Forty years ago, or so the story goes, the King of Nepal took a tour of his borders in a small plane, quite literally surveying his realm. Up near the Tibetan border, flying over the vertiginous foothills of the Himalayas, he passed over a craggy valley and was surprised to see a town that wasn’t on his map. Virtually impossible to get to except by an arduous trek and untouched by the modern world, when they eventually reached it by foot, his surveyors found that the miniature Shangri-La goes by the name of Phu.
Fast forward a few decades and a permit is required to visit the area. About 200 trekkers are issued with one each year, splitting off the main Annapurna trail to walk up the Nar-Phu valley. If you get the chance to go, you don’t stop to ask anything other than “how soon?”.
Just getting there is an unforgettable journey – either a 40-minute chopper flight or a four-day walk to the start point. We leave Kathmandu by helicopter and head to the Annapurna range (which includes the dizzying Thorong La pass). The pilot shoots towards steep slopes, terraced farms slotted in on seemingly impossible nooks and crannies; the thermals carry us up and over ridges, as forests rise and fall below. Finally, we race up a gorge, waterfalls on either side, before swooping down to Koto – our starting point for the five-day trek.
The combination of altitude and an utterly new environment makes for quite a culture shock. I’ve swapped my jeans, shoes and the noise of London for the rustle of an Arc’teryx jacket, new walking boots and the gentle chatter of hikers who have already spent several days on the trail.
We camp in tents and start walking early the next morning. Koto is at around 2,600m, high enough to be an extreme altitude (the summit of Ben Nevis is 1,344m). It’s a curious mix of flora: bamboo sits with fern, most trees are silver birch and pine. Accompanied by a wheeling hawk, our pace is pistari, pistari (slowly, slowly) as we adjust to the thin air and rocky track. “Breathing dictates pace, not the other way around,” says our guide, Ian, so we take our time, sometimes overtaking the porters carrying tents and cooking gear, sometimes letting them trudge past us.
The river rocks below us are sculpted impossibly smooth as milky white water gushes through and over them. The scale is monstrous; it’s tricky to tell distance, where mountain peaks begin and cliff tops end. After a few hours we stop by the side of the trail for cauliflower curry and chapatti, washed down with hot lemon juice and mug after mug of sweet black tea – delicious fuel for the afternoon’s walking.
The going gets much harder; not the vertiginous drops or the trail itself, but getting used to the air. I’m admiring the view when Ian shouts a warning to get off the path. A team of donkeys with bells around their necks and backpacks is barrelling towards me. I follow his advice and cling to a rock – it’s easy to get tipped off the edge. We’ve two more hours’ trek to that night’s campsite, Singenge Dharamsala, at 3,200m and really just two shacks and a little flat ground. The sherpas share the tea houses, lighting smoky fires, and after dinner we go to our tents beneath a riot of stars.
It’s a steep climb out of Dharamsala, but then the whole place opens like a flower as the path takes us above the gorge and high enough to find old terraced land on the plateau above the river. In the distance are the great snowy peaks of Tibet, a good two days’ walk from here. The trail is a constant revelation, like being inside a mandala, with something new at each turn. Our camp that night, Kyang, a hanging valley at 3,870m, is a deserted settlement, which I clamber around before it gets too dark. Hours later I wake to relieve myself and find the whole plateau wreathed in mist under a full moon. I feel like the only man in the world. The rocks have extraordinary strata in them, great whorls formed by the tectonic plates smashing together; where shafts of sunlight break through the high passes, these formations become variegated by the play of light and shade from other, unseen, mountains, painting the rocks across the valley a wonderful gold in the dawn light.
Next day we meet some French trekkers, also on their way to Phu. Where British walkers can be quite taciturn, this group, old Annapurna hands, are transported by what they are seeing, eyes shining with excitement at the next leg to Phu. As a first-timer here, it’s good to know that we haven’t missed anything, that we’re not alone in being blown away by the extremity of the place.
The last push up to Phu is not that far; but it is, for me at least, pretty scary. The path is literally carved into the vertical rock and continues up high into the cliff face. Just as we come to the end of a particularly tricky scramble, we round the corner and the ground seems to drop away. I’m used to pavements below me, not narrow paths and sheer drops. I start to walk a bit like an old lady. But it’s alright – great, in fact – because following each ascent there’s another breathtaking view, makeshift altar or deserted monastery.
After just a few hours, we reach the village via an easy stretch alongside the grey river. It’s like stepping back in time. We cross a suspension bridge and ascend the steep hillside. Low stone houses are surrounded by stacks of firewood, prayer flags flutter on every roof, the houses’ eaves are painted red or blue. We could easily be in Tibet. For a quiet village, there’s a surprising amount going on. While the porters make camp, I wander through alleyways and over rooftops, finding small gompa, with statues of Buddha, paintings and offerings – quiet places for prayer.
Standing on the top of the highest house, puffing slightly in the thin air at 4,000m, we have a fantastic panorama spread out below us, playing scenes that can’t have changed for hundreds of years. Children run yelling along dirt paths, two men struggle to get their yak to plough straight, a couple of oldies sit on a step spinning prayer wheels and gossiping, a monk stands outside one of the temples and stretches lazily in the sun, a goat grazes on a sheer rock face, women shout from one side of the valley to the other. Time stands still. I’m accosted by four or five grinning children, who take it in turns to poke me and yell, “What is your name? Where are you from?”, in a harmless and hilarious interrogation.
The local school teacher comes to our tents to ask for funding. Ian, who lives in Kathmandu, is the man on the ground for Community Action Nepal, a charity founded by British mountaineering hero Doug Scott, with Sir Chris Bonington among its patrons. As well as ensuring that porters are properly looked after and equipped, CAN has over 40 projects, from setting up health camps to schools. Ian questions the teacher keenly. It’s a very sensitive business; education here is a two-edged sword, as educated children inevitably leave small communities in search of more opportunities, while today’s school building can become tomorrow’s tea house, depending on who is running the show.
The next day’s walking is hard. We make good time, but perhaps because I feel a bit less in control with gravity behind me, or perhaps because I’m feeling unsteady from the altitude, what was scary the day before is petrifying now. When we stop for the day, I’m looking ropey enough for Ian to slip me a Diamox to help with the altitude. I wait in my tent for it to kick in. The next morning I feel a hundred times better. Each step of descent pumps more oxygen into my blood. I’ve lost the light-headedness I’ve had since we started, and the drops don’t seem quite so perilous – I can finally look down a bit as well as across.
Seasons reverse as we come down from the sky walk, taking less than a day and a half to descend what took three days to climb. In the valley, bare trees become autumnal, then green. There’s moss in the crags, and towering silver birch trees hold the gravelly path together. Back under the waterfall and over the bridge with the hole in it; it’s like traversing a fairy kingdom. And the fragrances – not just juniper but thyme as well, leafy and foresty. I feel supercharged from all the rich air – a sensation that lasts a good few weeks after I get back.
We make our way to Kathmandu, where our last night is spent at The Dwarika’s Hotel, a stunning place, stuffed with artefacts. Richard Gere is apparently here helping to establish Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, as a pilgrimage spot. I spend my last day wandering around the beautiful Swayambhunath Stupa, an important site for Buddhists and Hindus that dates back to at least the fifth century. Drinking in the atmosphere, I plan further explorations in this amazing country – bone-tired, but with a huge sense of accomplishment, and a strong sense of clarity from the high, empty mountains; determined not to leave it long before I return.