The Ghandruk Loop

Ghandruk mountain view 3

Annapurna South (8091m) seen from Ghandruk at about 5.30pm, penultimate day.  Click for a larger image.

We did it with the help of a porter, but we did it nonetheless.  Seven consecutive days hiking in Nepal with twins strapped to our backs.  The Ghandruk loop is a classic low level trek, maximum elevation 3120m, that takes you breathtakingly close to the Annapurna Himal.  The photos in this entry are mostly of Annapurna South (8091m) and Machhapuchhre, the famous Fishtail Mountain (6993m).  Nowhere else in Nepal do the mountains soar so high so quickly, the land creasing and piling upwards, rising from around 400m at Pokhara to over 8000m in little more than twenty miles.

Machhapuchhre (6993m), only one attempt ever at climbing it which did not succeed, and now off limits.

Rhodedendron blooms and Machhapuchare

We broke the trek down, hiking around four hours each day.  With the babies you need to make potty stops as well as build in plenty of time for them to play, have a drink, a bite to eat etc.  Even though our porter carried a lot, we each had very heavy 20kg packs on.  Alongside the baby, I was always carrying enough water, my Sony Nex5n camera, a perhaps slightly over-the-top tripod plus a tarp, water fliter and a few other essentials like snacks.  With the babies you need to be well prepared.

James and Bine on the last day, heading down the Modi Khola valley.  I wanted to get a shot of them with these beautiful trees which had large, red blooms, in the background.  Even after a week in the saddle, James is full of beans!

Bine and James with finger in mouth

The weather taught us some lessons on this trek.  Day two of this walk was a reminder that we are in South Asia, on a similar latitude to Cairo and Delhi. A cloudless sky offered no respite, and the wide and irregular stone steps of the path were rarely shaded by trees or sunk into a holloway as it might have been back home.   Of course we were at high altitude so it was cooler than it would be down in India, but the altitude itself caught us out on both day three and four.  We were reminded the hard way that a walk in the mountains is a walk in the mountains no matter where you are.  Even when the weather seems clement if can change quickly, arbitrarily, completely.

A moody looking valley with the rain clouds rolling in, somewhere between Ghorepani and Tadapani.

Valley just before hail

On our way down the hill through a thick forest, the weather turned suddenly and with little warning. Drizzle morphed into hail stones the size of broad beans, then to rain, heavy rain that stung like the hail but would soak us far quicker.  It was decision time.  Turn back and hike to the lodge we’d passed ten minutes ago?  It would take twenty minutes to get back up, by which time the babies would be wet to the skin.  Our porter had walked on far ahead and was nowhere to be seen; turns out he had run down the hill to a micro-hydropower station building and taken shelter. Without him we did not have any dry clothes for the babies.  So I whipped out the tarp I was carrying and set it up on the spot, on a muddy sloping path through the forest.  The pegs barely went in, I needed to whack them hard to get through the stones below the thin surface layer of increasingly slimy soil.  Had the rain lasted just five minutes this position it would have been no problem, ten minutes might have been alright, but half an hour later and we were still hunkered down under the tarp which now straddled a river of mud.  I was sitting in it.  Bine was sitting on her waterproof, keeping relatively dry. James was sitting on Bine’s lap watching me desperately try to stop Emily splashing her hands in the mud.  Em loves water, no matter how scummy, and any time you try to take her away from her favourite pastime she wails like a banshee. Finally the rain broke, but after this little adventure we were all a bit wet and muddy, especially Em, and the weather never really picked up again all day.

We take shelter from hail then rain under my yellow tarp.  This is before Em decided to get intimate with the mud…

Under the tarp

…and after

Emily enjoyed the mud

We washed the tarp and Bine’s jacket in a stream, and packed them away wet. We were glad to get to the lodge at Tadapani, and although there was not hot water and the room as always was super basic, at least there was a semi-functioning heater in the communal dining room, a modified oil drum built into a little hearth burning firewood.  It dried our clothes and kept us warm, while the babies were, as usual, spoilt rotten by the Nepali staff and other guests, running around, being taken into the kitchen, and generally being indulged with more attention than is probably healthy.  This was our experience every day and every night on this trip.  The babies LOVED it.  They ate well, slept well, played hard and were super satisfied.  Much more it seems to me than they normally are at home, where the daily routine seems to blunt a little their appetite for both food and life somewhat in comparison.  What a joy they were to be with while trekking!

Emily at Ghorepani.  The children loved this trip, had a real blast.

Emily Ghorepani

Our porter, Umes, and James got on really well.  Here they are at Ghandruk.

James and Umes

We stopped off for lunch when something typically Nepali happened.  A total stranger walked up to my table, sat down, picked up Emily without asking and indicated that I should take their photo.  I obliged of course.  When in Rome…

Porter and Emily

A trip like this is not just about keeping the babies happy.  That is necessary, and when they love it like ours do it is amazing, but for me that alone is not sufficient for a great trip.  What I also need is stunning scenery, and a physical challenge.  We got both, and I hope these photos are giving you an idea.  There is nothing gentle, rolling or bucolic about Nepal – or at least, not this trek.  This is not really somewhere you come for the architecture or villages, although these things can be interesting and of course the urban heritage of the Kathmandu valley is amazing.  Out in the countryside though, the real draw and what I have loved most about Nepal are the landscapes.  These which are writ large and rammed home with an exclamation mark.  The valleys are deep and gnarled, the ascents can be long and gruelling, but the views are always breathtaking.  People have cut terraces into hillsides that drop hundreds of metres to rivers that rage and foam and froth, and whose banks are littered with boulders the size of houses, deposited scree from past landslides that swept away terraces and homes and, I assume, tragically people too.  And when you are not looking down at your boots in the way hikers are accustomed to, watching your steps on uneven terrain, staring at the interminable and irregular stone stairs which characterise the paths of this region, you are gazing up at some of the loftiest mountains in the world, each with its own story to tell be that one of derring-mountaineering-do on Annapurna or mystical spiritualism at the peak of Machhapuchare (which was attempted once by a British team in the 1960s but has since been off limits to mountaineers due to its religious significance).   It is enormously impressive the number of all-weather trails that people have built over the centuries linking settlements and between them forming an ancient trade route between the plains of India and the plateau of Tibet.  Everywhere in the world has great places to go walking, but I am glad to be here in Nepal where I think the experience is pretty special.

Annapurna South on the left, Machhapuchhre on the right, framing the Modi Khola valley as seen from Ghandruk.  This was the first clear evening we had all week, mostly the mornings were clear but usually clouds rolled in from 3pm.  The light you see here reflects the mood as it really was.  Remember you can click for a larger image.

Ghandruk View from Snowland Lodge

Annapurna South from Tadapani.  Stunning.

Tadapani view 3

The rhododendron grow to the size of trees, and March is the perfect time to see them.  We saw red and pink in abundance, but only a single white rhodedendron.

Annapurna and Rhodedendron Tree

On the way to Ghandruk, looking south down the Modi Khola valley

Near Gahndruk, Modi Khola valley

Sunrise on a cloudy morning at Ghorepani.  Most people set off at 4.30am to hike up to Poon Hill for sunrise, but I decided to skip it.  With the clouds, it turns out I probably had better views from Ghorepani.  I also had more sleep and could stand outside the lodge taking photos at sunrise with a cup of hot tea in my hands!

Ghorepani mountain view 1

I want to say a few words about the baby carriers we used at this point – so skip this if you are not yourself in the market for one.  In my opinion, the Macpac Vamoose is the only serious baby carrier on the market.  It is amazing.  The backpack was loaded with a baby and lots of other stuff, but I could easily walk up hill and down for over four hours each day.  The forty litre capacity swallowed all the essential gear with room to spare, and there are lots of places to strap additional things on, such as the tripod.  We also use the packs in Kathmandu all the time because the pram is useless in a city with so few pavements or parks.  Even in London though, I would recommend this – you can carry a baby plus all your shopping no problem.  And it is easy to take on the tube!  Macpac Vamoose, you can get them for about £200 each.  Pricey but so worth it, this hike would not have been possible without them.

Me and my trusty Macpac Vamoose, fully loaded.

Me with MacPac near Ghorepani

I also want to say something about risk.  Hiking in the mountains is risky, even on a low altitude trek like this one.  Two things kept us thinking. The first was altitude sickness.  Before deciding to do this trek I had initially been told by someone I know that I could join them on a trek to Annapurna Base Camp.  (This fell through, which was a blow as I’d been looking forward to it.)  The top elevation on that hike is over 4000m.  Anything over 3000m is generally considered to present a risk of altitude sickness, and our friend in Kathmandu who is an expert on this says that children are more susceptible and can develop symptoms at even lower altitudes.  These can be pretty severe and the symptoms start in a fairly innocuous manner before the stricken person’s condition rapidly deteriorates and they need to get off the mountain or potentially die.  I encourage anyone doing a hike in Nepal to read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air”, a real page turner but also a salutary lesson in the risks you take hiking anywhere in the Himalaya.  We decided to stay below 3000m on hikes until the babies can speak, and tell us what symptoms they have.  If a baby cries you don’t know whether it is the onset of altitude sickness, a grumbly tummy or simple tiredness.  Not going to take the risk when it comes to the babies.

Emily watches ponies making the steps on day two look easy.

Emily and ponies

James looking good in the hat his mum sewed for him.

James and Bine Ghorepani

A young Nepali boy holding Emily at Tadapani.

Tadapani Nepali boy holding Emily

The second encounter with risk came on day four.  We had just passed a Korean hiker, I personally was in a zone as it were, pushing on at a fast pace and chewing up the hillside.  I wanted to get to Chhomrong before mid-afternoon as I feared the weather might again turn for the worse.  So I didn’t pay attention to the shouting from behind and carried on.  Ten minutes hiking later I realised Sabine and James were no longer behind me.  I began to worry and headed back, thinking the worst and fearing that the shouting might have been because they had had an accident.  As it turned out, my fears were almost well-founded.  The Korean I had raced past had been hit by a boulder about the size of a hi-fi speaker.  Luckily it only grazed her leg, cutting a deep wound but not breaking it or bowling her off the side of the trail.  It did land on her foot though, possibly breaking it.  Bine did her best to clean the wound, and with nothing better to hand bandaged it up using a Pampers nappy.  The Korean’s porters went back to the last village to call an air ambulance (there was no mobile signal).  To our horror, a storm blew in within the hour, and we didn’t hear or see a helicopter until the following morning.  It seems pretty certain the Korean lady was not picked up until perhaps 18 hours after the accident.  Not pleasant.

The stone steps were sometimes irregular.

Stone steps and pink blossom

One of the many stone cairns you can see on the trek.  I’ll need to check the exact spiritual significance.

Stone pile, Annapurna and Rhodedendron Tree

The view from the highest point of the trek (3120m).  Note the snow.  Twenty minutes later things got quite treacherous underfoot, and we were very glad we had walking poles.

View from 1320m

On the penultimate day we arrived at Ghandruk, an attractive collection of traditional houses that commands a stunning position at the head of the Modi Khola valley.  We’ll be coming back, and we can also recommend Snow Land, the lodge we stayed at.  Silly name, but the room we hired was the only traditional Nepali room we have come across so far, and while it was simple and there was no en-suite, the room was graceful in a way modern efforts cannot match.  We also had the place to ourselves.  The lodge is right next door to the obscenely expensive Himalayan Hotel run by a company called Kerr and Downey, whose guests pay $200 per person per night.  They may have had a hot shower, but to get the view of the mountains they still needed to walk down a path and come onto Snowland’s front garden.  I think Snowland, at 200 rupees per person per night is a much, much better deal.

The Snow Land lodge, Ghandruk.  Much better value than the hotel next door.

Snowland lodge, Ghandruk

Emily and the Modi Khola valley, looking north.

Emily, black and white

Machhapuchhre seen from Ghandruk.

Ghandruk mountain view 2

Our porter Umes was excellent, and only cost about £50 for the whole week.  We tipped generously.  He’s pictured above holding James on Snow Land’s front garden.  We bumped into the same people each day on the trail, and everyone was really friendly.  Umes got a bit grumpy when we changed the plan and went to Chhomrong, but he got over it.  The stretch of bushwhacking we needed to do on the way to Ghandruk the next day may have been some kind of revenge, but could also have been an honest mistake…  Anyway, I’ve said enough about this trip, I’ll let some more photos do the talking.

Machhapuchhre from Tadapani

Machhapuchare from Tadapani

Our hotelier buys a chicken at Chhomrong.

Chhomrong buying a chicken

Sunrise at Ghorepani

Ghorepani mountain view 2

Play time at Ghandruk

Ghandruk playing with the babies

Just after sunset at Ghandruk

Ghandruk mountain view 1

Ponies are used extensively.  Everything in this region is brought in on either two or four feet, there are no jeep tracks.

Me and horses near Ghorepani

Sunrise at Tadapani

Tadapani view 2

View from Tadapani

Tadapani view 1

Through the terraced fields on the way to Ghandruk.

The way to Ghandruk

Bedsheets drying at Tadapani.

White Sheets

The ridge at 3120m, between Ghorepani and Tadapani.

Ridge path at 3120m

One of the many rivers we crossed.  This one is between Chhomrong and Ghandruk.

River and Bine

We made a break for it as soon as the rain eased to a drizzle.

Drizzle and terraced fields

In a rodedendron forest.

Bine in the forest

I hope you enjoyed this entry.  I have put up loads more pictures than normal, and written more than normal.  I’ve also dropped the privacy thing and called my wife (Bine – which is short for Sabine) and children (James and Emily) by their real names.  This won’t be the last ‘what I did on my holidays’ blog. But I promise that soon I will cover more diverse topics, including what it is really like to live in Kathmandu.  Stay tuned.

Emily, James and Bine Ghorepani


One Response to “The Ghandruk Loop”
  1. Karen Anderson says:

    Fantastic photos and story. Heading there next week for the same walk minus twins although we did plenty when the kids we little in Australia.

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