18 August 2014

Annapurna Base Camp Trek - Day 5: A Hard Day's Trek to Himalaya

To read all posts on my Annapurna Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

trekking to Himalaya
Getting closer to Annapurna Base Camp. Day 5 on the trail. Madan, my guide, takes the lead as always.

Day 5: April 21, 2014

The goal was to trek for 6 hours from Chhommrong to Dovan (2,600 m / 8,528 ft above sea level) on Day Five.  I ended up doing 8 hours of trekking that day. Instead of staying the night at Dovan, I was forced to press on further for 2 more hours and reach Himalaya at an altitude of 2,900 meters.

Let me explain why.

It was a challenging day for me. I think what kinda bogged me down was having no choice but to hike further for a few more hours.  Physical fatigue is one thing, but what really makes or breaks your trek is the level of mental readiness.  

Day 2 was just crummy most of the time, with those Ulleri steps.  But I think I can safely say that on Days 5 & 6, I was quite the bipolar trekker--alternating between silent misery and excessive outward displays of cheerfulness. There were moments when the trail overwhelmed me and I would clam up, not talking to my companions. But I also wanted to dispel any negative attitude as much as I humanly could, and so I tried to compensate by maintaining a stream of chatter that lasted for minutes and minutes. Hari and Madan must have been so confused with me; I would look gloomy one moment and then switch to being ridiculously chipper in a Santa Claus ho-ho-ho kind of way.

trekking to Himalaya
Hari waiting for me to cross this rickety little bridge.
Challenge accepted!
Call it an attempt at mental survival, if you will. When you've been hiking up the mountains for a few days already, one tends to get a bit cuckoo at some point.

At 8:00 am, I said goodbye to Chhommrong.  The unique part about this place is that it is a crossroads for people heading to Base Camp and back. You have no choice but to pass through Chhommrong.  This isn't exactly good news when you're either leaving or returning to this place.  At the start of Day 5, I had to suffer through 30 straight minutes of cruising from the very high point of the Chhommrong settlement all the way down to a suspension bridge.  The rough steps were too numerous to count.  

My bad knees were screaming in protest, but I drowned out the pain by chatting with Hari all the way down. We left Madan behind. At first, I didn't understand why Madan was taking his own sweet time up at the Chhommrong teahouse; I found out later on he was talking to the teahouse owners and trying to reserve rooms at Dovan for us. (More about that later.)

Anyway, as we swept past a whole gaggle of trekkers leisurely making their way down the steps, Hari said that we would be climbing up the same Chhommrong steps on the way back after reaching Base Camp. Good lord, I thought to myself and tried not to panic. By then, I had just walked past a trekker who was slowly climbing up the steps bare-footed

I stopped in my tracks to ask, "Hi, are you okay??" (Well, what I actually wanted to say was, "Yo, what the hell is wrong with you, sister? Why are you walking without your boots? There's dung everywhere!")

But I restrained myself from any kind of verbal diarrhea.  I had no idea what she was attempting to do.

She looked up and rested her palms for a moment on top of her trekking poles while catching her breath. I think she could read my mind as I stared down at her soon-to-be-sunburned feet. "Yeah, I'm okay. I'd rather walk barefoot for now," she explained in a tired, ragged voice. "The way up is so hard."

Gulp. I wasn't looking forward to a potential Nightmare on the Ulleri Steps, Part 2.

suspension bridge after Chhommrong
The suspension bridge we crossed upon
leaving Chhommrong.
The descent continued until we found ourselves at the great suspension bridge. Hari explained to me that once we crossed the bridge, we would be doing a lot of ascents that day until we reach our destination. Couldn't really complain about the first few hours of going up; at least my knees could take a break from all those continuous downhills!

Before our lunch at Bamboo (2,300 m), we had a quick toilet break at a teahouse in Sinuwa (2,340 m) with a pretty viewpoint. It was there that I learned that if I, as the trekking client, ordered a glass of cold lemon juice (only for Rs 50), my guide and porter would each be served their own cold lemon juice for free. I couldn't think of a better way to spend Rs 50 (US$ 0.50). And it was a nice little tradition to uphold here in the Himalayas.

During lunch, Madan gave me the lowdown on today's destination. "I checked this morning from Chhommrong, and I found out the teahouses in Dovan are full," he warned. "If I can't get rooms for us in Dovan, we need to go on until we reach Himalaya. If there are no rooms in Himalaya, we go to Deurali."

The last stretch of ascents from Sinuwa to Bamboo had tired me out, but at least my dal bhat lunch had managed to re-energize me. I wasn't worried about the 1-2 hour trek from Bamboo to Dovan; I knew already that Dovan was not an option anymore for an overnight stay because of the lack of rooms. The fact that Dovan, a major stop in the trek, had only 3 teahouses (18 rooms in total) was completely ridiculous though. I wondered how the trail looked like during the busiest season of the year, which is October to November.  Do people end up sleeping on the dining hall tables then?

I then set my sights on Himalaya (2,900 m)  and I needed to ensure that we got there on time to reserve rooms. I didn't relish the idea of being forced to press on to Deurali (3,200 m) which entailed an extra 2-hour trek from Himalaya. So for me, it was Himalaya or nothing. Deurali wasn't an option in my head. I HAD to get to Himalaya on time. Bed space competition was fierce here, since there were only had 2 lodges, or a total of 12 rooms. This was like being in the 19th-century Oklahoma Land Rush or something.

As it was all ascent that afternoon through some dense forest-like areas, my energy was wearing thin by the hour.  When we walked past the Dovan teahouses, I tried not to stare at the other trekkers who were lounging about, sipping tea or reading their books. I didn't want to get all green with envy.

Madan decided that he would go way ahead to Himalaya to get rooms for us three. He would just meet us there, which I thought was a good strategy.  So from 3 to 5pm, Hari and I trudged up the path to Himalaya, stopping once in a while to share and munch on the big bag of trail mix I brought with me.  

I was tired when I reached Himalaya.  The rooms were indeed very limited, and I didn't have the luxury of getting my own room. So for the first time on a trek, I was asked to share a room (with 4 single beds inside it) with two Chinese individuals.  Since I got there first, I was able to choose a nice bed by the window with a ledge for my stuff, some ample floor space for my rucksack, and wall hooks nearby for my trekking clothes.  

Himalaya teahouse
my teahouse at Himalaya (2,900 meters / 9,514 feet above sea level)

The two Chinese nationals--a boy and a girl--arrived around 30 minutes later. For a moment there, I thought they were a couple, but the girl had told me that they were just traveling as friends. At least I didn't have to undergo the awkward situation of sharing a room with a couple. 

As it got dark and the sun disappeared from view, a few more trekkers trickled in. I was grateful to have reached Himalaya on time; I couldn't imagine heading on to Deurali at night to negotiate for bed space.

It was extremely cold in Himalaya. The gas shower was moderately hot but because it was freezing cold everywhere (even inside the shower), the hot water couldn't do much to keep me warm.  I think there were only two female trekkers--a Thai and myself--who actually braved the shower. Can't speak for the Thai girl, but I can definitely say most Filipino women will find a way to take a bath regardless of climate conditions.

Inside the dining hall, there was no stove, no heat, and everyone huddled together, wearing their down jackets and wool caps. Dinner was an intriguing spaghetti mix of onion, garlic, tuna and cheese, but as always, I barely touched my dish due to lack of appetite. 

Because the dining hall tables were laid out in a way that you end up talking to a lot of people around you, I made friends with the Thai girl, my fellow hygiene addict. She was actually trekking with her twin brother. I had seen them on the trail a couple of times, but it was only now that I was getting to know them. She said that she had initially wanted to do the Annapurna Base Camp trek alone. But her parents wouldn't allow her to go by herself, and so her twin offered to accompany her.  And she revealed, with a giggle, that her brother was enjoying the trek more than she was. 

Lights out at 8:00 pm and I shivered underneath two thick layers of blankets. Today's trek wore me out but in retrospect, I figured that it was a million times better starting Base Camp Day from Himalaya than from Dovan.  It meant less trekking hours on the most important day of the trek.  With that comforting thought in mind, I fell asleep.

trekking to Himalaya
As the day wore on, Machhapuchhre (Fish Tail Mountain) looked bigger and closer. One day left to reach Annapurna Base Camp!

* * *

If you want to do an Annapurna Base Camp trek, do consider visiting the Himalayan Planet Adventures website and check out their 16-day Annapurna Base Camp trek package.

02 August 2014

Annapurna Base Camp Trek - Day 4: The Mad Dash to Chhommrong

To read all posts on my Annapurna Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

On the way to Chhommrong
Taken from my iPhone. Hari, with the view of Machhapuchhre on the way to Chhommrong (2,210 m / 7,249 ft
above sea level).

Day 4: April 20, 2014

By now, I was getting used to life on the Annapurna trail.  I never felt I had to worry about oxygen intake (unlike during the Everest Base Camp trek), but what occupied my thoughts were the trail paths, which were significantly more challenging in this region.  I was dealing with minor knee injuries prior to my ABC hike, and the pain from these injuries felt magnified on the trek itself.

Day 4 was relatively easy, because it was all about descending from Tadapani (2,710 meters) to Chhommrong (2,210 meters / 7,249 feet above sea level). However, just because the altitude was lower didn't mean the trail would be easy peasy the whole day.  Lazed a bit after my breakfast in my Tadapani teahouse and went online to do some Facebook and Instagram updates--which earned me a glare and some tsk-tsks from my ever strict guide Madan. I think he was anxious for us to leave at 8:00 am but because I dallied and took my time, we ended up leaving at 9:00 am.

It was a 6-hour trek, excluding lunch hour, to Chhrommrong, a popular stop known for its stunning views of the Annapurna range. (To be honest, everywhere you go in the Annapurna region seems to boast of fantastic scenery, so there's actually no shortage of mountain views.) Since I left Tadapani at 9:00 am, I was gunning to reach Chhommrong by 4:00 pm.

On the way to Chhommrong
It was a good day for photo op breaks!
To make up for my tardiness, I sped down the rocky path. Sort of a bad thing to do. The first 2 hours would mean 100% descent. My knees took a beating again (honestly, this is beginning to be stale news already) and at some point, I was afraid they would collapse.  When you're going downhill for 2 hours without breaking pace, it can get totally tough on the knees.

Then for some reason, my stomach started acting up, and I realized I BADLY needed to go to the toilet.  It was that urgent. Fortunately, I spotted a teahouse in the middle of nowhere, and I made a beeline for it, leaving Madan behind. The teahouse looked abandoned when I reached it; I was panicking because I wanted to ask for permission to use the toilet but there wasn't anyone around. I wasn't sure if I could just use the toilet without asking.  Went around the teahouse a bit and hollered 'namaste, is there anyone here?', but Nature was desperately calling. And so I let go of whatever social graces I had left, and just rushed to the squat toilet (the only available toilet, period), which had no water, no light and no windows. Nothing. It was just a little outhouse with a hole in a middle and with a door that could hardly close properly. But when I had to go, I just had to go. 

Okay, that was too much information, but it just goes to show that I've become really skilled at taking a dump at just about anywhere on this trail. Trekkers can't be choosers. 

The pretty countryside. Chhommrong was near, at this point.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. Descended some more, and in my mad rush, I overtook a lot of trekkers. My porter Hari and I kept pace with one another while Madan dawdled a bit and was left behind (but since he's ultra fast, he could always catch up with us whenever he needed to). As Hari and I tackled some uphills after lunch, I would watch him RUN up the steps effortlessly with my rucksack and his stuff on his back--which amounted to around 12 kilos or so. 

It was insane. The Nepalis never fail to amaze me with their speed and strength. They own the mountains, I'd say. I asked Hari why he was so annoyingly fast. He laughed and said that he was in the army some years back.  As part of their drills, they had to run up and down the mountain paths with 25 kilos each on their backs. Okay, that explained it.

Hari wasn't as fluent as his brother Madan when it came to English, but we managed to communicate well and laugh a lot in between. He taught me some general Nepalese words, and he asked me the equivalent of those words in Filipino, which pleased me a great deal. Our mini language lessons helped pass the time, especially during the uphills--and by 3:30 pm, I had reached Chhommrong.  I was ahead of plan by 30 minutes, hooray! 

As I sat inside the dining hall of my teahouse, I watched from the window as trekkers trickled into Chhommrong between 4 to 4:45 pm. Hmmm. Could it be that I had done very well today after all? This trek was never really a competition anyway, but it felt good to test my limits and speed up on the trail sometimes. Got into a conversation with a solo Canadian trekker, and we basically swapped stories about our knee injuries.  He had to take Ibuprofen every 8 hours because of the grueling trail path. I was to run into him every now and then all throughout the ABC trek.

Dinner was so-so; I didn't have much of an appetite, as usual. But the dining hall was a great place to be in, and there were loads of fellow trekking guests.  Hari taught me some new card games, and so I played with the boys, with other guys standing by watching us.  It seemed I really had beginner's luck that night, and won most of the games. 

Madan had warned me that tomorrow could be a challenging day for me, so I decided to rest early. And like what I did on previous days on the trail, I could only pray that my luck would hold out 'til I reached my destination.

Watching the day end in Chhommrong. The clouds were starting to roll in. I couldn't believe that in two days, I would be at the base of THOSE mountains.

* * *

If you want to do an Annapurna Base Camp trek, do consider visiting the Himalayan Planet Adventures website and check out their 16-day Annapurna Base Camp trek package.