The Sanctuary (Annapurna Base Camp)

Trip Start Oct 15, 2010
Trip End Jan 11, 2011

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Flag of Nepal  , Himalayan Region,
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In all my life I don’t think I’ve used the words magnificent, amazing, stunning, majestic and wonderful so many times in such a short period. At times I could hardly believe we were finally trekking through the Himalayas, and often I felt like I was walking through a photograph. We trekked through farming villages in a rice paddy valley, over hills densely forested by rhododendron trees (regrettably not in flower at the moment), across alpine tussock, back through thick rainforests and over hills planted with terraced crops. And always the gigantic, beautiful mountains loomed in the background.

We were accompanied by Hira and Kishan, respectively the guide and porter we had hired. Kishan was a quiet, very slight boy in his late teens. It was his first time in the mountains and became clear that he had never shouldered a pack before when he initially couldn’t work out the straps. He only spoke a few words of English so our communication over the twelve days was limited. It was not only his job to carry our gear but also to bring up the rear, which was usually me, and I noticed that when I slowed he slowed and when I stopped so did he. I don’t think he minded these short breaks, he was coping well enough with his load but didn’t look particularly happy about it. Every morning he eyed the pack like it was his nemesis. However, as time went on he became decidedly more cheerful. 

Hira, our guide, was a lovely 30 year old woman who took care of us over the twelve days. She led the way and set the pace, told us about the local people, plants and wildlife and booked our accommodation. She ensured we acclimatised well and told us when to start eating garlic soup for lunch and dinner (according to the Nepali it assists with acclimatisation although no one was able to tell us how). What we hadn’t expected was that she really did everything for us. She took our orders and brought us our bills. Anything we needed we just asked Hira and she sorted it out. 

It’s very unusual to have a female guide. We decided to use the 3 Sisters trekking agency precisely because they are pioneers of employing and training women as guides. I will write a separate blog entry about the 3 Sisters company and the NGO run by its founders called Empowering Women of Nepal. I will say here though that I also believe they are good employers who return a fair portion of the fees to the workers and closely monitor how much weight their porters and assistants are asked to carry. People working in this industry, particularly porters who have a low social standing and few alternatives for work, are often exploited both in terms of their wages and the expectations of how much they can carry. We saw some porters carrying some exceptional loads. Without doubt these are very hardy people, however, I feel that when someone is carrying more than their body weight it can’t be healthy in the long term.

Teahouse trekking in Nepal, such as we were doing, is really a very civilised business. We walked from village to village, with breaks for tea and lunch in restaurants along the way. There is even cellphone reception throughout the area! (Although not for us – our NZ phones don’t work at all in Nepal and we haven’t got around to buying local SIM cards). We slept in private rooms and had our warmest showers since leaving New Zealand. These were available until the very top of the trek, so we only went without a shower for two nights. We became well acquainted with the squat toilet although sit-downs were available at some of the lodges. While I’ve read plenty of complaints about the food on the trek we found it beats freeze-dried meals hands down. There was a full menu at every place we stopped. The further up we went the more restricted it became with the same basic ingredients made up in different ways (cabbage, egg, tuna and tomato sauce in pasta, soup or pizza form) but generally we had fairly decent meals. The national dish, dal baht, is also available everywhere. People say they find it incredibly boring after a while, but we usually ate it once a day and the flavours were different every time. The meal is made up of a very watery dhal (spelt dal in Nepali) which you pour over rice and eat along-side a vegetable curry and a spicy pickled sauce. The servings are generous and there’s always an offer of more rice or dal. It’s best to be vegetarian in the mountains and we did find the food was very stodgy so we enjoyed eating meat and fresh salad (washed in iodine water) when we eventually got back to Pokhara.

There were difficult days, notably days two and three which consisted of endless uphill climbs on not-yet-strengthened leg muscles. We had to walk at a very slow pace, stop thinking about reaching the top and concentrate only on the current step and the next. It became quite meditative after a while although the muscles ached and longed for rest. Day eight was also testing which came as a surprise because we had assumed we were now fighting fit, but it turned out to be our longest day and the first of solid downhill. Despite these challenges it was an incredible experience. 

On day three we were climbing up more than 400 vertical meters at 5am. At the top of Poon Hill there were about 200 other people all there to see the same display as us, the sun rising over the panoramic view of the majestic Himalayan mountains. And it truly was impressive. The sky was perfectly clear and the giants sparkled in the morning light. After breakfast we started out for the day’s leg of the journey. The path climbed steeply until we were on a sharp ridge with excellent views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges on either side, set against a clear blue sky.

During a tea break later that morning I noticed an old man spinning wool without any tools. With gentle movements of his right hand he created an impressively even yarn which he wound onto a spindle that he held in his left hand. I chatted to a young man sitting with him and discovered it was yak’s wool. The young man himself is Tibetan and lives in a refugee camp during off-season. His parents escaped Tibet in 1951 after the Chinese invasion and have lived in the camp ever since, where he was born. Yes, he said, he would like to go to Tibet one day but he is unlikely to ever achieve this as he is not a citizen of Nepal and has no passport. During the tourist season he makes money by living in the mountains selling Tibetan trinkets and jewellery to tourists. They were beautifully hand crafted and we would have liked to buy some from him but it was within the first few days of our trek and we didn’t want the extra weight. He was one of the nicest people we’ve met in Nepal and not at all pushy with his wares. This cannot be said for his colleagues along the lower parts of the track. By the end of the trek we were thoroughly sick of being told “You look, beautiful things, we small business” when we had already told that very person we were not interested about two minutes beforehand. I know these people probably have very few options for employment, but in our case they’d be a lot more successful if they took a more laid-back sales approach.

At Tadapani we talked to two young Nepali girls sitting near us outside our lodge. Starting with “What is your name?” we had a English textbook conversation during which they somehow managed to con me into singing them Swiss songs (I couldn’t think of any English ones and, in my defence, they returned the favour with a Nepali song). The girl that spoke the best English said she was sixteen but from her looks and gigglyness we put her at no more than fourteen. She was from Pokhara but spends high-season working in lodges in the mountains away from her family. She learnt English at school where she’d completed seven years. A guide later told me that parents have to pay a fee for sending their children to public school and from my reading about Nepal I know that boys usually get the priority and girls’ education is often not seen as a necessity. Private schools cost a lot more and the advantage that the guide noted was that all subjects are taught in English, so interestingly it appears that this is the most valued skill learnt at school.

The next morning I woke Nathan before sunrise. Again the morning sky was crystal clear. I can’t think of a better way to start the day than watching the light change on the Himalayan mountains as the sun rises, while listening to our ipods and drinking sweet black tea.

While marijuana is illegal in Nepal the police don’t seem to bother leaving the highways to check for plantations. If they did they’d have a field-day. Often we’d see a plant growing in between the cabbages. The place we stopped for lunch on day four proudly displayed an entire crop right next to the seating area (in fact it was obscuring the view!)This crop was much too large to be for personal use alone and Hira informed us that mainly elderly Nepalis smoke. I guess, like with opium use in South-East Asia, old folk are seen to have earned a right to get high and I imagine it also provides them with pain relief.

On day five I was walking along, looking at the path in front of me when a little green snake suddenly jumped out of the bushes in my direction. I stepped back, shouting “Ahhh!” Only that morning we had learned there are poisonous snakes in Nepal and some friends we had made had seen one. Laughing, Hira pulled me back to safety, although it turned out that this one was of a harmless variety and my terror created much amusement amongst the rest of our little group.

At our destination that evening we noticed a goat tied up beside our lodge. Later the locals made a fire. Some time afterwards they walked passed carrying a barbequed carcass and a bucket full of innards. We quickly realised that this was our friend from earlier. Feeling adventurous I asked Hira whether goat would be on for us that evening and she said she could arrange it. I figured meat doesn’t come fresher and decided to take the risk (Nathan opted out). Although the curry it was served in was delicious the meat was very chewy and tasted decidedly of mutton. Only later did we find out that the creature we had seen earlier was in fact a sheep, not a goat. So much for adventure...

It was day seven by the time we reached our destination, Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). During the previous two days the landscape had become decidedly alpine with even the scrubby bushes had giving way to tussock. The air had thinned and I struggled despite the relatively gradual nature of the uphill rise. Arrival at ABC was wonderful. The camp of four lodges has an altitude of 4130m. It is set in ‘the sanctuary’, an aptly named amphitheatre completely surrounded by Himalayan peaks. These are amongst the tallest in the world ranging from 6,000 to over 8,000 meters in height. Annapurna 1, hidden from view until you round the corner into the sanctuary, is the world’s tenth tallest mountain at 8,091m. It is a stunning beast. Climbing a little way out of the camp towards an area of prayer flags and rock piles we suddenly found we were on the top of a cliff. Below us, leading all the way to the base of Annapurna 1 was an ocean of gravel, left behind by the retreating glaciers that had carved this massive valley. Another impressive peak on the opposite side of the sanctuary is Machapuchare, which is smaller but amazingly beautiful with sheer sides that rise to a double peak (the mountain’s English name is Fishtail). It has never been summited because it is sacred to the locals. We got up for sunrise the next morning. Words fail me to describe the beauty of this place and Nathan’s photos will never show the true scale, but I hope that between the two you’ll get some idea of it.

Having retraced our steps down the valley, we left Kishan at our tea spot on day ten and followed Hira down a side path through the forest to the much awaited hot springs. The locals have built two medium sized concrete pools next to a roaring river in the middle of the jungle. The pools constantly refresh themselves with warm spring water. It was still early and we were alone except for a troupe of langurs. These gorgeous monkeys are native to Nepal and have black faces surrounded by a mane of long white fur. They were feeding on algae that grows on the stones around the hot pools and we were lucky to be able to watch their interactions for the entire hour we spent in the pool, relaxing our hardened, aching muscles.

The day before I had mentioned to Hira that I was surprised at the lack of birds in the Nepali forest. Well, on the 20 minute walk back to the village we found where they all hang out. We saw woodpeckers, little swallow-like birds, parakeets, bright red and yellow birds and more. We spent the rest of the day walking along a relatively flat (yes, flat!) path beside the river, crossing some extreme swing bridges. The village of Landruk, where we spent the night, is really lovely with locals going about harvesting crops and children playing and working, and Nathan said he would have liked to spend a few days relaxing there (I have a feeling that the availability of large cold beers may have also had something to do with this!)

During the final two of days we walked from village to village through woods and farmed areas. At one point we came across a group of children who had formed a kind of singing, dancing, flower giving roadblock. Thinking this was a cute, if cheeky entrepreneurial group we paid the toll of five rupees (1 NZ cent). By the third of such roadblock Nathan only paid given that he had permission to film the performance. From the fourth group onwards we decided it was getting old and refused to pay. Perhaps this was mean-spirited of us, but we had come to realise that this was a favourite pastime for all the children of the region, and we didn’t think we should encourage extortion even on a very minor scale. Some of the children were also incredibly rude when it became clear that we weren’t having any of it. When we returned to Pokhara we learned that these roadblocks are actually a legitimate part of the upcoming festival, Tihar (Diwali in India) and we felt a bit bad about our hard-line stance.

On the last day of trekking we stopped at a small lodge for tea. I was approached by two little girls and soon they were led me off by the hand towards their incredibly tall swing that hung from a bamboo structure (these are all over Nepal). I had a great time as they pushed me backwards and forwards. Afterwards we entertained each other by drawing pictures in my notebook, including a rather unflattering one of Nathan, detailing his scraggly, twelve day old facial hair and freckled arms. The only glitch in our relationship occurred when they requested a donation for letting me use the swing. While I had been half expecting this I was disappointed. It was starting to feel like every time someone approached us all they wanted was money. However, Hira cleared things up between us by explaining that it was actually one of the older boys who had put my friends up to this, and the little ones didn’t want my money at all. Relationship restored we had a great time and as we parted they said “So fun, so fun!”

As you can see we had a really fantastic couple of weeks in the mountains. We got away without any tummy bugs, altitude sickness or major health issues. Our only complaints in this regard were that Nathan had a headache at base camp and I struggled to sleep. These are both side effects of the altitude, but not of a level to worry about. Nathan also developed some truly whorey blisters which luckily didn’t hurt when he had his boots on (we will refrain from posting the photos!) Sadly now that we are back in Pokhara we’ve both got a cold, so we are doing nothing much for a few days to give us time recover and feeling grateful that we don’t have to spend six hours a day hiking through the Himalayan mountains.
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Christie on

Such a fantastic story! Loved the photos! Felt like I was there with you!

audrey on

what breathtaking glad you've had awesome weather for the mountain trek xxx

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