See photos of the Annapurna Sanctuary taken from a helicopter flight
October 31, 2017 Marfa Tatopani 1,190m – Shita 1,935m
We hired a jeep in Marfa to take Walid, Diana, Kumar and me to Tatopani and to take David and Gilles to Pokhara. We left Marfa early in the morning and arrived in Tatopani around 12.30 pm. We drove through the Kali Gandaki gorge, which is the deepest gorge in the world. We had fantastic views of the Dhaulagiri east face and the spectacular icefall that I saw from the Mesocanto Pass in 2011. We also had dramatic views of the gorge with steep drop-offs to the raging river below.
We reached the dusty and dumpy Tatopani where we had a good lunch and some decent pastry. After lunch, Diana, Walid and I hugged and said tearful goodbye to David and Gilles, then started our Annapurna Sanctuary trek. I was not in the mood for more walking as my body was in the “relaxation mode” already. Without doing any prior research, I was anticipating an easy stroll to the Sanctuary, 3 days max on a flat trail, as it was one of the most popular treks in Nepal. No problem! I could do it in my sleep without trying. Just a side hop to the Sanctuary and back. Right…
My naïve assumptions were shattered fast. After lunch we started walking up to Shita. It was hot, shirt-drenching humid, overcast and muggy. We walked passed the really dumpy Tatopani hot spring (Tatopani in Nepalese means hot water). We walked up some shortcuts between the twists and turns in the road for 700 vertical meters. I was drenched in sweat. The walk was rather boring but some of the late afternoon views were nice. We could see higher peaks obscured by the afternoon clouds. We arrived in Shita in late afternoon to a busy teahouse. The teahouse was packed and the place had a completely different feel from the Dhaulagiri circuit that I just finished. It was a busy, commercialized and very touristy part of Nepal. Kind of Shitty, Shita style.
November 1, 2017 Shita – Ghorepani 2,900m
We walked up for another 900m on a stone staircase all the way to Ghorepani. Step after step, stairs all the way. There was not much to see, although we did walk through some nice villages with friendly locals. Overall the place was very clean and well-marked. The beautiful Dhaulagiri massif dominated the skyline. Had this been my first trek in Nepal, I would probably be very impressed. Given my recent experience though, it was just a place to walk through. A good example of hedonic adaptation.
The walk to Ghorepani was very fast for me as I was well acclimatized. I covered the distance in 2.5 hours and had to wait for Walid and Diana for almost an hour. In Ghorepani we passed the time by sitting around in the crowded teahouse with a couple from Spain and watching Walid entertaining the patrons. Ghorepani is a collection of modern large teahouses or hotels targeting mass tourism. The village is only a one-day walk from the road to Pokhara and thus it is very popular.
In the teahouse, I made a mistake of eating a fresh salad and got quite sick. Since I did not feel well, I did not have the energy to walk up to Poon Hill for the fabled sunrise view. It turned out that it was a good thing, as Poon Hill was crawling with people like an anthill. There were hundreds of people in a small space competing for a photo of the same view. So far this trek had too many people but it was to be expected.
November 2, 2017 Ghorepani – Torapani 2,710m
I got up this morning to walk to Poon Hill but I could not do it. I turned around and walked back to the hotel against the mass of humanity making their way up the hill. The stomach affliction drained the energy out of me completely. After Diana returned from the Poon Hill, we set off to Torapani, 5 hours away.
I was wondering how on earth I would be able to do it as I was operating at 15% capacity. First, the crowds heading out of Ghorepani were overwhelming: shoulder to shoulder in a long lineup of hikers so tightly packed that it was impossible to pass any of them.
It was horrible walking up the hill feeling sick and weak. I had to stop often as I was completely drained of energy. The views were nice and pastoral but compared to what we saw in Dhaulagiri, it was nothing special. I was hoping that the Annapurna basecamp was worth the trouble of getting to. I wanted to do this trek for a long time to cross it off my list. I started to realize that it was not really a wilderness experience but an experience in crowd walking with crowded teahouses, souvenir stalls and so-so views.
We arrived in Torapani in late afternoon. In Torapani we stayed at the Annapurna Guest House, a dumpy place but with a bed and that was all I needed. I slept well all night and I regained most of my energy.
November 3 2017 Torapani – Sinuwa 2,375m
The walk started with a beautiful sunrise over the hills of eastern Nepal. It was very special to see the sun emerge from behind the hills on the horizon. We had a 1,000m descent right off the bat. Then we crossed a small river and climbed a large hill for lunch at Chumrung. At Chumrung, the trail joined the main Annapurna Sanctuary trail.
Immediately from Chumrung, the views improved. The Annapurna Gorge that we would walk through was directly in front of us. The valley is flanked by steep walls and dotted with villages. What was not good, was a steep descent to the bottom of the valley (1,900 steps) and a massive immediate climb to the village called Sinua just across from us. In the heat of midday I had to get my umbrella out again to avoid melting away in the sun.
The walk up to Sinua was up the never-ending stone staircase. This trek has turned out to be quite a challenge (so much for an easy stroll I was expecting): from the start point we ascended 1,000m to 3,300m, then down to 1,950m, then up to 2,370m, etc. Up and down all the time.
Now we are in Sinuwa looking at a beautiful sunset over the Annapurna 3, Machapuchare and Hinchuli. The Modi River valley will take us all the way to the Annapurna Sanctuary. We sleep in another basic, borderline grubby place.
November 4, 2017 Sinuwa – Durali 3,200m – Annapurna BC 4,130m
The walk from Sinuwa to Durali was fast and uneventful. Nice views of the gorge. In Durali we sat around in a very crowded guesthouse for 7 hours until bedtime. I got a head cold from someone. I guess that after three weeks of continuous walking my body is just depleted. I shared the room with Walid and Diana as there was a shortage of beds. We got up at 6am to go to the basecamp at 7 am. The walking was again easy and fast to 4,130 m (1,000 ascent). I did it in 2.2 hours, mainly thanks to the acclimatization from Dhaulagiri. As I walked higher up the valley, the view opened up and the scenery became absolutely awesome. The gorge hides a great cirque of high peaks that form a perfect circle with Annapurna 1 (8,030m high) standing grand at the end of a glacier.
Past the Machapuchare base camp (Piss Tail Peak as Kumar called it), the trail turned sharply left and followed a moraine of the Annapurna Glacier all the way to the Annapurna BC (or ABC). The entire Annapurna Sanctuary is quite incredible. So close to Pokhara and yet so breathtaking. Standing at the basecamp, the Annapurna 1 dominates the view. Immediately next to the cluster of guesthouses at the basecamp, Annapurna South rises steeply to an altitude of over 7,000m. Next to Annapurna 1 is a mountain called the Fang. A massive glacier flows from Annapurna 1 and is flanked by two icefalls. To the right of Annapurna 1 is Mount Rock Noir, Mount Gangapurna and Annapurna 3. Next to it is the pointy Machapuchare, which looks totally different from the base camp. The entire cirque is magnificent, grand and majestic. It is really a special spot that requires a few days of boring walking to get to but once here, Wow! What a view!
Numerous memorials of many climbers that died on the slopes of Annapurna 1 dot the moraine close to the base camp. There are many Korean names but the most famous victims of this mountain are Anatoly Boukreev and Alex MacIntyre. All in all, a special place that is worth the time and effort to get to.
In summary, we walked 70 km so far and ascended from 1,000m to 3,300m, then walked down to 1,950m and back up to 4,300m. So much for an easy 3 day hike.
As we were sitting in the dining room of the Annapurna Guest House, I negotiated a 20-minute helicopter ride around the Sanctuary first thing the following morning. I was very excited but anxious as I witnessed a helicopter crash in 2010 on Ama Dablam. This altitude is at the very end of helicopter’s ability to fly. I always wanted to do a helicopter flight over the Himalaya and this was a perfect opportunity in such a spectacular place. The helicopter was already here and we did not need to waste time to fly over the lowlands before the high Himalayas. Helicopters come here regularly bringing wealthy Chinese tourists for a short time at the base camp. We negotiated this in front of all the porters and all the people in the dining room. I just dropped a healthy sum for a 20-minute flight without blinking an eye. I felt horrible to be doing this in the company of all the onlookers as this amount of money is a fortune to the locals. I did not want to come across as some white jerk throwing money around. But I did not have a say in where and how the deal was discussed.
November 6, 2017 Annapurna BC Pokhara
We went to bed at 8pm and I could not sleep until midnight and then I got only mediocre two hours of sleep. The cold and the chest infection were really bothering me. In addition I was sharing the room with Walid and Diana again. I was coughing and sniffling all night and I am sure that it bothered them, too. I felt really horrible to be such a bad companion. Since I had all the time during the sleepless night, I was busy imagining all the possible problems with the flight just a few hours away. I hate flying at the best of times. This was, however, an opportunity not to be missed.
Finally the morning came and everyone was up before sunrise to watch the spectacle on Annapurna 1 south wall. The sunrise on Annapurna is a famous thing to do on this trek and many people come here specifically for this reason. Last night we had a spectacular sunset on Annapurna as well and then on Machapuchare. The entire range was glowing gold and then red.
I was full of anticipation about the flight and I was very excited. I do not remember the last time that I was that excited about something (maybe in Antarctica in 2010). The helicopter flew in at 7 am with the Chinese. I could see it approach the landing pad of the BC from far away by its front light. The noise and the entire operation of the helicopter is very exciting for me as well. I just love watching them take off and fly away and hear the engine rev up before the lift-off. I find these machines graceful and a marvel of human ingenuity capable to get to impossible places.
I took the front seat, put on the headset, adjusted the seat belt and before I realized, we were off – so smooth and effortless. The minute we lifted up my anticipation about the flight evaporated and I became enveloped in the grandeur of the scenery unfolding before us. At first we flew down the Annapurna glacier and gained some altitude. The plan was to circle the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is huge. It does not seem like it but the distances here are so deceiving. We did a 180-degree turn and flew by the sharp ridges of Himchuli and over the icefields separating Himchuli from Annapurna 4, gaining altitude as we progressed. The icefield between Himchuli and Annapurna South looked broken and dangerous from the helicopter. We could see down into the deep crevasses of the massive glacier. We turned north and flew towards the Fang and the huge wall of Annapurna 1 that was now illuminated by the morning light. We were gaining altitude as the pilot announced that we would reach 6,000m, an upper limit of the flying ability of the helicopter. The day was perfect though, no wind, blue sky and still air. The flight was smooth and I could concentrate on the scenery that was rolling on before me all too fast. The views were absolutely SPECTACULAR! It was absolutely stunning and my excitement level was off the charts. The massive wall of Annapurna 1 was directly ahead, then Rock Noir, Gangapurna and Annapurna 3. I saw all these peaks from the other side at the Tilicho Lake in 2011. The mountains looked so close yet I knew that they were far away and 1 to 2 km higher. The illusion was that we were above or at least at the same level as them though.
The pilot then approached the razor sharp ridge linking Machapuchare with Annapurna 3 and flew just hundred meters above it. It was exhilarating. The drop offs were massive and the scale of the terrain was overwhelming. To the left of the helicopter was the 7,000m high Machapuchare north wall invisible from the Annapurna BC or Pokhara. It was plastered with snow and ice, extremely steep and foreboding. The view just got 100% better from already SPECTACULAR view before. I was in heaven.
We flew around Machapuchare and did a 90-degree turn towards the BC. We flew right over the trail that we walked on just two days before. It was by far the most spectacular thing I have ever done in the Himalayas. I wanted to do such a flight for a very long time but I never had an opportunity to do so. Such flights are usually much more expensive: $5,000 US or more as the helicopter has to fly to the high peaks (usually from Kathmandu) that takes an hour of flying one way. This adds the cost of two hours of flying time over the lower hills to the mountain flight. In the Annapurna Sanctuary, the helicopter was already in the middle of the high mountains, the best mountain scenery, the weather was perfect and the light was fantastic for photos. I also had two willing companions to share the cost with. It all came together in perfect harmony.
During the flight, the Nepalese pilot offered to take us to Pokhara for a small fee saving us two or three days of waling back on the same trail we came on. Thankfully Walid agreed. We had a few minutes to throw our bags together and get them back to the helicopter. The Helicopter was waiting for us with its rotor running and all the people gathered to look on. I gathered my stuff, said my goodbyes to Suba and sat back in the helicopter. We took off for another spectacular 20-minute flight back to the civilization. We flew over the trail again. We passed Machapuchare and Himchuli. We could also see Annapurna 2 and Manaslu in the distance. It was all very exciting. The pilot offered us the flight to Kathmandu but we declined.
I was happy to skip the final two days of walking. I did not want to retrace the same trail with its huge ups and downs and with hundreds of people. The trial was rather unpleasant with all the stone staircases and crowds. I was tired, I felt sick with the cold and frankly, I was done. It was the best option and allowed us to relax lower down. The entire Annapurna Sanctuary took me by surprise. I was expecting a stroll in the park and it was a long slog with a lot of ups and downs. This trek was the opposite of Dhaulagiri (except the Annapurna Sanctuary itself) but I have to admit that the Helicopter ride made it for me. It was worth the effort to come here and have this experience. I will remember it for a very long time.
November 7, 2017
We landed in Pokhara. It was relatively hot since we were dressed for the 4,000m altitude. We made it to the hotel, took a long hot shower and cleaned up. We walked on the main street, had good food and beer. Pokhara is very nice compared to Kathmandu. It is more relaxed and it is clean.
The following day we took a 10 hour-long bus ride from Pokhara to Kathmandu. Due to some road construction and traffic we got stuck for a few hours.
We arrived in Kathmandu in the evening and took a car from the bus to Thamel. We then transferred our luggage from the car to the rickshaw and ended up in the Nirvana Garden Hotel where it all started. We had a nice supper at the Tibetan restaurant.
I went to see Kumar’s sister and her kids: Ashok and Annupa. I wanted to go and see them in their school. The school was very nice and the kids have made an impressive progress. They speak good English and we had a nice conversation. I was very happy to see them again after 3 years.
After the visit, we went to the Fire and Ice Restaurant. Kumar invited me for a pizza and beer. It was very nice of him to do so. After lunch we went to the Pashupatinath Temple to take photos with the Sadhus. I like this place. It is a very old and large Hindu temple. Apparently, it is very well known and revered in the world of Hinduism. The temple is always full of people. The funeral pyres are in constant use cremating bodies of the deceased. The temple is also full of devotees.
Kumar and I had some time to talk and one of the topics was the Nepalese concern about financial planning for the future. Kumar said that it is difficult if not impossible due to unpredictable work situation. This forces him to live in the moment and leave the future to unfold as is does. He believes in karma. It is very different from the western way of thinking where the planning for the future overshadows living in the present. In the West, we never have enough and the goal post just keeps moving further and further. It makes us work longer and harder. We are never satisfied and always afraid that we will not have enough.
November 9, 2017 Kathmandu – Doha
My last day in Kathmandu was very busy. In the morning I took a taxi to the Tibetan quarter. I wanted to see whether the Buddhist stupa has been rebuilt after the earthquake. I had a lassie on the roof top patio and watched the pilgrims walk around the now rebuilt stupa. I also visited one of the monasteries to listen to chanting monks. It was very atmospheric.
Later, Kumar and I went to Patan looking for a knife. There were no knives in Patan, only hundreds of very expensive statues. I am not sure who can afford a statue for thousands of dollars when the locals make $30 per month. Kumar said that it was the monasteries that were buying them with the money they get from the westerners. It would be similar to the Catholic Church where the altars drip with gold and the devotees scramble for basic goods. We saw this in India, in Ladakh when the Rinpoche showed up in a $100,000 Toyota Land cruiser and the poor Ladakhis lined up to see him. The Rinpoche ignored the poor and zeroed in on the white tourists probably hoping for a generous donation to his cause.
Kumar and I had a nice coffee to finish our stay in Patan. The café was across the main square that was in bad shape after the earthquake but in the process of being rebuilt with Japanese donations.
On the 10th of November, we said final goodbyes and I was off to the airport. From the flight, the view of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri were spectacular. I could see our Dhaulagiri route very clearly.
I always ask the same question: will I return to Nepal and the Himalaya? Yes, of course. The Himalaya are one of a kind. Kathmandu is like an old shoe that fits perfectly and I love it. I like it here. It suits me. I love the mountains. I love the people (despite how unbearable their daily grind is). I always leave with humility and humbleness. I admire their resilience and toughness and I appreciate their openness. I have been coming here for the past 10 years and Nepal became a part of my life in some strange way. So until next time…
The following is the summary of the Dhaulagiri trek:
Start elevation 800m
Italian BC elevation 3,600m
Hike in Italian BC 4,300m
Hike in BC 5,500m
French Pass 5,300m
Hidden Valley 5,000m
Dhampus Pass 5,300m
Elevation gain 6,400m and the distance 90 km
The following is the summary of the ABC trek:
Day 1 8.6 km 354 meters elevation gain
Day 2 8.7 km 780 m
Day 3 8.9 km 400 m
Day 4 14.1 km 714 m
Day 5 11.7 km 858 m
Day 6 9.9 km 700m
Day 7 6.7 km 50m
Total distance 68.6 km and 3,537m
Total for the trip:
Elevation climbed 9,937m climbed
Distance traveled: 158.6 km + 14km (Marfa Jomsom) =172.6km