A Travellerspoint blog

May 2010

Tea House Trekking

Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp Part 1

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It is 8:30 in the morning and my heart is racing as I fight for oxygen. I have been hiking straight up for three and a half hours and I am now standing on the Thorung La at 17,769 feet. This, the pinnacle of our 24 day trek, is a mountain pass close to the Tibetan border inside the Annapurna Conservation Area of Nepal. We have been on the trail for 11 days and have reached the main objective of our trip but only one of the many highlights.

Standing in front of hundreds of Prayer flags on the Thorung La

We set out for the Annapurna Himal directly after completing our time at the Orphan Home. This is an incredible cluster of mountains on the Nepal/Tibet border and includes some of the worlds highest peaks. The 34 mile long massif includes Annapurna 1, the worlds 10th highest peak at roughly 26,540 feet as well a eight other peaks over 23,000 feet. On its eastern side is the wide and deep Kali Gandaki River valley that originates near the Tibetan border in the forbidden kingdom of Mustang. The great river gorge also separates the Annapurna’s from the Dhaulagiri Massif who’s namesake is the 6th highest mountain in the world and provided great views for a good portion of our trip. We set out for what turned out to be a 24 day hike covering 180 miles and cumulatively climbing over 33,000 feet. We visited the frozen Tilicho Tal(lake) That proudly claims to be the highest lake in the world at 16,138 feet (it is not, neither is lake Titicaca). Our journey would bring us through vastly differing terrain from a some what tropical start in Besi Sahar at 2,500 feet through lush forests and up to the wind blown Thorung La (pass) at 17,769 feet. We saw differing cultures and different villages along the way that were as interesting as the rugged country we were traveling through.


Our first few days climbed consistently up a great river valley from the low lying Besi Sahar were one could spot banana trees growing in a some what tropical landscape up through pine and fir forests and into an alpine environment were very little grew. Villages were spread out every few miles along what was once an old Tibetan trade route to Kathmandu. On our 2nd night we stayed in a “tea house” more resembling a guest house or mountain chalet in the village of Jagat. This once served as a toll station; set atop a gorge in a narrow section of the valley provided strategic location.


As the trail climbed the valley we crossed the river many times on numerous impressive foot bridges sometimes spanning incredible distances high above the raging river below.


The further up we climbed the more impressive the scenery became and the Tibetan Buddhist influence in the villages increased. A long line of prayer wheals usually were placed on the outskirts of town as well as in the center of most villages. The many trekkers and travelers kept there mantras in constant rotation as they moved up and down the trail. We also saw thousands of Mani wall’s. These were collections of stone tablets with mantras painstakingly carved into them in the beautifully intricate Tibetan script. At points along the way the worlds highest peaks looming in the background took second stage to the fascinating villages we were passing through.

Stone Chorten marking the entrance to one of the many Tibetan influenced villages

Mani Wall - Most tablets were not colored and had a lot more writing in smaller text. We literally saw 10’s of thousands of these tablets

Stone houses of Ghyaru below Annapurna 2

Staying in teahouses provided a much different experience than tent camping. We could always count on a bed and a warm meal at the end of our day. It also provided a great social scene and we spent our time most evenings sharing stories with other travelers from all over the world. We made some good friends and intentionally stayed in the same villages and guesthouses along the way. As we were out for a longer trek than most people we got to know a few different people along the way on different sections of our route.

East side trekking crew in Manang - The largest village on the east side

We opted to add on a few side routes of the main trail and these were some of the most rewarding segments of our trip. The first was a high route above the river on east side of the valley. This opened up amazing views and brought us into less visited villages. Ghyaru was an amazing place to spend a night in an old tea house. Haze in the lower valleys and overcast and rainy sky’s kept the high peaks out of view for a few days. When the clouds started to break up in the late afternoon we could not believe the size of the mountains before us. Reading our topo map I determined that the elevation change between the valley floor below us and massive Annapurna 2 before us was almost 16,000 feet! We woke up the next morning to a crystal clear day and hiked the entire length of the upper trail with outstanding views. I was embarrassed when I figured out that I took over 200 pictures that day.

Clouds lifting. You can spot the top of Annapurna 2 starting to show were the clouds meet the blue sky.

Good Morning! I was up at 5:00 AM to catch sunrise.

Annapurna 2 and 4 from Ghyaru

Another rewarding side trip was to Tilicho Base camp and lake. We later learned it was not the worlds highest lake but it was still a great destination. We broke off the main trail and made the trip in two long and tiring days. Following the river valley up to the lake was incredible. We came across a 1,000 year old Gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) that was far removed from the main trading route. The scenery was stunning and vastly different than anywhere else on the trip. We had to cross massive scree fields that were dotted with towering chunks of rock that created an almost lunar landscape. We were approaching 14,000 feet and after the long day we were both exhausted and feeling the affects of the altitude. We were both relived when we came across a turn in the valley after and endless traverse across the lifeless rocky terrain and saw the Tilicho lake Base camp in a meadow below us. The next day we were up and on the trail by 6:00 AM. It was a big climb up to a viewpoint over the lake. On the outset the weather did not look promising. Luckily we rose above the clouds and had amazing views of big alpine terrain. What we first thought was the sound of a jet plane was actually the first of many avalanches we witnessed tearing down the near vertical wall of mountains on the west side of the lake.

Thare Gompa and the river valley heading up to Tilicho Tal

The Trail became steep in sections…

We stopped at a few nice viewpoints along the way
Meghan waits for a Yak to get out of the trail
Navigating the scree fields. Notice the trail cutting across the rock face in the background!
Tilicho base camp coming into view in the lower right
Getting close to the view point
Frozen Titlicho Tal - The info board cleverly misleads the reader to think it is the worlds highest.

We had to retrace most of our steps back to the main trail except for the very end. We caught a seldom used trail that cut north and brought us further up the valley then from were we departed. We spent two short days leading up to our big push over the pass. This section the days got shorter as you did not want to go up in elevation to much and the stops were at purpose built trekkers lodges that catered specifically to our needs. Before we knew it we were up at 4:00 AM in a cloudless dawn and ready to make the big push over the pass. We would have to climb 3,100 feet and then descend 5,500 feet before reaching the village of Muktinath, the next available lodging on our route. The beginning of the climb was nothing but punishment. The trail was all rock and went straight up. Meghan suffered at this point and struggled with the altitude. After a good break and a lot of water we continued and felt fine for the rest of the day. We were soon on snow again and the grade lessened. Before we knew it we arrived at the pass. It was so cold and windy that we did not elect to hang out for to long before starting the long painful decent to Muktinath.

Mmmmm…. Yak Burger
Pre Dawn light on the mountains from Throrung Phedi
Working our way up above the snow line
View from the pass
Prayer Flags at 17,776 Feet!

To be continued…

Posted by pmunson 03:40 Archived in Nepal Comments (4)

Annapurna Trekking Part 2

The Kali Gandaki River Valley, Poon Hill, and A.B.C.

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Pack Mules - All supplies are carried in by man or beast and we saw many caravans of pack animals along the trail
The Big decent from Throrung La was not as bad as we had built it up to be. Going down is more difficult for us than going up but we made it to Muktinath with our knees intact and smiles on our faces. Muktinath is a holy sight for Hindu’s and Buddhists alike and had impressive temples. We decided to take a rest day here but I could not resist exploring the nearby villages instead of giving my legs a break.

Temples in Muktinath
Colorful doorway at a temple in a village outside of Muktinath
Nuns on the run - There were two nunneries outside Muktinath as well.

We picked up another side route that brought us up over a ridgeline with incredible views of Dhaulagiri peak before dropping sharply to the rocky riverbed of the adjoining valley. We had to pick our way along the stream to the Village of Lupra. There wasn’t any services for trekkers but nontheless we managed to get invited into the Temple and also into a home for tea before we set back off for Kagbeni . Kagbeni was one of our favorite villages. It was incredibly scenic and had a medieval feel to it. It was another stone village but was a maze of narrow corridors and stone tunnels. A lot of fun to explore. It was also home to the Mustang Guest house and “Yak Donald’s” They also had copied the 7-11 logo for their provisions shop and had quite the reputation on the trail. I think it may just be the one and only 7-11 you can buy yak cheese in!

High on the Ridge with Dhaulagiri in the background
Kagbeni Alleyway
Yep, Yac Donald’s
Long haired mountain goats being herded through the Village
Looking up river into Mustang
View of Nilgiri North from Kagbeni

Unfortunately the Annapurna Circuit is no longer the 300 mile roadless Tea House Trek it once was. A dirt road has made its was up the Kali GandakI River Valley all the way to the foot of the pass. This obviously detracts from the allure of this section and most trekkers hop on a Jeep or hike a little further to the town of Jomosom were a small airport has daily flights to Pokhara. We opted not to use the any of the buses, jeeps or planes and chose to put in two really long days and knock this section out on foot. Before we knew it we had lost almost all of the elevation we had gained and were turning off the road to a 6,000foot climb to Gorepani and the well known look out, Poon hill. Instead of torturing ourselves we made the climb in two short days.

The road works its way down valley.
White washed walls Of Marpha
Meggy had a little … Kid(baby goat)
Lookout Village of Sikha were we split the climb to Ghorapani.
Would you believe me if I told you this picture was not posed? It is not! It had rained all afternoon and the sky cleared to an incredible view from Ghorapani
Blowing Snow and Clouds hide in the lee of the mighty Machhapuchhre

The next day would be our longest and most painful. I was on the trail at 4:45 to make a side trip up Poon Hill for the obligatory sunrise on Dhaulagiri. This is the crowning point of a short trek that can be done in 3-5 days so I was not alone. It was well worth it when the sun started to light up the mountains but I had no idea of what laid ahead of me that afternoon.

Poon Hill Sunrise
Poon Hill Panoramic

Meghan and I were on the Trail early and climbed up above Ghorapani on the opposite side of Poon Hill. We had an equally good view on this side and Meghan was happy with her decision to sleep in rather than join my on my pre dawn outing. The trail initially was some of the most enjoyable walking we had done. It was a forested ridgeline alive with birdsong. Occasionally the big mountain peaks would pop out of a gap in the trees and the trail was all soft dirt. At a clearing we had the opportunity to watch one of the small planes bound for Pokhara fly through the valley beneath us! It is a rare opportunity to look down on a plane. The joy soon ended as we faced multiple deep valleys with extreme ups and downs. Looking across a valley that is easily 3 or 4 times deeper than it is wide and seeing your trail on the other side does not make the legs feel good. We were exhausted when we reached our lunch spot but decided to press on only to find another ridiculous 3,000 foot decent with our trail climbing right up the other side of the valley again. We limped into Chomrong, village of stone steps, and were glad to rest our aching bones.
Look Familiar? Meghan and I at an equally good Viewpoint opposite Poon Hill
Meghan enjoys some relaxation in Chhomrong
Evening Light on Machhapuchhre. The so called “fish tail” shows its likeness

At this point we were on the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) Trek. The trail leading up to the base camp to one of the worlds deadliest mountains was much more remote than the Circuit Trek. The accommodation along the trail from this point on where purpose built trekkers lodges. We felt like we had lost a lot of the culture of the circuit but gained much more dramatic scenery and a more wilderness environment. The glacier sculpted valley we ascended was nothing short of breathtaking and we had two amazing days leading up to Machhapuchhre Base Camp. Machhapuchhre Base Camp was sort of an oxymoron because the mountain, like many others, is considered holy to the Nepali people and has never been summated. Due to weather and time we decided to stay at MBC and make a day trip the remaining hour and ½ in the early morning for sunrise and breakfast.

Digitally enhanced morning sunbeams behind Machhapuchhre
Storm clouds building in the valley

We Made it to ABC shortly after sunrise and were treated to incredible 360 degree views including the best view of Annapurna 1. The evidence of glacial activity here was plain as day. The earth looked as it had been pushed aside as easily as soft putty were the glacier had once made its way down the valley. In its retreat it left a rocky bed that was still barren. There was a memorial to fallen mountain climbers that was covered in prayer flags spreading out in all directions. We sat in awe for a long time and enjoyed a simple breakfast at an outside picnic table at the ABC lodge. While we were there a Austrian lady flew in in a helicopter and joined us for breakfast. She was only their for a little over an hour and we figured her breakfast cost her a little over $2000. A Little out of our budget!

Annapurna South and Annapurna 1
Munslers and Mountains
Expensive Breakfast
Nice enough place for a cup of… Nescafe

We pushed it back down to MBC and further on down the valley that night. We were able to make it out to the road to catch a bus back to Pokhara in four days. After the 24 days we had been on the trail we were eager to get back but sad that it had all come to an end. The way out held some more treats for us. Another brutal up and down were I counted 2,180 continuous stone steps leading back up to Chhomrong. It was all worth it when we got to Jhinu and were able to relax in some beautiful hot springs alongside the river. We said good buy to friends we had hiked with and spent the last 2 days on our own. As luck would have it we got caught in a torrential down poor on out last afternoon and huddled underneath a tree while it hailed on us!

Meghan Below ABC
Looking Down Valley
The forest was really fascinating
I was not the only Monkey on the trail
Endless Steps to Chhomrong
Oh Yeah
The foot bridges got a little sketchy at times
Slate Rooftops

Posted by pmunson 05:55 Archived in Nepal Comments (5)

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