Friday, June 13, 2014

Trekking in Nepal

Incorporating parts of Annapurna Conservation Area  – Kimche, Ghandruk, Tadapani, Ghorepani, Hile, Birethanti.

Pictures and text by Barry Greville-Eyres

Quintessential Nepal and Himalayas - moody and mystical - local landmarks festooned with Tibetan prayer flags


My Nepalese sojourn commenced with a hop and skip (Kabul-New Delhi-Kathmandu) on Spicejet, India’s funky and appropriately branded budget carrier. The  absolutely no frills airline  is relatively efficient and in spite of a mad dash transfer in New Delhi, my final destination was beckoning well within half a travel day.

On a wing and prayer to Kathmandu 

On arrival in Kathmandu I was made acutely aware, even before setting foot on hallowed Nepalese soil, of the extent to which people's lives - locals as well as tourists - are in the hands of the Gods and bio-physical elements. The loss of 16 Sherpas on the slopes of Everest, to a deadly avalanche of ice and snow, barely weeks earlier was one such cataclysmic event. This resulted in the closure of the 2014 climbing season (with its short April-June window), part expressions of solidarity, respect and frustration by the Sherpa and climbing community at government  intransigence at putting together a comprehensive social welfare and benefits package for the tragically departed mountain guides and their remaining families.

Another was more real and personal. The short flip from New Delhi was uneventful but on our final approach to Kathmandu we were promptly put in a holding pattern as we began to circle, at arm's length, towering stacks of angry and badly bruised cumulonimbus storm clouds. After what seemed like a lifetime and dozens of dizzying circuits we finally landed. We were immediately greeted by a congested, capital city in helter-skelter mode as passengers, pedestrians and commuters scattered in the darkness under torrential downpours. The theme infinitesimal, inconsequential and fallible stayed with me throughout my visit and short trek as we were exposed to the discomfort of whimsical weather, steep terrain and fast flowing rivers, all the while buzzed in the distance by search and rescue helicopters going about their business.

Due to my general aversion for capital cities, I was booked on an early morning domestic flight to Pokhara, barely hours after my arrival. There was however ample time to enjoy the heart-warming hospitality of a former work colleague and his family with authentic Nepali cuisine and a tall, cracked Tuborg beer.

My first full day in Nepal was not without its own drama as it appeared as if the entire mountain kingdom was clouded out and flights thoroughly grounded despite the attentions of countless giddy and impatient foreigners. The domestic departure lounge resembled an inner-city, base camp struck down with a sinister malaise as passengers idled around for the weather to clear. I blended into the drab decor with my very ordinary apparel and outdated 'hiking' gear, outdone by a ‘branded’ frenzy of specialist, outdoor adventure equipment every conceivable colour of the neonic rainbow. It reminded me that I should make a point of procuring a hilariously funny, anti-consumerism branded t-shirt with a catchy ‘Hey Fuck Face’ phrase ripping off the well-known adventure brand.

It was not particularly comforting to think that the gaudy garb and get up of the average trekker is probably valued at more than the average Nepali annual wage – more than likely far in excess when one considers that GDP per capita earnings are around $800 pa - sobering to say the least! I was quickly educated as to the distinction between hiking and trekking, the Nepalese way, in this part of the world. It's a rather significant one when you consider that the trekking brand is synonymous with Nepal and the Himalayas. Mere, less cool, mortals hike and sightsee basing themselves out of fixed tourist accommodation conducting mainly day trips into the immediate area, often unguided, before returning to the creature comforts of their home base.

Trekking most certainly has a more serious side .....dressed stone and masonry work of exceptional quality - solid, sustainable, earthy and very pleasing to the eye 

Trekking is mainly guided and 'rolling' in nature where village-based guesthouses or lodges are used, en route, with all amenities including catering (dinner and breakfast) and bedding provided as part of a package deal. Its mainly the super-cool that trek and its worn as a badge of courage. A variation to the theme, the exclusive domain of the uber wealthy, is camp trekking which is a throwback to the original form of trekking prior to the introduction of homestays or guesthouses. Porters are used extensively to carry the full set of camping equipment and accoutrements in addition to the trekking guide(s) and camp is set up at the end of each day at designated camp sites. A typical colonial African safari, of sorts, in Asia minus the lions, elephants and antelope. It was not uncommon in the 1950s and 1960s for porters to be saddled with loads of up to 100kgs per day over extended treks. Decades later the loads dropped to approximately 70kgs and nowadays porters do not normally shoulder more than 30kgs per day.

Easier on the eye and some of the older, more traditional accommodation establishments catering primarily for trekkers depicting high quality stonework with exquisite surrounding mountain views

A more upmarket accommodation establishment en route to Ghandruk

Accommodation options aplenty at both Upper and Lower Ghorepani bring into question the issues of sustainability and over-development

It was pleasing to note that a regulatory framework has been introduced, into the entire trekking industry, by the Nepali government through a qualification and registration system for service providers – guesthouses/lodges, trekking guides and porters with the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal (TAAN).  Similarly, trekkers are legally required by the National Trust for Conservation to have a valid entry permit into the relevant trekking area. In our case this was the Annapurna (Nepali for Goddess of the Harvest) Conservation Area. Furthermore, the Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS) captures all relevant data into a database enabling, presumably, accurate tracking of trekker whereabouts and area-wide carrying capacities expressly for management purposes.

Measures put in place by the government and allied trekking association to regulate the industry  

Access point to the Annapurna Conservation Area

According to my own expert trekking guide, Krisna Bahadur Gurung ( Mobile no. +977- 9846104807 Government license no.406 from ACME Adventure Treks) its not only highly recommended but also mandatory to contract the services of a suitably qualified guide on any trek. On our short trek it was evident that this requirement is openly flaunted by foreigners to the detriment of the trekkers themselves (personal safety and security as well as the loss of an important socio-cultural teaching and learning opportunity) and also the industry (employment and revenue generation opportunities for Nepal). Its understandable that free-spirited individuals or groups would wish to do their own thing but I have an issue when people are downright irresponsible and blatantly break the law.

Krisna trying his hand in the kitchen at one of our overnight stops

Nothing beats the heat of a good wood burning stove! The blogger is flanked by Buddhi (L) and Krisna (R), seasoned trekking guides that have racked up over 50 years solid experience between the two of them throughout the Himalayas


Onto more pleasurable pursuits …. trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area which is, essentially, a fascinating, highly successful, age-old sustainable tourism / local economic development model that WORKS. It's so simple and seems to come so naturally to the rural Nepalese people, largely without any support or direct intervention from the government. It’s predominantly centred upon the best-fit and sustainable use of bio-physical and other resources at their disposal. Have the intoxicating and invigorating Himalayan mountains (Nepali for Mountain of Snows); an extensive working and community maintained network of trails/treks; countless villages with rudimentary or more advanced homestays; spice it up with a dash of danger – masochism; the allure and mystic of Tibetan Buddhism spirituality; throw in Nepali nonchalance and charm and it all contributes to an adventure tourism cocktail par excellence.

A snow-melt swollen river which will soon convey heavy monsoon rains down to the lowlands

Pre-dawn view of Machhapuchhre or Fishtail Range with the peak itself rising to 6997m captured from Tadapani  

A series of spectacular waterfalls encountered, prior to the onset of the monsoon season, along the descending trek from Hile to Birethanti

The mountainous massif of Annapurna South


The theme of Nepali self-determination, resilience and sustainability is all pervading -  most foodstuffs are grown or produced locally - organic vegetables (potatoes, green beans, corn, cabbage, spinach, field greens; diary (buffalo & beef); poultry (primarily for egg production) and cereal crops (rice, millet, wheat). Other essentials are packed in by mule-trains or by horseback. As transient travellers it’s fascinating to observe highly successful farming practices in action - irrigation, planting, mulching, soil improvement and enrichment with manure from small and large livestock.

Highly prized mule-trains and their drivers traverse the mountains doing the heavy lifting from road heads to remote villages packing almost every conceivable commodity including building materials

The farm gate to dinner plate scenario plays itself out daily and whilst trekking you have the unique opportunity to sample some of the fresh farm produce on offer. Dal baht or specifically Nepali chicken dal baht powerpacking Himalayan Power for 24 hours - is standard trekking fare for guides, porters and trekkers alike providing a solid, wholesome meal. Dal or lentils in the form of a watery gruel is served together with chicken soup; lightly curried potatoes and green beans; local greens or Asian spinach with onion and garlic; copious amounts of rice; and a side serving of spicy pickles.

Chicken dal baht for 24 hour Himalayan Power .... standard trekking fare village grown and cooked organic food that is wholesome and nutritious

 Average guesthouse, on trek, accommodation is priced at around $15 p.n. including a light breakfast. Lunches and dinners average $5 per meal - hot beverages - an assortment of teas with masala being my favourite are under a dollar a cup with pots being slightly cheaper. Alcohol is generally on offer at most guesthouses and large Nepalese brewed beers including Tuborg, Everest, Gorkha are priced at around $4-5.

Trek-side accommodation, dressed up in the local architectural style, providing solid and comfortable lodgings for transient trekkers throughout the Annapurna Conservation Area
In my shortest of interludes I did, however, observe some flaws particularly around the issue of sustainability and government regulation. Paradoxically, this is the case in that guesthouse development is burgeoning, seemingly unchecked, without due consideration for environmental, aesthetic and pyscho-social carrying capacities. One wonders whether there will be a reasonable rate of return on capital investments as quaint, trek-side hamlets mushroom into misplaced dormitory-styled lodgings.

Uncontrolled, local guesthouse development poses a threat to an 'authentic trekking experience' where there is seemingly little or no regard for ecological and  psycho-social impacts

Yet another eye-catching, trek side accommodation establishment

In the area where ostensibly regulation is in place i.e. the requirement to use, as a non-negotiable, TAAN trained and certified guides this has apparently fallen by the wayside in recent years. No matter how tame and user-friendly the trekking experience may seem (which is definitely not the case) I'm of the view that no-one should be permitted to trek without using the service of a qualified guide.
Whereas trekking masses may find Wi-Fi, internet and mobile phone access cool and a natural extension of their everyday life, I personally find it inappropriate, intrusive and uncool in a place like Nepal especially in the Himalayan Mountains. One has the desire to ‘get away from it all’ but when confronted with fellow trekkers phubbing away and /or surfing the net on their mobiles or glued to television screens spruiking gibberish it becomes a bit too much.

Creature comforts such as home-made apple pie, mobile phone networks, Wi-Fi and pizzas are largely misplaced in such an extraordinary setting, in my view, and discerning trekkers will find signs like this somewhat amusing but beyond that intrusive and off-putting. 

One of the more interesting signs encountered - it DOES NOT indicate a Wi-Fi free zone but rather significant, village-based WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene improvements

A frequent, personal lament was for a trek less travelled and trammelled because I found the sheer numbers of people on the trek and overnighting at guesthouses difficult to contend with but I had to remind myself that the land use option or protected area status (conservation) was far from pristine wilderness, where carrying capacities are reduced significantly for specific ecological and social reasons. In spite of the heavy trekking traffic, which includes regular mule trains, the walking surface was in superb condition (well drained, expertly stepped, contoured and more often than not paved with durable stone slabs) and litter was almost non-existent. 

Krisna on the slow, steady ascent to Ghandruk with a clear view of the excellent trekking surface

Traditional gateway to many of the villages and accommodation establishments within the Annapurna Conservation Area

Some of my most vivid trekking recollections include: the multi-national composition of trekkers and the respective groups including countless orderly Asians (mainly Koreans, Chinese and Japanese); Europeans - Germans and odd Australians with representation across all age groups. Strikingly, a fair percentage of trekkers were solitary men and women with their own trekking guide - testimony to the trust, safety and security, credibility, and reliability of the TAAN professional association system. Trekking days were generally very enjoyable and varied, filled with 1001 Namastes and hi's due to ‘moderate’ trekking traffic which tends to peak during the high season which extends from September–December. The month of May is on the cusp of the 3 month monsoon season which extends through to early September where water and river levels rise appreciably and often dramatically in the form of flash flooding and rockfalls/mudslides.

This gently meandering stream will turn into a raging torrent in a few months with the onset of the monsoon season

The Annapurna Autobahn - a private joke shared with Krisna on our final descent from Ghorepani when we encountered a large, boisterous group of German trekkers

One can only but wonder .......

Krisna Bahadur Gurung was a revelation, fantastic trekking guide and wonderful travel companion.  His quick wit and ‘old world’ turn of phrase was quaint and very amusing. Krisna would refer to the ‘mountains as being shy’ when they were obscured by clouds; bashfully introduced me to raksi – a local, millet-brewed white spirit which is obviously a cure for all ills – when taken in moderation. On an assessment of menus at respective guesthouses he would refer to two main categories of meals – light or heavy with an obvious reference to calorific intake to sustain one throughout a trekking day. He revelled in our celebratory drink at the end of our trek and time together and was obviously highly appreciative of the generous tip that was deservedly bestowed on him.
One of my most bizarre on trek observations was that I soon became convinced, by the look on people’s faces and associated body language, how little they were prepared for or were actually enjoying their trekking experience. It was rare to encounter happy, smiling trekkers and there was a real sense that many of the trekkers had been conned or seduced by sexy marketing, unwittingly, into the experience. I was on a perpetual high with the ‘entire package deal’ and found it very difficult to relate to strained, bland or occasional pissed off  faces – it all seemed so out of place. 

A creative, non-verbal way to express, in more ways than one,  the immense satisfaction and exhilaration derived from trekking Nepal! Photo: Courtesy of Gerda Kollmann

One of many guesthouses encountered catering for the needs of most trekkers including spectacular mountain views

Finally..... yet another guesthouse in the Ghandruk area clearly depicting the care, pride and pleasure put into keeping trekkers comfortable, secure and safe













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  2. Such a wonderful trek to Annapurna, and nice images.