As all mountaineers will know, summiting is only half of the challenge. We had made it over Thorong La Pass in good time, it was 10:00 and the weather was divine except for the brutal wind. We had heard rumours that a storm was on its way and will hit within the next 24 to 48 hours so we were keen to put some distance between us and the mountains. The next town to accommodate trekkers is Muktinath, a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists located in the Mustang region of Nepal 1,700 metres below Thorong La Pass at an altitude of 3,710 meters. Therefore, we had a long descent. The ascent at high altitude had been a challenge and as we dropped below the snow line we began to tire. It was a relief when the quaint town appeared, tucked away with a stunning backdrop of the Nilgiri mountain range.
We checked into the most comfortable looking lodge that fortuitously hosted a gas shower. This was my first hot shower on the Annapurna Circuit and a chance to finally wash some underwear that had perhaps seen better times, I hadn’t changed the current pair for four days. I have no shame. My rucksack was packed with the more critical trekking items, organic Nepali coffee, a coffee strainer and my beloved orange mug.
After we had all had a hot, steamy cleanse, we planned the next section of the trail and relaxed by the gas heater to the repetitive lyrics of “Om mani padme hum,” a music track with the lyrics of the Buddhist mantra and only those lyrics, that can be heard reverberating all over Nepal and one that can be heard repeating itself over and over in one’s head for days on end.
I woke the following morning after the best night sleep I had had on the trek, my body was fatigued and took advantage of the dense air and increase in oxygen at the lower altitude, the hot shower probably also helped. We continued trekking through what felt like an alien landscape in comparison to the days leading up to the pass. Mustang is one of the remotest areas in Nepal and the population is sparse. The Annapurna Circuit trail cuts through a wide, barren, windswept valley of browns and greys with only a single jeep tracking cutting through to Kagbeni, a quaint old village that straddles the border between Lower and Upper Mustang. The landscape was so photogenic, I couldn’t put my camera away.
Kagbeni, the ‘Gateway to Upper Mustang’ consists of tight, twisting and turning alleyways that wind their way between old mud and stone walled buildings. The Tibetan culture that is prevalent in Upper Mustang can be witnessed whilst wandering through the village without forking out for an extortionate Upper Mustang permit. You also get a chance to feast your eyes on a strange and rather creepy phallic statue.
After lunch in Kagbeni and a chance to apply some nappy rash cream to my chafing groin we continued south. We had read about the infamous head wind that blows up the valley and this day was no exception. Grit and gravel was whipped into our eyes as we followed the Kaligandaki River towards Jomsom. In comparison to the picturesque towns and villages along the Annapurna Circuit Jomsom was a drab, grey disappointment of a town.
We had arrived at 14:45 and walked into town past the bus station. At this point we had heard news that the impending storms will hit the next day. A bus just so happened to be scheduled to leave at 15:00, Emma and Thomas made a last minute decision to jump on the bus to Tatopani, a village two days trek from Jomsom. Stubborn and determined to trek the entire circuit with hopes to continue to Annapurna Base Camp I refused to get on the bus. It all happened so quickly but within 15 minutes our trekking family had been torn apart. In an attempt to brighten our sullen mood Will and I resorted to sampling some over-priced sweet baked goods from the local bakery, a stale disappointment, perhaps a reflection of the town. We sat on the curb of the main road feeling sorry for ourselves.
During the trek to Jomsom my left calf had become quite painful, I suspected a pulled muscle and Will was having issued with his knees and had blisters on literally every toe so we decided to call it a day and reluctantly spend the night in Jomsom. To add to the joys of Jomsom no hotel offered the pre-Thorong La Pass deal that we were accustomed to of free accommodation if dinner and breakfast were purchased at the hotel or lodge. We literally tried every hotel in town and reluctantly ended up forking out for a twin room. One consolation, we had a private bathroom and a fantastic view of Mount Nilgiri, not all was dismal.
After a happy meal sized bowl of porridge for breakfast Will and I continued trekking, the atmosphere wasn’t quite the same but we were grateful for each others company. The trail continued along the river, it felt strange to be hiking through pine forests after the barren high altitude wastelands either side of the pass. Clouds hung heavy in the sky and before long, light snow flurries began to fall. We were happy and content with our decision to continue and enjoyed the morning trek until the pain in my left calf struck with vengeance and quickly became very painful. My Gandalf bamboo staff was now a walking stick in an attempt to take the weight off my left foot. Will’s knees and blisters were also painful so we hunkered down in a small restaurant for lunch, hoovered up a simple plate of fried noodles followed by dessert of paracetamol and ibuprofen.
The storm that we had been expecting was imminent, the wind picked up as we attempted to make our way across the wide, rocky riverbed. Within minutes we were buffeted by strong, gale force winds and engulfed in a heavy downpour of wet snow. In pain, wet and eight kilometres from our next destination, Kalopani, we desperately flagged down the next passing bus and jumped on board. Upon arrival we checked into the See You Lodge and spent all afternoon and evening sat around a table with bucket of hot smoldering coals underneath to keep warm and ate an exceptional, bottomless plate of daal bhat. The snow continued all night. Maybe we should have got on that bus from Jomsom…
In the morning we waited for another bus to take us to Tatopani, literal translation: ‘Hot water’and for good reason. Tatopani has a natural hot spring, perfect for trekkers to relax and soak their aching muscles. We enjoyed a day of rest as we weighed up our options and debated what we should do. I was still keen to trek to Annapurna Base Camp but with my leg in its current condition continuing was perhaps not a viable or sensible option. We decided that the best option for us both was to catch another bus the following morning to Pokhara, I could rest my leg for a few days, Will needed to extend his visa and we would meet up with Emma and Jemima for a reunion and the eagerly awaited celebratory pizza and beer. If I ever feel the need to treat myself or reward myself for completing some form of challenging, arduous endeavour pizza and beer is the perfect treat. Those who know me personally are perhaps aware of my overt obsession with a old good pizza.
The first bus to Pokhara broke down after 45 minutes, we waited for about an hour while the driver seemed to try to fix whatever the issue was by repeatedly hitting the axle with a lump hammer. Deciding that the drivers desperate attempt to get the bus running was futile, we joined other trekkers and their guides and began walking in the direction of Pokhara. We were 98 kilometres away. After a short while a second bus came along. Relieved, we jumped on to what felt like a party bus blasting out a hardcore Nepali drum and bass remix of “Hips don’t lie” and the bus surely had no suspension. After a 30 minute spine crunching ride the bus stopped abruptly. It had suffered a flat tyre. The driver and his acquaintances got to work in formula 1 pit stop fashion and assured us that we would be on the road in a few minutes. Thankfully, they had a spare wheel on the roof and it only took about five minutes to replace. We arrived in Beni, a transport hub where we hired a jeep to ferry all nine of us back to Pokhara. Fortunately, the fellow trekkers were good company and the final leg of the journey was much more comfortable. Oh, except for the road being closed for an hour. 10 hours of bus and jeep hopping, we finally arrived in Pokhara at 18:00.
It was a stressful day, the one thing keeping us going was the promise of a family reunion over pizza and beer, “Two days until pizza and beer! One day until pizza and beer!” Accompanied by Juliet, one of the trekkers we shared the journey with and who happened to be working at the same hospital as Emma, joined us at Godfathers Pizzeria. Emma and Jemima arrived, as fresh as daisies, or so they looked. They had managed to trek to Poon Hill from Tatopani and left the summit just after sunrise that same day and it’s a long trek back from Poon Hill. Pizza was excellent and an ice cold, refreshing pint of Gorka went down an absolute storm. The food and drink was almost as good as the elation of being finally reunited as a family. Unfortunately, Thomas didn’t make it but we managed to meet the following morning. We had a fantastic evening, we all had a story to tell and I was delighted to hear that, against all odds, Jemima made it over the pass. It was only a case of food poisoning that immobilised her after leaving Churi Ledar. She made a swift recovery in Manang and joined the next group of trekkers over the pass.
We spent the next few days together relaxing in Pokhara, splashing out on deliciously colourful salads, coffee, beer and watching movies at the outdoor cinema. I sought advice from every friend who might be able help with my calf, Eliza an orthotist, Emma a trainee doctor, Lucy a physiotherapist and Jemima a yoga instructor. I was determined to trek to Annapurna Base Camp. Will had decided to join me and I only had 3 days to recover, I couldn’t help but feel that the odds were stacked against me.
Trekking the Annapurna Circuit was undoubtedly an absolutely incredible and unforgettable experience. The views were spectacular, tea house and trail life was fantastic, the wildlife was awesome but above all, the company, the camaraderie and the memorable times that we shared together made the trek so special. We shared enjoyable times, we laughed together, we supported each other when times were tough and when tears were shed we were there for one another and even when we were separated I felt that we remained as one. It is through enduring such hard times that friendships are formed. I was prepared to trek solo, but I feel so fortunate and blessed to have been acquainted with such benevolent, kind and honest individuals. I thoroughly enjoyed their company and hope to meet again in the future… For pizza and beer, obviously and perhaps a shorter hike closer to home.
Two days later, after second breakfast, coffee and then brunch, Will and I set the Annapurna Conservation Area map on the table. It was time to plan the trek to Annapurna Base Camp and welcome the birth of the Anglo-Stralian bromance.