Tag Archives: Koto

Nepal: Climbing to 5,320m in the Nar Valley

After our first couple introductory days of hiking, it was ‘high’ time to get into the proper mountains! The next section of our trip was a 3-day stretch through the Nar Valley, a place only visited by those with the proper permits and an official guide. We were originally supposed to take a rest day somewhere on this leg, but opted to push on in order to be able to visit other places. The absolute highlight of this part of the trip was crossing the Kang-La Pass, situated at 5,320m above sea level. Read on to hear all about it, and check out the map of this sections’ trekking below.

Nar Valley Hike Map

Koto to Meta

Starting the Nar Valley Trek

The first part of this trek was a gorgeous trek through the Nar Valley itself. For the most part, this was forested trail, and quite desolate / remote. That is to say, we didn’t encounter a single soul for most of the day along this route. It was also one of the few part of our entire trip where we were crossing through any villages during the day, which meant we actually had a packed lunch and just stopped at the side of the trail to chow down on lunch when we felt hungry.

Another Log Bridge

This entire day was pretty much uphill the whole way. We had started our day at about 2,600m, and finished off at 3,560m.  After we crossed the river leading to the Nar Phu valleys, we hiked up through beautiful woods above the Phu Khola (river). The route took us past several small shelters (caves) and a pilgrims’ ‘Dharmasala’. As we emerged out of a narrow canyon, the trail actually passed under a wide waterfall just before the dharmasala, from which point the woods become thinner and the vistas wider. A steep climb up the valley along a small, scenic river brought us to a high pasture on a plateau and finished off at Meta.

Traversing Waterfall

Although the clouds had been denying us any views of the mountains up to this point, we got a very nice surprise overnight. After a hearty supper prepared in front of our eyes on a roaring fire in the guest house where we stayed (the only one up here!), we crawled into our sleeping bags to fight off the chilly mountain air and get some rest. However, as often as it does, the call of nature came halfway through the night for me, so I trudged out to find the squatter to do my business. What I say bowled me over! It was a perfectly clear night, and a full moon! It was almost as light as day up there. Of course, I grabbed my camera and a tripod to grab some amazing pictures of this sight. It was great to finally see the mountains, and got me suddenly very excited for the next few days up here in the high mountains!

Midnight Mountain Views

Meta to Naar

Steve on Bridge

After a ‘brilliant’ night in Meta, we were pumped to get up and start trekking again. We were greeted in the morning with a full bright sun, and near-cloudless skies. Finally, we were immersed in the majesty of the mountains all around us, and would be spending our whole day wandering and marveling in them. Due to the topography, our day started with a lot of downhill hiking down the valley, only to climb all the way back up and out of the valley. Distance-wise it wasn’t the long of a trek (under 8k), but all of this was at higher elevations, so we took our time and enjoyed the day. We’d be finishing off at 4,150m this day.

Stupas en Route

The scenery on the day was just amazing. I was more than happy to keep a leisurely pace and just soak it all in.  As our guide put it:

This morning is one of the loveliest walks in the Himalayas. The landscape is white rocks, low shrub and juniper, scattered evergreens, delicate brick-red and orange leafed bushes, crumbling shelves of flat slate, white, sandy trails and gnarled trees. The mountains around us were utterly spectacular, and the Phu Kosi  (river) shadows the trail far below.  An hour past Meta, Junam is the second semi-permanent settlement, one where “khampas” from Tibet sometimes sheltered. Above the kharka to the right looms a massive glacier, which falls jaggedly down to the high pastures above us. It’s all truly amazing scenery. Across the river, the cliffs contort in swirls and waves, similar to Ladakhi landscapes. Trek descend to Nar Phedi after crossing Mahendra Pul  as we trek down to the old bridge spanning a deep, contoured and narrow gorge. After crossing a bridge a short hike near the Yonkar Gompa as there are 2 monasteries lower one is older and upper one is newly build.  From here gradually   hike up to reach the Nar gates at the top of the hill, and pass by yet another line of wonderfully painted, bamboo-topped chortens and a large tiered chorten before turning the corner and being rewarded with sublime views of Nar, the undulating patterns of the surrounding barley and mustard fields, four old, colorful and traditional gompas and the snow-peaks looming overhead. Physically, Nar is not far from the main Annapurna trail, but it feels centuries away, is rarely visited by trekkers and is about as picturesque as they come.

Himalaya High

I really can’t describe it any better than that narrative, which gives you a good idea of what we were enjoying. Because it was a relatively short hiking day, we were in Nar before lunch. This gave us a chance to enjoy the sunshine, and experience a bit more of the village life, including watching the locals hard at work chipping stones to build a new guest house. It was pretty impressive to watch them working, using only hand tools, and carefully building a structure from stone that is hand-hewn and could stand up to the rigors of life at over 4,000m!

Mountain Reflections

Since we had the extra time, we decided to head up a little higher and do an acclimatization hike. After all, tomorrow’s trek would take us up to the dizzying height of 5,320m as we crossed the Kang-La pass! These short hikes are a great way to prepare your body for the stresses of working in lower oxygen levels. Of course, Deanna and I were ‘cheating’ just a little bit, as we’d opted to start taking Acetazolamide, a drug that helps speed up the body’s natural acclimatization. We really didn’t want to risk having a bad day up in the mountains! We only went up about 180m from Nar, but it provided great views over the village, and made for the perfect pre-supper activity.

Naar to Ngawal via Kang-La Pass

Moonscape Trek

Little did we know when we set out in the early, very cold, morning, that this would turn out to be the single greatest day of our entire Nepal trip! We knew it would be impressive due to the surrounding mountains and the high pass we’d be crossing, but honestly, this was both humbling and flooring from both a scenery and effort perspective. It was a long day of trekking, and also involved a LOT of climbing followed by A LOT MORE descending. It’s safe to say that by the end of this day, we were completely pooped! We started at 4,200m, climbed to a max of 5,320m, then descended all the way to 3,650m.  The first 9.5k was all uphill, and the last 6.5k was all downhill, and VERY steep!

Break on the Trail

The day was absolutely stunning, and we found ourselves making pretty good time on the way up. Generally, when you get to the really high elevations, you spend only a short time before heading back down, but it was just too beautiful, and we were all feeling really good, so once we arrived at Kang-La, we decided to hang out for a while, including eating our packed lunch up there at 5,320m, surrounded by the gorgeous views of the Annapurna range including the peaks of Annapurna II, Annapurna IV, Annapurna I,  Gangapurna, and Tilicho. I’m not sure I will ever experience and see as beautiful a sight as we did that day. I think it was made even better by the fact that very few tourists make it up to this path, and we were almost alone up there. I say ‘almost’ because a small group of 4 Norwegians and their guide did eventually join us up there. Wondering about the view? Well, this will give you an idea:

Annapurna II III IV and Gangapurna

Another thing we took the time to do up there was to undertake a typical ceremony, involving lighting incense, blessing a roll of prayer flags, and then laying them out up there. Deanna and I quite enjoyed this process, and were pleased to have our very new, bright colourful prayer flags join the many others that were already up there, but faded due to exposure. After finishing off our lunches and realizing we still had a fair ways to go downhill, we decided to head down. And boy, what a downhill! The trail down was initially very steep; scree jumping was the easiest option for the descent. After the scree, it was still pretty steep going, and we eventually made it to a plateau overlooking the peaks, which gave us a chance to rest sore knees and shaky legs. We were so shaky from the descent that we all collapsed in the grass, not caring much about the dried yak dung dotting the pasture!

Happy Place

From here we would continue to contour the mountain to get to Ngawal, which is on the upper Pisang route of the Annapurna circuit (off the main Annapurna circuit). The walk down was very nice, and while we should have taken it really easy and enjoyed the views, we couldn’t help but to go pretty quickly. The end result were some very tired legs when we finally arrived at our guest house.

But the day’s fun wasn’t completely over yet. After a nice little nap on arrival, I got up and did a little exploring around the village, and then, treated myself to some hot water for a mini shower! It had been a few days, so it felt quite heavenly. Not only that, but later on, I even managed to get some fresh popcorn and a beer! Yup, the day ended absolutely perfectly, and resulted in a perma-grin on my face for the rest of the day. The next day, we’d be joining back up with the main Annapurna circuit, and start the next part of our trip, and climbing even higher to celebrate our 2 year anniversary! Stay tuned for that post next!
Soaking up Morning Rays

Nepal: Let the Trekking Commence!

Howdy all! To work our way to the true ‘highs’ of the trip to Nepal, this post will now focus on the first few days of trekking. Well, actually, part of the post will focus on the DRIVE to get to the trekking, which was an adventure in itself! While I had hoped to share exact trekking maps for all parts of the trip, the first few days didn’t make it, as my GPS watch ran out of memory and overwrote the first couple days. Too bad, as one of them was a pretty good distance. At any rate, there are far too many stories to talk about EVERYTHING we did and saw along the trails, but the post should definitely give you a flavour of this section.

Kathmandu to Besisahar

View from Hotel

The next morning, after having supper at the tour company owners’ home the night before, we piled into a private car which was going to drive us from Kathmandu to a little village in the Annapurna region known as Besisahar. Before leaving the big city, our actual guide (Ram) and our personal porter (Purna) joined us for the ride. These two would be with us non-stop for the next couple weeks, so we hoped we’d all get along. For the ride, we did our best to start getting to know each other a bit, and also to try and figure out how their English skills were.

I’m happy to report they had excellent english, and while things weren’t ‘perfect’ the entire way, we all got along very well and we’d definitely recommend them if you ever find yourself in Nepal! The drive to Besisahar, while only 175km or so, took well over 5 hours. Believe me when I say that even though you’ll see lots of roads on Nepali maps, they are not ‘western roads’. At any rate, once we arrived at Besisahar, we had our first ‘acclimatization’ hike as a group. I actually think it was more a case that our guide wanted to assess our fitness level. Fair enough. We passed. It was stinkin’ hot here, but with little to do in the small town, Deanna and I headed off on our own after this hike to do a little more exploring, ending up a fair bit downhill by a river. There, I collected my 2 stones that I intended to carry with me and eventually leave one at each of our two major summit passes.

The plan was to overnight in Besisahar before hiring a 4×4 for the next days’ journey, which would take us to the start of the real trekking, which we were quite looking forward to.

Besisahar to Tal

Clicking the link below will take you to the full album on Flickr, or you can scroll through the images here.

Arriving at Besi Sahar
Alright, so this day started with a pretty amazing 4×4 adventure. While a car had been sufficient to get us this far, our next ‘road’, which took us from Besisahar to Chamje, would require some heavy machinery. Although it was only 37km of road, this trip took us almost 4 hours! Ironically, people would pay a lot of money for the 4×4 experience we had, but for us, and the locals, this was actually more like the ‘taxi service’. It was amazing, with sheer drops on our side, deep mud to get through in parts, and even sections where we all had to get out so that the road could be ‘fixed’ on the fly by either adding or removing rocks / boulders!

Creating Traction

After this very impressive ride, we arrived in the tiny village of Chamje to enjoy our lunch before *finally* starting the actual trekking portion of the trip. We both opted to have some tasty curry dishes to energize ourselves. This is where we first noticed a funny etiquette point of utilizing guides / porters. Ram and Purna would take our orders and relay them to the restaurant owners, but would then disappear and leave us alone. Apparently, they are not supposed to eat with us. Over time, we convinced them to dine with us a couple times, but generally speaking, they would eat with the other locals in the kitchen, then rejoin us. They also wouldn’t get to eat until we were served. Lucky for them, they can eat really fast, so they were almost always ready to go before us.

This first leg of trekking was relatively short and sweet. All told, we would be hiking less than 6km. However, given the jungle-like atmosphere, with heat and humidity, we were happy to not go too far on this first day. The journey took us along a very lush green valley. And when I say ‘green’, that involved a rather impressive marijuana field. Yes, I’m not kidding, we just trekked right through a weed field, and kept going! We also had our first experience with the local critters, including leeches that were all too happy to latch onto our heels / ankles (we each had a few). Later in the day, we also had a visit from a big spider in our room!

Verdant Views as we Hike

We finished our day in the late afternoon, and had our first experience of staying in a proper ‘guest house’ or ‘tea house’. Essentially, along major trails, all the villages comprise of enterprising residents. Almost every home turns out to be a guest house, a restaurant, and a store! Very rustic, but very practical. You can always be guaranteed of finding a place to stay. The plus side of having a guide is that they know the ‘good’ places with the best cooks. Never mind that the menus are pretty much IDENTICAL everywhere, but they can still be better and worse. For our first night on the trail, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. We also learned on this day that once the day is done, there is very little to do, so we were glad we had Kindles, and feet to explore!

Tal to Koto

Clicking the link below will take you to the full album on Flickr, or you can scroll through the images here.

Leaving Tal

The next day, after a simple breakfast, and the obligatory tea, which we had in quantity anytime and everywhere we went, we set off on our way to Koto. Originally, we had been set to hike from Besisahar, stop in Tal, then continue to a place called Dharapani, but we’d changed things on the fly due to Ram’s recommendation. What that ultimately meant for this 2nd trekking day was a nice long day of walking. Total distance was over 22km. While that sounds like a short distance to those who know the races I do, this was NOT a race. We were here to soak it all in and experience everything we could.

The terrain on this day started out once again very lush and hot. However, over the course of the day, we climbed up from about 1600m in Tal up to 2600m in Koto, so the terrain did start changing a bit. While it was still predominantly green, I’d compare it to leaving a junglescape and making your way into more of a forest environment. The trail became more like a typical trail you might encounter on a wooded hike in the Rockies for example.

Continuing Trek

Along the way, we stopped at an obligatory checkpoint in a village called Dharapani (where we had originally been slated to stop the day before). Interestingly enough, we happened to show up there on the exact date of the 36th World Tourism Day. We were also the first tourists through, so we were treated to a special little ceremony where we got scarves, and I even got a typical hat worn by locals. It was a pretty unique experience.

Tourism Day Ceremony

After our little ceremony was completed, we carried on our way, with me feeling a little silly wearing the hat, but not wanting to appear ungrateful by taking it off. Our journey continued on along the road for a while before veering off into the woods once again. In order to make it to our lunch stop, we were now faced with a pretty steep climb straight up. I was loving it. The trail was a very impressive thing, with some sections actually more like a cobbled road, while other sections were really gnarly dirt tracks. Interestingly, these really aren’t just tourist tracks, but also a main way for local villagers to move throughout the valley. It was not unusual at all to bump into people along the way, and greet each of them with a warm ‘namaste’. It’s not just for Yoga over there, it really is the normal greeting.

Climbing Up

Today, like the day before, was not raining, but the skies were also not clear either. It was just a white / grey day overall. This prevented us from seeing any peaks in the region just yet, but we were pretty sure they would make an appearance in the next few days. After all, we were getting ever closer to the highest peaks! Our lunch stop was high up in the hills, and apparently would normally have a view, but instead, we just had a chilly light wind cooling us off up there. However, it was interesting as we learned more about how people live here. Most of the food you eat is basically whatever they have grown / raised on their own. Here, they had been drying out chili peppers and beans, to feed them over the next few months, along with other assorted vegetables. Everything is very fresh and tasty.

To feel more like a local, our porter Purna and I spent some time foraging for food in the woods. Our prize? 40 walnuts that ended up being lugged across all the high peaks for the next 2 weeks, as I patiently waited for them to be dry enough to be ready to open. More on this in future posts ;-).

We Are Belong to Nature

With lunch finished, we carried on our way, navigating another mix of access roads and trails to finish off in Koto, another small village. Most tourists continue up the road to a place called Chame. However, most tourists are trekking the normal Annapurna Circuit. We were about to start our own adventure in the Nar Valley, an area accessed from Koto, and only open to those with the proper permits and a guide. In other words, we’d be heading off the beaten path. As a result, in Koto, we were once again in a quiet town, although we did share our guest house with a few others. I also had access to some gas-heated water to approximate a shower of sorts. I cleaned up a little, knowing that it would be several days before we had that luxury again.

To close out the night in Koto, I had a chance to try a local home-made alcoholic beverage. It’s name: Raksi. This is a distilled spirit made from millet or rice. It is also made by many of the guest house owners, if they have the time. It is cheap compared to bottled beers, but definitely an acquired taste. I eventually learned more about the process, and am curious to try and make it on my own some day, but I’ll need the appropriate pots to make a go of it. As there isn’t a lot of refrigeration around these parts, the drink was served at room temperature, and left a nice warm spot in my stomach.

Trying the Local Raksi

Well, there you have it. The first few days of the trekking. They really are the tip of the iceberg, but were a great introduction to the sublime pleasures of trekking in the Himalaya, and in the Annapurna region specifically. We were building up our ‘team spirit’ for the next few sections, as we’d climb higher and higher. Stay tuned for our next installment, where we’ll cross our first high peak! For now, this post signs off at 2,600m a.s.l with a smile on my face thanks to the hooch!