Trekking in the Annapurna Region (Part 2): Khopra Danda (Ridge)

Trekking in the Annapurna Region (Part 2): Khopra Danda (Ridge)

You can read our adventures of Mardi Himal (Part 1) of this series here in this link.

Day 6: A Relentless Yet A Picturesque Day: Landruk-Ghandruk-Tadapani

  1. Total Distance: 11 km
  2. Time taken: 8 hours
  3. Max Altitude: 2630 m (Tadapani)
  4. Min Altitude: 1565 m (Landruk)
  5. Total Expenses: NPR 3150 (includes snacks at Ghandruk (550) and snacks, dinner at Tadepani)

After we were done with our thrilling trek to Mardi Himal we were down here at Landruk, enjoying a nice, warm bed and shower.

Needless to say, we had an amazing sleep last night. Mind you we are on a trek, this much of luxury is unacceptable! But then the fact of the matter is we were neither complaining. Outside Annapurna South and Hiunchuli were visible and they looked huge. For breakfast we were carrying Muesli packets, we just ordered milk and had the muesli mixed in it. Cost-saving right there.

Venky who was at Ghandruk last night would be starting off for Tadapani, and would rendezvous with us there. I and Ashwin had an early start at 7:30 am towards Ghandruk. One can also go to Chhomrong from here for Annapurna Base Camp trek (ABC). From Landruk it’s a downhill walk till the river on steps carved out of stones, cross the bridge and a quick uphill walk on the stairs till the main road. We quickly galloped on the stairs till the bridge. Once the bridge was crossed we walked up on the stairs till the main road that connects till Ghandruk. It took us around 1.10 hours till now. From here on it’s a pure walk up on rocky stairs till Ghandruk.

Glaring at the thought of climbing so many stairs both of us planned to cheat our way out; get on an upcoming bus or cab till Ghandruk! Mountains though had other ideas and no vehicle turned up. Reluctantly we continued on our way up towards Ghandruk on those knee jolting steps. We were sweating profusely under a sunny sky and the steps looked like never-ending. The knees were taking the brunt of climbing each step here. We managed to enter Ghandruk village at 10:30 am, much to the respite.

Countless steps snaking through Ghandruk

In 1950 m Ghandruk is by far the biggest village in the ACAP. The village offers fascinating views of the Annapurna massif and apart from trekkers a traveler looking out for relaxation Ghandruk is a great option. We checked into a homestay for some refreshment. We had undoubtedly the best soup noodles here on the entire trek. Moving on and the nightmarish stairs continued. Ghandruk has plethora of stay options, each offering slightly different angle views of the mountains and the valley. Looking back on our trail Landruk now looks so far and tiny.

The trail becomes real pristine once Ghandruk is behind

As soon as we started to exit Ghandruk the steps slowly gave way to a trail of our liking and homestays made way for forests. Walking in such pristine dense forests with Cheer Pheasants flying around was such a divine feeling. With hardly any human on the trail, I sure was enjoying my solitude in this vast greenery. Apart, there were so many water streams crisscrossing my path. It was intriguing to not see many people on this beautiful path.

I was feeling quite hungry with so much of walking. But our destination was still a good 5 hours away, and with the intermediate presence of uphill climb along with seldom steps stopping for rest was not an option. Plus there weren’t any tea-houses or shops in the forest from where we could take a momentary halt and get refreshments. Imagine walking here during the months of March-April, it will be blooming with rhododendrons all around.

Gradual height gain

There was this particular section wherein there was this beautiful, small waterfall to my left. I took my own sweet time to photograph it before moving on. And as I proceeded there’s one more slightly ahead. And, WOW, there’s another on my right now while I climb the stairs! Interesting sight all around I’d say. As I continued ahead I reached a campsite and couldn’t control my joy as I’ve finally reached Tadapani. Time was 2:30. But I got a little skeptical as there were hardly any trekkers that I could spot. Turned out this place is Bhaisikharka at 2480 m. Tadapani was another 45 mins-1 hours further ahead as clarified by a bunch of returning trekkers. Needless to say that didn’t help much to motivate my already fatigued body.

From here onward the trail was much calm as there was no water stream passing by. The trees here spookily shaped, reminiscent of the forests of Narnia. As I continued on my strides I inquired couple of trekkers going in the opposite direction on how far ahead is the camp. I was quite close it appeared and soon enough I could spot smoke emanating.

Based at an altitude of 2630 m I reached Tadapani at 3:15 pm. Venky and Ashwin had already reached and booked us a room of 3 beds. We finally meet Venky, our 3rd trek together after Sandakphu and Kedarkantha. Compared to all the other campsites Tadapani was rather smaller with around 3-4 tea-houses. Most of the trekkers we met were heading out to ABC via Chhomrong. We huddled in the dining hall for some card games. A lot of the foreigners were reveling with beer cans in the hands, we controlled our temptation of buying booze for selves and instead kept content with French Fries (that too 1 plate shared between 3 of us) & some khakra that Venky got. In fact Venky was carrying a ton of food-stuff in his sack.

Our accommodation for today

Macchapucchre gleaming in the sunset

As the day was drawing to a closure the clouds vanished (momentarily though) and the Annapurna massif was visible. By the time I could run back to the room and get my camera the clouds were again taking over. The orange hue all over the mountain during sunset is something that cannot be explained in words. We had our regular dal-bhaat-sabji for dinner and engaged in some night photography before retiring to our respective beds.

Day 7: Our Day of Leisure Trekking: Tadapani to Dobato via Meshar & Isharu

  1. Total Distance: 6.5 kms
  2. Time taken: 5 hours
  3. Max Altitude: 3650 m (Dobato)
  4. Min Altitude: 2630 m (Tadapani)
  5. Total Expenses: NPR 5230 (Tea @ Meshar Danda 230, stay, lunch, dinner, and breakfast at Dobato 5000).

Today was going to be a rather easy day of trekking till Dobato. While most trekkers would take the route on the right to Chhomrong we will be taking the trail that goes straight to Dobato, with far lesser footfall. Milk is what we ordered for breakfast to mix with the muesli that we were carrying. Few photos before the massif and we were off towards our next destination. The trail is hardly frequented by trekkers, so much so that we had to re-affirm that we are not lost. The good thing is that there are color markings on the trees that re-affirm you are on the right path.

Tadapani to Meshar Danda is around 2-2.5 hours of trekking on a mix of the rocky and ascending trail. We were soon joined by a family from the US with their 2 kids not older than 8-9 years. We were taken aback when we realized they can speak fluent Nepali! Being doctors they have been in Nepal for the last 7 years and work with the government as volunteers. The trail till Meshar is again through dense forests with some parts with a steep climb. We had black and lemon tea at the tea house in Meshar. From Meshar the forest starts clearing at many sections and is mainly uphill walk till Isharu.

Making our way to Isharu

We were now walking on a narrow ridge towards Isharu, a gorge on our left along with tall pine trees beyond. It takes around 45 mins-1 hour to reach Isharu from Meshar and comprises of not more than 2 tea houses for accommodation. With us being the only souls on the trail the trek today was easy on our legs and back. We were chattering, taking pictures of flowers, flying drones; anything that could slow us down. The quaint valley that we are in, we sure we aren’t lost? Navigating through narrow pathways only to again open to a wide, open valley littered with flowers and water streams is how poems get their words.

Clouds started taking over the valley as morning made way for noon. It takes around 1.5 hours to reach Dobato from Isharu. As we inched closer to our destination we were soon caught up by a French solo traveler. He was 76 years old and looking at his fitness and enthusiasm we were all flattered. Turns out he was trekking to Khopra Danda as a preparation for the tougher Manaslu Circuit trek. There were 3 tea houses at Dobato out of which 1 was not operational. We had got the contact details of one of the tea house from the owner at the tea-house in Tadapani as it belonged to her son

Got ourselves a 3-bed room of which the blanket was ice cold damp. It soon started to rain out there dropping temperatures further. Inside the dining hall, it was quite warm thanks to the heater. There were other trekkers from Australia, Britain, and Germany who were either reading a book or chatting amongst themselves. We took out the playing cards and started playing ‘Thameroo’ (have no idea what’s the meaning of the name) which we learned in Tadapani from a local guide. For lunch, we had veg pizza and French fries, along with the snacks that we were carrying. Time flew as we got engrossed with our card game. Outside the rains had subsided and as usual, the clouds started to clear off from the mountains as the day came to an end. We had a glorious setting right in front of us from the comfort of where we were seated.

This trail is also known as Muldhai/Mulde Trek as 30 mins from Dobato there was the Muldhai viewpoint from where one can get astounding views of the Dhaulagiri range as well as Annapurna massif. You can basically spot around 23 peaks from the top! And that’s where we would be heading tomorrow early morning. We had our usual dal-bhaat-sabji for dinner before retiring to our beds. Have to say the bed and the blanket were so cold and damp I didn’t feel like sleeping in that. But it’s still a sort of luxury to get these amenities so high up.

Day 8: An Awesome Day. Well, Almost! Trek to Muldhai/Mulde Top-Back to Dobato & Then to Chhistibang

  1. Total Distance: 6.5 km
  2. Time taken: 4 hours
  3. Max Altitude: 3150 m (Chhistibang)
  4. Min Altitude: 3650 m (Dobato)
  5. Total Expenses: NPR 1900 (stay, lunch, and dinner at Chhistibang)

We had an early start to the day, at 4:30 am. We were to see the sunrise from the Mulde Peak, which would give us a glorious view of the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna massif. Needless to say, we were damn excited. It’s a 30-45 mins hike from our tea-house and our steps were sluggish due to the cold. The trail passes through bushes and shrubs before opening up to a meadow. And boy, did I just gasp at the first sight of the Dhaulagiri massif. The 7th highest peak in the world Dhaulagiri I was right in front along with its family of peaks. We finally got to see peaks apart from the Annapurna massif (which has been our companion from the start).

On our right, the Annapurna massif and Macchapucchre were equally impressive, though slowly getting under a veil of clouds. The Dhaulagiri massif right in front stood there like a King’s throne, with the Dhaulagiri I serving as the King’s main seat. Sunlight was slowly uncovering the massif from its pinkish hue to its ever-glorious white form. Mulde peak offered a stunning sweep of all major peaks like Dhaulagiri I, II, III, IV, V, Nilgiri North & South, Gurja Himal, Tukuche, Fang, Annapurna I, II, III, South, Hiunchuli, Macchapucchre, Lamjung among others. We ended up taking numerous pics of the entire range, in every angle possible. Of course, we had a long day of trekking today. So, at around 7:15 we started on our way back to our tea-house at Dobato for some breakfast and then on our way out.

Our destination for today was Khopra Danda (ridge). But then words flowed in that there are no rooms or bed available at the Khopra Community Lodge there. There’s only a single tea-house at the Khopra Danda, hence prior booking is the key (there were 1-2 under construction when we were there). Unsure what to do we decided to still get going, and get our sleeping bags out in some corner of the kitchen or dining hall (finally, sleeping bags!). We set sail to Khopra Danda at 9 am after some filling breakfast (no muesli this time).

The Dhaulagiri massif was completely covered by clouds by now. We were now walking a narrow ridge with a jaw-dropping cliff, sometimes on the right and then left. Snaking our way on this narrow piece of walking land there was a plethora of colorful small flowers littered on the sides. We just couldn’t stop clicking their pics, trying to get a better one than the previous one. From Dobato it can take anywhere between 8-9 hours to reach Khopra Ridge, it’s a long day and hence we had to ensure we were on move at a decent pace. For the last 3 hours or so the trail has been relatively flat or with minor ascends. We were having a gala time till now. We reached a junction where the trail forks; the right one points to Khopra whereas the left one takes you to Swanta. After completing Khopra our plan was to retrace the path and take the trail to Swanta.

Sweeping panoramic view of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna massif from the Mulde Viewpoint

The trail now passes through dense oak forests with steep ascends. There are this waterfall and river stream that we had to cross, which was flowing with some thunderous power. After moving some distance we would cross another river stream post which the trail had a steep ascend. Now this is when the trouble started with my right knee. I began to sense some pain, and before I could realize my knee would be in excruciating pain with every step. This slowed me down considerably and the other 2 were already farther ahead. And then it also started drizzling. With my poncho on and with a painful knee, I wobbled ahead. As much I was trying to control my steps and straighten my leg with every step the pain would just get more intense. I just hoped to reach the nearest tea-house for some needed rest and continued forward carrying a sore knee. To my luck, I reached Chhistibang at around 2:30 pm, headed inside the community lodge for some rest and lunch. We ordered for some soup noodles, but more importantly, I went inside the kitchen to give some heat on my knee. And as luck would have it the drizzling turned out into a heavy downpour. We would just sit inside hoping the rain would stop for us to continue on our trek to Khopra. Personally, I was content and made peace with the fact that we aren’t going anywhere today.

Against the plan and due to the circumstances we decided to stay put at Chhistibang for today. And to our surprise our friend from France was already there, making for an evening filled with the exchange of stories. He travels 9 months in a year, and I have to salute his fitness and grit at this age. While I just sat next to the room heater exposing my sore knee to the wooden fire Venky would befriend another senior from Australia and chat with him about his professional life (and maybe a chance for a work visa as well). We had one more solo trekker from Nepal who would also join us tomorrow early morning to Khopra and then to Khayer lake. The tea-house was extremely comfortable clean and comfortable. Only 4 rooms were taken in the entire lodge, there was hardly any hustle-bustle unlike at the other tea-houses.

Day 9: Stunning Views from Khopra Danda; Chhistibang-Khopra-Khayer Lake-Khopra

  1. Total Distance: 10.5 km
  2. Time taken: 4 hours
  3. Max Altitude: 4000 m (Khopra, Khayer Lake)
  4. Min Altitude: 3150 m (Chhistibang)
  5. Total Expenses: NPR 5370 (stay, lunch, dinner, and breakfast at Khopra lodge)

We had to start quite early today as well to cover up for lost ground yesterday, 4 am to be precise. It was a dark, frigid cold outside and we 4 ventured out back in the woods with head-torches buckled on our forehead. My knee was good today and I was just praying that it remains so. Back inside the forest we ensured to walk together to ensure no one misses the trail in the dark. I was stepping cautiously to avoid any exertion on my knee, the steep climb leaving us with deep breathes. It would take anywhere between 1.5-2 hours to reach Khopra. As we gradually gained altitude the tree-line started to recede giving us the grand views of the Dhaulagiri massif. That first sight was enough to take away all our fatigue. And as the horizon cleared up the mountains looked even more picturesque than before.

At an altitude of 3660 m we reached Khopra Danda at 6, it was windy and we were freezing in that cold gust of wind. We could also see the Kali Gandaki gorge, the deepest gorge in the world that separates the Dhaulagiri range from the Annapurna massif. And as we entered the tea-house people had just started to get up. Luckily for us we were able to secure one room for the 4 of us, but the same will be available after the current occupants wake up and get moving. Hence, we dumped our rucksacks in the dining area and picked our day-packs so as to start moving towards Khayer Lake. At 7 am we started towards Khayer Lake, which according to the locals would take anywhere between 5-6 hours. It was a clear, bright sunny day, and we hoped it would stay that way.

Khayer Lake is thronged by pilgrims who consider the lake holy and embark on this journey from Tatopani to offer their prayers. Today we would barely meet 3 people on the entire trail though. The trail is extremely pristine and offers the true experience of a ridge walk. The path can be well marked out and ascends gradually letting one acclimate properly. As you gain altitude the views of Annapurna Fang, Annapurna I get more prominent and you can easily make out the gargantuan size and snowfield of Annapurna I. We didn’t waste any moment for a photo op, though we would realize only later the long day that lies ahead.

It had snowed yesterday, and 2 hours into the trail we could see patches of white around. The snow on the trail had solidified and turned into ice sheets owing to the sun-rays. We would put one leg ahead, ensure that our grip is firm before proceeding to put the other leg. One wrong step and we would be tumbling down thousands of feet to our left. It was scary, we were dreadfully slow, yet the thought of seeing a lake at an altitude of 4500 m drove us ahead. Besides, with the brownish meadows, streams out of melting snow, and the captivating views of the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna massif kept us enthralled. Though it’s been almost 4 hours now and there were no signs of the lake by any stretch nor there was anyone crossing us that we could inquire.

The 4th guy who had started the day with us was already way ahead. Ashwin also started drifting ahead while I and Venky tried to keep up with their pace. As is the norm clouds would start covering up the valley as the afternoon drew closer. At one point Ashwin couldn’t be seen and neither our screams to him would solicit any response. We met a returning couple and their local guide told us that the lake was a further 3-4 hours more, it was already 12 pm. Hearing this we both lost the zeal to continue any further. We had rained in the later part of the yesterday and feared it may happen today as well. We abandoned our plans to go any further and started to make our way back. Ashwin and the 4th guy would be continuing ahead to Khayer Lake, unaware at that point we wouldn’t be joining them. It became windy and cloudy all around as we were on our way back. With a ton of time in hand now we both were merrily returning to our tea-house, quite often left spellbound by the way clouds were playing around in the valley.

Night shot of Nilgiri South, Annapurna Fang , Annapurna South

Sunset on Annapurna I and Fang. PC Ashwin

Back in the tea-house while we were enjoying our hot bowl of soup noodle we were a bit concerned that the other two were yet to return. Temperatures started to drop and there was rainfall for a short duration as well. They finally managed to reach at 5:30 pm, and boy they did reach Khayer Lake. Below are some pics which Ashwin took while we were away.

The food in this tea-house was, well, okayish. Probably due to too many trekkers staying under a single roof, the locals managing the lodge were facing difficulties in keeping up. The rest of the evening was spent in chatting with our friend from France and an Ukranian. We would be heading down tomorrow and back in civilization.

Day 10: What a Dull, Long, Tiring Day! Khopra to Tatopani via Paudwar

  1. Total Distance: 14 kms
  2. Time taken: 13 hours
  3. Max Altitude: 1250 m (Tatopani)
  4. Min Altitude: 3660 m (Khopra)
  5. Total Expenses: NPR 8400 (Lunch at Paudwar 1500, Hot Springs (2 times) 900, Stay, dinner at Tatopani 6000).  

So, technically today’s our last day of the trek and the dreadful feeling of being back in the office cubicle was already looming. Our route, however, has a change of plans. Instead of tracking our path again and heading down to Swanta we decided to head down to Tatopani and then take a bus from there to Pokhara tomorrow. The trail to Paudwar, Tatopani lies right in front of the tea house and is mostly comprised of steps. This is the same trail used by pilgrims visiting Khayer Lake. Choppers and flights will keep flying around the massif while we keep descending on these dreadful stairs. It’s extremely hot and sunny today and there’s not much shade. The steps have started to hurt on the knees at the same time one has to be cautious as one mis-step can mean you rolling down.

Like other days we are the only souls at the moment on this trail. We have no idea how far Paudwar or Tatopani is. We would wildly guess if that distant village is either of the two. The sweltering heat was sapping away all our energy and we soon realized most trekkers don’t take this route. We met a passing elderly person who affirmed Paudwar was only 30 mins more to go! This was at around 12 pm, but even after 1 hour of hopping steps Paudwar was nowhere to be seen. We would take occasional breaks & just sit down at the resting points made for porters.

The part from here till Tatopani was the most tiring and frustrating of all days. Out of Paudwar and we are on this dusty, gravel-muddy road. The road winds down all the way, and the pinching knee pain has started to slowly creep its head again. While I kept wobbling there were no signs of Tatopani till our eyes could stretch. At 4 pm we crossed a suspension bridge laid over this roaring river, and where we would take numerous photos. We, however, would keep moving on in search of the last stop, completely worn out. It was 5:15 when we realized Tatopani in the distance. With the fiery Kali Gandaki river below we crossed the longest suspension bridge til now to move over to the main road where motor vehicles were plying. By far this was one of the scariest river crossings ever, as the bridge would sway to the slightest of movement.

Crossing the suspension bridge to Tatopani

Back in our rooms and the party had just got started. We had resisted from taking beer all this while during the trek. We went to the café section and ordered beers, lot of food along with a look back on some of the memorable moments from the trek. We head back to Pokhara tomorrow early morn, bidding adieu to this part of heaven.

Day 11: The Scariest, Bumpiest Ride of My Life! Tatopani to Pokhara

  1. Total Distance: 355 km
  2. Time taken: 8 hours
  3. Total Expenses: NPR 6530 (bus to Pokhara 1650, Snacks @ Lumle 460, Cab to the hostel in Pokhara 250, Hostel at Pokhara 1910, food @ Pokhara 2510)

Yesterday the hot springs were so damn good that we decided to pay one more visit before heading out. We were at the hot springs place by 6:15 am. The water though was less hot than yesterday. The hotel owner told to us that the bus departs somewhere at around 8 am, though that depends on the weather and road conditions as well. We quickly checked out of the hotel and on the main road, making sure we don’t miss the bus. An empty microbus popped up and would take us to Pokhara. Either way, one can reach till Beni and catch a bus or jeep to Pokhara as the frequency is higher from Beni. We kept our bags in the luggage compartment, without the poncho on. This was a BIG MISTAKE (which I’d explain later).

We are now on one of the most dangerous roads in the world. And when you peek through the window your heart will be in your mouth! With the Kali Gandaki river flowing along with one wrong move and we would be rolling down hundreds of feet.  To top it up the road was literally in shambles; non-existent rather. It was completely muddy; we were literally bouncing around on our seats. The bus started filling up as it kept see-sawing. Most people would get down at Beni.

On the other hand, the journey was extremely pretty, with waterfalls, beautiful people, and paddy fields dotting the landscape. The road was better after Beni, we are now cruising on the Baglung Highway. Bus fare was NPR 1650 for 3 persons. The bus made a stop at Lumle for snacks break. The bus passed Kande and it suddenly brought back smiles and memories when we saw the Australian Base Camp signboard.

We reached Pokhara by 4 pm. Got down at Zero Point/Chowk to take a cab further till Lakeside; we had booked a hostel there. We were aghast to find our bags covered in dust and grease/oil. Cab charges were NPR 250 till Paila Hostel (wouldn’t recommend this hostel). The rest of the evening was spent taking a stroll around the busy lakeside markets and relaxing with some local beer and momos. We enjoy a boating session on the Phewa Lake tomorrow morning before heading back to Kathmandu in the evening, and to our respective places the day after.

The World Treks in Nepal

They say, "Heaven is a Myth, Nepal is Real". These last 2 weeks have been absolutely insane. Trekking in Nepal was an altogether unique and filling experience, magic. The dense yet magnetic forests of oak and rhododendrons that fill you with happiness even in solitude, the ever-humble, smiling Nepalese people who are ever so helping, and of course those jagged, huge mountains that we came to witness. Trekking on our own was not only something different that we did but also something that gave us a lot of satisfaction and content. With a plethora of trekking routes, it’s needless to say I’ll be back here in this Himalayan Kingdom for more such terrains…