Himalayan Winter

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Himalayan Winter

You don't have to tackle Everest just to enjoy Nepal, in fact for most of us it's better if you don't. Gentle walks and stunning mountain peaks are just some of the charms in the Annapurnas.

Himalayan Winter

January 23, 2021

You don't have to tackle Everest just to enjoy Nepal, in fact for most of us it's better if you don't. Gentle walks and stunning mountain peaks are just some of the charms in the Annapurnas.

Iā€™m looking outside my window at 5am and I can see a universe of stars above the many mountain peaks dusted with snow. The morning light will soon wash away the stars, and turn the snow caps pink and orange. The altitude at Kagbeni is around 2600m and in early November the overnight temperatures routinely approach zero degree celsius. The night air is crystal clear but the window pane is beaded with condensation from my breathing.

Few travellers come here in the winter. The Annapurna Circuit gets too much snow at the higher altitudes, and the nights can get very cold indeed. In the last decade I’ve only ever known these winters to be full of sunshine and blue skies, but then again I never go high enough to run into the real snow. The next town is Muktinath, at an altitude of 3600m. It’s one of the holiest places on earth for Hindus and you need a few days adjusting to the thin air before walking about up there. For some tours we end up spending all day at the temples, then wait for the sunset to fade across the distant peaks, surrounded by chorten and prayer flags.

Just getting to Muktinath is a journey. There was a time when the only route was on foot, then came a dusty jeep track and now a properly paved road. Walking trails descend through the valley back to Kagbeni. My favourite crosses over to the opposite side of the highway, after crossing a magnificent wire suspension bridge. It’s mostly downhill all the way, and the final section follows the irrigation channels back into Kagbeni.

How they grow crops at all here is still something of a mystery to me. Decades back the Japanese scientists helped the Thakali people cultivate apple trees. They tested lots of varieties and found some that tolerate the unique climatic conditions, with the help of stone walls for windbreaks. The consequence of this being a generous supply of apple pies, apple pancakes and apple brandy for any travellers following the Kali Gandakhi River valleys. Cabbage and corn get a good run too, but it’s the apple pancakes I look forward to the most… If you know which family does them the best!

Sometimes the wind in these valleys is a problem for transport, and the planes can’t fly into Jomsom. When that happens a 20 minute flight gets turned into a two-day drive. The good news though, that means we hit some amazing truck stops for the local Dal Bhat, plus a chance to soak it up at Tatopani Hot Springs. Volcanic heat rises through the mountains and gently heats up natural springs at key places along the river. Geological magic.

The road back to Pokhara from Jomsom leaves the glacial valleys, descends through Himalayan broadleaf forests, and eventually reaches the wide open plains filled with rice fields and fruit trees. In summer the Pokhara Valley is rainy and hot, but in winter it’s cool and dry. There’s also an excellent tandoori oven in the middle of town with free wifi šŸ™‚ After the basic comforts of guesthouses in the mountains, it’s nice to have a little pampering in Pokhara, and maybe even a hot stones massage if time allows. The road is always an adventure, good weather or not.

Getting back to Kathmandu after time in the mountains requires a bit of adjustment. People and traffic. Temples and pigeons. It’s also the beginning of the end of our journey, and that always comes around too soon. We have a few special treats to enjoy in Kathmandu Valley, indeed there is no shortage of treasures and cultural moments to enjoy. Some seriously good walks as well.

It feels like a world away from the Annapurnas, like a different country. It’s not just a change of scenery, but a change of mind. Markets in Kathmandu are full of familiar vegetables and tropical fruits. There’s an abundance of fresh produce. While the oxen are ploughing rice terraces down in Kathmandu Valley, up there in the mountains the yaks are turning over potato fields. Back in Kagbeni the yak meat and yak cheese is locally produced, along with wild honey and apples. But rice doesn’t grow that high up, and neither does the coffee.

Coffee in Kagbeni is a big deal. At my favourite cafe in town you can sit at the edge of the Mustang Kingdom and knock back a strong black or cappuccino or whatever takes your fancy, while glacial water trickles along the valley below. The view is stunning, especially after having walked it the day before. I can’t say if the view alone is what makes the coffee great, or just having earned it by huffing about these mountains and breathing in the thin air. I will say that it’s not uncommon for us to settle in and order a second cup.

ā€“ Ewen

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