I’d never heard of a “Western Disturbance” until I was sitting in the Kathmandu airport, duffel bag checked, ready to fly to Pokhara to start my trek to Khopra Danda. A quick Google search for the weather ahead led me to find out that a “Western Disturbance” meant that big rains, which equal huge snow, were predicted to last from the following day to when we were at our highest point of the trek, in Khopra. The weather notice cautioned against potential avalanches, mudslides and landslides. Just then, I received a text from a friend on how to listen for “slabby cracking,” in case of an avalanche. My heart started to race and I became a little clammy in my hiking boots.
But then I took a deep breath, and remembered I was wearing two pairs of wool socks so of course I was sweating. I knew I had the proper gear for all weather. I was confident with the trained, experienced team I was trekking with. As a frequent trekker in Nepal, I also knew the forecast in the Himalayas changes all the time – one never knows exactly how the weather will settle. Right then, the skies were clear in Kathmandu, which was encouraging. I took another deep breath and thought of the days ahead, of expansive landscapes and the serenity of the great outdoors. Trekking has always been a joy and brought such ease to my soul. I was ready for this adventure.
Khopra Danda had been on my radar for a few years, but it was only now (in March 2020) that I finally had the opportunity to participate in the Khopra trek. There were three factors I was interested in. Firstly, the trails offered a wide variety in terms of terrain, vegetation and levels of difficulty, which meant that no two days on the trek were the same.
I also wanted to see the advances in sustainability that the region is known for, especially the community engagement projects that have been set up in villages throughout the area. In Kathmandu, before the trek in March, I met up with Mahabir Pun at his restaurant in Thamel on Mandala Street. As a native to the region we planned to explore, Pun has made it his life’s work to improve professional opportunities for locals. He’s the man behind the Innovation Centre, a non-profit organisation that generates jobs in the villages in sectors such as agricultural technology, environmental protection and interactive learning. Examples of his projects include hydropower plants; paper, cloth, and cheese making factories; e-learning centres; and the promotion and development of eco-tourism.
Among Pun’s many innovations is a trek that takes climbers on a seven-day journey starting in Pokhara in central Nepal all the way to Chitwan National Park in Terai Lowlands of south-central Nepal, visiting some of the villages he works with in order to showcase the projects he’d helped develop. This was the trek I’d signed up and so that March, I met up with my fellow trekkers in Pokhara.
Our team consisted of a trio from the States – sisters Emily and Rachel, and her boyfriend RJ; Mohan our affable and engaging photographer; Rajesh our charismatic and extremely polite guide; and our stalwart team of porters, Lok, Govinda, and Nirajan at the helm, and me. Nirajan was later to be nicknamed “Seam” by RJ and Rachel, because whenever we felt something was amiss (like if we left our walking poles 15 minutes behind, or if we were missing an extra knife for the jam jar at breakfast, or our micro-spike fell off for the n-th time), Nirajan was miraculously there with the solution, keeping the seams of the trip together tightly. Rajesh covered the big picture, and Nirajan handled the fine details.
Day 1: Pokhara to Ghandruk
After a comfortable evening spent at Mum’s Garden Resort in Lakeside, Pokhara, we drove two hours to Shyuali Bazaar, a tiny village with a few small restaurants, where trekkers fuel up before their first assent. We got to know each other over plates of chicken fried noodles smothered with aachar (spicy salsa). Bellies full, we started ascending the slate stairs to Ghandruk in the Kaski district of Gandaki province, a popular village stop that has been built up with guest houses and restaurants. Part of the beauty of this trek is that, after just a few minutes of climbing, a turn around to look at the valley below reveals stunning views of Machhapuchhre and Hiunchuli – part of the Annapurna massif in the Gandaki province.
We took it easy that first day, walking at an easy pace, stopping regularly to greet and chat with villagers along the way. Mohan chatted up a 65-year old local man who reminisced about his youthful days as a “playboy,” prompting huge laughs from the porters. A little later, we were given an impromptu lesson in incense making out of juniper from a smiley lady in her shop. Because of the impending pandemic, there were hardly any tourists, so the locals were just going about their day to day, instead of catering to loads of trekkers like they would usually do in the peak seasons. Near the Lokta paper factory at Kimche, we walked with a baker all the way from Pokhara, carrying his large load of puffy white buns up to the village kitchens. It was a gentle day of getting used to being in the villages, getting away from the internet, and settling into the trek. We arrived in cloudy Ghandruk for a shower, dinner and a deep sleep.
Day 2: Ghandruk to Tadapani
We awoke to radiant views of the snowy peaks and started an early climb to the small village of Tadapani. Following undulating trails, we crossed streams near waterfalls, and walked through pink carpets of fallen rhododendron petals. At around noon, we stopped for a break at the sleepy village of Bhaisi Kharka before continuing our ascent to Tadapani.
We pushed on at a brisk clip, stopping only to gape at Langur Monkeys playing in the rhododendron trees, idyllic purple flowers along the forest floor beneath. When we reached Tadapani, we gratefully sat down to a hot dinner of dal bhat (cooked lentil soup with steamed rice), eaten at long picnic tables overlooking the Himalayas.
Day 3: Tadapandi to Dobato
The following morning was clear but crisp – still no sign of any Western Disturbances. We hiked to Mesharu, another tiny village with just a handful of guest houses, where we stopped for some homemade ginger lemon honey tea. A mist descended, and then hail began to fall gently, so we put on our rain gear, peeled ourselves from the wood burning stove, and started making our way towards Dobato, where we’d stop for the night. We stopped along the way in the small village on the hill of Isharu, to dry out and have lunch. The lodge owners were a well-oiled machine, and cooked for our big group in their pared-down kitchen, even bringing in a chicken upon request. Here, the dal bhat was served with local baby ferns as the greens, and the gundruk (a Nepalese dish made with fermented leafy green vegetables) was mixed with crunchy roasted soybeans. Over lunch, we began to realise how closely this area is run by the community. Rajesh had phoned his friend who lived in Ghandruk, who trekked up to Isharu to cook us our lunch before sneaking out ahead of us to his other property in Dobato, where we later spent the night.
Day 4: Dobato to Chistibang
It was 4am when Rajesh woke us with a proclamation of clear skies and a green light to make our way to Muldai Peak, a two-hour trek away, where the sunrise was meant to be gorgeous. The sky was crystal-clear and there was a light dusting of snow on the trail. As we ambled along, I couldn’t stop staring at the mountains that seemed to repeat in layers until you couldn’t see any further into the distance. Every time there was a bend in the trail, another massive mountain revealed itself – the Annapurnas, Dhaulagiri and Tukuche in full view, plus a view up to Khopra Danda.
We stopped for lunch in Bayeli village, which took a while to prepare. The two brothers running it had a tough job to cook for all of us as frozen pipes meant they had to melt snow in huge pots on the wood-burning stove to get water for cooking. I helped peel potatoes and wash them off in icy water before warming my fingers by the fire.
Later, we walked along the ridgeline for about three hours, drinking in sumptuous views of expansive valleys, one side lined with snow covered pines, the other with wild grass. The sun felt warm on my face even as a light, cool breeze tickled the back of my neck. But just as we got to Chistibang village and were getting ready for a cosy evening, snow began to fall heavily. It continued all night long, occasionally sliding off the sloped tin roof in loud swooshes that shook the tea house just enough to wake me up, and make me jump, each time.
Day 5: Chistabang to Shikha
The next morning, we awoke to the ultimate winter wonderland, albeit in Spring. Bright blue skies formed the backdrop to trees weighed down with fluffy white snow. Pink spring buds poked out of the tips of branches, as if determined not to be overpowered. The ground held three feet of fresh snow. As we admired the winter scene, Rajesh informed us of a change of plans. Instead of going up to Khopra and risking more adverse weather, we were going to change tack and head down to the little villages of Swanta, then on to Shikha.
We set off at 9am, taking our time along the way and throwing snowballs as the sun melted the snow on the trees. Everyone was in good spirits, even with Rachel’s rogue micro-spike jumping off every five minutes. We stopped for a while at the smaller hydro power plant and had a chat to Narayan, one of the two operators who live there year-round. This plant has been providing electricity to Chistibang, Khopra and Bayali for the past two years. Before, the villagers had relied solely on solar energy. Narayan tells us their families live a three-hour walk away, so the duo usually stay at the plant, content with their work and keeping each other company. “Electricity makes everyone’s lives easier, so we are proud to be the ones who keep the plant running,” he shares.
Two hours later, we arrived in Swanta, where the fields were awash in all shades of green, in various stages of growth. We spent a relaxed morning exploring the area, playing under a giant waterfall and hearing local stories of dangerous honey collections from hives perched hundreds of metres high on the sides of Himalayan cliffs. In the afternoon, we made our way to Shikha, stopping to chat with an elderly bamboo doko (basket) maker, a group of schoolgirls on their walk home, as well as with a group of locals building a bridge that would give the villages access to the city during the monsoon. Near Shikha, we stopped at the local secondary school, which educates around 200 students. According to Rajesh, part of the earnings from the guest house where we stayed in Chistibang go towards supporting this school.
In Shikha, we were greeted by plump chickens running across the slate paths, and young children playing among the buffaloes plodding along the narrow lanes. We were almost coming to the end of our epic trek yet these idyllic scenes continued to hold me in thrall.
Day 6: Shikha to Tatopani
Our last day of the trek was unseasonably warm, and we slathered ourselves with sunscreen on the walk to Tatopani, a village made famous by its natural hot springs. We were looking forward to hot baths and a cold beer. We took our time today too, lingering along the way, even stopping for fresh chilled buffalo yogurt at one farmhouse. Later, a local village woman persuaded us to stop at her home for organic oranges she had left over from her harvest a few months ago. The locals used to sell their goods to workers at the local hydro power plant, but there aren’t so many workers now. And because of the pandemic, the number of tourists had also dwindled to almost zero.
It was not until we returned to Pokhara that we realised how dire the situation had become during our time high up in the mountains, insulated from news on the ground as we were. Back within Wi-Fi range, our phones were buzzing with all kinds of news and there was confusion as to whether our flights back home were to be cancelled or re-routed. Two days after the trek, I was on the last flight to Australia to ride out the pandemic with my partner.
Today, nine months after my visit to the Khopra Danda region, I recognise how incredibly lucky I was to take that trek when I did. At that time, Covid-19 had not erupted as it has and I had no idea the effects of the pandemic would still be felt today. While Nepal is currently allowing in tourists, visitors are still required to undergo a swab test before leaving their country and go through a one-week quarantine process upon arrival in Nepal. Even out of a successful quarantine, there are some areas that are still off-limits to foreigners.
While this pandemic has posed many challenges for the more than 800,000 Nepalis who work in tourism, I’ve seen firsthand the resilience of the Nepali people and I’m confident tourism will be in full swing once the situation is safe again. Our guides and porters have shared how they’re exploring new trails, in hopes of stimulating the economies of other villages, and also to rejuvenate the ones where tourism already was established. When that time comes, the trails will be fresh and all the more welcoming. I, for one, cannot wait to return once again to the place that makes my heart sing.
To organise a trek to Khopra or any other trails in Nepal, contact Himalayan Trails, an experienced adventure tour operator with headquarters in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The information is accurate as of press time. For updated information, please refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.
To learn more about Singapore Airlines flights, visit singaporeair.com.