ACT Day 06 - Dhikur Pokhari to Ngawal

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Clear Skies

The weather was excellent that morning, and the gateway to heaven, 'Swarga Dwari Danda', could clearly be seen. We watched the sun slowly rise over it before the strong rays drowned out all but the largest of the gateway's features. To the south, Annapurna II (elevation : 7939m) could occasionally be seen each time the clouds parted, and the sight of the unnamed 'black pyramid' in front of us, its sides so sheer that they could barely hold the snow, made me look forward to seeing Khangsar Kang, or 'Roc Noir' (elevation : 7485m) later on in the trip. To the north, the imposing tree-covered ridge was blocking Pisang Peak / Jong Ri (elevation : 6091m), and to the west was the deep blue sky.

The unnamed 'black pyramid' lies at the end of the ridge that runs from Annapurna II (elevation : 7939m) to peak 7740 (metres),
and then north-east towards Dhikur Pokhari (elevation : 3060m). Hover the cursor over the image to clean the window!

We left Dhikur Pokhari (elevation : 3060m) at 08:30, after breakfast which was pancake and jam (NPR350/2) and ordered tibetan bread (NPR300/2) to take-away once again. We made our way past the rest of the buildings that made up the hamlet and reached the junction after the mani wall, with the left branch heading to Lower Pisang (elevation : 3200m), and the right to Upper Pisang (elevation : 3300m). We decided to take the latter, the high route, for two main reasons: the high route was known to have far better views of the mountains, and was much better for acclimatisation.

We reached the bridge that crossed the river to Upper Pisang. Looking back, the sunlight was so strong that the polished slopes of Swarga Dwari glinted with a mirror-like sheen, the deep fissures snaking down from the top. The path here was fringed with the tall stalks of great mulleins (Verbascum thapsus). At first I had thought that they were the flower-spikes of panicled yellow poppies (Meconopsis paniculata) since both plants are remarkably similar. They both have hairy basal leaves with a velvety texture that are arranged in a dense rosette at the base of the stem, a very tall flower-spike that grows up to two metres high, and bloom around July to August. Upon closer inspection though, the leaves of the panicled yellow poppy are seen to be pinnately lobed, and it has flowers (in its final year of growth just before it dies) that are light yellow and hang downwards.

Great mulleins on the other hand, have flowers that are almost sulphur-yellow and that face outwards rather than downwards. This plant is usually found on roadsides and would turn out to be characteristic of the area that we were to hike through over the next few days. This plant is believed, in both Asia and Europe, to have the power to safeguard against evil spirits, and is thought to be the plant that Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, used to protect himself against the goddess of magic, Circe.

blister beetle

An orange blister beetle (Hycleus sp.) on a great mullein flower (Verbascum thapsus);
the gateway to heaven, 'Swarga Dwari Danda', can be seen in the background on the left

Wherever there were great mulleins, there were also aposematically coloured orange blister beetles (Hycleus sp.). These beetles are named because of a blistering agent that they secrete when they are attacked. This agent is quite potent and can cause severe chemical burns, and even when diluted can be used to remove tattoos and warts. During the entire hike, we did not spot even a single blister beetle larva, which at the time struck me as strange considering how ubiquitous the adults were. It turns out that the larvae emit a scent that tricks male bees into thinking that the larvae are female bees. The larvae hitch a ride on the male bee, transfer over to the female bee, who then brings them to the nest. The larvae then stay there consuming the nectar and pollen as they progress through their developmental stages.

The trail was wide and fairly exposed, and crossed several meadows. Aside from the blister beetles, plenty of butterflies (Superfamily : Papilionoidea) flitted around and bees (Family : Apidae) zipped around pollinating a huge variety of flowers. Upper Pisang (elevation : 3300m) seemed to appear out of nowhere. The relatively large hamlet was built on the slopes of the hill, and was hidden from the trail for most of the way. As I reached Upper Pisang, I looked back at Swarga Dwari for one last time, thinking that I would not see its impressive face any more, and then made my way through the hamlet and out to the vibrant pink fields of wild buckwheat on the other side.

The gateway to heaven

The gateway to heaven, 'Swarga Dwari Danda', could always be seen in the background

The views of the mountains that lay beyond were excellent here, so we decided to stop for brunch--which was Tibetan bread and peanut butter once again--just after the stupa on the rise at the end of the hamlet. Johann from Denmark passed us once again and we had a little chat before continuing on past the open fields and down to the pine forest at the bottom of the hill. As we looked back, the valley that channeled the melt-water from the glacier that ran down the sides of Annapurna II (elevation : 7939m) could clearly be seen. The actual peak however, still remained elusive.

The glacier that runs down Annapurna II

The glacier that runs down Annapurna II's (elevation : 7939m) northern face;
the meltwater flows into Chauwi Khola before meeting Marsyangdi at Lower Pisang

Next (Day 6) : Dhikur Pokhari to Ngawal (Part 2)

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Fields of Buckwheat

Just under six kilometres into the hike, we encountered a long mani wall. The trail veered right to a suspension bridge, and began zig-zagging up the slopes from there. The hamlet of Ghyaru (elevation : 3670m) was located behind the flags right at the top of the steep hill and, at that time at least, seemed incredibly far away. The crumbly scree trail was long and tiring, as well as a little frustrating at times. We spotted the man from U.S.A that we had met earlier a fair distance behind us, which spurred us forward. He spoke too much, was unbearably 'spiritual', and had an annoying habit of building completely unnecessary cairns as he made his way along the trail. We were also kept distracted by the incredible views, the huge diversity of wildflowers, and the antics of two alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus) as they nipped at the tail of an eagle (Aquila sp.), trying to chase it away from what must have been their nest. I watched as it circled the thermal currents ever upwards trying to escape them.

Woolly Catmint (Nepeta floccosa)

Suspension bridge

The long suspension bridge

There was an old woman at a little 'shop' along the way that attempted to peddle her wares to us, but ended up cursing under her breath after we politely refused to purchase anything. Absolutely everything was covered by a plastic wrapper or in a plastic container of some sort--biscuits in plastic, crisps in plastic, and even water in plastic--and I would not have taken them from her even if she had tried to give them to me for free. We marched on past her quickly, and as we rounded the top of the hill, expansive fields of pink buckwheat, otherwise known as rose red soba or redflower buckwheat (Eriogonum grande), made their appearance. Buckwheat is a short-season crop that is used as a cover crop during the Monsoon season. This is because it establishes quickly, which in turn suppresses the onset of summer weeds.

Fields of buckwheat

Fields of redflower buckwheat (Eriogonum grande)

Fields of buckwheat

Just above the buckwheat fields lay Jhunju chorten, which is what most people refer to as 'the viewpoint'. The viewpoint overlooked the north-eastern ridge of Longyodanda (elevation : 5106m), and if not for the clouds, would have afforded excellent views of Annapurna II (elevation : 7939m) and Annapurna IV (elevation : 7525m) on the left, and Annapurna III (elevation : 7555m) on the right. Despite the clouds, the views were still fantastic and we stayed for quite some time to appreciate them. After a while, the violent flutterings of the excessive number of prayer flags that were festooned around the chorten began to get on my nerves, so we continued on.


North-eastern ridge of Longyodanda (elevation : 5106m) seen through prayer flags

Next (Day 6) : Dhikur Pokhari to Ngawal (Part 3)

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Mountain Views

We walked through the maze of alleyways that made up the hamlet of Ghyaru (elevation : 3670m)--a veritable ghost town with most of its stone buildings left crumbling and abandoned--and traced the sides of the cliff, past a waterfall, and to another mani wall. Red and white NATT markers were located at the sides of the road, but there were no apparent trails that looked feasible: one trail disappeared above the hills to a structure, one ran along past the mani wall but disappeared soon after, and one descended down the hill sharply.

Views on the way to Ngawal

We continued walking along the road and passed several stupas and their viewpoints. The views around us were absolutely fantastic: the left side of Longyodanda (elevation : 5106m) revealed bands of quartzite (dark grey) and dolomite (brown) rocks that were millions of years old--remnants of an ancient sea that had been lifted thousands of metres above sea level--whilst crepuscular rays shone through the clouds and lit up the ripples in the rock on the right side. Just behind, lay the massive sheer face of Annapurna III (elevation : 7555m), its black streaks of rock occasionally glimpsed through the gaps in the clouds.

Views on the way to Ngawal

The northern face of the north-west ridge from Annapurna III (elevation : 7555m)

Views on the way to Ngawal

Annapurna III (elevation : 7555m)

Along the way, we would occasionally spot red and white NATT markers on the right side of the road. They were completely inaccessible however, which meant that some of the sections of the old trail had now been relegated to just a road. Not too long after, the almost thousand-year-old dilapidated fort, known as the ruins of Ghale Dzong, was spotted on the edge of the slopes below us.

Ghale Dzong

The ruins of Ghale Dzong

Next (Day 6) : Dhikur Pokhari to Ngawal (Part 4)

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The road soon entered a pine forest where birds flitted around from tree to tree and pikas (Ochotona roylei) bounded around on the soft turf below them. The path slowly ascended to another viewpoint where the long airstrip in Humde (elevation : 3280m) appeared. As we peered down the valley, Himalayan griffon vultures (Gyps himalayensis) circled around in the thermal currents overhead. The huge wingspans of these obligate scavengers would occasionally blot out the sun, and I caught myself wondering whether they were just waiting for us to collapse before swooping down upon us.

Himalayan griffon vulture

A Himalayan griffon vulture (Gyps himalayensis); heavy snowfield on the north-west face of Annapurna II (elevation : 7939m)

Ngawal (elevation : 3660m) appeared around the corner suddenly and caught me unawares as I was constantly distracted by the fantastic views of Annapurna III (elevation : 7555m) to the left. We decided to stop at Himalaya Hotel where we ordered a scrumptious meal of dhal bhat (NPR500) for dinner. That night also turned out to be the second night where we were not alone, as a Spaniard named Christian and a Dutch named Jigs (pronounced "Hais") chose to spend the night there too.


Northern face of Longyodanda (elevation : 5106m)

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Download file: Annapurna Circuit - Day 6.gpx

Day 6 Expenditure

Next (Day 7) : Route to Kang La

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