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The Annapurna Base Camp Trek

I paused for a break. Ahead of me … steps. Lots of steps. Downhill fortunately. Going downhill can be hell on your knees but after you have just walked up a particularly steep part of the hill, seeing steps going the opposite way was comforting. I took a few sips of water as I looked around me. Rolling hills. Blue skies, fat, lazy billowing clouds. The roar of the gushing waters below, the constant chirping of many invisible birds around me. The warm sun above me.

Bliss.

But then in the mountains the weather changes quickly and for the last few days we have been regularly experiencing steady rain around lunch time. It would be nice to reach our lunch stop before the weather changed. I adjusted my camera so that the strap didn’t chafe against my neck and started my descent.

Definitely not a walk in the park, I thought.

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One warm afternoon in January, while lunching with a couple of friends with whom I have trekked a couple of time, I said I would love to do the Annapurna Circuit this year. However, it was already Jan and considering that beyond a hazy thought, there was nothing tangible in the works I was quite skeptical of something materializing in time for the season. There was a lot of uncertainty on the work front too which further made it difficult for me to really start planning and I had quietly reconciled to not being able to do the trek this year.

So, it came as a complete surprise when a month later I got a call from one my lunch companions that a friend had reached out with a plan to do the Annapurna Base Camp.

Would I be interested ?

My last trek was three years back. The incredibly demanding Auden’s Col trek. Comparatively, the ABC would be easy. The altitude wasn’t challenging. But then I am three years older. However, I was reasonably regular with my yoga and workout and even if I had stopped running after a sore hip and a tender lower back became more than an irritation, I was in pretty decent shape and maybe the short runway of two months shouldn’t be a problem.

Would I be interested !!

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Eleven of us walked out of the airport coach at Kathmandu and immediately started furiously clicking pics of the plane that was to take us to Pokhara.  None of us have ever been on tinier plane. A plane with only window seats ! If we tilt our heads to about 15 degrees we could see the controls in the cockpit. Wow !

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Thirty minutes later we were rumbling down a road in Pokhara to Nayapul. Local sim cards were purchased and recharged, water supplies were taken care of, good luck threads were tied and after the mandatory “Before” group pic was taken, we were off.

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The biggest difference between trekking in Nepal and India as anyone would tell you, is the tea houses. In most of the treks in India, you are out there in The Great Outdoors. Camping in tents. Huddled up in warm kitchen tents for cosy meals. With scores of porters hauling along with your luggage, all the stuff that is needed for giving you nice, warm meals each day, the group size is usually a fairly large one.

In Nepal, you have the tea houses. Carefully monitored by the Government, the tea houses are quite an experience. They can be set up and owned only by the locals. The number of tea houses at each place is pre determined by the Government. The menu was the same. Exactly the same. From the first tea house to the last. Every tea house had the same facilities. You could buy wifi. You could charge your phone at a price. You could get warm water for a shower at a price. You can get comfortable razaais to snuggle under in your beds. Toilets were shared but were kept reasonably clean. As you go up, all toilets are ‘Indian’ style. Might be tough on ’em knees but definitely more hygienic .

Yeah, of course, the razaais would be used by different people each night and most certainly they were not washed after each use but they looked quite clean and neat. And, in any case, beyond a point, you have to leave your fastidious, picky selves behind.

There are tea houses roughly every two hours. In other words, every two hours, you either have a welcome tea break or a meal break. Which is actually quite nice and luxurious. As you gain altitude the number reduces rather dramatically. MBC had just three tea houses. From rooms with two beds, we moved to rooms with 6 beds. With the prices and features being the same, there is no competition or necessity to haggle on the prices. Which is a rather nice thing.

While walking…or rather while climbing or descending, its nice to be pointed out our destination for the next halt or the night stop. A small burst of bright blue rooftops in the middle of a deep green cover. Very reassuring. Just to get that visual. Even if you have no idea on how tough the route to get there will be.

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In peak season, all the tea houses are operational. As winter approaches, the number reduces. In MBC, only one of the three would remain open. Most of these tea houses, especially as we go higher were manned by guys and one rarely saw any women.

Nice, warm, comfortable places, these tea houses. Fairly decent service and welcome places to rest our weary bones. And, yes…while I love being out there in the open, there is something nice to be able to sleep in a warm bed instead of a sleeping bag !!

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Hot lemon honey tea. Or hot lemon honey ginger tea. Our staple drink. We get powdered milk after the first day or so and the milk wala tea or coffee does taste a bit different. So hot lemon honey tea it was, with or without ginger. And, boy, does it taste welcoming when you trudge into a tea house and carefully land your posterior onto a chair !  Especially if it had rained or if the weather had turned cold, nothing really can match the feel of your palms cupping a hot cup and the warm dewy honeyed liquid going down your throat.

By the end of it, however, I must admit that I had more than my fill of the liquid and I started having simple warm water.

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The Annapurna Base Camp trek is different from most of the other treks I have done in one aspect. Usually, one keeps ascending till the targeted destination and then the descent starts on the return trip. The ABC, however, one keeps ascending and descending on a daily basis. Some days, you hardly gain any altitude from your starting point to your destination. But, to reach your destination for the day you would have climbed and descended throughout.

There are lots of steps. Trust me, some of them can be quite a killer. It’s a lot easier to walk up a path that is sloping up, even if its steep than climbing up steps.

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You  walk through such a wide variety of surroundings ! From the walk through multiple dwellings on gentle slopes at Nayapul, to thick, rich forested lands to wide open spaces with the mountains peering down upon you, you really see everything.

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Walking through the forested lands was magical. You could hear the rush of the water in the river that is gushing below you. The birds…and so many of them birds…are chirping merrily away answering each other and mocking at your inability to spot them as you frequently pause and peer into the thick underbrush or into the leafy trees to see if you can spot them.

I also love the stones. Small little mini walls, stoned pathways winding its way through the greenery. Magical.

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And a little after Dovan, the land opens up. As we gain altitude, the trees vanish , a rich golden yellow replaces the greenery and the green hills are replaced by cold stony mountains around you with the snow clad mountain tops peering above them, checking on your progress.

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And when the fog comes in….the entire place looks ethereal in its beauty and mystery. Much as I love walking in the forests with all the magical sounds around you, it’s the walk from Dovan to ABC that I just loved.

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The route overall…definitely not a walk in the park but not very demanding either. The paths are clearly laid out, the track reasonably wide and you don’t find too many slippery slopes anywhere. You can maintain your pace and trudge along. A tea house is just around the corner after all. I like having the comfort of a guide and porters to take care of the arrangements at the tea houses by the time you arrive there but this is one trek that you can do it on your own too…provided you can carry your all stuff yourself !

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‘Namaste!”

The most heard and uttered word on the trek. Sometimes said loudly with enthusiasm and most often squeezed out in a gasp between labourious breaths. And sometimes, with that feeling of ‘yeahgottobeniceandpolitewhenIamdying’.

The ABC is a fairly popular trek and attracts scores of tourists from all over. Our trek leader seemed to converse in fluent French with a lady who wanted her picture taken at the ABC signboard in a particular manner. Apparently, the maximum increase has been, in recent times, from China. Though one of the locals complained,” They come, they climb and they go away. They don’t have any interest in the local culture. They don’t even ask for the names of the different peaks around us!”

And you see fellow trekkers of all ages and sizes. There was that Chinese lady who told us that this trek was her husband’s 60th birthday present for her. Incredibly, they reached ABC and immediately turned back and started the descent. Immediately. Didn’t stay to see the sunrise the next day. Didn’t wait and soak in the beauty around. Just turned around and left.

Then there was that lovely, elderly French lady whose excitement and enthusiasm to pose with unbridled joy under the ABC welcome signboard was such a joy to watch. We bumped into a huge group of high school children from New Zealand who seemed to waltz up the inclines. Age. Sigh. And those uber fit Canadians who stomped past us with such depressing ease.

However, at no stage did we feel crowded. Some tea houses had more tourists than others but nothing that took away the joy of being outdoors.

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“Good morning sir ! Time for the sunrise.”

At Chomrung, MBC and ABC you get some divine views of the sunrays hitting the snowy peaks around you.

We were fortunate that on each day we had a clear and cloudless sky. Watching the first rays of the day rise past the distant mountains and fall on the snow clad peaks, bathing it in an orange glow is an incredibly peaceful experience. Its impossible to describe the experience. How insignificant you feel as you look at those huge, silent, craggy peaks around you !

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At ABC especially, as I stood on top of a small hump with a lot of others, watching the snow white peaks against the brilliant blue that the sky slowly turned into as the sun rose, I realized just how lucky I was that I could see such beauty.

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Dal bhaat. Veg noodle soup. Eggs. Roasted papads.

The menu cards were lavish. Pancakes. Gurung bread. But most of us stuck to dal bhaat. Especially for lunch. It was easier for one of the porters who will invariably be much faster than us, to reach a tea house and place our orders and save time. Tea houses cook against orders. Its good, simple, healthy food. Rice, daal, usually a potato sabzi along with some saag. Wholesome. At dinner, people tried some variety. There was much to choose from.

Being deeply agnostic about food, I am afraid, I really cannot add much on this topic beyond saying that food isn’t a problem. Anywhere.

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So what should be packed ? How cold does it get ?

Each morning was warm. Till Dovan, we used to wear only a single T shirt. It was incredibly warm.

But. It’s the mountains. Weather changes. In a jiffy. We experienced everything – hot sun, rains, hailstorms ( and a rather furious one at that ! ), snowfall ( really mild ) and of course, the sub zero nights.

Having a poncho ( personally find them incredibly inconvenient ) or a rain cover is a must. Have one for your back pack too.

After Dovan it gets colder. A couple of Ts is enough. A fleece at the start at the most. Though when it gets windy in the open spaces a fleece is good to have. Gloves – no fancy stuff – are a must. A woolen cap or a scarf to cover your ears would be a smart thing to do…ok let me change that, slot a scarf/cap also in the Must Carry category.

At ABC, where it did get the coldest, when we trooped outside to see the sunrise at dawn, most of us wore a thermal inside, a couple of Ts and a fleece jacket. Was sufficient.

So. Clearly not very cold. Pack as many T’s, outdoor pants and inners as you think is needed.

Spare a thought for the porters who have to lug your bag.

Water ? Just taking a one litre bottle would be enough. You can buy water at all the tea houses and its pretty good clean water. One litre is usually enough to last you the two hours it takes to reach a tea house. I had three bottles with me and never used two of them. Dead weight. Everything adds up.

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Want to take a camera and lens to take pics beyond what your smartphone can deliver ?

I didn’t read up much on the details of the landscape and ended up taking a few lens that weren’t of much use. Big mistake. I took an 85mm prime for portraits. I had visualized the tea houses entirely differently from what they were and I had thought I could get some good portrait pics of the old couples who would be running those small tea houses. Well.

The wide angle that I took was a lot more useful but I was expecting most of the trail to be across wide open land. We walked through that for barely a day or so. A wide angle isn’t of much use while walking through forests tho they can be very useful when there is a clearing to reveal some breathtaking scenery. I ended up using a kit lens that I carried as a back up.

A wide angle is definitely useful but pack it away for the first few days. I never tried to change lens during the walk, found it too cumbersome and trying and ended up having the wide angle while walking through the forests. I had a better handle on the right lens to use on while returning.

Maybe I need to figure out a smarter way to carry all the extra lens. I found it extremely cumbersome to change lens while walking. Two lens would be more than sufficient.

Its always advisable to carry enough memory cards and spare batteries. On this trek, tho you wont need the spare battery cos you can charge your battery at every single tea house. A single memory card was sufficient for me. I shoot in RAW and took about 400-500 pics and had lots of spare space. In other words, both are not a must as would be the case usually.

I find it terribly uncomfortable to have a huge camera – not very huge but when you are walking for 5-6 hours a day etc etc, the weights feel differently J –  hang around my neck – the strap chafes at the bare skin, one needs to be careful that the camera doesn’t swing too much and knock against any rock…but since I didn’t have any useful gadget as an alternative, I guess I had no other choice.

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The BTDT ( Been there done that ) tip.

Plan for an extra day at Pokhara on your return. It’s a lovely little place. Has scores of lovely little shops to buy stuff for people back home. And yes, prices are negotiable. Cute little coffee shops are spread all over the place. They have lovely décor and ‘character’. Of course, there are a lot of happening places that go all action post sun down with live music and space to dance away.

You can have memorable parties if that is your scene or simply walk around aimlessly, sip your fave beverage and watch the world go by or soak in a spa and enjoy a massage.

Take your pick. But plan that extra day. Its fun.

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Other random points….we took 10 days to do the trek. Kathmandu to Kathmandu. There are slightly varying routes that are possible but 10 days should be an accurate enough duration to plan for. We didn’t plan for a spare day in between tho I think that’s always a prudent thing to do. As I said, we also didn’t plan a day at Pokhara.

Of course, if you end up not needing it, then you will have two extra days. Other than spending a day at Pokhara, you could also explore a day at Kathmandu. There are some nice tucked away places to roam around and shop…or visit the temples.

Some people get desperate to reach home by the end of a trek. But who knows when the next time would be. Where the next turn will take us. Enjoy when you can.

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