HERE I AM, FEET ON THE GROUND, HEAD IN THE CLOUDS, WITH OVER ONE HUNDRED KILOMETERS ON FOOT TO GO AND THOUSANDS OF METERS OF ELEVATION TO GAIN.
Months of preparation – physically, materially, and mentally – are over. We have arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal. We’ve got to catch the morning internal flight across the massifs to Pokhara. If Kathmandu is the political and economical capital, Pokhara is de facto adventure capital, as an adventure-sports hub and a gateway to Annapurna Conservation Area. My friends and I are hitting the trail for the nine-day Annapurna Sanctuary Trek.
The long walk starts in the morning at Nayapul, where plenty of houses and trekkers’ shops are still there in case you need more survival kits. Kids here are models at heart and are not at all shy to strike a professional pose. The roads are still good to go – paved and plain, yet somewhat dusty. Vehicles are still accessible. After lunch, as we joyously stroll, it rains, but the rain or any other precipitation halts nobody here. We keep on walking in our $1 lightweight plastic ponchos (trust me, they are the best). Houses are disappearing, and before we know it, we are already in the woods.
After the easy-going trail, here comes the best part of the day – ascending stairs, endless-looking, with a slippery surface thanks to hours of raining. It takes us hours on the climb, and we eventually reach our first in-hill lodging after sunset in Ulleri. Literally drained, at a cosy tea house, we all pick dinner dishes with the highest calories on the menu. Our instinctual need to survive tells us to do so. It is only the first day, and I feel like I have run out of all energy already.
“Good morning,” greets a tour guide who is leading another group of trekkers. “How was your sleep?” I frankly tell him how I appreciate sleeping right now, before continuing with more conversations. The backdrop of the guesthouse is amazing with lush gigantic mountains. “This is what you call mountain. What you see in your homeland, Thailand, is actually hill,” says the local, and maybe he is right, as I have never witnessed such giant sierras before.
On the way to Ghorepani, there is no longer a concrete pavement. The walk is so refreshing as we pass rivers and falls, and the weather is mildly crisp. It rains again, but in a solid form, or what dictionaries call “sleet”. Definitely, we have to walk on regardless what’s dropping on our heads (thankfully it does not break our fragile ponchos), or else we wouldn’t make it on time. Lessons learned the hard way – no matter what, you just keep going, and you’ll eventually come out all right.
We have to get up before 4am on our third trekking day to climb up to the mesmerising Poon Hill viewpoint before sunrise. Up to 3,193 metres above sea level, dark and chilly, breathing is harder than before due to the lower air pressure. After an hour of walking slowly, Poon Hill gradually reveals the crème de la crème. Luckily, the sky is so blue and clear, making the sunrise over the snow capped ridges literally flawless. The sun coyly beams from the back of the mountain range, and gently comes up to expose the stunningly white ridge line, with mountain mists contrasting the bluest sky. We ultimately find ourselves in the thick of Gangapurna, Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Dhaulagiri, and Hiunchuli, as well as the signature, vibrant prayer flags wishing us the best kind of luck throughout the journey.
The exquisiteness of nature continues even after we have left Poon Hill. Through the arc of rhododendron trees, the national tree of Nepal, with some reddish flowers (the reds will fully bloom in spring and it will definitely be an unbeatable view), we are still surrounded by the gleaming, snowy mountain range. Along the way are sky scraping trees and tiny houses in vibrant colors, partly inhabited by horses, goats, and chicken. Mules are the only transportation available. Passers-by are people of many nationalities who, despite the tired expressions on their faces, speak the very same language – “Namaste” – with a smile. Life around here is warmheartedly simple.
We are in the midst of an infinite rice terrace in Chuile. Our lodging tonight is the most impressive one with the soaring Himalayas in sight and a vast courtyard. I wake up to the freshest air, looking at people doing morning yoga in front of the lofty mountains, and then have my beautiful breakfast under the warm sunlight, sipping sweet-smelling hot chocolate. In short, I wake up to the harmonious tranquility of Mother Nature.
Walking across the mountains, we have our ups and downs. It’s been days without any sound of vehicles, internet connection or phone calls. Also, I never knew walking could be this enjoyable, because back in the metropolis, we all seek the fastest and most comfortable rides to get to places. Instead of high-rise human-made buildings, surrounding us is the masterpiece merely created by forces of the cosmos. This intense quietude and down-to-earth on-foot travel becomes an everyday life I’ve never had.
On our fifth walking day, out from the woods, we arrive in Deurali. Throughout my months of looking at pictures of Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, I have never seen such majestic vision of greyish towering ridges with falling streams before. “It depends on the weather. Normally, those mountains are snow-tipped, but now the snow has already melted. The weather these days is highly uncertain. You know what, you are so lucky. Two weeks ago, there were snow storms and everybody approaching the Annapurna Base Camp had to leave,.” explains our guide, Dawa, who has walked around Nepal countless times. For some reason, I fall in love hard with the fascinatingly muted tones of Deurali and this otherworldly vibration.
The most significant day, our sixth day, has eventually come, as it is the day we should arrive at Annapurna Base Camp. I get massive cold feet in both contexts – the fear of losing for unpredictable altitude sickness, and the numbing cold catching my feet. The way to Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) paints the most picturesque hike of my life –the intriguing curves of mountains that I’m walking into, the yellowish bushy pathway, the silent sounds of moving clouds, the confident and dignified peaks. “Snow!” Yes, we have reached the icy parts, and we’ll have to spend the next six hours walking on soft and slippery snow, at 3,700 meters above sea level. Also called “Fishtail Mountain”, the Machapuchare Mountain poshly poses up high in the blue sky, left untouched and unclimbable. The transcendental environs conquer all fear, fatigue and frigidness. I have too many terms to describe this surreal kind of unadulterated art: awe-inspiring, breathtaking, astonishing, amazing, majestic, yet no words can portray its actual overwhelming snow-clad splendour.
And now, massif in white is all around. It looks as if those heights are purely made of delicate snow. I decide to shut my inner self from the outer world, put my earphones in, and speak to no one, in order to fully embrace those sedated bits. I forget about the cold and wet snow seeping into my water-resistant shoes and just peacefully carry on. Without warning, my friends, my guide, and I are eventually standing at 4,130 meters above sea level. Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) is standing right in front of us. These past days are just extraordinary. I cry.
Annapurna is a Sanskrit maiden name, meaning the one who is abounding with food. Softhearted in its name, climbing up to Annapurna, the tenth highest mountain in the world, to its peak at 8,091 meters above sea level, is known as the deadliest mountaineering due to its combative glacial architecture and human-unfriendly weather. It is the least climbed among 13 other summits, grouped as eight-thousanders, with the highest fatal rate. And now, we are witnessing the crowning point from afar. I am positive that it is better off this way.
The sleep at the base camp is unsurprisingly frosty with the snow curtaining up the window. As I unenthusiastically pull myself out from a warm blanket, my worries have melted away. I’ve made it, and I’m still super fine.
We leave the base camp in the morning. I really love how the sun plays with the snow-covered rugged range, making the whole terrain so white and shiny. Our way back is apparently jolly and worry-free; we do snow sliding with a group of strangers. All of us came for the same thing and accomplished it, and friendship is formed without many words. Being so upbeat walking down, it turns out that down is the new up.
Three descending days later, we arrive at Nayapul, once again, to take a bus back to the city. The elongated walks end at roughly 140 kilometres. And I miss the Himalayas already.