Travel: Prayer wheels and apple pie

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Following the route of the holy Kali Gandaki river, Alysia Cook treks through the heart of the Himalayas.

There are moments when you wonder why on earth you have come on holiday. This was one of them. I was freezing and wide awake, but dawn was still nine hours away. Half-way through a week's trek in Nepal, it was not the first time I regretted my choice of sleeping-bag. The February days brought clear skies, bright sunshine and paths devoid of the large trekking groups that descend in autumn and spring, yet the nights were bitter.

Plenty of companies both in Britain and Nepal offer organised treks, but it is possible to make your own arrangements. We had decided to follow the route of the holy Kali Gandaki river, high in the heart of the Himalayas, down to Pokhara, a peaceful lakeside town at the mountains' base. Acting on a tip from another trekker, we flew first by light aircraft from Pokhara up to the isolated community of Jomsom close to the Tibetan border.

Departures in both directions are at the mercy of the fierce winds that gust up the valley, and trekkers who walk up, with the intention of flying down, can often get stranded in Jomsom for a day or two. By starting from the top we would avoid this possibility. Our fellow passengers were mainly Thakalis, Tibetan-blooded people who inhabit the upper valley. Whereas my companion and I had wrestled for a window seat, a Thakali woman across the aisle buried her head in her shawl throughout the flight, fixedly ignoring the dramatic scenery.

Airborne, we passed deeply-cleft mountains, first wrinkled with rice terraces, then cloaked in thickly layered forest and finally capped with snow. The plane's altimeter, visible through the open cockpit door, nudged 9,000ft on landing.

Deposited on the Tarmac at Jomsom, we found ourselves in a stark landscape with white summits piercing the skyline. The dawn cold still lingered in the air and we hastily donned the down jackets we had hired in Pokhara - a snip at 20 rupees (about 20p) a day. Outside the airport gates, Thakali women sold us a breakfast of dried apple rings. An impassive official, hovering to stamp our trekking permits, directed us down a rocky path to begin our descent.

Our journey would take us along a third of the Annapurna Circuit, a popular three-week trek encircling the quintet of Annapurna peaks and their neighbour, the distinctive Machhapuchare, or Fishtail. Today this well-trodden route is dubbed the "apple pie trail", a reference to the culinary comforts sold by the numerous trekking lodges lining the trail.

Only minutes into our trek, a young Nepalese woman approached us and, gesturing that she was alone, asked if she might walk with us. A quick look at the map established that she was heading for the community of Beni, some three days' walk away. So we set off in a threesome towards the first village, Syang.

She must have thought us very strange, stopping first to dig out gloves and hats; then to adjust a rubbing strap; yet again to remove a layer of clothing. Clad in her thin shawl and sandals, she watched fascinated, exhibiting just the tiniest show of impatience if we dallied too long.

Less than 50 years ago the Kali Gandaki valley was a major trade route, where the Thakalis bartered grain, cloth and cigarettes with their Tibetan neighbours in return for salt, turquoise and wool. These merchants also profited by providing lodging for the passing traders. Yet the decline in trade with Tibet after Chinese occupation, combined with competition from cheap Indian salt, forced them to seek alternative business. With the growth in tourism, many Thakalis converted their trader accommodation into trekking lodges. Stumbling into a cosy guest house after a day's walk, we had much cause to laud the Thakalis' commercial adaptability.

Finding accommodation was easy at this time of year, and we had our pick of the lodges. Generally, one lodge always stood out from the rest, marked by its superior food, or a foot-warmer beneath the dining-table. In Kalopani, we bade farewell to our young companion and spent our first night playing cards while the lodge owner's wife brought us plates of steaming rice, dhal and curious, fried Tibetan bread.

Most of the lodges are run by Thakali women, masterminding the tourist trade while their husbands work outside the valley. Unusually, the Kalopani Lodge owner happened to be at home. Unlike his quiet, traditionally clad wife, he was dressed in modern clothes and spoke perfect, businesslike English. He had not slept for 36 hours, having driven overnight from Kathmandu to Pokhara to catch the flight to Jomsom, then ridden straight to Kalopani. "I am a little tired" was his understated reaction to the journey.

We found that reaching a lodge by sunset required a fair degree of skill in estimating our walking capabilities. On the first two days we trekked for seven hours beneath laden rucksacks, and still only just made it to our target village before dark. While our lungs and muscles did toughen, it was impossible not to feel puny beside the barefoot locals who tramped past us carrying huge loads.

Frequently we met mule or buffalo trains winding up the hill, kicking up clouds of dust in their wake. Although charming to look at, with their jangling bells and colourful loads, these beasts became distinctly less appealing when a passing rump pushed us to the edge of the trail, a steaming memento was deposited en route at our feet (though we were grateful for these natural markers later in the trek, when the path was obscured by a landslide).

The villages where we stopped for sustenance were from medieval times. Maipha, with its narrow paved streets; the once prosperous Tukuche, its grand merchants' houses now faded and crumbling; Larjung with its hillside temples and caves. Outside each village would be a Buddhist chorten, a stone pyramid lined with prayer wheels, which we respectfully passed clockwise as custom required.

Indiana Jones-style, we crossed suspension bridges slung over cascading water, scrambled over landslides and climbed through cool forests. The broad valley at the start of the trail, roofed with blue skies and gleaming mountain peaks, softened miraculously into emerald ricefields and groves of orange and lemon trees. As the altitude changed so did our attitude towards comfort. Approaching the village of Tatopani, at 3,904ft, our anticipation mounted, for tato pani means hot water, or springs, and the place's reputation as an oasis for weary travellers is well deserved. After three days of icy sponge baths, soothing our aching limbs in the steaming pools rated almost as highly as the sight of the peaks above us.

From here on, the landscape grew ever more tropical, although the nights held on to their chill. At Ghorepani, we shivered out of bed before dawn to climb Poon Hill, which promised spectacular views across the Himalayas - only to find the mountain panorama obscured by cloud.

A decade ago, visitors were spared half the climb by staying in lodges on the hillside. The resulting deforestation, especially from increased consumption of firewood - persuaded the local environmental body, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, to move the lodges lower down and encourage owners to install back-boilers or solar panels. Trekkers are also asked to keep water pollution and litter to a minimum.

The last village on the trek was Birethanti, once an isolated community, now a thriving trekking town. The new road from Pokhara to Jomsom has climbed here, extending "civilisation" but gradually smothering a traditional way of life. When it finally reaches Jomsom the rich diversity of the landscape, so thrilling on a six-day walk, will flash by in less than a day's drive and the villages in its path may lose most of their tourist trade. Can the ingenuity of the Thakalis once again rise to the challenge?

Getting there

The only airline with direct flights between the UK and Nepal is Royal Nepal (0171-494 0974), but these flights stop at least twice en route. Fares are lower, and stops may be fewer on airlines such as Qatar Airlines via Doha (pounds 515 through Thomas Cook Flights Direct, 0990 101520).

Red tape

Visas are required by all British passport holders. A one-month visa can be obtained on arrival for US$30-$35 (pounds 18-pounds 21, but you must pay in US dollars). To obtain one in advance, send an sae to the Visa Section, Embassy of Nepal, 12a Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QU (0171-229 1594).