Returning to Kathmandu after six weeks in India felt, shockingly, like a breath of fresh air. What had previously seemed like chaos now seemed like relative calm. What had seemed like a gaudy tourist quarter was now a cozy enclave of convenience. Most of all, despite the pollution, traffic, and touts, things just felt easy in comparison to the confusion, hassle, and tension often found in India.
Although Kathmandu ended up being a great place to spend a few days getting organized, my main purpose in coming to Nepal was to go hiking in the Himalayas. As soon as I had my permits in order and felt ready to go, I hopped on a bus to Besisahar, the gateway to the Annapurnas.
The Annapurna mountain range is a section of the Himalayas which includes 14 peaks over 7,000 m, most notably Annapurna I, which at 8,091 m (26,545 ft), was the first peak over 8,000 m to be successfully climbed. (“Successfully” must be interpreted somewhat generously, however, given the amputations suffered by the leader of the 1950 expedition, Maurice Herzog).
The Annapurna Circuit (AC), on the other hand, is one of the world’s great hikes, and along with Mt. Everest, one of the premier tourist attractions in Nepal. Beginning to the Southeast of the Annapurna range, it makes an almost complete counter-clockwise circuit around the mountains, ending up to the Southwest. Although it demands no climbing ability, the AC does involve crossing a mountain pass over 5,000 m, and requires you to carry everything you might need in the case of extreme cold, wet, and windy weather (assuming you are travelling without a porter).
First opened to tourists in 1977, the AC quickly became famous as “teahouse trekking”, where one could walk all day and easily find a bed and a hot meal in a village teahouse. In other words, it’s the perfect hike for someone like me, who loves a challenging trek, but also enjoys a few luxuries at the end of the day, such as a bed, a hot shower, and perhaps a beer or a slice of apple pie. A great deal has obviously changed over the past 25 years, and today the AC is possibly more interesting as an ongoing “Integrated Conservation and Development Project” than for the remnants of traditional Nepali culture to be found along the way. Nevertheless, the AC still offers an unparalleled opportunity to spend an extended period of time on the trail, to hike independently in the Himalayas, and experience the diversity of cultures in the valleys distributed around the base of the mountains.
The other popular hike in the vicinity is the Annapurna Base Camp trek (ABC). In less time it takes you straight North into the Annapurna Sanctuary, an incredible cauldron of snow and ice right in the heart of the Annapurna mountains. I ended up combining the two treks into one, for an epic hike of close to 300 km over 22 days.
I had three reservations about hiking the AC. First, the altitude. I had previously experienced some problems with altitude sickness above 4,000 m (cf. Peru, 2001), and this hike would involve going above 5,400 m. Second, the crowds. The AC is deservedly popular, and I was worried that it might be too crowded for my liking. Finally, the roads. Nepal has been engaged in extensive road building to establish motorized transport connections between the various villages along the AC. Although this may bring benefits to some of the people who live in the Annapurna conservation area, there were rumors that the roads had destroyed much of the trail, and the opportunity to experience local Nepali culture along with it.
I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised on all three counts. Extensive road building has indeed taken place (and continues), but the trail-making is even more dynamic, and the AC still offers a first rate trekking opportunity. Although it requires a bit more of an exploratory spirit, one can avoid the road almost entirely, and there are fantastic opportunities to get away from the main trail to visit more isolated villages, with the same incredible scenery.
As for the crowds, I was shocked by how few people there were. High season is in the fall (October and November), when you are more likely to get those picture-perfect days, with snow-capped mountains against a deep-blue sky, but April is the second season, and I was expecting the trail to be inundated with people. Things did get quite crowded at the bottlenecks, such as Throng La pass and the Sanctuary, and there were a significant number of tour-groups, especially on ABC, but overall the trail was surprisingly empty, and there were even a few days when I saw just one or two other tourists.
Partly this is an effect of the roads. More and more people now do a shortened version of the AC, travelling by jeep to skip the first part, and then escaping by bus or plane as soon as they have made it over the pass. To me this misses the whole point of the hike. The AC is wonderful because it allows you to spend so long on the trail, hiking as far as you please each day and being sure of finding wonderful hospitality wherever you feel like stopping. Moreover, a quick trip over the pass without the necessary acclimatization is quite dangerous. Altitude sickness is a serious concern, and many people don’t take it seriously enough.
As for myself, I had almost sworn off going above 4,000 m, but I decided to give it one more try. This time, however, I would do it right, giving myself enough time to properly acclimatize. The AC is perfectly set up for this, as it takes you up fairly gradually, allowing you to comfortably ascend roughly 500 m per day (the recommended rate, in terms of the altitude at which you sleep), and includes some great side trails, allowing you to take even more time once you get above 3,500 m.
“Annapurna” apparently means “full of food”, and indeed, there was a surprisingly large selection available on the trail, including pizza, pasta, momos, and so on. The true staple of the AC, however, is the traditional Nepali dish, Dal Bhat. Available everywhere, and eaten by many Nepalis every night, the dish consists of lentil soup (dal) and rice (bhat), served with a potato and vegetable curry, a papdum, and if you’re lucky, a pickle (a nice, spicy pickle really makes the meal!). More importantly, it typically comes with bottomless refills (although I was occasionally denied thirds), so it’s the best way to fill up after a long day of hiking. The best part about it was that there was a surprising amount if variability in the meal, especially in the dal and the curry, even though the essential structure remained the same. I’m pretty sure I had it for dinner every night, except the day I came over Throng La pass, when I opted to change things up with a yak sizzler.
I’m hoping to eventually write up a day-by-day account of my hike, mostly as a resource for future hikers, but in the meantime, here is a summary account. Unfortunately, like everyone else, I was forced to make some hard choices about what to bring and what to leave behind. Sadly, in an effort to keep the weight of my bag down, my audio recorder didn’t make the cut, so you’ll just have to use your imagination with respect to the sound.
This was the start of the trail for me, the first of many Temple of Doom-style bridges (most of which were all metal, but some of which were made of wood, with metal cables), leaving a dusty bus parking lot in Besisahar.
I knew that many people were planning to skip the first day, and travel by bus to Bhulbhule, but after 6 hours in a cramped bus from Kathmandu, I was happy to rely on my feet. It took me a while to find the actual (current) start of the AC, but once I did, I was off to the races, following a well marked trail, emblazoned with the red and white Annapurna Circuit trail markers.
(On a side note, it was fun to experience my brain building up a dedicated visual recognition system for this particular pattern. By the end I was spotting them without even consciously trying, although I found that after three weeks I was having a problem with too many false-positives.)
Much to my surprise, I didn’t encounter any other hikers on the first day, and I honestly started wondering where all the people were. I ended up spending the first night in the small village of Ngadi Bazaar, having accidentally passed through Bhulbhule without even realizing it. My accommodation the first night was quite simple, just a concrete-floored room with corrugated iron walls and roof, but it was right next to the river, and I had it all to myself.
On the Eastern side of the mountains, the trail follows the Marsyangdi river upstream towards its source, gradually gaining altitude, and crossing back and forth across the river as necessary (not so good for those with a fear of heights).
I finally connected with a some fellow-hikers on the second day, the first of many groups I met that had formed spontaneously on the bus from Kathmandu. Personally, I liked to get an early start, hiking by myself for most of the day (and occasionally passing a few people), secure in the knowledge that newly-met friends would be coming up behind me, with whom I could spend my evenings. There was great variety in the people hiking the trail, with the oldest person I met being 74 years old.
On the third night, I ended up staying at “Hotel Super View” in the small town of Koto. True to its name, on the morning of the fourth day, I awoke to my first unclouded glimpse of the Himalayas, including Annapurna II, still partially shaded by other mountains to the East. The fourth day also included one of the most impressive features on the trail, an enormous glacially-sculpted rock wall known as Paungda Danda.
The settlements on the Eastern side are predominantly Buddhist, and the trail passes through many traditional stone villages, replete with typical Buddhist architecture and iconography, including small Stupas (reliquaries), Gompas (monastaries), and prayer-wheel walls. Some of the best examples were to be found in and around the towns of Upper Pisang, Ghyaru, and Ngawal.
By the time people reached Manang, a strong sense of community had begun to develop. At 3,500 m, Manang is itself surrounded by spectacular views, and high enough for the air to be getting quite cold. In general, the coldest time of day was at the end of a day’s walk, once you had arrived at your unheated hotel. Although I was lucky enough to get a warm shower on most days of trip, the afternoons and evenings spent in the high altitude lodges were admittedly chilly, and I made good use of both my down sleeping bag, and all the layers I was carrying.
Manang is also the place where most people take a day or two to acclimatize, before continuing on to Throng La pass. As a result, it apparently has capacity to accommodate 500 people, not to mention several bakeries with espresso machines, a museum, and not just one, but TWO movie houses, both of which show the same selection of movies – Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Seven Years in Tibet. It was a great place to connect with old friends, meet new ones, and explore the surrounding country. It’s incredibly hard to capture the full scale and grandeur of the mountains in a photograph, and especially at higher altitudes, things begin to look more like abstract-expressionist paintings, but here are a few attempts:
One notable side trail from Manang is to Tilicho Lake, which I’ll describe in more detail in the day-by-day account, but suffice it to say that it was a fascinating section of trail, but also by far the most dangerous, and it was one day that I was happy to be hiking with a group.
From Manang, the trail gradually climbs up another 1,500 m to High Camp, which, at nearly 5,000 m, is the last place to stop before crossing Throng La pass. Another option is to stay in Throng Phedi, which at 4,500 m is potentially an easier choice in terms of acclimatization, but makes for a much longer hike the next day. I met at least one person who was on the trail for 11 hours making the crossing. High Camp was not an unpleasant place, although it was undeniably cold, and all the running water was all pretty well frozen.
On the night I stayed there, High Camp was full, with a few people forced to sleep in the dining hall. By 4:00 pm that afternoon, as everyone huddled in the unheated, glass-windowed space, trying to stay warm, snow began to fall, and there was much concern over the possibility of crossing the pass the next day. With great fortune, however, we awoke to an incredibly bright, clear morning sky.
The day spent crossing Throng La pass felt the most like real mountaineering. From High Camp it was about 500 m uphill to the high point of the pass at 5,416 m (17,769 ft), walking over well-packed snow the whole way. I had fairly early developed a reputation as a fast walker, (sometimes deserved, sometimes not), but ultimately the altitude slows everyone down. Above 4,500 m or so, the lack of oxygen means that every step becomes a challenge, and there’s nothing to do but fall into a rhythm and keep on going. For me, I found the right pace was something like one step every second, and one breath (in and out) every two steps.
There was an undeniable sense of euphoria from ascending so high into the mountains, and as I felt the highest point approaching, I found myself hoping it would be a bit father off yet. The view from the top was spectacular, and all in all, it felt like one of the most beautiful days of my life. The first photo below is looking back towards High Camp (you can see the snow-covered buildings), and the last is the best of of a bunch of bad pictures of me at the top : )
The day after the pass, things quickly began to fragment, with some people taking a day off, others escaping by bus, jeep, or airplane, and a few continuing on. I opted to make a detour to Kagbeni, the gateway to Mustang, a part of Nepal heavily influenced by Tibet, which, much like Bhutan, can only be visited by tourists who pay a hefty permit fee (Kagbeni excepted). Kagbeni itself was incredibly old and crumbling, although tourism was clearly bringing a surge in development and new buildings. Here is a photo taken on the road to Kagbeni, looking back towards the pass, and another looking North into Mustang:
From Kagbeni, a road follows the Kali Gandaki river South to Jomsom and beyond. The road has essentially been built over the original Annapurna trail on the West side of river, but happily, a new trail has been reestablished on the opposite bank. Because so many tourists end their trek here, it suddenly felt like the first day again, with a virtually deserted trail passing through little-visited towns. The Western side of the mountains is much more lush and forested, and the next few days were pleasantly cool and cloudy.
There was also one very cool Indiana Jones moment on the Western side, where the trail seemed to dead-end at a rock wall emblazoned with the Annapurna flag, with nowhere to go, left or right. Going over seemed like the only option, through highly unconventional for the trail. Sure enough, as I got a bit closer, it turned out that there were rocks sticking out of the wall, functioning as stairs, which could not be readily seen from head on.
By the time I reached Ghorepani, near the South end of the Western side, I was hiking up into the clouds and ended up in the middle of a rainstorm that lasted for at least forty hours. Around this time, more than two weeks into the trek, I also felt like my body had consumed all of it’s fat reserves, and was moving onto other things, so I made a conscious effort to start eating more. As I hiked over a small pass named Deurali (just 3,090 m), the rain turned to snow, making very picturesque scenery all the more beautiful.The rhododendrons were in full bloom, and as the snow gathered at the base of the trees, the entire trail glowed with a pinkish light.
Once I was over Deurali pass, the weather improved, and I linked up with the ABC trail. Overall, the Annapurna Circuit was superior to the ABC trek in almost every way. Although it is undeniably more scenic in parts, the ABC is overloaded with tour groups, involves a lot of going up and down well-manicured rock stairs, and offers fewer opportunities for side trips and independent exploration. Moreover, the cultural aspect is almost completely absent, as many of the “villages” you pass through are little more than concentrations of hotels. It felt to me a bit like a broken escalator designed to get tourists into the mountains as fast as possible. I must admit, however, that the Annapurna Sanctuary itself is possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to, and dwarfs anything on the AC in terms of sheer natural beauty.
Situated at 4,130 m (13,550 ft), the Annapurna Sanctuary is surrounded on all sides by massive peaks over 7,000 m, and feels like a bowl at the top of the world. Despite being rather inhospitable to life, it is inviting in the way it offers a low point from which to appreciate some of the tallest rock formations on earth. I spent about 24 hours up there, and although it was cloudy when I first arrived, I got incredibly lucky with the weather. A full moon rose around 7:00 pm, and as the clouds cleared, the mountains revealed themselves at night, bathed in moonlight. The next morning was perfectly clear, and I enjoyed a few hours of contemplation after all the other tourists had left. If I had been carrying my audio recorder, I would have recorded the eerie sound of many small rock-slides, as unseen rocks ceaselessly tumbled into the glacial moraine. I basically filled my memory card up at the Sanctuary, and it will take a while to sort through the photos, but here is a sample:
It was awfully hard to leave the Sanctuary, but I had been so fortunate with the weather, it seemed best not to pressed my luck, and I began the journey back home again along the same trail I had come up.
As if they hadn’t already demonstrated their full power and glory, on my last night on the trail, the mountains treated me to a truly awesome sound and light show, in the form of enormous rolling thunder storms. Initially directly over head, with great bolts of lighting striking nearby, I spent hours in the dark, watching as the storms moved further down the valley, eventually becoming distant flashes in an otherwise lightless sky.
Finally, on the very last day, I got some fantastic panoramic views of the mountains from which I’d come, and it occurred to me that my end point (Phedi) would be an excellent place from which to begin the hike.
Coming down from the mountains was a somewhat melancholy journey. Now that I’m back in civilization, life on the trail, which had begun to seem so normal, quickly begins to feel strange and remote. The last couple of days in particular, were very hot and humid, and I was reminded of Herzog’s own retreat from the mountains, happy to have all my fingers and toes intact. As if to hammer the point home, a porter ran past me while I was taking a rest, carrying a tourist on his back, a seemingly unnecessary, if unsurprising, exertion on a trail routinely frequented by donkeys.
Overall, the best thing I did along the trail was to take moments now and then to stop, breathe, and attend to the gradually changing scenery, the smell of the earth and the air, and the sounds of the wildlife and the wind. This has been a long post, but I thought I’d end with a Buddhist poem that I encountered along the way.
This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by,
Like a torrent down a steep mountain.
– Buddha Sakyamuni