Hiking in Nepal was a decade-long dream in the making that became officially solidified during my academic exchange. Back in 2016 on a sticky evening in Singapore, my friend Ingrid and I decided that we would hike the Himalayas together. Both coming from countries world-renowned for nature and hiking, we were beyond eager, but marked Nepal as something to do ‘one day’ when we had money and time. But nonetheless, in March of 2018 we found ourselves both at the same stage in life: wrapping up an internship with some money saved away for traveling. We were off!
With lower-budget and an inability to train much during our full time jobs in Ahmedabad and Sarajevo, we settled on hiking up to Annapurna Base Camp in 9 days. Nick-named ‘ABC’, Annapurna Base Camp is a classic trek known for its relative accessibility, varying topography, and amazing views of the entire Annapurna range. Positives: blooming spring flowers, easily marked trails, challenging but do-able levels of physical exertion, low-cost. Negatives: a lot of people…
We weren’t exactly hiking in the solitude found on Vancouver Island where I grew up. I know many people who were lucky to trek in Nepal in the 80’s, 90’s, and even early 2000’s who spoke of empty trails, being invited inside for tea, and weeks of eating only eating dal baht (a traditional lentil, rice, and vegetable dish). How modernization has changed things! The minute we stepped of the airplane in Kathmandu we were caught in a mob of tourists waiting to process their on-arrival visas. Even in that small holding room, we met a surprising amount of people from Argentina & Chile, as well as Malta, East Asia, and a whole lot of Western Europeans. We thought it was odd someone living at the edge of Patagonia would come all the way to Nepal, but then again a Canadian is one to talk.
Ingrid and I didn’t spend long in Kathmandu – just enough days to adjust and see some major sights. We were shocked at the level of disrepair that lingers from the 2015 earthquake. With a magnitude of 7.8, the earthquake killed over 20,000 people and injured many thousands more. The loss of lives and communities was, and continues to be, devastating. The damage to critical infrastructure is equally astounding. For a country which relies on tourism, the ability to move around – especially from the airport to the trailhead villages – is crucial. Though vastly improved from 2015, Kathmandu remains covered in thick layers of dust amid road repairs, traffic jams, and the last bits of rubble. For perspective, 200 kilometres clocked in at an 11 hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara.
I can’t speak much to Kathmandu because we moved through so quickly, but our favourite day was when we left the familiar backpacker hub of Thamel to sight-see. We had a difficult time picking which places to cover, but settled on Kathmandu Durbar Square as a definite must. I almost didn’t go inside Durbar due to the extravagant cost to foreigners, but I hope my money was going to reconstruction…because once we got inside it turns out many of the famous buildings were completely covered in scaffolding and inaccessible to visitors! ‘Durbar’ general refers to the plaza areas outside of old palaces, which are home to courts, temples, and other important buildings. Until 2008, for 240 years, Nepal was ruled by a monarchy. In the 1980s, economic crisis spurred a constitutional monarchy to be established. Soon after, the Nepalese Civil War broke out between Maoist insurgents and government forces in 1996; and didn’t officially end for another decade. During this period, the entire royal family was allegedly massacred by the Crown Prince Dipendra, who later killed himself. These events led to a weakening of the monarchy until the King was forced to restore the House of Representatives and establish an interim constitution. The election in the following year of 2008 saw the declaration of a Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. Our trekking guide Manoj was just a few years older than Ingrid and I, and also a student of political science. In addition to knowing a million things about trekking, we shared a lot of interesting conversations about politics and history in Nepal.
While most of the intricate palace architecture at Durbar was impossible to see or view, we did glimpse some ornate woodwork, as well as Chinese-state propaganda informing us of their large monetary contribution to reconstruction. By far, the best part of the day was accidentally finding a local teenage hangout spot with the best momos (steamed dumplings) I have ever tasted! And, I’ve eaten a lot of momos. Needless to say, we were well nourished for the long bus ride in the morning. Now the real adventure began.
ABC Trekking Diaries
Day 0, Pokhara: An evening of preparation and getting caught in a thunderstorm at the lake – but at least the air was fresh and dust-free!
Day 1, Nayapul – Ulleri (1960m): Drove 2 hours to Nayapul. This is the most common place to start ABC: walking through the village and down to farmlands. To my surprise, I found locals never knew how many kilometres we were going – everything is measured in only altitude and hours. Hiking to Ulleri took about 5 hours, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t bucketing rain. Very wet, cold and tired, missing central heating by the end of it.
Day 2, Ulleri – Ghorepani (2830m): One of the most beautiful days of hiking through blooming rhododendron forests. Ghorepani is the ‘base camp’ of the Nepal-lite and family-friendly Poon Hill ‘trek’. Luxuries such as apple pie, European chocolate bars, and woodstove heating were available. Our biggest regret is being too cheap to buy apple pie and watching a group of 20 Germans devour fat slices of it by the fireside.
Day 3, Ghorepani/Poon Hill – Tadapani (2590m): We began with a 5 a.m. start to watch the sunrise over the Annapurna Range at Poon Hill. It was worth the crowds and the stairs, as the view was breathtaking and gave our first actual glimpse of mountains! Tadapani is a pass-through for 4 different treks and was packed. We were downright exhausted from a 9 hour day, and relaxed by the woodstove while chatting with 2 amazing elderly British women who had completed a very intense 2 weeks in the infamous Mustang region and were doing Annapurna ‘for fun’. This was also the day I discovered that Nepal and India have a 15 minute time difference and that I had been consistently 15 minutes late for everything…
Day 4, Tadapani – Chommrong (2340m): After a lot of downhill which was a false, relief, the sun finally poked out and scorched us for an abrupt uphill climb. We were still moving through farmlands but could now see Machupuchare or ‘Fishtail Mountain’ in the distance before the afternoon rains rolled in.
Day 5, Chommrong – Himalaya (2900m): A depressing cluster of barely-together cinder block and scrap metal guesthouses – very cold. An arduous 7 hour hike through villages, farmland, and forests, but thankfully we were accompanied by a kind couple from Calgary whole regaled tales of what ABC was like 30 years ago. We were potentially getting tired of eating fried rice and veg, and fried noodles and veg, but still too cautious to try spaghetti.
Day 6, Annapurna Base Camp! (4130m): Climbing just over 1000 metres in altitude in one day was risky, but Manoj convinced us it was alright as we would stop at Machupuchare base camp for a long lunch, and we were both taking Diamox to prevent Altitude Sickness (which can be fatal). Some people choose to sleep low at Machupuchare, but that involves a 4 a.m. wake-up and race to ABC to see the view before the clouds blew in. We were feeling fine, but found our pace slower due to the thin air. The landscape drastically changed from farmland and forest to no foliage whatsoever besides a few strange succulent-like shrubs. It was a stunning hike, uphill along a rocky ravine canyon. By the time we got to Machupuchare base camp the temperature dipped close to zero, and a heavy fog rolled in. We barely could see 5 feet in front of us for the final 2 hours up to ABC. We arrived in the dense fog, and had no choice but to sip tea at base camp, and pray that the clouds would lift tomorrow morning to actually see the mountains…
Day 7 ABC – Sinuwa (2340m): We were blessed with the bluest of skies at around 7 a.m. at base camp! People were peeping out at 5 a.m., 6 a.m., praying the clouds would pass… and suddenly they dispersed. Everyone at base camp was awestruck. ABC is a breathtaking summit with a 360 degree mountain view. I expected it to be more peaceful, but the adrenaline was coursing through my veins and the cold seemed to make everyone jittery and jumpy. But by 8 a.m., the clouds were rolling in again and we were packed up and sadly beginning out descent to Sinuwa. So many days of walking for such a short-lived victory!
Day 8: Sinuwa – Kumiy (elevation unknown): We climbed 1,734 steps uphill back to Chommrong which = 2 dead hikers (Manoj on the other hand, was never tired). And that was all before 9 a.m.! It was an incredibly long descent and by the time we were near Kumiy it was damp, green & misty. A world away from the rocky scrub of ABC! The lushness of it all also meant leeches, which came out in the rain and attacked Ingrid. Luckily, Mr.Leech was barely 1 millimetre long. Manoj said if I kept laughing at Ingrid he would put a leech on me! We saw apple pie on the menu and swooned. We wanted a summitting-victory treat and took our chances on what turned out to be a sort of fried pastry with some apples and Nutella in the interior…
Day 9 Kumiy – Nayapul (1070m): The last day! My knees were aching after the stairs fiasco the prior day. What started out as a peaceful hike home turned into full-force monsoon storm – pack covers and rain pants didn’t do a thing, we were drenched! Finally just one town before Nayapul, the rain let up and we stopped for bowls of hot soup. I hiked the final kilometres in my Tevas and wool socks as my boots were full of puddles. We definitely stamped our park permits out of Annapurna Sanctuary with a bang!
Days of rest and reflection in Pokhara were so needed. Ingrid and I spent time reading, walking, and stretching. I couldn’t believe how fast 9 days had passed, and also how different the trek was than what I had pictured. Every village along the ABC route has begun to (or has fully) commercialized itself to revolve around international travelers. That’s not to say other work doesn’t happen – small scale farming and animal husbandry is abundant, but I wondered the scale to which livelihoods changed to encourage tourism. The idea of ‘wilderness’ I had so ingrained in my Canadian brain was totally proven wrong during ABC. Part of me wishes we experienced more of that ‘remoteness’, but there’s a time and place for that also – it just wasn’t this trip yet. I feel lucky and privileged that Ingrid and I could both board planes from so far away and begin this trekking journey together. Until next time Nepal.