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Trekking the Annapurna Trail (part I)

Day 1: Pokhara to Besisahar to Bahundanda (6h walk)(1300m – 4265 ft)

The day starts with a 4 hour bumpy bus ride (there are no other rides in Nepal or you must be rafting a river or paragliding) from Pokhara to Besisahar. Apart from the locals there’s me, a Chinese guy and a Swiss couple with their guide. Once in Besisahar the Chinese takes a jeep to take him further up. I decide to start walking. This is the official starting point of the Annapurna trail and I’ve been looking forward to this point and can’t wait to get my feet and legs moving.

Almost immediately I am face to face with a river running over the road and it’s a little too deep to cross so I have to invent a passage. A woman starts waiving and pointing towards a ‘trail’. When I’m on the road again I am met by a few overly excited girls coming back from school. They wear colorful dresses and have flowers in their hair and it feels like my own private welcoming committee came to greet me right on time.

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While I’m enjoying their company for a bit there’s a group of people with blue shirts passing me by. It dawns on me that even though I started out on my own and the high season has not started yet I won’t be alone for long stretches of time.

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I catch up with them again, there’s a nice connection so I walk with them for a bit. They are American and Canadian women who have been working on a charity boat in Africa nursing patients and the Nepali men were their guards. Coming from the Gorkha caste the men are often deployed in tough situations abroad. They became good friends there and now they are walking the Annapurna trail together.

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They have only so much time to walk the trail so their pace is pretty firm and even though I intended to set out slowly the first day turns into a fast walk. We cross the first hanging bridges over the white river in the green surroundings.

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This is mid september 2014 and the monsoon has finished but we’re catching its tail still, it starts raining but it feels very refreshing as it’s pretty hot at this altitude (800m)

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We walk for long hours and my body has to adapt to this immediate effort of intense walking and climbing. the valleys we get into are  gorgeous already. As soon as I think we arrived at our goal for the day there are yet again steps leading further up.

Pretty exhausted but satisfied we arrive in Bahundanda and again there is a welcoming committee, this time of friendly people wanting us in their guesthouse.  My new friends stay in the ‘swiss alpen hotel’ and me feeling already part of their group I almost check in there as well but I decide to go to hotel mount view and indeed the view is superb!

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And who is chilling on the balcony here you think? my chinese friend! which makes me realise I walked a really crazy distance for my first day, so I decide to take it easy the next morning and start late after a stroll through the pleasant village.

 

DAY 2: Bahundanda to Jagat (5-6h)(1300m – 4265 ft)

The journey continues through vibrant green paddy fields and I decide to test my walking sticks. People who had completed the Annapurna Circuit assured me I would benefit from them and if they would  have looked like people-who-need-walking-sticks, I would not have bought them, the image of elderly ladies in the park back in Holland was a little too familiar to me.  But the steep descent the first thing in the morning immediately make their use clear to me and I get used to my 6 limbs now.  I see a lady hitting hard on another lady who might be her mother, I fortunately see the futility of interfering and continue along pathways that are inundated by water. I ask a local if it is swimming from here onward.  I approvingly see my shoes to be kind of semi-gore-tex.

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I suddenly stumble upon my Chinese friend Jacky again (not Jacky Chan) who left earlier in the morning. Turns out he decided to quit as he totally underestimated the mountains. Actually it is the first time in his life he ever sees a mountain coming from the flat plains in southern China. He is also carrying way too much stuff he says. he leaves his bag in a lodge and accompanies me for the afternoon. Before saying goodbye he asks (urges) me to leave a picture of his beautiful girlfriend when I reach Annapurna Base Camp or any other special place. I promise him to do so and would also try not to look at it too often… it would turn out I’d find the perfect place for her 2 weeks from here…

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I continue alone again never knowing for how long, crossing villages and bridges and children playing with their improvised kites…

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I follow my gut feeling whenever I enter a new village looking for lodging and for sure I never stay in the first option. Here in Jagat I am led to the Peace Full hotel. The hotel is actually empty and I install myself in a gorgeous room with amazing views, take a hot shower  and get ready for my daily dhal bhat, the classic Nepali food consisting of rice, lentils, and curry mainly.

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DAY 3 Jagat to Dharapani (6h) (1920m – 6300 ft)

The sun is for the first time shining full on in the morning so the day begins very promising and it looks like the monsoon is really gone now. I walk along with a whole caravan of mules fully packed with necessities to be delivered higher up. in Chame I have a masala chai which is a ‘staggering’ 80 rupees, double price already, but still less than a dollar. after Chame the next hanging bridge leads up towards a steep ascent along a ridge amidst intense greenery.

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The valley goes up to the next valley and it’s nice to really see how valleys are connected through different elevations. The beautiful village of Tal sits on the other side at the wide meandering river. To my surprise there is still wifi available here and I hope this really is the last place now as I like to be disconnected from the internet for at least a few weeks (please!)(and don’t wanna be tempted all the time)

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Once in Dharapani I check out one of the first places which is Tibetan owned, I almost stay here but – even though my body feels finished for the day- I check out the rest of the village ; a woman gives me the biggest smile of the day and defenseless I check in at her place. A little later her brother arrives and it seems we are brothers in arms immediately. Dil talks of the place in a valley nearby where he lives. It sounds incredibly beautiful. he’s busy building his dream there in the form of a hotel. so I consider going off the main trail for a side trip the next day…

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DAY 4 Dharapani to Gor (5h sidetrek)

I decided on a little ‘detour’ in the steps of Dil who is eager to show me his hotel and on our way also the school where he teaches and of which he’s the headmaster. He asks me to give a class of English which I happily accept and I improvise a talk on Belgium and Holland and India, the countries where I’ve spent most of my time. The children are interested and very smart as they understand the complicated nature of a country like Belgium.

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There is one teacher for every 2 children which is not normal at all. The explanation is pretty surprising. With the Tibetan refugees in the area over the years and the world-wide support for their cause (which is great of course) the Tibetan schools are of a higher standard and also free of charge (including free clothing and food) which the government cannot (or doesnt want to) compete with. So all teachers need to be present for their paycheck even though they hardly see the inside of the many classrooms. And payment for teachers in Nepal is related to altitude and remoteness so it is not a bad situation for them money-wise, they only have to cope with boredom…

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We arrive in Gor (pronounced GOA) after a climb way more enduring than I expected. The valley is flanked by waterfalls on both sides and the flowers in the fields are gorgeous and there’s mysteriously looking stones scattered around, the atmosphere is simply sweet here, almost fairytale-like.

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Once at his place in front of the hotel-under-construction amidst the 30 working men I shout at him: ‘Jezes, Dil! crazy man!! this is not a hotel but a palace!!! Are you mad or what? Now it dawns on me why he had to borrow 40.000 € (which is A LOT of money in Nepal) from his two sisters in France, the bank and his savings!

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Over lunch in the shack where he lives with his wife he explains he had a dream and saw what his hotel had to look like, so that’s exactly what he’s building now. Even though this trail is far less popular than the Annapurna trail he counts on tourism booming the next few years. Goa even has a whitesand beach along the wild river and he has plans with beach chairs and umbrellas. The rooms are very luxurious and I advise him to charge at least 5$ a night instead of the 3$ he had in mind…

 

DAY 5 Gor to Timang (6h)

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The day starts spectacular with white peaks peeping over the already stunning valley. I say goodbye to my brother Dil after wishing him nothing less than the fulfilment of his dream and I start the hike back to the Annapurna trail. My knee is pretty challenged by now, mainly while descending and I hope it’ll endure the rest of the trail (which i only started). After 2 hours I’m down again and on the hanging bridge before Dharapani I see a woman with a huge load of wood on her back making her way to the other side with very tiny steps.

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this image is present in Stino’s New Current gallery

After Dharapani the road ascends again, I see restaurants with prices that seem to follow the altitude and I even kind of negotiate my lunch (which I never did before)as the price for 2 eggs is a little ridiculous being 7 times the price I’m used to.

I pass a Chinese or Japanese man who’s very silent on his own, I switch from water purifying tablets to chlorine drops and I forgot a bit about the proper dosage. I get an overdose of chlorine intake and I have no idea how serious this is apart from me getting very nauseous, almost feeling like fainting and my stomach turning strange loops. I see the Japanese (he is) man again and ask him for help but he just waves it aside (I was sure he got my English) and I am left alone pretty astonished by this heartlessness. I reach a settlement feeling more and more sick, the people don’t speak English, I ask for a coke (no negotiations this time) and i drown whatever is wrong inside in coke and it seems to help.

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Upon entering Timang the mountains pierce through the clouds and it is so beautiful. My troubles fade away along with the clouds. I take lots of photos just because I can’t help but to do so…

I find an amazing hotel called the oasis, take a hot shower, enjoy the tranquility here and when it’s time for company again 3 Irish brothers appear out of nothing (with their guide and porter). They are very fun company, we spend a nice evening talking and laughing, a southafrican guy joins in and for a while I think he is Hans de Booij (a famous Dutch singer -some time ago). He happens to be a strong lookalike. Or he just doesn’t want to be recognised as such. Or I was listening to one of his songs a little too much lately…

DAY 6: Timang to Dhukur Pokhari (7h)(3240m – 10630 ft)

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The next morning the Irish, the south african and the Belgian all go their own way in the same direction. The sun is baffling in the sky and the white peaks shine crystalclear.

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I am alone again, but for how long? I take a break for tea after an uninterrupted walk and I sit down with a lovely French couple who’s having tea too. Tea for tree.  And trea for tee. We immediately have fun together and I’m refreshing my French as we walk on pretty much  at the same pace. (for now at least)

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Trekking_Annapurna_13We arrive in the place hard to pronounce and even though the price of a beer is double here it’s a sheer delight to have one (or two-three) after a day of continuous hiking. We sit on the rooftop of our wooden lodge  inhaling the freshness of the pinewoods around us.

DAY 7:  Dhukur Pokhari to Manang (3540m – 11615 ft)

Upon waking into another new day  the surroundings that were clouded on our arrival exhibit more and more stunning peaks, they all have names and some of these are ‘important’ but what’s in a name anyway? (Annapurna I, II, III) the name is never the thing of course and certainly in the case of mountains I would say.

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The trekking leads us  into more pine-filled lanscapes. I love pinewoods, its odour and the wind carressing the trees gently. The French walk a little too fast for me now to really enjoy the surroundings and after lunch I decide to continue on my own again. I enjoy the peace and silence around me, apart from a motorbike passing every now and then. One of those had my new southafrican friend on the back waiving like a happy child. we would catch up again later in Manang.

At certain points there’s a checkpoint where you need to show your permit and all is written into a big book by a soldier…

Manang turns out to be a little mecca for the exhausted trekker filled with german bakeries, movie theatres and a laid-back atmosphere. I would be staying here for a day or two before heading to Tilicho Lake

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proceed  to part 2

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Tilicho Lake

– this post  is part of  ‘trekking the Annapurna trail’ and follows‘Mellow in Manang’

I wake up at 5 AM and  join ‘the others’ for ‘breakfast’. Little did I know that putting raw garlic and spirulina in my mint tea would turn out to be a smart combination.  We will be climbing 900m in less than 3 hours from 4100 to 5000m. Onto Tilicho Lake. One of the highest lakes in the world, but not the highest as many do claim. check here to know more. But today’s hike would definitely be a highlight of the Annapurna trail!

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We start at 6 AM and leave our packs in base camp so today will be a hike with no weight on the back. the ascent would be steep enough anyway.  And with every step more and more stunning white peaks would reveal themselves.

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Contrary to the day before I happen to be very fit and I ascend very easily. I leave the rest of the group behind very soon which makes me enjoy the silence more profoundly. I am soon behind the Korean couple whom I saw leaving when I reached the breakfast table.

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The small path keeps  going up and one would think ‘when does this stop?’ as there is only that much pressure a head can withstand, right? And my spare garlic is not endless either. To clarify something here: I eat raw garlic (which tastes horrible yes) because it increases the oxygen intake in the body drastically and gives you a really good time after the bad taste! I have been recommending it all along and I still do (as I had a very bad experience with altitude sickness 8 years ago)

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The last winding path leads even more up and then the last more or less even stretch towards the lake. THE LAKE. What would the lake look like at first sight anyway? This I was wondering…

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I immediately took a turn to the right to get around the lake thinking that my time would be limited here in terms of my altitude capacity and also somehow keeping up with ‘the group’ who was on a schedule.

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The silence here is very profound, and even though I had been longing for it, it seems almost too much to bear after the endless hustle and bustle of India, mainly

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Tilicho_Lake_25I go further down the lake which stretches 4 kilometers deep. That seems totally ridiculous when you look at it from above, but true when you take the walk all the way down, which few people undertake…

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Tilicho_Lake_22I was already on my way back when I met my Thai companion Pong. Someons said he suffered headaches and went back but no, he just took it easy and made it all the way up. I walk all the way back to see the group again but they left already so me and Pong went right into the lake, taking a ice-cold dip and filling up our water bottles with the water of the lake as we had some purifying tablets left. (and it was very unlikely factories were dumping their waste waters into the lake)

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Suddenly, after a few hours, clouds came drifting in and I was reminded of the warnings people gave. After the noon the weather can turn around unexpectetly with fierce winds challenging one’s balance. I knew from  past experiences how serious this can be so we focused our minds on the craziest of circumstances. Anyway we wanted to stay up there as long as we could to enjoy this special place and also to get acclimatised to this altitude in preparation for the Thorung La pass but now was big time to get back!

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The walk back was very sweet though, yes there were clouds but they provided for the most amazing light spectacles avaialble, it was a sheer delight and the perfect ending for a most stunning day

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