Trekking in the Annapurna Region (Part 1): Mardi Himal

Trekking in the Annapurna Region (Part 1): Mardi Himal
Mardi Himal Annapurna Trek

Ask any ardent trekker and he/she will confess about their dream of trekking in Nepal. This small Himalayan kingdom invites trekkers from all over the globe, they say the World treks in Nepal. Home to some of the highest peaks in the world Nepal truly is every trekker's paradise. And to fulfill this desire I and Ashwin decided to be there as well.

The thought of trekking alone was pulsating, yet scary sometimes. After a lot of deliberations in July, we zeroed down on Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), one of the most popular trekking trails in Nepal. But a bit of googling highlighted the fact that ABC is crowded, and there are other trails in the Annapurna Area that are less explored yet offer equally a sublime experience. Enter Mardi Himal and Khopra Danda (Ridge) trek. Our flights booked by Aug end to Kathmandu for this 2 week, self-supporting adventure.

This 2 series blog post on our 2 treks is a collection of the itinerary, costs, and things to do and carry. Read on...

Nepal has two main trekking seasons; Spring (Feb to Mid May) and Autumn (Sept to Autumn). Some trekkers do venture during winters, but winters are harsh out here in the mountains and most tea-lodges close down. We would be there from 1st till 13th Oct, when all the trails re-open post-monsoon.

The first sight of the Himalayan peaks

Expenses During the Trek

Except during our stay at Khopra Danda, we had no issues whatsoever in getting rooms on all days. In fact, your food is what will comprise the maximum of your overall expenses. Food inside the ACAP region is fixed at each campsite, and varies and increases as you go up. A cup of black tea can start anywhere at NPR 60 and reach upto NPR 100. Similarly, the most popular meal dal-bhat-sabji starts at around 450-500 and goes upto 600. Apart, you can also have noodles, macaroni, pizza, beer, fries... You name it and they'll make it for you (Of course, everything comes for a hefty premium). We stuck with Dal-bhat-sabji for most days, it is simple, nutritious and offers multiple refills.

Things to Carry

My rucksack weighed around 11.5 Kgs, plus my camera bag. But this could have been brought down significantly if I had planned a bit better. Below are the things I carried with me:

  1. A 70 L backpack
  2. Synthetic trousers (3 Nos.)
  3. Shirts (3 Nos.)
  4. Boxers (4 Nos)
  5. Poncho for bag and self
  6. Hiking shoes: I was wearing a Quechua MH100 by Decathlon
  7. Socks (3 Pairs)
  8. Sun-glass
  9. Head-torch
  10. Toilet kit (Toilet paper, soap, brush, toothpaste, lip balm, cold cream)
  11. 1 Ltr water bottle (2 Nos.)
  12. Rain and Windproof jacket: Throughout the trek, it was quite hot (except Khopra top). I didn't have many usages of this jacket. 1 thick jacket is sufficient
  13. Gloves (they remained unused)
  14. Beanie
  15. Water purification tablets (stream water throughout the trek that we drank from was clean)
  16. Plastic covers for stinky clothes
  17. My Camera Bag comprised of: (a) Canon 80D, (b) 2 batteries (c) Lenses: 10-18 mm, 50 mm, 55-250 mm (d) 4 memory cards (SD: 32 GG, 8 GB, 128 GB; Micro SD: 32 GB) (e) SJCam SJ6 Legend (f) Gorilla Pod, DSLR Tripod (took a lot of space in the bag)
  18. Power Bank (2 Nos). All the tea-houses had electricity and charging points, so we didn't face such issues. Though at higher camps you'll have to pay for charging.
  19. Passport with 5 passports sized pics
  20. Travel Insurance
  21. 10 Degree Celsius Sleeping bag (This was bulky and completely unused throughout the trek)
  22. Cap/Hat
  23. Medical kit (Disprin, Paracetamol, Crocin, Volini, Bandage, Avomine)

My Sleeping bag and Tripod stand took a lot of space and were bulky, though I never used the sleeping bag. A visit to a Decathlon store should suffice for all the trekking gear needs. Apart, we also took a lot of food like juice packets, energy bars, packets of Muesli, biscuits, cakes (remember, food up there is expensive). I'll probably get myself a good point-and-shoot camera the next time I go outdoors, to save myself some few kilos.

Mardi Himal: A Relatively Less Frequented Trail with Some Grand Views of Macchapucchre

Day 1: Delayed Flight, Bus to Pokhara

Our flight with Royal Nepal Airlines from New Delhi Airport to Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu got delayed by 4 hours (our initial departure timing was at 10:30 am). That means we would not get out before 5 pm, which ruined our plans to go to the Nepal Tourism Board office and get our TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) permits on the same day. Permits are a must to trek in the Annapurna region.

Being an Indian we didn't require any Visa to enter Nepal. Right after you exit the gates of the airport you can get a local sim-card from Ncell or Nepal Telecom. Apart, there are 2 ATMs from where you can draw your stash of cash. Though we did draw a lot of NPR (Nepalese Rupees) most places at Kathmandu and Pokhara also accept INR (Indian Rupees). Since we were running late already we took a cab to New Bus Park, to catch a bus to Pokhara. The cab cost us NPR 1000 (quite expensive, but we didn't bargain at all). Being a festive season we were skeptical of getting any sort of ticket, but to our luck, we got 2 seats in a bus and that too for cheap (NPR 550 per head) albeit the seats right in the back.

Pokhara

The roads till Naubise (also our dinner stop) is horrible, to say the least. The road is dusty, bad, and twisty. Most buses will stop around this area for dinner. Ensure to not eat anything spicy, a simple dal (lentils curry) & bhat (rice) should suffice. The road from Naubise onwards are better. In fact, we reached Pokhara by 2:30 am, and got down at Prithvi Chowk. Book a hostel in Pokhara on booking.com before reaching so that you have a place to stay, and inform the owner in advance about your late arrival. We stayed at Aroma Tourist Hostel which was very close to Prithvi Chowk, but the cab still charged us NPR 400. The place is really comfortable and the owner very hospitable, highly rated, and advisable to stay here. The stay cost us $14 (NPR 700) for 2 persons.

Total Expenses for the Day: NPR 3350 (Includes airport to bus stand transfer (1000), bus tickets (1100 for 2), dinner on the way, cab to the hostel at night (400))

Day 2: Apply for the Trek Permits in Pokhara NTB and Trek to Pitam Deurali from Kande

  1. Total Distance: 5.5 Kms
  2. Time took: 4.5 hrs
  3. Max Altitude: 2100 m (Pitam Deurali)
  4. Total Expenses: NPR 6570

Since we had to collect our permits as well as start with our trek today we checked out at 8 am, and instead of taking a cab we walked our way till the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) office. The NTB office is where anyone intending to trek in the Annapurna Conservation Area needs to collect their permits from. The NTB office operates from 10 am-5 pm. Before you apply keep the below in mind:

  1. Carry at least 4 passport size photographs. You can get the same clicked at NTB also.
  2. The charges for TIMS for us (SAARC nations) were NPR 600 per head and NPR 2000 for individuals from other nations. These can get revised and details can be checked here.
  3. ACAP permit fees for individuals from SAARC nations are NPR 1000 per head, for others, it was NPR 3000.
  4. Ensure you have insurance before you come, the details of the same need to be mentioned while applying for the permit.
  5. The entire activity of getting both the permits took us a maximum of 30 mins, probably due to less number of people on that day and due to the efficient staff sitting there. The details sought looks like the ones below in the pics.

Better if you manage to arrange your permits a day before your trek, this can save you a lot of time and last minute unavoidable delays. Our starting point was to be Kande village. Either way, one can get down at Phedi (which is much before Kande) and trek to Dhampus. From NTB we took a cab to Baglung Bus stand which cost us NPR 400 and took around 20 mins. Else, you may also take a cab/jeep till Kande as per your convenience and hurry, which will cost anywhere between NPR 2000-2500. To our luck, there was a bus waiting on the other side going to Baglung and would drop us at Kande. We started at around 11:30 am.

The roads ceased to exist the moment the bus exited Pokhara. We were literally riding on muddy roads, the road was full of bumps and potholes. The countryside was stunning with numerous waterfalls to your left-right. The bus ride cost us 100 NPR for each till Kande.

the roads are in a bit of sorry state

We reached Kande at about 12:45 pm, and after a cup of tea started off with our trek at 1 pm. The bus stops on the main road right in front of the way to Australian Base Camp (ABC). Our destination for the day was Forest Camp, but that looked difficult now considering our starting time. There is a signboard showing the way to the Australian Base Camp. Take the trail that traverses through the village to make your way. The trail is nicely marked so there are hardly chances that you'll lose your way. The trail passes through some lovely dense forests and consists of numerous steps. In fact a lot of steps! So much so that your knees start to hurt after a point of time, and it's only the first day! So, important that you come prepared with a lot of fitness and preparedness.

We reached Australian Base Camp at 12:30 pm, here your TIMS and ACAP permits are checked and stamped so keep them handy. Also, it's a good idea to check your hands and legs for any leeches; I had 2, one on my neck and the other on my shin. ABC is normally the first camp on the Mardi Himal trek and has a plethora of staying options. Also, you get gorgeous views of the peaks, sadly for us, we couldn't see any as it was drizzling and cloudy. One can also take a detour to Dhampus from here. Another 2.5 hours of walking through misty, dense forests take us to Pothana, another good spot to stay put for Day 1. But decided to push a bit more and make Pitam Deurali our home for the day.

Another 1.5 hours of trekking got us to Pitam Deurali at 2100 m, our first campsite for the day. There are around 3-4 tea-houses here, and all of them had a good number of rooms available. The good thing with all the tea-houses that they have:

  1. comfortable, clean beds and blankets,
  2. clean washrooms
  3. electricity and wifi (you have to pay for the wifi though, at Pitam Deurali they were charging NPR 100 per handset)
  4. and yummy, fresh hot food.

We got the bed each for NPR 300, dal-bhat-sabji was for NPR 500 each, tea costs 60/80 (black/milk). Our total expense for the day was NPR 2900 (per head). Also, to cover up for the delays of today we would be heading out early tomorrow.

Day 3: The Mad Hike from Pitam Deurali till High Camp, via Forest Camp, Low Camp, Middle Camp, Badal Danda

  1. Total Distance: 16 Kms
  2. Time took: 12.5 hrs
  3. Max Altitude: 3550 m
  4. Total Expenses: NPR 4720 (stay and Food at Pitam Deurali, tea in between, Lunch at Low Camp, stay and food at High Camp)

Because of the rains and clouds yesterday we couldn't see a single peak yesterday. Our morning though threw away all that disappointment right out of the window when we saw the first glimpses of Annapurna South, glistening in the sunlight. Still remember out of sheer excitement how I screamed for Ashwin, and he just dashed outright of his quilt. Good start!

Most folks on ground advised us NOT to attempt High Camp as the distance to cover is quite steep plus too much of a height gain for the body to get acclimatized. And this is a fair call; do not attempt to do so unless you are quite confident of your fitness and have already acclimatized well.

First sighting of Mt Dhaulagiri I

We started off at 8 am, re-entering the forest where the dreaded stairs were again waiting for us. We also saw the first glimpses of Dhaulagiri I, before clouds took over. These forests are gonna stay with us till we cross Badal Danda (Cloud Ridge), its gonna be a day full of trekking in these beautiful oak and rhododendron filled woodland. We reached Dhankharka where we had tea (NPR 160 for 2 cups) in an under-construction tea-house, deep inside the forest. Time was 10:10 am.

We made our way to Forest Camp (2400 m) by 11:45 am. Most trekkers would either stay here or move ahead and camp at Low Camp, not us though. Both of us shared one egg noodle soup (NPR 280), and were on the move as soon as we were done. There were signs of an imminent downpour as soon as we started off. The trail from Forest Camp till Low Camp is completely within the forest. The climb was steep, and the rains started. The trail became completely swampy and we would struggle with every step. At many places, our steps would get submerged in mucky loose soil. Conditions were treacherous to say the least.

Our aching feet touched the shores of Low Camp (2970 m) at around 2 pm. We would have our lunch here (dal-bhaat-sabji for NPR 1150, 2 pax). We did reunite with some of the people that we met at Pitam Deurali, and they were surprised that we would continue with our journey (it was already late and skies continued to pour down). Deep down I thought to chuck it, let's just stay here!

But that wouldn't be the case, and a reluctant self-picked up our rucksack and left at 4:10 pm. It was still drizzling outside and we were planning to reach High Camp by 7 pm. I would slip numerous times trying to climb up tricky sections. After some deliberations, me and Ashwin planned to stay put at Badal Danda if it got late. We even planned to the extent of dropping our bags at an upcoming teahouse so that we could gather pace, we were THAT late!

By the time we crossed Middle Camp (3200 m) it was 5:30 pm. There was another Nepali couple that we met at Middle camp who had also come all the way from Pitam Deurali. And they were headed to High Camp as well. Seeing their determination me and Ashwin made up our mind that we will be reaching High Camp no matter what. The trail re-enters the forest from Middle Camp before opening up at Badal Danda (3300 m), where we reached by 5:50 pm. True to its name we were literally surrounded by the abode of clouds all around.

Clouds descending at Badal Danda

It got obvious we will be late today, very late. It started to drizzle after Low High Camp which eventually turned into a heavy downpour. Notwithstanding the fact that our torches were out as well. Our legs were not willing to take an extra step now. Under a pouring sky, torches being our only source of light we were desperate to reach High Camp. With every step, we would peek in the far distance to spot a light source, only to our disappointment.

While the going got tough we did have something in front of us to lift our spirits up. We could make out the gigantic size of the Annapurna South and Hiunchuli in far left, while Macchapucchre would be beaming at us from the right. The very faint visuals under a completely dark night would cheer us up, a bit. The 4 of us would take occasional stops to sip some water and then take our steps forward. Out in this vastness, so late and in the dark, it was quite dangerous and risky to be walking to say the least. Not to mention the weariness of walking for almost 12-13 hours. But the hopes of seeing a faint light in the distance would still elude us.

At around 8:30 pm Ashwin screamed from a distance that he has reached the High Camp. Mighty relief, we just gathered all our pace and energy and rushed. The owner of the lodge came out to receive us, shocked to see us reach so late. We checked into our respective rooms, and while the other couple crashed out to get some sleep we both went back to the dining room to warm ourselves up around the heater. A hot bowl of noodle soup was all it took to rejuvenate us back.

We will have an early start to the day tomorrow. We were planning to reach a lower viewpoint by 6 am so as to witness the sunrise. Back in the room and we were packing only the essentials in our daypacks. We would be back on the trail at 4 am. A night out at 10 pm!

Day 4: How Does it Feel to be Surrounded by Some of the Tallest Peaks in the World? High Camp - Mardi Base Camp - High Camp - Low Camp

  1. Total Distance: 13 kms
  2. Time taken: 10 hrs
  3. Max Altitude: 4500 m (Mardi BC)
  4. Min Altitude: 2990 m (Low Camp)
  5. Total Expenses: NPR 2100 (stay and food at Low Camp)

The struggles of getting out of a duvet in the early hours, especially after a day of burnout is real indeed. But today's the day for us. And if sunrise is your thing than ensure to start no later than 4 am. Under a frigid, dark sky we started off with our head-torches strapped on our foreheads. The trail soon requires one to start climbing a steep slope on a hill. If you look back you'll see a line of flashlights in the dark, all starting with theirs for the top. It's not an easy way up till the top, and the fact that the only source of light is your torch makes it trickier while climbing and negotiating an edge of the hill.

As you inch closer towards the Lower Viewpoint the first source of light starts to break in. Guard-rails and steps carved out of rocks take in below the lower viewpoint. The first clear views of Macchapucchre on the right and Annapurna South to your left just leave you gasping at their sheer gargantuan sizes. You just stop at your path and couldn't admire enough the elegance of these giants.

By the time I reach the Lower Viewpoint most had started towards MBC. There are a couple of tea shops at the lower viewpoint where you can grab a cup of hot tea while reveling in the sights of the Annapurna massif. Here, Macchapucchre really steals the thunder from all other adjoining peaks, with its glorious, sharp ridges twisting till the top. Also known as the "The Fishtail" mountain the mountain resembles the tail of a fish (and hence the name). In fact, when you search details for this trek online most of the pics popping up will be of Macchapucchre, such is grandiose of this revered mountain.

Annapurna South

However, due to religious sentiments associated any form of climbing is not permitted by the government, nor anyone has summitted till date. We started off towards base camp at around 7 am which can take around 2-3 hours at an average walking speed. The trail till Upper Viewpoint is even more picturesque with the undulating mountains all around grow bigger with every step. Lose yourself in this ethereal work of nature, surrounded by a myriad of colorful tiny flowers that resembled nothing less than the divine gardens of the Gods. Macchapucchre, in particular, has this striking shape and appearance due to which it just compels you to keep staring at it. And this particular mountain is aware of its sheer elegance, as such it keeps playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, thereby hiding under a veil of clouds and reappearing after a brief stint.

Mountains here i come
Prayer flags - Thangkas flutter in the Air
I was all by myself now as most others were either way ahead or behind me. This solitude in this vast real estate was gratifying. From the Upper Viewpoint, one gets to witness the Annapurna massif in its full display of grandeur. Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Annapurna I, Gangapurna, Annapurna III, Macchapucchre all welcome with their towering yet engaging sights. The trail from here till Mardi Base Camp is another 20 mins, though the views from the Upper Viewpoint are more savoring. Spend as much time possible here, drooling over the panoramic view sweeping your eyes. And then there are these helicopters which will be flying every 5-10 mins right across the valley, taking tourists to the Annapurna Base Camp and back.

Mardi Base Camp serves as the starting point for the Mardi Peak, in the vicinity of Macchapucchre. We are at 4500 m now. The clouds were slowly taking over the massif, and soon nothing will be visible. We started to head back by around 10:30 am towards High Camp as we would have to cover up till Low Camp after Lunch. The clouds were just majestic by now. The descend was fairly quick and trouble-free, and safe to say the views of the peaks obscured by clouds.

Man and Mountain
Reflections of glory

We were back at our tea-house by 12. Quickly packed our bags before shifting to the dining hall for our lunch. Nothing soothes the soul more than a plate of hot dal-bhaat-sabji serving. Paid the bill for room+food and back on the trail at around 1:45 pm towards Low Camp. Today is another day of back-breaking walk covering up a considerable distance, though the good part is it will be a descend till Low Camp which should help us to cover up on our pace. The sludgy trail of yesternight has fairly dried up till now, making our footing more stable and firm.

We reached Badal Danda by around 4 pm, from here on it started to drizzle which again made the trail slushy and slippery. It was 5 by the time we reached Low Camp with our feet and knees needing some serious rest for the day. Ashwin was already inside the quilt by the time I reached. I dropped my bags and went to the dining hall to warm my feet up, already a bunch of trekkers was sitting inside, some playing cards others immersed in reading a book. I just sat down near the heater to warm my aching legs as well as try drying my wet pants.

Post dinner I realized Macchapucchre was visible, from behind our lodge. It was a starry night, I rushed back to our room and grabbed my tripod and camera to try my hands on some night shots.

Day 5: Those Knee Breaking Steps! Low Camp to Landruk

  1. Total Distance: 6.5 km
  2. Time took: 4 hours
  3. Max Altitude: 2970 m (Low Camp)
  4. Min Altitude: 1500 m (Landruk)
  5. Total Expenses: NPR 3300 (Stay, Lunch, dinner, breakfast for 2 persons at Landruk)

Our mate Venky would be reaching Ghandruk from Pokhara today, and our aim was to make it till Ghandruk as well via Landruk. We started off at around 9 am towards Forest Camp, and then to Landruk and hopefully towards Ghandruk. One can take the trail to Sidhing that takes the left trail right after coming out of Low Camp and finish his/her trek there. We would be on the same trail that we took to going towards High Camp. The trek till Forest was fairly simple and we managed to reach here in 2 hours. While we were taking a breather here we met few Israelis who were on their way up. Turns out they were planning to summit Mardi peak! I wasn't sure if that was allowed since they didn't have any sort of permits, but they seemed determined.

Once you come out of the Forest Camp is when the tricky part of the trek starts. There is a trail that goes towards the right one has to take towards Landruk. Now the trail is completely made out of rocky steps till Landruk. While one has to be careful of not slipping on any of those as the same can tend to be slippery as well as the cliff on the sides can be equally scary. The village of Ghandruk, high up in the mountains can be easily spotted from here as well as the cacophony of motor vehicles. I became skeptical of reaching Ghandruk looking at that elevation.

More than anything else the stairs were painful to be walking on. Continuous hopping from one to the other was rattling my knees. We came across folks who were on their way up towards Mardi Himal after finishing up with Annapurna Base Camp trek. Looks like Mardi Himal trek was already getting a lot of traction. While the distance was not too much too cover the continuous steps all the way was making sure I halt frequently while Ashwin was already miles ahead.

I reached Landruk by around 1:30 pm, all worn out and drenched in sweat. I dropped my bags and sat down to cool down while Ashwin was already hogging on his lunch. That's when I realized I am not going anywhere ahead today from here. We had a good network back on our phone and informed Venky of us staying put at Landruk while he was on his way to Ghandruk in the bus. The dal-bhaat-sabji of here was one of the finest I had in the entire trek. We took a room downstairs itself and by far the most comfortable and luxurious of all our stays. Clean rooms, attached washroom with a commode; what more can I ask for. Needless to say, a shower was much desired for.

Porters taking a break, Ghandruk village in the back

Annapurna South & Hiunchuli is visible from here, though there were clouds covering up the same. In the night the clouds were gone and one could easily make out the colossal size of the Annapurna South. I tried my like with night photography but due to lights all around in the village the same didn't turn out satisfactory. Still...

Annapurna South and Hiunchuli looks massive, with Ghandruk village in the bottom left

This brought an end to our adventures of Mardi Himal. We would be starting off on our trek to Khopra Danda (ridge) tomorrow morning via Ghandruk. Needless to say, Mardi Himal is one of the more relatively lesser-known treks (yet) without compromising on the terrain difficulty or the spectacular mountain views. Surely, it's just a matter of time before this trail sees far more traffic. Personally, I feel one needs to be fit enough to complete it in 3 days, most come with a 5-day itinerary. Having said that the Mardi Himal trek was fascinating and is an excellent proposition to add on the list if you're already planning to do ABC / ACT  / Khopra Ridge Trek

Our adventures followed to Khopra Ridge trek from here on, and you may read about it here.