From March 26 to April 5th, 2012 I walked a portion of the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. The main purpose of this trek was to start acclimatising to higher altitudes before my attempt on Everest. I have also wanted for many years to walk the Annapurna circuit. I walked alone and stayed in tea houses along the way. I was not to be disappointed by the beauty of the Annapurna area.
Below is a trip report with some of the interesting characters I bumped into along the way. I will let my photographs describe the view.
Click on each photo below to see them at a larger scale.
Day 1, Monday 26 March – Kathmandu to BhulBhule
I wake at 5:30am in the hotel ‘Courtyard’ in Kathmandu. Very quickly wolf down a banana and some black tea for breakfast, leave my everest gear in two bags with the hotel then jump on the back of a motorcycle for an early morning ride through the streets of Kathmandu to the Gongabu Bus station. The bus is getting a few repairs to the front axle when I arrive, however we leave more or less on time at 7am.
I am heading for Besi Sahar today, the start of the Annapurna circuit. A bus ride in Nepal is an experience not to be missed. Ten minutes after leaving we stop for more repairs to the front axle. Afer that we seem to bump and honk our way through the streets of Kathmandu for an eternity. Three hours later we again stop for repairs, right in the middle of the road. People seem to come out of nowhere carrying very basic tools and fix the problem very quickly.
I find the Nepalese to be generally a very polite and friendly race of people. Some of them have an almost naïve but 100% genuine and completely honest curiosity in foreigners, even more so if you are travelling alone. When they meet you initially they may often ask questions that you find intrusive and very personal. However they are not trying to be rude, and you should take their questions in the good natured and honest way they are being asked.
A Nepali man gets on the bus after one hour and sits next to me.
“Which country are you from?” He asks me.
Me: “New Zealand”
Are you traveling alone?
Small silence as he looks around the bus.
“Is he your friend” (pointing to white guy on seat in front of me)
“Is she your friend” (pointing to white lady on seat across from me)
“You don’t have any friend on the bus?”
“OK” (he finally seemed convinced)
Ahhh, the beautiful sound of the “OK” – something I always aim to achieve from my conversations in Nepal. “OK” means much more than just “OK”. It actually means “yes I understand and accept your answer, it makes sense and I have no further questions regarding this subject”. Some answers I give to the often extremely personal questions will provoke more difficult to answer questions. I sometimes revert to the odd white lie to avoid more interrogation and to get the ‘OK’ of acceptance.
Our conversation continued. The man’s name was Asan Rai.
Asan: “Where is your wife”
Me: “She is at home”
Asan:”Why is she not here”
Me: She is working (the truth)
Asan:”How many children do you have”
Me: “2” (a lie but from experience its easier to say this)
Me: 4 and 7 (another lie)
We sat together for the next 7 hours as the bus bumped and jerked its way to Besi Sahar. Asan worked for a christian missionary NGO. As the hours wore on I listened to music, stared out the window at the bedlam of nepalese traffic and roadside activity and talked to Asan. We stopped for lunch. He bought me dahl baht and a drink and refused to take any money. When I insisted he smiled and simply said “you are my guest”.
After 7.5 hrs we arrived in Besi Sahar. Here all trekkers are required to take their permits and present them to the ACA office. Mine was in my pack on top of the bus.”Don’t worry, sit here with me and I will explain to the officer. You won’t need to show your permit.” said Asan. Asan left the bus 5km before I did. As he stood up from his seat, he turned and shook my hand and wished me good luck. His honesty and generosity made me feel guilty for being wary of him initially.
The Annapurna circuit officially goes for 220km. The starting point is in a village called Besi Sahar. Almost all people walk it counter clockwise. It reaches a highpoint of 5410m as you cross the Thorong La pass. However road building is rapidly eroding the start and finish of the track. The bus I took actually can drive a further 9km from the official start point at Besi Sahar to a village called Bhulbhule. From Bhulbhule you can take a 4wd or jeep a further 20 km to the village of Chamje. From Chamje they are blasting the road into the side of the steep gorges, all the way to Chame – a further 27km. In a few years you may be able to drive all they way to Chame.
I chose to start walking in Bhulbhule. After 8.5 hrs sitting on the noisy bus, my backside, ears, nose, eyes and knees (which were rammed into the seat in front of me) were very happy to finally arrive. I am not sure what it is about travelling, but just sitting in a plane, bus or car for long periods, makes me very tired. Sitting in a Nepalese bus makes me even more tired. I set off walking at 3:30pm. I walked for 4km, following the Marsyangdi Khola(Khola meaning river in Nepali). I felt grumpy and tired from the bus ride.
As I entered the tiny riverside settlement of Ngadi at 900m elevation, rain spits started falling which increased into a heavy downpour. I passed a number of lodges which looked very basic until I came across the “Holiday Trekkers” Lodge which looked quite clean. I very gratefully checked into a small room with two single beds, and lay down to rest as the rain beat down on the roof. I was so tired I didn’t bother about dinner. I felt lonely and missed Stephanie as I lay there and drifted off to sleep.
Day 2 – Tuesday 27 March – Ngadi to Dhoropani
Had a very nice sleep, the rain had stopped in the morning. I rose at 6AM, had Tibetan Bread with omelette for breakfast. Not a fan of the Tibetan bread, a little to greasy for my liking and will revert to Chapati tomorrow I think. The lodge costs 390 Rupee for the nights stay and breakfast (about Singapore dollar $6.50).
From Bhulbhule to Chamje you share the track with the occasional bus
I leave at 7am walking. I walk initially along a track, then cross the river to the road. You can actually take a 4wd jeep or bus from BhulBhule, a further 20km to the village of Chamche. The road is rough, in some parts literally carved into the side of vertical cliffs above the river. I decided to walk this and made good time. I stop in Jagat village for lunch of noodles and black tea. I practise speaking some Nepali with some phrases from the Lonely Planet guide book to a little girl called Asmi whose mother cooks me lunch. She is very cute and is 4 years old with snot coming out her nose.
The road from Chamje to Chame is being blasted into the steep sides of the gorge
I walk on, crossing the river again and the trail steepens as I climb up a steep ridge beside the Masyangdi river still until I reach a plain and the village of Tal at 1700m. Tal marks the start of the Manang district. As I climb the trail, I come across porters moving very slowly carrying sheets of corrugated iron in the traditional Nepalese porter fashion, with a strap fastened around their forehead to bear all the weight. Curiosity gets the better of me as I see two porters stopped with their loads resting behind them. I point at the load:
Me: “How heavy?”
Me: 95kg? really????
Porter: “95, 95” (i think this is the only english he knows)
60 - 70 kg of weight, 17 sheets of corrugated iron, I managed to hold this for about 2 or 3 seconds for the photo.
I signal to him if I can try and lift the load. The porter looks like a 15 year old boy and would only weigh no more than 60kg. I don’t believe a sheet of corrugated iron is 95kg so I pop the strap over my head and try and stand up. Oh my god!! I just manage to struggle to my feet for about 2 seconds until the pain through my neck is so great I quickly drop it back down. I have been doing squats in the gym for a few months and have some idea of how heavy 70kg is, and that load must have been around 60 – 70kg. It was incredible. I investigate further why it’s so heavy – counting the sheets of iron, this load was 17 sheets of corrugated iron!
The porters speak very little english. As I am sitting with them a young man with a small boy walks up the hill and stops off. He can speak english qiute well and acts as an interpreter between myself and the porter. The porter whose load I tried to lift is actually 28 years old, and is carrying the load to the next village of Tal. I ask why he has to carry so much. “Because he comes from a very poor family” is the reply. It makes me sad.
I continue walking up the hill and begin talking to the young man with the small boy. His name is Keshie and he is 19 years old. The small boy is his nephew Sunim. Sunim is 5 years old and studies at a boarding school in Besi Sahar. They come from the village of Chame, 56km from Besi Sahar, a 2 day walk. Keshie is walking Sunim (and as it turns out his other nephew Pratik who is further up the track) home for their school holidays. It is a steep hill and little Sunim quietly walks along behind his uncle. Never complaining once, occasionally getting a piggy back from his uncle if the steps get to high for his little legs. It turns out today they are heading to Dhorapani.
Sunim (left) and his uncle Keshie (right).
Keshie: “Where are you walking today?”
Me: “I don’t know, how about you?”
Keshie: “To Dhorapani, you will walk to Dhorapani with me also today”
Keshie’s curiosity then begins to get aroused.
Keshie: “What country are you from?”
Me: “New Zealand”
Keshie: “Where is your wife?”
Me: “She is at home working”
Keshie: “Why she does not come here?”
Me: “She has to stay in Singapore and work, my wife is from Singapore, she is Chinese.”
Keshie: “She is from China?”
Me: “No, she is from Singapore – there are many Chinese people living in Singapore”
Keshie: “How many children do you have?”
Me: “2” (a lie)
Keshie: “Hold old are they?”
Me: “Four and Seven” (a lie)
Keshie: “Do you love your wife”
Me: “Yes, very much”
Keshie: “How much money do you make in one month?”
Me: “Erm… not very much”
Keshie: “How much?”
Me: “a few thousand dollars”
Keshie: “so much?”
Me: “Yes, but Singapore is an expensive place to live, so I need to pay alot of money every month just to buy food and pay rent.”
Keshie: “How much money in your bank account?”
Me: “Not very much”
Keshie: “How much?”
Me: “One thousand dollars” (a lie – there is a little less)
Keshie: “Why so little?”
Me: “Because I got married and my wife takes all my money” (an attempt at a joke but he took it seriously)
Phew! I got through that round of questioning and finally manage to ask Keshie some back.
Me: “Keshie, those men are building the road – will it be good to have the road coming in here to Chame?”
Keshie: “Maybe, some good, some bad. But I never will take road.”
Keshie: “Because very very danger.”
Looking across at the road being blasted into the cliff face (I can hear the explosions of dynamite as we walk), I cannot help but agree with Keshie. My turn at asking questions does not last long before Keshie starts off again with a maze of seemingly unrelated enquiries which leave my head whirring just too come up with satisfactory answers to get the “OK”.
From Tal to Dhorapani - they are constructing the road on the opposite side of the bank (right side of this photo) to the walking track.
Keshie: “Have you tried Nepali chicken?”
Keshie: “You must try, your chicken is very bad”
Me: “Really? Why?”
Keshie: “Your chicken is frozen, Nepal chicken is never frozen. Nepal chicken is the best chicken – you must try”
Silence for a few minutes as we walk on…
Keshie: “Do you like disco dancing?”
Me: “Erm…yes, its OK”
Keshie: “How many times in one month you go disco dancing?”
Me: “Maybe 2 times per year” (a lie – I can’t remember the last time I ‘disco danced’ – actually I am not even sure what defines ‘disco dancing’?)
Keshie: “Why not very much?”
Me: “Erm…. because I am old man”
Me: “Do you like disco dancing?”
Keshie: “Yes very much I like to go disco dancing”
Me: “How many times you go disco dancing?”
Keshie: “I never go disco dancing”
Keshie: “Where do you come from today?”
Me: “I start walking in Ngadi”
Keshie: “Ngadi? Why do you walk such long way today?”
Me: “Because you told me I must walk with you to Dhorapani”
One hour before Dhoropani I start to bonk (run out of energy). I sit down and open some nuts and biscuits. I pass some to Keshie who shares them with Pratik and Sunim. I notice they have not eaten or drunk in 3 hours. They also have not complained once and I wonder if 5 year old kids from first world countries would be able to walk two days home from school up steep mountain tracks without anything to eat or drink during the day.
Sunim getting a short ride. 95% of the time he walked himself.
The path narrows in places as we pass around cliffs above the river. A team of mules comes the opposite way and I meet them on a skinny section. I hug the bank as they walk past. They are carrying chicken cages on their backs which stick out and keep catching on my pack and pulling me over. I am glad I am on the inside of the bank and not near to the edge.
Mules are dangerous on the narrow tracks, especially carrying chicken cages which stick out. A German lady was pushed off and broke her leg.
We arrive at the Manaslu lodge in the small village of Dhorapani at 1900m. After a ten hour day with 1.5 hours rest and 8.5 hours walking I have covered 27km and 1000m of height gain. Based on my original itinerary I covered two days in one, which is what I wanted to do so I have more days for higher up on the mountain above 3500m where I can start acclimatising.
I have a shower. Its more like a warm trickle of water and the ambient air temperature is close to freezing so I don’t waste much time. Its nice to feel clean. I eat Dahl Baht for dinner sitting outside at a table beside the walking track. Pratik and Sunim play with two small plastic bulldozers in front of me. Two French ladies walk by. They stop and pass the two small boys a ‘school pen’ each. As they walk off the ladies have huge smiles on their faces as if they have just saved the planet from destruction. Pratik and Sunim look at the pens with the same level of interest and excitement that I look at my annual dentist check-up reminder when it comes in the mail. They ditch the pens on the table beside me and continue playing with the bulldozers. Curiosity gets the better of me. I pull out my note book and ask Pratik and Sunim to come over and write their names. Pratik goes first. Being slightly older of the two boys, he does a good job of printing out his name correctly, spelling each letter out loud as ne neatly writes it in my book. Sunim then take his pen. With all the concentration of a brain surgeon he starts to write. S – U – N (he gets his N back to front). His little face is almost glued to the notebook and as he focusses on his task I watch in silent amazement as a huge droop of snot comes out his nose and slowly lowers down to almost touch the page. Just millimetres before it touches he gives a quick snort and it dissapears back up his nostril again. Only to reappear a few seconds later. It is the most masterful display of snot control I have seen and I am quite relieved to get my notebook back snot free afer he has finished writing his name.
I fall asleep at 7:30PM, content with the feeling that only hard physical exercise followed by a shower, a full stomach and a comfortable bed can bring.
Day 3 – Wednesday 28 March – Dhoropani to Bhratang
After quickly drifting off to sleep last night I eventually end up sleeping badly. Even this relatively low altitude of 1900m see’s me wake frequently during the night as my body starts to adapt to higher altitudes. I order Chapati and fried egg for breakfast and sit outside eating it while washing it down with black tea.
It feels nice to be here in the mountains and have life reduced to the simplcity of how far I will walk today, where I will eat lunch, staying warm and hydrated and wondering whats around the next corner. I think how my father would like to be here in this environment. How a man who lived his life in the hill country of one culture would like to see how people lived in the hills in another culture. He would relate to these mountain people.
I leave walking at 7:30AM. Most of today’s route follows the under-construction road alongside the Marshangdi river. After one hour, I catch up to Keshie, Pratik and Sunim. I notice Pratik has a large scratch over his eye. I ask Keshie what happened.
Keshie: “Mr Pratik got bitten by the monkey”
Me: “What!? Why did the monkey bite him?”
Keshie: “Because monkey wanted to take Mr Pratik’s food”
Me: “Oh no, poor Pratik, did he cry?”
Keshie: “No, Mr Pratik was very angry and fought with the monkey!”
Not for the first time I thought how tough these little mountain boys were. In a first world country the boy would have been rushed to hospital for rabies shots (possibly by helicopter) and the monkey and his family exterminated, then laws would be changed to protect the monkeys and the people from each other.
After 4 hours of fast walking I reach the village of Chame – the home of Keshie and his family. Chame is a nice village, there is even 3G mobile phone connection.
The entrance to Chame proudly displays 'Broadband internet' painted on the rock.
I have walked in front of Keshie so arrive much before him. He asked me to stay at his brothers lodge and that he would invite me to his home for dinner that night. As much as I would have liked to take up his offer I decide to keep walking, as it’s early in the day and I want to put more miles behind me. Today I see beautiful views of Manaslu(the world’s eighth highest mountain at 8156m) in the distance. It looks huge and eerie. It seems to beckon to me.
Mt Manaslu, the world's eighth highest mountain.
It starts to drizzle as I walk along the road through groves of pine tree’s. I stop and put on my rain jacket. When I reach a very small basic village called Bhratrang at 2950m the rain starts to become heavier. I had planned to reach Pisang today – another long day combining two into one. However the rain changes my plans. I decide to stay in Bhatrang instead.
There are only two lodges to choose from. Both are very basic but clean. I take a room. There is two Spanish trekkers with their guide and porter, and a young German couple trekking independently staying. I change from my wet clothes and rest in my room. The walls are made from thin timber slabs. I can see the two Spanish trekkers through the cracks in the timber and can easily here them talking. I hope they don’t snore tonight I tell myself. There guide comes in. An argument breaks out. They want to go along way tomorrow, all the way to a village called Manang. The guide says that they cannt go so far. They only have one porter and he cannot carry 35kg in one day all the way to Manang. Voices are raised. It makes me glad I am walking independently and can stay whereever I wish.
Today I walked 23km and gained 1000m in elevation. I order Dahl Baht and sit in the small dining room in the candlelight around the yak dung burning stove. The young German couple comes in. We start talking. They are working teaching in a school east of Kathmandu. This is their second time trying the Annapurna circuit. The first time the girl’s knee got sore after two days and they had to turn back. They are university students. They order the cheapest dish on the menu. I can tell they have little money. They are interesting to talk too. Young, inquisitive and open minded. They tell me of a German lady who got pushed off the path by the mules two days back and broke her leg. They lend me their map of the Annapurna circuit. The map is very useful and and I start to make notes from it in my notebook. The girl see’s me and tells me to keep the map as they have a spare one. I wonder why it is that people with the least in life seem the most willing to share.
The two Spanish sit quietly through dinner poring over a map and discussing in low tones with the seriousness of generals plotting the invasion of another country. I later learn they are actually Basque. Maybe that explains it? I go to bed around 7:30pm. Day 4 –
Thursday 29 March – Bhratang to Ngawal
I sleep badly. One of the Spanish trekkers snores like a chainsaw all night. I rise at 6:00AM and sit beside the fire in the small kitchen with the porter, the cook and the Spanish trekkers guide. The guide is an older man, almost 60. We start talking about Everest. The guides name is Pemba. He tells me he worked with Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman on previous expedition’s. As well as Chris Bonnington’s south west face of Everest expedition. He has been to the North side of Everest also and tells me it is very windy there. I agree with him.
I watch as the cook prepares my breakfast over the wood burning stove. First he rolls the chapati then sets a frying pan on the stove and cleans it with ash from the fire. Then he fry’s the chappati, followed by the eggs. It tastes great.
My breakfast being cooked. There is something about eggs fried this way that makes than more tasty than normal.
I leave at 7:30AM. The day is cold. I put on my jacket and balaclava hat for the first time. As I walk down the stairs from the lodge one of the Spanish trekkers is doing stretches and warming up. He is wearing lycra tights and a sweatband around his head. Like he is about to run a marathon. I am secretly impressed. This guy must be fast. Especially dressed in this fashion in this cold. He leaves a few minutes before me. I start walking, following a narrow track carved into the side of a vertical cliff with steep drop off into the river below. Its quite windy. After ten minutes I come across the Spanish trekker, sheltering behind a large boulder and putting on his jacket and warm clothing. We nod to each other silently as I pass him. He does not pass me for the next two hours until I reach the village of Pisang and our routes diverge.
Walking from Bhratang to Pisang initially follows a track above the river.
From Pisang you can take the high route to the village of Manang or the low road. The high route is longer and slower but much more scenic. I start up the high road, and stop 20 minutes later in Upper Pisang. Upper Pisang is a beautiful old village perched on the side of a steep hill. I wander around the narrow alley ways until I find a lodge high up with a nice view. Sitting on the balcony I eat fried potato and drink a whole pot of black tea.
From Upper Pisang its a hard slog for 2h 15m up to the village of Gyaru at 3670m. I stop here for 20 mins, drink some water and am really starting to feel the altitude now. From here I traverse the ridge with great views of the Annapurna range, albeit slightly hazy. How nice this section would be during sunrise I think. Another 1h 45m I reach my destination for the evening, the small village of Ngawal at 3660m.
The village of Ngawal at 3660m.
A quick look at the Lonely Planet guidebook and I choose the Kailash guest house. I go through the normal routine of changing into my cleaner and warmer clothes, then sit in my room resting until 5PM when the sun goes down. As soon as the sun drops it gets very cold and I move to the small dining room where the lodge owner lights the fire. There is one Polish trekker and an Israeli couple staying in the lodge. I start talking to the Israeli’s. They are a young married couple, who have both just finished their internships after medical school. She is shorter and kind and reminds me of my sister Helen who is also a doctor. He is tall, skinny with a shaven head and an outrageous sense of humour. They order chapati only from the menu. I enquire why they are eating so basically and they tell me they are trying to recover from food poisoning. They have been resting in Ngawal for two days without any energy to leave the lodge. They seem happy to have someone else to talk to.
I decide to order something different from Dahl Baht. So I go for fried maccaroni. It comes out in an enourmous plate which is enough to feed me for at least 3 or 4 nights. It is also covered in cheese. As I learned from the sherpa’s on Everest they do not like to eat dairy products when at altitude as the believe it produces flem and mucus. The food tastes good. I force myself to eat 3/4 of the entire plate – way more than I feel comfortable with. I decide to go back to Dahl Baht the next evening. I crave a beer so order a bottle. Altitude and alchohol dont mix but as I feel ok with the altitude I decide to have one. After one glass I have had enough, however its a big bottle and I battle my way through it.
Day 5 – Friday 30 March – Ngawal to Bragar
I wake with a slight headache and feeling thirsty. Probably due to the beer. Before breakfast I take a walk up the hill behind the lodge and take some photo’s of the sun rising over the Annapurna.
A panorama of the Annapurna taken from Ngawal
At breakfast the Israeli couple are feeling better so they decide to leave today also. I walk for two hours downhill until I reach the small village of Mughi. I stop at a small lodge and try the Seabuckthorn juice. Something I have read about in Lonely Planet. This juice comes from a plant which grows locally in the area and is said to have very high concentration of vitamin C. I order two glasses. It is sweet and tangy, very tasty. I am later told they mix it with sugar and Tang powder so am now unsure if its the juice which makes the nice taste. I coud pee in a glass and mix it with Tang powder and sugar and it would taste nice.
Following the trail down to Braga from Ngawal
Twenty minutes later I reach the village of Bragha and check into the hotel “New Yak”.The Israeli couple also turn up and check in. There is a slow internet connection at the small lodge so I check my emails. I then do some washing outside in a small basin. There is only one washing basin so the Israeli chap sits and watches and waits his turn. “There are three things that man can sit and watch for ever” he says to me.”Fire burning, water flowing and man working”. Fortunately he did not watch me working forever and as soon as I washed my clothes I hung them out to dry and headed of for a day walk up to a site high on the wall of the valley called ‘Milarepa’s Cave”.
This is a 600m climb up through the pine forests to a holy site where pilrims come every year. Apparently a Tibetan poet and singer called Milarepa used to meditate up there 600 years ago. A hunter found him and Milarepa convinced the hunter to trade in his bow and arrow and become his deciple. He must have been a real smooth talker. I wonder how many girlfriends he had.
I spotted some blue sheep which did not seem so afraid of me as I wandered up to Milarepa's cave
I arrive at the gompa at the site of the cliff face where the cave is meant to be. But no sign of the cave. I wander up another 50m onto the steep exposed ridge. It is a wonderfully peaceful spot, with Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the wind. I am not a very spiritual person but as I sat and looked down at the views of the valley I felt incredibly peaceful and could understand why pilgrims would come to this spot. I made a short voice update using my Satellite phone on my blog (listen to the voice post here).
Prayer flags above Milarepa's cave - such a peaceful spot.
As I started to descend I came across a lone Israeli walking up past the gompa. I recognised him as staying in the same guest house as me in Bragha and someone had pointed him out to me as man who likes to keep to himself. He was the only person I had seen for 3 hours. We nodded to each other as we passed, me going down and him walking up.
That night I had dinner sitting with the Israeli couple. He was called Hillel and her Maor. Maor told me her name was actually a man’s name meaning something light ‘ray of light’. She then explained to me why she had a man’s name. At the end of the explanation I still did’t understand but in true Nepali fashion nodded and said ‘OK’. They made fine company and we laughed and joked into the evening.
Day 6 – Saturday 31 March – Bragar to Yak Khakar
I wake early around 6AM and walk up into the old village of Bragar on the hillside above the lodge. The buildings are beautiful and interesting. They are built in stone into the steep hillside in terraces. Each persons roof is the higher persons balcony.
The beautiful old village of Bragha with the Annapurna range in front.
I have breakfast of chappati and omelette as I try and decide what to do today – continue on my circuit or stay another day in Bragha and make the day trip up to the Ice Lakes at 4650m.
As I sit, the Israeli chap I met at Milarepa’s cave yesterday asks if he can join me at my table. I am a little surpised as I was told he enjoyed his own company. We start talking. I ask him if he enjoyed his visit to the cave. “it is not possible to visit the cave” he tells me. “but I saw you there yesterday remember” I reply. “Yes but there is a landslide so people should not go the cave now – if you dont believe me I will show you photo’s”.
He asks me about Mt Everest. It turns into an interrogation. My palms go sweaty and my throat dries out. I feel like his eyes are seeing straight through me. I feel like I am being interviewed by the MOSSAD. I start to loose control of my bladder. OK I am exagerating a little now, but it was not a pleasant experience. He was an extremely intense person.
Two Americans join us. They start to talk about the new road being constructed and how dangerous it will be to drive it. The Israeli joins in ” I have driven on much more dangerous roads than this”. “OK but this one will have allot of rockfall and is very steep exposed” reply the Americans. This seems to wind him up and he raises his voice “I have driven much worse roads in India – if you don’t believe me I will show you photographs!!”. I try and change the topic by asking him where he will go today. “To the ice-lake” was the reply. I immediately cancel my plans to visit the ice-lake.
Up until Chame I have had mobile reception using international roaming. The network operator up to here is NCELL – a privately owned company. Above Chame up until the Thorong La pass there is reception but through NTC – a govt owned company. My international roaming did not work on the NTC network. So above Chame I used my Thuruya Satelite phone.
I start walking at 10AM. after 45 mins I reach the village of Manang.
A panorama of the village of Manang
I fill up my water bottles from the safe drinking water stations. These are set-up by a scheme in conjunction with the NZ govt and are located in many villages along the route. The water is cheap to buy (around 40 – 50 rupees per litre) and safe to drink. It also reduces the need for the huge amount of plastic mineral water bottles to be bought into the area.
The safe drinking water station in Manang.
I climb for 1h 15m to two small lodges perched on the side of the hill called Gunsang at 3920m. I stop at one lodge which is very quiet with only one lady there. I order a plate of vegetarian momo’s and drink black tea while I wait. The lodge is beautiful and peaceful with great views over the Annapurna. Exactly the place I would like to stay at. The freshly steamed momo soon come and they taste divine. Soft moist skins surrounding crunchy fresh vegetable inside dipped in a firey chilly sauce.
Hot freshly steamed vegetable momo's - superb!
I chat to the lady who runs the lodge. She lives in Manang village and walks up and back the 2.5 hour return trip each day. If there is visitors to stay overnight she will also stay but she says there is normally no body who wants to stay, just eat lunch.
I reluctantly leave and wander for another 1.5 hours until I reach Yak Kharka at 4020m (the name means ‘Yak fields’ in Nepali). It seems a cold windy place and I am not impressed. I keep walking another 20 minutes past the village and stop at a small lodge called the Himalayan View lodge. I ordered some black tea and after much deliberation purchase a pack of chocalate digestive biscuits. I only wanted to eat one or two with my tea. 30 minutes later I had finished the whole packet and felt slightly ill.
I then met the hairiest dog I have ever seem. I dont know how he could even see behind all the hair. He didnt seem at all bothered with me staring at him and taking photo’s.
The hairiest dog I have seen.
I checked into my very basic room then dropped my pack and walked for 2 hours higher up past the village of Letdar and back to the lodge. As I run through the number of days I have left I realise I have made up so much time that I could possible be out two days earlier than I originally thought. Stephanie had planned to fly to Kathmnandu and meet me on the Friday. Maybe she could come over earlier and meet me in Pokhara? I call her on the Satellite phone and we start to change the plans.
I sit in the lodge and eat dahl baht for dinner. The hairy dog sits next to me. I can’t tell which end is is arse or his head when he is lying down.
Which end is which?
The small dining room is quite full. A group of 2 american couples sit playing cards. One of the girls has an annoying habit of giggling everytime she says something. I update my diary then say goodnight to the dog and go back to my room and drift off to sleep. A short time later I am woken by the giggling girl. She is standing outside my door giggling. It seems she is staying in the room next door and giggles for 45 mins as she brushes her teeth and chats with her friend until she finally (thankfully) giggles herself to sleep.
Day 7, Sunday 1st April – Yak Khaker to Thorung Pedi
Slept well and even slept in this morning until 7:15am. I chat to a French couple who speak broken english as I eat my chapati and fried egg.
I leave walking at 8:30am. Its a windy morning so I where my buff pulled up over my face and ears and my fleece wind-stopper. After 45mins I reach the tiny settlement of Letdar. I refill 1l of water from the safe drinking water station. I wander on up a steep sided narrow valley following the true left bank before crossing over to the true right. After another 1h 45m I reach Thorung Pedi at 4450m. There are two large lodges here and I check into one and am pleasantly surprised by the good condition. The sun is shining and I strip down to my shorts and teeshirt and relax in the sun for an hour. My head feels fine with the altitude. I bump into the two Spanish trekkers I saw two days before. I talk to their guide for ten minutes. He says he tried to get another porter to help from Bhratang but in the morning time when they come to leave the new porter was still drunk from the night before. So they hired a mule instead.
I eat a bowl of Thakpa for lunch. Thakpa is a local manang noodle dish and I have heard good things about it. It fails to impress me.
I leave at 1pm with some water and my jacket and wander very slowly up to the high camp at 4850m. There is a lot of groups slowly walking up. Most people look really tired and are going very slowly due to the altitude. After 45 mins I reach high camp. I head another 50 vertical metres up to a ridge behind high camp to a lookout point. The views are quite stunning. I chat to an English trekker for 20mins until I get too cold.
The high camp at 4850m.
After a quick cup of black tea in the high camp lodge I head off further up the trail towards the Thorung La pass. I want to climb high during the day and sleep lower during the evening. From experience this helps me acclimatise faster. I walk very slowly and the altitude makes it hard work. I stop when my watch reads 5000m and sit and rest at a good point on the ridge where I have some nice view.
Altimeter showing 5000m elevation
There is no other people around and its very peaceful to sit there. After twenty minutes I start to head back down. I walk slowly all the way down to Thorung Pedi. When I arrive I have a headache. I drink some black tea but the headache gets worse so I pop 2 Ibuprofen and in ten minutes it has gone.
Horses having dinner at Thorung Pedi
I order dahl baht for dinner and sit in the dining room beside a large group of around twenty students from France, Norway and Germany. Many of them are sitting staring at their food. The focus of conversation is how everyone is feeling. At first none of them want to admit they don’t feel good. “Oh I feel OK” is the standard answer as they sit staring at their plates. I am pissing myself with laughter internally as I know they feel anything but OK. Finally one girl admits she has a bad headache and does not feel so good. This seems to break the silence and suddenly a number of people also admit they don’t feel good and have bad headaches. They plan to leave at 4am the next morning to head over the Thorong La pass and are all nervous about it.
One young German chap is talking: “I watched a documentary on climbing Mt Everest and thought one day I might like to try it. But after this trip I never want to come higher than this again”. Wise idea I think to myself.
Day 8, Monday 2nd April – Thorung Pedi to Jharkot
There is a lot of activity outside starting very early in the morning as people rise to begin their preparations to leave and eat breakfast and head over the pass. I sleep in until around 6:30am and when I get the lodge is like a ghost town. Not a soul to be seen anywhere. Even the kitchen staff have gone back to bed!
I wander around and take some photos of the sun rising over the Annapurna range before I spy a kitchen lady who makes me chapati and fried egg for breakfast.
Breakfast at Thorung Pedi
I leave at 7:30am and wander slowly up. There is no one on the trail as I climb steeply up to high camp. Most people have left a few hours early to get over the Thorung La (La meaning ‘pass in Nepali) at 5410m and down the other side to the village of Muktinath at 3800m. I wander slowly up and up, using the rest step and lost in my own world. passing through high camp I continue around the trail as it winds its way around ridges and up higher and higher.
I start to pass groups of people around 5100m. At 5200m I think my eyes are playing tricks with me as I see two people carrying bicycles. I soon catch them. They look tired. One is from Austria and one is from Australia. The Australaian has a mountain bike complete with front suspension. The Austrian has a town bike with no front suspension and nice big mudguards. It looks heavy. I ask him why he is using this bike, he says it is sentimental as he has ridden here all the way from Austria. They are having to carry/push their bikes up much of the path. It looks very hard work.
An absolutely amazing Australian and an awesome Austrian at altitude.(that whole sentence was constructed from words beginning with 'a')
I continue past them up endless moraine humps until I reach the Thorong La, 3 hrs after leaving Thorung Pedi. Its windy and cold on the pass. To my left the high snowy peak of Khatung Kang (6484m)towers impressively above. Directly in front in the distance I can just make out Dhaulaghiri (8167m). Although its very hazy and I was hoping for a much better view.
A panorama from the Thorung La.
I ask some trekkers to take a photo of me on the pass. I make a satelite phone update on my blog (listen to the voice post here). Even at this altitude my brain is not functionig well. I try and convert 5410m into feet and come up with just under 20,000 feet (it should be just over 16,000 feet).
Proof that I made the Thorung La at 5410m.
I eat some nuts, take a drink then set-off for the long descent down the otherside. After 1.5 hours quick march downhill – I have dropped 1200m and reach a small settlement of Chabarbu. There are 4 or 5 restuarants here and very basic accomodation facilities. A lot of people have stopped off here to rest and eat. I find a small lodge with 4 tables. Two tables are taken. I take the third table and order vegetable momo’s and black tea. There is one friendly little lady who is doing everything, taking the orders, cooking the food and serving it.
After some time the two bikers turn up wheeling their bikes down the steep hill. They are knackered and order some food then both go to sleep with their heads on the table. Many people walk past looking for a table but all 4 are now taken. I notice a couple sitting next to me (whose nationality shall remain secret although if you have done any travelling you could probably guess) who have ordered one bottle of mineral water only and are sitting eating all their own food they have bought with them. They then go one step further and pull out a stove and start it up and prepare some hot drinks and more food. I imagine getting out of my chair and taking a run up to the stove which is on the ground and place kicking it straight over their heads and over the small cliff behind them. Unfortunately because of the angle I would have to use my left foot (I am a natural right footer), but I am pretty confident if I kept my head down and followed through I could get it over the cliff without setting my boot on fire. Then I would politely tell them why don’t you choose one of the 2 million rocks outside to sit and cook your own lunch and let this table be free for other people to order and eat from, so the lady who runs this lodge can make a living. But instead I sit there quietly.
I call the travel agent by satellite phone in Kathmandu who arranged my permits and my bus ticket. He told me I must call him two days before I want to fly from Jomson to Pokhara so he can book the flight ticket. His name is Mr N. I ask for him to book me a ticket for Wednesday morning.”Yes, yes no problem, when you reach Jomson you check ‘Om’s Home’ lodge – they will have ticket for you.” As I sit there finishing my tea I change my plan and decide to fly Thursday instead. I call back to Mr N.
Me: “Mr N, I need to change ticket from Wednesday to Thursday”
Mr N: “OK, no problem your ticket is booked for Thursday”
Me: “huh? But I asked you to book it for Wednesday ten minutes ago, how can you say its booked for Thursday just like that?”
Mr N: “Yes Wednesday no problem, Thursday also no problem for booking”
Me: “erm… do I actually have a booking?”
Mr N: “No there is no booking. I cannot contact the hotel so maybe better you arrive Jomson the day before and make booking then yourself”
So I decide to take Mr N’s advice and walk to Jomson and make the booking myself. I contemplate staying at Chabarbu the night. Its 4200m elevation and it would be good for my acclimatisation. But its only 2pm and I don’t fancy hanging around for the rest of the day. I set-off for Muktinath and wander slowly down for 1.25 hours. 15 minutes past Muktinath is the village of Ranipauwar at 3800m. This is where many people now finish the Annapurna circuit. The road comes in from Pokhara all the way to here. Even though on the official Annapurna circuit you are only 122km through the 220km route.
Passing Mukinath at 3800m and the dusty town of Ranipauwar in the distance - the start of the road.
I enter Ranipauawa and am immediately turned off. Motorbikes and 4wd drive past beeping their horns loudly creating large clouds of dust. Bars and cafe’s line the small dusty main street. It looks like the place young trekkers will come to get drunk and party after ‘finishing’ the Annapurna circuit. I sit down and read the Lonely Planet beside the road. A lady tries to sell me a scarf. In front of me is a small store with 7-11 hand painted in front of it. Here they make charming copies of many things.
The two Spanish climbers walk past and we give our now customary nod’s of acknowledgement. The Lonely Planet mentioned the small village of Jharkot another 30 minutes below Ranipauwar which is much quieter. I head off for Jharkot – a small fortress type village perched on top of a rock outcrop overlooking the valley. I check into the new hotel plaza and to my delight found I was the only one staying there.
Today’s walk was 17km horizontal with 1000m of height gain followed by a 1700m descent. I have been walking now for 7 days, a minimum 6 hours per day and I do not feel tired at all. My fitness is good.
Day 9, Tuesday 3rd April – Jharkot to Jomson
Wake at 6:30am, and after my standard breakfast head off for Jomson. Jomson has a small airfield and I plan to end the trek here and fly from the small airfield to Pokhara. The walk starts out nice down through fruit tree’s and streams and irrigation channels before joining up with the road.
I don't know the name of this peak - but it was 'peeking' over the top of the ridge and looked very nice.
I come across a small boy in the middle of nowhere and wonder where he has come from. “School pen, school pen” he demands with his hand out to me. I take a photo of him and tell him I have no pens for him then continue on.
"School pen, school pen!!" demanded the highway man.
Walking along the road is dusty and annoying especially when the vehicles come past honking their horns. I decide to detour down to the ancient town of Kagbeni. This turns out to be a wonderful idea. Kagbeni is situated at the gateway to the Mustang valley. – an area which is restricted to trekkers.
Looking down to the beautiful little village of Kagbeni at the entrance to the forbidden Mustang valley.
Looking up the forbidden valley. The Mustang valley is a restricted zone. Permits cost US$500/person for ten days.
The sign at the start of the Mustang valley
The town itself is a made of closely packed mud houses and is fascinating to walk through. I stop at a lodge which has not only good drinking but also good ‘fooding’.
Good drinking and good 'fooding' here.
I order vegetable momo’s and white coffee and sit on their rooftop overlooking the village. Its a highlight of the last few days. As I wander out of the village I pass ‘Yakdonalds’.
'Yak" donalds in Kagbeni.
From Kagbeni its a stiff 2 – 3 hour walk down to Jomson at 2760m following the dusty bump road. The Lonely Planet recomends starting this trek before 11am as after this time the winds pick up every day. This wind issue also means that the flights from Jomson only operate from 7am to 9:30am every day. I set-off at exactly 11am for Jomson. I soon see what they mean about wind. For 1hr 45m I battle my way down the valley. Strong blasts of wind at times has me standing still leaning into it getting pelted by sand and gravel.
The very windy walk down to Jomson from Kagbeni
Jomson is an unexciting place with a mountain warfare training school, an airport and a number of lodges. I check into the ‘Om’s home’ lodge as recommended by the agent in Kathmandu Mr N. I order my airticket to Pokhara the next day. Its costs US$94. I wander down to the Xanadu hotel run by a friendly Nepali lady and sit there for 4 hrs writing my blog and drinking milk coffee. They are well known for yak steaks but after not eating meat for 9 days I still do not feel like a big slab of red meat.
Day 10, Wednesday 4th April – Flight delay Jomson to Jharkot
The flight from Jomson to Pokhara the next day on Tara Air is typically disorganised, late and confusing for all concerned – even the staff are confused. It is meant to leave at 9:30AM. At 11:30AM we are still sitting there and the wind is barrelling down the runway. Finally a man comes in and tells us it is impossible to fly today. Too windy. No shit Sherlock.
The entrance to Jomson airport
So I wander back to the Xanadu hotel, drink tea (and the occasional beer) and write my blog all day.
Day 11, Thursday 5th April – Fly Jomson to Pokhara
Finally the flight leaves. Otherwise I would have had to take an 8 hour bus ride to Pokhara. I speak to a German lady who tells me the reason the flight did not come yesterday was probably due to the fact they had more passengers on their Pokhara to Kathmandu run instead. Such is the way things work here!
Some notes on the Annapurna circuit walk
1. Reflecting back on the trip, the Annapurna circuit really is a beautiful and relaxing walk through some stunning mountain scenery and very interesting Nepali culture. One of the really enjoyable things is the scenery changes almost every hour. I would thoroughly recommend it to people of moderate fitness levels who would like to spend a quality 10 – 12 days in the hills with their partners, friends, family or even by themselves like I did. And lastly – do it now! Before the road’s come in and change the nature of the Annapurna circuit forever.
2. The Annapurna circuit is not a hardship trek, except for the altitude. Anyone relatively fit could do it and enjoy it. At the end of each day you can have a basic hot shower, eat freshly cooked food, and sleep in your own room all for a few hundred rupee’s. There is no need to carry much. I carried my own gear – 13kg in total in my backpack, including sleeping bag, warm clothing, small amount of energy food etc. Some people had porters carrying 35kg of gear. God knows what they bought with them.
3. There are so many lodges or ‘tea-houses’ as they are called along the way. All at generally one or two hour walking intervals. You can comfortably walk this independently without any guides/porters or fixed itinerary. The advantage of having a guide and porter is that they explain things along the way, carry your gear and sort out the logistics for you leaving you to focus on relaxing and walking. The Lonely Planet states having a porter is a more interesting cultural interaction, I personally feel that walking alone, gives you more opportunity to mix with people and talk to them. Using porters and guides also does give jobs to the Nepalese people of course, and this is a good thing.
4. It’s not a race. I did it quickly as I did not have much time but if I had more time I would have loved to do more of the side trips like Tilicho lake. The people I met who were having the most fun were going slowly, having rest days and exploring side trips and villages along the way.
5. Cost of Annapurna circuit. Its not expensive! Especially when you take the cost below and spread it over the 11 nights I was there walking in arguably the finest alpine scenery and most interesting culture in the world. It works out to only US$ 33/day!
I spent the following:
– US$240 (19,500 Rupee)11 days incl accom/food/bus ticket Kthm to Besi Sahar
– US$94 for the flight Jomson to Pokhara
– US$10 for the TIMS permit (Trekker Information Management System)
– US$24 (2,000 Rupee) for the Entry Permit
6. If you are a man, don’t wear lyrca tights and a sweatband and do stretches outside the lodge in the morning while a porter carry’s your bag unless you really do intend to run. Otherwise you look like a complete knob.
7. Be careful of mule’s pushing you off the narrow exposed tracks. Always stay on inside of track and make the mule walk on the outside closest to the edge. Don’t be scared to push a mule away from you if it comes to close to pushing you over.
8. Try and give your time to the children you see and not material items. Unfortunately while giving pens and other items has well meaning intentions, it creates a begging culture as I found out. Sit and talk to them, help them with their home work, teach them something.
9. I don’t like Diamox, but I saw lots of people taking it. It makes me pee to much and become dehydrated. The best thing for altitude is go slowly, drink lots of water and if you get a headache take IBUPROFEN or a similar anti-inflammatory which stops the headache and more importantly the swelling causing the headache. It works really quickly for me (less than ten minutes.