Go take a hike
The Mardi Trek is so wild you don't want to brag about once it is over so it remains that way
The conundrum of writing about a tranquil place not yet discovered by mass tourism is that you become the reason it loses its tranquility. Tourism worldwide has a tendency to despoil a place by ‘discovering’ another new untouched destination.
Many trekkers are now coming to Nepal to get away from places where all you see are other trekkers. More and more, they are going for off the beaten treks to Kangchenjunga, Dolpo or Rolwaling. The Prime Minister is launching a tourism campaign from Rara Lake on New Year’s Day. Who is going to tell him that it may not be such a good idea?
One of Nepal’s hidden gems has always been the Mardi Trek. In fact for many years, those who went on it did not share their photographs, and did not brag about how stunningly scenic the trip was because they did not want hordes of tourists descending (ascending) to its knife-like ridge that forms the southwestern spur of Mt Machhapuchre.
Mardi (rhymes with ‘muddy’ not ‘hardy’) is indeed more out-of-this-world than all other other-worldly places in Nepal, or the planet. It has unbroken vistas, big sky, solitude and wilderness. And the surprising thing is how accessible it is now from Pokhara.
If you start from Dhampus, the Mardi route first follows the Annapurna Circuit for a short bit, then strikes off at Pitam Deurali (2,050m) into and up a ridge ablaze with pink rhododendrons in this season. You walk on a carpet of petals through a fragrant forest.
It takes four hours to reach Forest Camp (2,500m) where there are supposed to be tea shops, but it is deserted. Unlike other popular trekking trails, the tea shops here are spaced more widely and since food has to be portered in, it is more expensive.
But there are signs that things may change soon. In anticipation of the growing popularity of the Mardi Trek, new rest houses are going up at a rapid pace. The lodges are all recently built, still smell of fresh wood and don’t even have names or menus yet. You just hope the new blue tin roofs do not photobomb the sweeping view of the Annapurnas.
Locals say it never rains on Mardi Ridge, it pours. Or, it is snow and hail. True to form, there is a terrific hailstorm that morning at Forest Camp. At Low Camp (2,970m), the clouds open up just enough to offer a magnificent view of Mt Machapuchre, blanketed in fresh snow (pictured).
Badal Danda lives up to its name, with clouds obstructing the view. Snow starts falling by afternoon in light swirls and by morning it covers the trail. The narrow trail hugs the cliff on one side with a sheer drop on the other, the rhododendrons are now deep red, looking like shining drops of blood on the snowy slopes.
High Camp (3,550m) is above the tree-line, and the trail along the ridge becomes even more precarious en route to Viewpoint which doesn’t offer any views by afternoon because of billowing mist. Mardi Base Camp (4,500m) is another two hour climb, but for that you will need climbing gear.
If you don’t want to return the way you came, there is a straight descent down the slope to Sidhing (1,700m) from where there are jeeps to Pokhara, there is also a trail further down to Lwong or Lumre.
A few wilderness areas in Nepal are so easy to get to, and offer in a microcosm the sheer verticality of the country as you climb from sub-tropical to Alpine and almost Arctic in four days. The unsurpassed view is a bonus.
Get off the beaten track, Sian Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons
Stairway to heaven, Kunda Dixit