Annapurna Circuit, Nepal: An Unforgettable Journey

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal: An Unforgettable Journey

I’m writing this blog almost a year after my trip to Nepal in autumn.

The reason I’m writing it now is because I wanted to know how much of it do I yet remember, be rest assured this will be as detailed as ever. In continuation to my previous blog, Annapurna- My Chosen Path, I was extremely excited and could not anticipate the excitement forthcoming.

Anxiety was at its peak.

As I boarded the train from Mumbai Central towards Delhi, varied thoughts came across – those of discouragement, those of excitement, and that of sheer joy and accomplishment. Right then I knew, my escape to Nepal was the biggest accomplishment – away from your near ones, out of the daily routine this was certainly a welcome change.

I then boarded a flight from New Delhi to Kathmandu, so there I was on my first lone trip abroad to Kathmandu. My trek mate Alex Kobzev (Russian), contacted him on the web forums of www.trekkingpartners.com was already waiting for me at the Shangrila Guest house near Thamel. We had the most enjoyable times in Nepal.

Now, Thamel was that typical crowded tourist street in Kathmandu flocked by foreigners arriving from their country – usually shopping for clothes, equipment and preparing themselves for the treks to the Himalayas.

The most well known treks in Nepal being the Everest Base Camp, Annapurna Circuit and the Manaslu Mountain trek, all of these treat you to breath taking views and scenery. You will also find tourists who have already completed the trek, sharing stories with the ones who are about to explore. Thus you always find this area in Thamel buzzing with tourists chilling, enjoying, sharing stories, shopping artifacts, souvenirs, maps, trekking equipments, music, dance, pubs etc.

It was my first trek of this rigorous level and thus had to shop for all the essentials – warm fleece jackets, wind proof jackets, rain ponchos, warm cap, woolen socks, back pack covers and trekking poles. I carried my own sleeping bag and back pack from Mumbai thus saving me more expenses. Now the challenge here was to pack all the essentials in one light weight back pack. I couldn’t do any better than 13 kgs. Alex managed to pack it all in a 9 kg back pack. We then had to proceed to the tourism office in Kathmandu to procure all our trekking permits.

So finally two days of preparation in Kathmandu, we finally decide to leave Kathmandu for the Annapurna Circuit trek. Now the Annapurna Mountain range is one of the highest Himalayan ranges in Nepal, with 4 really high peaks namely Annapurna I, II, III & IV. The highest being the Annapurna I standing at 26,545 feet (over 8000 meters) the tenth highest peak in the world. We were surely not mountain climbers, and hence were not going to climb any of them. We intended to go on the Annapurna Circuit trek, taking you through this mountain range passing through beautiful landscapes, awe inspiring sceneries, sun rises, sunsets. The massive feat here is also that of crossing the Thorung la Pass on foot, the highest in the world, standing at 5500 metres high.

We left Kathmandu in a mini bus, we were comfortably seated on the last row, the journey however was not very comfortable due to the bumpy roads and heavy traffic striking through narrow road paths time and again.

This was a good 7 hour journey to Besisahar where we thought we should rest for the night. Our bus driver took us to a small guest house at Besisahar, here we were thoroughly entertained by this little matured, fun loving girl through the night. We then gave her our token of appreciation – a box filled with sweets.

 

Day 1: Besisahar to Bhulbhule – 7 kms

Next morning was finally the D-Day the first morning of our forthcoming trek, but we yet had to wait for the instance as there was the last of the bus journey’s we had to make to a village called Khudi. The drive was a super bumpy one through narrow marshy and muddy roads through wooden bridges on waterfalls. It indeed made it one of the scariest bus drives ever in my life, but worth experiencing it. So finally at Khudi we begin our trek. I put the back pack up my shoulder, already feeling its heaviness, wondering how I would ever be able to manage it on my back, through the trek.

All said and done, I knew it was too late to turn back, so we signed off our permits at Khudi and our Annapurna Circuit trek officially begun. We walked a few metres ahead and see a tall & magnificent waterfall. The waterfall was wild, brutal & ferocious as ever and thus we were awestruck and went closer towards it base, during which Alex slips off one of the mossy rocks, I too couldn’t get a grip and slipped down. A few of the villagers, were kind enough to lend a hand of support, we were soon up & running. Both of us escaped unhurt this time, but knew what was in store for us, and that it wouldn’t be too wise of us to step into the traps of nature’s fury.

We then went on to climb a steep winding road path, with a heavy load on the back, reminding us what was in store for us the coming days. We came across a waterfall again, this one was good enough for a shower, and enjoyed the force of the water rushing through the head. After this relaxing mood it was time for us to load our backs again with the heavy packs, my shoulders and back not used to this heaviness were frozen already. Kids would also come running down to us asking fro sweets or photographs to be clicked. A child charged me five bucks for getting a picture clicked with her.

We soon stopped by a small cottage in a village to have dal bhaat and soup. It was the first experience of what was in store for us in the forthcoming meals. Dal Bhaat is the staple Nepali diet, a mix of different vegetables, with dal or lentils, and rice. The vegetables served were varied everywhere.

This was also a good opportunity to gulp down a pain killer, before it worsened any more. So the long winding climb continued towards a village called Bhulbhule where we finally stopped for the night. The stop for the night was a cramped wooden cottage on the loft; there were a set of wooden beds and a tiny common bathroom, with no running hot water. So the first day was very much an experience for us, and helped us understand what was in store for us.

 

Day 2: Bhulbhule to Jagat – 16kms

We woke up early this day to the sound of chirping birds, all excited we started around 7 am, didn’t have breakfast that day, as it wasn’t the best meal we had last night. So we walked through breathtaking landscapes, on a marshy road path through water puddles and crossing waterfalls. I for a moment thought I was in Malaysia walking through tropical forests. After an hour of walking, we reached an area where the road stops, thanks to a landslide that occurred.

We were all alone by ourselves; we tried to figure out an alternative route and thus followed our instincts. I thought we were quite ambitious to walk up ahead on our own, thus mid way we were trapped and had nowhere to go. The landslide portion was quite loose, and every step we would take further meant we were surely going to slip several metres into the valley. Then finally school going Nepali children spotted us and took us through the right way. My heart was in the mouth for a moment until those kids, came up to guide us. They would probably have thought we were too ambitious and silly.

The Kids guided us the right way

So two little incidents in two days, was really beginning to frighten us, what was in store for us on another 3000 metres climb.

We then walked up ahead where a small family invited us for breakfast; here a skinny little Nepali about 20 years old asked us if we needed porters. Now this was music to our ears, we were quite uncomfortable carrying the load on our back, not able to enjoy our trek up the Annapurna. The prices for porters were extremely high down the city, but these guys offered us a minimal pricing of Nepali Rs 7000 only. They were extremely eager to do this for us, although they had never been up the Thorung la Pass. We were quite skeptical but they were extremely eager to do this for us, the money I guess was extremely necessary for them. It seemed like the village people did not have any source of fast income. So then we hired them as porters, a new start with our new friends on the trek.

So on and on we walk through landscapes indescribable on paper, and finally we end our trek for the day at a place called Heaven “Jagat”. Heaven it was this village located right above the valley amongst a massive waterfall, the rattling of the waterfall was music to our ears through the night.

 

Day 3: Jagat to Bagarchap 17 kms

All I remember about this day is that we walked across landscapes that were awe-inspiring, breathtaking and that I would not stop clicking photographs on every nook and turn of the winding path on the mountain terrain. It’s just you and the sounds of God’s creation to accompany you.

The valley, heading north, has got tighter and the trail is hemmed in by huge cliffs on either side.  The steepness of the valley means there is no very little agriculture but the vegetation is still very lush.  The trail generally takes along the east side of the valley, often quite high up with great views of the river below.

There are numerous spectacular waterfalls and near one we saw a series of wide bee hives hanging beneath a ridge of rock.  On the other side of the valley the new road is being carved out of the rock face often hundreds of feet above in what looks to be incredibly dangerous work.

After about three hours walking the river splits into two with one tributary emerging from another deep valley to the west and another, the one we travelling along, cascading down rocks from the north.

Half way up this cascade of rocks we stop at a shack for the mid-morning drink stop and enjoy brilliant views down the valley.

Finally we arrive at Bagarchap with only two tea houses in the village.

 

Day 4: Bagarchap to Bhratang 28 kms

So we woke up early once again, we knew we had to cover a lot of ground.

Another “Nepali-flat” day, and the scenery was becoming more alpine, with fewer rice paddies and more apple and fir trees. We walked through Chame (altitude 2630m). There was a bit more action (and shopping) in Chame, so we stocked up on trail mix and chocolate ready for the prices to go up with the altitude in the following days.

At Chame we had already walked 21 kms, but it was still 4 pm so we thought we were not done yet. Our porters wanted to wind up, but we pushed them a little further to get to the next village. Now I was not sure if this was a good step forward. The next village was 7 kms ahead, and thank god we managed to reach dot at 6:30 or else it would have been pitch dark for us to walk any further. We finally arrived at a village called Bhratang. Now this village had only one home, and this tea house and village, didn’t have any electricity. So it was time spent in the dark and our head torches were working at its best. The air here was fresh as ever.

 

Day 5: Bhratang to Ghyaru

So once again we were up and away by 6:30 am contemplating if we can make it to Ghyaru, if we do decide to get there, it would surely be the toughest day trekking. As we trekked further north the people become more Tibetan in ancestry, and Buddhism become the main local religion. We arrived in Pisang (3190m), with a Buddhist temple overlooking the pretty alpine village. These villages had ever-longer rows of prayer wheels, which we always tried to spin on arrival (which could take ages). First hint of altitude here, as I started to get the headaches of altitude sickness under the hot sun.

We found, amazing scenery after Pisang as we passed a black skateboard ramp mountain, and some serious white peaks. We found some of the most amazing views of the whole trek. Buddhist monks wore a smile inviting you to their temples, as if to attain bliss.

It’s a very simple walk to describe.  Retracing our steps over the bridge from Lower Pinsang we climbed steadily up the hill, past a lovely little green lake.

Then more steeply we went zig-zagging over open ground all the way up to Ghyaru. This was our most sustained climb of the trek so far and by the time we got to the top we had climbed over 400 metres.

Again here our porters, suggested we take a few shortcuts, however I stood firm on this regard, after what we went through earlier, and followed the path. This was one of the steepest climbs up and I didn’t want to leave any stone behind. So finally we were at Ghyaru by mid afternoon. I was hit by headaches a common sign of mountain sickness. This pain was excruciating and its worst when the sun was up shining so bright. All said and forgotten, Ghyaru gave us the best views of Annapurna II and IV. These were the Himalayas at its best standing extremely tall, and clouds hitting them on and off, the views were truly spectacular.

All I did at Ghyaru was to hold a camera, waiting for that picturesque moment to click. A fury mountain dog gave us company throughout. I was awestruck by this heavenly place, and I so wished I owned a house out here. Late in the night I lie awake just gazing at the moon lit Annapurna peaks, marveling God’s creations.

So next morning we woke up to the singing birds, after not a very good night’s sleep. It was 5:00 am and we had to wake up, to click those early sunrise photographsof Annapurna II and IV while the clouds were away, and so did manage to click some breath taking shots of the Annapurna Peaks II & III.

Yipeee !!!

 

Day 6: Ghyaru to Manang

So after our intensive photography session, it was time for us to walk up ahead to our first real achievement of the trek – Manang. The scenery is just amazing.

As we climb the views of Annapurna II just grow and grow, a huge  near vertical wall of white with giant glaciers carving into its face.  Shortly after we get to see Annapurna 3 and then the Gangapurna. The little villages themselves on our way were very interesting. Tightly packed houses, stone built cubes, with integral open spaces for drying hay and storing with accommodation for people and animals intertwined.

Each village seemed to have a monastery, lots of prayer wheels and a little gate at either end. This walk seemed to be a never ending one, and it seemed to me a little like the Old Mexican landscapes. That was the beauty of the trek –the landscapes (tropical to alpine to dessert like terrains) & cultures (Hindus to Nepalis to Buddhists )  were so varied, from village to village as we walk on ahead. I also loved watching the villagers harvest their crops – the buckwheat which grew darker red as it was harvested. It looked like back-breaking work beating the grain off the harvested and dried bundles. Braga (3475m) was about 30 minutes before our designated rest day at Manang. We stopped by at Braga for lunch where I got the first taste of my most awaited Yak Meat curry with sea buckthorn juice. This was indeed the best I had eaten on my Nepal trip. So after a joyous meal we continued to walk towards Manang, on our way ahead we stopped by a Monastery to click a few photographs.

So finally after 6 days of hardcore trekking we arrived at Manang, our first achievement on the trek.

 

Day 7: Manang: Rest Day & Acclimatization Walks

Everyone on the Annapurna Circuit seems to stop at Manang for a rest or acclimatisation day before pressing on to the Thorang La, the big day, two days. It’s a good place to stop, best tea house so far with toilets in the bedroom and a good menu, shops and even places to buy coffee and cake.

Manang itself is an interesting little town, the original part of town is 800 years old and is built in the traditional style with flat roofs and integral accommodation for animals.  All the snow from the flat roofs has been swept into the narrow alleys which, because of the amount of recent snow, were almost impassable.

It’s also a very pretty valley, very dry because it’s sheltered from the humid south by the Annapurnas, and with the mountains above incredibly dramatic.  We went for an acclimatization walk in the morning, but curtailed because it turned out to be a very difficult path to find, and we did not want to take a risk getting lost on our rest day. We intended to meet a Monk who was living in those mountains for 90 years, and he also passes on blessings, it was a big miss for us.

However in the evening, we did manage to go atop the Gangapurna Glacier Lake. It was indeed a pretty – pretty sight for us to behold. The headaches didn’t seem to leave me yet, mountain sicknesses stayed with me throughout, but it wasn’t too bad, I must admit.

 

Day 8 & 9: Manang to Thorong La Base Camp

Weather was a bit disappointing today, not a disaster but too cloudy to see the tops of the mountains. Just as well that yesterday gave us such wonderful views of the Manang valley. Short walk along the trail today, about 4 hours and a climb of a couple of hundred metres up to Yak Khark. After walking underneath a gloomy and slightly intimidating Gangapurna the route turns from west to north west and up the valley towards the Thorung Pass.  The mountains in this valley, so far, are not quite on the same scale as Annapurna 2 and Gangapurna.

Saw our first Yaks and a herd of wild mountain goat.

Running out of puff very quickly now, so it was a steep struggle up the path towards Yak Kharka. We kept going the extra 45 minutes to the next stop-off, Letdar (4250m). This was a nice spot with just two guest lodges, where we stayed over.

A French Lady, living in the village after Letdar, introduced herself and invited us in for breakfast. She baked muffins 4000 metres above sea level, and these were as good as any I might have ever had before. She was in the business of entertaining the tourists at her guesthouse at little ahead from Letdar, let me tell you she does a fine job..

One of the other trekkers we had met had already decided to go back to Manang due to altitude sickness. But I managed just well, even with those throbbing headaches.

We headed up the path towards the last night’s destination before “the big day” – the Thorung La Pass.  We were completely exhausted and breathless even on a downhill stretch, and really battled up the last bit to Thorung Phedi (4420m) – really just two hotels, the third hotel and hydro power station having recently washed away in the monsoon. Once again to try and acclimatize to the altitude better we hiked up to the High Camp, which was just a lodge about 30 minutes walk up the STEEP incline. So this was it, the highest point we could ever have spent the night at, may be in this lifetime. The head pain was at its excruciating best, but the pain killers would make me feel better.

I was aghast, I was now about to walk through the Thorung La pass, probably the most exciting thing I would ever have done.

 

Day 10: Crossing the Thorung La Pass and down to Muktinath then onwards to  Jomsom

We were at the Thorung High Camp and so we didn’t have to wake up very early in the morning, we started our trek around 6:30 am, it was not too cold as I initially thought it would be, thanks to the autumn September.

The road was a dry treacherous terrain full of gravel and stones, with a bit of dried snow. The surrounding hills and mountains were all snow clad peaks, the Thorong la Peak was distinctly visible to us. Although the walk to the Thorong La Pass was quite steep, thanks to the weather conditions, it wasn’t too much of a task to get up there.

Short walks and halts to rest and click photographs made this last real climb extremely uncomplicated for us. However we did see a few trekkers struggle during the climb, and they had no option but to descend.

So at 10:00 am odd reaching the Thorong La pass was elating, everybody was extremely excited and it was nice to be able to have a rest, give each other hugs and generally enjoy the moment.

It was a relief and an achievement for our porters too, since it was their first ever trip up here carrying the load on their back. We congratulated and thanked them for their support.

Our trekking buddies who met us from time to time on the trek, posed for a group photograph. It was a great moment, all trekkers coming from different countries had come with one aim in mind, to climb the Thorong La Pass. Irrespective of the race, cast, creed or any other discrimination all of us were elated with the moment, and united we stood. There is absolutely no reason for humans to fight amongst themselves.

Thus we stayed on for about 45 minutes as we were enjoying the scenery and the weather around. The teashop served us the very much deserved black tea although for about 200 Nepali rupees.

We also carried chocolate bars to ensure we do not run out of steam after that big climb. We also knew that a massive descend of 2500 metres is up ahead, our knees & calves were surely going to take a pounding here.

 The climb down was a nightmare on my knees, being a steep descent over rocky terrain. The views were really quiet incredible though, as we looked down on the mountains and valleys and were able to admire the peaks of higher mountains a little closer up than we’d previously been. Through our walk down we saw an entire expedition team attempting the Thorong La Peak climb. They all seemed to carry massive back packs with camping equipment and all we could do is to wish them the best.

So on our climb down we finally reached a small village just before Muktinath, where we were treated on a sumptuous lunch of dal bhat and garlic potatoes. We then walked onwards to Muktinath, where we waited for a Jeep to take us to Jomsom. This jeep was overfilled with people; I had never been so cramped in a car. I was also afraid and skeptical of the state of the jeeps, the tyres were also worn out, it wasn’t safe at all. I wonder if a German would seat himself in the car, I’m sure he would have trekked down the road rather.

The drive down to Jomsom was again full of canyons and beautiful mountain formations, these were awe-inspiring and I thoroughly wished I would be trekking that road down.

 

Day 11,12 & 13: Jomsom to Pokhara

So we finally made it to Jomsom. We now had to decide on whether we wanted to trek down upto Tatopani to make the entire Annapurna Circuit. However, we thought against it as we knew the trek ahead would include walking through roads where vehicles ply on them as well. Thus we were against the plan, and instead we thought we bought our flight tickets to Pokhara, it was also an opportunity for us to catch up on the views of the spectacular Annapurna ranges in the air.

However our flights were not been able to take off due to inclement weather conditions, and thus the money was refunded. Disappointed then, we had to make our two day journey in dinky buses & walking wherever necessary, due to landslides that occurred mid way on the road paths.

Also now it was time to say a big goodbye to our porters – who were absolutely helpful and terrific throughout the trip, I cannot imagine the levels I would have struggled to have completed this without their assistance and guidance. They did an excellent job as guides also.

 I am happy to be on my way back to Pokhara, and whilst I had learnt a lot about myself on this journey, I have also been more enlightened by the interaction with the people I’ve met along the way. At a village few kms from Tatopani, we get the local bus back to Pokhara and it’s the typical chaos of over-loading. Whilst this would usually fill us trekekrs with panic, we now begin to find it comforting.

As I gaze at the sunset while I was approaching Pokhara, I know I have lived for the moment and was proud of the fact I eventually made this trip.

So finally we made it to Pokhara, after 13 days on the Annapurna Circuit. This was the most interesting and memorable trip of my life yet, and I’m sure will be lasting memories forever.

 

Pokhara – Chitwan – Kathmandu

So then Pokhara it was where we decided, we need the much deserved rest here for 3 days on. A quite relaxing place for weary and tired trekkers this place certainly was like one you do not want to leave. The restaurants and guest houses so cheap, you could keep eating and sipping the entire day. We took a few walks, did the zipline which they claim is the longest and highest in the world currently. It was quite long, but I still felt it wasn’t enjoyable at 7000/- Rs. I expected it to be a lot more thrilling.

During our stay here, we made plans to visit the Chitwan sanctuary after which we had planned to return to Kathmandu where we would go for a day’s excursion to The Last Resort for the Bungee Jump and a Canyon Swing.

Chitwan was again a place where we managed to get some much deserved rest, but we yet went for long walks, and elephant safari’s there. The Elephant took us on a 2 hour ride to the forests where we spotted a few samba deers and rare birds. We also visited the Elephant breeding centre.

Finally we feasted on a large Duck roast on one of our dinners at the camp fire in our hotel.

So the last phase of the trip was nearing, and it was nothing less than exciting. A Bungee fall and a Canyon Swing it was at The Last Resort -suspended in isolation on a high cliff-top gorge, above the Bhote Kosi river the Last Resort is an enchanted sanctuary surrounded by dense jungle and pristine forest. This is Nepal’s first bungy jumping site situated 160m over the wild Bhote Kosi river, and located close to the Nepal-Tibet border, a three-hour bus ride from Kathmandu which is also a part of the package they offer. I managed to do two jumps on this day – it was the Bungee Jump and then the Canyon swing. I thoroughly enjoyed both as these were – instances where you can really overcome the fears in your mind.

 

We then returned to Kathmandu and went out for a day’s sight seeing:

So with this, we came to an end of our most memorable trip of Nepal, now it was time to say goodbye to my travel buddy Alex Kobzev, only God knows if we would ever be able to meet again. He however has assured me he will visit India soon. For a few days it felt so weird not to see him alongside.

This journey was an experience of a lifetime; it was adventure all the way – and it all came to me in this short duration of a month. It was also an opportunity for me to test my physical and mental state throughout the trip. The trip also made me realize, the hardships the mountain tribal’s have to face each day, and thus the fact underlines how fortunate we are to get things on the table. We have to be grateful for what we possess in life. Simplicity in persona and wants is what the Nepali’s believe in, and how true is their belief, not once have I seen an angry or a sad Nepali.

Kudos to all of them!!!