On the morning of Friday, March 20th, I flew to Kathmandu, Nepal. My goal…to trek as much of the Annapurna Circuit as possible in about 11 days.
I arrived in the afternoon and found my way to the tourist district of Thamel. That night, I picked up a trekking map of the Annapurna region and a few last minute supplies. The next morning, I was waiting at the Nepal Tourism Board office when it opened at 8:00am. I received my Trekking Information Management System (TIMS) card and my Annapurna Conservation Area Permit (ACAP) with no trouble. I headed back to the hotel, picked up my backpack, and headed to the Gongabu Bus Park. My taxi driver stopped a small van just as it was about to leave. My bag was secured to the roof and I was on my way to Besisahar by about 9:30am. The ride was a little cramped but the amazing scenery seemed to make up for that. I was close to my van-riding limit when we arrived in Besisahar around 3:00pm. This is the traditional start of the circuit; however some people choose to take the bus further. I chose to start walking here.
The Annapurna Circuit is a world famous, classic trek stretching over 220 km through the magnificent Himalayas. It forms a horseshoe loop around the Annapurna massif and reaches an elevation of 5416m over the Thorong La pass. When it first became popular in the 1980’s it typically took 21 days to complete and there were no roads to allow a shortcut. Nowadays, roads encroach up most of the Marshyangdi Valley to the east and the Kali Gandaki Gorge on the west. It is known as a teahouse trek where people can stay in small accommodations all along the trails without the need to bring a tent.
Start: Besisahar (820m)
Finish: Bhulbule (840m)
Distance: 9 km
Time: 3 hrs
It was nice to start the trail with a short, relatively flat afternoon hike to get a couple things figured out. I arrived at the Thoranga Teahouse as the sun was starting to set. It was there that I met 2 great people who I would trek with all the way over the pass. Hanna is from Amsterdam and works with children with behavioral problems and Johannes (aka Johnny) is a German student currently studying in Munich to become a teacher. Both Hanna and Johnny met while volunteering in Kathmandu and decided to trek the Annapurna Circuit together. That evening, I was introduced to the card game of Shithead. I had my first of many dhal bhaat (rice with lentils) dinners and was asleep by 8:30pm.
Start: Bhulbule (840m)
Finish: Jagat (1300m)
Distance: 16 km
Time: 8.5 hrs
I found out that Johnny and Hanna are early risers and that suited me fine. We had a hearty breakfast of porridge with apple and milk and a veg omelette at 6:00am and were on the trail by 7:00am. It was a gradual climb to Bahundanda at 1310m where we got a great view up the Marshyangdi Valley. This was also our first ACAP stop where you register your name and permit number so the authorities have an idea of where you are should something go wrong. At Ghermu Pham, we took an unnecessary detour to the remote hillside village of Tallo Chipla. It was a tough slog up and back down again and was definitely off the beaten path. The village children were quite curious watching us and talking with us as we filled our water bottles. The final climb into Jagat was a bit nasty as we were all dehydrated and exhausted. The climate is quite tropical (hot and humid) at these lower elevations.
Start: Jagat (1300m)
Finish: Dharapani (1900m)
Distance: 15 km
Time: 7.5 hrs
Hanna, Johnny, and I were back on the trail at 6:45am the next morning and took the side trail of Ghatte Kholagaon to get a suberb view of the Chhahare Khola Falls. We continued up the valley and crossed the river passing lots of wild marijuana and encountered 2 different troops of Nepal gray langurs. I should mention that the trail has many spectacular suspension bridges over the numerous creeks and the Marshyangdi River itself. It was a long hot climb up to the picturesque village of Tal that is located on a glacier till flat with the snow-capped mountains behind. We made noodles by the river and dipped our tired feet in the ice cold water. After lunch, we crisscrossed the river a few times before arriving in the village of Dharapani around 2:30pm and completed our ACAP check-in. That evening, I was entertained by a woman throwing rocks at some kind of a red weasel (Siberian weasel I think) that was trying to get her chickens.
Start: Dharapani (1900m)
Finish: Bratang (2850m)
Distance: 23 km
Time: 8.5 hrs
That morning, we left the deciduous forest behind and entered the coniferous trees. The smell of pine reminded me of home. We had a nice lunch by a creek surrounded by blooming rhododendron trees. We passed through the ACAP check post in Koto and rounded a corner for a nice surprise…our first real look at Annapurna II standing tall at 7937m. The recent snowfall (2 weeks prior) completely blanketed this eastern face of Annapurna and the views were amazing. We arrived in Chame around 1:30pm where we exchanged some money, reloaded on snacks, and tried some yak cheese. Feeling ambitious, we decided to push on to Bratang, a small village set in an apple orchard (or so we thought). After a nice walk through a mature pine forest and witnessing a small landslide into the river, we arrived in Bratang around 3:30pm to find that all the apple trees had been removed and a new orchard was in the process of being planted. It was a complete construction site. When we arrived at the one teahouse in the village, we learned that it was being used to house the support staff for over 100 workers and there was no room for 3 trekkers. We were exhausted after our biggest day yet and the guy we were speaking with told us we could make it to the next village. I honestly don’t know if I could have made it to the next village before dark, it was another 6km away and 390 m higher. We pled our case with the guy, who later turned out to be the son of the project owner, and after 15 minutes of suspense agreed to put us up for the night. What a relief! He informed us that we would have to stay in the “Staff Room” where the workers crowd in and watch TV at night. We had our dhal bhaat dinner with everyone else and set up our beds on the floor in the corner. The workers lit the pot belly stove and watched their TV. I tried to read my book but the smoke from the fire burned my eyes so it was easy just to close them and fall asleep. It was a real cultural experience that I will not soon forget.
Start: Bratang (2850m)
Finish: Ngawal (3680m)
Distance: 17 km
Time: 9.0 hrs
We just wanted to hit the trail in the morning and get out of the workers’ hair so we left at 6:45am with no tea or breakfast. It was a cold and windy morning but we were soon in the protection of the forest. We quickly found ourselves under Swargadwari Danda (or Heaven’s Hill); a giant bowl shaped mountain which the local Buddhists believe must be climbed to reach heaven after death. We arrived in Pokhari Dhikur around 8:00am and were definitely ready for some breakfast. I had eggs and garlic potatoes while we basked in the sun. After breakfast, we started across a flat plain with more alpine scrub than trees. We crossed the river and started what we knew would be a grueling 400m climb up to Ghyaru. We were rewarded with amazing views of Annapurna II, III, and IV when we arrived at the village. Ghyaru is an old village set on a steep remote mountainside with remarkable stone work that had a medieval feel to it. We made lunch at the edge of the village at 1:00pm and decided (once again) to push on in spite of our aching muscles. We arrived in Ngawal around 4:00pm and settled at the Peaceful Resthouse.
Start: Ngawal (3680m)
Finish: Manang (3540m)
Distance: 10 km
Time: 3.0 hrs
Hanna, Johnny, and I knew we had a shorter day ahead of us so we slept in a little. We started our descent from Ngawal around 9:00am and passed the villages of Munchi and Bhraga. We arrived in Manang, the administration centre and largest village in the area, around noon. We felt a little sense of accomplishment as we walked into the village as all signs up to here had pointed to Manang and we knew we’d be taking a rest day. We checked into the Tilicho Hotel which was much larger than the small teahouses we had been staying in. We learned that Tilicho Lake (a 2 day side trek to the highest lake in the world) was still closed after the huge snow event that had happened about 25 days prior. It was a bit disappointing as the 3 of us had planned to visit the lake but the good news was that the Thorong La pass was open. I got some laundry done and had a nice hot shower (both well needed) then visited the town museum. We treated ourselves to a yak steak and a Gorkha beer. After dinner, we went to the “cinema” and watched Into Thin Air; a movie/documentary about the 1996 Everest climbing disaster.
The next morning, I tried sea-buckthorn juice with breakfast from berries picked along the Marshyangdi River. We checked in at the ACAP office and got an update on the pass. The 3 of us decided to climb up to Praken Gompa, a Buddhist temple at 3900m. While on holiday, rest is a relative word for me. There were great views from the top and it was a good acclimation walk for the low oxygen levels that we would see in the days to come. I guess a 90 year old monk lived in the Gompa until only a few years back.
Start: Manang (3540m)
Finish: Churi Ledar (4200m)
Distance: 10 km
Time: 5.5 hrs
Although I could likely have done without the rest day in terms of altitude acclimation it was sure nice to rest the muscles. That said, it felt really good to be back on the trail. We left Manang around 8:30am and had a new joiner to the fellowship. Luis had attempted to cross the pass 4 days back but played it safe and turned back for a number of reasons. He had renewed his vigor and was ready to try again. It was a steep climb out of Manang but turned into a steadier gradient after Gunsang. We stopped for lunch and spotted some Himalayan blue sheep grazing on the slope above us and had some vultures fly directly over our heads. The trees had completely given way to grass and low lying juniper bushes and the effects of the previous storm were now very apparent. The trail was mostly covered in snow and was very muddy where it wasn’t. We had great views of Annapurna III and Gangapurna behind us with the Chulu peaks on Gungang Himal to the west. We arrived in Churi Ledar around 2:00 pm, ate some garlic soup, and tried to dry out the boots. That night, we met 2 Swedes in the teahouse, Mans and Jacob, who joined us for some dinner and cards.
Start: Churi Ledar (4200m)
Finish: High Camp (4850m)
Distance: 7 km
Time: 4.5 hrs
We had another late start as we knew it would not take all day to reach High Camp. At these elevations your body takes longer to get the oxygen it needs to power you up the hill so you are just not moving all that fast. We hit the trail at 9:00am and soon crossed the river into a landslide area. I had to dodge a few rocks that were bouncing down the slope which got the adrenalin pumping. We reached Thorong Phedi at 4450m at 11:30am and had lunch in the sun with a few others we had met over the last few days. Some clouds began to blow in so at 12:30pm we thought we’d better get headed for High Camp. We climbed straight up and arrived an hour and a half later. It was a steep climb through mostly snow and it started snowing around 2:00pm. We had a snack, prepared for the next morning, rested, played Shithead, had a nice dinner, and were asleep by 8:30pm.
Start: High Camp (4850m) to Thorong La Pass (5416m)
Finish: Muktinath (3800m)
Distance: 14 km
Time: 4.5 hrs
The alarm went off at 4:30am and I got the room packed up. I could see the head torches of the trekkers coming up from Thorong Phedi in the darkness. They too would be headed over the pass today. I met the group and had a hearty breakfast. We set out at 5:30am just as the sky was beginning to lighten. We walked the 4km and gained 566m passing nice peaks and crossed a huge moraine to reach the pass at 8:00am. It was a tough go but we powered through. It really started to snow and blow as we reached the pass so we did not spend a great deal of time there other than to get some group photos. It was soon a full blizzard but luckily the wind was at our backs. The path down is difficult to follow so they have installed long, black pylons to give you some guidance. The further we descended, the icier it got. Some spots were so bad that I nearly went off the path and in some spots people just gave up and slid on their butts. We reached the settlement of Charabu at 4230m around 11:30am and by this time the wind had died down and the snow was heavy and wet. We had a rest and a snack before continuing on. We reached Mukinath at 2:00pm and everyone was exhausted. We checked into the Bob Marley Hotel, had an overdue shower, and a rest to warm up. That night we had huge dinner and huddled around the gas heater to keep warm while playing cards. I’m sure I was asleep before 8:00pm.
Start: Mukinath (3800m)
Finish: Jomsom (2720m)
Distance: 19 km
Time: 7.0 hrs
I knew today would be my last day on the trail so I wanted to make the most of it by putting in a few extra kilometres and pay a visit to the picturesque village of Kagbeni before heading to Jomsom. The rest of the gang would be continuing on the trail past Jomsom the next day so they opted for the most direct route to conserve their energy. I said my goodbyes to the fellowship especially Hanna and Johnny who had adopted me for the last 9 days and were great trekking partners. I was back on the trail by 8:30am and the views were incredible. The storm had passed, the sky was blue, and the ground was covered in a fresh layer of snow. I had to back track a little and passed the temple which is sacred for both Hindu and Buddhists and is an important pilgrimage site for many Indians. I was able to look back up to the pass to see where I had descended in the blizzard the day before. I passed through the quiet Tibetan style village of Chongur and continued to Jhong with its castle on the hill above town. After some time the road straightened out and I descended along a long dry road. To the north of the road lies the remote area of Upper Mustang where the Tibetan way of life prevails and entry requires a more restricted permit. I reached the former stronghold of Kagbeni that once controlled the trade in the Kali Gandaki Valley around 12:30pm. After checking out the fortified centre I followed the river downstream walking along the glacial till flats. I was lucky to see about 6 Himalayan vultures on the river bank not far from the trail (they’re huge!). I reached the outskirts of Jomsom around 3:15pm but it was still a good walk to reach the other side of town where the airport is located. I booked a flight with Tara Airlines leaving for the city of Pokhara the next morning. I found a hotel overlooking the tiny airport and settled in for the night after a big day.
I was a little sad to be hanging up the boots after my 11 days on the Annapurna Circuit. I had walked 140 km and had the aches and blisters to prove it. The kindness of the Nepalese people, who rely on subsistence farming and animal husbandry, and their willingness to share their limited resources, is astounding. The views were amazing and it is clear that, up here, the mountains rule above all else.
On Wednesday, April 1st, the day greeted me with views of the Nilgiri Himal as I watched the morning planes arrive. I packed my bag, had breakfast, and walked across the street to the airport. I boarded an 18-seater Dornier DO 228 turbo-prop and we took off down the runway which ends in a precipitous cliff. The short flight was probably the most scenic I’ve ever taken. I was sure to sit on the left side of the plane to catch the views of Annapurna I at 8,091m (world’s tenth highest mountain) and Mount Machhapuchchhre that I would have seen on the trail had I continued past Jomsom. We flew over Phewa Lake and touched down at the airport. Back down to Earth at 890m the air was warm and pleasant. There were a bunch of ultralights landing as well. Not one to quit now, I chose to walk into town, instead of taking a taxi, to find the Lakeside District. After an hour or so, I found a nice hotel and got a room with a view of the lake. I had a massage at the hotel and the therapist could barely touch my calves they were so sore. I had some chicken momos (dumplings) for lunch and watched people go by. I went for a walk along the lake and back to the hotel along the strip but that was enough for me.
The next day, I had thought I would be up for one of the many adventure sports offered in Pokhara like mountain biking, ultralights, paragliding, etc., but in the end I just wanted to relax. I took a rowboat out on the lake for an hour and went for another massage. I laid in the grass that afternoon and read my book. I reserved my bus ticket to Kathmandu for the next morning as I was hoping to be meeting Rebecca there.
On Friday morning, I found out that Becca was not able to catch the flight. I hopped on the coach bus and I was off to Kathmandu. The bus arrived around 3:00pm and I walked to the hotel. I had stashed a pair of jeans and a button up shirt there so it was nice to have those back. That evening, I went to the shopping district on New Road and found a nice sports jacket to wear on my business class flight home. It was then a short walk to Durbar Square where I strolled around until the sun went down.
April 4th was my last day in Kathmandu and it was relatively quiet. I had a lazy breakfast and did some shopping in the Thamel area. I was then off to the airport in my ensemble that included a jacket, hiking boots, and a backpack.
Sorry for such a long blog, but I really enjoyed the trek (in case you couldn’t tell). Nepal is a great country and I would like to go back one day. It has been hard to see the destruction and loss of life caused by the severe earthquake that hit just 3 weeks after I departed. The images of the avalanche at Everest Base Camp hit close to home for me as well. Nepal is surely not the place that deserves to be dealt a card like that.