The previous night was the first one I, rather excitedly at first, used my sleeping bag, having relied until then on the blankets the teahouses provided. To my great dismay, the bag proved to be less comfortable than I'd hoped (though I can hardly fault it for that - I'm a restless sleeper by nature and it takes me a while to find the proper posture to doze off in) which resulted in an unpleasant sleep with many interruptions; to add insult to injury, towards the morning I had a dream in which, for reasons I can't remember, I'd been forced to end my trip prematurely and was already back in Cluj, contemplating the reality of returning back to mundane life without having completed the Circuit, a dream which led to me waking up with a great feeling of loss and frustration which quickly turned to gratitude and excitement as I realised I still had many days of trekking ahead of me.
The day's trip, you'll remember, targeted Ice Lake (4600 m) as its final destination, a not inconsiderable climb across a fairly steep, scarcely forested - and thus shadeless - incline. Intending to avoid, as much as it was possible, climbing under a potentially scorching sun, as well as get as great a view as possible, as the weather, like I've said before, tends to get more cloudy in the afternoon, we originally planned to leave the teahouse no later than 6. Naturally, we left around 7.
The path towards Ice Lake went through Old Braka (which we'd seen the previous day from high up on the path to and from the Milarepa cave) and then winded along the mountainside. Despite the late-ish hour of our departure, we were still, I think, among the first tourists going up for the day (which made sense, seeing as how a departure from Manang, which hosted a lot more hotels/teahouses than Braka, added another half hour to the trip). We did make several stops, both to catch our breaths and drink in the beauty of sights, the Annapurna range standing tall behind us, across the river valley.
|Morning view across the Marshyangdi valley, towards the Milarepa gompa we'd journeyed to the day before; dead center, about 3/4ths up through the forest, the white dot would be the stupa we took one of our breaks at|
|The day's first sighting of a blue sheep, a one-horned specimen standing defiantly atop the hill above|
|And another one eyeing us cautiously from bellow|
|Rock, ice, snow and mist.|
With our many pauses, eventually some groups did catch up (and later passed) us, and along one of them came two dogs who'd presumably decided to follow them from either Braka or Manang. One of them decided to tag along us for a while and contributed decisively to the creation of one of the most memorably funny scene. As we continued the climb, we noticed in the distance that we were approaching a herd of blue sheep, which was our newly gained companion's cue to decide to play the shepherd dog; he dashed energetically towards them, only to become visibly more hesitant as he drew near and a few of the males turned their horned heads toward him. In the end though, our canine companion persisted and the blue sheep conceded, resulting in a high speed, (I would think?) playful and (I would wager) tiring chase across the mountainside and away from us.
|Both parties of the standoff looking in our direction, perhaps for moral support; we couldn't help but side with the underdog.|
|Who, in the end, victoriously gave chase|
We also had a few other chance encounters with the plumaged wildlife, though none as eventful as a dog chasing goats, apart from which we trekked on unimpeded by any obstacles.
|A tiny bird unintimidated by the immensity of the mountain behind it.|
|An almost hitchcockian, near-endless flock of birds|
|For once I managed to catch the eagle from above!|
|Though he quickly gained elevation|
We did make a last noteworthy stop by a nameless (or perhaps whose name I'm unaware of) lake some time before the trip's namesake basin; this break proved to be one of the most prolific for the coveted reflection photos, with the Annapurna peaks towering straight across.
|Doesn't get much more reflection-y than this. If memory serves me right, left to right, Annapurna III, Gangapurna and, far right, Tilicho Peak|
Before long we reached Ice Lake, enthusiastic at how easily we'd got there, unburdened by our backpacks.
|The view back from the lake was worth every drop of sweat|
After taking in the landscape and mentally patting ourselves on the pack, we decided to take a slightly more extended break there; though the winds were starting to pick up and the clouds were slowly gathering in the distance, the sun still shone brightly, so we made our stay as comfortable as we could by lying down on the still-warm stones around the lake and very nearly drifted to a short and sweet sleep.
|And the lake itself didn't look back either; chasing blue sheep is exhausting work|
|The first (and one of the few) photo not taken by me, it clearly shows how difficult life on the road is; thanks for taking it, American/Canadian (I presume) girl whose name I never asked|
The wind eventually became problematic and, sky grayed out above us, not wanting to be caught by a rain up there, we ended our rest and started the descent back to Braka.
|A good number more clouds on the way back; down, across the valley - Manang, and behind it, Gangapurna Lake|
|Same view, from a bit farther down, getting more cloudy|
|Annapurna III getting ominously surrounded by clouds; not our destination, thankfully.|
|Late noon view of Old Braka; path to the monastery to the right.|
Once again, going downhill and unburdened by our backpacks, our progress was remarkable and we got back in time for a belated lunch and with enough daylight left to consider an afternoon visit to Manang. A visit we, in the end, passed in favour of more couch-potato type activities like doing laundry (I personally was nearly about to run out of clean socks), chat around the stove and read.
The extended stay in Braka proved to be a great experience, not only for its spectacular and, I found, undemanding side treks (it's a great feeling getting used to carrying a backpack all day and then being able to travel without its weight on your shoulders), fun people (we met for the first time - we presumed - French young woman, with whom we exchanged very few words but whom we'd later bump into recurrently on the trek) and proximity to, as Nicu appropriately put it, cosmopolitan Manang, but also because it served as a great base for acclimatisation - sleeping two nights at 3500 m whilst climbing to 4200 and 4600 m respectively during the day was textbook good practice. The pinnacle of our acclimatisation process was about to follow, however, and it involved a different lake.