Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
From black and white photographs of great explorers with their winding snakes of porters, diligent sherpas and guiding sirdars, it always seemed such a wonderfully romantic, ‘Humphrey Bogart’ kind of way to travel.
So in November 2007 I decided to find out. And for once, I was right. 18 days on the hoof and ascending to 5,416 meters (17,769 feet if you’re pre-decimal like me) the brochure graded the Annapurna Circuit trek ‘strenuous’.
With my ‘bite off more than I can chew’ bravado, I booked it. How hard could it be? I’ve conquered Scafell Pike and Snowdon without oxygen after all! I had an eleven month wait before trekking commenced, but in a blink of an eye I was packing my silk tights (black, of course) and fleece lined willy warmer.
When I was in my twenties the flight seemed part of the trip, a bit of a laugh. Sadly, now it is just a chore. Hours spent in what could be your coffin (hence the free booze to help you forget), then a stopover in Abu Dhabi loomed dark on the horizon.
Abu Dhabi airport, a cosmopolitan, mosaic tiled, domed cattle pen. Look out for the smoking areas. They don’t have ceilings so the room fills with fug. Design at its best! But look on the bright side, you can buy liver killing vodka for only £5 a litre.
Note: Not easy I know, but try to get seats on the left of the plane to witness stunning views of the Himalaya as you approach Kathmandu. ‘Icebergs in a sea of sky’. Kathmandu. The only word that springs to mind is chaos. Not even organised chaos. The drive to the hotel was a real hoot to say the least. We dodged them and they missed us. Just.
At one point what looked like the entire stock of a hardware store cycled past, but amazingly there was never a lost temper in sight. Devoid of car, bicycle, pedestrian and cow-rage, everybody went about their business, albeit slowly, drenched in a bouquet of fumes. Such karma!
Height gain weight loss
Besisahar to Chame (5 days)
We’re off! Well, almost. After a peaceful night changing money in Shangri-La (our hotel) and thinking ‘this is it’, we’ve just been overtaken by a sacred bovine. Nicely decorated though.
Kathmandu has us caught in its toxic grip but the live show going on around silenced us. Who needs TV documentaries! Winding our way out of the city our height gain went unnoticed under the gasps of ‘look at that’, ‘what on earth could that be?’ and ‘what are they doing?’
Dhal bhat and Tang
Like peas from a pod we decamped the van. Gagging to get on the trail, in a flurry we collected our rucksacks and, yep you’ve guessed it, piled into a tea-house for dhal bhat and Tang. Sated, we made tracks.
In a matter of minutes a new world appeared. We were to follow the Marsyangdi river with its lush valley for several days and what a delight it was. Just before Khudi and bed for the night, I passed locals playing a mysterious board game. With a ‘Namaste’ and my ‘charming’ smile they agreed to a photo. ‘What are you playing?’ I ventured, thinking this will be great for the website. ‘Ludo’ came the reply. Maybe not then.
A series of firsts
On the first day we crossed the first suspension bridge. The first night was spent with small lizards as bedfellows. The first morning, I sat under a white Poinsettia bigger than a house. Three days later, I had my first poo. This was going to be a great trip! The next few days prepared us for our daily routine. Awoken with tea at 6am (thanks Durga), hot water 6.15am (thanks Chaptan) then a lovely hot bath with foam and incense before breakfast (thanks… I’m kidding!) There were cold showers though. Cold? They were bloody freezing.
The weather, as for the whole of the trip, turned out to be an absolute winner. Warm and sunny, perfect for trekking. Little villages welcomed us while colourful butterflies danced and Langurs partied in the trees.
Snake! came the cry. Too late, missed it. Ever tried running uphill at altitude? Don’t. We ventured on. White pointed peaks behind rolling hills flirted with us. My apprehension grew. God they’re high!
Stomachs and diaries
Evenings were a sociable event. The Everest beer and rum with hot water flowed, mostly in my direction I admit. Durga, the wise sage, announced rum was good for relaxing tired muscles. Tired! They were exhausted! Stomachs and diaries filled, we remembered the day.
Donkey trains, monkeys, archways, mani walls with their colourful stones and a Maoist donation. And… Griffon vultures, orchids, prayer wheels and gompas with a glimpse of Annapurna II. And still 13 days to go!
Chame to Thorung Phedi (5 days)
Disaster! A sore throat I picked up in Kathmandu (I’ll wear a surgical mask next trip) leads to a respiratory bacterial infection. I feel like… um… do do.
Even with antibiotics my lungs are like sandbags. Manang and the Altitude Sickness Clinic were two days walk. I struggle on. Photography takes a back seat. Pisang came and went. At lunch, I awoke wearing a fetching bowl of garlic soup. I dare not cough or sneeze because my bowels are on a hair-trigger. And then… we hit Manang.
En-suite! We’ve got en-suite!
En-suite, 3-piece suite, I didn’t care. At the clinic, a lovely Scottish girl gave me some nausea pills and a bill for 31 dollars. These people are volunteers and I take my hat off to them. My pulse and blood pressure taken, she cheerfully informed me at sea-level I’d be in an ambulance. That’s altitude for you!
Fortunately the next day was acclimatisation day. I had a rest. Went for a walk and ate a meal. The drugs worked their magic. I felt better! ‘Gooood moooorning Manang!’ A ball of fire was sitting on the mountain tops. I could eat a horse. But there wasn’t one, only an old cow. So, I had omelette instead.
We’re now on our way to Thorung Phedi, last stop before the Thorong-La Pass. At around 4,000 metres the landscape becomes more inhospitable. Blue dominates the scene. Eagles surf blue sky while blue sheep chew on the scant grass. And for our part, we follow Chaptan’s blue bucket.
We walk and walk some more. Nowhere have I ever felt this happy. It’s almost a shame to reach Thorung Phedi. I catch my reflection in a window. No shave for ten days and a suntan. I like it! We stow our gear and take tea in the sun.
At altitude water takes longer to boil so at dinner we give the rice a miss. Fruit and honey freeze. It will be plain porridge in the morning. Time to reflect. On a trip like this you meet many global travellers.
Marc (Pot) from maple leaf country, likes a smoke of the weed. Nick (Oz) snores like a bull elephant, from Convict Island. And Francois (Speedy). He must be taking something! from the land of strikes.
Before bed I look at the stars in the cloudless night. The Plough and Orion’s Belt shine back. I listen to the silence. I listen to a helicopter taking a AMS sufferer down to Manang. The mountains are such a contrast. Great beauty with death skulking in your rucksack.
On top of the world
Thorong-La Pass to Mukintath (1 long day)
It’s 4am. Pitch black but not too cold. I think I am seeing things. Huge fireflies this high? Nope, it’s trekkers wearing head torches. Breakfast is quiet. This is it. What I have come for. The Pass. Over five times higher than Scafell Pike.
4.30am and no going back. Steep at first but plenty of stops to catch our breath. Looking back down and seeing the birth of a new dawn rising over the peaks, I have never felt this elated (apart from defeating cancer but that really is another story). I want to run naked through the snow but my jacket zip is stuck.
Tears and handshakes
We continue on up. Porters pass us carrying their heavy loads. I really admire these guys. And girls. The vistas are stunning. I try to suck it all in but too quickly we hit the top. Thorung-Phedi to the top of the Pass is the equivalent of Snowdon, plus a bit. Without the sheep.
I squeeze one hand then slap a back. Our sirdar, Durga is delighted we’ve all made it. And it’s thanks to him and Chaptan that we did. More handshakes, kisses and a few tears. A great mountain moment. Photos and more photos are taken. The altitude is completely forgotten. I could stay here for hours. But sadly, the sun is above us and we leave.
What goes up, must come down
As we descend I keep stopping to look back at the frozen mountains. This moment will stay with me forever. As we lose the snow line, the path steepens dramatically. We have a long way to go and my knees soon start to protest, but the views into Lower Mustang are spectacular.
We stop for tea with cheese and biscuits. A welcome break as Mukintath is still some distance. Treading carefully over black ice and sliding on loose rocks, we round a corner to be greeted by an ocean of prayer flags. The sign that we’ve made it!
On the outskirts of Mukintath we visit a Buddhist Monastery and I light candles for all my departed family and friends. The village is alive with tired trekkers smiling and happy after the long trek. Tea houses are packed and the showers are cold but after a good meal and celebratory beers, life is good!
My day is complete when Santos, a guide I’d befriended, greets me with a polite hug. We have witnessed so much already and still had the deepest gorge in the world to come!
Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey
Mukintath to Tatopani
It’s another beautiful sunrise and we’re spoilt with a half-hour lay in. Although the sun warms the day, streams and waterfalls are still frozen as our dusty path takes us ever downwards.
On route to Kagbeni, I took a small detour to a ‘castle’ ruin (imagination required) and dropping into the village cultivated terraces welcome us. A scene from another age, bullocks ploughing the soil, a colourful patchwork oasis breaks the grey, white and blue.
Yak steak! Another first. And yes, it tastes just like… steak. Although I did feel guilty, they are such beautiful beasts. As we descend the villages become more prosperous with motorbikes and 4-wheel drives making an appearance. But, by now it had become second nature to rely on your own two feet.
I am enjoying myself so much I buy a knitted hat and a candlestick, which has since fallen apart. Never mind. We are now following the Kali Gandaki river through a beautiful gorge. Unfortunately the whistling wind drives dust into every nook and cranny. Even my camera lens did not escape.
Oranges and lemons
We pass a donkey carcass being enthusiastically picked clean by vultures. Mother Nature tidying up. On our way to Tatopani it’s a day of contrasts. Orange and lemon trees shade a pitiful donkey with horrendous sores.
I search for fossils in the riverbed with Durga and devour chocolate cake (plus cherry) with views of Annapurna I thrown in. I love this country even more (except for the poor donkey).
Trekking the deepest gorge in the world has been a long but truly unforgettable day. Unfortunately our hike was extended even more by a massive landslide resulting in a two hour detour. This minor irritation though goes unnoticed under the postcard mountains and beautiful rocky rivers which boil white and blue green.
The sun setting on the mountains is magical and I have a hot shower followed by chicken with paprika for dinner. But then, we are roughing it.
Chitre to Tikhedhunga (3 days)
Our footsteps slow as we near journey’s end. It’s been such a wonderful trek. Our descent continues with some rather lovely marble steps and the valley becomes more tropical.
Everywhere people are farming hillside terraces and the birds and butterflies greet us once more. But what’s this? We are climbing again to reach Ghorepani but it helps the knees, if not the lungs.
Silence is golden
Our rest spot for the night offers great views of the fire red mountain tops while we have the usual power cut. Time for note writing and contented sighing. We share a couple of bottles of rum with the porters and get teased by some campers. Soft they called us for using tea houses. Why are you in here then? I asked. Silence was my reply.
The topic of height was raised (size matters) and we had been 1,200 metres higher. Conversation over.
Another glorious morning. The going is steep now through a delightful rhododendron forest. We make another ‘donation’ at a Maoist checkpoint. It’s a short day and we hit Ghorepani early. Blue is the word for this village.
I shower then search for the clinic. I buy some ‘Nepalese’ cough mixture. Whoa! I don’t know about my throat but my taste buds are ruined.
4.45am and dark. We are about to trek Poon Hill (3,210m) for the sunrise. It’s crowded on the track and at the summit. With bated breath we wait. The sky slowly glows. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed. The sunset looked better.
I say goodbye to Santos and we now start a 1,500m descent. We lose the mountains but manage a glimpse of Annapurna III, the Fish Tail and a cow being butchered.
God bless him
Solemnly, we pass a ruined tea house destroyed in a landslide which claimed several lives. Beautiful waterfalls and rock pools now appear and a villager is fishing. I have never experienced so much physical diversity in such a short time.
Dinner is a subdued affair. This is our last night in a tea house and Durga, God bless him, has a chocolate cake baked specially for us. We are honoured and slightly embarrassed by this lovely gesture.
It's sad to say goodbye
Tikhedhunga to Pokhara (1 day)
Our last day on the trail. Another glorious sunlit morning lifts our spirits, slightly. The tea house is surrounded by vegetable terraces with green and red parrots flitting from tree to bush. Unfortunately, my breakfast porridge is the worst I’ve had all trip. But I can’t complain, the food overall has been fantastic.
Our footsteps slow even more. ‘Kingfisher’ came the shout but the blue flash has gone. For company we have a beautiful flowing river, but even its photogenic waterfalls cannot put off the inevitable for ever.
We dive into art galleries, anything to make the day longer but the moment still comes too soon, we arrive at Birithanti. Time for a quick Coke then off again to find our waiting mini-bus. Sadly, the village looks like a frontier town, a bit of a let down right at the end.
To cheer myself up, I buy a colourful neck scarf which makes me look like a boy scout. We’re passed by fresh faced young Americans going to the Annapurna Sanctuary. I want to turn around.
The last 50 yards to our ride to Pokhara seems like slow motion. Personally, I could have gone on and on. It’s such a great place to be. As karma would have it, we met a road accident which, although delayed us, allowed locals to have a roadside sing and dance and a quick squat in the grass.
Handshakes and thanks
Arriving later than expected in the tranquil lakeside resort of Pokhara we immediately make for Mike’s restaurant for lunch. And very nice it is too in the late sunshine by the water’s edge. With a gin & tonic of course.
But sadly, we now have to say goodbye to our porters. A handshake and a heartfelt thank-you seems too little. They live such different lives and I hope our ‘tips’ will make a small difference. These guys work really hard for their pay and I wish them good health and safe journeys.
Reality sinks in
An evening and morning in Pokhara
What a contrast Pokhara is. Noise! Car horns, blaring music from invisible nightclubs and people shouting. We leave the hotel and go shopping. This lakeside town is a shopaholic’s fix. Tourists search the streets for that elusive bargain. Me included.
You want Ganja?
I relent and buy a suede hat. Standing in the street a man sidles up to me. Ganja? What? You want Ganja? This does not happen to me every day, so, I buy a kilo. Okay, okay, I didn’t really. It was half a kilo.
Before dinner I watch bats catching moths on the wing from my hotel balcony. Across the street is a noisy bar. Reality sinks in with a heavy base and high pitched treble.
Chicken curry for £2! I wonder if I’d paid more they would have actually cooked the meat. Worst meal of the trip. An American breakfast starts the day. No tea and washing water here. The drive to the airport is over in minutes.
Before check-in, we say fond farewells to Chaptan. A big man in everything except size. At security we walk into a booth, get touched up, and walk out again.
From the plane I have a wonderful view of the Himalaya. A bird of prey blurs past and as we drop into Kathmandu, the blue sky changes to a sickly orange.
Temples and holy men
An evening and morning in Kathmandu
We take lunch in the garden of the Shangri-La Hotel. It’s fun to watch the Hooded Crows stealing bread rolls in this ‘little oasis in the middle of madness’.
For afternoon entertainment we take a taxi to Pashupatinath Temple to watch cremations. What an amazing place. Almost instantly we are appointed an un-appointed guide.
The temple, on the Bagmati river, is considered to the most sacred Shiva (Pashupati) temple in the city of Kathmandu. Our guide is actually very knowledgeable so I don’t mind paying him a few rupees for his time.
Several bodies are burning as we explore the temple’s grounds. Monkeys steal the offerings around the covered bodies and birds of prey circle above.
The Hindu mourners are not offended by voyeuristic tourists, and even allow men to stand in the river prospecting for gold fillings or anything of value from the remains. I look on in amazement as holy men and women wash in the polluted water. I don’t see anybody fishing though.
Soon though the air fills with smoke and we decide to leave. It was at this point that sadly, we met the most obnoxious trinket seller in the whole of Nepal. Our only escape was a waiting taxi. That evening we enjoy a meal with Durga to say farewell. Describing his journey home reminds us of how hardy these people are.
A day sat on a rickety bus followed by a three day hike. He then spends the winter helping out on the family farm in the Everest region. He is a nice guy and I wish him well. Waving Durga goodbye, we cough our way back to the hotel and hit the sack. It’s another early start. Sagarmatha awaits!
Smog delays us for nearly three hours. Comfortable is not an adjective for our departure lounge. Finally, in the air, the small cabin is awash with shutters clicking and oohs and arrhs. We follow the Himalaya for several miles culminating in the ‘big one’.
Propped up by its smaller cousins, the outline of Everest is unmistakable. A beautiful contrast of white on brilliant blue with only heaven above. You know, it doesn’t look that high…
Another bleak departure lounge for our flight home. My name is called. I’ve been upgraded to business class. Karma! My second Drambuie helps me reflect. It has been one of the best 24 days of my life. But, I have to go home. Squeaky will be pretty hungry by now.