Annapurna Trek (part 1)

The diary and selected pictures of our trek in Nepal to Annapurna base camp as part of our family world trip in 1989. Told via edited extracts from Dad’s diary and starting in Kathmandu as we make final preparations for the trek. Where necessary, I have also added explanation to provide context.

This is Part 1 of the overall trek (links other parts below):

Sunday 12th March 1989 (Kathmandu)

Mark had been sick during the night and was still feeling rather poorly in the morning so after breakfast Paul and I headed out on my cycle to find the Permit Office.  With Paul sitting quite uncomfortably on the rusty metal pannier of my bike, it took about 30 minutes through the filthy early morning commuter smog.  We agreed that we would both be dead if we had to live here more than a month – the air we were breathing was literally blue with exhaust fumes and dust. 

The queue was only 10 people deep and we were at the counter within 30 minutes.  Of course, something had to go wrong, and this time it was because we didn’t have a valid recipient for the obligatory $5 a day per person fee which is required as proof of funds to last the length of the trek.  Fortunately, a bank next door was able to supply the necessary cash against a couple of travellers’ cheques which quite by chance I happened to have with me.  This all took a long time and after another lengthy queue back in the Permit Office, we reached the counter only to be told that we would have to return the next morning at 8am to collect the permits.

We took a detour from our poisonous ride back on the bike to call in at the bus garage and arrange our onward travel to Pokhara.  I had decided to take the minibus after remembering how uncomfortable the local buses were [the last time I was in Nepal with Vittorio].  We got back to the hotel just before lunch, feeling pleased that a couple of hours work had saved our meagre funds some money, almost likely at great risk to our lungs.

Mark was still not feeling well so a gentle stroll was suggested.  He lasted a few hundred yards before being violently sick, so we went back to join Tim and Jeff [two Canadian fellow travellers who we had met in Dehli airport and were on the same flight] who were sunbathing on the roof of the hotel while Mark slept it off.  Paul joined Tim who was heading out to pick up three souvenir knives from a nearby shop and he also managed to acquire a fierce looking Nepalese ‘Gurkha’ dagger for himself.

The afternoon was spent lazing around and discussing possible trekking routes.  Then tea and cakes from a nearby bakery, followed by one of our worst dinners yet.  It was particularly surprising that it was possible to serve a meal that looked so appetizing but tasted so disgusting.  Paul and Mark left most of theirs and I went to bed feeling decidedly unwell.  We said a last goodbye to Tim and Jeff as they are planning to leave early tomorrow morning.  I am sure we will catch up with them again on the trail as we are also intending to follow a similar route to the base camp at Annapurna.  It was quite sad to say goodbye to them, they have been excellent company over the last few days.

Monday 13th March (Kathmandu)

Woke at 6.40am on hearing the Canadians departing for their bus.  Also, heard Tim kindly leave his paperback, which Val had started to read the previous afternoon, by our door.  My turn for a dicky tummy now but shaved and washed by 9am in preparation for a poisonous return to the Permit Office to collect the permits.

Immediate problem as soon as I arrived.  An officious, spiteful looking clerk behind a large wooden counter insisted that I hand over receipts given to me the previous day for the passports.  All I had been given were four bits of paper, which looked good enough to me, but they refused to accept.  It was a stand-off.  They refused to even let me have the passports back – and I had nothing else to satisfy them with, not even back at the hotel.

As luck would have it, I had previously put a large elastic band around my own passport to keep some inoculation papers secure.  In a tray containing several dozen passports, this simple device helped me to identify the location of ours at a glance.  But, how to obtain them and beat a hasty retreat?  Any alternative option suggested hours of delay and repeated return journeys.  So, in some desperation, the confusion trick (perfected by Vittorio on the train to India) was brought into action.  This consisted of gradually getting very irate and noisy, accompanied by a lot of gesticulation – then quickly grabbing the four passports and storming out before they could recover.

It amazed me that it worked, which I can only explain by the confusion by the probable unusual sight of a tall westerner getting really angry.  However, the confidence that my relative size advantage had given me over the clerks assembled inside, was quickly dispelled by the sight of a policeman with a large rifle, standing guard over the front door.  I darted out of the door and jumped on my cycle – however, the rusted stand on which it was leaning refused to stay in the up position, therefore making my impressive getaway slightly less spectacular than I would have wished as trail of sparks flew as it grated along the road surface.  The heavy smog of Kathmandu at least provided some cover as I cycled off and disappeared into the heavy traffic.

Of course, there is now the distinct possibility that the Irons’ will now be branded as escaped criminals and they will be waiting at the first checkpoint to turn us back, if not arrest us.  All things considered, I thought it best not to tell the others of this particular difficulty so that our four combined expressions of bemused innocence might be interpreted as the genuine article.

Remainder of the day spent just hanging around and agreeing that we were now more than ready to vacate the noise and pollution of Kat.  For provisions on the journey, we bought some bread, cheese and chocolate.  Also spent quite a long time deciding what we might be able to leave behind in the hotel.  Altogether, managed to find about 35 pounds of non-essential weight but we are still carrying almost 100 pounds between us which is still too much for comfort.

Mark today, at least, is seeming his old cheerful self.  His choice of a bacon and egg breakfast (much to Paul’s annoyance who chose only the egg) seemed to set him up.  The rest of us stayed light, our stomachs feeling a little fragile.  My main concern is a slight ear infection that I hope doesn’t get any worse. 

Bim, our hotel receptionist, is very friendly to us and kindly gave the boys some tuition in Nepalese.  He has promised to make sure we are awake at 7am to catch the morning bus.

Tuesday 14th March (Kathmandu – Pokhara)

Bim’s call came a little too early at 5:50am so we all turned over, went to sleep again but only for another 15 minutes.  Final redistribution of weight and packing, passports and money before handing the rest into Bim’s care after which he guided us on the 15 minute walk to the bus garage to find our transport.  The bus was larger than expected and we were disappointed to find our four seats were right over the back wheels.  The might test our still fragile constitutions on the rough roads.

Left soon after 7am with much hand-shaking and waving goodbyes from Bim.  Within a few miles, the condition of the road deteriorated from pot-holed cement to dirt track and stayed that way for the rest of the journey.  It took 10 hours including two short stops for breakfast and lunch, to reach our destination.  Two stops were made and our provisions plus some bananas we had bought en route were welcome alternatives to the local offerings we were shown.  On the whole, the journey was not too bad apart from being bumpy and slow but the many incredibly poor and dirty villages we passed through didn’t provide much optimism for what we might eventually find at the end of our journey.

The car park where the bus finally lurched to a halt provided a seething mass of local hotel touts, each one thrusting a name card into our hands. The test of which one eventually gets chosen would provide an ideal test case of body-language, there being few other ways to understand what is being said. Our own selection took us to the Alpine Hotel and we were pleased to discover that he had only slightly exaggerated its proximity to the lake. As a bonus, rooms were clean and the views all around, particularly of Fishtail (Machhapuchhare) mountain, were excellent. It was altogether far better than we had been expecting.

A walk to the lake just as the sun was setting was a tranquil antidote to the rigours of the bus journey, and our dinner to follow of omelet, chips, peas and lemon pancakes, sitting in the garden at the Alpine and despite taking an age to prepare, was delicious. Before bed, I was taken by motor bike into the village to change some money illegally with the local mafia. The clandestine dramatics lent to this simple transaction gave it a distinctly sinister air. Then to bed to ponder on the inevitable question whether or not to hire a porter in Pokhara to assist with our loads, which still seem far too heavy. If we decide to carry them ourselves, which I much prefer if only to maintain some independence, we will have to lighten them more than we have so far. I can see we will end up leaving a black plastic bag trail of our belongings throughout Nepal.

Wednesday 15th March (Trek Day 1: Pokhara)

Going to bed early the night before, we were wide awake at 6.30am to discover a beautiful clear and fresh morning providing absolutely magnificent views of Annapurna and Fishtail, our intended destinations. As we were impatient to get started, we packed quickly and somehow managed to find another large bag of about 15 pounds in weight to leave behind at the hotel. Now, I think we’re just about down to reasonable loads to carry up and down these vertically orientated corners as Vittorio liked to refer to Nepalese bumps in the ground.

Ready to leave Pokhara – me, Mark, Paul and Val

After a hurried breakfast we paid the bill which was quite reasonable, and then hired a taxi to Baga where we had been told that a fleet of aged, Russian jeeps could be hired.  There was only one jeep there – a large, decrepit looking affair that looked as if it had been assembled out of waste scrap metal but it was able to bump and bounce the four of us, squeezed into the front, through mud tracks and across fords and littered rocks to the start of the trail at Phedi.  It was more than we could hope for to set the scene as an adventurous start to the trek.

Though a little concerned about our fitness, we seemed to manage the initial climb from Phedi, though steep and long, quite easily. We needed to take regular rest stops on the way but felt that we had must have gained a modicum of fitness in Goa. As we reached the top of the high ridge, we were disappointed then to find a major excavation blocking our path. The Chinese Government are funding a road building project that is creating an ugly scar right across the mountain. The price of progress.

Paul, Mark and me on the new road being constructed – between Phedi and Khande

The trail continued to gradually climb higher and we kept meeting and needing to follow the new road again at various intervals. The weather was hot and dry and the air very dusty. To add to our discomfort, every so often enormous cement trucks would appear out of nowhere and, chasing by us at great speed, would completely cloak us in fumes and road grit. Around midday, with the temperature well into the 70’s, we stopped for lunch of stale bread, cheese and cashew nuts, finished off by the drinking water that Mark had valiantly carried . The morning’s walking had not been very enjoyable and lunch provided a pleasant interlude as we overlooked domed, thatched round houses of a nearby farm from our vantage point. We seemed to arouse considerable interest in the mother and her small child in the course of our picnic.

Around Khande – making friends with the locals

Continued the climb through the heat of the early afternoon and reached our destination of Khande just as it began to rain. We chose the first lodge in the village to obtain some quick shelter and were shown to a small dirty room with four even dirtier beds for us to spend the night. Feeling too tired to look any further we dumped our packs and ordered vegetable fried rice and felt fairly satisfied that we were at last on our way. I think everyone has been looking forward to this part as one of the highlights of our travels. As evening advanced, we were surprised at the rapid drop in temperature and the boys crawled into their sleeping bags to keep warm.

Ignoring the less than sanitary surroundings, our food order had been given with some optimism. It was to prove unfounded. The soot blackened hands of our chef du maison and the grey state of the clay earth on which she rolled the dough and prepared the food should have given adequate warning. The weak broth, followed by colourless, tasteless, and gritty chopped greens and rice was hardly palatable. Unfortunately, the coarse greens played havoc with the male digestive systems during the night, and the emanating green fumes combined with the dense smoke from the log fire, did little to improve the atmosphere in our small room. Being directly above fire meant we were probably a considerable fire risk as well. Despite everything, our spirits are high, and it can only get better.

Khande – dinner is served!

>> Part 2: Birethanti to Ghode Pani (Trek days (2-4)

Overall Route:

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