Whew. Good thing I put in the warning about possibly being incommunicado for a few weeks. Our flight from Sharjah to Kathmandu went smoothly, and the taxi into town from the airport was easy enough to manage as well. And once in Kathmandu, (specifically in the tourist ghetto of Thamel) things were no trouble at all to arrange. In Thamel, you could procure just about any good or service a budget traveler would need almost effortlessly. True, just about everyone who arranged anything wanted a cut, and virtually every transaction requires bargaining, but given our potential future destinations, this could just be viewed as a useful warmup
Manis (buddhist mantras carved into rock) around the base of a Chorten (Tibetan stupa)Our afternoon consisted of a bit of shopping (bus tickets, a skirt, and nice down sleeping bag for Sarah [Shona's in Thamel is a great place to shop for this kind of thing. A touch more expensive than others, but it's fixed price which saves hassles, and you can be sure of the quality]), a bit of internetting, and a bit of rest for the long day to come.When we finally arrived in Pokhara the following afternoon we found the hotel my parents were staying at (I did mention that they would be joining us on our trek in Nepal, right? Oh, I didn’t? Oh well. Now you know.)
Thamel, Kathmandu. Perhaps second to only Bangkok’s Khao San Road as the world’s ultimate budget tourist ghetto.
A minor landslide on the road to Pokhara delayed our bus for a bit, but more than anything it was just a nice opportunity to get out and stretch the legs.
The view from our hotel roof in Pokhara. With all the tourist facilities jammed into a few little streets by the lake, a casual visitor could be forgiven for not even noticing that Pokhara is actually Nepal’s second largest city.
The next morning we took a taxi from Pokhara to Besisahar. A bit expensive, but there were four of us, and it got us on the trail early. The trail in question was the Annapurna Circuit. Truly one of the world’s great walks the Circuit takes trekkers around the Annapurna Massif, taking in a couple of river valleys, dozens of Nepali villages (complete with lodges and teahouses… no need for a sleeping bag here) and, of course the monstrous, snow-capped Himalayas (which, incidentally, is a bit redundant, since “Himalaya” means “home of snows” in Nepali.)
From here on in I’ll be skimming over the details of our trek (again, if you want to read more you can check out the entry from last time I was there) and focussing on showing off a few photos and explaining what has changed since March, 2005.
So, what was new?
Walking with others: Last time I did the circuit on my own, meeting up with others, and leaving them behind as our respective paces required. With four people you’re always sticking to the pace of the slowest one (which wasn’t always the same person.) It makes the trip take considerably longer, but it’s very nice to have someone to chat with and make (frequent on this trek) “wow look at that” type comments to.
Getting sick. At one point or another during the trek’s 19 days, each of us got some kind of illness. At various times my dad was exhausted from dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, my mom had a terrible stomach illness that left her pale and almost immobile, Sarah had a similar (though not quite so nasty) stomach problem, I got giardia (but recognized the symptoms quickly enough to treat it before it got really unpleasant) and all of us got one (or more!) colds.
Diet. Many Nepalis eat Dal Bhat (rice, lentil soup and vegetable curry) twice a day to the exclusion of almost anything else. On my last trek I followed this diet pretty much exclusively, but this time I sampled some of the other culinary delights on offer at the lodges. Apple pie, pizza, yak steaks(!) and more were available. On the night of our pass-crossing day we even enjoyed a bottle of Lebanese red wine I’d carried in my pack from the start of the trail. I still ate plenty of Dal Bhat, but a bit of variety certainly never hurt.
Mmm…. Dal Bhat (this is actually a pretty fancy example. It’s usually presented much more simply)
Road works. In 2005 there was a small section of rough, bumpy road constructed near Jomsom with a few motorcycles driving along the route. In 2008 there was (4WD only) road all the way from Muktinath to Tatopani (almost the whole second half of the trek) and about 1/3 of the way from Besisahar to Manang (albeit often on the opposite side of the valley from the walking track.) Soon enough the whole circuit, except for the high pass of Thorong La will be accessible by road. This will make visiting the area easier, but less “adventuresome” and much less pleasant. During the trek, I learned that the Nepal goverment is opening up many of the (still unspoilt) side valleys on the route for independent trekking, but I couldn’t help but wonder if, in the process of improving life for the people of the valleys, they were killing off their livlihood by discouraging future trekkers from visiting. My advice: If you’re planning on walking the circuit, get there in the next one or two seasons before it’s completely changed!
Road Works Ahead!
Astonishingly, most of the road work is done by hand (they do blast, but the holes for the charges are all made by single guys with long metal chisels.) There were a few scary sections like this where a narrow, unstable trail was the only thing between you and the river far below. And where you had to wait for the workers above to stop raining dirt and rock down long enough to pass.
Weather. I’d previously trekked the circuit in early-mid March. This meant that it was much colder and there was a lot more snow about (notably on the day we crossed Thorong La.) In May the weather was much milder, and a bit more unsettled (though we did still see some snow.) This meant that the mountains weren’t quite as spectacular (less icy, more often obscured by cloud) and that we often got heavy rains in the afternoon. But it also meant that the valleys were lush and green, that wildlife was a bit more evident and the high altitudes were much more pleasant.
Snow falling on Thorong Phedi (literally “the foot of Thorong”), 4550m above sea level
The high route. (I mean the one from Chamje to Chame, but you MUST also take the high route from Pisang to Manang.) Before I’d taken the lazier way down by the river via Latamarang, but this was now closed due to landslides. The high route via Tanchok was lots more work, but the forest you walk through is just stunning. I’m glad I wasn’t given the opportunity to be lazy.
The cloud forest on the way to Tanchok
Annapurna 2 (7937m) seen from the village of Ghyaru. You MUST take the high route to Manang if you ever do this trek.
The seemingly un-touched village of Ghyaru. Did I mention that the high route to Manang is definitely the way to go?
Crazy Side Trips. Last trek I was in a hurry, and didn’t get to take the full-day walk up to the Dhaulagiri (8167m, 7th tallest mountain in the world) icefall. This time I didn’t either, but for much more entertaining reasons. Officially, I didn’t make it to the top because the cloud started descending too quickly and I turned back. Un-officially I just couldn’t find the proper trail, and headed up the wrong valley and spent 5 hours climbing 800m or so above the start of the path along goat tracks, through bamboo and thorny thickets, and past several harrowing spots where a slip would have been hazardous to my health. An entertaining trip, especially as I got out of it with only a few splinters and a pair of tired legs (I ran down the trail and caught up with my companions, despite leaving 4.5 hours after them.)
A lovely lady’s slipper I found on my wilderness-walk, in an area where (if their trails give any indication) even the goats didn’t venture
The view from the top of my abortive ice fall expedition. I kept thinking that the yak pastures near the main trail must be “just over that ridge.” Thus I kept going up until finally I reached a point where I couldn’t climb any higher (or at least where I wasn’t sure of my ability to get down if I climbed higher)
Ghorepani/Poon Hill. My previous route tacked on the Annapurna Base Camp trek at the end. This time my companions were pretty much trekked out near the end so we opted for the easier (though not easiest) route back to civilization: A 1600m climb up to the village of Ghorepani, from which one gets a lovely sunrise mountain panorama at the top of nearby Poon Hill. My assessment: Nice, but not really worth the effort. Poon Hill is very popular with people doing 3-5 day treks who want a nice look at the mountains, but on the circuit you’ve already seen them looming over you from much closer up. If you do go, especially during May or September, make sure you get up there BEFORE sunrise, as that’s far and away the prettiest time, and the clouds appear very quickly thereafter.
This trek was very different from my last time around Annapurna, for the reasons above and more. All the same, the trip was a delight, and the company couldn’t have been better. My parents (who, despite being of an “older generation” [my mom's own words ] still hauled aropund their own packs) and Sarah (who isn’t much of a trekker at the best of times) all did fabulously and were great travelling companions.
Sitting back in Pokhara amongst internet cafes, the tourist bars and restaurants and the lovely lake is pleasant, but after a wonderful trek like this, one always wakes up wondering where to walk today…
The Marysandi river eroding an old glacial moraine while the pines struggle to hang on near Chame
The porters that carry goods (including most of the food and drink consumed by trekkers) up the trail sometimes carry huge loads. Some were bigger than this, but none were nearly so odd looking.
Paungda Danda, a monstrous granite wave of a mountain that hangs above the trail on the way up towards Manang
The green lake at the base of the Gangapurna glacier from above Manang (this is one of the many acclimatization walks possible on the rest day that most trekkers take in Manang to help ward off Acute Mountain Sickness)
Yaks! Or rather a nak and a baby yak (apparently female yaks are more properly known as naks. So perhaps yak calves are actually caks… I don’t know…)
Landslide area. The trail was generally pretty good, but it did have the odd precarious moment like this.
A mountain emerging from behind low (if you call 5000m “low”) cloud
Buddhist Prayer Flags above Thorong High Camp (4800m, the highest altitude I’ve ever slept at)
The sun manages to make it through the clouds to shine on a series of ~6000m peaks
While afternoons were often cloudy, the day we went over 5416m Thorong La (Thorong Pass) was fairly clear, and not even too windy.
The view from the top (of Thorong La, looking back down towards the Manang side of the trail)
The whole company at the top of Thorong La
My mom climbing down the pass. The 1600m climb down from the pass was probably the most difficult part of the trip (very long, often steep, and haaarrd on the knees.)
The view down from Thorong La towards the Mustang (Jomsom) side of the trail. The diversity of the terrain and the cultures on the trek are two factors that make the Annapurna Circuit as fabulous as it is. Despite it’s 16-21 day length, you’re rarely in the same situation for more than a day or two.
A peeking peak
My dad remedying a “clothing emergency”
A Buddhist procession of some time into the temple behind our hotel in Muktinath. I asked several people but never got a clear answer as to what it was about… some said it was a sort of Buddhist “first communion” ceremony, while others maintained that it was part of a wedding.
Some of the 108 water spouts at Muktinath’s Shiva temple. Muktinath is the second holiest place in Nepal for Hindus who believe that bathing under the icy waters of all 108 spouts will gain them forgiveness for their sins. In contrast to my last trip, this time there were large numbers of pilgrims on the road towards Muktinath.
The town of Jharkot occupies a strategic point on the road to Muktinath
From afar it seems impossible to believe that anyone could, much less WOULD climb this trail above the town of Kagbeni. From up close it looks a bit more reasonable. A BIT.
Looking up the Mustang Valley from Kagbeni (it looks spectacular, and has a long, rich and isolated history. Trekking any further than the first village up the valley requires a $700 permit though…)
A Himalayan Traffic Jam ensued, as two goat herders tried to guide their two or three hundred goats out of town on Kagbeni’s narrow streets (the locals keep their livestock in shelters beneath their homes!)
Looking down the Kali Ghandaki valley towards Nilgiri (7061m.) The best views of the mountains are on the Manang side of Thorong La, but we had a bit more luck with the weather on the Mustang/Jomsom side
It’s amazing the amount of agriculture that gets done in such inhospitable environments. This field of healthy looking barley is at well over 3000m (nearby was an apple orchard that provided the raw materials for cider and brandy!)
Dhaulagiri at sunrise. At 8167m, Dhaulagiri is number 7 in the world, and the highest peak visible on the Circuit
A butterfly that obligingly stood still while I took its photo. (I’d just helped it out of a window by pinning its wings between pages of my book… the poor thing was probably scared stiff, but it eventually took to the air again.) Sadly, the may prettier ones we saw on the trail weren’t near so obliging…
The view from Poon Hill before the clouds settled in. (From left to right, we have Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and Machapuchare)
The end of the trail. My parents walk back into civilization at Nayapul, only a 40km taxi ride back to the comforts of Pokhara