The southern views of the Annapurna Range from Himalaya Hotel were supposed to have been perfect. Scorpio would have been clearly visible, as would have Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.. that is, if not for the perpetual mist that shrouded everything from view each and every time the sun set. I got out of bed twice that night just to check whether the Milky Way was visible, but every single attempt that night and for the rest of the trip would turn out to be to no avail. So that morning, we decided that we would spend another night at Ngawal
(elevation : 3660m
for three main reasons: we would get a chance to explore the gompa on the ridge above the hamlet, the secret cave, and the route to Kang La Pass (elevation : 5306m
); the extra night at Ngawal's elevation, which is higher than Manang's (elevation : 3540m
), would help us acclimatise
; and I would also get another chance at a Milky Way shot.We left the lodge after breakfast, which was Tibetan bread (NPR300
/2) and omelette with onions and garlic (NPR350
/2), and made our way to the large stupa and the stairwell that led up to the ridge. The mist had lifted by then but the mountains to the south were still capped in thick clouds. We continued to ascend the stairs and it soon gave way to scree. There were far less prayer flags that high up, and it was much easier to appreciate the enormous range of different flowers that were scattered around.Larkspurs (Delphinium kamaonense)
Edelweiss flowers (Leontopodium sp.
) were ubiquitous on the grassy slopes. At first glance, one may think that the flower petals are white, but these are not the petals but are rather modified leaves. The harsh conditions that the edelweiss thrives in tends to greatly increase moisture loss, and it is the velvety texture, or furriness, of these leaves that helps the edelweiss counteract this. The actual flowers are the yellow 'nodules' in the centre.Edelweiss flowers have an enormous cultural significance, and this is especially so in some European countries. The name of the plant is derived from two German words: 'edel' which means noble, and 'weiss' which means white, but since I used to read the French comic 'Asterix' as a child, I have always known this little flower as the silver star. In the comic, the druid of the village required an edelweiss flower in order to brew a poison antidote, so he sent Asterix and Obelix all the way from France to Switzerland in order to retrieve it... and of course, all manner of hilarity and chaos ensued!Edelweiss (Leontopodium sp.)
The most common flower however, was the toxic Himalayan stellera (Stellera chamaejasme
) weed. This herb is the only species in the Stellera genus, and has completely dominated alpine meadows in certain regions in the past couple of decades. The flowers do not have petals, but have either red or yellow modified leaves that are called 'sepals' that form the outer whorls of the flowers. These sepals appear in the form of a tube and end with five white lobes that most people think are the flower petals. The weed does have its uses however, as the plant is sometimes used to treat certain ailments and the roots for making paper. Himalayan stellera (Stellera chamaejasme)Violet dandelion (Cicerbita macrorhiza)
We ascended to a step that had a blue and white trail marker painted on it, and turned right to approach the wall of a structure. The structure was completely festooned with prayer flags and enclosed what was referred to as the 'secret cave'. The doorways of the structure were very low and narrow, and led to a clearing of sorts that had long drops off to the sides. There was a small 'room' off the clearing that contained some offerings of money, a small statue, a bunch of candles, and a small window that led to the cave itself. As I peered into the window, I caught some glimpses of the silhouettes of jagged rocks, but other than that the cave was almost completely engulfed in darkness.The room that enclosed the 'secret cave'
As we made our way out of the structure, we spotted a large Himalayan griffon (Gyps himalayensis
) that was perched on the edge of the rock. We watched each other inquisitively for a few minutes, before the vulture suddenly launched itself up into the air and began circling the thermal currents ever upwards. The Himalayan griffon is a very large vulture, and with a wingspan that can reach 3.1 metres-long and a weight of up to 12 kilograms, is the largest and heaviest bird found in the Himalayas. These vultures used to regularly feed on human corpses during sky burials.The steely gaze of a Himalayan griffon vulture (Gyps himalayensis)
Another vulture that was seen soaring above was the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus
), which is also known as the Lämmergeier (lamb-vulture). Like the Himalayan griffon, the bearded vulture is near-threatened
, their numbers having dropped significantly in the past as people used to believe (without any justification whatsoever) that these birds carried off their children, pets, and livestock. Bearded vultures however are the only known animals to have a diet that is made almost entirely out of bone. They have developed several traits that allow them to live off this diet, which include a stomach acid concentration that is estimated to be around pH 1, as well as the learning of skills such as the dropping of bones from great heights in order to expose the bone marrow within.A bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) on the left, and a Himalayan griffon vulture (Gyps himalayensis) on the right. The unusual lozenge-shaped (rhombus, ◊) tail of the bearded vulture is one of the easiest ways to identify it from a distance.
We then dropped back down the slope and followed the ridge-line until we could see stone stupas lining the top above us. As we approached the stupas, great whirlwinds of alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus
) were seen haphazardly circling around above us--the flock (I refrain from using antiquated veneries such as a 'murder' of crows, or an 'unkindness' of ravens
) easily numbering 70 or more individuals. The flock would occasionally dip low and almost skim the ground, and their shadows would make their numbers appear twice as much.Looking south-west towards the steep slopes that encircle the Ice Lake, or Kicho Tal
Just beyond the ridge, looking far off to the west, was the Chulu waterfall. A trail could also be seen that followed the sides of the arid, almost Upper-Mustang-like, slopes before descending into the distance. We made our way over to the left of the ridge and cut down the slopes to the main trail that ascended to Kang La Pass (elevation : 5306m
). The clouds still obscured the peaks, so we could see neither Chulu East (elevation : 6429m
) nor Thorong Peak (elevation : 6144m
) to the north-west.We eventually reached a rise of sorts that had a small stone hut that was surrounded by cultivated plants. Pikas (Ochotona macrotis
) were ubiquitous here, and could be seen as they bounded from patches of alpine grass. We sat there for a while watching them--perhaps seeing ten that morning--and as we did, a horse trotted over from above and stopped in its tracks just staring at us. The horse was probably just as surprised to see us as we were it, but it relaxed after a while and began to graze on grass. We continued on after it had trotted away.The horse (Equus ferus caballus)
Around half way up to Kang La Pass (elevation : 5306m
), which was just over four kilometres into the day's trail and 4300m
above sea level, we descended into a small shoulder before ascending almost immediately after to a large stone marker that was next to a water refill point. Just beyond lay a grassy landing that overlooked the marvelous vista of the valley and so we stopped there for a while to admire the views. Behind us, dark and ominous rain clouds began to gather and shrouded the trail that led to the pass from view. We had already made it half way and had ascended almost 700 metres so we were fairly satisfied, and so began to make our way back down to Ngawal
(elevation : 3660m
) shortly after.The trail to Kang La Pass (elevation : 5306m),
We decided to try different paths on the descent instead of sticking to the main trail, so veered away from the path that led back to the cave once we reached the blue and white trail marker. We continued along a wide crumbly trail that soon appeared to turn back towards the stairwell. Instead of joining the stairwell however, the trail entered a pine forest instead, which I felt was significantly better. The pine-needle-covered heath was soft underfoot and the dense canopy of trees kept us shaded from the midday sun. The pine forest did not last for very long unfortunately, as the path eventually veered back in and met the flag-festooned stairwell once again. The clouds still completely obscured the peaks, so all we could do was to descend the stairwell and head back to Himalaya Hotel for our first guesthouse lunch of the trip, which was fried macaroni (NPR450
/2).**We were alone once again as we ate dinner (dhal bhat, NPR500), as the other two hikers had left the lodge earlier that day. That made it the 6th day out of 8 days so far where there were no other guests in the guesthouse.