Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

(Annapurna Sanctuary Trek photo album)

annapurna sanctuary map @ pothana

Having never spent more than a single night out camping, going trekking for a week+ in the Himalayas might seem like an odd way to spend my precious vacation days. Schlepping through the mountains is something my boyfriend enjoys and I very much enjoy the outdoors as well so figured it was worth giving a try.  The Himalayas seemed like a good choice for a slew of reasons – Nepal was somewhere I’d wanted to travel to anyway, it is a pretty short and easy flight away from Dubai and the scenery was unlikely to disappoint. Almost most importantly is that Nepal is home to the “teahouse trek”, which meant that I would be sleeping and eating in little guesthouses on the trail throughout the trek. In case I found the trekking miserable, at least I wouldn’t have to camp as well.

For some time I was planning on getting a porter to lug my big rucksack and I would just carry a smaller daypack with water and a few other needful things, but in the end I decided to suck it up and carry my rucksack myself.  Maybe 15 kilos (~33 lbs) it wasn’t always the most comfortable thing, but I’m glad I carried it myself in the end; I felt like I had accomplished a lot more.

The Annapurna Sanctuary trek starts (Phedi, 1130 meters) and ends (Naya Pul, 1070 meters) near the lakeside town of Pokhara and lasts about 8-10 days.  The trek climbs up through villages and rhododendron and bamboo forests until you break through the treeline to Machhapuchhare Base Camp (3700 meters) and then Annapurna Base Camp (4130 meters/13,550 feet).

Day 1 :: Phedi – Pothana

pothana, with cloud-covered machhapuchhare

We got a late start on trekking after it took the morning to sort out our trekking permits & TIMS cards (Trekkers’ Information Management System).  After which we tried to get a taxi to the bus station to take us to the starting point of the trek but were repeatedly stopped by Maoist protesters marching down the roads.  Eventually, by early afternoon, we made it to Phedi and started our ascent through rice paddies.  Our ascent up many, many, many stone steps.  Stone steps – lots of them –  would pretty much be the theme for the entire trek.  Eventually we made it to the next village, Dhampus.  This was a huge relief, as I think we took the wrong track up to Dhampus and it took us (much?) longer to get there than it should have.  I felt pretty insistent on covering as much ground as possible that day (and the following days) to make up for the time we lost that morning. I didn’t want to go over the 10 days on the trek which I had allotted in my head, as there were other things I wanted to do/see in Nepal after the trek.  We pushed on past Dhampus and climbed some more, into a rhododendron forest with a bit of thunder & rain at our backs.  Just as we made it into Pothana that evening (5, 6pm?) a downpour started.  We organized our room at a guesthouse, had ourselves some dinner (dhal baat, like the damned stone steps, would play a big part in the trek) and got some sleep.  We had ascended almost 900 meters that day, and personally not having physically prepared for this trip very much at all, I was beat but feeling good.

Day 2 :: Pothana – New Bridge/Himal Qu

decor in landruk

We woke up to a fairly clear (and thankfully dry) morning and were able to see Machhapuchhare’s peak.  Machhapuchhare means “fish tail” and the peak is named so because it looks like (I guess, if you use your imagination?) a fish tail from certain angles.  After all that ascent the day before, we were pretty much going all the way back down again (and eventually back up again).  A shame.  So, after a short and easy ascent we started our long and steep descent into the canyon of the Modi Khola.  On our way down we passed through the villages of Tolka and Landruk, not to mention hemp plants popping out of the ground almost literally everywhere you looked, including in paint buckets for decor at the lodges.  As the descent became more gentle we passed by waterfalls and over suspension bridges.  The scenery was incredibly green and lush making it hard to believe that in a few days we’d be not only out of the forest, but beyond the tree line. We ended the day in a small village just off of the Modi Khola called Himal Qu/New Bridge.  During the trek this was one of my favorite places in which we stayed.  The scenery was beautiful, it was nice hearing the waters of the Modi Khola and it was just a really nice little relaxed place…with excellent pizza.

Day 3 :: New Bridge/Himal Qu – Bamboo

pony
pony at sinuwa

We had another big ascent ahead of us, basically making up the descent we had to make the day before.  Shortly after heading up and out of New Bridge we came to the village of Jhinu Danda which has relatively close access to a hot spring – a feature we sadly had to ignore and just keep on walking past at this point. The steep ascent up stone steps took up a decent portion of our morning, and we made it to the large village of Chhomrong close to midday.  We stopped here at the Chommrong Cottage which had some amazing chocolate cake!  After the sugar high, we descended out of Chhomrong and back up more stone steps though a bamboo forest.  A short rain storm had us taking shelter under a large rock overhang for a bit, but then we continued on to Sinuwa (complete with cute pony), which is perched on a ridge.

machhapuchhare fish tail

Mid-afternoon at this point, we could have ended the day here, but still had some energy left so pushed on.  Thankfully, after Sinuwa, the trail began to level out some and also offered some great views of Machhapuchhare.  It had been a long day of ascending and the level trail through thick forest was a huge relief.  The end of the trail brought a steep, but fairly short descent and then we arrived in the village of Bamboo around 6pm.  This had been an extraordinarily long day – we had been walking for a good 10 hours – and I was nothing if not exhausted.

Day 4 :: Bamboo – Deorali

waterfall near deorali

As the previous day was so long, we were looking to take it easy today.  We had a relatively easy ascent and we passed through the village of Doban and started to see the trees begin to diminish the further we climbed.  We ended the day in the village of Deorali.  It was a short day, as we checked into a teahouse early in the afternoon, but we were now actually ahead of schedule and the rest was very much needed.  Additionally, at 3140 meters, Deorali is just high enough that the altitude may start to take its toll on some people (another trekker there, on her way up, was experiencing very mild symptoms of altitude sickness) so it was a good idea to stay put to acclimatise anyway.

Day 5 :: Deorali – ABC – MBC

a cloud catching up with us

We intended to make it to the top today – Machhapuchhare Base Camp, then a final 430 meters up to Annapurna Base Camp! The climate had done a 180 from just a few days earlier.  It was considerably colder and more windy, the visibility was not so great as we were now just about at cloud level and as much as I was looking forward to seeing the peaks from a closer location, I also was looking forward to heading back into warmer climes.  The nights especially, were freezing!  The trail from Deorali to MBC was some of the easiest we had come across so for on the trek.  There were some steep and rocky ascents but in general this bit of the trail wasn’t so bad.  What made this bit difficult was the altitude – I found myself moving much more slowly and trying to catch my breath much more often.  There can be avalanches in this part of the trek, but as we were there in late spring that was no longer a concern.  Large areas of snow still remained, presumably from avalanches earlier in the season.  At this point we were pretty much beyond the tree line and mostly all which remained were shrubs.  The views of the peaks are supposed to be fantastic from this point of the trek, but is was extremely misty when we set off and shortly after we watched as a large grey cloud caught up with us resulting in very little visibility indeed.  We made it to MBC by late morning.

ABC shrouded in cloud

Once at MBC we decided to grab ourselves a room in one of the lodges, warm up with some tea, and then head up to Annapurna Base Camp.  The plan was to leave our heavy rucksacks in our room at MBC to make the climb up to ABC easier, and then return to MBC to spend the night there.  The walk up to ABC would have been by far the easiest of the trek had it not been for the altitude.  Even more than the walk to MBC earlier that day, I felt winded and tired very easily.  Once again there was very little visibility (an unfortunate factor when trekking later in the season, which I knew in advance) so no amazing views of any peaks.  The atmosphere was actually quite eerie in conjunction with the mists/clouds as the area was generally quieter than we were used to.  On arrival at ABC we packed into a dining room in one of the lodges to warm up and have a bite to eat, hoping the visibility would clear up shortly.  Between the altitude and the gas heater in the room, the oxygen was really eaten up and on more than a few occasions I felt I very light-headed, as if I was about to pass out.  After hanging out there for a while, it seemed clear that we weren’t going to get to see any of the views and as it had started to rain we decided to head back down to MBC and hope for a clear morning there.  The views would be not quite so great as at ABC but still spectacular.  As it turned out, the evening proved to be very clear at MBC and we were surrounded by massive snow-capped peaks on all sides.  We were able to see Hiunchuli, some of the Annapurnas (below left) and Machhapuchhare (below right).

Day 6 :: MBC – Sinuwa

I wasn’t looking forward to ending the trek, but I was seriously looking forward to getting back into some warmer weather.  I don’t mix so well with cold, even chilly weather.  Going back down was considerably quicker than making the ascent so we made good time back down past Deorali, past Doban and into Bamboo where we debated staying for the night.  Unable to decide whether to stay or push on to the next village, we tossed a coin which told us to forge ahead to Sinuwa.  Sinuwa is a small village on a ridge which looks down on the Modi Khola valley and up at Machhapuchhare and Annapurna III.  It’s a lovely little village with amazing scenery all around and I was quite happy we took the coin’s advice to move on, as we were not so fond of Bamboo when we stayed there on the way up the mountain.  There was a fantastic rainstorm that evening which we had the pleasure of falling asleep to.  Rain becomes such a treat when you live in the desert.

Day 7 :: Sinuwa – Jhinu Danda

chhromrong

The plan was to take today easy for a couple reasons.  First, the previous day had been a pretty long one, and the final push from Bamboo to Sinuwa exhausted me.  Secondly, we were going to hit the village of Chhomrong this day at which point we would have to make a decision on which way to go.  We could either go back the way we came (Phedi) or branch off and go a different way back towards Pokhara and end at Naya Pul instead.  We wanted  to go back towards Naya Pul, but the problem was that a transportation strike had begun the day we left for the trek (we were unable to get the usual bus to Phedi, and instead had to pay a premium for a taxi to take us) and was still going on, as far as we knew (and that the situation had worsened – no taxi’s anymore either).  Naya Pul is about 50km from Pokhara and Phedi only about 20km, so if the strike we still going on we’d have to walk all the way back to Pokhara, a much easier chore from Phedi. With Chhomrong being a larger village we figured we could get some news on the strike there & then decide. Once we hit Chhomrong we got some chocolate cake from the same guesthouse we stopped at

hot springs next to the modi khola

previously (Chhomrong Cottage) and then decided to continue heading back the same way we came, towards Phedi.  Early in the afternoon, after making our way down a looong flight of stone steps, we made it to Jhinu Danda and decided to stay the night there.  At this point I had injured my feet in various minor ways but they all added up to some pretty severe discomfort and pain, it would have been difficult to continue that day.  Not to mention pretty much every other trekker we had passed loaded praise on Jhinu Danda and its hot spring, so we figured we should take advantage of that and relax for the rest of the day. Jhinu Danda’s hot springs are a short descent through the forest (where we saw langur monkeys in the trees!!) right next to the Modi Khola.  It consists of two nice stone pools, one with hotter spring water than the other.  The hot pools were lovely and felt great on my aches.  Naturally, it started raining, so we headed back to the lodge for some card games and dinner.

Day 8 :: Jhinu Danda – Naya Pul

jhinu danda

We woke up to discover that the strikes had finally ended.  From Jhinu, we were still able to go back towards Naya Pul, but unfortunately, we would still miss the large village of Ghandruk which we were pretty interested in checking out.  To go to Ghandruk, we would have had to take a different trail out of Chhomrong the day before.  All the same, it was probably for the best as it turned out I really didn’t have another day in me.  At least, my feet didn’t.  I had a few blisters which were starting to become painful, both of my big toenails were very painfully bruised and potentially about to fall off (I know, disgusting), both of my ankles were swollen to the point that it practically looked like I had elephantiasis, which also seemed to be causing severe discomfort with my right heel and my shoe, finally a band-aid I had used on my left heel to help prevent chafing from my sock ended up digging into and cutting my skin.  I had been trying to break in my trekking boots since I bought them in December, but clearly I had not done enough.  I don’t think it helped that living in hot Dubai, I tend to wear open sandals every single day; my feet are not used to being confined.  I decided I needed to hire a porter to carry my rucksack so that I would be able to make the rest of the trek comfortable, even do-able.  I really wanted to carry it all myself, but I just couldn’t.

suspension bridge

The porter informed us we’d be able to make to all the to Naya Pul that very day.  I was sad the trek was basically over, but I also had to accept that my feet just couldn’t do any more either.  Luckily we only had about an hour and a half of major descent and then I was able to take my boots off and walk the rest of the day in my flip-flops which my feet were very thankful for.  The rest of the day was very level and we walked though many rice paddies and a few villages – Syauli Bazaar and Birethanti – eventually we hit something like a dirt road which lead to the small town of Naya Pul, where we were able to grab a taxi and head back to Pokhara.

***

I have never ever been one to laze around a beach or resort (a weekend is nice, but no longer) or board a cruise liner (a personal nightmare) so I guess it is no huge surprise that I really, really enjoyed this trek. I’m definitely interested to do more in the future (Gokyo in the Everest region, the Lycian Way on the coast of southern Turkey?); I’m even happy to go the camping route!  With the exception of my feet, my body felt great afterward and I’d like to keep it that way.

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