Into thin air: the Annapurna Circuit

Even though most people think of the sky-scraping Mt. Everest whenever Nepal is mentioned, there are a lot of other destinations this country has to offer.

The Annapurna Circuit is touted as one of the world’s best places to trek and boasts a string of respectable titles, like the World’s Highest Lake, the World’s Deepest Gorge, the World’s Longest Pass, and the World’s Highest Pass Without Needing Mountaineering Equipment.

It was really Xiker’s dream. I had to google it just to learn about it.

“How long is the trail? 210 km? And the pass is 5,416 meters? How high is that in Americanese? Oh, whoa… 17,769 feet? You want me to hike that high? And you want me to walk, like, 130 miles? For 18 days?”

I was doubtful. I needed to look at pictures just to reassure myself that it would be worth the experience.

They did, they convinced me to become almost excited.

Now, there were occasions where I struggled and questioned grumpily ‘the whole point’ of the trek, but at the end of each day I was saying, “that wasn’t so bad, and man, the views were worth it. Did you see…?”

7th ranked Mt. Dhaulagiri from Ghorepani
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(click on photos to enlarge)

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The following is a summary of our trek.

All times are approximate by 10 minutes (more or less). Kilometers and height calculations are according to an outdated scale map, and definitely does not take into account the true total of trail length, including switchbacks and additional ups and downs and numerous side trips to the toilet.

I really believe the map I have just calculates the kilometers as the crow flies, so for me the stats don’t always really represent the miles we actually walked or the ascensions/descents we made that day… but because I don’t have one of those fancy watches that record everything like steps walked and how many ‘water breaks’ I needed, I’ll have to make do.

We embarked on our journey on March 23, 2013.

Intended to start hiking after lunch. Instead our day was a series of buses from Pokhara to Dumre to Besi Sahar to Bhulbhule. (Lesson learned. Do homework before getting to the bus stand to find you’ve missed the direct bus by a few minutes).

Day 1: Bhulbhule to Ngadi
90m up, 45 minutes, 5 km.

Once we were signed in at the checkpoint in Bhulbhule around 3:30, we decided to walk on to the next town just to loosen up after a long day in cramped buses. It was only 45 minutes by road to Ngadi, and we stayed at the riverfront Sore Back Hotel, though it was much too early in the trek to be naming lodges like such.

Day 2: Ngadi to Chamche
500m ascended, 6 1/2 hours, 16 km.

Kickstarted our first day with a 380m climb to Bahundanda, and we took a 15 minute water break and photo op at a tiny hilltop temple. Also took the time to acknowledge we might have packed slightly too heavy for comfort. Passed our future trek buddy, Youri of Belgium, around here.

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In between high hills, we followed the Marsyangdi river past small homes and scrubby terraces, all either prosperous green, parched yellow or brown and barren. Stopped for dal bhaat in Ghermu around 11:45. Had tea in Jagat around 3, then took the old trail up to Chamche in a light drizzling rain. Stopped for the night, at the Super Rainbow View Guesthouse, which had a nice view of a waterfall on the other side of the river. Scored two bamboo walking poles, one for each of us!

Day 3: Chamche to Danaqyu
870m ascended, 5 1/2 hours, 15 km.

Began our day at 8 am, up a rocky slope to the picturesque town of Tal. Mountain peeking over the horizon.

The town is still hidden in the shadow of the hill
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Shortly after leaving Tal, it was mostly road to Karte. After lunch, back onto the dusty road all the way to Danaqyu. Youri and Pete of the UK kept us company from lunch til bedtime.

Scenery becoming increasingly impressive, though it was disappointing to walk along the road most of the day–or when on the trail on the other side, seeing the road carve cut a ugly scar on the hills.

Day 4: Danaqyu to Dhukur Pokhari.
760m up, 7 hours, 25 km

Today turned into a marathon we didn’t plan on.

Climbed a steep hill to Timang, but the rest of the day was easygoing and scenic. Strolled through pretty farm villages and snowcapped peaks were dipping in and out of view. Xiker bought himself a kickass bamboo pole, thick, strong and true, and still green, for 50 rupees. (He didn’t stop raving about the stick about all day thereafter.)

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Thanchowk
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We reached Chame much earlier than predicted and agreed to meet Youri (who had stopped for lunch) in Bhratang to stay the night. But once there, we decided we didn’t like the isolated location nor the surly lodge owner and kept going another hour half to Dhukur Pokhari. Didn’t regret that decision, as the mountains literally towered over us, for the first time on the trek so far, and clouds chose not to make an appearance today. Slept in a brand new lodge, with fresh-smelling blankets. Quite possibly the first people to sleep under them!

On the road to Dhukur Pokhari
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Day 5: Dhukur Pokhari to Humde.
Ascended 610 m to Gharyu, then descended 370m from there to Humde.
7 hours, 13 km.

Woke up to orange rays on the snowy peak of Annapurna 2 but it was a frigid morning with a layer of frost everywhere. Took our time before starting the day. Turned out to be a brutal day for me, since we took the Upper Pisang route– the Lower Pisang route is a long, flat stretch on the road all the way to Humde.

Reached the intriguing village of Upper Pisang by 9:45 and wandered among the stone walls of the settlement a bit before continuing the trek. Then it was a 470m climb, up a steep slope to Gharyu, with at least 500 dirt switchbacks. Complained bitterly, and must thank Xiker for his unending patience and support. I was utterly certain this face in the mountain was sneering at me for being so weak. Mind did not win over matter, this day.

see how he seems to be looking down his nose at me, eyebrow raised?
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The upper route was as scenic as advertised, though, and definitely worth the effort. Arrived at the picture-perfect Ngawal by 2:50, an easy walk after the morning’s killer climb. Would’ve been nice to overnight there, but I had a slight headache, so we descended to Humde just to be safe (the headache disappeared upon descending).

Gharyu on her lofty perch
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Another shot of the valley
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Tea house stop 20 minutes before reaching Ngawal
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Day 6: Humde to Bhraga
Up 120m, 1 1/2 hours, 7km

An easy day for me, though not so for Xiker and Youri. We walked 2 hours to Bhraga and secured rooms at the New Yak Hotel. I was feeling out of sorts and felt the all-too-familiar urgent need to stay by the toilet, so the boys went on up to the Ice Lake, a half-day’s trek away. It was 1,150 meters up the trail to Ice lake at 4600m. 4 hours up, 2 hours down.

Hiking high above Manang and Bhraga
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Ice lakes excite Belgians, apparently
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I caught up on sleep and rehydrated as much as possible, and took a walk around the hills of Bhraga. Beautiful, beautiful valley. The village seemed bleak, but after sitting around a while, I saw it come to life. Xiker came back with tales of calf-deep snow and obscured views and I was glad I didn’t make the trek up to Ice Lake after seeing the very few pictures he took. The three of us agreed to drop our plans of going to Tilicho Tal (world’s highest lake) based on the fact that we just weren’t equipped to deal with hiking in snow.

The humble abodes of Bhraga
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Dusted with freshly fallen snow
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Day 7: Bhraga and Manang

Acclimatization day. Slept in, had delicious pastries for breakfast at 100rs each.

Walked up to Praken Gompa, a hour’s climb above Manang, just to ascend/descend. Youri explained that it was better for the body (and brain) to go high then sleep at a lower altitude, and would help with the acclimatization process.

Delicious fried macaroni and Yak soup for lunch. Started snowing at 3pm and didn’t stop for the rest of the night. Disappointed we weren’t going up to the world’s highest lake, but secretly glad because it meant 3 less days of cold weather for me.

View from Praken Gompa. Looking left
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and right
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all together, now!
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Day 8: Bhraga to Yak Kharka
600 m ascended, 4 hrs, 11 km.

Bought gloves and gaiters in Manang to help stave off the cold if necessary, and went on to Yak Kharka. A mellow slope, slow and gentle, with beautiful views of Gangapurna. Kharka means pasture in Nepali, but it was still a surprise to see plenty of yak grazing the knolls below the mountains. Also spotted musk deer and horned mountain goats. Since it took only three hours, we had the afternoon off. Went for a walk up above the town in the fading afternoon light.

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Oppa Gangapurna style!

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DAY 9: Yak Kharka to Thorong Phedi.
400m up from YK to TP, then TP to High Camp 383m up, then back down to TP. 2 hours 45 minutes, 7 km.

A much shorter walk than I’d expected. Passed a lot of people and wondered where they all came from: saw less than 20 people on the trail up til now! Xik’s sharp eyes spied several different wild animals grazing on the mountains, though the land is sparse save for sharp shrubs. Ascended with Youri to High Camp just to acclimatize, then huddled around a space heater for the rest of the evening. Xiker’s first time ever playing Jenga. Tonight is also the first night we had to pay for lodgings: Rs 100!

The first leg of the today’s walk, on a trodden path in the snow
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The path ahead to Thorong Phedi.
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Day 10: Thorong Phedi to Muktinath
Up 966 meters over the Thorong-La Pass, then down 1,656m to Muktinath. 8 1/2 hours, 16 km.

It was a long, arduous climb into thin air (though not physically grueling) and just 5 minutes after I plopped down on a drift of snow to complain we’d never get there, we were there.

Started walking at 5:30 am, and reached the tea house at the finish line before 10. Paced carefully on a narrow trail of packed snow, negotiating around scores of other Thorong-La trekkers. Xiker stayed close in front and held out the water bottle every time I caught up to him, puffing hard. He was also the photographer of the day, as I muttered that I had to concentrate on getting over the damn pass.

see how tiny those trekkers are?
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My mantra for the day was borrowed from a character in the Game of Thrones series. I repeated, with each step, Hodor. Hodor. Hodor. Hodor.
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When we got to the end of the crossing, I had to ask repeatedly, where’s the sign, where’s the sign? The emblematic congratulatory sign was buried under the snow and only the first three lines were exposed. But there it was, 5,416mtrs, in small letters. Good enough! Celebrated with a zillion camera shots, until our fingers got cold and we stuffed them back into gloves.

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Youri, Toby and Jenny, were our trekking buddies for much of the way, and we were happy to share the zenith with them.
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a panorama from the top, looking eastward into the morning sun
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I was elated but was already feeling the effects of a slight headache. Going downhill was hard, slogging through snow (the gaiters helped a lot, and the gore-tex sneaks kept my toes dry) and then eventually mud… I think I would prefer going downhill in snow than a steep rocky slope, but mud is the worst of the three.

After about an hour, my head started throbbing so we stopped to rest a bit. Youri stuck around and helped administer water (our bottles were empty–we didn’t refill as we should’ve!) and half a diamox.
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After soup at Charabu, I felt much better and we continued down on to Muktinath.

Drowned in a hot shower. Scarfed down a huge plate of delicious, cheesy pasta while Xiker had his usual dal bhaat. Yummy apple pie (more like apple empanada but no less delicious) to celebrate, and a beer with Youri.

Day 11: Muktinath to Kagbeni
Descended 960m, 5 hrs, approx 15 km walked?

Said goodbye to Youri, as he intended to catch a plane in Jomsom. Went off the tourist map a bit today, following our whims rather than the map. Local footpath trails crisscross everywhere and we knew what general direction we wanted to head toward. Wandered through farmlands, through Jhong, and through a very small part of the Upper Mustang region, which is much more arid than the trek we’ve been walking so far. Eventually made it to Kagbeni, walking against high winds that blew us a step sideways a few times.

Kagbeni became one of our favorite towns on the route, despite the high number of trekker lodges (also the beginning for the Upper Mustang trek route). Had lunch at Yac Donalds — yak cheeseburger (with yak cheese), fries and yummy seabuckthorn juice. Our most expensive meal in Nepal so far.

From the monastery of Jhong
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Mountain range towering over Muktinath
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The Upper Mustang region
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Day 12: Kagbeni to Jomsom
80m, 2 hours, 9km

View from Kagbeni towards Jomsom
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Our walk was cut short, because the wind started blowing around 9:45 and by the time we’d finished our early lunch of fried chow mein in Jomsom, there was a storm looming and the winds were practically gale-force (or so it felt like). I point blank refused to continue on, and we ended up staying in Jomsom. Started raining shortly after we checked in, so it was a good decision after all (though Xiker may disagree). Got a yummy, relatively cheap dinner at the same noodle shop and stocked up on cookies.

Day 13: Jomsom to Larjung
Up 120m to Thini, from there down 290m to Larjung. 7 hrs, more than 17 km.

Discussed whether to take the scenic alternate route, though it’d mean an extra day or two, or take the road. In the end, common sense prevailed. Alternate route it was, and well worth the extra time (note to self: avoid riverbeds no matter how convenient it may seem). Passed by small river settlements and walked into the pine forests. Called it a day in Larjung and tackled some smelly laundry before climbing a hill to watch a local archery competition.

Just after leaving Thini
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A house in Lete
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tiny footpath carved into stone, after Ghasa
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Day 14: Larjung to Kopchepani
Down 930m, 6 hrs, 17 km.

The riverbed at Larjung
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Densely wooded walk down from the mountains through green hills and pine forests today, a lot of ups and downs and towards the end of the day, lots of stairs. Clouds came early, curling over the mountains, and it became overcast shortly after leaving Lete, a few drops came down as we were having lunch in Ghasa. Rain brought us to a heel in Kopchepani, and we bedded down in the worst lodge of the trip so far (though it was the better of the only two options in the town).

The town just before Kochepani
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Day 15: Kopchepani to Tatopani
Down 430m, 3 hours, 9 km

The morning was fragrant and its tantalizing scent had us looking for the source. It was a huge surprise to see it was growing wild, like a weed, along the trail.
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Didn’t deter us from our goal, though, and we reached sunny Tatopani in a few short hours. Spent the afternoon relaxing in our breezy spider-infested room (they were freakishly large) and paid a visit to the “natural hot springs”. (A visit better saved for the winter trekkers)

Day 16: Tatopani to Ghorepani
Ascended 1,670m, 6 hours, 17 km.

Prepared ourselves for one of the hardest days of the trek, figuring the ascension rate, and I certainly didn’t think we’d reach Ghorepani. But though we sweat buckets, we quaffed a lot of h2o and made steady progress throughout the humid day. The many flights of stairs were taxing but they may or may not have been better than dirt switchbacks up a steep incline.

The farm terraces were growing all kinds of vegetables and the hills were lush and green, but it became increasingly hazy and by the time we stopped for lunch in Chitre everything was obscured except the hills closest to us. We pressed on for the final leg, up through a forest of pink and red rhododendron trees. The settlement of Ghorepani is nestled prettily in the midst of the valentine sea, but the town center is blue sheet-metal, almost all tourist lodge and bakeries and nothing else. Thorong Phedi prices.

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Day 17: Ghorepani to Naya Pul to Pokhara
333m up to Poon Hill, then descended a whopping 2,163m from there to Birethani. Up 45m to Naya Pul and hopped onto a bus bound for Pokhara.
5 1/2 hours walking. 16km.

Left our backpacks in the lodge and merged into the human traffic going up to Poon Hill– it seems the sunrise pilgrimage has become a very popular activity for people who just have a few days and want to do outdoorsy things like you’re supposed to when you’re in Nepal. Nevertheless, we positioned ourselves in the watchtower and took a zillion experimental pictures of the lightening sky and emerging sun (as you’re supposed to when you’ve been hoisting a d5100 for the entire trek).

Alas, it was hazy and the sun’s caresses of the Dhaulagiri range was dulled by a film of dust. The silhouette of the Annapurna range seemed blunted, but the technicolor skies were amazing all the same.

Annapurnas Two and South, and MacchaPuchhre (if I’m not mistaken…)
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That’s seventh-ranked Dhaulagiri hovering around Xik’s head, y’all
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After heading back down to the lodge, we ate heartily before starting our final descent of the trek. The first hour and half was an earthy walk through the colorful flower forest, which seemed even more ethereal in the early morning light.
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I was waiting for the drop, I’d read about how grueling it was. And my, what a plummet it was.

The stairs were endless, no less than 3,000 stairs all nicely organized into one long staircase. After the first hour, you’d be surprised how difficult and tiring it gets. The slippery stones are worn smooth and the steps are never even. Often its a long way down to the next step and when you are carrying a heavy backpack with 2 liters of water, it becomes onerous. Legs turn into jelly. I just kept telling myself: at least I’m not going up. (There were a lot of poor souls with slick, red faces going the other way as we stumbled down the stairs).

Thought a lot about how the steps were made– someone had to carry the stones, position them and build it. Were people commissioned by the ACAP (etc) to build the steps, or did community members band together to improve the neighborhood?

Eventually, somehow, we got ourselves to Tikedhunga without falling and breaking our necks. Soon after leaving the town, the trail turned onto the road and we ended the trek as we started it, by walking on a dusty dirt road all the way to Naya Pul. Got our permit and TIMS stamped and that was the official end of the Circuit.

Our adventures didn’t stop there, though.

We hopped on the first bus going our way and though for a few minutes we were sitting in the aisle, it quickly turned into a ‘standing-room only’ zone. You can’t see, but sitting right behind me there were two girls throwing up into plastic bags…
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Two hours to Pokhara, and then we walked another 30 minutes to the hotel where we’d left our luggage. We were astonished at how much stuff we’d left behind and lamented at how much heavier our backpacks were going to be from now on.

Later in the evening, while stalking Lakeside street for bakery confectionaries, we randomly ran into Youri and joined him for dinner… and then I spotted Toby and Jenny on the street, from the restaurant, and they came up to join us for drinks as well.

It was a good way to wrap up the final day of our 17 day odyssey through the Himalayas. Fell asleep under a princess-like curtain of pink mosquito netting, and dreamed of the mountains.

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