Thursday, March 29, 2012

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: The Trek (Part 1)

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal

Introduction. What's where and where's what.
Teahouse Trekking. What makes trekking in Nepal a cheap and easy activity to organize.
Preparations. Organizing the trek: permits, transpo, guides and/or porters, etc.
Things to Bring. Gear, clothes, meds, water, etc.
The Trek: Part 1, Part 2. Tackles the trek, all the highs and lows, literally and figuratively.
Budget. Trekking doesn't have to costs that much.
The Take Away. Lessons learned and what not.
So it begins. The truth is, I was very reluctant to go through this trek. I welcome the challenge, of course, and the promise of an awesome time spent. But I was overweight, just quit smoking a few months back, and the last trekking experience I went through was not exactly the most enjoyable experience. And this fog, this inclement weather, the same weather that made us give up on doing Everest Base Camp, and head here to the Annapurna region to do the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, the freaking weather is not cooperating. But I've gone this far. We've gone this far. There is no turning back now. A day after we arrived in Pokhara, the urban area closest to the Annapurna Himalayas, we headed off.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
You are lovely in the fog, Pokhara, but we gots to have our Himalaya views.

There are actually a few options as to where you want to start your trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary. From Pokhara, you can hire a cab driver to take you to Naya Pul, the easiest jump-off point. By that, I mean, the climb begins gradually giving you more time to acclimatize and condition your body. The drawback is that it is the farthest from Pokhara (cab ride about 1500 NPR, two hours) and there isn't much to see along the trail. You can also begin yout trek in Lumle or in Kande, but we never really considered them enough to do research. Then, there's Phedi. Ah, Phedi. It's close to Pokhara (800 NPR, 40 minutes) and there are a lot of scenic, authentic Nepali villages along the trail. The drawback? You begin the trek by climbing steep steps up the face of a mountain for no less than two hours. And yes, that's what we did. My trek partner, Angelica, wanted the challenge so we, Justin, an American traveler we met in Delhi, and I decided to face it with her.

Ready to Trek, Annapurna Himalayas, Nepal
Our motley crew in Phedi, the steep starting point of our trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary
Photo from Angelica Cruz

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
An hour into the climb and I'm exhausted.
Photo from Angelica Cruz

Authentic Nepali Countryside

It got better after Phedi and as we headed into Dhampus, and all its districts (it has four this village), the trail was mostly level with the occasional steep steps up now and then. Mind you, we did just climb up more than 500 meters in two hours. So, yes, we congratulated ourselves. At that point, I was enjoying the activity. I was not experiencing any of that Pulag exhaustion and breathlessness I was afraid would happen again this time. And I wasn't carrying anything back then, in contrast to the 12-kilogram pack I had on my back now. I guess it was because I knew the secret now: Take your freaking time. This is not a race and the trail is easy to follow. So I did and I amazed myself. It helped that Dhampus was exactly what I had in mind when I thought of rural Nepal: local women tending to their crops, small wooden houses perched on top of cliffs, crop terraces everywhere you look, and yes, weed and hash-smoking youths.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Crop terraces. When god gives you plant them on the side of the mountain.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

A Sliver of Hope

I would have immensely enjoyed this activity more if there were views of the high Himalayas as I walk along the trail. There were none of them things. Just white fog, turning a pleasant walk in the mountains, a chilly, damp, and as a result, a snivel-filled affair. But that's fine, I told myself. We, along with the local Nepalis we coaxed into praying for good weather for us, still had hope. Our fingers were still fully crossed that come the next day, we will see the snowy jagged peaks of the highest mountains in the world.

We didn't. We woke up in Pothana on day two of our trek and saw nothing but fog. There was a moment of exhilaration, bringing me to scream like a little girl on her birthday, when clouds parted and revealed a sliver of hope. But it was all too fast. It was gone even before I got a decent photo.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Can you see it? Because I can't.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Laughing off the bitterness that is buried within.

From Pothana, the trail was easier as it was mostly descent (steep descent) and level ground. We did feel bad for the other trekkers, especially the porters, going the other direction. Those trails were steep! I kept thinking, thank goodness we are taking another route on the way back.

Porters, Annapurna, Nepal
I have nothing but respect for the work that these people do.

At the end of our second day, we found ourselves at 1640 meters above sea level, in the hilltop village of Landruk. A Nepali school kid, whom Justin met on the trail, led him to his dad's guesthouse in this village. So what the hey! We stayed for the night. Also, we were starting to get excited because visibility was getting a lot better at that point. Standing on the balcony of our guesthouse, we could see all the way down the valley. Weather was clearing up and tomorrow promises to be a great day. In fact, we were so excited that we danced, Bollywood-style, to the tune of whatever Nepali pop music was playing at that moment in the little radio the guesthouse owner had. And yes, he and his family danced with us.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Bollywood-style dancing ensued after this photo was taken.
Photo from Angelica Cruz

Weather Gods Finally Heard Our Prayers

When we woke up the next day, we knew we were in for a real treat. Weather was a whole lot better. By that, I mean, we can see blue skies again! And the sun! For the first time since we began the trek, we felt the warm rays of the sun touch of skin. It felt so good! And wait! Is that what I think it is? Yes, it is the high peaks of the Himalayas peeking through what thin layer of clouds still hovering over the valley. It was beautiful. And it got more beautiful as the day progressed.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Fog is moving out. The valley is visible now!

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Blue skies, sunlight. Long time, no see.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Whatever are those peeking from behind the clouds? Can it be? The Annapurnas?

From Landruk, we descend again steeply all the way down to the valley. Yes, all the way down. That's two hours of knee-shaking walk down the mountain. Along the way, it will be inevitable to bump into the locals going about their daily lives. Being a popular trekking region, they are used to foreigners like us walking through their front porches, their backyards, and the trails their forefathers first built. The mountain peoples of Nepal, the kids most especially, are very friendly. Greet them with a Namaste and they greet you back. In the case of the kids, they will not stop Namaste-ing you until you are out of sight. They are the cutest!

The Longest Day of My Life

Once we reached the river, we make our way across a very long suspension bridge tilting a little to the right (a little too much for my taste). Over the bridge and into the cluster of guesthouses beside the river, the longest day of my life begins.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Wobbly, tilty bridge. Misery was waiting for me on the other side.

While the weather was pleasant and sunny, and there wasn't a cloud in sight, we have now reached the hardest part of the trail. From the long suspension bridge, we climb up the side of a mountain, climb some more, and then follow the trail as it descends to the river once again. Unjust, right? We gained all that altitude for nothing! At the river, we cross a small wooden bridge and yes, climb all the way up again to the next village in the trail—Jhinu Danda at 1780 meters above sea level. I remember being halfway done into that steep staircase, panting and sweating like crazy. Our legs had already gotten a beating climbing down, up, and down again in the last three hours, and here they are again, being subjected to serious workout. Never mind that my heart was beating like there was no tomorrow, probably in a state of panic as it was trying to supply oxygen to my whole body. Have I mentioned that Jhinu Danda was only the pit stop for lunch?

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
See those huts over there on the other mountain? I was there an hour ago.
I made my way down the valley and then up again here.

When I arrived in Jhinu Danda, I saw my trekking partners just about done with their lunch. No surprises. I was one of the last ones to arrive. I really took the "take your time" to heart, didn’t I? This is not to say that my trek partners did not find the climb to Jhinu Danda just as tough. They did. At one point, Angelica said she had to put on her iPod as the sound of her wheezing was starting to distract and annoy her. I sat down, ordered a pizza, and asked one of the old locals where Chomrong, our stop for that day, was. To our horror, he suddenly looked up on the mountain and pointed to a cluster of huts on top of it. That is Chomrong, another 400 meters above where we are. The only good thing about it is that the sky was fully clear now and for the first time, we get a glimpse of the Annapurnas. This might just be worth it.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
First glimpse of Annapurna South. Well, aren't you lovely?

I brushed my hands off, strapped on my bags, pulled down my trekking pole and started my way up to Chomrong. And it was the steepest set of mountain staircases I have ever set foot on! Nothing but bends and switchbacks on the staircase all the way up. I left Jhinu Danda around 2 p.m. knowing that while normal trekkers take about two hours to reach Chomrong from there, it will probably take me close to three. I was one of the last to set off and the slowest one, too. Whoever was behind me at some point passed and left me behind.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Halfway up to Chomrong

But it's all alright. This is my own battle. I remember telling myself that this trek was something I wanted to do. I was doing it for me, to prove something to myself. I told myself that I would reach Chomrong even if it kills me. I'll get there, dead or alive, preferably alive. It helped that the very friendly Germans I met on the trail was also cheering me on. And it helped that when I did reach Chomrong, there was Machhapuchhre, Fishtail Mountain, guiding and guarding me all the way through. It was my first glimpse of one of the most spectacular mountains in the Himalayas. And at that moment, I suddenly understood why trekking and mountaineering is an activity many people choose to do. I found myself tearing up a bit at that point. You push yourself to your very limits. You challenge yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. It gets so overwhelming that you find yourself pulling out strength and endurance you never knew you had. And at the end of it all, this is your reward. And what a great reward it was.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Machhapuchhre at sunset

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Annapurna South and Hiunchuli at sunset

This post is the fifth of the series Trek in the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal. The previous post dealt with Things to Bring. Stay tuned for the next post when I talk about the second part of our trek, on reaching the base camp, worse for wear.

* More photos of the first three days of my Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal in my Flickr set, Nepal: Annapurna

Have you gone trekking in the mountains before? Did you enjoy it? Did it prove to be the challenge you were looking for?

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