After a frantic day in Pokhara interviewing guides, obtaining permits, attempting and failing to book buses and purchasing yet more warm clothing and Snickers bars, we were finally ready, excited and raring to get going on our 14 day Annapurna Circuit trek. The only thing left to do was pack. Trek kit was easy – more the problem was squeezing everything we were leaving behind into just one backpack – we* have gathered a lot of crap during our 7 months on the road!
Being such a well-trodden route we had decided to forgo hiring a guide and instead bought a good guidebook and arranged a porter to carry our main backpack for us.
We met our porter PK in the morning and then drove 4 hours from Pokhara to Besi Sehar, the start of the trail. From here there is the possibility of cutting the trek short by getting shared-jeeps to villages deeper in the valley. We chose to walk! The first two days were low and fairly flat, following the river through small villages and farmland, banana plantations and palm trees, crossing streams and rickety suspension bridges. We smugly got well ahead of schedule and stayed in lovely little guesthouses with good food and extremely narrow beds!
The scenery started to change as we began to get a little higher today, but not before we spied a group of monkeys in the treetops! There are baby goats everywhere – much to my joy. Although this is peak season the trail does not feel crowded and we start to see the same faces again and again. Panting our way up steep stone steps we bumped into Sarah who we first met a few weeks ago amidst the madness of Kuala Lumpur airport, of all places. At the top of said stone steps we were given freshly picked oranges by an old lady, a welcome refreshment! We’d made good friends with some rowdy Italians; sadly one of their lot lost a money belt, perhaps stolen from a lodge, and had to return to Pokhara cutting his trek short. Poor guy – we really felt for him.
It started to get cold as we got higher, especially at night. We were now over 3500m and broken sleep makes for tired bodies and heavy legs first thing in the morning, and for the first time we found the day’s walk a struggle. Each tea house has a regulated menu to keep prices fair in the villages but it does mean there is little variation. We’ve settled into a carb-heavy routine of muesli, potatoes and dal bhat (rice, lentil soup and curry with free refills!) locally known as “24 hour power”, alongside copious pots of sweet milky tea. The prices rose steadily as we gained altitude and the vegetable dishes start lacking in vegetables – cabbage and potatoes are the staples.
Still deep in the valley, zig-zagging back and forth across the river to avoid areas affected by landslides, we were now working our way through vast pine forests and had our first views of towering snow-capped mountains. We saw more than a few crazy people mountain-biking the trail, surely they couldn’t be doing the full loop including the Thorung La pass?! On day 6 we passed through the tiny settlement of Humde which centres around an ‘airport’: 1 flight a week, if the weather allows.
On reaching Manang at the end of the day we are tired and glad of a day’s rest and acclimatisation.
The tea houses provided thick blankets at this altitude, however we were still very glad of our new “North Fake” warm layers. Manang is a large village that has fully cashed in on being most itineraries’ recommended acclimatisation stop – accommodation here is sightly more polished and there are lots of tempting bakeries, shops and even real coffee. Stef went into indulgence mode and enjoyed beer, meat and cinnamon rolls for the first time in a week.
In the name of acclimatisation we hiked for a few hours up to a stunning viewpoint, past a large turquoise lake fed by a glacier. At the top we had a tea with PK, a quiet guy but we are gradually getting to know a bit more about him and sharing a few laughs. He’s been great at giving advice and teaching us about the trek as we go. Having seen some of the 30kg+ loads other porters are carrying – on their heads – I’m sure he feels he’s got a pretty good deal too.
To entertain bored trekkers Manang has thrown together a ‘cinema’ a projector in an underground cowshed with Yak hide blankets on the benches. From the choice of various mountain disaster movies available (seriously) we chose ‘Into The Wild’, a pleasant way to kill a few hours and worth the money for the electric heater alone!
Leaving Manang the scenery is more Tibetan in feel: sparse, rocky and dominated by the Annapurna range. Although the river was still thundering below the streams and waterfalls were mostly frozen over. The air was crisp and clear, and we spotted blue sheep and huge vultures circling above. Perhaps waiting for tired Trekkers to falter…
As we climbed higher the villages become smaller and more infrequent, with less accommodation to pick from. Arriving at Yak the main lodge was full so we force d to stay in a shed. Bloody freezing. The dining room had a small fire and it was huddling here, choking on acrid smoke (burning Yak poo I suspect) that we met a nice group of French travellers that we would come to see again and again over the next few days.
Not wanting to be stuck in the same situation again we were on the trail at 7 in the morning to get to the Thorung High Camp in good time. At 4500m now we were feeling the altitude; the climbs were orders of magnitude harder and hindered by slight headaches and nausea.
The hour from Thorung Pedi base camp to High Camp nearly finished me off – a steep, never ending scree slope with an icy wind howling down. We reached the lodge by 10.30am and already the rooms were filling up with trekkers attempting the Thorung La pass tomorrow.
Being finished so early in the day there was a lot of time to kill and so we napped, played cards, wrote, read and consumed gallons of tea. Throughout the day more familiar faces turned up and the dining rooms were transformed into dorm rooms to deal with the demand. Snow had started falling shortly after we had arrived and didn’t stop all night, there were snow drifts in our room, and even the water in our containers froze. As we slide into our sleeping bags wearing all of our clothes and a hat, we tried not to think about the fact it was around -15 outside. Despite the bitter cold it felt quite magical being in this remote snow-covered landscape.
Awake at 4am and the snow was now a few feet deep. Not ideal. The plan was still to cross Thorung La pass regardless of the snow, who knows what the weather might do tomorrow? High Camp offers a little shelter but it’s not somewhere to linger. We try and force down some muesli and tea and discover our head torches have stopped working due to the cold – useful when navigating a mountain in the darkness! We lent PK another pair of trousers and extra socks to try and save his trainer-clad feet from the very real possibility of frostbite.
It was a slow shuffle up the pass, with all groups joining together for safety reasons. We hoped that the guy in the lead knew the way as in these conditions all markers and flags were hidden! As dawn broke the stars disappeared and the surrounding mountains were illuminated in orange. Hair frozen, water frozen, beard frozen, it was a long 3-4 hours and a seemingly endless slog in -10 degrees but we finally reached the highest point of the trek, marked by a tea house (of course!) and fluttering prayer flags. A 5416m this is the highest we have been! Not quite as physically strenuous as our mountain climb in Bolivia (5300m) but still bloody hard work.
A few moments to catch our breath, congratulate each other and take pictures before we were encouraged to start making our way down with a sense of urgency. The slope on the other side of the pass is ridiculously steep and extremely exposed. It’s also the reason we started so early, as the winds pick up during the course of the morning and by the afternoon it can be very dangerous. I was glad it was blanketed in snow, as it served to both cushion our joints and hide the precarious path! In just over two hours we dropped (skidded) over a thousand metres to 4200m and enjoyed a well-deserved lunch. From here we could see the mountain bikers coasting down the mountain side, a well earned treat for them after lugging their bikes up and over the pass on their shoulders for the previous 4 hours.
We stumbled into Muktinath a while later and relaxed with a hot shower and the comforting knowledge that the hardest part was over.
Originally we had planned to spend the next two days continuing with the circuit to Jomsom, but having heard that this section of the trail was unfortunately now a bit of a dusty and boring trek due to the encroachment of the road, we hopped on a bus. The ‘road’ starts in Muktinath and with time, perseverance and nerves of steel it’s possible to eventually get all the way back to Pokhara. After piecing together our own seats using pieces of foam and metal lying on the floor, on a bus which was definitely not built for the terrain it now travels, we crammed in with the locals and spent 5 hours bouncing and descending along the rocky, sheer-sided winding ‘road’.
Stef and I have different coping strategies for journeys like this. He sits there observing the situation, calculating all possible escape routes and survival techniques; I grip his hand, close my eyes and picture the newspaper headlines.
Finally we made it to Ghasa, a quiet little village in the Mustang region of the Himalayas, alive albeit fresh new bruises and numb legs. A quick wander through the village before dining on some delicious freshly made soup in front of bad soaps and “India’s got Talent”. It was here we heard the news that there is a 10 day countrywide strike planned in protest of the upcoming election. For us this means that there will be no transport available to get us out of the Annapurna area. Not much we can do so we stick with our current plan.
Our day’s walk was an easy 10 miles in hot sunshine through the valley, past waterfalls and farmland not unlike the area we started the trek. So easy in fact that we finished by lunchtime and settled in Tatopani: an idyllic flower-covered village with hot springs. Back in shorts and flip flops it’s amazing how quickly the climate has changed.
Aside from the gorgeous location the hot springs looked quite grimy and covered in laundry so we decided to forgo cleanliness once again and give those a miss.
Our lodge here was beautiful, it served homemade cakes and we had an attached bathroom for the first time, with a flush toilet!! No hot water but a fantastic view of Dhaulagiri mountain from our window, the 8th highest in the world.
We resigned ourselves to spending a few days in the village as news spread that the 10 day strike was still going ahead and there were no buses running. Not too much of a hardship and unlike other people we were talking to, with no flights booked we had time on our hands. We even talked over the idea of hiking back towards Pokhara (about another 7 days) but our biggest problem was cash – we were days away from an ATM.
At breakfast PK quietly tells us that he has arranged for a private jeep to get us to Pokhara, of course for an inflated price. It’s not extortionate and the alternative is to spend at least a few more days stranded in this tiny place as the backlog of trekkers builds, then fight for a place on a bus when they eventually start running.
After a hidden exchange of cash, and agreeing a cover story about a flight home from Kathmandu tonight, we sneak past the large groups of hopeful tourists hanging round the bus park and cram into what turns out to be the only car in the village!
I cannot begin to imagine how the buses manage this road – it was worse than any we’d endured so far…and we are in a 4WD! Yet 4 hours, several road blocks and police stops later we rolled into Pokhara, baked in dust, gagging for a shower but grinning from ear to ear.