Story and photos by SELINA NG

There must be something with the Himalayan air that keeps people longing for more, at least for me. Barely 365 days after taking on the Everest Base Camp trek, I’m once again in Nepal, this time to trek to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC).

This country is home to eight of the world’s 10 highest peaks. But contrary to the movie Everest, with its images of impossibly high, snowy trails and bone-chilling temperatures, one does not need super fitness to trek in Nepal.

For instance, any hiker with average fitness can tackle the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek where you are served a feast of dramatic mountain scenery and traditional culture in a moderate trek. And you can do it all without burning a huge hole in your pocket.

The ABC trek (also known as the Annapurna Sanctuary trek) is highly popular, because of its convenience and easy accessibility. After a seven-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, our team of five arrive in Pokhara, a relaxing town near a lake.

This is a good place to start and end a trek as it has many guesthouses, restaurants, trekking equipment shops and easy transportation to trailheads. Looking up from almost anywhere in town, we can see the Annapurna mountains towering in the distance – a teaser to the grandeur ahead.

With stomachs satisfied from the last pre-trek scrumptious meal, we are whisked off on a 45-minute drive to the trailhead at Birethanti village (1,050m). This is the second time we are with trekking guide (and now personal friend) Kalu who made our previous Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek a truly memorable one.

It’s been over a year after the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal, and the country is slowly but surely healing and rebuilding. The people here need tourist income now more than ever.

Colourful Buddhist prayer flags add to the peaceful vibe on the trail.

Colourful Buddhist prayer flags add to the peaceful vibe on the trail.

Trekking from village to village towards Annapurna Base Camp.

Trekking from village to village towards Annapurna Base Camp.

Up and down

The standard ABC trek is usually an eight to 12 days round trip from Pokhara – altitude, trail conditions, weather and trekkers’ pace determine how long you’ll spend in the mountains.

For most of the trek, we walk alongside the raging Modi Khola River. The thunderous gush of sky-blue glacial waters become music to the ears as we trudge through rhododendron forests and hanging bridges.

The first day itself presents an unenviable welcome gift – approximately 3,400 stone steps to get to our teahouse lodge in Ulleri (1,960m). Taking one step at a time, we take careful control of our pace and breathing to avoid overexerting our bodies.

Acute mountain sickness (from the thin high-altitude air) is the last thing any trekker wants while on the trails. After completing what seems like an eternal flight of steps, we pat each other on the backs with renewed confidence. In a few more days, another 2000-odd steps await us on the way to Chomrong village (2,170m) .

Everyday we walk up ridges, descend into river valleys, then climb up the next hill. Thanks to this daily pattern, there is no need to take extra rest days to acclimatize, hence keeping the entire trek duration short.

On average, we trek six to seven hours a day. Hitting the trails by 8am after breakfast, we arrive at lodges around 4pm, giving us ample time to freshen up before the sky darkens and the night chill sets in.

Cultural experience

Known as a “cultural trek”, the route to ABC brings hikers through the laidback villages of Nepal. These are tucked up against steep mountainsides on small terraces and inhabited by the Gurung community.

Accustomed to trekkers walking past, farmers go about their daily routine of working on corn and wheat fields while their wives tend to prized water buffalos, goats, chickens and horses. Namaste (a Hindu greeting) becomes our most frequently used Nepali word on the trails.

Clad in slippers or going barefooted, children traverse the trails like mountain goats. Once in a while, they greet slogging visitors, hoping to receive a candy or two. As if to egg me on, a little girl leans over the stone wall of her simple home and gives me a shy smile and a beautiful flower.

Fuelled by the lovely mountain surroundings, my legs get stronger every day. Instead of feeling lethargic, I become energised.

Waiting for lunch to be served at a lodge. Nepali dal bhat (rice with curry lentils) is a quick and healthy meal option.

Waiting for lunch to be served at a lodge. Nepali dal bhat (rice with curry lentils) is a quick and healthy meal option.

Sustainable tourism

The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) aims to protect the region’s natural and cultural heritage while ensuring sustainable benefits for local people.

Thanks to ACAP, some amenities along the trails have been built from proceeds of the park entry fees such as: well-beaten tracks, signboards, safe drinking water stations, toilets, rubbish pits and health posts. Tens of thousands of tree seedlings have also been distributed for reforestation.

At the end of each hiking day, nothing beats a piping hot meal and a good night’s rest in teahouse lodges. Simple as they may be, these lodges are a welcome refuge as owners try their best to cater to trekkers’ needs.

A meal being cooked with firewood due to the fuel crisis that crippled Nepal.

In compliance with ACAP’s restrictions on deforestation, there are no longer any firewood heating stoves in teahouse dining areas after Ghorepani village (Day 2 of the trek). Instead, kerosene depots and micro hydroelectric generators have been set up to reduce use of firewood and take the pressure off local forests.

With no source of heat, we put on our thickest jackets and huddle together for dinner. By 9pm, most would have snuggled into warm sleeping bags to recharge for the next day.

Stunning 360-degree mountain views at Annapurna Base Camp (4,130m).

Stunning 360-degree mountain views at Annapurna Base Camp (4,130m).

Mountain views get more epic after Machhapuchhre Base Camp.

Mountain views get more epic after Machhapuchhre Base Camp.

360-degree beauty

On day six, we set sights on reaching Annapurna Base Camp. Setting off early in the morning with multiple jackets plus gloves and thermal hats, the cold air brings about a sense of excitement of what lies ahead.

Being a typical tropical country girl, I get a kick out of taking in deep breaths and blowing out clouds of water vapour just for the sheer fun of it.

The trek from Deurali (3,200m) to Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) (3,700m) is fascinating. As the heat of the sun rises, we strip down to a single layer of clothing and walk alongside the Modi Khola River on a narrow path.

Despite trekking in the dead of winter, surprisingly there is no trace of snow on the trails. Even the surrounding mountains have minimal snowfall – highly unusual in this season, according to our guide.

ALSO READ: Which Nepal trek: Annapurna or Everest?

As we approach Annapurna Base Camp (4,130m) in the late afternoon, dark clouds start rolling in and block out all views of surrounding scenery. Exhausted from a long day’s trek, we quickly take shelter in a lodge.

Early next morning, the entire population of ABC wakes up to watch the sunrise. We stand in the middle of the most magnificent mountain cirque, witnessing 360-degree views of mighty peaks. The feeling is completely out of this world.

I stand atop a ridge in awe of the stupendous beauty nature has to offer. This is the reason I keep hiking. This is why I put myself through days of biting cold, and endless staircase climbs – to experience moments like this.

Anyone of medium fitness can do the ABC trek. The trails are safe, the mountains are magnificent and the people are welcoming.

There may never be a better time to visit this heaven on earth.