Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Trekking Nepals Annapurna Circuit

Since college, I've dreamt of trekking in the Himalayas.  I had seen images of prayer flags with the gorgeous snowy mountain peaks as the backdrop.  Almost 15 years later, those images spurred an amazing adventure for us while here in Nepal!  We decided to do the Annapurna Circuit trek- which offers some of the best views of the Annapurna mountain range.  

Within just a few days of arriving in Kathmandu- we made our way through the city's hectic streets to the permit office where we paid $40 each for our trekking permits (TIMS and ACAP).  If we had known the absolute ease and simplicity of life in lakeside Pokhara- we surely would have waited to get them there.  When applying for the permits, we had to tell the permit coordinator our start date for the trek.  We had no idea and threw out a date two weeks in the future- October 7th.  So then the date was set and permits were given- we were doing it! 

Annapurna Circuit Trek, Nepal

Pokhara lays 6 hours northwest of Kathmandu and is often the start/end point for those trekking in the Annapurnas.  

So, after a week in Kathmandu, we took a bus to Pokhara to start prepping for our trek.  The streets are lined with knock-off brand-name clothing, backpacks, trekking poles and anything else you could want on your trek.  The prices are negotiable and the quality seems decent- but I wouldn't expect the gear to last much longer than your trek.  We picked up a map, pair of trekking poles, a few quick dry shirts and restocked our first aid kit.  While our bags were ready- we weren't quite sure our bodies were ready- so we started doing day hikes in Pokhara to strengthen are legs for all the climbing that we'd be doing. 

One of the many outdoor stores in Pokhara.

There are two fantastic day hikes in walking distance of lakeside Pokhara that we took advantage of before the our trek.

The world Peace Pagoda sits high on the hill on the opposite side Lake Phewa.  You can either take a boat across the lake to the trailhead or you can walk around the lake.  We did both- but I'd recommend taking the boat across and then returning by land (so that you understand where the unmarked road comes out incase you want to go a second time but by land).  Or you could take a taxi almost to the top which would probably be a 20 minute ride up a bumpy dirt road.  The pagoda is well worth the visit!  From there, you can see Lake Phewa, the Pokhara Valley and if it's a clear day- the Annapurnas.

World Peace Pagoda across Lake Phewa from Pokhara.
The nearby Sarangkot mountain summit has unobstructed views of the Pokhara Valley and the Annapurna Range.  Many make an early morning trip (or stay over the night before) to catch the sunrise views as the sun hits the mountains.  Also every day, hundreds of tourists take a 30-minute paraglide from the top down to the lakeside landing point for about $85.  We, being neither early risers nor fans of our feet being off perfectly safe ground decided to hike up to the 1,592 m/5,223 ft summit.  It's a long, steep climb but we really enjoyed the views and meeting the locals as we passed by their homes on the old stone trail.  Plus, lunch at the top was fun as we watched the paragliders take off just below us.  I've read that the taxi takes 45 minutes or so and then it's a 30 minute hike to the top.  However you get there- it's a beautiful way to spend a few hours.

View from the summit of Sarangkot. Photo credit:

Paragliding from Sarangkot. Photo credit:
At 6:30am, our bus departed from Pokhara and took us to Beshishar- which is the start of the trek if going counter-clockwise (highly recommended due to the ability to acclimate slowly before crossing the 5,416 m/17,769 ft Thorong La Pass). 

The Annapurna Circuit trek has been considered one of the best treks in the world.  It encircles the Annapuna Mountains and takes you through several different climate zones, small villages, by hundreds of waterfalls and unforgettable landscape.  One of the many highlights of this trek is that you do not need to be weighted down by pounds of food or camping gear!  This is a "tea house" trek, meaning that there are many lodges and restaurants along the trail.  Other than the day we crossed the pass, there were places to eat at least every 2 hours and often within just a few minutes of one another.  The rooms are cheap- $1-3 a room if you eat at the lodge.  While the room rates stayed about the same, the cost of food steadily increased as we climbed higher in elevation and further from the road system- starting around $2.50 and getting as high as $5 for a meal.  It's best to estimate $20/day so that you have money for lodging, food, snacks and pots of tea to warm you up after a long day. 

The entire circuit is between 17-21 days but because of the number of towns and the ever-developing road system (which now threatens it's ranking as one of the world's best treks) you can make the trip in as short as week if you fly out of Jomsom ($120) or alternatively, you can make it as long as you'd like- as long as you have enough cash with you.  We hiked for 11 days and added a few other days for either resting or acclimatizing at the higher elevations.  

Many trekkers had guides, porters or both.  I think porters cost about $15 a day and carry an astounding amount of weight.  I hope that the payment for the porter goes up based on the weight they're carrying.  The trail is steep, rocky and often muddy- so it's hard enough to traverse safely with the weight of one pack, let alone the weight of several.  If you carry your own bags but want a porter to take your pack(s) over the pass (which is by far the most difficult and longest day)- a porter will cost around $100.  We have never trekked anywhere with porters so quite honestly, it didn't even occur to us to have someone else carry our bags, so we were rather surprised to see how many trekkers used this service.  It's good money for the porters; I've read that the amount of portering once around the circuit is enough to feed their family for several months.  We are by no means setting any records for our physical fitness and we managed just fine with our own packs but I can obviously see the up-side to carrying less weight (like my knees and back probably wouldn't still be sore!)...  So, while I think a porter could be advantageous- I really don't think a guide is needed unless you're going when there's inclimate weather.  The trail is well marked and there are lots of locals or other trekkers who will reroute a misguided trekker.

Red and white trail marker.  If you can read this, you don't need a guide.
Looking for more info on the Annapurna Circuit? My blog doesn't have a lot of the nuts and bolts info- so if you're looking for that, try: and

We covered 164km/102 miles in 11 days of hiking.  I think most days were between 6-7 hours with some longer and some shorter days.  As we got further into the hike, the climbs became steeper and slower, so most of our miles were covered early on in the trek and on our final three days which were downhill or relatively flat.  

After 4 days of hiking 56 km/35 miles and climbing 1,890 m/6,200 ft in elevation, we took a much needed rest day in Chame (mostly because we found wifi there).  Two days of trekking later, we arrived in Manang- where we would acclimate for two days at 3,540 m/11,614 ft.  Since acclimating here is recommended for all trekkers before ascending any higher, Manang is well adapted for the large number of trekkers who stay here.  There are two movie houses (that we went to THREE times) that have a woodstove or gas heater inside.  About halfway through the movie, they serve hot black tea and popcorn.  For $2.50, it was the perfect place to relax and stay warm.  Manang also has several amazingly tasty bakeries to help regain some of the curves that were lost on the hike.  We even found Mexican food there!  

A hillside Gompa in Manang with the Monistary perched high above in the mountains where we received blessings from the Monk. 

There are several days worth of day hikes or multi-day side treks one can do around the area for acclimatizing. The rainstorm kept us indoors on our first day but on the second, we hiked up to the monistary high in the mountain behind Manang.  A monk lives there who gives blessings to trekkers who will cross Thorong La Pass.  She is the daughter of a 97 year old Lama, who gave blessings before her.  The Lama is now ill and has been taken to Kathmandu and she has taken his place.  The trail takes you past the Gompa (pictured above) and then high up into the mountain.  Once reaching the site and catching my breath, I knocked on a small wooden door and said hello (or rather "Namaste") in a volumne that would neither disturb someone resting but would hopefully be heard by someone.  There was no answer, so Nate and I tucked ourselves within the cave that the Monistary was built into in order to get out of the rain.  We figured we would take advantage of the high altitude to better acclimate ourselves.  And then I heard a tarp rustle and ran around to see if someone was there.  She was!  She was up on the roof grabbing firewood.  I greeted her and she waived us in with a huge smile.  The stone and wood timber structure had two very simple rooms.  One seemed to be her living quarters and the other room was the one that she brought us into.  The room low and covered with aging Tibetan Buddhist scrolls and photos of the Dalai Lama.  She sat behind a low table and asked us to sit on the pillows opposite of her.  She asked that I bring my head towards her and she placed a braided string around my neck and said a prayer as she touched my head- of which I only unsderstood 'Thorong La" and then she tied off the string.  After she did the same for Nate, she gave us two steaming cups of tea to warm us up before we made the return down the mountain in the rain (arriving just in time for another movie!).  I didn't take any pictures inside but did take this one from the Monistary of Manang and the surrounding valley.

View of Manang from above.
The following day, the rain finally stopped and we were ready to get moving again.  We chose poorly, because just a couple hours into the trail, the weather turned ugly again.  By the time we stopped for lunch, we were drenched and cold.  While our food was cooking, I ran around town looking for a room.  The weather conditions had people staying put- very few trekkers had left from the night before and as others were arriving, like us, they decided to stay.  Everywhere was sold out.  As I returned for lunch, I saw that our lunch spot had a very basic room- that was available!  

Drying out by the fire while lunch is cooking in Yak Kharka.
The next day, we took our chances on the weather and left Yak Kharka as snow flakes were starting to fall.  Thankfully, the snow stopped as quickly as it started and the weather held.  Unfortunately, as we arrived to the Thorong Phedi base camp- we ran into the same problem.  The two lodges were sold out.  The lodge owner offered us the option to sleep in the dining hall which we readily accepted- although we knew that it would mean less sleep before our most challenging day of crossing the pass. 

Signs at the entrance to Thorong Phedi base camp.
After a warm lunch- we needed to further acclimate so we climbed or rather scrambled up the 400 m/1,312 ft goat trail to High Camp.  It took about an hour without a pack and had me so winded and my heart beating so fast, that I became seriously concerned about altitude sickness.  That night, as we waited for people to clear out of the dining hall- we discussed our options.  We knew that folks would be waking up early in an attempt to reach the pass around sunrise- so we decided that we would wake up early and make it was far as High Camp and have some tea there.  If the altitude was an issue, we could either stay at High Camp or return to Base Camp.  People started waking at 2:45am- yea, I really couldn't believe it.  Snow had started to fall the night before so I was surprised that folks would be going up such a dangerous trail with only their headlamp for light.  Nonetheless, we fell blissfully back to sleep once the room quieted down and then woke up around 6am when the second wave of folks were up and moving.  
My climb to High Camp the following day was much easier the second time.  We went "slowly, slowly" as the locals say- but I didn't need as many breaks as I did the day before and my breathing and heart rate seemed much more controlled.  We still stopped for tea at the top but had already decided to keep going.  At that altitude, every movement is as if you're wading through a rushing river.  My legs felt heavy and sluggish. It was another three hours of a slow shuffle step until we reached the highest point of the pass.  We stayed just long enough to congratulate ourselves, take a few snapshots and then with desperation, get ourselves to a safer elevation.  

The Thorong La Pass at 17,760 feet.

We made it to the top!

Views of the surrounding mountains from the pass.
The trail then became a steep, knee-grinding descent for another four hours- dropping 1,616m/5,302 ft until we reached Muktinath.  I don't think we thought much about food until dropping a couple thousand feet down.  There's no where to eat- as the landscape is a complete desert of loose rock from centuries of avalanches.  But, we had a couple of candy bars- still frozen from the mornings cold weather to tie us over.  

The valley surrounding Muktinath finally appeared from below the threatening clouds and we made our final decent into town- summoning the very last of our energy to drag ourselves into town and find a bed to collapse into.  

Our view as we started to descend towards Muktinath.
We caught a jeep to Jomsom the next day, avoiding the dangerous and horribly dusty road.  The rains caught up with us again in Jomsom.  We had found an amazing place to stay aptly called "Paradise" with the first hot shower we had had in over two weeks and strong wifi.  We stayed for three nights while we waited for the local ATM to get fixed.  We thought about flying out but the airlines only take cash- and we didn't have enough.  We did have enough cash for the bus but thankfully we read about the 15-hour, nail-biting experience other trekkers had and decided against it.  So, we loaded up our bags again and kept walking.  We both loved the walk- the weather cleared and the views were lovely.  The road had less traffic than we had expected.  The only downside was that the winds blow very strong in the area and it's hard to keep your eyes and lungs protected from the dirt.  It's inevitable- all trekkers end up looking like trail bandits.

Attempting to avoid the dust storms.
We trekked for another two days, covering long distances since we were no longer climbing.  Both the road and trail suffer from constant landslides, so we chose the road in hopes that it was safer.  Here's a fresh landslide that we crossed with a bus in the distance encouraging passengers to disembark before the bus attempted to cross.

A recent landslide on the road ahead.
Nate bravely crossing.
The landscape became green and lush again as we descended to lower altitudes- until we reached Tatopani, which reminded me of being in Hawaii.  Just as we approached Tatopani, Nate turned back to tell me something and saw this stunning rainbow shining brightly behind us.  

Rainbow in the final mile of our incredible trek around Annapurna!
From Tatopani, we thought it would be safe to take the bus back to Pokhara.  I will just say that it was the scariest ride of my life.  We should have walked the final two days...


Our first bridge crossing in Besisahar.

We were blessed on our second day of the hike.

Checking the map at a large stand of prayer wheels.

Porter ahead of us on the trail.

Sharing the trail.

We started seeing Tibetan mani stones once reaching Chame.

The Upper Pisang trail passes though many old towns like this one, with rock and lumber construction.

First bridge we crossed when taking the Upper Pisang side trek.

View of Upper Pisang. 

Sunset view from Ghyaru, on the Upper Pisang trail.

Riverside trail coming into Kalopani.

We are heading back to Kathmandu for a few days and then north to the Langtang region for another trek which will take us into a remote Tibetian region of Northern Nepal.

No comments:

Post a Comment