The Annapurna Circuit - Hello Himalayas

Trip Start Dec 04, 2006
Trip End Aug 05, 2007

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Nathan here: Yes, we survived our trek. Apologies in advance for what will be, no doubt, a long entry but we've had an incredible time completing the Annapurna Circuit. So here's the "not so abbreviated" story..

Having easily found a guide, porter and key pieces of trekking equipment, we set out from Kathmandu to Besisahar by local bus. There are a number of starting points for the Ciruit but this is perhaps the main one. Not to be disappointed, the bus ride was quite the experience. Now our faithful readers will know that Tara and I have avoided local buses like the plague. Unfortunately, there was no other option in this case. The bus was old, dirty, rickety and packed. It stopped every few hundred meters to see if pedestrians were interested in a "standing room only" ticket for the 6+ hour journey so our ride took a long time. We were further delayed because a significant portion of the road had fallen away into a valley so the two lanes were reduced to one and, as you can imagine, there was no order in terms of who had the right of way. In a word "crazy." And to top it all off, the driver persisted in blasting Indian pop music at a volume well well beyond the capacity of the speakers that were located right above our heads. Even with my trusty earplugs - never leave home without them - the sound was only brought down to a level that would still be considered much too loud. Wait for the video when we return.

Nonetheless, we arrived, dropped our bags at an extremely simple guest house, had dinner and then went to bed. Rather than a day by day breakdown of the trek, I thought I'd highlight a few of the main points. For those interested, a more detailed intinerary , including distances walked and altitude gained, is copied at the end of this entry.

The walking portion of our trek lasted 18 days, during which time we covered nearly 240 kilometers. We started most days with breakfast at either 6h or 6h30am (or earlier) and, depending on the day, were able to finish between Noon and 2pm allowing time for rest periods etc. We usually ate dinner early and crashed mosty nights by 8pm due to our exhaustion.

Tara here. The trek takes you through dozens of villages, all of which offer basic lodging and food. There are people of Tibetan as well as Nepali origin and all of them farm to some degree both to feed themselves and to make a bit of money. This makes for very scenic trails, where we walked past terraced valleys, water buffalo and mountain goats. Consequently, most of the food available to us is food that is grown locally. Essentially there are about 5 main ingedients (e.g., potatoes, flat bread, soup, pasta and rice). The Nepali are a clever people and they turn these 5 ingredients into a standard 5-page menu though. Sounds like there's choice, but not especially.

There is no meat except canned tuna (carried up by donkeys) so we ate veg. the whole time. We often found ourselves wondering if there was any difference between a cheese-bean enchilada, a cheese-bean burrito or lasagna - but I digress. Quite impressive considerig the remoteness of the villages.

There is running water in most places and electricity about 50% of the time on average. Everything that is not grown has to be carried up the hill by either a donkey or a porter. We passed endless donkey trains (dozens of donkeys laiden with heavy loads) or porters (small men in poor shoes carrying way too much weight with their heads). Considering all this, the selection is fairly good. You can almost always find a snickers bar that is not expired - and Nathan had no trouble finding his coke.

Nathan again. The weather was generally sunny and warm. We were able to walk in a t-shirt for the first five days but, once we passed 3000 meters, we were forced to add layers. The coldest day was clearly when we crossed the pass. I didn't have a thermometer but I would guess that the temperature was below zero by a few degress given the amount of snow on the ground. The climb to 3000 meters took five days. We had been told that at this altitude it was possible to notice some of the ill affects of Acute Mountain sickness (AMS). Mild symptoms can include headache, loss of apetite, fatigue, nausea, etc. When we reached Manang (3547M), we spent two nights to let our bodies adapt to the reduced amount of oxygen. At this altitude, you have approximately 67% of the oxygen you would have at sea level so it was not difficult to get out of breath. Walking up a flight of stairs quickly would be enough to get the breathing going.

From here on in, once we reached our destination for the day, we would drop our bags and hike up a further 300-400 meters and then descend to sleep. The addage "trek high, sleep low" is held dear here as this approach is followed by folks who try to climb the bigger mountains. Fortunately we didn't suffer too much. Tara had a severe headache the first night in Manang but popped a Diamox pill (to assist the body's ability to acclimatize) and felt better the next day. After that she had no problems at all.

On day 10 we headed for the pass. For those that don't know, a pass is a trail that allows you to cross between two peaks. On this day, we got up at 3h in the morning, had breakfast at 3h30 ad began hiking at 4h with our headlamps. For those interested, this pass is higher than any point in all of Europe and higher than all the mountains in Canada except one. So, safe to say that it's high. To my surprise, it's also as high as the base camp at Everest. The initial climb was a little nasty but we had done it the day before to acclimatize so we knew what to expect. We met up with friends at 5h and kept at it until we finally reached the summit of the pass at 5416M. The final few hundred meters, while not overly steep, were quite challenging as I felt quite dehyrdrated. It became a question of taking 4-5 steps, resting, taking another 4-5 steps, resting, etc, etc. Of course, our guide and porter had no issues at all. In fact, our porter raced ahead to the pass, dropped our bag and descended to us and offered to take our day bags. Nope, at that point it became a matter of pride for both Tara and I so we held onto them.

Reaching the pass was phenomenal though as several of our friends were there to share in the celebration. We hiked up a further 40+ meters to place a prayer flag and snap additional pics. Because we left so early, we arrived at the pass before the wind was a factor, The weather was perfect - sunny, warm and clear. We shared an expensive pot of tea with our friends before heading to the other side.

Tara here. Following the pass we descended over 1.5 km to a town called Muktinah. The descent was quite challenging as it was steep and the trail consisted of very loose rock. We ended up spending two days here which was a bit of a mistake as Nathan got sick on the food - dodgy noodle soup - and the altitude prevented us from getting good sleep. But by the next day of descending we got down to where it was green again and the choice in food grew exponentially.

Nathan here: After crossing the pass, we were both keen to keep moving toward Pokhara. Up to this point, we hadn't suffered anything too serious other than sore ankles. However, in Marpha, Tara decided she would give herself a pedicure to ease some of the pain in her feet. Perhaps not a bad idea, but not a great one given the quality of her tools and the fact that we still had siginificant distance to travel in order to finish. The result? A really good slice off of her left toe about 4 cms long and 1.5 cms wide. It took about an hour to get the bleeding to stop and she was quite upset about it but it looked much worse than it turned out to be as she walked 26km the next day with my flip flop on her left foot and a hiking boot on her right. In the rain.

Tara here: Following the long walk in a flip-flop we arrived in Tatopani, a lovely town known for its natural hotsprings. They sure felt nice - and my foot had healed enough to make the plunge. Tatopani presented us with an option: the trail splits at this point - you can go 1.7 km uphill making for a very long day (16km) of walking, or, you can take a very short (several kms) flat route back to the road ending the trek on an easy note.

At this point my body, specifically my legs, was telling me "hey, you've done good, take the flat way - you deserve it." Nathan's body was apparently telling him the opposite: "No, really, I want more climbing. 5449 metres is not enough for me!" Well, you win some and you lose some. I lost this one so up the hill we went.

The main draw for the uphill route was yet another good view of the whole Annapurna mountain range from a high point at sunrise. Needless to say Nathan got up at 4h for the sunrise and the further 300 metre climb up to view it - I stayed in bed and viewed the sunrise from the comfort of my sleeping bag and large window. I was done. Or at least my legs were. Nevertheless, the next day we hiked another 18km - downhill thank God - including over 3500 steps down, to finish the trek. An accomplishment to say the least. We were smelly and sore, but many pounds lighter and feeling happy for accomplishing what we had - almost 240 km of walking - most of it "not so flat" (to quote our Nepali guide).

Now we sit in Pokhara - a lovely town that travellers come to rest their weary muscles following grueling treks. It is much quieter than Kathmandu and set on a lake and we have met up with friends and are enjoying the high quality food including pizza with mozzarella cheese (not the yak cheese found on the trek, or "yuk" cheese as Nathan calls it). We are staying in a simple hotel and the weather has been really nice. Cows and water buffalo wander the roads with the hippies. We rented a boat with friends and paddled out into the middle of the lake to have a picnic yesterday; it was very relaxing. They rented a boat about 10 days ago in Pokhara and while they were out on the lake they encountered Richard Gere doing the same. Apparently he has caused some scandal in India and is in Nepal currently. Alas, we did not see Richard Gere - but I was on the look out.

Tomorrow we are off to Kathmandu - and we'll have more adventures to tell you about I'm sure.

A few notes on the Nepali people - especially those that live in the more remote regions: They are such a hard working people. It was all I could do to drag myself around the Annapurna circuit and porters went by me daily carrying huge loads up hills with no problems. Also, many of them speak English so well. It is unbelievable that we can be in a remote village and there are plenty of people who speak English. The Nepalis are very friendly - most, including the kids, would yell out "Namaste" - Nepali for "hello" at us as we huffed and puffed up the hills. Most of our acommodation cost less than $2 a night - and usually included hot water heated in a solar tank (carried up by a donkey) - so very reasonable. The food, while repetitive and often just not that good, was from thoughfully prepared menus and aimed to please travellers. You could almost always get a good french fry :)

Nathan here: so here's my rant for this entry. Nepal is an incredibly poor country. According to the United Nations' 2006 Human Development Report, Nepal ranked 138 out of 177 countries, coming after countries like Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh (note: Canada came 6th). According to UNICEF, a whopping 24% of the country are living on less than one (1) US dollar a day. Our position is that we're unbelievably lucky to be able to visit Nepal. Compared to the average Nepali, we are incredibly wealthy. Because this country is struggling economically (25% of its annual budget comes from foreign aid), it is very inexpensive. The cost of accomodation and food is phenomenally cheap.

Now Tara and I are not looking for places to waste money, but we're quite happy to spend money here because, by doing so, we're making a real and significant difference. I know this to be true because, without us, our guide and porter would have been unemployed for three weeks. In addition, you can see how grateful tea house owners are when you stop and order tea, food, whatever. Where am I going with this? We ran into a significant number of people from one country - which I will not name - who, for the most part, did everything they could to pay as little as possible for everything. It almost seemed like a game to them. Now, to be clear, I'm a firm beliver in bargaining - especially when we're talking significant amounts of money. But when a room is costing you $1-2 USD, I think it's completely and utterly disgraceful to insist on having the room for free or even to ask for a discount in exchange for eating there. I mean, it's a bloody dollar and, as I've demonstrated above, Nepal is a country where every dollar counts. People from this country would even argue with tea house owners over the cost of boiled water ($.50 USD). Often these people brought their own tea bags, presumably to save even more money. I overheard one woman complaining that it was unacceptable that the Nepali charge for boiled water because, according to her, it and the wood used to boil it, "are free." First of all she is wrong. Second, we should expect to pay for both goods and services and third, it's only $.50 freaking cents. Tara and I witnessed first hand how people from this country would antogonize and harass Nepali again and again over prices. We spoke with tourists from other countries and - to a person - everyone had a story to tell. We even spoke to tea house owners, other guides, etc, and people from this country have such a poor reputation in Nepal because they are relentless in bargaining over figures that often amount to less than a dollar. Sure, I guess a dollar a day can add up but Nepal is a poor country. It needs peoples' support.

Note to travellers: When appropriate (e.g., when shopping for an expensive item), bargain fairly and politely for a better price. But when it really doesn't matter (e.g., the costs is so bloody insignificant) pay it and smile. If you're too cheap to pay fair prices for food and accomodation, do Nepal a favour and stay home.

Stay tuned for more pics in the coming days. N&T.

Day 1
Left Besisahar (820 Meters) for Bahudanda (1287 Meters) = 18 Kilometres.

Day 2
Bahudanda for Chamje (1404 Meters) = 15.1 Kilometres (33.1 km total)

Day 3
Chamje to Bagarchap (2102 Meters) = 16.6 Kilometres (49.7 km total)

Day 4
Bagarchap to Chame (2676 Meters) = 13.6 Kilometres (63.3 km total)

Day 5
Chame to Lower Pisang (3211 Meters) = 16.4 Kilometres (79.7 km total)

Day 6
Lower Pisang to Manang (3547 Meters) = 16.0 Kilometres (95.7 km total)

Day 7
Manang, rest day. Hike to glacier (3867 Meters) = 5.0 Kilometres (100.7 km total)

Day 8
Manang to Letdar (4248 Meters) = 15.0 Kilometres (115.7 km total). Hike to 4618M

Day 9
Letdar to Thorung Phedi (4533 Meters) = 7 Kilometres (122.7 km total) Hike to 4845M

Day 10
Thorung Phedi to Muktinah (3687 Meters ) = 13.0 Kilometres (135.7 km total)
- Thorung La Pass (5416 Meters) and Prayer flags (5449 Meters.)

Day 11
Muktinah. Rest Day.

Day 12
Muktinah to Kegbani (2838 Meters) = 9.2 Kilometres (144.9 km total)

Day 13
Kegbani to Marpha (2688 Meters) = 15.5 Kilometres (160.4 km total)

Day 14
Marpha to Ghasa (2015 Meters) = 26.5 Kilometres (186.9 km total)

Day 15
Ghasa to Tatopani (1250 Meters) = 14.7 Kilometres (201.6 km total)

Day 16
Tatopani to Ghorepani (2898 Meters) = 16.2 Kilometers (217.8 km total)

Day 17
Ghorepani to Birenthanti (1032 Meters) = 17.3 Kilometers (235.1 km total)

Day 18
Birenthanti to Nayapul (1066 Meters)
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