Annapurna is one of the names that brings romantic feelings. In Korea, the land of hikers, trekking in the Annapurna is a dream for many people. Our newly elected President Moon is famous in Nepal for his love of hiking there. Not just for Koreans but for anyone who is interested in hiking, trekking, and outdoor activities, trekking the Annapurna Circuit or Sanctuary would be on the wish list. It was on mine. I never made a specific plan but I knew I would do it someday. I had a feeling.
In May 2017, I finally stepped into the Annapurna thanks to the organizers of Himalayan Travel Mart. The preparation for this trip was different. I was focusing on the trekking side of the trip, even though it was going to be only a short 3-day out of my 18-day itinerary in Nepal. I carefully selected everything in my backpack so I wouldn’t carry any unnecessary items. I was never a good light-packer but I truly did my best this time.
On May 24th, thirteen trekkers from all over the world gathered in Pokhara, and we started our ascent from Nayapul. For two and a half days, we walked on the famous Annapurna Sanctuary, from Nayapul to Syauli Bazar and then onto Ghandruk, Kyumi, Landruk, Potana, Dhampush, and finally Phedi.
The first day, we drove one hour to Nayapul from Pokhara to start our trek. We started our day with Nepal’s most famous traditional song, Resham Firiri, performed by a street performer. Our leader Nima invited him on our bus. It was a treat and just the right way to start our journey into the mountains. He also pointed out the majestic Fishtail, Machapuchare Mountain, Annapurna South, and Himchuli in the Himalayan Mountain Range out the window. It became reality, looking at these grand mountains.
Finally, we started our journey from Nayapul. The first 12km started with what the locals call “Nepali flat”, a few ups and downs. We passed a beautiful waterfall, small villages, and smiling local people along our way. Not like 10-20 years ago, now many parts of the Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary can be reached by a motor vehicle, so we had to share the dirt road with occasional traffic for a little while.
Since the rainy season started a bit early, the sky was cloudy and we were expecting some rain. The light layers of cloud actually helped blocking the strong Himalayan sun. We walked on the Nepali flat trail about 2.5 hours until lunch. The group was introduced to the dal bhat culture in the mountains for the first time. The most delicious meal in the world is eaten right after a few hours of hiking, don’t you agree? In the mountains of Nepal, people say “Dal bhat power, 24 hour, no shower”.
After lunch, it was a steady uphill. We would ascend about 1000 meters from Nayapul to Ghandruk. The vast majority of the trail was made with stone steps. ‘Were Incas and Nepalese friends at some point?’ I thought. Stone steps in the mountains are my kryptonite. I had a hard time getting the hang of it, walking extremely slow.
The hike up to Ghandruk was definitely doable. But I always get anxious when hiking in a group, afraid that I might hold everyone back or get left behind. More regular training would help to solve this anxiety.
A couple hours after the tiring uphill, the thick layer of clouds opened up and we finally saw a view of Fish Tail Mountain, or Machapuchare in the local language. For a short minute, we got to see the snow-covered Machapuchare, Himchuli, and Annapurna South. Who knew that would be the last time seeing the mountains for the next two days?
We arrived at Ghandruk, a good-looking village where we’d spend the night. Trekkers stay at accommodation known as a “tea house”, a simple guesthouse to rest for the night. But since we are not too far from a road, there were more facilities (including the hot shower!) than the ones in the higher elevation. We learned more about the local culture from a small museum in the village, ate the most delicious dal bhat, and went to bed hoping for a nice sunrise.
The second day, we started our early morning with a layer of cloud covering the mountains. It almost felt like nature was teasing us. But with or without the view of the peaks, the vista was stunning. It really looked like we were deep in the mountains.
I recharged my energy with a bowl of oats. The second day would be our longest, walking about 14km from Ghandruk to Potana. The trail descends into the valley from Ghandruk, goes back uphill to Landruk, and continues to Potana, where we’d rest for the second night.
The second day of walking felt a lot easier than the day before. My body finally got used to the climate, altitude, and the level of physical activities. The downhill to Kyumi was slippery and dusty, but the view overlooking the valley made me feel like gaining a third eye so I could see further and everything more clearly. We could see deep inside the valley between all the terraces on the hillsides.
We crossed a picturesque bridge spanning the river and the uphill began. It was a longer stretch but it didn’t feel as hard as the day before. On the way up to Landruk, we were awarded an amazing view of the valley once again. I could only imagine how amazing the vista would be if there were no clouds. But knowing we were surrounded by some of the grandest mountains was comforting enough for now. Soon we arrived at our lunch spot, overlooking the valley in Tolka.
The day went by quickly. We passed the 14km mark and arrived at Pothana (or Potana), our home for the night. I took advantage of the advanced facilities – a hot shower. What a luxury! The power of a hot shower is truly amazing. Finns say the world looks most beautiful right after sauna, but I would say it’s most wonderful after a hot shower on a long day of trekking in the mountains.
It was the time of the day to refuel our body with dal bhat and masala tea. The special dal bhat with chicken curry and freshly made chicken momo was a perfect way to end the hard day of trekking. We also shared a glass of local rice wine, raksi, to ease our sore muscles.
While looking at the menu to order breakfast the next morning, we found one peculiar item called “Mustang Coffee”. Connecting the dots with the connotation of the word ‘mustang’, we guessed it’s a coffee with some kind of alcohol. “What is Mustang Coffee?” we asked Sandip. “It’s coffee made with raksi.” he said. So we guessed it right. Before we retired to our rooms, Stephen suggested how about if we split the intriguing Mustang Coffee. When in Rome, right?
A cup of Mustang Coffee arrived from the kitchen in a clear glass with a unique smell. It looked like a cup of coffee, but there was some kind of oily residue on top. We took turns, sniffing this new substance that just walked into our lives. ‘What do I smell here?’ There was definitely no scent of coffee in there. It was familiar yet it was nothing like anything I’ve ever had before. “Who’s first?” we all looked at each other. I boldly took a sip of Mustang Coffee. ‘What do I taste here?’ It made me think. Alcohol, yes. But coffee? No. There was butter and something cooked. The smell and taste were so familiar… and it suddenly hit me. It tasted like fried dough! Whatever was in this concoction, all together, it created the flavor of a donut. What is really in it?
We investigated a bit further. Turns out, Mustang Coffee is made in this order; first, melt a bit of butter. Then, put a bit of rice and cook until they are deep fried (that’s where the donut flavor comes from!). Pour raksi and mix in instant coffee. There you have it, a cup of authentic Mustang Coffee.
Mustang Coffee comes from the Mustang region of Nepal. It’s a restricted area for tourists. It’s one of the most pristine areas in the world and they want to keep it that way. Hearing all this made me wanted to try the authentic Mustang Coffee in Mustang region! That would be an adventure for another time. Who knew, a simple act of curiosity could bring so much joy, information, and inspiration. That’s the power of adventure.
Next morning, we woke up to a heavy rain. My alarm for sunrise went off at about 5:15 am, but I knew there wouldn’t be any sun this morning. The rain slowed down a bit at times, so I decided to just stay up and enjoy a cup of masala tea while listening to nature’s soundtrack. The rain calmed down by the time of our departure though. The last day would be just a simple downhill for less than three hours, all the way down to Phedi. It would be a piece of a cake compared to what we did for the last two days.
Just like that, we walked into civilization after going downhill for 3 hours. Suddenly we heard cars honking as many buses were waiting to take their guests to Pokhara. It felt odd to be around this many people after being in nature for three days. Through an experience like this we regain our gratitude to mother nature and silence. It’s so hard to find silence these days. Being isolated in nature gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives, refocus on what’s really important, and appreciate the people with which we share the experience. This day and age of the smartphone and social media, sometimes we just have to push ourselves into the woods. Trekking in the Annapurna gave me the opportunity this time.
This short 2.5-day trek was merely an introduction to what will come in the future. Now I know for sure I will come back for more trekking in Nepal, whether it’s Annapurna Circuit or Everest Basecamp. Well, I am certain that I will be back for the Everest Basecamp so I’m looking at multiple trips back to Nepal.
There are many reasons why I love adventures. But most importantly, I love it because it brings more gratitude. Pushing the physical boundary is a great reminder that we can withhold so much more than we realize and I’m grateful for that. Physical hardship is actually deeply connected to mental strength. The moment we think ‘I can’t do it’ we collapse, physically and mentally. There are unlimited possibilities in the human mind and strength. Don’t you agree?
Thank you for the great leadership, our own guru Nima Lama, Indra, and Sandip, who helped us push through the hard parts, encouraged us to do better, and most of all reminded us not to lose our positive attitude no matter what. I have a strong feeling that we will see you again very soon.
As people say in Nepal, “Once is not enough”.
Our itinerary was very simplified, due to lack of days on our schedule. This walk from Nayapul to Dhampush would be a good itinerary if you want to experience the Annapurna but don’t want to get into the full 16 days of Circuit or Sanctuary trek. I am certainly looking forward to coming back to Nepal for more trekking.
#Disclosure: I was invited to the Himalayan Travel Mart 2017 as an international blogger. As always, the opinions are my own.