Around the Annapurna Circuit

Around the Annapurna Circuit Kathmandu, Nepal
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An account of one couple's journey up Nepal's Annapurna Massif Mountain.

By: Lisa & Andre Ismael

So you want to do a bit of walking, escape the city, discover foreign lands & cultures. Then journey with us to the Himalayan paradise of Nepal (April 96). Our story begins and ends in the well touristed city of Pokhara, a 7 - 8 hour bus trip from the capital, Kathmandu. Pokhara, sits on the shores of a beautiful lake which reflects the spectacular mountain backdrop, the Anapurna Massif.

Day 1: At 5.30 the alarm sounds. Ye bloody hah. I concentrate on the thought of cinnamon rolls as we begin our first 35 min trek to the bus station. My thoughts of fresh buns are interrupted by André already wanting to sell his share of the muesli he's carrying, to lighten the load. Cinnamon rolls await us accompanied by some of the worst chai in Nepal. Yellow globules of fat float belly up in milky grey tea, but we've paid for it so we have to drink it. You guessed it, we're scrooges, never let a penny slip by!

At the public bus station there's a local bus all the way to Besisahar, our starting point, for US$1.50. The tourist bus costs US$3 and only goes as far as Dumre, it's another 4 hours on the road from there. They try to charge us for luggage but this simply doesn't work, so the bus boys give up. The countryside is gorgeous. We pass people working in rice paddy fields, planting brilliant green seedlings and further on harvesting the golden grains. Houses made of ocre mud with wooden verandas and thatched rooves make up the picturesque villages. The bus sways along the unsealed road, sometimes balancing on the only 3 wheels that fit on the road. An overturned bus on the way doesn't help passenger confidence, but after a few more hairy wobbles and 8 hours we pull into Besisahar safe & sound. From here it's time to stretch those legs.

We're the only nutters who decide to walk on to the next village of Khadi 21/2 hrs away. Making our first descent down a stone made path, we meet a few locals & porters walking the well trodden path. Our first stop for tea & coconut crunchies happens just an hour down the track. 100 gms lighter! A little old man guides us in to his pretty bougainvillea filled, river side guesthouse at Khadi which is actually only half an hour away.

Less than a US $1 for a huge feed of dhal bhat (usually consisting of lentil curry, potatoes & rice) a great cup of tea and a bed. A full moon caps off the evening and after some candle light chat we head to bed. The family is all asleep before 8pm.

Up at 6am, this is going to take some getting used to. We nose around the village a bit, soaking up the mountainous views in front of us and head of to the first registration post at Bhulbule where National Park fees are extracted, for a good cause of course, and I mean it. A French team of 14 people complete with porters are just ahead of us. A welcome breakfast stop and we lighten the muesli load. Dry milk powder, iodinated water and muesli, actually it's delicious after a couple hours on the trail. The path takes us uphill and down again with spectacular views of the Marsyandi Valley. It's a photographic paradise of people & landscapes.

We arrive in Jagat at 4pm and the rooms at the inns are almost full with the French team. A split second decision sees us scoffing a chocolate bar and heading off. The ascent is a killer, a 11/2 hr steep uphill climb and no views. A few wild complaints are laid out, but at the top we're glad it's out of the way and could even say we're happy. A hotelier & a crazy woman are resting after the climb and we join them for a rice wine, always keen to try local delicacies. It's still a 45 min walk to the hotel where we speedily order a unlimited serving of dhal bhat, our staple diet. Thoughts of a quick trip to the nearby small hot springs are axed by the nip in the air. We gorge ourselves and pretty shortly sleep.

With these early morning rises, we decide it's best not to talk for the first hour of the day. I can't help being thankful that we did that uphill stretch yesterday. We swim in a green sea of wild marijuana plants that line the path, it's not often that you get to do this. We pass porters carrying back breaking loads of cargo. Suddenly my backpack feels light, I can't feel the shoulder straps anymore and I fly uphill (slight exaggeration), the only way is up. We descend again into the valley of Tal to lunch on oily, flat bread and tea with added coffee. Bonus! Further on waterfalls cascade into the valley and we arrive at the next stop. Share our dinner table with a fellow miser who proudly announces "I'm an Australian and I don't drink beer!". I detect a wee chip on his shoulder.

Day 4: Another fabulously beautiful morning. First sights of snow and clear blue skies as we approach the village of Bagarchhap, which was destroyed by an avalanche in Nov '95 killing local people and 11 tourists. The village is still under repair (April 96). From here we start to see more trekkers on the trail which continues up & down alongside the river. Soon we see the first of the famous and beautiful red velvet rhododendrons.

In the next village we see our first glimpse of the Tibetan culture, an old couple soaking in the sun. There's a nearby hot spring which we check out, but unfortunately the locals are using it to wash clothes.

From here the path takes us into deep forest. We're pleasantly surprised, when we finally pop out, by our first glimpse of Anapurna II (7937m). The view becomes more breathtaking as we continue on to the village of Koto. An old man and his horses have been with us most of the day and he invites us to stay at his lodge. We decide to continue on but don't get far. Looking back down the valley there are great views of Mt Manaslu (8162m). Warming by the non-ecological fire (sorry), we try out another local brew. This time it's a yeasty beer which the locals call chang, perhaps it's an acquired taste.

The nights have got so cold that I'm wearing most of my clothes to bed, so I have to spend a bit of time repacking this morning. Our next destination is Pisang an old Tibetan village. We pass over a long suspension bridge, through a dense pine forest and come to a fork in the track. Which way? Simple, follow the fresh trail of donkey shit. It soon turns cold and the track almost disappears, it's not the well trodden path we've become used to.

Finally we come across a woodchopper & his offending donkey, who confirms we're heading in the right direction though it's difficult to believe. Soon a village appears on a hill in front of us filling us with relief. On closer inspection the medieval town is deserted & falling into ruin, it's pretty cool though, so we explore for a while. Two kids point us towards the new village at the bottom of the valley and we head off to find lodging. Heaps of trekkers, how long will dinner take to cook we wonder?

Today's mountain view is that of Pisang (6091m). Ahead of us the valley opens up into a dry deserted plain, the Manang Valley. There's a prehistoric feel to the scene reminding me of the great ancient TV. series 'Land of the Lost'. The walk to the village of Manang(3505m) is flat and pleasant. Manang is well decked out for the trekker scene and has a Himalayan Mountain Service post which offers regular talks on acute mountain sickness (AMS). Other bonuses the wee village offers are chocolate cake and apple pie. The wooden restaurant of the Tilicho Guest House looks a bit like a European ski resort. A multitude of nationalities sit around drinking beer, eating pizzas and gourmet desserts while exchanging stories. The price of food & water has been steadily increasing with altitude.

By lunch time the next day it snows, looks like we'll be staying longer than we thought. There's nothing to do but wait for fresh warm chocolate cake. We're not so thrilled about the bill when we leave but hey, it was fun.

Day 8: Beautiful clear blue sky, crispy cool air and the morning sun casting a golden glow on the snow capped mountains, the scenery is breath taking, in more ways than one. Andre is starting to feel a little breathless and we think about the AMS talk back in Manang. I begin to have stomach problems, so that night we go to bed both feeling a little sorry for ourselves and pretty cold.

We plod onto Phedi (4420m), the Throng La pass base camp. Andre is a bit slowed up so we take it easy. When we arrive the clouds start to roll over and all our clothes come out of our backpacks and onto us. Luckily we score just about the only room that doesn't have a chilly wind blowing through it, though it's still freezing.

It starts to snow and we move into the restaurant. One group has come back from attempting to cross the pass today as one of the guys began hallucinating with altitude sickness after 3 hours of climbing. They had to return in waist deep snow, the story puts an edge of nervousness in the air. It's not so warm, even by the fire, so we crawl into sleeping bags. It's so cold I can't breathe and anxiety makes it worse, but finally we drop off to sleep. Doesn't look like we'll be crossing the (5614m) pass tomorrow.

Everyone starts to wake up at about 4.30am, there's a white blanket of snow everywhere. Without a guide and with a snow covered path no one is going anywhere. The locals are saying it will be fine with a guide, one of them of course. None of the crowd that has gathered is up to pay to for a guide so it looks like everybody is staying, especially after yesterdays story. The sun comes up and everyone competes for a spot of its warmth and, after a while, decides to do a bit of a walk. We build a snowman, have a few snowball fights and listen to the sound of silence. For dinner it's a vege pizza and potato moussaka, very Nepalese, accompanied of course by German brown bread.

Next morning we're one of the last to leave at 6am, slackers, though we soon catch up with the heavy smokers hanging at the rear. Plastic bags serve as our gaters, not quite geared up for a snow crossing. The views of the pass are spectacular, enhanced by the glistening virgin snow.

We think we're at the top, because everyone else says we are, so we eat the last chocolate bar. One Israeli woman is being carried by her porter and her boyfriend is carrying both their bags, there's a few people waiting anxiously. When we finally do reach the top there's a set of flags to commemorate it and even a wee Nepalese man selling cups of chai from a thermos, and no chocolate left. In front of us a hazy, dark and mystical looking land. Behind us the snow covered peaks of the Annapurna Massif. It really does feel like the top of the world and as if you're breathing some of the cleanest air in the world.

With the sun well up, the snow gets mushier and we walk in knee deep snow. The trail starts to get a little vague and suddenly we're on our own and not really sure which way to go. Well really the only way is down. The snow is great fun to slide down but soon it turns to skree (small metal stones) on the near 70° decline. It's not quite so much fun for me, a typical goat (Capricorn) who prefers ascents to steep descents. Andre has great fun, the lion (Leo) preferring the easier downhill. I get a spiting headache, a little irritable and tired. It's a mixture of snow and scree most of the way down, I can't describe the relief when the trail flattens out and we finally reach a teahouse down at 4100m.

It's only an hour walk to Muktinath, the scenery is amazing still washed out with haze and dust making it look like a painting. Wee villages and medieval looking fortresses balance on the edge of the Kali Gandaki gorge. Exhausted, we arrive at about 4pm to find a hotel with a hot shower heated by the kitchen stove. Bliss. Eat dinner as if we haven't eaten in weeks. The 5415m challenge over, we crawl into sleeping bags and fall into a deep sleep.

Day 12: We hang around the village for the day and check out it's sacred temple, a pilgrimage centre for Buddists & Hindus. A nearby temple shelters a spring and natural gas jet, which provides the eternal flame. It's the earth-fire-water combination that gives Muktinath is religious significance.

Jarkot is the next town on the route. Great apples and a cool old village. Most of the houses made from wood and mud, a few of them crumbling to add that medieval touch. Superb views of the gorge and rich green paddy fields. Tourism starts to kick in here, most of the women are busy knitting 'traditional' scarves to sell to tourists.

We head for Kagbeni village, down the Kali Gandaki gorge. Kagbeni is the gateway to the restricted area of Mustang. Originally restricted because of border disputes with Tibet and to protect the environment. The restriction means U$700 in National Park fees for a 10 day trip (April 96). The village is gorgeous with apple trees in full blossom and at the end of it, the Mustang valley sits looking like a painting in the distance.

Unfortunately Andre is bitten by a dog and we're faced with the worries of rabies, which Andre hasn't been vaccinated against, so we head for a bigger town. Heading down the valley we see many more tourists than on the other side of the Throng La pass. A gale picks up and blows dust in our faces making it impossible to take photos and therefore speeding us up. Clouds start to roll in and cover the mountain tops and finally we see the village of Jonsom (2773m) amidst the dust storm.

Jonsom is well touristed, expensive and not so pretty. Perhaps it was the dust? We find the local hospital and someone who is keen to give Andre a jab. Luckily I check the vial first. It's a reconstituted, reused and expired vial of tetanus toxoid vaccine, which Andre has already had. Not a rabies vaccine as we had been told. We decline the offer and leave hoping that Andre doesn't start frothing at the mouth.

We head on to Marpha, which appears to be the apple & dried apricot centre of the area. Lasagne for dinner tonight followed by apple crumble and some interesting conversation with a young Danish Buddhist who came to Nepal seeking to become a monk. A wise old monk told him it was best he went home and think about it some more which the Dane agreed with. Marpha is a cute white washed village, with a fantastic mountain backdrop (Nigiri 6940m). Much nicer than Jonsom.

The apple trees are blossoming and the valley is on fire with autumn colours, though I can't quite work that one out. It's April, it should be spring. Following the Kali Gandaki river, which cuts the deepest gorge in the world, we view the spectacular peak of Dhaulagiri (8167m), the sixth highest mountain in the world. We're joined by a French man, who has recently returned to live in France after 12 years in India leading the life of a saddhu (an Indian ascetic). You meet the strangest people in the strangest places, that's what I love about travelling. Great spring rolls decide our next stop. The food on the side of the pass catering more for the western palette and, of course, pocket.

Day 15: We continue our decent with views of Annapurna South (7273m) until we reach Tatopani. A popular resting spot complete with thermal pools. My feet are killing me, blisters have just come up in the last two days. The village is full of 'wanna be' hippie clothes and great cakes. The hot pool, which is a large concrete pool, is a treat indeed. We even have family entertainment. A tour group of American campers has everyone's attention. All ages, shapes and sizes and all with the volume on full, oblivious to everyone around them. For dinner, great enchiladas and the best chocolate cake I have ever tasted, no exaggeration! Complements to the Trekkers Inn. We're fully revitalised for the 1600m ascent tomorrow.

The blooming rhodendrons change from red velvet to smoky pink. There's a fungus or parasitic plant that is destroying some of the old trees, leaving behind odd twisted shapes and a spooky decaying forest. The walk is long and a bit of a killer, but not as gruelling as we thought it would be. Back to dhal bhat tonight as we feel the wallet getting thinner.

It's an early start to make it up to the view point at Poon Hill (an hours walk up from Ghorapani). It's cloudy and we swear at the heavens above as we climb. Fabulous but cloudy views, of the Annapurna Massif and some of the highest mountains in the world, greet us at the top. We descend and head for Birethanti. The forest with its slowly strangling trees becomes less dense and soon we see villages and plantations again. My feet are about to fall off. Waterfalls and clear swimming pools appear in the narrowing river, a welcome relief from the heat. It's a long walk and we both have a sense of longing to arrive, perhaps because it's the last village.

Day 18: The return to Pokhara. The bus is waiting for us at the village across the river. It's back to the real world as the kids gather chanting "school pen", the streets are littered and there's a lot of people not doing much. It's a hairy bus ride back but we survive. There's a sense of accomplishment and sadness that it's over. In Pokhara the walk from the bus station to our hotel doesn't seem so far, perhaps we're fitter or maybe it's because all the muesli's been eaten.

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Around the Annapurna Circuit
Kathmandu, Nepal

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