Annapurna Base Camp – Following the Fairy Lights (2017)

Annapurna Base Camp – Following the Fairy Lights (2017)

The mountains seemed to have been lit up with a string of festive fairy lights, all bobbing up and down and snaking their way up the steep slopes in the inky darkness of a moonless night. The effect was magical, as though we were witnessing a grand theatrical performance, one where the theatre itself is the drama.  Of course, this was the mighty Annapurna range, nature’s own theatre, far grander than any that humans could ever conjure up.  The light effects, though, came from human intervention, not fireflies as I originally thought. These lights were supplied by trekkers’ headlamps as they stumbled their way up the mountainside to reach Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) in time to catch the first rays of the rising sun.  It was the most defining moment of our 24-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp and Lo Manthang.

Most trekkers to ABC elect to stay at Macchapuchare Base Camp (MBC), a three-hour trek away from their final destination because facilities at the former are limited.   And set out at 3 am to wend their way up to ABC before sunrise, stumbling through rocks and scree, keeping as far away as possible from the river roaring menacingly on one side of the trail and hope to reach the base before sunrise.

More breeze than wheeze

For us three women from India, the previous seven days’ trek from Pokhara upto this point seemed a breeze, compared to this stretch which took every ounce of one’s energy and resolve to traverse.  At 12,135 feet, the air is rarified, the trail, rocky and treacherous and in this darkness, one felt like a bat sans echo-location. What kept us going was the glorious sight of winding, moving glowing lights, reassuring us that there were kindred souls out there, on a similar enterprise, driven by a common purpose – of glimpsing the glorious brush of golden sunshine on the snow peaks.

The Annapurna range is a chain of mountains 55 kms long and comprises a galaxy of snowy eminences – Annapurna 1 to 4, Gangapurna, Himchuli etc. Macchapuchare, perhaps the only male in this female pantheon, is made up of millions of tonnes of impressive granite armour; he is their sentinel, keeping a watchful eye over them from a ridge across. In fact, Machhapuchare seems to stalk every trekker huffing her way up to ABC. He seems to accompany you from Pokhara itself, tracking your every move, towering above you at every turn and twist, following you through every crest and scree.  Occasionally when he disappeared from view, you wondered if you had lost your way, but then the moment you came round the bend, he would be there, in all his stunning starkness and pointy fishtail peak which gives him the name.

For the three of us – Parvathi from Bengaluru, Suhasini from San Diego and this writer from Delhi, the trip had commenced long before we reached Nepal from our respective homes. The ABC trail is truly treacherous, far more challenging than the arduous trek to Everest Base Camp which I had attempted the previous year.  We had to prepare months in advance, sweating it out in the gym and equipping ourselves with accessories to aid us along the way.  Yet, there were surprises galore and obstacles aplenty.

Surviving the Bus Ride

The first was the bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara, much of it along the Trishuli river on one side and verdant slopes of the mighty Himalaya on the other. It would have been a truly memorable journey but for the impossible traffic snarls that took 12 hours to cover a distance of just 200 kilometers on the Prithvi Highway. The road was narrow in most parts, there were several single lane bridges to cross, a long line of vehicles piled up on both sides.  The non-existent roads in many stretches ensured we were tossed like pebbles in a rattle, every bone in the body creaking and complaining.

If you survive the road journey to Pokhara, you will be swept by the sheer beauty of Pokhara town, nestling on the shores of an alpine lake. Macchapuchare towers over the lake studded with sail boats. When you glanced up, you could see hundreds of paragliders floating gracefully against the backdrop of snow peaks. And feast on some of the most delectable desserts this town’s fancy eateries come up with.

Trekkers’ Lifeline

After a day in Pokhara to stock up on trekking accessories, we began our climb from Nayapul, some 80 kilometers away.  Padam, Krishna and Rahul lugged our backpacks while suave Dinesh was our guide, alternately cracking the whip and cajoling us to keep moving. Porters are the lifeline of trekking tourism in Nepal. They carry packs twice as big as themselves balancing precariously on all those steep boulders, sometimes wearing only rubber sandals. We saw porters struggling up the slopes with water tanks and washing machines on their backs, presumably to cater to the needs of trekkers.  The cosmopolitan composition of trekkers has given rise to demands for international cuisine and modern comforts which teahouses are expected to offer. After 24 days of trekking in Nepal we concluded that trek tourism was extracting a huge price, paid mostly by those hapless porters and the ambient environment.

Nayapul is a bustling village where you can stock up on bananas and sundry eats to see you through your first day. You need to produce your Annapurna Conservation Area permit and Trekkers’ Information Management card before you can commence your trek. Much to our delight, the initial climb was gentle. The slopes were studded with fecund farmlands ripe with paddy and vegetables. But then, after ambling for about two hours, we realised that most of the trekkers, including the experienced looking ones, were whizzing past us in jeeps and SUVs.  After some investigation we realised that most trekkers usually began their climb from Siwai, riding in a jeep from Nayapul to the trekking point.  We managed to flag down a jeep and piled into to it. Our porters climbed in too and the luggage was dumped on the roof of the jeep and left unsecured.  After all, it was just a short ride, maybe half an hour to Siwai where the rutted mud road would end.

We should have known better. Two of our bags had tumbled down somewhere along the way and we hadn’t even noticed, hanging on as we were, to the rails of the jeep for dear life as it bounced along.  It was only when we reached Siwai we realised our bags were missing.  But this was Nepal, nothing gets lost here. Half an hour later, our bags arrived with minimal damage and we were on our way again. Having lost so much time along the way, we had to terminate our first day’s trek in New Bridge village, a good three hours away from our planned halt at Jinu Danda.

Up, up and more up

The second day’s trek took us upto Chumrung, perhaps the most picturesque village on the entire trail. The rough-hewn stone steps leading to the village seemed never-ending, though.  After counting some 2000, I lost interest. There were just too many of them and more kept coming.  Initially we used to crane our necks to see how high we needed to climb, braced ourselves for the haul, and ascended with determination, smug in the belief we would soon reach the crest;  only to find that at the top, there awaited us another stretch of steep ascent and yet another after that. This went on and on – or at least so it seemed.  Our calves and thighs protested, but this was only day two. We had six more to go before we reached our destination. To make matters worse, it was also quite warm, this being the foothills. There was nary a tree nor shrub to shield us from the relentless sun.

But Chumrung amply compensated us for the effort. A quintessential alpine village where farm produce was left to dry in front of homes, children skipped in the yard, women winnowed paddy and men worked in terraced fields,  The village wore a festive look with freshly harvested corncobs hung out to dry in neat lines on the terraces.  When we went up to the roof of our teahouse in Chumrung, it seemed as though we had arrived at the base of Annapurna herself. All the snowy deities lined up to cheer us.  They seemed close enough to be at touching distance. Thick rhododendron forests carpeted the mountainsides. Yonder, way below, a river wound its way around the mountains, like a sluggish serpent.

Most treks in Nepal are called teahouse treks because villages en route offer boarding and lodging to trekkers.  What might once have been a wayside tea stall is now a full lodging facility with many rooms, built as extensions of village homes. These teahouses provide all meals to trekkers. Considering the international clientele that passes through these trails, their menus accommodate different palates– breakfast would often include pancakes and porridge and lunch and dinner, pizzas, pastas and Chinese fare apart from the local staple, Nepali dal bath, akin to our thali meals. In fact, to a weary trekker, a teahouse spells comfort and security, food and wifi, toilet and hot tea.

Welcome Beep

Several minutes before you actually come upon a village, your cellphone beeps to life, assuring you there’s habitation ahead. Seldom has a beep sounded more welcoming! The next tell-tale sign that there’s a village ahead is the flutter of prayer flags. These are Gurung Buddhist villages, each with its own set of chortens, prayer wheels and little altar at the entrance to the village. Each village may have a dozen or so houses of which half would be teahouses. Chumrung, of course, is a big village with dozens of teahouses, a school and many fashionable cafes offering cookies, cappuccino and expresso.

There is no advance booking for teahouses, not even in this age of digital communication and ubiquitous mobile phone towers. Trekkers have to just take a chance, arrive and find a room. If the teahouses in a village are full – as they are often likely to be, in peak trekking season – you have no option but to plod on gamely to the next village, perhaps three or four hours’ climb all the way up.  Mercifully, that never happened to us since one of the porters would skip ahead and block our beds.  When the crowd gets really big, trekkers are accommodated even in the dining areas of the teahouses. In fact, no one in dire need of a bed is ever turned away, reflecting the hospitality of the locals.

Trekkers come from as far away as Mexico and Canada. Most ubiquitous were Chinese nationals who came in groups as well as individually.  Most European languages can be heard on the trail. In October, when we went, not many Indians were about which is surprising, considering Nepal is eminently accessible to Indians.

Woods, Deep and Dark

The next few days saw us huffing and puffing our way up through villages named Lower Sinuwa, Upper Sinuwa, Dovan, Bamboo and Himalaya, all located in densely-wooded, dark jungles. Until you actually stumble into the village, it is not even visible. Even the ever-present Machupucchare went into hiding from time to time.  Unlike in the EBC trek, this time, the ascent got tougher with every passing day. The trail from Himalaya to Deorali had some hidden glaciers and a jumble of loose rocks that required quite a bit of acrobatics to negotiate.

Throughout this trek, our knees would riot at the sight of squat toilets, our stomachs would grumble at the smell of soup, our backs would stiffen at the prospect of having to climb up and down for toilet and meals.  Yet we plodded on, our sights firmly set on our target – a glimpse of that magnificent snow deity.

Mighty Machupucchare

On day 8, we reached Macchupuchare Base Camp after trudging along a valley of flowers and waterfalls.  This was the most beautiful part of our entire trek – the incline was gentle, the weather, salubrious, the sights, exhilarating, the air, brazing and pure. Machhapuchare who was always to our right from day three, had gone into hiding when we reached MBC. We were right at his base and could not see him. In fact, from MBC, even the Annapurna range was not visible since it was behind a ridge.  But the setting was gorgeous, a cool mist enveloped the village by afternoon. We had planned to go right upto ABC the same day, but with mist shrouding the mountainsides, it became impossible to trek further. Besides, we may or may not have found lodgings up there. We reconciled to the idea of getting up at 3 am and trudging up to ABC.

At a height of 12185 feet, it was no mean feat, at least not for the three of us. Already we were feeling the effects of altitude sickness – mild nausea and headache, a light-headedness that brings an unwonted spring to your step. We retired early that evening in anticipation of the ordeal ahead of us.

Fairy Lights and Prayer Flags

Dinesh banged on our door at 3 am. We wrapped up like Eskimos on expedition to the North Pole. Armed with our headband lights and two trekking poles, we set out into the moonless night. Even the stars were hiding in the mist, making us wonder if we would at all be lucky to see the sunrise that day. Each step was an effort and soon we were hyperventilating as though we had run a marathon without training for it.  We stopped every few seconds, dug our poles into the ground and summoned every ounce of our resolve which now sounded more like dissolve.  Soon we got separated from each other, each to her own pace. For the first time, I felt what it was like, to be arguing with your own body, to cajole it into doing what you want.

After two hours of this excruciating progress, a small flickering lamp beckoned somewhere far above. Voila, we thought, our destination could not be far away.  That gave us the strength to haul ourselves up inch by inch, but however much we climbed, the light remained far away, in fact, it seemed to recede further in our imagination.

Eventually, we did reach the most welcoming sight of the entire trek so far– the arch at the foot of the Annapurna claiming we were at 13000 feet.  We still had a few moments before sunrise, a time spent catching our breath and setting up the tripod and camera to capture that magical moment. Already, the ridge was crowded with other trekkers, fairy lights of a few hours before. I managed to squeeze myself into a gap to await that most glorious moment of our entire climb – the tentative first rays of the sun drip molten gold on the crest of Annapurna and the festoon of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

(Published in Frontline dated June 22, 2018)

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