Day 42: Location – Nepal, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Ulleri
I was woken a few times by village dogs barking, but slept alright. We were up at 6am, as we needed to do some hard trekking before the sun got too high. As we ate breakfast there were already mule trains and a seemingly never-ending stream of porters carrying supplies in baskets (for the villages), trekker loads or camping gear. We tucked into a mountain breakfast of eggs and Gurung bread, which is fried salty flat bread, very tasty. By 7:30 we were off and within ten minutes it was already hot going, the weather was sunny and cloudy.
We set a good pace, overtaking groups of trekkers and advancing along the valley through villages, before crossing the river and starting up the infamous Ulleri steps. This narrow stone staircase goes steeply straight up the side of the valley to Ulleri village taking a few hours. My dad had warned me about this section – it’s how he permanently damaged his knee in his youth.
The sun was blaring down with no shade to hide in, but we kept a fast pace, stopping occasionally at traditional rest stops. These are at regular intervals along all the trails, usually no more than twenty minutes apart, and are long stone platforms, just the right height to dismount your basket/backpack without having to bend down. A second step above this provides a seat. Often they’re sited under rocks or trees for shelter. They provide a much needed break spot, especially for the porters, so you often see two or three people at each one. Shiba and Krishna chatted to the other Nepali workers at these stops.
The sun was too bright for photos but the views out along the forest and farmland valley towards Naya Pul were really nice. You could see the little villages we’d walked through in the distance.We passed school kids on the steps, a part of daily life for them. They walk for 45 minutes each way up and down the steps to get to and from school. Porters with massive loads trudged past us, incredibly strong and fit.
We had to make way a few times for fast mule trains –when going downhill they were unstoppable and you sometimes had to jump out the way to avoid getting smashed by their gas canisters. You could see they have a hard time on the steps, it’s not natural for their legs. We saw one baby mule trailing behind a train, being ushered along by the herder, it was in training. Krishna told me a mule costs around 50,000 Rupees each – around 500 quid. Very expensive for this country but a good investment, they can usually work for 10-12 years carrying heavy loads. Porters and mule trains are the only way to get supplies up to the villages up here – some being 5 days walking distance from a road. Of course this makes accommodation, food, and especially drinks expensive up here! For every drinks bottle you buy, someone has got to carry it up and often someone else has to carry the empty bottle back down again!
Along the trail you’d see bins full of plastic water bottles and other rubbish, and little stone furnaces for burning waste. According to the guide books, rubbish is a big problem with such a large amount of trekkers passing through, particularly plastic water bottles. I was drinking water like a fish, sweating constantly with the heat and the hard climb. Where possible on the trek I bought boiled or filtered water for my platypus instead of buying bottles.
We finally reached Ulleri and I thought the climb hadn’t been as bad as people make out. We continued at a lesser incline and stopped at a really nice restaurant for a drink, with a flower-filled garden. The Fishtail and another Annapurna had been revealed from behind the clouds and looked magnificent, towering in the distance over the valley. The Fishtail was glowing so brightly it looked unreal, like a painting. In 4 or 5 days we would be right at its base, I was looking forward to it!
At the top of the hill an hour later we stopped for lunch. Men were hand-washing dishes using a small water hose out on the stone courtyard. These pipes are the main water source for houses and usually come from streams high up the mountain where there’s less risk of contamination. Every lodge and restaurant has one or two, and the water is constantly pouring out. You see people washing dishes, clothes, brushing their teeth and shaving outdoors by these hoses.
Although it was only 10:30 I was already starving, so I took two dishes and then had a dessert! I really felt fat afterwards! Krishna and Shiba happily tucked into their dahl baht and convinced me that even though I don’t like lentils, I should try it sometime. I’d told them in Bhaktapur I’d been unimpressed by it, but they assured me the quality was much better in the mountains so I agreed to try it tonight.
We continued up through a forest, where there were far less people. The forest was filled with twisted, moss-covered trees, dangling vines and ferns growing up the trunks.
Through gaps in the trees I saw big cliffs on the other side of the valley, and I could hear a river rushing below. We crossed rushing streams and passed small waterfalls. The trail flattened out and we passed through a few villages.
We soon reached our destination, Gorepani. It was only 3pm, we had raced here! Gorepani was a stretched out village, starting at the bottom of a flight of steps leading to a central square at the top.
There were lots of trekkers here. We stopped at a permit checkpoint and continued into the centre. There were blue roofed lodges all around, jewelry stalls and a little stupa at the junction. As we climbed the steps to the left, we saw out over to the next valley. Spectacular – we were around 3000 meters high and could see out over huge valleys and mountains stretching for what seemed like hundreds of miles. Some of the lodges here had patios overlooking this amazing sight.
We reached the highest hotel in the village where we would stay tonight. It was a big building, though as basic as the others. A cylindrical heating drum sat in the middle of the restaurant downstairs. My bedroom window looked out onto a cabbage field with a scarecrow. Now we were free I changed and went for a walk around the village with Shiba. We followed each of the paths from the central crossroads. In one direction was a school (they have green roofs up here) with a sports court outside. Teenagers were playing volleyball, and hell if it wasn’t a one of the best views in the world from a court with one – the mountains towered behind them, and low cloud started to blow in – we were so high it blew right through the village, creating an amazing atmosphere.
At the village gate we found some men building a new section of path – flattening the soil and laying down big flat stones. A lot of the stones used on the paths is very metallic and shines silver in the light. They’re cut with hammer and chisel, and new slabs were propped around the trees here ready to be used. The men told us they’d been working on this 30 meter section for five days now. It looked like hard work and it made me appreciate that all of these trails has guys like this constantly building and repairing them. During the monsoon and winter seasons the paths take a lot of damage and need repairing every year. When you’re half an hour from a village and walking up a big flight of steps in the middle of nowhere, it’s a sobering thought to think that guys have lugged all these stones and worked up here.
On the way back we saw a mule train finishing for the day. The herder was unsaddling them and the donkeys were rolling around in the dirt and munching everything in sight. Some of them had horrible, weeping, circular red sores where the saddles had been. They’d stay in sheds here for the night and then go down tomorrow with empties like gas canisters, bottles and rubbish.
Back at the hotel the mist was clearing. The wind had blown away some of the cloud in the distance, revealing glimpses of some massive mountains on the horizon, more Annapurnas I hadn’t even known were there. Another layer of scale was added and it was breathtaking, we’d been walking all day up in the mountains, but those were the *real* mountains there, looking down on us. It felt quite humbling.
I took some photos before it got dark and headed inside to the warmth, it was chilly up here. The hotel was full. I stuck to my word and tried their dahl baht, which was actually pretty decent. The free refill afterwards left me stuffed! We reviewed the photos of the day on my laptop, sadly most were terrible due to the harsh lighting conditions and the jungle photos were just a nasty contrast of dark and light. They really didn’t capture the awesome views or the sense of scale, especially the panoramas. Unfortunately my compact camera with its panorama mode was broken too. We turned in around 10pm as we had a very early start tomorrow.