Yaks - Kopra Ridge, Himalayas
Walking the walk - Annapurna Range, Nepal
Under cover of darkness I slip into a taxi and leave the quiet lakeside town of Pokhara for the rural village of Naya Phul (1200m). My early start is down to the fact there is a strike throughout Nepal today. All motorised vehicles must be off the road by 6am – a sign of protest. I must reach the start of my trek before the strike kicks in. Strikes are a regular ‘peaceful’ occurrence in Nepal these days.
After a 2-hour drive I arrive at Naya Phul and the foothills of Nepal’s Annapurna Range. The sun’s first morning rays light up the trek route that winds its way into the dizzying heights of the Himalayas.
Over the next week I’ll be exploring a new community trek route along relatively untravelled paths of the Annapurna Range. This new route focuses on more socially conscious trekking.
It is not a high altitude trek, but it offers people the chance to integrate with locals and see a part of the country that has just opened up to tourism – once you get off the main trail, you’ll see few other trekkers for days.
The ascent into the mountains starts deceivingly gently. Then for the rest of the day I ascend a vertical stone staircase with over 3,200 steps over 750 vertical metres and passing through terraced fields to the village of Ulleri (1950m), where I spend the night in a small tea house.
The temperature is around 30-degrees during the day. It will be a lot cooler higher up on the Kopra Ridge, which is my destination and highest point on this trek.
The following morning I leave Ulleri and head to Swata (2450m) in the Kaski district, a tiny village off the beaten track. My uphill climb continues for 4-hours until I reach a fork in the trail – one direction is Tatopani and the Annapurna circuit and the other leads down a narrow path.
I follow the latter, and a few metres later I hop over a stone wall into a small farmyard. This is where the trek changes - the area sees very few tourists.
I descend through lush field’s full of tall green crops. I’m fascinated and amazed by the ingenuity of the people here, who have cultivated this land and managed to bring the terraced fields up to such elevations and pitches. I am soon trudging uphill again towards Swata and arrive just before a huge downpour of early monsoon rain.
Funds raised by local villagers and donations from trekking businesses, such as UK based Imaginative Traveller, have enabled the construction of the lodges on this route. This pioneering concept creates village ownership rather than private ownership and profits from trekkers who stay at the lodges contribute towards various community projects. Swata’s new community lodge is rustic, with basic spacious rooms that are clean and cared for and offer great views.
The next day I down a few more carbs for the road and I’m on my way to Upper Chistibung (2890m), which is over 4km away and will take 5-hour’s of steep walking to get there. I navigate through thick damp forest, a perfect location for leeches – of which there are many covering the forest floor. Their bodies rearing up and waving about looking for flesh to leech on to.
I continue upwards until I reach a small herder’s settlement at the top of a ridge. The lodge is new, clean and comfortable. There’s no electricity, but the remote herders are ingeniously charging their mobiles by using portable solar panels.
The views are spectacular and I can see the village we had lunch at yesterday. It seems so close, as if we’d hardly covered any distance at all – but my legs tell me other wise.
Each day I eat Dal Bhat - the staple diet in Nepal, generally served twice daily and consisting of rice, runny lentils and vegetable curry.
The following morning and there’s a big day ahead, with 6 steep hours trekking up to Kopra Ridge (3870m) - yet only covering 4km in distance.
At the top of the ridge I’m greeted with cloudy skies, but soon they shift revealing a spectacular panoramic view of the Himalayas, with Annapurna South just 6kms away and Fang and Niligiri to the north. Across the Kali Gandakhi Valley – the deepest valley in the world - the western skyline is dominated by the Dhaulagiri Himal.
Kopra Ridge lodge is the highlight of the community trek and profits have contributed to a secondary school in the nearby village of Nangi.
It’s a lot cooler up here, around 10 degrees. Thunder clatters about as we sit in a circular stone building waiting for our Dal Bhat to be cooked, sitting around a belly-stove for warmth. Lodge menus are loaded with high carb meals from pasta, rice dishes, noodles and dumplings, ideal trekking fodder.
During the cold night, I step outside to see a star studded spectacle; the Milky Way, planets and millions of stars are visible to the naked eye.
The ridge is also home to a yak herder and his huge herd of yaks (male) and naks (female). At sunset, the sight of the bovine creatures descending the ridge with the snow dusted Annapurna mountain’s behind them is nothing short of spectacular. There are snow leopards nearby, so the herder gathers up the baby yaks and puts them in a shelter over night.
The following morning I’m up with the sun and soon traversing the Khopra Ridge along a narrow rocky path with lots of steep drops to Bayeli Kharka lodge 3km away (altitude 3448m). The trail ascends and descends continuously over rocky terrain.
The lodge here boasts awesome views of the sky-scraping Dhaulagiri Himal, with Dhaulagiri I towering 8167m high above me and the 6000m deep Kali Gandaki Gorge below.
Another spectacular sunrise and I am soon on my way to Gandruk, a large and well-kept Gurka village. The route drops from 3448m to 2100m today, a descent of 1,348m downhill along 7km, scrambling over rocks, recent landslides and through leech filled jungle.
I descend steeply through stunning scenery until I finally reach the beautiful Gurung village of Gandruk. This village is known for it’s large number of menfolk who have served in the British Gurka regiments. The mountain views still stand out with Annapurna South (7237m) Machhapuchhare (6993m) and Gangapurna (7455m) loom large in the distance.
My last trek day and I return to Naya Phul. We eek out the last 3.5 hours (4.5km) - it’s a straight descent down a stone staircase through small villages. Then, in complete contrast to the serene and peaceful mountains I return to Pokhara and onwards to the craziness of Kathmandu, leaving behind friendly faces, pure clean air and the tranquility and beauty of Nepal’s Annapurna Range.
Lisa Young www.lisayoung.co.uk