Four Days in the ACAP : The Ghorepani-Ghandruk Trek

Features Issue 38 Aug, 2010
Text by Anandaroop Ghosh, Kajori Aikat / Photo: Dinesh Rai

“Ghorepani was beautiful. The views on the way were amazing and the people are very nice. I like Nepal.”—Ariel Goshen, Israel

Trek to Ghorepani

It was about 11 am on Tuesday, the 26th of October, when the hotel car dropped us, Kajori and I, at Nayapul. Our four-day trek  would take us on a circuitous route to Ghorepani, Tadapani, Ghandruk, and back. Our guide was an ever-smiling 24 year-old named Ram Chandra Adhikari.

We walked along the initial loping trail through picturesque Gurung villages, passing shops selling souvenirs, curios and the ubiquitous walking sticks, listening to the rumble of the Modi Khola (River), until we reached the first of the many hanging bridges on the way. Crossing over to Birethanti, we stopped for a few minutes, and sipped on the most expensive Coke we’d ever had at NRs 70/-, sitting under a CCOMPOSA graffiti calling for an end to neo-colonization. Here we also entered the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP).

As we headed out, we noticed heavy rain clouds gathering above. Soon, the last lot of villages gave way to a wooded area, flanked by the Bhurungdi Khola (River) on one side and dark, gently rising hills on the other. We found shelter in a little teahouse in Sudame just before the downpour started. We watched the amma of the house spin cotton on her loom, as torrential rain lashed away at our little shelter, and the clouds descended to cover the hills completely.

It was about five in the evening when we reached Tirkhedunga. The last half-hour was a steady climb through dense deciduous forests and the only sound, that of our own breathing and the gurgle of the occasional mountain spring.

We stopped for the night at Shankar Guesthouse, “The Best Place in Tirkhedunga”, as the board at the gate proclaimed. Before we left the next day, young Shankar Gurung, the “Managing Director”, handed us a visiting card, the reverse of which read, “Come as guests, leave as friends”.

It was a bright day, with the sun blazing down from a brilliant blue sky as we struggled up three thousand steps to Ulleri. We stopped for lunch in Banthanti, at Deepak Guesthouse, the last of the many teahouses that dotted the village. We had ordered the usual dal-bhaat-tarkari and kukhura ko jhol, and to our consternation, one of the house roosters was promptly picked up and dispatched in the blink of an eye.

Turning a corner from Banthanti, we entered dense forests of oak and rhododendron. The paved trail was over, and the ground felt moist and soft under our feet. All around, fern and lichen grew and hung from branches in wisps, giving the trees a sage, bearded appearance.

We stopped for tea at Nangethanti, and chatted with a Japanese tourist and her guide. High on the hill immediately in front of us, perched on a sheer vertical face in a seemingly gravity-defying feat, a white pony grazed.

The girl commented that we were the first Indians they had seen along the trail. We were not surprised — quite a few of our friends love the Nepal Himalayas but they have been scared off lately by the international news coverage. The fact remains however, that in the last eight years of insurgency, no tourist has ever been harmed on Nepali soil. Unfortunately, normalcy does not make news, so for someone looking in from outside, Nepal appears only in the context of violence and chaos.

After Nangethanti, the trail loped across a stream and meadow to enter the forest. We were about half an hour from Ghorepani when we noticed a treetop shaking violently. A langur was perched between the branches. Its dark face ringed by a fringe of grey, it studied us with keen interest.

We put our rucksacks down at the entrance to Ghorepani to rest. A grey mist was rising, and the temperature had dropped sharply. The village looked strangely empty, and the only sound was a distant ringing of bells signaling an approaching mule pack. From the hills to our left there came the distressed call of an animal. “It’s a deer”, Ram whispered, “being hunted”. From far away came the sound of a pack of dogs, baying.

In the main village, it was business as usual — curio shops were open, mule packs were clambering up steep steps, and tourists were milling around. In front of us, the sleet-covered lower hills of Annapurna South loomed up in stark contrast to the almost sub-tropical forests we had passed on our way.

Ram, as usual, knew a good place with a fire, and sure enough, Hotel Snowland had a room for us. We huddled around a coal fire, and warmed our feet. Later in the evening, three men walked in, the oldest among them unzipping his jacket and giving us a glimpse of worn-out military fatigues and a semi-automatic weapon. They went from table to table with a donation book. Most tourists seemed to regard them as part of the tour attractions, and to our disbelief, an elderly European asked them if they would use the money to build schools and hospitals. “Yes madam, we build schools and hospitals”, they nodded dutifully.

At 4:30 am we began the hour-long climb to Poon Hill, in a neat, orderly queue. Behind us, the sky was illuminated with stars, but Poon Hill was just a rising mass of blackness interrupted by slow moving spots of blue light from the tourists’ headlamps. No one spoke, and the only sound was the soft padding of shoes on the ground, and that of our own breathing. It reminded me of the IMAX film on Everest, the part where the climbers have to set off in the middle of the night for the final attempt to summit.

When we ‘summitted’, there was some more Everest-experience waiting for us. Some enterprising locals from Ghorepani had woken up even earlier than we, hauled up huge quantities of supplies up the fairly steep trail to the hilltop, and were waiting for us with tea and coffee, soft drinks, mineral water, cookies and wafers. A little like the Sherpas who, apart from having to worry about their clients’ safety, have to go ahead of the expeditions to lay the ropes, set up camp and break ice for the drinking water.

Poon Hill was named after a Magar soldier from the region, and the land for building the observatory tower was donated by his family. At a modest 3,150m above sea level, Poon Hill was nonetheless the highest point of this trek, and the view from the top was, for want of a better description, otherworldly. In the western sky, the full moon shone brightly over Dhaulagiri, while in the east, the sky was tinged with the faint pink of dawn. In between, towered the Annapurnas, faintly luminescent beneath the stars. Towards the northeast, stretched the Lamjung range and just beyond, rose the unmistakable fishtail of Machhapuchhre.

On the way down, I met a Nepali couple on the steps leading to Hotel Snowland. As I passed them, I heard the man say, “Excuse me, Indian?” I stopped and nodded. He ran up and clasped my hands. “I am an ex-Gorkha, I fought for your country, I fought in Kashmir.” His words felt strangely alien to hear, more than a thousand miles away from the India-Pakistan border, on that bright serene morning. “Thank you for defending my country”, I
managed to mumble, not knowing what else to say.
As I am writing this down, I am feeling a twinge of regret that I did not indeed stop for an extra half-hour and talk to him. I am convinced that for this man, being an Indian soldier wasn’t only about earning a living, although it’s a convenient conclusion to draw. I could see it in the way his face lit up when he heard I was from India, and I find myself wishing I had known and said the right things, the exact words that he had wanted to hear from this politically confused, doubting Indian whose country’s controversial battle this soldier had
gone to fight. 

Back at Ghorepani, we wolfed down our breakfast. Our plan was to reach Ghandruk the same day, so we walked along briskly, and soon the three of us were in the rhododendron forests ascending out of Ghorepani. The forest sporadically gave way to lush meadows and in one of these we made our first stop, lowering our rucksacks for a
few minutes.

 Soon, a young porter joined us, carrying a giant load of rucksacks and supplies. “Are you tired?” he asked. We said we found today’s stretch quite easy. “Easy for you, not for me”, he retorted, gesturing at his load. I hefted it, at least 30 kilos. He was Bhimsen from Nayapul, he said, and was with Juan and Benedicto, the Brazilians we had met in Ghorepani.

The trail rose steeply and we were soon on top of a hill, facing a chorten. Prayer flags fluttered in the wind. Our plan was to reach Tadapani by about 3:30, so that we would still have time to reach Ghandruk. But it started drizzling, and it looked like that plan would have to be changed. Over lunch at Banthanti I asked Ram if we would still make it to Ghandruk and he replied with his usual “We’ll see”. That in Ramspeak meant that he was fairly sure we wouldn’t.

The trail was slippery, often treacherously so, and wherever it leveled out, it was completely waterlogged. The rocks were moss-covered, making it impossible to step on them. To add to our woes, the rains came down again, this time in torrents. Rain water was dripping from everything, our clothes and rucksacks, the leaves and branches, the ground rapidly turning into slush beneath our feet. As the icing on the cake, a hailstorm followed.

Tadapani translates to “Water is far” but today one wouldn’t think so to look at it. We reached at about 4 p.m. and decided to call it a day. Ram led us to Fish Tail Lodge, a guesthouse run by the wife of a Gorkha soldier in the Indian Army, where, from the courtyard, even through the mist, we got a startlingly close view of Annapurna South.

We walked across the yard to the dining hall where a steaming hot cup of tea was waiting. There was a coal fire under the table, and as we sat down, the memories of the day’s travails were already fading. Bhimsen sat across the table, a cigarette dangling rakishly from his lips. We were quite hungry, but knew better than to ask Ram about the menu while he was having his tea. He would immediately get up to ask for it. We realized later that all guides did that — it was just another way to keep clients happy in their intensely competitive world.

Juan and Benedicto joined us. We were staying in the same hotel again, a happy coincidence. We chatted about football, and musician Antonio Carlos Jobim until well into the night. Juan quizzed us about India; we discussed the BPO phenomenon, the Chinese economy and the US elections, as the moon outside shone brightly on Annapurna South.

As we left Tadapani the next morning, Ram said that the next stretch would be easy, quickly adding that the trail might still be slippery from yesterday’s rains. After a half-hour walk through lush forests of oak and rhododendron, we had our second langur sighting.

The Gurung village of Ghandruk is a popular camping spot, and several large groups of porters carrying huge loads trudged patiently along. Campers are usually advised to limit the supplies to the absolute essentials, but we saw quite a few porters bent over under the weight of conspicuously non-essential “supplies” such as bottles of wine and foreign liquor.

Ghandruk is a picture-postcard mountain village, with a neat paved walkway winding its way down through rows of pretty cottages encased by shoulder-high stone walls. The local school stands proudly at the entrance, complete with a fenced-in basketball rink. The village also has a Gurung Museum, highly recommended, although we had to give it a miss this time around.

The trail got progressively wider and the steps steeper in the descent from Ghandruk. The rain and hailstorm seemed to have spared the harvest this time around, and we passed golden rice fields that were abuzz with activity.

Ram told us about his wife and his old parents. He asked if he could get a job in India. He’d be happy with about 5,000 Indian rupees a month. Was that enough to sustain oneself in New Delhi? I watched him as he skipped along, sure-footed as a mountain goat, humming to himself, and tried to picture him in the heat and haze of the Indian capital, negotiating his way through the endless rush hour traffic of Nehru Place.

A few minutes from Sauli Bazaar, the trail rejoined the Modi Khola (River). The Annapurna ranges had disappeared behind the lower hills soon after Tadapani, and now as we looked back, only the Macchhapuchhre was visible, dominating the blue sky.

At about 5:00 p.m. we reached Birethanti where we stopped for some lemon tea and wrote out a richly deserved recommendation for Ram. Later, in a taxi that would take us to Pokhara from Nayapul, we gazed out into the gathering dark at Machhapuchhre as it glowed faintly against the sky. Exhausted as we were, there was no denying its allure, and as we sped away, we were sure we’d be coming back again.