Thursday, 4 September 2014

Monsoon Trekking: Nar-Phu valleys and Annapurna Circuit in August


August is monsoon season in Nepal.  We've been to Nepal many times but never during the monsoon.  Stories abound about torrential rains, heat, and leeches.

On the other hand,  we were sick of the overcrowding in October and November in Nepal (and many associated negatives)  and hoped that the rainshadow effect would shelter us from monsoon rains in the upper Marsyandi/Kali Gandaki (i. e,.,  upper Annapurna Circuit or "AC"  and the Nar-Phu valleys.

The result?
Kathmandu in August 2014 was hot and often rainy.  Armed with umbrellas,  the rains were no problem; air conditioning in our hotel room provided welcome relief from heat (though loadshedding often cut the electricity and thus the air con).  On the very positive side,  Kathmandu had reasonably clean air (in contrast to the smog of other seasons),  everything was so green (flying over Kathmandu made us gasp,  everywhere was so green),  and,  importantly,  Thamel was not teeming with tourists!  (Most tourists were from mainland China,  and did not appear to be planning on trekking - -  based on their dress.)  Hotels and restaurants were quiet and very welcoming.

So green! (Rice terraces near Bahundanda)

The trek
During our first few days of the trek,  our worst fears about trekking during the monsoon were realized: we started out in torrential rain,  got soaked and stayed soaked for a couple days. We used our umbrellas but sweated so much in the heat we were still soaked. We really wondered if we had made a significant error. In Ghermu (after night two of rain),  we waited until 1:30 in the afternoon until the rain abated to start off for Chamje. 

Things (weatherwise) became significantly better by Chamje.  Indeed,  for the most part,  we had no more issues with rain for the rest of the trek!  The rainshadow effect turned out,  for us,  to be real. Our weather was often cloudy but we also saw lots of sun and many views of the mountains. 

Leeches?  Well,  yes,  one.  At lunch in Tal,  Michelle was surprised to find her sock filled with blood.  A leech had found her foot.  It didn't hurt but took a while for the bleeding to stop.  (Weeks later,  she still finds the spot very itchy.)  That's it,  no big deal.

Along the whole trek,  everywhere was SO GREEN!  (especially in the lower and middle hills).  Up high,  where in  other seasons the hills are brown,  everywhere was green and wildflowers were plentiful,  as was wildlife.  And nowhere did we see any crowds (and no groups)  of trekkers. (We saw in total,  perhaps,  20 trekkers over 19 days - -  none in Nar-Phu, all on the AC.)  It was wonderful! 

Nar-Phu
This was our first time to these valleys.  Officially  a "restricted area",  Nar-Phu requires a special permit and,  importantly,  must be organized through a recognized trekking agency.  That means a guide.  As it turns out, camping was required for 3 of the 6 nights so a guide and porters were needed.  We were happy to hire our friend Dorjee (Letsgonepalnow trekking agency),  who we've known since meeting him on the AC in 2002 and who has done two other treks with us (Jiri-to-Tumlingtar in 2008; Jiri-to-Pheriiche in 2011).

Nar-Phu was fantastic: dramatic,  stunning landscapes,  good trails but with death-defying dropoffs,  abounding with wildflowers.  Sparsely populated.  The route up to the remarkably isolated village of Phu was especially stunning and,  for us,  quite tiring (we were at high altitudes - -  around 4000m - -  and the ups and downs were far more than the out-dated LP guide indicated.) Tiring but well worth the effort.  Phu,  close to Tibet,  was fascinating (although our lodge pretty dirty). 

 Phu Village

On the way to Nar village (4100m), we stayed 1 night in the comfortable guest house of the Buddhist monastery at the foot of the 700m climb up to Nar.  An active place with many very young monks-in-training.  Next day we climbed to Nar,  a well-appointed friendly village physically similar to Namche Bazar,  yet so different (no tourists and only a few lodges).  Next day,  we moved up another 400m to Kang La Phedi.  Kang La,  at 5320m, was a slow approach up on a good trail; at the top,  however,  was little space to move around,  and the descent down to Ngwal 1700m below was steep and scary!  It would be quite dangerous with ice or snow.  Fortunately,  we had good weather. 

Arriving at Kang La Phedi camp

Annapurna II, from Kang La (yes, that is a steep down!)
Back to the Annapurna Circuit
We rejoined the Annapurna Circuit at Ngwal; familiar terrain to us as we have completed the AC three times before.  A couple nights in Manang in a comfortable Lodge gave us needed rest,  then we made our way over a couple days to Thorung Phedi.  Arriving at the (empty) Phedi lodge by noon,  it started to rain heavily,  and rained all night.  By next morning,  the rain cleared and we awoke to see new snow within 400 metres of phedi.  The snow was only a skiff (less than a cm)  and proved not to be an issue.  The climb to Thorung La  (5414m) was slow and arduous as it always is for us.  We thought we were pretty slow,  but actually were about the median of other trekkers (according to the books)  - -  not too bad for a couple of 59-yr-olds. (Of course,  our porter Lapke crossed the pass in about half our time.)  A real oddity occurred right at the top of pass: about 20-30 soldiers from the Jomsom mountain training base had hiked up 2000m in order to do some high-altitude target practice with their machine guns.  They set up bottles to shoot at on one side of the trail,  then positioned themselves 50-75m away on the other side of the trail. As soon as we left the top of the pass to head down,  they then let fly shooting a couple hundred rounds.! A strange feeling hearing loud gunshots echoing off the surrounding mountain walls as we sped down,  praying altitude would not affect their aim too badly! 

Arrived sore and tired in Muktinath,  as with every other of our Thorung La crossings. Maybe this will be our last one?

 Above High Camp on way to Thorung La (an empty trail!)

 The obligatory "Thorung La" photo (our 4th time... Perhaps our last?)

The Road trip
Next day,  we started a long,  scary and exceptionally tiring bus and jeep ride to Beni (10 hours,  1 bus and 3 jeeps)  then taxi Beni to Pokhara.  Jomsom to Beni had so many places where  the jeep easily could have gone off the washed out crumbling road and tumbled hundreds of metres to the raging Kali Kandaki river below.  No carnival ride could ever match those gut-wrenching scary moments.  And it was all very uncomfortable. Next time - - if there is a next time - -  we fly from Jomsom (and we do NOT like flying within Nepal)!

Arrival in Pokhara to our comfortable welcoming "Mountain House"  hotel,  seemingly with all the comforts,  marked the end of our latest trekking adventure and the beginning of R&R.

A great trek (Nar-Phu),  made even better by it being during monsoon season.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN HIRING A TREKKING GUIDE:
Ngima Dorjee Lama @ "Lets Go Nepal Himalaya Adventure":    http://www.letsgonepalnow.com/new/
Dorjee's email is:  letsgonepal.nd@gmail.com
 

We have posted photos of our Nar-Phu trek on our FLICKR photo site:

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