Early morning climbs up Q-cho are enchanting. It is a magical combination-the light morning breeze, fresh dew on the grass and the sight of Lamjung, Annapurna I, IV and III, Tilicho, Gangapurna's glacier and heart-shaped lake, peaks glistening across the Marsyangdi gorge on the southern side of Manang. On the north are Pisang, Thorong and Chulu (I and II). And under the snow line of the mountains are evergreen pine forests, home to finches and pheasants.
The Q-cho, at 4,200m, a good 1,500m lower than the lower trekking peaks, is on the north-east side, a gradual three-hour ascent from the villages of Bhraga or Manang. Starting from Manang village, an easy twenty-minute climb gets you to a small shrine perched on a hillock. Love-stricken couples are known to make offerings here before eloping. If you really want to get away from it all, the real climb begins here. The trail winds slowly up through a deserted village with ruins of stone houses. Along the way, you encounter shepherds huddled behind small rocks, making fires and cooking as their Tibetan Mastiffs glide around majestically. We surprised a little pup into barking violently.
The climb is gradual, sure, but the track never levels off. Still, don't worry about getting tired-the landscape is rejuvenating, and inspiring. During this time of the year, there is a riot of yellow, violet and red Himalayan flowers, blooming as if tomorrow didn't matter. There are birds on the wing and blue sheep, yaks and horses dotting the mountain slopes. A pair of HImalayan falcon and their hatchlings allowed us to stop and stare at their nest, tucked away in a small bush. The high altitude slopes above the trails are also migrating routes of snow leopards.
If there is one feature of the walking that stands out, it is the soft grassy trail that yields as you tread on it, cushioning your every step. An early start ensures less time under the scorching sun. But eventually, the hills appear, one by one, and walking can become a game of catch with the sun. You climb facing north, and behind you the mountains on the south keep changing colour. And that's the charm of it-when you break to rest, you see the amazing swiftness with which the climatic conditions and views change at this altitude.
As you near the peak, clouds start to curtain the peaks. The view is still remarkable. It is essential to camp on Q-cho, somewhere near the lake preferably, if you want to see a breathtakingly crystal morning. But if you are a good trekker, no worries-start from Manang at five in the morning. We did at six, and there were still wonderful views aplenty.
The northern flank of Q-cho also has a rather curious feature. About two-and-a-half hours up, you come across a small lake, a pond almost, about 150m wide, with the curious name of The Sister of Q-cho. If it is too shallow for your taste, well, its big sister is just a quarter of a km away. Residents of the area say the little lake was formed when the larger one burst.
Every summer, young and old visit this holy lake in the belief that during this time one can see the palace of the gods inside the lakes. The catch is, you have to gaze at it upside down. Many claim to have actually seen this underwater wonderworld. And if you lie with your head sloping down, southwards .well, there's certainly something in the story. The Annapurna range appears to simply grow out of the lake, and on a calm day, the water is like finest silvered glass. No wonder that many believe prayers and offerings made to Q-cho are always rewarded.
Q-cho is one of the many gems of Manang. Here you can contemplate everything your heart desires. The sounds of the place never intrude, but only enhance the trance-like state it is so easy to achieve here-yak bells, sometimes the distant fluttering and splashing of migrating ducks, and Pegasus-like white horses appearing suddenly out of nowhere to drink from the lake.
It is only while descending that you realise how high you've come. The villages of Bhraga, Manang and Tenki look like miniature models.
It is nice that hardly any trekkers come here, but this is the best way to understand the lay of the land and also to acclimatise before attempting the Thorong-La. And then there is the tranquil lake of magic to transport you anywhere in the universe. Go here. The spirits will bless you. I know, I felt it.