On the Annapurna Circuit, high above Kagbeni where snowy peaks shadow the once forbidden Himalayan kingdom of Mustang, we cross paths with a group of white-robed sadhus on the trail. Unburdened by backpacks and carrying tridents and little else, these bare-footed pilgrims accept sweets from our four-year-old before pushing on up the trail towards the most revered, sacred site in the Nepalese Himalayas.
Our trekking trio is on a pilgrimage too, chasing the Kali Gandaki River upstream on the gentle, western edge of the Annapurna Massif. One week in finds us high above the treeline, fitter, more acclimatised and now dwarfed by a towering, barren landscape of eroded rock plateaus and unearthly, crumbling peaks.[quote text_size=”small”]
Mesmerising mountain views lure us on, AMS stops us in our tracks[/quote]
What makes this journey a standout is that our four-year-old daughter is tackling it too, not merely along for the ride but walking and skipping, dancing and occasionally dragging her feet across swaying suspension bridges, over monsoonal landslides and beneath thundering waterfalls from Pokhara to Muktinath and back again.
Mesmerising mountain views lure us on, AMS stops us in our tracks and we spend sunny, happy days nibbling fresh apricots plucked along the trail, following tiny donkeys and ponies and sipping sweet marsala tea in fragrant teahouse gardens. In all, our Annapurna adventure occupies us for 19 life-changing days and elevates Nepal’s tea-house trekking routes to must-do adventures for all kinds of families. Here’s how we made it happen.
Hell on Wheels
The slow ride from Pokhara to Beni takes four tedious hours, squeezed into a tightly packed bus that endlessly scouts the streets for more passengers, climbing slowly into the foothills and stopping briefly for tea and samosas. We decamp at Beni, a dusty, end-of-the-road kind of town, shoulder our packs for the first time and stroll upstream to Galeshar.
The scenery improves and it feels good to be on our feet, but mouldy, musty twin beds await, reminding us that it’s the off-season in Nepal when staff are too tired to fuss over one little family. We improvise using sarongs and rolled up jumpers as bedding and escape at dawn, jumping aboard a waiting bus and wedging our child firmly between backpacks and our laps as we brace ourselves for the shaky off-road adventure ahead.[quote text_size=”small”]
I can’t see the edge of the road, I seriously question if we should get off this bus before it topples off the track[/quote]
During monsoon season, the road to Jomsom is a rugged affair: undercut and washed out and plagued by landslides. Peering out the window, I can’t see the edge of the road, only the void between me and the rushing river far below. I seriously question if we should get off this bus before it topples off the track, but as each kilometre passes and we remain miraculously upright, I relax just a little, soothed by the sea of serene faces around us.
In the end, the road decides for us and with the bus firmly bogged outside Tatopani, we happily abandon our ride and begin our long trek to Muktinath.
Day one is a gentle affair that ends in Dana, a pretty guesthouse strip on the edge of the Kali Gandaki where buffalo forage in sunny fields of marijuana. We laze on hot rocks, watching to see just how happy the buffalo become, while our daughter stalks tiny lizards darting about the rock walls.
There’s a glorious hot shower and generous plates of dahl bhat – thick Nepalese vegetable curry served with soupy lentils, rice and pickles, but while we slumber, heavy rain triggers a massive landslide that blocks the road ahead.
It stalls a handful of jeeps and buses, but we cross the landslide’s path without fuss, keeping a watchful eye overhead as we scale fallen boulders and trees as a digger scrapes away at the debris. All day long there are puddles and roadside cascades, and a thrilling, swaying suspension bridge that spans the void over what the Nepalese claim is the deepest gorge in the world.
We straddle the bridge’s slender planks and peer down between our feet to watch the rushing river disappear into tunnels craved through the bedrock. This vertigo-inducing view is sensational in every way and we bounce up the track on a high.
Around the bend we are thrilled again, finding ourselves face-to-face with Rupse Chhahara – the Beautiful Waterfall, plummeting and sliding 300 metres down the hillside and wooing us in every way. We throw on our rain jackets and picnic in the mist, awestruck as we share crackers and yak cheese and our giddy child fills her open mouth with the spray.
Maya’s tank finally runs out at Ghasa so we call it a day, refuelling on omelettes and chapattis and delicious honey pancakes before falling asleep to rain on the rooftop. The rain sticks with us all the way to Kalopani the next day, trekking now through predominantly Tibetan Buddhist villages where colourful locals keep shop in traditional attire and giggly schoolkids take my daughters hands to fill them with freshly picked snapdragons.
We duck out of the rain at Kalopani for tea and decide to stay, seduced by the deluxe, carpeted rooms at See You Lodge with their fresh, fluffy doonas and gas heated showers priced at a ridiculous $2.50 a night! We order tasty cheese pizza and sip potent apple cider for $2 a glass as swirling clouds overhead reveal black and white glimpses of Nigiri’s 6900 metre-plus peaks.
The trail to Tukche passes through a rain valley, so with rain jackets and umbrellas we hit the trail, stopping to piggyback Maya across gushing rivers and to slurp down bowlful after bowlful of delicious vegetable noodle soup. This is cold, brilliant fun and despite our slow pace, we marvel at the miracle of tackling a trek with our four-year-old bouncing happily along beside us.
Tukche doesn’t impress us much, but the next day’s sunny adventure to Chhairo’s Tibetan refugee camp finds us wandering through apple orchards and pine forests, following the Annapurna trail up the river’s eastern side to Chhairo Village and feeding wandering cows tiny sour apples. We watch local boys practicing archery and poke around the impressive 300-year-old Chhairo Gompa.
While devouring a generous spread of omelettes and chapattis, pancakes and big mugs of milky sweet tea at the refugee camp’s community restaurant, locals welcome us with handfuls of freshly picked apricots and lots of gently inquiring questions about our family’s tiny trekker. This gorgeous little village is simply too good to leave, so we are disappointed when we learn that all the café’s guest rooms are occupied for the night.
We stroll on to Marpha, chatting to locals who gift us more apricots, and throw our backpacks down in a river view guesthouse. Marpha is equally famous for its ancient stone alleyways and its heady apple brandy, so we tackle both, climbing to the top of the Samtenling Gompa to watch villagers and ponies at work, then settling down with glasses of sweet apple juice, cider and brandy that coax everyone into exhausted sleep.
High above Marpha, the lure of an ancient settlement beckons us slowly over the ridge, climbing the big, windy trail that switchbacks to better and better viewpoints of snowy peaks and hills dotted with stark white chortens. After a couple of hours Old Marpha appears, a verdant pine grove dotted with ramshackle, flat-topped huts and thriving orchards.
Tractors headed into the pine forest to harvest firewood wave as they pass by, and calves approach us for a share of the fresh fruit we are nibbling. We poke our heads into old rammed earth and timber huts, and higher up, spot an huge red clay jar, unearthed by road excavators to reveal its hidden human bones.
As we look around, the jumble of human skulls and bones and clay jar fragments on the road’s scree slopes assure us that we have stumbled into an old burial site, crowned by a flat-topped chorten and other, more recent burial plots. It’s an astounding discovery that we treat with the reverence of outsiders, and it drives lengthy trail discussions with our daughter about rituals and culture in this faraway land.
Kagbeni & the edge of Mustang
Over the next day and a half, we may our way to Kagbeni, learning from a local family in Syang how to made brandy from the mould of juniper branches, and stocking up in bustling Jomsom before following a trio of fuzzy ponies that nibble delicate yellow daisies from our hands and nuzzle into my daughter’s gentle strokes.
When we stroll into Kagbeni where all Annapurna Circuit trekkers converge, it blows our minds: a lush, riverside haven that peers into the restricted region of Upper Mustang, surrounded by verdant fields of potatoes and apple trees and carved with sunny cobblestone streets that weave past Buddhist mani walls and white-washed chortens.
In this lively village, trekker lodges line up alongside hundred-year-old rammed-earth homes and cows and goats are ushered into what might be heritage-listed stalls in another part of the world.
It’s a beautiful little village and we have it almost to ourselves, making shopkeepers especially attentive as my daughter slowly makes her selection of sweets and chocolates for the trail. We may have to contend with only fleeting glimpses of Nilgiri and Dhaulagiri’s incredible snowy peaks, but as the sole occupants of our enormous hotel and with our room offered gratis as long as we keep the chef busy preparing a few simple meals, our lovely monsoon trek is treating us just fine.
AMS becomes real
After nine slow days on the trail, the reality of how easily AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness – can sneak up on you hits home. From Kagbeni at 2840m, we set out on the short, easy climb to Jharkot, but when those guesthouses proved immensely unappealing (dirty, overpriced and disinterested), we embarked on a bigger than normal ascent to Ranipauwa. We took our time throughout the day, stopping for plenty of rests and tea breaks, and at day’s end our daughter was happy, hungry, giggly and slept well through the night.
All was fine as we relaxed around Ranipauwa, our turn-around destination on this trek, but a short walk uphill to explore Muktinath temple, less than 100m above our hotel, proved too much for our four-year old who went from chirpy to tired and teary in a matter of hours. Immediately recognising that she was exhibiting symptoms of AMS, we wasted no time in returning to the guesthouse (where Maya vomited), packed our backpacks in mere minutes, and made a swift descent down the hill.
Fortunately, just 15 minutes after dropping around 100m in altitude, Maya was totally revived, giggling and cracking jokes and jumping around a pony in a paddock as we watched on completely stunned! Despite our experience at altitude, we had allowed our confidence in our child’s fitness and acclimatisation and the slow success of our trek, to cloud our adherence to the rules: no more than 300m gain in altitude a day, once you are trekking above 3200m.
On the flipside, that same experience meant we knew what needed to be done and reacted quickly, knowing that Maya’s acclimatisation ‘level’ must have been fairly close to where we were overnighting. We were right, and her recovery was swift and stunning. Regardless, we retreated to Kagbeni at an altitude that we knew Maya had been completely well at, and arrived in a matter of hours (where she spent the afternoon jumping on the beds while David and I tried to hide our exhaustion!).
Hindsight being what it is, it’s clear now that the altitude hike we tackled between Kagbeni and Ranipauwa was simply too much. But, lesson learned, we enjoyed another day resting in Kagbeni before following our footsteps back along the Annapurna Trail with overnight stops at Marpha, Kalopani and Dana before tackling the steepest climb on the entire trail to Poon Hill.
A Big Climb for Annapurna Views
From Dana to Shikha and onto Ghorepani and Poon Hill, our little powerhouse tackled the biggest ascent on the entire Annapurna Circuit, proudly under her own steam. Slowly and surely up Khopra Ridge, we climbed and climbed, safely gaining over 2000m in three days, albeit at a lower, safer altitude that was well within our reach. When we awoke at Ghorepani to clear skies, we promptly high-tailed it up Poon Hill, chasing that famous sweeping vista of the Annapurnas in clear, close view. We got lucky and this lofty 3210-metre lookout was quite literally, a high point of the trip.
Stepping off that mountain, we ambled back to Pokhara on the home run, carefully treading 1000 rainy, knee-cracking steps past waterfalls and swimming holes, swinging through bamboo forest and nibbling delicious samosas and apple en route. When the rain failed to abate at Hile, we retreated inside for what was declared the best Dhal Baht in all of Nepal, simmered with fresh herbs and vegetables gathered straight from the garden and served with a zesty mint and chilli pickle that I still rave about. We celebrated the near end of the trek with a pair of overpriced beers while our daughter and the teahouse kids happily scooted a broken car across the timber floor.
This wonderful trek ends as all good adventures do: with a taxi ride back to town and that empty feeling that even a hot shower, clean clothes and an endless menu of much-craved food and drinks can’t seem to shift. Over beers on our first night back in Pokhara, we download photos and reminisce, wishing ourselves back on the trail to relive any of those 19 precious, adventurous days and immediately want to return. No doubt we will, and I marvel to think about what my ever-growing girl will be able to achieve next time around. I’m thinking Mt Everest Base Camp.
Getting there: From Pokhara to Beni by bus, we began our trek in Tatopani, spending nine days walking to Muktinath. The return trip added another ten days, via Poon Hill to Naya Pul. If you go, obtain an Annapurna Conservation Area entry permit and a TIMS card before you set out. Each costs 2000 rupees per person, available in Kathmandu or Pokhara (kids under 10 trek for free).
On the trail: Jomsom has a pair of ATMs (visa cash advances only) and plenty of outlets selling trekking supplies. One item we couldn’t find was water purification tablets and had to resort to a bottle of liquid iodine solution. There are water-refilling stations at Marpha, Jomsom and Muktinath (the Kagbeni station was closed on our visit) charging around 40 rupees per litre.
Monsoon trekking: Dry, clear skies that showcase exceptional mountain views impress those who trek in September and October. Expect bigger crowds and higher prices at this time. The desert-like landscape of Lower Mustang (from Jomsom to Muktinath) receives very little rain, which makes this an ideal trek to tackle during the monsoon (June to August). While you will need to carry (and perhaps wear) a rain jacket at lower altitudes, monsoon treks are generally crowd-free and on the route to Muktinath we were routinely offered free or discounted rooms and enjoyed speedy service.