Day 4: Chame-Lower Pisang
I can’t believe how insanely lucky I’ve been with the weather. Every day has been crystal clear blue skies and bright sunshine. They say that blue skies appear even more blue with altitude, and that definitely seems to be my experience.
This day was much more gentle than previous. We wanted to gain altitude slowly and I had already beaten our schedule by a day – there was no real benefit to me to go around the circuit any quicker, so better to take it slow and enjoy the scenery.
The walk meandered slowly up through a pine forest (and past another gushing waterfall) before we came upon a rather unexpected sight: a giant apple tree plantation, and probably the most “modern” set-up I’ve come across so far. The apples grown here aren’t native to Nepal (they’re an Italian variety, apparently), but they were delicious and sweet. The teahouse looked more like an Alpine chalet, and they were doing a roaring trade in everything related to apples: apple tea, apple muffins, apple pie… the list went on. It was also the first teahouse with western toilets, a bar and sofas around a big stone fireplace – again, more reminiscent of a ski lodge than the threadbare Nepalese accommodations I’d come to expect. Maybe a sign of what’s to come as more people visit – though I guess part of the appeal of this route is the rustic charm!
After having our fill of apple-related products, it was a relatively short walk to Lower Pisang, where the view was dominated by a giant, sloping rock wall to our right. Soon, the monastery of Upper Pisang came into view, its golden stupa glinting in the bright sunlight. We walked up to the monastery in the afternoon, marvelling at the glorious painted ceiling and saturated colours of the temple walls. The monks lit candles and chanted as we sat quietly in the shadows around the outer perimeter of the main monastery room. It was incredibly peaceful, and one of the joys of the trek has definitely been learning more about Buddhist culture.
My teahouse room for the night has a private bathroom – joy! – and since I was the only guest, the lovely owner made me my very own apple pie (as if I hadn’t consumed enough apples today). I watched as she rolled out the dough, filled it and fried it – it was more like a big apple samosa than a pie, loaded with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, and all around one of the most delicious dishes I’ve had so far on the trek. It’s not nicknamed the “Apple pie circuit” for nothing.
Day 5: Lower Pisang-Manang
It’s election time in Nepal, and that means lots of locals are returning to their home districts in order to cast their votes. This area is predominantly Maoist/Communist, and we’ve passed by several large (but thankfully non-violent) rallies. Unfortunately it means that the road to Manang that we are walking along is busier than usual with jeeps and motorbikes, making this a very dusty trek into the centre of town. Thankfully this is the last we will see of motorized vehicles as the path beyond Manang is for people, yaks and donkeys only.
The walk into Manang is stunning, and the closest we’ve come to the Annapurna range. Annapurna II, III & IV, Gangapurna and Tilicho Peak dominate the skyline to the left, and on the right, several abandoned monasteries cast spooky shadows on the hillside. Manang itself is the busiest little town we’ve come across, since most of the trekkers take a rest day here. There are movie theatres (!) showing Everest, Into Thin Air and Slumdog Millionaire on repeat, cafes serving “real” Lavazza coffee and restaurants dishing up sizzling yak steaks and burgers. (I still am too chicken to try anything except dhal bat or vegetarian dishes). It’s so busy with locals returning home from Kathmandu for the election that the first few hotels we try are full – thankfully, Gyan scores me a nice private room with bathroom on the third floor of the Yak Hotel and I get settled in nicely. Unfortunately, the promise of a hot shower was not fulfilled – instead, I braved an icy cold one and washed some of my dusty clothes at the same time.
I also met up with some of the people I’d met earlier on and lost track of on the trail – the young Canadian siblings I shared an uncomfortable bus journey with from Kathmandu to Besisahar, a British couple, one of whom worked briefly for HarperVoyager – small world! – and an American ER doctor who’s powering around the circuit in double-quick time. Everyone (and especially me) looked a little more trail-weary now, faces pink with sun and wind exposure, muscles sore, wary of the next few high altitude days to come. It was early to bed for me though, as I’d made the executive decision (against the best attempts at discouragement by Gyan and Madi) to trek to the Ice Lakes (4640m) the next day, a good kilometre-and-a-bit above Manang (3450m). It’s apparently great for acclimatisation and spectacular views, but it’s potentially a long old slog. Still I felt good about my legs and lungs so wanted to go for it…
On my way back to the room, I checked out the clothes that I’d hung out on the line to dry. They were all completely frozen and my towel made an awkward cracking sound with ice as I shook it. Oh well – I could only hope they’d thaw out in the next day’s sunshine!
Day 6: Manang Rest Day – Ice Lake Hike
Don’t you feel that so far this Himalayan adventure has been lacking in Actual Peril and High Danger? Well, apparently, so did the universe. The day started well enough – up bright and early, I emptied my daypack of anything except what was absolutely necessary (which meant it was filled with water and kitkats) and met Gyan and Madi for our hike to the ice lakes. We had to backtrack our steps to Braga village, where we began our climb up past one of the atmospheric abandoned monasteries. The way was steep almost immediately, some of it slick with ice, and we had to move “pistare, pistare” (slowly, slowly) along tight switchbacks that zig-zagged their way up the hillside.
Going up, I found, was not such a problem – yes, my muscles were working hard but generally I felt quite safe and we took plenty of breaks for water and to stop and stare at the, frankly, incredible views. There was plenty of motivation to keep me going. The only thing I couldn’t do was look down at my watch. Knowing that the hike up was going to take at least 3 1/2 – probably more like 4 – hours, I didn’t want to be too aware of how much more uphill we had to go. Better to just keep believing the lakes were around the next bend (they weren’t).
Still, those views I’d been promised? They were beyond breathtaking as we climbed higher and even more peaks appeared. Even the very top of the notorious Annapurna I eventually became visible, and the giant Manaslu, that I thought we’d left behind, showed his face again. Condors soared above our heads, so close sometimes we could hear the rush of their flight, the downdraft buffeting our foreheads. We stopped for a snack of (you guessed it) more apples before giving it a final push to the top.
Elation! We made it! High fives all around, and we took a few photos mucking around on the surface of the completely frozen lake. The lake itself isn’t that exciting, certainly not the dramatic climax such intense effort to reach it deserved, but we pretended it was amazing to make ourselves feel better. There were a few more groups of hikers up there, all having made the intrepid effort to acclimatise in the most challenging way possible; there was a good sense of camaraderie. We ate our packed lunch of boiled eggs and (now-frozen) chapati, before deciding to begin the trek back down – it was definitely far too cold to be sitting around without moving, well below freezing (the temperature in Manang was about -12C that day). We passed a second lake (I’d say more ice pond) and a small group of yaks, as we legged it back down the hill.
I was hoping that the way down would be a lot faster, but it wasn’t to be. We made it about halfway without too much incident, except that I find downhill is always much harder on the knees and a headache was slowly but surely creeping into my temples – although whether that was from the altitude, sun exposure or exertion I wasn’t so sure. Regardless, we were entering hour 5 of our day out, the boiled egg I’d eaten at the top wasn’t sitting all that well, and I wanted to be back down at lower altitude and in my nice warm sleeping bag ASAP. We passed by a few people who were still making their way up – including one French girl who was in tears at the prospect of continuing; I felt her pain.
Now, what follows is a situation where ironically, had I NOT been with a guide, things might have gone smoother. I would have followed the signs down religiously, whereas Gyan and Madi – keen to avoid going down the slick, steep and icy slopes we’d climbed up – decided to follow a different trail (which I would’ve argued was more of a gap in the brush than a trail, but they’re the professionals). Well – things went RAPIDLY downhill (in all senses of the word) from there, as we picked our way down a “trail” that was nothing more than loose dirt, sand, scree and a few low-lying, spiky af thorn bushes. I quickly abandoned my poles, clinging instead to the least prickly parts of the thorn bushes, or to Madi’s outstretched arm, as we scrambled for footing on the loose ground that wouldn’t send us tumbling down the slope – while Gyan scouted ahead for a route back to the main pathway. The only good thing was that the extreme levels of concentration it was taking to make sure I didn’t fall was keeping my headache at bay. At last – finally! – we saw the main path. But it involved crossing a wide patch of scree that was the steepest yet – and there were no thornbushes to cling to, nor could Madi stop in the middle to help me across. He crossed over tentatively, and with difficulty, clearly deciding it wasn’t worth the risk. He and Gyan debated over my head whether we should turn back or find another way… but the path was so close (and I was pretty annoyed at them for leading me so astray in the first place) that I decided to go for it and strode my way across the perilous slope with as much confidence as I could muster. (Altitude clearly affecting my judgment there too). I think it was worth it just for the look of pure surprise on Madi’s face!
But, after my brief moment of triumph, my headache was back at full blast, along with nausea and just general fatigue, and we were still a good two hours away from when I could legitimately stop moving, the village still looking terribly small and far away beneath us. Even the main pathway down was only as wide as a single boot, so I couldn’t afford to lapse in concentration either (also, I knew that most accidents happen close to the finish line, and I didn’t want to add a sprained ankle to my woes). Gosh, I sound really self-pitying now! But I think the altitude was really getting to me. Even the relatively flat path back from the village to Manang felt interminable, but there was no other option but to walk under my own steam. Later, when I was speaking to some of the other trekkers, I think I could have easily acclimatised with a short 2-3hr round trip hike to a nice monastery as opposed to my 7.5hr journey! But I only had myself to blame as I was the one who had insisted on the ice lakes.
Still, at least I felt I had earned the respect of my guide and porter. When we finally reached the Yak Hotel again, Madi turned around and gave me a big double high-five. “You’re a real trekker now!” he said. And with that gratifying thought in my head, I climbed up to my room, crawled into my sleeping bag, and slept like the dead.
(It was 3pm.)