The trail from Himalaya to Deorali had hidden glaciers and a jumble of loose rocks that required quite a bit of acrobatics to negotiate.

Throughout this trek, our knees would riot at the sight of squat toilets, our stomachs would grumble at the smell of soup, our backs would stiffen at the prospect of having to climb up and down for toilet and meals. Yet we plodded on, our sights firmly set on our target: a glimpse of that magnificent snow deity.

Valley of flowers

On day eight, we reached MBC after trudging along a valley of flowers and waterfalls. This was the most beautiful part of the entire trek: the incline was gentle, the weather salubrious, the sights exhilarating, and the air brazing and pure. Machhapuchhre, which had been to our right from day three, had gone into hiding when we reached MBC. We were right at his base and could not see him. In fact, from MBC, even the Annapurna range was not visible since it was behind a ridge. But the setting was gorgeous; a cool mist enveloped the village by afternoon. We had planned to go right up to ABC the same day, but with mist shrouding the mountainsides, it became impossible to trek further. Besides, we may or may not have found lodgings up there. We reconciled ourselves to the idea of getting up at 3 a.m. and trudging up to ABC. At a height of 12,185 feet (3,714 m), it was no mean feat, at least not for the three of us. Already we were feeling the effects of altitude sickness: mild nausea and headache, a light-headedness that brings an unwonted spring to your step. We retired early that evening in anticipation of the ordeal ahead of us.

Dinesh banged on our door at 3 a.m. We wrapped up like Eskimos on an expedition to the North Pole. Armed with our headband lights and two trekking poles, we set out into the moonless night. Even the stars were hiding in the mist, making us wonder if we would be lucky enough to see the sunrise that day. Each step was an effort, and soon we were hyperventilating as though we had run a marathon without training for it. We stopped every few seconds, dug our poles into the ground and summoned every ounce of our resolve. Soon we got separated as we each kept to our own pace. For the first time, I felt what it was like to argue with your own body to cajole it into doing what you want it to.

After two hours of this excruciating progress, a small flickering lamp beckoned us from far above. Voila, we thought, our destination could not be far away. That gave us the strength to haul ourselves up inch by inch, but however much we climbed, the light remained far away, in fact, in our imagination it seemed to recede farther.

Eventually, we did reach the most welcoming sight of the entire trek so far, the arch at the foot of the Annapurna that claims we were at 13,550 feet (4,130 m). We still had a few moments before sunrise, a time we spent catching our breath and setting up the tripod and camera to capture that magical moment. Already, the ridge was crowded with trekkers, the fairy lights of a few hours before. I managed to squeeze myself into a gap to await that most glorious moment of our climb: the tentative first rays of the sun dripping molten gold on the crest of Annapurna.

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