From Tal, we followed the trail north along a narrow path, cut into the steep rock face above the river. The valley had narrowed considerably and its walls rose high on each side. We crossed the river several times via long suspension bridges before reaching the village of Dharapani (1860 m) where the trail was joined by another trek that circuits Mount Manaslu to the east.
Near Dharapani, just up from the base of the river, a waterfall plummeted down a steep gorge between two vertical cliff faces, to power a small micro-hydro plant that supplied the village with electricity. High above the waterfall, I noticed a suspension bridge connecting the tops of the two cliffs. It was so far up, it was barely visible and I thought for a moment about the vertigo-inducing sensations one might experience when crossing it. Apparently there was a village up there somewhere.
Around Dharapani we turned a corner as the trail, now a road, headed in a more westerly direction, still following the Marsyangdi River, through forests that were predominately pine.
Just before we reached the village of Danaque (2190 m) where we spent the night, we had our first glimpse of several high snow-capped peaks: Lamjung Himal (6986 m) and Annapurna II (7937 m) to the west, and Manaslu Himal in the east. All were a considerable distance away yet were instantly recognisable as higher than anything we’d ever previously experienced.
Tibetan Lodging in Danaque
At Danaque, it was cold and almost dark when we arrived. We spun the long line of prayer wheels at the mani wall and made our way through the village, looking for a place to stay. We got a room in the Potala guest house, named after a palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The young couple who ran it told us their grandparents were Tibetan and we soon discovered that most of the people who lived in the region had similar heritage. Tibetan-flavoured Buddhism was the predominant religion in the mountain areas and it was common to see Buddhist prayer flags, mani walls and a variety of other shrines and structures along the trail.
Thankfully the lodge owners lit the log burner in the dining room and we settled there for the evening, enjoying our dinner and the warmth of the fire. Like all guest houses, the food was prepared from scratch and usually cooked using a wood fired oven. The kitchens are always well stocked with pots and pans and the dining areas decorated using traditional wall hangings and various odds and ends of religious significance. In such relatively remote places, way up in the mountains, I am always slightly shocked to see a cabinet stock full of beers and spirits. Although they looked as if they hadn’t been touched in a while, the cabinet probably takes a hammering during the peak season.
After preparing dinner, the Tibetan couple settled in front of the log burner as well, both on their mobile phones, listening to music and watching videos – presumably the evening’s entertainment. This late in the year, we were their only guests, although I imagine they still receive a trickle of trekkers even late into January.
Onwards to Chame
From Danaque it was a steep climb up to the village of Timang (2750 m) where we had excellent views of Mount Manaslu (8156 m), the eighth highest mountain in the world. It looked impressively high, even though it was twenty-five kilometres away.
It was near Timang that we first really started to notice the altitude – a slight feeling of light headedness and loss of appetite and the growing sensation that walking up hill with a heavy pack was becoming harder work.
We pushed on, inspired by the increasingly better views of the high peaks, to the traditional village of Thanchowk. Despite sensations of reduced appetite we enjoyed a delicious dal bhat at one of the guest houses before making our way to Chame (2670 m) where we settled in to a Tibetan lodge right next to the river.
Clare went straight to bed. She was feeling fatigued and concerned about the effects of altitude. The cold wasn’t helping either. We really began to notice it in Chame with temperatures well below zero during the night. At one point it dropped to minus fifteen and rarely reached much above zero during the day. Luckily, the location of the guesthouse meant that it got direct sun between 10am to 3pm, which was widely welcomed by everyone, as some respite from the cold. The rest of the time, it was hard to ever really feel warm, unless we were inside our sleeping bags or next to the wood burner in the dining room, during the evening meal.
Chame was a sizeable town, the administrative headquarters for the surrounding district. It had a police camp, a prison and a large army camp, none of which looked particularly inviting. Something about the encircling razor wire and seeing men standing guard at these places, remaining stationary and stone-faced for hours on end in such cold conditions, was difficult to comprehend. It made me think of Britain’s admiration for the toughness, endurance and reliability of the legendary Gurkha soldiers of Nepal.
Besides the administrative buildings and the guest houses there were lots of stores – wooden shacks mainly – open at the front, selling all kinds of basic necessities. Some of the shacks were dwellings with their doors and windows open. They were always dark inside, with a small fire burning.
Chame sat at the base of Lamjung Himal (6986 m), a snow-covered peak that dominated the surrounding scenery. Glimpses of the summit of Annapurna II (7937 m) could be seen from a small and easily accessible farming plateau just above our lodging. I took some photos but it was frustrating to not really be able to capture the true scale of the mountains.
They rose to insurmountable heights, appearing somehow separate from the rest of the landscape. It made sense to me now why several of the the worlds major religions sprung up around these mountains, each of which invoked something of a realm that was supernatural and otherworldly. They were above and beyond their surroundings, so large they even generated their own climates.
After our second night in Chame, Clare decided she didn’t want to go any higher along the trek. The cold was already very uncomfortable and would only get worse as we went higher. In Manang, which was still two days walk away, the night-time temperature had dropped to minus twenty-two and Manang was still several days walk from the high pass where it would be colder still.
High Mountain Splendour
In order to see a bit more high mountain scenery, I decided to continue on along the trail for another two nights and then return to Chame so we could spend Christmas Day together. Clare walked with me up until an elevation of 3000 metres and then walked back to the the town while I continued up the hill and on to the village of Upper Pisang (3300 m). We were both able to see the massive and dramatic curved slab of rock, rising like a motionless wave some 1500 metres high, known as Paungda Danda. It dominated the landscape for much of the day.
As soon as I arrived in Upper Pisang and secured a room in a guest house, I walked up to the Buddhist temple for great views of the entire north face of Annapurna II (7937 m). I could hear music coming from the temple, so I took off my boots as a small sign requested and went inside. The interior was colourfully decorated with all kinds of carvings and statues and as my eyes adjusted to the light I realised the music was being played live by two Buddhist monks, dressed in traditional mauve gowns and seated in the shadows by the outer wall. One was playing a drum while the other chanted verses and clashed a small set of symbols. Neither even seemed to register my presence.
The next day I walked up a steep and exhausting hillside to the village of Ghyaru (3670 m), the furthest point I was able to get along the Annapurna Circuit. From here, there were spectacular views of Annapurna IV (7525 m) and an expansive vista of high Himalayan scenery.
Along the way I’d walked some sections with a young Lebanese guy, doing the trek on his own. He was on holidays from university and planned to walk from Besisahar all the way to Pokhara, which was even further than the standard route listed in the guide book. Being completely new to any kind of hiking or trekking, he’d bought a bunch of cheap gear in Kathmandu including a backpack and a tent. He told me he hadn’t needed the tent but was still carrying it.
I’d first met him having lunch at a guest house in Dhikur Pokhari, between Chame and Upper Pisang. While I was still adjusting to the reduced levels of oxygen in the air he managed to smoke at least three cigarettes. Neither they nor the altitude seemed to slow him down. He was full of enthusiasm and at a tea house just before Ghyaru, I wished him all the best for his journey as he headed off towards Manang.
Another guy I met, a German, was pushing a heavily-laden bicycle along the road just out of Chame. I’d seen him once before at a village further down the trail. His plan was to complete the entire circuit on his bike, although he always seemed to be pushing it rather than riding it. Even though most of the circuit could be completed via the road, it was so rocky and strewn with potholes and often too steep to ride, that his adventure seemed to me more like an exercise in unnecessary hardship. A considerable section of the circuit – between Manang and Muktinath – had no road at all, so he’d be forced to push his bike along a walking track, in altitudes often well over 3500 metres.
At the guest house in Upper Pisang, during my second night, I met a group of nine teachers who were trekking the circuit with a boy who was only 5 years old. They all worked in various international schools and met up when they could during school holidays for various adventures abroad. I indicated my surprise over taking a child on such a trek and the mother immediately spoke of how well children adapt to high altitude. I hadn’t even considered the altitude factor. It was more about the inconvenience in general. The father told me later he was carrying all the boy’s gear as well as some games, colouring-in books and of course some Christmas presents.
Side Trip to Base Camp
After my second night in Upper Pisang, I headed back to Chame, arriving there in the early afternoon. It was nice to be back with Clare for Christmas Day, huddled around the log burner, sharing an evening meal. The next day we rested and the day after two Nepalese guys from the town offered to guide me up to the base camp of Lamjung Himal. Although not a well marked trail, it began near the army camp in Chame and involved a steep and strenuous climb that took at least 8 hours to complete, up and back. My guides were very patient in accommodating my frequent need for rest breaks and while I regained my breath, they would chat amongst themselves and smoke cigarettes.
Nearing the top, the large pine trees were gradually replaced with the more stunted and sparse rhododendron forest that are known to flower spectacularly in March/April. When we finally reached the base camp (~3700 m), one of the Nepalese guys promptly lit a fire and we gathered around it in for a bite to eat and some respite from the cold. There was nothing much at the base camp. It was a cleared grassy space, with the north face of Lamjung Himal rising another three vertical kilometres in front of us. There were spectacular views of surrounding high points like Kangaru Himal (6981 m) and Pisang Peak (6091 m) that couldn’t be seen from where we were staying in the village far below. By the time we got back to Chame, it was after dark. I was tired and in need of food, so after a plate of dal bhat, I headed straight to bed.
Return to Besisahar
It had been a week since we’d first arrived in Chame and our plan now was to head back to Besisahar, taking our time, maybe exploring some side trails.
One memorable spot in particular on our return journey was the hot springs near the Nepali Kitchen guest house, between Tal and Chamje. The owner of the accommodation had built two immersion pools down by the river that were fed by the hot springs. The water was very hot and smelt of sulphur and minerals. It took some time to get comfortable with the temperature but once immersed, the water was very relaxing and a great way to unwind after walking all day.
We hadn’t brought swimming costumes and we didn’t want to get our underwear wet so we went in naked only to find that shortly after a group of local men were making their way down the hill for their own bathing session. Nepalese are typically conservative when it comes to revealing their bodies and to bathing with the opposite sex, so we scrambled madly for the protection of some nearby boulders, throwing our tiny trekking towel between us, in order to get dried off and dressed before they arrived. We had no idea how much they’d seen but they seemed hospitable enough and even apologised for the interruption.
Further down the trail we came across another sight which amazed us. It looked like an enormous backpack was making its own way up the steep and rocky path that we were descending. Thinking it must be a Nepalese porter, we were surprised to discover that carrying the massive load was a young Western woman, hiking on her own. She told us her pack weighed 27 kilograms (the combined weight of Clare’s pack and mine) as she was carrying a tent and all her own food to save money by not staying in lodges. It was incredible she had gotten as far as she did carrying that kind of weight, but she seemed happy and determined enough and we left her to continue the uphill climb. I couldn’t help wonder though how she would fare further up the trail where steep uphill climbs were combined with a distinct lack of oxygen.
It took us five days to walk back to Ngadi and from there we caught the local bus to Besisahar. Despite returning by the same route, it was a pleasant journey back. Without the pressure and discomfort of dealing with altitude, we were able to enjoy a leisurely pace and see the trail from a different perspective.
In all, our particular trek had taken us sixteen days and was the longest either of us had ever been on a hike. By the time we got to Besisahar, we welcomed the comfortable bed and hot shower of the Gateway Himalaya Resort. Set on spacious grounds, away from the hustle and bustle of the town, it was one of the premier hotels in Besisahar, yet still excellent value for money. Our total bill including the room for one night and lunch, dinner and breakfast for two people was 4616 Nepalese rupees (£32).
After a night of rest and some familiar creature comforts, we boarded the bus back to Kathmandu early the next morning.