May 27, 2020

The Gurung village of Sikles and an epic journey to the virgin glacial lake of Annapurna II – where not a even a soul, neither a local nor a tourist, crossed paths – wrapped up a short but awe-inspiring trek.

Four days to spare, a fairly mediocre shape and no plans were what we had shown up in Pokhara with. Binging beer along the lakeside in the evening, my friend and I juggled our options, though in vain, to plan an adventurous trekking trip, and by the sixth round we’d almost given up. Just as we came close to settling for the cliched boating by the day and partying by the night, a rather nosey but helpful waiter casually suggested, “Try Sikles. It’s a beautiful village about four or five hours away. The first bus leaves at 7am from a station nearby.”

I’d come across that name a few times somewhere, but remained skeptical of the idea.

“It’s a Gurung settlement, pristine and you can see Lamjung Himal up close. Like you can almost touch it.”

This was tempting.

“Passing through Sikles, you’ll be able to reach Annapurna II’s glacier and lake in just two days from here. It’s is also one of the lowest in the world.”

Eyes lit up and the deal was sealed. We bottomed up our drinks, set our alarms and called it a night.

Little did we know once we reached Kaaukhola bus station that the first bus of the day to Sikles was also the last. The crammed, old bus looked like it couldn’t take a couple more barely awake trekkers. Before we knew it, we found ourselves cringing on the roof. The five-hour drive on dirt roads, we were told, was not going to be particularly pleasant. We held on tight on ropes and bags and whatever we could lay our hands on. Half way through the ride, they popped up in the horizon – Annapurna II and Lamjung Himal almost like a poster, out of nowhere, appeared right in front of us. The snowcapped rock were a sharp contrast to the lush greenery abound. With each passing minute, the road got bumpier, the gorge below deeper and the mountains more majestic – all made for one heck of a bus ride. Woes of a sore butt from being tossed around on the bus roof, blistered arms from holding onto dear life and regrets of previous night’s debauchery nonetheless lingered. Yet in all fairness, we’d have missed the show had we sat inside.

We arrived in Sikles past noon and already blessed with a pleasant weather, prepared to take a quick tour of the village before heading to Namaste Guest House, one we were recommended. A maze of cobbled and clean alleways felt instantly inviting, as did the wide grins of locals who would come to talk to us. The clay houses were as pretty as ever, well decorated and upkept. A steel tower though flimsily built by the locals gave a perfect view of the village with Lamjung Himal peeking at the back. With almost 700 houses in a thick settlement, Sikles is not an easy navigation, but we got around fine. Namaste happened to be a clean and small tea house in the heart of Sikles. Run by Maila Gurung, a chatty and rather well known local figure, who happily volunteered to be our guide to the glacier.

After a fat breakfast next morning we began the 6-hour trek for the day. The gradual descent on stoney steps turned into dirt trails, and the spectacular views of the mountains graced us along. We crossed a suspension bridge and started the uphill on tiny steps against a barren cliff with a steep drop on the side, all the way down to Madi River, which originates from the lake. The sun by this hour was scorching and the solace of a thick canopy finally came at the end of the climb as we entered into the woods. Not to mentioned, a giant waterfall no less than 70 meters in height was the perfect resting spot.

As we inched along, the mountains looked steeper but the landscape around was unchanged and still lush. Barely trodden trails and precarious bridges took us to a lone goat shed, also our stay for the night, a couple of hours short of the glacier. Maila explained, “Until a few years ago, there used to be close to a dozen houses. People were involved in goat herding and honey hunting, but now the trade is dying.” As we were approached by a slender old man, Maila continued, “That is Major Gurung, he is an ace honey hunter but also among the last of his tribe. He is trying to revive his trade by training the young generation.” After a modest dinner of dheedo (millet paste) and potatoes with the hosts, we managed to get some good sleep, though I didn’t want to find out what were making those howling sounds all night.

The final couple of hours from the goat shed on fairly flat and shrubby trails took us to the edge of a cliff. Coming out of the bushes, we stood there frozen. The glacier and the emerald lake were right in front of us. Literally just a stone’s throw away! But reaching the base itself was no child’s play as we maneuvered carefully over loose rocks and giant boulders, as enormous as any concrete mansion. Snow on Annapurna II melted in the heat, which sure enough triggered avalanches that deposited snow on the glacier. “If you hear a giant one coming, hide behind a rock,” cautioned Maila. We heeded the caution well but managed to disrobe and make a quick jump into the glacial lake. It was monumental and had to be done!

The unforgettable feat got us shivering, but we couldn’t stay much longer, neither soaking in the views nor waiting for the snow inching high up on the mountain’s shoulders to fall off, which could easily have been the biggest avalanche we saw that day and one that Maila had warned us about. We had a long way back to Sikles, so we packed up and headed up the cliff, not without making a narrow escape from tumbling rocks. We retraced our steps and several hours of tiresome walk later, we were back for a hot deserved shower and cold celebratory beer at Namaste.

We’re glad we chanced upon a journey to Sikles, perhaps Annapurna’s best-kept secret and a trip that would have otherwise never materialized for us. But glad at the end of the day we had an epic experience, especially the dip in the glacial lake, something we only joked we’d do as we were getting tossed and turned on the bus roof. Perhaps adventures are better off that way – unplanned and on a shoestring.