In March we headed for Mardi Himal, a newish and (supposedly) less well trodden trail than some other Annapurna trekking routes. Across a seven day trek we experienced every kind of weather known to man and at times even got a glimpse of the mountains.
We were ready; backpacks packed, tent and sleeping bags at the ready, map and last minute rain cover purchased and a stash of snacks for the trail secured. Including, a block of cheese, the single most important item in my bag.
Pokhara, while picturesque and tranquil, is flooded with foreign tourists, which left me itching to reach the enticing close mountains.
One of the trailheads to Mardi Himal starts from a small village called Phedi, reachable by bus or taxi from Pokhara, and that was where our journey began.
Day 1 – Phedi to Pitam Deurali
A set of steep flagstone steps snakes in front of us, winding up the side of the hill. I was here a few years ago, so I know that the next couple of hours scaling these steps will serve as a good primer for the days ahead. Fortunately the glorious weather and our excitement at just starting a trek dulls any sense of trepidation.
Reaching the top of the stairs brings both relief and reward, as the landscape opens up and we’re gifted with vast views of the valley behind us.
The (now flat) stone path continues through the village of Dhampus and we get our first glimpses of the traditional Nepalese houses that dot the hillsides here. Ears of corn hang from the rafters and wooden beehives are strung up under the doorways.
We continue past other groups of hikers and by lunchtime we reach Pothana camp, getting our passes stamped at the checkpoint and pushing on to make the next camp on the trail.
Within a couple of hours we make it to Pitam Deurali camp. The next camp along is another four hour walk though the forest, the weather is threatening and we’re not sure we’ll make it before dark so we decide to stay put for the night. Also, the forest looks like it would be a creepy place to walk through at night.
Both teahouses at Pitam Deurali are fully booked(!),so we pitch our tent on a patch of grass behind the guest rooms. The clouds roll in and as we’re putting the finishing touches to the tent the hail stones start. These are no ordinary hail stones, these are super-sized, Nepalese mountain hail stones.
We huddle up inside the tent, while outside the storm rages, cracks of thunder shake our bones and lightening flashes lead us to think we’re in the worst place possible right now.
Piles of hailstones land on the tent and start to weigh it down, so we have to keep kicking them off from the inside to stop the water seeping through.
“Let’s just stay in the tent and eat cheese rolls and biscuits for dinner.” We say. Unwilling to go outside in the miserable weather. So we wrap up snug in our sleeping bags for an early night, tomorrow’s weather has to be better than this, right?
Day 2 – Pitam Deurali to Forest Camp
We wake early to calm skies and a fresh coating of ice around the tent. Hurrah! We didn’t sink in the night. The almighty storm of yesterday has passed and we’re treated to vistas of blue sky and snow capped mountains.
Ahead of us a vast forest awaits, our backdrop for the next four hours.
Today’s trail is immediately harder than yesterday’s; the forest path is steeper and the mossy floor is carpeted with rhododendron petals and ice.
But the light. The light in this forest is just magical and our progress is hampered because we have to keep stopping to take photos of our enchanting surroundings. But the best bit – there’s no one else here. Most of the others at who had been at Pitam Deurali camp were heading towards Annapurna Base Camp not Mardi Himal so there’s no sign of anyone else.
After a few hours we see signs of life, stumbling across a new camp that’s under construction on the trail. We buy some packets of instant noodles from the owner and discover that Forest Camp, our next stop, is not too far away.
We descend into the bowels of the forest and then back up again to reach Forest Camp. It’s only lunchtime, but we decide to stop for the day, dry out our tent after the hail stone trauma and eat a proper meal. Though to be fair, I would have been happy with bread and cheese again.
The lady who runs the teahouse puts two steaming trays of dal bhat in front of us and I can honestly say that dal bhat has never looked nor tasted so good. It’s an epiphany; trekking is what dal bhat was made for.
After spending the evening around the dining room fire with our new found trekking friends, we head to bed. It’s like camping indoors; there are two beds and two blankets but that’s all and the flimsy wooden door does little to keep out the cold, but at least we’re insulated from the wind.
Day 3 – Forest Camp to High Camp
Another day, another early start and we set off, back into the forest. Once again the climb through the forest is steep and, inspired by a fellow trekker we met, we decide to fashion ourselves some bamboo walking sticks. Having been a skeptic about the need for walking poles, I have to admit, I am now a convert. The sticks make getting up and down the slippery slopes a dream.
We hit Middle Camp by mid-morning and the weather at this height is cold and snowy, this is not what we expected for March. The trail also starts to get busier; we hear that Annapurna Base Camp had been closed off due to bad weather and so everyone who had wanted to do that trek has now switched to the Mardi Himal trail. So much for a quieter and less trodden path.
We’re now being pursued by half a school of teenage students, but manage to shake all but the most determined off. The weather gets snowier and our feet start to get soggy. We reach Low Camp at lunchtime and stop to eat some more dal bhat, but despite the snow we have no choice but to push on to High Camp. All the accommodation here has been booked out by the school trip and a night in the tent in this weather does not appeal.
The snow is no longer a light dusting of pretty snowflakes, it’s full-on, snow in your face, cold and windy. I’m now thanking my lucky stars that we made the walking sticks because it makes negotiating snowy paths much easier.
We figure it can’t be much further to High Camp, but we have no way of knowing. Visibility is terrible and the path splits in two, with both routes showing the Mardi Himal blue and white flag. We pick the left one and hope it’s the right way.
After one last, steep, snowy climb High Camp comes into view and we’re flooded with relief. But the mountains, shrouded in a swirl of grey, are no where to be seen. We find a teahouse and get a room for the night.
In the teahouse dining room we thaw out with hot tea and chat to some other trekkers who’ve been here for a day or so already. The weather has been so bad that they haven’t even attempted the climb to the viewpoints, let alone to base camp.
As the light starts to fade, the trekkers we’d met at the last camp arrive in dribs and drabs. Everyone gravitates towards the wood-burner and a halo of wet shoes fans out around the base. Above us an assortment of damp socks dry out on a washing line. Everyone is bundled up in coats, hats and blankets.
Everyone heads to bed early. It’s unbearably cold here and I sleep in all of my clothes, pulling the hood of my sleeping bag tight around my face in the draughty room.
Day 4 – High Camp to Rest Camp
Outside it’s still pitch black, but we need to start climbing early if we want any chance of reaching a viewpoint. I stumble out of our room and across the icy path that leads to the hole-in-the-ground toilet… it’s frozen over. It’s 5am in the morning and I am using a stick with a ball of rags on the end to smash through the ice in the toilet.
After that delight, it’s a quick breakfast of porridge and we leave to brave the elements. The sky looks clear and we can actually see the mountains, in fact they look so close you could touch them. The climb is the steepest of the trek so far and thick snow covers the trail, leaving navigation down to guesswork and following those blue and white markers that are still visible on some rocks.
Trudging through the snow, we make it to the first viewpoint and it is incredible up here. There really is nothing quite like being up in the mountains like this, the effort involved in hiking up is far surpassed by the sheer beauty on display.
We try to climb a little further, but the snow is too deep for me and the trail too steep so a couple of the others go on without me. But the weather quickly starts to draw in and they return as the mountain becomes engulfed in snow clouds. The speed at which the weather up here changes is scary.
The journey down is way worse than getting up here. For most of it I just slide down on my bum, elegantly of course, trying to ignore the sharp drop to the left of me.
Safely back at the teahouse we quickly gather our things and get ready to leave. It’s so cold that we don’t want to spend another night up here.
The trail down is still snowy but as we descend this turns to ice and then mulchy, muddy ice.
Our band of four stops at a small camp called Rest Camp, which is being run by a 14 year old boy and an adorable puppy called Himali. The rain starts again and so we stay inside the dining room, cuddled up with the puppy for the afternoon. Bliss.
Day 5 – Rest Camp to Landruk
I reluctantly say goodbye to my foster puppy Himali and head back into the forest. The steep descent is tough on our knees and in some ways this part is worse than the uphill was.
We end up stopping in the village of Landruk and staying with a local man called Prem, who offers us a bed and dinner for about $2 each. In his traditional Nepalese house, the four of us will be sharing the main room and Prem will sleep up in the roof.
Prem takes me on a little tour of the house and garden where he has cabbages and scallions growing, next to the garden plot is the buffalo shed. The buffalo stares at me and looks decidedly unimpressed. Prem insists that I try some milk, fresh from the buffalo, it’s warm and tangy. I force the others to try too.
Back at the house we enter the dark, smoky kitchen. A string hangs across the room with lamb meat drying to make jerky, or Sukuti. There’s no oven, no fridge, no appliances; in one corner there’s a fire, in another a tap and in another, wooden shelves containing metal serving plates and cups and a black and white photo of our host’s mother.
Prem sets me the task of chopping up onions and cabbage for the dinner, the room is thick is smoke from the fire; my eyes start to water, I’m coughing and my clothes and hair are starting to smell like barbecue. Once the chopping is done, Prem puts the vegetables aside for later and gestures for me to follow him.
We go through the main room of the house and up the creaky wooden step ladder to the loft. Ears of corn hang from the eaves and Prem is asking whether I like corn or not, to which I nod enthusiastically. He grabs a couple of ears and we head back to the kitchen, where my next task is to remove the corn from the cob. Prem then throws it in a pan and pops it, well, sort of. It’s worth noting that my three companions are all male and none of them have been tasked with helping with the cooking. Just saying, it’s lucky I like cooking.
In the early evening we knock back some raxi (the local firewater) and admire the sweet view from Prem’s yard. As the sun starts to dip we tuck into our (rustic looking) dinner of dal bhat.
Day 6 – Landruk to Jinhu Danda
The plan for today is to reach Jinhu Danda, where there are hot springs – after a few days of trekking this sounds ideal.
Down at a lower altitude the cloudy, wet and snowy weather is behind us and we’re blessed with blue skies and sunshine. The trail leads us down into the valley, past waterfalls and across hanging bridges, along the raging riverside and then back up again, via a steep muddy path to the village of Jinhu Danda. But our journey is nothing compared to the porters we pass who are lugging kilos and kilos of supplies up to the village. No road reaches this village and so porters or mules carry everything up here.
After a few hours rest at the camp we make our way down to the hot springs, to enjoy a soak in the warm waters. We’re not talking Onsen temperatures here, but post-trek it’s good enough.
Day 7 – Jinhu Danda to Pokhara
The next morning it’s time to head back to civilisation in Pokhara. The walk takes us back down the hill we climbed to the springs and across the river. We pass scenes that have become so familiar to us along this trek; small stone houses, drying corn, a buffalo or two in the stable behind the house, a few goats out front, a bee hive hanging above the door and a vegetable patch in the garden.
15 Kilometres later we make it to Nyapool and manage to find a bus to Pokhara, it’s packed and we have to stand most of the way, but after seven days of walking we don’t mind so much.
Somehow those full days of walking through majestic surroundings make everything feel good. The focus becomes getting to the next stage. In that moment, you have a sole purpose and any worries and fears in your real life temporarily dissipate. At the end of each day your body is tired, but that seems to make every bite of food taste richer and every minute of sleep deeper and more fulfilling.
I’ve been trekking in Nepal twice now, and both times I’ve been left wanting more, feeling reinvigorated and inspired. It’s addictive.
Mardi Himal Trekking Tips
Consider bringing a water purifier or purification tablets, the higher up the trail you go, the higher the price of water. We ended up buying boiled water from the teahouses because it was cheaper than bottled.
If the teahouse has run out of rooms and you don’t have a tent, panic not. Most teahouses will let you sleep in their dining room (sometimes for free as long as you buy food), this is often where the guides and porters sleep anyway.
Electricity up here is mainly run off solar so in most places we weren’t able to charge any devices up. But hey, go offline for a few days, it’s fun!
To the point above, bring a head torch. It’s useful for when you need the toilet in the middle of the night and the power is out. Which in the mountains of Nepal is pretty much always.
Food in the teahouses is much more expensive than the prices you will have been paying elsewhere in Nepal, and the price increases the higher you climb. Expect to pay around 600 rupees for a plate of dal bhat in High Camp.
If you want to eat your own food and won’t be buying anything from the teahouse it’s best to make that clear up front. The teahouses offer cheap room rates on the assumption that you’ll buy food from them too. We ended up in a super awkward situation because we didn’t clarify this at one of the camps. Learn from our mistake. Clarity is good.
Bring chocolate and other snacks, sometimes you just need an energy hit and chocolate really hits the spot. Plus if you buy it from a teahouse they’ll charge you five times as much as it costs in town.
Walking sticks were probably the only reason I didn’t slip and break something on the way down the snowy slopes, either bring some or make some, like we did, along the way. You can hire stuff rather than buy in Pokhara.
We didn’t use a guide or porter for this trek and are by no means experienced or expert trekkers. The trail is pretty well signed, our map served us well and we had terrible weather too. It’s definitely do-able without a guide and we met a few others along the way who became our trekking companions at various points on the route.