Annapurna Base Camp Trek Diary: 2022 Winter Escapade

I am back in Thamel after a little more than 3 years – this time for a trek to Annapurna Base Camp. This is going to be my third solo [with a guide though] Himalayan adventure. The last time I was here in this season [December], was 8 years ago. This is definitely NOT the Thamel I knew! The pandemic is definitely passing through here.

On this trip, I am somehow remembering my first trip more than the others. I came to Nepal for my honeymoon, but fell in love with this beautiful country and this idea of backpacking. It was right after we got married – and I got married young, by the way. Two “kids”, underdressed for a Nepali December, walking around, in awe, shivering. I remember getting caught in 8-9 degrees temperature in our Dhaka made gabardine jackets! Also, we could not walk 10 steps without almost bumping into a fellow tourist.

This time though, almost no tourists are here. Shop owners sitting idly – some playing chess with the next door neighbor. Maybe the tourist to local ratio will be 100 to 1? I don’t know how they are managing.

Anyway, I head towards Pokhara tomorrow. My trek to the Annapurna Base Camp starts the day after. Here’s the route I am following:

December 16, 2021, Kathmandu

Rest Day At Pokhara

In the early-morning bus to Pokhara, the strangest thing happened! A guy came to me, smiling, and said, “Do I know you from somewhere?” I noticed him giving glances earlier, but it was then when I realized, we DID know each other! We met briefly during my Langtag Trek 3 years ago. Talk about coincidences! I remembered him as this kind guy who offered me help when I was struggling with my knee pain. I had forgotten his name, but I did have a photo with him from that time. This time though, I made sure to catch his name. Jenis Maharajan was trekking towards ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) too!

Pokhara had a few more tourists than Thamel. Even then, it was very little compared to what I was used to with. It didn’t matter much to me though, as apart from a short walk by the lake, I spent most of that evening in my hotel [Hotel Pokhara View]. It was a small but cozy hotel, off the main street, run by a Nepalese – Chinese family. They have 2 beautiful children who were playing in the lobby, pretending to study whenever their mom looked their way! To my benefit, I was the only guest staying in this hotel – I got the roof all to myself which offered a great view of the Annapurna and the most amazing sunset.

This lonely hotel also gave me some time to contemplate things back home. Those of us who are fortunate enough to travel a bit, would agree that traveling in Bangladesh leaves a lot to be desired. There are 2 popular opinions about why that is; one – difficulty in getting alcohol and two – lack of activities. A prime example of our efforts to externalize everything. Instead of thinking about what we could have done to solve the problem we wait for something NEW – new laws [alcohol] or new infrastructure [activities].

The issues are much closer to home than we think, though! How many times have we gone through a 4-page-menu, only to find out the majority of those were unavailable? Or found stained bed sheets or towels in an understaffed, overpriced, hotel? How many times have we felt as if the local drivers and vendors were trying to squeeze the last penny out of us, as if it’s our last visit there? Feel safe on a night journey by bus? And what about the millions of plastic packs lying all around a tourist spot? Two words: service mindset.

Enough ranting. It’s 10 and time to sleep. The trek starts early in the morning.

December 17, 2021, Pokhara

Trek Day 1: Pokhara to Thikedhunga

The short 3 hour trek went through Nepali countryside, following a river on the left. There were only a handful of people on the trail today. I met a Nepali mom trekking up with her 2 sons, and 2 Caucasian girls coming down – and that’s it. I have always gone on solo treks and enjoyed the solace it provides. But I do enjoy “seeing” other people on the road, on the tea houses by the fireplace. This time around, there was literally no one in my tea house today – well, apart from the 2 squirrels who kept on peeking into my room. I wonder where the Nepali family is camping tonight!

From Pokhara, my guide, Subindra, and I started at around 8:00 AM by taxi. This beautiful one hour drive brought us to the doorstep of Annapurna conservation area in Nayapul. On the way, we had picked up Jenis and Lezina – but our ways split at Nayapul, where the couple took a jeep and headed closer towards Ghorepani. I, however, continued on foot as planned. The more I walked on empty trails the more I wished they were here! By taking the jeep they essentially will always be 1 day ahead of us. So, only hope of seeing them again, will be on their way back. I really hope we will meet again.

As for the trek itself, I couldn’t have wished for a better start – beautiful countryside, clear weather and no knee pain! I could finish the three hour trek very comfortably! I know this is not a race against time, but given my record of having knee pain in the past, I’m very happy today. Granted, today’s 300 meter ascend was mostly through an unfinished gravel road… but still!

Ending the first day early seemed like a good decision too. It gave us time to wash up, stretch, recharge – both ourselves & our devices, and prepare for the steep hike through Ulleri tomorrow. Sitting in the wooden dining hall in the evening, I glance at the distant lights of the next village. From Thikedhunga, Ulleri looks like a bunch of stars shimmering in the sky. And no other sound apart from the rustling of bamboo leaves and the occasional footsteps of the housekeeper Aunty. Oh! How I missed being in the mountains.

It’s getting colder by the hour. My water bottle better not turn into ice when I wake up.

Thikedhunga, December 18, 2021

Trek Day 2: Thikedhunga to Ulleri to Ghorepani

The trail today went through thick and cold Rhododendron forest. It was a continuous climb uphill. I started at 1500m and the end destination of Ghorepani measured at 2800m.

The first village, Ulleri, was after 2 and a half hours of stony stairs. At the entrance of the village we met a group of children, who were going to school somewhere up. We obviously could not keep up with them for more than 10 minutes, as they zipped passed us. This has always fascinated me about the Nepali people. I don’t know how they can skip and run in this steep terrain.

While we took a tea break at Ulleri, I asked the shopkeeper aunty if they had seen any other trekkers this morning. “No” was the reply. She had seen 2 tourists the day before and that’s it! I took the longer scenic route, in winter, in the middle of the pandemic – this was bound to happen. The untouched trails, however, only managed to increase the serenity of the panoramic views.

Passing the village, we came across a dirt road which was still being built. This road goes through a thick, chilly forest – we saw many patches of snow where water had been! Having a full blown road in the middle of a nature trail does take away from its charms. However, I must also accept that the Himalayas are not only there for the tourists, and acknowledge what this road must mean to the locals. They can now go from Ulleri to Pokhara in just a few hours, which would have taken them at least a day and half on foot. However, there is a flipside as well. Now, many tourists take the road and as a result the tea houses built on the trail (in Thikedgunga, Ulleri) have less business than before. We followed this road for the next couple of hours.

After around 5 hours of walking through the chilly forest we sat down for lunch. The village felt abandoned, but one tea house was open. We took a slow lunch before heading out again. The Nepali family and one Caucasian guy had crossed us while we had lunch. This was the merry band of 5 trekkers enroute to Ghorepani today!

We reached our tea house at Ghorepani in the late afternoon. This is the most amazing tea house I have ever stayed. My room has fantastic views of Dhaulagiri and adjacent peaks – not that I was able to see them after sundown! The biggest plus was the attached bath with hot running water – which was utilized thoroughly. The lodge also has a fireplace in the dining area.

I am going to have an early dinner today at 6 and call it a day! We start before sunrise tomorrow.

Ghorepani, December 19, 2021

Trek Day 3: Ghorepani to Poonhill to Tadapani

Today I had the most amazing forest walk and was blessed with breathtaking views of some of the highest peaks in the world.

This day actually started at sub-zero temperature! About an hour before the sunrise, we mounted our headlamps and headed towards the viewpoint of Poonhill. A few years back, my wife and I made a similar night-trek in Indonesia – but Himalaya is Himalaya! The cold howling wind, rustling of pine leaves and the outline of the snowcapped mountains in the near-full-moon felt magical. I wish we had more time to enjoy this bit, but we had to hurry to catch the sunrise.

We reached the top just on time to embrace the extremely chilly wind before the sun started to rise and the peaks all around us started to get golden! This place was like Sarangkot, but on steroids. You can see almost the same peaks from these 2 places – Poonhill being closer to the mountains. However, the sunrise at Sarangkot still remains the best view I have ever enjoyed – not saying this only because of the company I had at that time.

After sunrise, we headed back to our hotel, had breakfast, grabbed our backpacks and the main part of the day began. First hour was a gradual climb through dense rhododendron forest. These are not the small bush like rhododendron we normally see. These are years old, very tall, with curvy, crooked, thick branches. Early morning sun beaming through them makes it such a mystical place to be in! The climb ended at a clearing at 3100m with panoramic views of the Annapurna on our back. It’s interesting how whenever we cross 3000 meters, the landscape changes completely where the tall trees become shrubs! However, soon the trail again takes us downwards to meet an icy river, deep inside the forest. We followed it for over 2 and a half hours, surrounded by tall trees, wild flowers and icicles hanging from the shadowy cliffs. I absolutely loved this stretch and so far this has been the highlight of the trip.

2 more hours and we arrived at our station for the night – Tadapani. Unlike the quite days thus far, tonight at the lodge we had around 20 people spread across 3 groups – all coming from the opposite direction. Sitting by the fire, the groups were blasting music and helping each other wind down after a long day of trek – having a good time no doubt! Being a solo trekker, I don’t have access to this kind of fun. Makes me wonder, what is MY source of “good time” that keeps bringing me back to the mountains?

Ending the note with a conversation that I had with Subi today. I asked him “when can I say that I am an experienced trekker?” He replied “you know the way, you know how cold it gets (in the mountains) and what happens after 3000 meters. You are already an experienced trekker”. This made me so happy!

Tadapani, December 20, 2021

Trek Day 4: Tadapani to Chomrong to Middle Sinuwa

The first hour of downhill hike was a breeze. Second couple of hours were okay too! The path went through a forest for some time and then the usual hill side trek. For a while, I tried to mimic the Nepali walk of going downhill which is way quicker than my “Bangali walk”! But decided not to do it for too long as it puts too much pressure on my Banglai knees and calves. Can’t risk it so early in the trek.

Next stop was Chomrong – which felt like a small town with around hundred houses. This is an important town as trekkers from both Tadapani and Ghandruk have to pass through it. Ghandruk is the new route, which is shorter and hence more popular these days.

I took a long lunch break at Chomrong. There I met a group of 24 Bangladeshi people coming down from ABC. Sue me for this generalization, but Bangladeshi travelers have an weird ego. Last night at the lodge and today at the trail I met 4 or 5 Indian and Nepali groups. In my previous treks too I met many groups trekking together. They all had one thing in common. They all walked together, in tandem, not leaving anyone behind. The Bangladeshi group had around one and a half day between the first and last members. One member was feeling strong and walked to the next station one day before, leaving everyone behind. The last 2 members I met around 1 hour after I left the main group at Chomrong. They were clearly struggling – limping and looked nervous going uphill. It must have taken them another 2 hours to reach the rest of the group. How can they leave them behind? What’s the rush? Trekking, to me, has never been a race or to reach the final destination. It is the journey that counts, right?

Anyway, I reached middle Sinuwa an hour before sundown and I am, again, the only one at the lodge. Right now, I am watching the lodge owner’s 3 year old son playing and his mom screaming at him for some reason. Goodnight.

Middle Sinuwa, December 21, 2021

Trek Day 5: Middle Sinuwa to Dovan to Deurali

I am now officially deep in the mountains! The bare mountains with tall cliffs surround us. And almost each of the barren mountain have waterfalls running through them. And it is so cold here, that parts of the waterfalls have been frozen solid.

There are 4 lodges here at Deurali, but only one is open during this off season. And since an avalanche ran over a nearby power line, the whole village went dark. The power is expected to return after 4 days. Obviously there is no mobile network in the area and the wifi went with the electricity! And it is so VERY cold! I am wearing 4 layers of clothing and yet I am afraid of stepping out of the lodge. No way of checking now, but it’s below zero – by how much, that is the question!

Today’s walk was long. We walked 22 kms today in 7 and a half hours, ascending 1100 meter, crossing Dovan and Bamboo to reach Deurali. To me, thousand meters of the first day and thousand meters on the fifth day are quite different. I am proud of what we achieved today. In the trail I met 2 Indian trekkers Abhishekh and Iqubal who were also heading in the same direction. There was also a Tibetan family, but I did not see them after Sinuwa. I don’t think that they made it to Deurali today as planned. So right now, the Indians and I are the only ones in this dark rest-stop. But the Indians made for good company. We talked about our lives back home, history and unavoidably, a bit of politics.

Its 7 pm and time to go to bed. Tomorrow we push for Annapurna base camp. It’s going to be a 4 hour uphill trek ascending 1200 meters.

Deurali, December 22, 2021

Trek Day 6: Deurali to MBC to ABC

I have made a journey on foot, spread over 6 days, 75 kms and gained over 6,500 meters of elevation (lots of ups and downs in this route) to reach this place (4300m). The more I headed towards the sign post of Annapurna Base Camp, this thought dawned on me even more. This moment was promised to be majestic and majestic it was! The trail was beautiful. The sky was clear. I walked on fresh snow for the first time and made it to our destination – ABC by lunch time. The camp is in the middle of nowhere, completely surrounded by some of the world’s highest peaks! I was so happy today. I think I had a smile on my face for hours!

The 5 hour stretch of trail was nothing short of incredible. We followed the Modi river (Modi Khola) for the first 2 hours of the trek till Machhapurchre Base Camp (MBC). By now all the greenery had already given way to brown shrubs and bushes. The path was laid with numerous waterfalls – some small, and some very big – all headed towards one common direction to strengthen Modi Khola. This stony river, birthed at the glacier at ABC, went on to make the mighty river Ganga in India and Padma in Bangladesh. Needed a moment to grasp the significance of this place.

Upon reaching Machhapuchre Base Camp, we took a left turn towards Annapurna Base Camp. Now Machhapuchhre, very close, stands behind us – still very iconic in its shape. This is not the mountain face you get to see from Sarangkot, Pokhara or Poonhill. The ABC trek actually circles the Machhapuchre peak – so you get to see it from 3 different sides! We were now facing Hiunchuli and Annapurna peaks. Proud, Royal, Ancient – can be some words to describe them.

The more we advanced, the trail started to get more and more covered in fresh snow, until it was only whites we could see, albeit with tiny rabbit footprints on them. For the next hour, we were escorted by flocks of sparrows, flying just meters ahead of us. They were not as afraid of humans, as their city cousins.

On the next short hill, we met Jenis and Lezina coming back from the base camp. Soon after, we met a Nepali family who were also coming down. They had their 9 year old daughter with them. What a sight! I don’t know what is more incredible – the mountains or the power that Rebecca holds in her! Coming from a Bangladeshi, suburban family, I could never begin to understand the thought process of bringing a 9 year old to such a long trek. I wish her all the best in her life and pray if I could be a fraction of this open and liberating to my daughter, Maya!

On the lodge we met a group from West Bengal – who were all government high officials and brought “Ghee” to spice up their Dal Bhaat. The Indians, the Tibetans, a group of recently graduated Nepalis and an American volunteer worker also arrived as the day progressed. For the first time in this trek, it was a packed lodge – but did not feel “crowded” at all. We all spent the beautiful starry night being surrounded by tall mountains, and fresh snow. The negative 13 degrees did not feel as cold as we had beautiful stories and local snacks to share at the dining hall.

I could not help but wonder – I am just a small town kid! What am I doing here? Yet I did not feel out of place, out of my element. This felt like a safe place – free from all kinds of judgements.

Annapurna Base Camp, December 23, 2021

Trek Day 7: ABC to Chomrong

I did the “Nepali Walk”! I walked more than 31 kms, for 11 hours and reached Chomrong from ABC in a single day! 3 days ago, at Sinuwa, I saw 2 groups of Nepali trekkers casually going down towards Chomrong. They were coming from the base camp and it was already dark when they were crossing our lodge. How can they do it, I wondered? How can anyone walk the mountains at night? And such a distance? Who knew 3 days later, I would be making the same journey!

Throughout the trek today, we were being chased by rain clouds and snow. For the first 2 hours of the journey (ABC to Deurali), I was doing the “half walk, half run” Nepali downhill walk. Throughout this time I walked alongside a Nepali group. This felt like a dream. The Nepali powerwalk is not a distant thing anymore. I could do it too! I can’t explain what it meant to me.

Today, when we reached Sinuwa, it was around 4 pm. My guide was surprised when I said, I wanted to push on. We took half hour break before resuming. By the time we reached upper Chomrong, it was completely dark, I had severe knee pain, 4 blisters, but was extremely content.

Subi told me, I walked better than many Nepalies today. He told me that only a handful can do this walk! I decided to believe I his sweet lies.

Chomrong, December 24, 2021

Trek Day 8: Chomrong to Tolka

For someone who has been to 5000+ meters, I am extremely scared of heights. “Long scary bridges and damaged trails” – should be the summary of today’s hike.

Today I crossed a 287 meter hanging bridge near Jhinu. It felt so scary towards the middle. I just counted the bolts on the bridge to keep myself distracted and sane. Usually, people go to Gandruk after this bridge and catch a bus back to Pokhara. But we wanted to go to Tolka and extend our trek by couple of days. The more we progressed towards Tolka we felt more and more connected to the mainland – dirt roads, more houses, occasional tire tracks and lipsticks.

But first, we had to go through a trail less traveled. The trail was very poorly maintained with lots of landslides and no direction markers. To go to Tolka we had to cross the river once more, but we could not find the a bridge to cross it. After walking around 30 minutes we found out that we were lost. Luckily there was a sheep farmer there who told us that the new bridge was destroyed by a landslide this monsoon and we would have to take the old bridge. He gave us directions to the old bridge and we followed.

Well, this bridge was made out of old slippery bamboo and wires and was 150 meters long. It made squeaks and cracking sounds when we walked on it. The railing on one side was around shoulder height and on the other side – upto the knees only. And to top it off, on the bottom there was a stony river raging even in the peak winter. I have never been this scared in my life, or at least not according to recent memory.

Whatever desire I had to paraglide in Pokhara, was gone crossing this. Enough adventure for one trip.

Tolka, December 25, 2021

Trek Day 9: Tolka to Fedi to Pokhara

I could tell by the fresh smell of deodorant and shampoo, near Dhampus, that the trek is nearing its end. While I was exiting the trail and heading more and more into what we know as “towns”, I could see a few people starting their treks from this end. Maybe they are going to the Australian camp or Mardi Himal. They looked so fresh. This is when, for the first time, I really felt dirty and conscious about what I was wearing, or not wearing, ie a mask.

We started our day from Tolka at around 8:30 am. There was no rush today, as we knew this was the last day on our itinerary. We followed the newly built gravel road towards Dhampus. We followed the road for about 6-7 kms then took a trail inside the mountains again – which went through Pothana, Australian camp and eventually to Dhampus. This bit of mountains looked more like a well-managed picnic spot, rather than the wild nature we had been in for the last week or so. I hear, the views from here would have been nice if there were no clouds.

Just before noon we arrived in Dhampus which felt like a nice little sleepy town. We wanted to catch the bus from here, but the last one had left at 11:30. So, we proceeded towards Fedi. Around an hour later, when my watch clocked 12.88 kms, we found a jeep to Pokhara and that was it.

We (my guide and I) have done it. Starting from Nayaphool, we took the circular Ghorepahi-Fedi route, saw three amazing sunrises, snow caped mountains, spent 4 nights alone in lodges, spent a night at minus 13 degrees, walked through stones, mud, dirt, snow, ice and rain, walked over an old abandoned bamboo pool, got lost and yet, completed the 10 days’ walk in 9 days.

We walked more than 125 kms! And made so many friends.

Pokhara, December 26, 2021

Preparing for Home: Last Days at Pokhara and Kathmandu

This could be my happy place! This isn’t, but this could be. This is offseasons in Nepal, now made quitter by the ongoing pandemic. Its early afternoon and a slight drizzle is coming down since dawn. To my benefit, I get this beautiful café all to myself. This dark wooden café is made warmer by the soothing music its playing. Three day old Christmas decorations and cherry lights are doing excellent justice to the overall mood. Do I hear a group of friends sharing a laugh at a distance? They must also be having a good time.

This is going to be the last entry in this journal. I got three rest days before my flight on 30th. The first and second day I spent with Jenis and Lezina, who showed me around town and we just chilled for the most part. I hope they did not mind me passing out in their hotel room.

From the second day however, I started feeling extremely down. While I really miss my family back home, a big part of me doesn’t want to leave this place. It’s very difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t been to the mountains. Jenis and Lezina also shared this view. The trip is coming to an end! Which means I will have to leave the mountains and Jenis & Lezina will have to start looking for jobs. He says he “will do anything” at this point. What scares me the most is that I don’t know when and if I will be back in the Himalayas again. A man can live many lives, right? In one life I am a father and a husband, in one I am a corporate guy making power presentations, in one I am counting my finances and making retirement plans, and in another, I am a backpacker who walks the Himalayas, in silence, for hours on end.

I am parking the last one for now – until we meet again.

Kathmandu, December 29, 2021

About Irtiza

A small town kid, stuck in a big city!