Where to begin describing such an amazing trip, incredible scenery, and all around good time?
The Annapurna Circuit Trek (or “Around Annapurna” as they call it here) is an estimated 17-21 day trip around Annapurnas I-III, Annapurna South, Nilgiris North/Central/South, Gangapurna, Glacier Dome, Machhapuchhre, and numerous other smaller peaks. The trek leads travelers through countless Nepali villages and climates that range from tropical to alpine and primarily along the rivers Marsyangdi and Kali Gandaki. Trekkers are free to hire on any combination of a guide and/or porter or rough it on their own. Before leaving the states, I purchased a Nepal trekking guidebook written by The Mountaineers (an organization based out of Seattle) and this book proved to be Kyle’s and my bible for the two weeks we spent on our trek, allowing us to journey guide-free. True trekking season runs from October through November and ends as the weather starts to get truly cold. Kyle and I braved the December cold to be rewarded with few crowds or other tourists. While trekkers are free to approach the circuit from either direction, all guide books and recommendations advise a counter-clockwise approach beginning in the southeast corner of the Annapurna Conservation Area, generally out of a town called Bessisahar.
We packed for an experience that would be halfway between camping and hotel lodging, as we stayed in accommodations classified as tea or guesthouses that generally offered comforts akin to those of a summer camp cabin. We brought a set of outdoor wear each, several days worth of snack food, cash, trekking poles, rented 0 degree Fahrenheit sleeping bags, meds and emergency supplies, a map and guidebook, water vessels, a SteriPEN water purifier, sunglasses, and one small and stowed Christmas present each.
On December 14 with map and trekking guidebook in hand, Kyle and I headed out on a four-hour local bus ride to Bessisahar, our gateway into the Himalayas. Our first day sent us on a short walk to a village called Khudi where we stayed in a guesthouse on the bank of the Marsyangdi Khola (khola = river) in what would actually be both our most expensive (300 rupees) and worst room of the whole trek. From Khudi we would visit the villages of Ghermu, Tal, Timang, Pokhari Dunda, Gharung, Manang, Letar, and Thorung La High Camp before reaching the pinnacle of the circuit: Thorung La pass at 5416 meters, or 17, 769 feet. After Thorung La we would spend one night in the larger village of Muktinath before taking a bus through a less-scenic portion of the circuit to Tatopani before finishing with Poon Hill in Ghorepani and exiting the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) through Naya Pul.
The whole trek was 100-some-odd miles over countless suspension bridges, alongside endless rice paddies, and to the highest elevation either of us had ever been. We drank Fanta and slept about 11 hours a night. And I was really challenged by the altitude. We encountered a few trekkers on the trail including a couple from Spain (who we would refer to as the Spaniards), an extraordinarily talkative man from Rotterdam who we referred to as The Flying Dutchman, and a man from Indiana dubbed Indiana Jones. However, for the first several days of the trek, until our rest day in Manang really, we were the only trekkers in the villages we slept in. This offered a more isolating, however ghost-town esque, experience and the fortune of having our pick of rooms and usually getting the best in the whole town. The language barrier was generally very thick and most comically experienced in signage and menu descriptions. Some of the confusion was completely lost though. Like a sign on our bathroom door in Manang that read “please do not wash clothes in the toilet.”
We discovered that Nepalis are expert sitters and lookers and they have really innovated the use of the forehead as an instrument for material transport. Kyle played soccer with some village kids after breakfast in Ghermu, juggled oranges for some boys near Ghorepani, and the children we encountered all asked simply for “chocolate?” or “sweet?” and occasionally and bizarrely, “school pen?”
A few days in, we solidified our end-of-day routine. After a chilly rinse-off/sponge bath, we would order a large and soul-warming pot of black tea and a plate of veg momos (momos = dumplings) to share while each reading out of our books before ordering some two-plate combination of vegetable curry and/or fried rice to share for dinner before turning in as late as 8 if we were lucky. Timang offered us our first real views of mountains and our guest house appeared to have popped straight out of the CandyLand board game. After Timang was a very successful day of hiking onto the town of Pokhari Dunda. On the way we passed the Great Wall of Pisang which is worth a Google. The harsh December lighting made photography challenging and passing this wall near the end of the day, our photos don’t quite do it justice. Pokhari Dunda was a village of new construction and our guesthouse had only just completed its first season in use and seemed to be run by the construction workers busy erecting numerous other guesthouses. This 150 rupee room offered a view of Annapurna II at sunrise.
Following Pokhari Dunda, we ventured onto the Upper Pisang trail, the said-to-be most scenic portion of the entire circuit. About an hour into our day, looking up at Annapurnas II and III, the sky was becoming hazy and unclear. When we entered the actual town of Upper Pisang around noon, the entire sky was clouded over and we couldn’t see a friggin’ thing except the dark outline of the massive himals towering above us. Upper Pisang was rumored to have internet and after wandering back and forth through the village (“up, down, up down!” a boy called to us), I settled into a computer lab and sent home a message of health, safety, and happiness. We learned from some locals that the source of the haze was a fire in a town we’d passed through two days prior. The sky would clear later that afternoon and we continued on to settle for the night in the town of Gharung. This village was a former army post situated way, way up on a steep hill and I really started to feel the altitude for the last 1000 feet of the climb. When we finally made it up to 12,000 feet, we secured the single best room we’d had yet (for 100 rupees).
view from our room in Gharung
From Gharung was on to Manang, a bigger town and the last form of significant civilization before we’d head into the belly of the beast to cross the pass. We spent two acclimatization days in Manang and obtained a deck of cards to begin nightly games of Rummy 500 that have carried into our meals even still. From Manang we moved on for two more nights of acclimatization and stayed in the town of Letar next. In Letar we encountered a French couple (The Frenchies) we’d seen in Manang and an American doctor (Doc) with a guide and porter. Letar was our first night of real COLD and the wood-and-yak-dung-burning stove was essential. The stove provided warmth as well as the opportunity to really socialize for the first time in a week. Doc would soon become John and he and his guide and porter a fun trio to run into for a few more days. After Letar was some very slow and steady hiking up to Thorung La High Camp for our last night before the pass. On the way, we met an American expat couple currently living and teaching in Bangladesh after 20-some-odd years living overseas. The couple, their guide and porter, John and his guide and porter and the Frenchies would be our company at High Camp.
To cross Thorung La, Kyle and I had planned to hit the trail around 7am, giving ourselves daylight and ample time to cross the pass. After hearing that our companions’ guides were getting them up at 5am for a pre-dawn start, we reevaluated and decided to do the same (despite the fact that our trekking bible strictly said NOT to do this and to wait for day-/sunlight). So on the day of the pass, our alarm didn’t sound but we managed to wake up at 4:30am as planned. After a quick – but small, due to a miscommunication – breakfast, our third signal was a dead SteriPEN battery in need of replacement. After finally heading out, ten minutes into a frigid and headlamp-lit hike, I started to get anxious about ever warming up my frozen hands and feet. Kyle, in sweet boyfriend form, calmed me down and helped me warm up my hands while turning off our headlamps to look at the stars. This nice moment of calm was followed by Kyle quickly claiming he might puke. Roles reversed, I patted his back while his stomachache subsided and we walked on for a few more minutes before taking another rest. While resting, the Frenchies (the only group that had not yet left when we did), passed us. Dude Frenchie had been feeling sick since Manang and they had hired a horse to cross the pass. Dude Frenchy was atop the horse, the Nepali horse porter was wearing his pack, and his girlfriend was hiking in tow. After checking in with us and assuring them that we were fine (just cold) they headed on and we too continued. We only made it about 3 minutes before shit really got gnarly. A few minutes later, I was following Kyle when he suddenly threw down his trekking pole and started stumbling on the trail (the edge of which would send us into a steep rock fall). I instructed him to sit and as fast as I could with icicle hands, got out a butt pad and his giant orange puffy. He said he was thirsty, but all our water had both frozen solid and frozen shut. So I tucked the water bottle into the puffy with him and eventually we were able to open it and sip some water. When we had finally become slightly less frozen we continued up but only for about five minutes before neither of us could stand it anymore and we threw all our gear down ouside an abandoned tea hut and zipped into our sleeping bags in the middle of the trail to wait for the sun to come up. We eventually warmed up after sunlight hit us and started to defrost our water a bit. Kyle’s hands burned once they finally started to warm and it took a while for my teeth to stop chattering. I aspire to never, ever, in my entire life be that cold again.
We eventually made it to the pass around 11am, stayed for a quick photo, and began our 5,700-foot descent to Muktinath. A completely different landscape welcomed us on the other side of the pass, now in the Mustang region. This night was Christmas Eve and we reconnected with the American expats from Bangaldesh, John, and each of their guides and porters (as well as a Canadian expat teaching in Japan and on holiday mountain biking in Nepal) at the Bob Marley Hotel (picture it). Fed up with 10 days of curry, Kyle and I braved some curious (however delicious) appetizer nachos, yak pizza, and salad for dinner. We all shared glasses of apple brandy and “Bob Shakes” while we each lamented the morning’s cold and the challenge of Thorung La. Several times during the evening were moments where I’d recognize the uniqueness of my company and the feeling of being a traveler. On Christmas Day, Kyle and I spent a cumulative 7 hours in a jeep, bus, and another jeep getting down to the village of Tatopani (tatopani = hot water), a town named for its proximity to a hot spring that would be much appreciated and enjoyed by muscles and soul. Being back in vehicles and having to participate in Nepali organization was a rude awakening. Nepalis can’t get anything done if they don’t stand around staring at each other for ten minutes before someone finally gets out the car keys. After Tatopani we headed towards Ghorepani for a summit of Poon Hill before ending the trek with a crazy challenging 6,000 foot gain between the two ‘panis and an equally steep descent (down, thankfully not up, 3767 steps) to Naya Pul where we caught a bus back to Pokhara.
We made it back on the 27th and put our feet up and spent the New Year in Pokhara. We stayed busy in Pokhara sleeping, eating, and watching bootleg seasons of Weeds, which we continue to do in Kathmandu. Only 3 more days here before this 3 month trip comes to a close…