I’d once heard the words, 'When things don't go your way, travel'. I don’t remember where I’d encountered them, but on the night of 4 September, I decided to abide by them and set off on my third solo trek, this time to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) in the Himalayas. It was almost exactly a year after I’d been on my last solo trek in Himachal Pradesh.

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(Encountering a dense forest on the way to Tadapani)

Next evening, I was aboard the Mithila Express that started from Howrah, having just about managed a side seat in a general compartment for Rs 200. The destination was Bihar's Raxaul town — a pocket gate to Nepal. With a mineral water bottle in hand, a backpack carrying two t-shirts, a raincoat, a pair of tracksuit bottoms, toilet paper, and some hand-sanitiser, I embarked upon my most unplanned expedition till date.

My next destination, upon arriving at Raxaul, was the city of Birgunj in southern Nepal, following which I’d have to stop at Pokhara. One has to take a horse cart from Raxaul to Birgunj (which is where I bought a Nepalese sim card), and then board a bus to Pokhara. But by the time I landed in Pokhara, it was well past midnight, leading me to settle for a lodge worth 750 Nepalese rupees (NRB), and a veg meal worth NRB 400.

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(A view of Pokhara, with Fewa Lake in the background)

The following day was mostly spent in anxious haste, running around to get a tourist permit done from the local administration. I also had to get my currency exchanged, and then catch the bus to Naya Pul. Had it not been for my lodge owner’s thorough guidance, boarding the bus on time would prove to be a difficult feat.

However, on reaching my destination, I was in for a shock on learning the inflated prices of basic necessities, like tea, coffee, or even water. I had been forewarned of it though, I must admit. The major trek stops had hotels and stays in large numbers, with meals costing twice or thrice the amount for rent. Considering the large volume and variety of guests received by these establishments through the year, they’re almost always equipped with generous servings of different cuisines.

I was good to start my trek from Naya Pul, sipping on a cup of hot black tea and biting into some Nepalese bread, when I used my first hack to stay warm and keep altitude sickness at bay. I bought 100 grams of Nepalese garlic for NRB 20, which amounts to five times the regular quantity of garlic used in cooking.

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(A valley found on the way to Ulleri from Naya Pul)

After making my way through bamboo bridges and slippery stones at the end of a four-hour-long trek, I reached my next stop, Ulleri. The sight of mist and birds was enough to fill my senses, following which I made my first trekking blunder. Drawing from the experiences that I’d gathered on my last trek, where I drank water from a Kheer Ganga waterfall, I assumed I could do the same this time as well. However, within minutes of drinking some water from a small water stream, I realised I was wrong, as I sat down holding a hurting stomach. Needless to say, I cursed myself and promised never to experiment with drinking water again.

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(A misty afternoon in the lap of the Himalayas)

As I made my way further up the steep slope, prices of goods only got steeper. To my surprise, some hotels even charged for hot water.

Next up was Ghorepani, which entailed getting past rocky, winding, often rain-induced muddy roads over a four-and-a-half-hour-long trek. Enroute, I also encountered small streams emerging from the Modi Khola river, that may have gotten more fierce during the monsoon. The never-ending stony stairways at Ghorepani unambiguously pointed to the fact that I needed to work on my stamina.

Soon after, I met a couple of travellers from other parts of the world, of whom a pair of friends from Belgium asked me about monkeys. “Where are the monkeys?" the man named Fredrick inquired, informing me that he’d seen photographs of monkeys in the Annapura Base Camp brochures. Ever since, he’d been looking for them relentlessly. Here, I must mention that Fredrick and his friend were drinking water from the mountain water streams constantly, and yet showed no signs of sickness. Later during the trek it was revealed that a portable water-filter attached to the bottle was doing the trick for them.

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(Prayer stones arranged into small temple-like structures near a water stream on the way to Tadapani)

***

It’s no secret that mountains make you monstrously hungry, and I was no exception. Thus, a few friendships were forged over snacks and dry fruits, which, French traveller Henry saved my life with, considering human establishments at that height are few and far between. I chose a basic hotel named 'See you lodge’ on reaching Ghorepani, and had a filling chicken meal, costing NRB 600. That night, I slept like a dead man.

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(A collage of all the delectable food I ate on the trek)

Our next stop was at Tadapani, where my lenses turned moist due to a thick cover of fog over the mountains. Mountain roads are never straight, but Tadapani proved to be the trickiest. The incessant rain had increased chances of skidding, additionally giving a horror flick aura to the surrounding forests housing huge trees with slithering branches. Leeches began to stick to my calves, and it was only a matter of time before I realised that this problem would only get worse. I was exhausted even before I had reached my destination, but before I called it a day, I stumbled upon an unusual stone memorial. A local told me it's a prayer memorial, where you keep a stone and make a wish, and it is believed to come true. These stones were placed in a manner that it looked like miniature temples.

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(Sudden landslides often disrupt normal activities in the valley. Remains of one such landslide is being cleared near Birethati.)

Time seemed to be speeding past, and I was fast running out of breath as well. After a point, when I was almost on the verge of quitting, a young man appeared out of nowhere. He introduced himself as Rahul, and it was with his moral support that I managed to crawl my way to my next resting destination, Hotel Panorama Point.

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(Early morning view of Annapurna South, and Hiunchuli, from Tadapani)

Through the day, I’d been running on a diet of garlic and raw sugar. As the kitchen didn’t have non-vegetarian food, I refused to waste a second and ordered a vegetarian meal. It cost NRB 600, and comprised two types of vegetables, one bowl of melt-in-the-mouth daal, rice, papad, yogurt, and a special Nepalese chutney.

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Remember the leeches I talked about? Well, you’d be naive to think they’re the only threat in the Annapurna Valley, as throngs of white moths come flocking into houses soon after sunset. Rahul mentioned that these moths, which resemble butterflies, could cause serious skin ailments and may even affect one’s eyesight if they come in contact with the eyes. While I’d been careless enough to forget my insect repellent at home, I’d advise you to be extra cautious about including it before setting off on the trek.

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In the wee hours of the following morning, I woke up to a magnificent view of the Annapurna range, and Chomrong, my next destination, stood waiting for me.

Here, I met a guide named Shyam, who introduced himself as a 'communist'. Shyam was curious about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and we quickly bonded over our shared interest in politics of the country. After a brief exchange of trekking tips and selfies, we bid adieu to each other, following which I lost my way in the middle of a forest. Leeches stuck to my legs again, making me scream and curse in Bengali. On hearing my desperate cries, three villagers came rushing out of the forest, showing me the way and helping me ward off the leeches.

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(Local vegetation at Ghorepani; farmers looking after the crops)

The rain had been relentless, showing little mercy, and I was glad to have my raincoat play constant saviour through the journey. Many of the guides I met on the way agreed with my idea of travelling super light. The porters aiding the travellers would lead the way carrying their bags, and I would keep pace with them. A few of them were surprised to see me wearing all my t-shirts in layers underneath my raincoat, safeguarding my body against the chill.

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(Male donkeys and mules are used to carry supplies and heavy weights to higher altitudes. The photograph was taken somewhere between Bamboo Village and Jhinu.)

The distance was covered in two hours, and the subsequent way to the Himalaya had three small stops at Bamboo village, Dovan, and Deurali. I reached Himalaya at 4 pm, and put up at the Himalaya Lodge. After dropping off my backpack in one of the dorms, I went out to experience the glory of nature at cloud-grazing altitude. The hotel seemed enveloped by a fortress of thick clouds, with green mountains playing hide and seek.

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The morning after, I set off for the heavenly Machapuchare, which proved to be a fun and magical experience as I encountered a massive igloo-like structure on my tracks. It was a giant glacier. The unforgettable sight was undeniably my highest point in the trek. But with the clock ticking, I decided to move ahead instead of letting myself get lured into its formidable presence. Even though I’d reached the Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) in two hours, I could barely wait for the next day to arrive.

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(Trek gets steeper as you cross a valley on the way to Machapuchare)

The morning at Machapuchare was among the most memorable, with the mountain ranges changing colour every second. And each time I would think to myself that it couldn’t possibly get any more mesmerising, nature proved me wrong, and how. I kept my eyes wide open, absorbing the magic that unfurled in front of me.

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(As I leave Machapuchare and make my way back to Annapurna Base Camp)

As the weather cleared out and gave way to the sun, we began our journey back to Annapurna Base Camp, a two-hour-long trek. My fellow group of travellers and I managed to reach the ABC circuit point right on time the next day, but the downhill climb was proving to be strenuous. My legs were tired and numb, and my body had started to give up. However, that barely kept me from paying a visit to the glacier this time. The sound of a waterfall running right behind the glacier echoed through its walls. The insides were like fish-scales, and a few degrees colder than its exteriors. The view was surreal, reminding me of all the sci-fi films I’d grown up watching. Maybe there was a giant monster lurking somewhere in the shadows — but before I could let my imagination run free, I checked myself and started for Bamboo village. I took a stop there for the night, and trekked on to Jhinu the following morning.

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(Nepal’s longest suspension bridge connecting Jhinu and Chomrong)

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This trek was indeed a challenging one, albeit with its fair share of breathtaking moments. My takeaways from the trip, however, were several.

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(Met a local vendor selling rayo saag — a popular local vegetable in this region)

According to my calculations, I have spent a total of Rs 17,000 on the trek, as opposed to tour companies charging a minimum of Rs 30,000 (including guides’ fees, excluding porters’ fees). The Annapurna trek shouldn’t be difficult for ones who’ve trekked before. However, if one isn’t confident of taking the journey all by themselves, doing so with friends might be a good idea, provided they are appropriately fit. Hindi is commonly spoken in the valley, and the locals are warm and friendly.

And don’t forget, a smile can take you a long way, even through the mistiest of mountains.

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