I am writing from Lakeside, Pokhara. Less crowded, cleaner and quieter than Kathmandu and with incomparable views over the Annapurna Range, Pokhara is a very pleasant town in which to take a few days of rest.
We left Kathmandu on the 21st of November, taking a two hours local bus ride to Sundarijal to start the Gosainkund Trek in the Helambu Region.
I knew very little about this trek and was agreeably surprised by what it offered. We felt strong and well rested after four days of break. But only two days after starting, I suffered from a terribly annoying case of giardia which would stay with me for two weeks. It didn't keep me from walking and enjoying the stunning Lauribina Pass (4610m), the beautiful sunrises and sunsets and the extensive views over the white peaks of Langtang, Ganesh, Manaslu and Annapurna Himals in the distance.
At the holy Gosainkund Lake, a pure gem tucked in the mountains after Lauribina Pass, I experienced Himalayan magic that words can hardly convey. That evening, I stood there, alone, contemplating a bright golden sunset over a sea of clouds, listening to the chanting of a Sadhu sitting behind me. The beauty of the scenery combined with the quality of the chanting created such a powerful, moving energy that I felt tears swelling up in my eyes. A true moment of bliss.
Now in the Langtang Region, we joined the high route of the GHT at Syabru Besi. From there it was a much less trodden path through the Ruby Valley where we had to camp a few nights on unused millet terraces, in dark and quiet pine forest or on frozen high pastures.
Weakened by two weeks of abdominal problems and floored by the antibiotics taken to cure them, I lived there my toughest hike on the Trail so far. The steep, never ending ups and downs of this region and the little food that sustained us made it exhausting. But it was a wonderful cultural experience, as we appreciated the generosity of the locals and witnessed their authentic ways of living, far away from the influence of the tourism industry.
We reconnected with that influence when we joined the Manaslu circuit. As a restricted area, Manaslu requires a guide. We therefore met our wonderful guide Bijaya who would walk with us for eight days.
The Manaslu Circuit is the perfect example of what trekking in the Himalayas means: It is the only place in the world where you can do five full days of continuous uphill hiking to reach a high pass, without ever going down.
The trek started following the Buddhi Gandaki River in a narrow canyon. The vegetation was lush. Thick bamboos and tall pine trees hanged from the vertical cliff towering above us. The jungle slowly gave way to a high altitude frozen world, with the elegant silhouette of Manaslu (8163m) dominating everything.
We were now in December, and the peak of the trekking season behind us, we could enjoy the hike without the usual crowds. The flip side of this was the fact that many teahouses were now closed as the villagers went down to warmer areas for winter. Teaming up with other trekkers and thanks to the negotiating of one of our guides, the teahouse before the pass, at Dharmasala, was exceptionally reopened for us and that saved us a very long day of walking to get over Larkye La (5135m). Over the pass, a fierce, penetrating wind brought the temperatures to a biting -15°C. My hands and feet were painfully cold, but I thought it a fair price to pay to enjoy the raw beauty of my surroundings: the snow crunching under my feet, the blue ice of the glaciers, the jagged high peaks, the eagles soaring overhead, an avalanche rumbling in the distance....
After eight days together, we sadly bid farewell to Bijaya who had by then become a good friend. Thanks to him, my skills in Nepali language have improved a bit and I can now say a few words!
The long days, drastic temperature changes and almost 3 months of hiking took their toll when we reached Dharapani, the junction of the Manaslu and Annapurna Circuit. Eef felt dispirited, P-J got discouragingly sick.
We were all broken, exhausted. The three of us have a solid experience in long distance hiking. Eef and P-J, spending their winter in remote Lapland, are used to cold and harsh conditions. Yet, through-hiking the Himalayas of Nepal is aggressively wearing us down, physically and mentally. The highs and lows we experience are perfectly in the image of the mountains and valleys we walk through: vertiginous, unsettling.
But we are of great moral power and passionate about what we are doing. The team spirit is strong: we may feel low at times, but we will not give up.
However, as we started the last section of this leg of our journey, the world famous Annapurna circuit, P-J felt too weak to walk. After persevering for a few days, he ended up taking a jeep back to Pokhara. It was a sad moment to see the team, even momentarily, separated. Especially that the Annapurna circuit, despite a road built almost on its entire length, contributed to lift up our spirits considerably.
Indeed, the trek was easier, and the conditions less trying than in Manaslu. Despite getting along very well, being just the three of us 24/7 can at times feel a bit straining. So when Eef and I shared teahouses with a bunch of enthusiastic trekkers with whom we forged good bonds, it was a real breath of fresh air for us.
The trek offered stunning views over the massive Annapurna Range. The landscapes were strikingly different from the Manaslu area. As I hiked up in the cold and crisp mornings, I found myself, again, in awe before this world of frozen rivers and silence. No matter how many times I've been at high altitude by now, their is something bewitching about it. Something I can't put into words, that can only be felt while being here.
Thorung La (5416m) was the last pass above 5000m for us on the GHT. Eef was jubilant: for the first time, she didn't suffer from mountain sickness at this altitude. I smiled and enjoyed the moment with a mix of joy, gratitude and reverence for the mountains. In front of us, a new landscape revealed itself: the jagged snow-capped mountains of Upper Dolpo.
We slowly worked our way down to the village of Muktinath, having a sweeping view over the arid undulating landscape of Mustang. In a funky teahouse in Muktinath, we spent a remarkable evening around the fire place with all the other trekkers. Then it was a bumpy but fun 2 day-long jeep ride back to Pokhara.
The Himalayan magic sometimes emerges from the most unexpected and wonderful circumstances. It is just a matter of keeping your eyes, and your heart open!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you!