Boarding the Buddha Air 36-seater ATR 72-500, I’m seeking some reassurance. Not only did a similar tourist flight crash outside Kathmandu two years ago, killing all 19 passengers, but the domestic airport it takes off from looks dysfunctional. Yet this aircraft is new, the weather is good, the captain sounds confident and the cabin crew are neat and smiley. Buddha Air still has a better safety record than other airlines in Nepal. Besides, the steward tells me, “beautiful ladies don’t die on our aircraft.”
Fate is on our side. As sunrise breaks we’re up in the air and coasting over the eastern Himalayas, a long jagged line of snowy peaks that look like sharks’ teeth, on one side, and an elevated plain on the other. After about 10 minutes we look down on Gauri Shankar, at 7,134m. “This is a holy mountain, nobody is allowed to climb it. It’s a virgin peak,” says one of the cabin crew, who are now walking about the aircraft and helping passengers to identify the object of their photographs. The plane starts to turn and we’re each invited into the cockpit. “Ladies and gentleman, you see the black triangular peak to your right, that is Mount Everest, also known as Sagarmatha, and to the right of that, Mount Lhotse.” The foothills of Everest are swathed in mist and the pyramidal peak flashes in and out of light cloud; this is cheating, to be sure, and we’re still about 20km away - but for those without the time to trek to Everest Base Camp right now, it’s a good starting point; for some, it’s their only view of the mountains.
I’m here to hike. Some 50 minutes and US$200 (Dhxx) later, we’re back on the ground. Still only 8am, I board another Buddha Air flight to Pokhara, just 210km to the west and a 40 minute flight (with the winding roads, the drive takes all day and I only have five in total). I’m met at the airport by my guide Ngima Sherpa, who is Tibetan in origin and grew up in Phaplu in eastern Nepal. He has a car ready: bypassing Pokhara, we drive for an hour into the foothills of the Annapurnas and and start trek from Nayapul at 1,050m. The small town is a dirty, scruffy collection of wooden shacks. While we wait for our porter to arrive I have a Snickers bar and a packet of crisps with a cup of coffee while batting away flies. As we make our way along its main street, an exhausted, dehydrated and haggard backpacker staggers towards me, clearly at the end of his Annapurna Circuit trek. I’m doing a five-day, shortened version of the hike; the entire circuit takes about three weeks..
The trek really begins in the pretty village of Birethanti, just inside the Annapurna Conservation Area. Ngima has already arranged my trekking permit and entry fees are included in the trek, so we hike uphill for 10 mins and are immediately out of view of any sign of squalour. A clar river, Bhurungdi, flows through a gorge on my left as the rocky track curls up through the mountains. After a 30-something lone trekker who looks like a marathon runner with his iPod blaring meets us on his way down, beautiful butterflies and birds are the only signs of life. Ngima’s English isn’t great and our porter Sham Bhadur’s is non-existent, so I soon find myself walking alone, one person in front and one behind. Across the gorge are forested terraces; down in the valley, clear waterfalls and pools make me want to hike down and jump in, but I decide to save my energy for later.
We pass an elegant, wiry local woman with a sun-scorched face; wearing traditional dress, she ignores us as she surveys the valley. When we reach Sudame, the first of several pretty villages with coloured wood and stone houses catering mainly to trekkers, I have a dip in one of the freezing cold pools at the side of the river and have lunch at Long River Side Lodge and Restaurant. I order daal bhat, the classic trekker’s lunch of daal, rice and vegetables, and it’s delicious.
We arrive at our planned destination, Tikhedhunga, at 2.30pm, half hour earlier than expected, and decide to press on to Ulleri at 2,020m to save time the following day. Ngima says it will take two hours and it’s 3,500 steps up, so I get out my iPod and put on workout tracks including Madonna and Tinchy Stryder. I go up without stopping and arrive in Ulleri in one hour. Waiting for my guide, who says he’s done this trek 50-60 times and is only 42, I’m surprised he’s not faster. We make our way through the town and I’m disappointed that a lodge hasn’t been pre-booked; only now am I told that for an individual, this is virtually impossible so it’s a case of seeing what’s available. The first couple of places we try are full so we settle on the Meera Guest House, which, while basic, at least has an en-suite bathroom and good views. Unfortunately that en-suite “bathroom” is a dark, damp concrete box with a permanently leaking shower.
Guidebooks and travel companies describe such accommodation as “tea-houses” or “local lodges”, which makes them sound like ryokans - they are not. I’m further dismayed to find that there is a loud group of women outside my bedroom window - English teachers working in Abu Dhabi on spring break. Fortunately my iPod is loaded with podcasts so after cleaning my backpack (a bottle of insect repellent has leaked) and having a shower (I’ve forgotten a towel so use a shirt) to dry myself, I have dinner and go to bed. Today’s hiking has only been 12km.
Sunrise the next morning gives us a great view of Annapurna South, at 7,200m and Hiun Chuli, at 6,400m, still sprinkled with snow in April. The weather is cool, sunny and clear, so we get going as soon as possible after a breakfast of apple pancakes, porridge and tea, and refilling our water bottles (for environmental reasons, plastic bottles have been banned between here and Ghorepani). I reflect that although very basic, the accommodation is luxurious compared to what I’d experienced climbing Mount Kenya in 2011. There, there was no hot water or electricity, the dorm rooms were overrun with mice and the temperature below the summit went down to minus 25.
We set off through the village, letting a line of ponies used to deliver goods pass. After a couple of hours we reach a mature laligurans (Nepalese rhodedendron) forest. The trees are in full red flower and it’s a lovely hike in cool air to the top of the mountain. Ngima tells me he has two sons, 12 and nine, and that our porter is 45, has three sons and is a labourer in the off seasons. And that’s the extent of today’s conversation until we reach Ghorepani, an ugly collection of blue corrugated iron shacks and our home for the night. I ask Ngima why the menus in each of the places we stay are the same and he replies that, in a throwback to when Maoists controlled the area, the menus are decided on by committee.
At 4.30am the next morning Ngima knocks on my door: it’s time to hike to Poon Hill. Downstairs dozens of tourists - French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Indian - are chattering over tea but Ngima is keen to press ahead. “The Chinese and Japanese are like broiler chickens, white and weak and very slow. Indian women are very fat like waddling ducks, need help to climb mountain!” is my Bhuddist guide’s thought for the day.
We start our climb in the moonlight: I’ve forgotten my head torch, so walk behind Ngima. Unfortunately a large procession of people are already on the way up, and all around me people are coughing and spitting. It feels like there’s 500 people climbing alongside me, but when we reach the top at 3,193 just before 6am, I realise it’s only about 200. Ngima buys me a cup of tea and we watch the sunrise across from a string of mountains including Dhaulagiri, at 8,167m, the by now familiar Annapurna South and Hiun Chuli, and Machapuchare, at 6,997m. In front of us is one of the world’s deepest gorges. A Russian woman from my guesthouse complains that it was 1,800 steps to get up here: an Australian counters that “it was easier [in the dark] because you couldn’t see it.” I’m forced to admit that if you want real wilderness, you’ll have to set aside more time and be prepared to rough it.
After breakfast - porridge and banana this time - we set off again uphilla cross meadows, with magnificent views of Annapurna South and Hiun Chuli to our left. The crowds have thinned out here, although there are still many people, incuding families with young children and retired persons, clearly comfortable with the terrain. Over a lemon pancake in a village down the hill, I meet several trekkers who have come from “ABC” - Annapurna Base Camp - and two chinese women, an internal auditor and a human resources officer from Beijing, who are picking their way along the same route as me. This is the most scenic part of the trek, on small paths high up in primeval forests, with views at one point all the way back to Ulleri. There are gorgeous streams, ferns, mosses and laligurans growing from vertical rocks.
We’re on our way to Tadapani, which means “far water.” Resting in a valley in front of a very steep forested track, Ngima says the final uphill slog will take an hour. After tearing uphill on adrenaline it takes me 20 minutes and I arrive at 2.30. Tadapani is a dank, stagnant little village covered in mist, not a great place to spend the night but after seven hours of walking today my boots are rubbing and I’m just grateful for a clean bed in Magnificent Lodge, though it’s far from it. After changing my pillowcase and killing a few mosquitoes I read my guidebook until dinner time (note: next time, take more books).
The next day’s trek, to Ghandruk, is mostly downhill, but that doesn’t make it easier. In fact, my knees tell me that it’s harder. Teams of porters, who ferry tourists’ camping gear to and from the Annapurna Base Camp in huge waterproof sacks, seem to be carrying far too much and not enjoying the experience either.
Ghandruk, a lovely old village on the mountainside, is blighted by haze from woodsmoke when we arrive and again, the best lodgings have been booked by groups. I meet some Australians and Canadians in my “hotel” and after swapping stories from the trek we head off again early for the final day’s hike. From primitve but scenic stone villages on the side of the valley, it’s heartbreaking to reach a dirt road at Kimche, which soon leads to piles of litter, dust and the honking of horns. Ngima’s foot, we discover, is infected, so he takes a bus on the final stretch. This new road, opened a year ago, mars the final day slightly: it appears to have widened course of original pathway to remove buildings and ugly new metal ones have been created. There’s also a lot of dust from passing vehicles, but luckily there’s not much traffic yet.
Arriving back in Birethanti, we have a celebratory meal of apple lassi, daal bhat and vegetable momos (dumplings). There’s a sense of satisfaction, relief, and a desire to return. Ngima drops me off at Tiger Mountain Lodge, a luxury retreat in the hills above Pokhara opened by Edmund Hillary in 1998. The weather is still hazy, but I’m too tired to care. I’m welcomed by a butler called Harry and served organic coffee and a cheese and tomato sandwich. I have a four-poster bed and a walk-in shower. I realise that I haven’t washed my hair for three days or looked in a mirror since I left. I examine climbing memorobilia and check my email in the lobby. Luxury feels strange, but it’s nice to have earned it.