by Yap Wai Ming

The hiking trip to Nepal was planned when Ng Kui Lai (NKL) took up a temporary teaching post with the Himalayan English School (HES) for about three months. He invited a few friends to join him in a hike to Annapurna base camp (ABC) towards the end of his teaching assignment. Five of us comprising our Aseanpre-university scholar friends and a friend of NKL from Kuala Lumpur, Aaron Yap, happily jumped at the opportunity. A friend of NKL from China by the nickname of Sky, could not make it due to the travel restrictions arising from the Covid19 coronavirus epidemic.

A group photo before our departure to Pokhara

The situation was evolving almost daily with unofficial announcement of the cancellation of visa-on-arrival on 7 March 2020 and then officially on 10 March 2020. Sky didn’t want to take the risk and cancelled his flight booking.

We spent a few days in Kathmandu shopping for trekking gears and also celebrating the Holi festival where we had lots of fun being “coloured” with decorative powders.

The following day was the start of our planned hike to ABC.

Day 1 (10 March 2020)

Kathmandu - Pokhara - Sangkarot - Nayapul - Birethanti - Ghandruk

We took a bus to Nayapul. We arrived at Nayapul by 3:45 pm. There, our luggage was unloaded and we changed to two separate jeeps and proceeded to Birethanti and onwards to Ghandruk. The roads were rough and very bumpy and dusty. A few sections of the road were still under construction and we had to wait for the tractors to clear the path and move to the side to allow us to pass.

We reached Ghandruk by 6 pm. The weather was a cool 8°C by then and the altitude was 1,950m. We were to stay at the Meshroom Rest House. I shared a room with Aaron Yap. Two single beds in each room and the attached bathroom has nothing more than a toilet seat and shower. No hand towels nor any other amenities provided. There isn't a washing basin and no power charging points in the room either. Although hot water was supplied, it took a long time for the water to heat up.

Dinnerwas included in the package deal with the tour guide, Sanam and his two assistants who are also his cousins, Gelbu and Sange Sherpa. All of them came from the Sherpa tribe and hence bear the same surname Sherpa. All three of them are certified guides. Sange, the oldest of the three, worked for ten years as a porter cum cook before graduating to be a guide.

We charge our phones at the cafeteria out of one common charging station with many power socket outlets. Hot drinking water needs to be paid for. I paid Rp40 to fill my vacuum flash with hot water. A larger vacuum flash commands Rp80. Sanam told us that as we proceed to higher altitude, the prices for hot water go up as well. At Everest base camp, a one liter bottle of hot water could cost Rp400!

Fish Tail mountain backdrop at Ghandruk

We adjourned early as we were advised to pack into our day pack just enough for our hike tomorrow morning while leaving the rest to our larger backpack to be carried by the porters. NKL decided that we should have three porters in case any of us has altitude sickness, one porter and a guide can accompany the affected person to lower altitude. The porters were from the Gurung tribe which is the main tribe situated around the Annapurna area. They are very fit and can carry heavy loads. They will be walking way in front to the next stop and we may take the whole day to walk.

Day 2 (11 March 2020)

Ghandruk to Lower Sinuwa

The day started at 6:30 am for breakfast and we left the Meshroom Rest House by 7:30 am. Walking past the village, we saw a group of kids having lessons outdoors just outside their school which comprises a house with a small compound.

Outdoor lessons of a local school at Ghandruk
A group photo before the start of the hike

The hike was scenic and it took us up and down terrains. We traversed the countryside. The air was fresh. We saw mules carrying loads of rebar steel up the hills for construction activities. There were water buffaloes in the narrow streets of the village as well.

The morning route took us from Ghandruk to Kimrung Dada, Kimrung Khola, Durbin Dada before we broke for lunch at Chhomrong.

We saw quite a flock of vultures and eagles circling about the valley during our hike. Sanam said he has not seen such a large number of these birds before in the area.

Buffaloes sharing the village path
At a cross junction towards Chhomrong
Flocks of vultures and eagles circling above us

Soon our gang were divided into two groups with NKL, Ben Tan, Aaron and I being together and led by Sanam whereas TCL and Ernest fell far behind and assisted by Gelbu and Sange.

TCL was really exhausted that he took a short power nap half way through. When he reached the Chhomrong, I could see that he was just hiking with both hands each on a hiking pole and Sange helped him with his backpack. After his lunch he took a second power nap. TCL credits his maca (scientific name: Lepidium meyenii or sometimes known as Peruvian ginseng) drink to sustain his energy without which he said he could not have made it. From then on, we have a new name for TCL and he was then known as Maca Tan. He described it as total absolute exhaustion and it didn’t help that his shoes were not fitting. During the climb to MBC where he put on his crampons, they further tightened his shoes resulting in him losing three of his toenails after the trip.

A very tired Maca Tan taking a power nap after lunch
Aaron with our porters
View of the Himalayan range

Ernest suffered leg cramps in the course of the hike and was advised to take in more salt in his food intake. Some of us actually added salt to our drinking water. We were really losing a lot of sweat during our hike. Aaron was well stocked with his hydration salt, vitamins that he also added to his hydration backpack, moisturiser, sunscreen etc. Each time we rested, our shirts were drenched in sweat and had to air them in the sun to dry them up before wearing them again.

After lunch, it was downhill and up again towards Lower Sinuwa where we rested for the night. The view from there of the Fish Tail mountain (local name is Machhapuchchhre) was magnificent.

Guide Sanam picking Lali Guras (Rhododendron),
the national flower of Nepal
Steel suspension bridge after Chhomrong
Ben with his filtration bottle creating
“newater” for the benefit of us
Vultures hovering above us

Day 3 (12 March 2020)

Lower Sinuwa to Deurali

We started at 6:30 am for breakfast and started our hike at 7:15 am. The whole journey took us 9 hours. Today was easier than the day before and the scenery was stunning. Our trek brought us to Upper Sinuwa and the sun quickly warmed us up.

We had to strip down to just a t-shirt as we were sweating all inside. We sun ourselves to dry up the sweat from our backs and had a tea break there at Upper Sinuwa. The ginger honey lemon tea was refreshing and this quickly became our favourite drink at every stopover.

A group photo before we set off from Sherpa Guest House
Nepalese flag with the Fish Tail Mountain in the background

The next stop was at Bamboo which literally is a shaded path filled with bamboo plants. There was a signboard at Bamboo exalting trekkers against bringing chicken, pork or buffalo meat beyond Bamboo all the way to ABC. It is due to the ancient belief there that natural calamities or personal accidents may happen for trekkers who violate this belief.

Signboard at Bamboo that prohibits chicken,
pork and buffaloes meat beyond that point to ABC

We had lunch at Dovan. Lunch is the standard fare and I ordered spaghetti which was pretty tasteless. The trek was pretty easy after lunch as the gradient was gradual until we reached Himalaya rest house. From there on, there were lots of steep climbs over rocks and tree roots. It was also amazing that there were lots of granite slabs that make up the stairs which make climbing easier. However there were still many segments that were lined with rocks and tree roots.

Posing over a wooden bridge
A local shrine along the hiking path

As we trek further up, the weather turned colder and I changed into my fleece jacket to keep me warm. I was still sweating. Sweat couldn't dissipate through the windbreaker and I quickly learnt that it is more comfortable to wear just the fleece jacket which is more permeable as it was enough to keep me warm and yet allow the sweat to dry up.

Ice formation along the path

Ice could be seen closer to our destination rest house at Deurali and there was a site where an avalanche happened near there in January 2020. 4 Koreans and one Nepalese guide were swept by the avalanche and two porters were also killed by a landslide close by the avalanche site. We saw a makeshift sign board indicating that there was a search and rescue operation and advising people not to throw things below the site.

We walked over the avalanche site to get to our Panorama Guest House at Deurali. NKL, Ben Tan and I reached the site at about 4:45 pm whereas the rest of the group came in an hour later.

Mountain views everywhere, so beautiful
The avalanche area that claimed the lives of
4 Korean trekkers just two months earlier
A stark reminder of the landslide area in Feburary 2020
Warming up beside a bonfire while waiting for Aaron,
Ernest and Maca Tan to arriv

There was no warm bath available and we just wiped ourselves with wet wipes. The water was simply too cold.

Dinner was usual. I had Nepalese food called Dal Bhat which is rice with lentil soup, some vegetables and curry.

The weather was cold and it's about -2°C. Rain was forecasted tomorrow and we had better prepare for wet and cold weather. We are likely to see snow all the way up to ABC tomorrow.

Day 4 (13 March 2020)

Deurali to Machhapuchchhre (Fish Tail) Base Camp (MBC) towards Annapurna Base Camp

The water pipes were frozen this morning. We used water that was stored in the washroom. We wore our crampons for the hike today. These allow us much better grip on the ice and snow.

Avalanche risk area!
Hot maca drink break!
Crampons for better grip.
Mine was too basic and it gave way later
Enjoying the snow!
Junction between MBC and ABC

Weather forecast was high precipitation at ABC and likely to snow. We set off after breakfast at 7:15 am. The hike today was shorter. Not too far after we started, we had to negotiate over ice and snow. We put on our crampons and they provided much better grip on the ice and snow. The hiking poles helped tremendously as they offered support as we tracked. It was a gradual climb all the way to MBC where we had lunch.

Chong Ling and Ernest decided to stay put at MBC. It was already a great effort by Chong Ling to make this far.

Annapurna Rescue Centre at MBC
Group photo before NKL, Ben, Aaron and I proceeded to ABC
The slow trek up to ABC
Visibility dropped in the initial climb up to ABC. Started snowing

The trek from MBC to ABC took another 2 hours. It's up a mountain slope with an additional elevation of 400m. We started immediately after lunch. The sky was overcast and clouds were moving in. We could not see beyond a hundred meters around us at one time. Drizzle of snow started falling and it got heavier as we reached ABC. NKL and I moved ahead of Aaron and Ben with the two guides accompanying them for most of the journey.

There were several guest houses and we stayed at Panaroma Guest House.

Arrived at the ABC!

It was pretty cold up at ABC and we were served with hot garlic soup. This was recommended to cure mountain sickness. There was no running tap as all were frozen. Even the water container in the toilet has a layer of thin ice over the water. No baths were available in any event and it was simply too cold to have any shower. The snow had gotten heavier as the night fell. We paid Rp300 each for WiFi access which was good in the beginning and towards the evening, we had no internet connection nor power supply at all. The wifi wasn't working the next day either. The rooms were rather basic and one light bulb was only powered at certain hours of the evening. The rest of the evening and for the following day, there was no power supply at all. We have to make do with our headlamps going to the only single toilet serving the entire population of the guests at the guest house.

View of the snow capped mountains with the moon as a companion
Moon above ABC

I was starting to feel a little nausea and had no appetite for food. After dinner, we all snug up into our sleeping bag and rested. We probably slept at 8 pm and I woke up intermittently feeling thirsty and needed to go to the washroom. Even the water in my hot water flash turned cold. The air must be dry and I took sips of cold water from my container throughout the night.

Day 5 (14 March 2020)

ABC, MBC and towards Bamboo

I woke up at 5:30 am and wanted to visit the bathroom. NKL was already up early and he had scrawled in the fresh snow outside our doors with the words "Happy B'Day - YWM". It was so nice of him to send such a warm greeting so early on a cold morning. The snow blanketed the ABC. I had no appetite for breakfast and passed my bowl of noodles to NKL who has a voluptuous appetite.

After breakfast, we took photos of the beautiful mountain scenery and had some group photos taken before trekking down to MBC. The fresh snow was soft and felt like powder. Our feet sank deep into the virgin snow and we decided to allow the porters to show the way. We just walked in the trail that they have created. One person has a snow plank and he was having fun snowboarding in the virgin snow down the slopes. Our trek down hill took us less than half the time we did trekking up.

At certain steep sections, some of us decided it is more fun to slide down on the soft snow than to trudge over it. The child in us comes alive!

View of South Annapurna from ABC
A group photo before our descent from ABC to MBC
Downhill trek. Snow was deep.
Posing at ABC

From MBC, we continued on to Deurali and had lunch at Himalaya. From there we trekked to Bamboo where we put up for the night. It was drizzling when we reached Bamboo. Chong Ling and Ernest came in about an hour later and they were caught in the rain.

We had warm baths at Bamboo after two days not showering. It was refreshing! The rain continued through the night and the temperature was cold. There was no wifi available at Bamboo and NCell signals were poor.

NKL cuts a lone figure in the snow.
Stones stacking after a river crossing
Ice form on the side of the mountains where snow melts.
Fish Tail Mountain

I was treated to a surprise birthday pancake with chocolate by the guide. We asked Gelbu to sing us a birthday song in Nepalese which he obliged.

Day 6 (15 March 2020)

Bamboo - Upper Sinuwa - Lower Sinuwa - Chhomrong - Jhinu

The 3 Malaysians, Aaron,
NKL and Maca Tan holding a Malaysian flag
that was displayed at the Bamboo Guest House

It rained the whole night and there was ice on the ground. Sange and Gelbu told us that the snow at ABC would be very thick and probably be at least a meter or more just by judging that we had snow here at Bamboo at 2,345m elevation and it would not be possible for those up at ABC to trek down. They may need to get helicopter rescue or wait for the snow to retreat. There is also a high risk of avalanche. We're lucky indeed to have come down a day earlier.

Our original plan for today was to hike all the way to Landruk but Sanam suggested that we shorten the hike by going to Jhinu instead. From Jhinu we can have a short 1.5 hours hike to Makyu where there is a jeep station which we can hire jeeps to transfer us all the way to Pokhara. Detouring the Jhinu will save us two additional hours of trekking and there is a hot spring that we could visit. All were in favour of the detour especially Maca Tan who has been suffering from his broken toe nails.

A group photo before leaving Buddha Guest House at Bamboo

On the way to Chhomrong, we met a Mexican hiker and his guide told him that ABC and MBC were closed due to the heavy snow and avalanche risks.

Trek from Bamboo was still covered in snow
Resting at International Guest House at Chhomrong

The trek today was mainly downhill where we passed by the same path that we went through up to Chhomrong where we broke for lunch. After lunch we took a different path to Jhinu and stayed the night at Namaste Guest House. We arrived early and Aaron, NKL and I decided to visit a hot spring with our guide and two porters.

Fantastic view of the Fish Tail Mountain

It was a 45 minutes trek down to the river nearby. The hot spring has three small pools nestled beside a river. Locals pay Rp20 whereas foreigners pay Rp100 for the use of the hot spring. There were two pipes of hot water following from a wall where we were advised to shower first before entering the pool. We tested all the three pools and NKL even followed some locals to dip into the river which was about 5°C. We soaked for about half an hour before showering there and making the hike back to the guest house.

Namaste Guest House at Jhinu
One of the hot spring pool at Jhinu

At about 10 pm, we were jolted out of our bed when the building suddenly shook. An earthquake just happened. We heard shouting from our hotel owners downstairs to come out into the open. We all dashed outside in our slippers and I managed to grab my down jacket. Aaron was quick on his feet and in addition to his winter jacket, he grabbed his day backpack with all his valuables. All the hotel guests stayed in the open for about half an hour and there were no aftershocks felt. We went back to our rooms and quickly packed my day backpack with all my valuables as well in case there is a further after shock. Luckily nothing happened after that and Sanam had received news that the epicentre was at Nayapul with a 5 Richter scale earthquake. It was a truly unique experience for the night!

Snow capped mountain with prayer
flags in the foreground.
Taken from Namaste Guest House

Day 7 (16 March 2020)

Jhinu - Makyu - Pokhara

Our guides took a morning hot spring shower before breakfast. We set off early after taking a group photo.

Group photo before the last leg of the hike

The hike took us to a suspension bridge. The view was magnificent, both of the bridge and the Annapurna mountain. Today was the shortest hike of 3.6 km which took us less than 1.5 hours including all the time taken for photo taking. Makyu is a jeep station where there were many jeeps for hire.

Jhinu suspension bridge
Mules crossing the suspension bridge
Composite pictures taken at the
suspension bridge with Sange Sherpa, our guide
At Makyu, the jeep station
Loading our luggages to the jeeps

We tipped the porters and gave them all the balance snack bars, Milo packets and wet wipes. Ernest and Ben gave them their hiking poles. Ernest's pole wasn't constructed well as the joint doesn't seem to hold well. Ben's pole could not be retracted for travel.

We took two jeeps to Birethanti where we stopped for lunch before heading to Pokhara town. The trip all in took about 3 hours. We passed by Sangkarot, the paragliding activities centre and took some pictures before heading to Queens Park Hotel. We went out for drinks at a cafe called Old Mike Cafe located beside the lake to have our fill of beer and snacks.

Pokhara seems like a tourist town where the main street are lined with tour agencies offering paragliding activities for about SGD250 for a 30 minutes ride to SGD500 for a 60 minutes ride. This supposedly includes transport from hotel to Sangkarot and back plus insurance.

We adjourned to Dunga Restaurant at the recommendation of Sanam where we treated our guides for a lovely dinner.

Watching paragliders at Sangkarot
A typical tour agency offering paragliding activities

Day 8 (17 March 2020)

Pokhara to Kathmandu

After breakfast, we took a stroll along the lakeside and had coffee at Himalayan Java Coffee beside the lake. The establishments surrounding the lake are mainly cafe or hotels. Several are still under construction.

A cut-out photo board for paragliders
who do not need to take to the air
A view of the lake at Pokhara
Laundry at the lake
Boy bathing in the lake

After tea, we returned to the hotel to take a bus to the Pokhara airport which was 10 minutes away. The aircraft was a propeller ATR. The flight time was 25 minutes travelling over about 160 km to Kathmandu.

Boarding the aircraft

Karki (sounds like carkey and that's how he called himself), was our Kathmandu driver waited for us at the airport to take us to Hotel Sapana Garden. We had a late lunch at Momo Star and did some shopping before coming back to the hotel to send off Aaron and Ben to the airport.

Last group photo before Aaron and Ben left of the airport
Showing off our ABC t-shirts

Sanam came to present katas to all of us as a departing gift. Aaron's Malindo flight was brought forward to today as the airline cancelled the flight for tomorrow. Ben changed his flight to fly direct back to Singapore to avoid a transit in Kuala Lumpur as he would have to observe a 14-day Stay-Home-Notice in Singapore if he had done so.

Day 9 (18 March 2020)

Kathmandu to Singapore

We had a later breakfast than usual and spent the morning chatting till about 10 am before Sanam came by to arrange the taxi for Chong Ling and NKL to go to the airport. The staff at Hotel Sapana Garden was operating at half strength due to the lack of business. According to the vendors of the shops in Thamel, the streets were much quieter and they are experiencing at least a 60% to 70% drop in business due to the Covid19 situation.

It was sweet memories and an anticipation for a possible future hiking trip here after and hopefully the end of this Covid19 pandemic that has swept the world in the short two weeks that we were here in Nepal.

We escaped the Stay-Home-Notice which only took effect on 2359 hours on 20 March 2020. It was certainly a trip with many great experiences. Started with the colourful Holi festival, trekking up to ABC in snowing conditions, averting the closure of ABC just a day after we trekked down plus an earthquake shock at Jhinu all rounded up a trip that will certainly leave a lasting impression for a live time. We were also lucky to have left Kathmandu prior to March 22 as the Prime Minister of Nepal announced the shutdown of all international flights in and out of Kathmandu from March 22 till March 31, 2020.

We will be reminiscing this trip for a while in the gloom and doom of Covid19 news since we got back home. Hopefully this wears out and a future trip could be in the making in time to come!

ABC trail on a t-shirt sold in Pokhara

I have stitched up the Relive satellite maps of our ABC hike using PowerDirector and have saved it on youtube:

The background song is taken from a local traditional Nepalese folk song called Resham Firiri (loosely translated as fluttering silk). The English translation from wikipedia is as follows:

My heart is fluttering like silk in the wind
I cannot decide whether to fly or sit on the hilltop
To the dog-it’s puppy, puppy,
To the cat-it’s meow meow,
Our love is-waiting at the crossroads.
One-barrelled gun, two-barrelled gun,
targeted at a deer.
It’s not the deer that I am aiming at,
but at my beloved.
Aeroplane in the sky, motor on the roads,
If not then bullock cart.
If your heart feels the same as mine then come..
The tiny baby calf is in danger at the precipice.
I couldn't leave, let's go together, my love.

It was a catchy song that Maca Tan and Ernest sang with gusto at the beginning of the hike after Gelbu and Sange taught them how to sing it. We can tell by the end of the day’s hike, their tired facial expression that the song is the last thing on their mind. When they came bursting with Resham Firiri again at the start of the new day, we knew their energy had returned!

Many thanks and deep appreciation to NKL for organising this wonderful trip and for contacting Sanam Sherpa as our guide for this trip. He is certainly very helpful and we would have no hesitation recommending our friends to use his services for hiking trips to Nepal.