Friday, May 18, 2012

20 days of trekking Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary

At Thorong La Pass - 5136m on the Annapurna Circuit

A little bit happy coming down from Annapurna Base Camp - at 4130m

There's something about Nepal - it's the absolute majestic-ness of 7000 and 8000m high soaring mountains, the wonderful blend of hindu and tibetan buddhism, a gentle and curious people in a land still struggling to become a modern nation and something else i can't quite put my finger on.

But what i do know for sure is how drop dead stunning and gorgeous the lush green valleys rising up to snow capped peaks and glaciers are - and that to move through their rocky and stepped trails on your own 2feet, covering hundreds of kilometres and climbing and stepping down thousands of metres over the course of a couple of weeks is something very special.

I'm good at recording little details of my travels (like what i spend every day and how many hours i walked and what altitude i slept at) however a little lazy in summing these up to some interesting figures... But, here's a go...

Annapurna circuit and sanctuary trek/annapurna base camp (ABC)

20 days of on average 7 hours walking a day to cover over 300kms, starting at an altitude of leas than 800 and rising to 5416m, walking on rough trails, snow and rock avalanches, through small villages and pine forests, up and down literally thousands of steps (i counted 2009 up steps that we climbed in 35 min after 9 hours of walking), at times getting caught in hail storms, making literally litres of masala tea to while away the rainy late afternoon, paying up to $5 for a dal bhat (rice, dahl with veg/pickles - Nepal's national dish) when you can find it for $1.50 in the cities, waking up at 4am to head up Throng La pass, relishing early morning starts to be rewarded with sunrises, crisp mountain air and stunning viewsp, spending on average $8 a day on lodging and food at lower elevations, to $15 at higher (everything - food, kerosene, gas has to be walked in), still managing to warm-ish showers the way around, and eating some of the most tasty food in unlikely places.

I started the trek with a roof top bus ride sitting on some dry goods/i don't know after spending a really nice evening wandering around an old hill top called Bandipur. The wrought of tourist vs. Nepali prices is especially so on buses - in fact the bus conductors, if there is an 'agent' around cannot accept a normal fare directly from pay the agent, and then he pays the conductor. For the 250 rupees that i had to pay the agent, my conductor only got 100 rupees.the rest for the agent who travels in the bus a bit then hops off to return to the starting point. Note that this is more for touristic routes, not for a inner city / local bus trip.

But back to the trek, i ended up back in the bus, and was licky to have a really nce conversation and Nepali language lesson from the bus conductor and local kids who were in there. Words like tapaiko nam ke ho ( what's your name), mahdi (up) and etha (my side /this way ) utha ( your side / that way) were to come in very handy!

After a starting walk of 2 or so hours i reached the first check point to signal the start of the Annapurna Conservation Area. There I met Marco, a German guy who had been travelling for close to 2 years around southeast Asia. We walked a couple more hours , and then picked a lodge where we met 2 israeli's, a russian guy, Anton and German girl, Kerstin. What's cool is thar though you start separately, you see the same people as the trek progresses - in fact 10 days later Anton, Kerstin and i walked together before Kerstin and i attacked the annapurna sanctuary/annapurna base camp trek together. Check out her blog and pics on:

The trek progressed gradually up and northwards towards the Annapurna massifs; unfortunately there is a road gradually being built around the circuit but for the most part of the 180kms or so there are foot only trails that wind their way around. The trail here compared to the Annapurna sanctuary /ABC was more gradual with less endless steps, but still challenging. Waterfalls started cropping up more and more and by the 4th day of walking we were getting beautiful vistas and views of the ranges. As it is pre-monsoon season the mornings are glorious and clear but first around 4pm, then 3 and 2 pm as we went up, the rain or snow would come lashing down.

The sunrises usually just after we had set for the day around 6am were stunning - esp the pre dawn light. Up there the pre monsoon dust layer dissappeas so views are stunning if the sky is clear. The sheer scale of the mountains i go on and on about, but these are really phenomenal...and it's not just 1 or 2, but picturesque ranges of these beasts.

Along the circuit (not so much abc) the tibetan gompas and stupas (monasteries and shrines) with their spinning prayer wheels remond you of where you are, as well as the cinversations you have with tibetan refugees who work here. You read about this, but when you meet Sonam in Tatopani, a 24y/o girl working 6am to 9pm every day, who speaks English and many other languages fluently enough to converse, is witty, clever and obviously intelligent, but because she is a refugee has no identity, passport or ability to move, it hits hime. Here i am swannng around the world for over a year, not working, nor supporting a family ... Just 'exeriencing'. Very humbling.

You generally walk the circuit anti-clockwise, to get the most out of the views, and frankly because the descent from the high pass is just a bit painful! (as in relentless downhill throgh a gravel landscape instead of the windy path yhrough snow and glacier rocks), and on the way up we also did a side tripto Tilicho Lake.

At 4630m alitude it's the highest lake in the world, with Lago Titicaca in Peru/Bolivia coming in after xxxx as 3rd. I was lucky to end up trekking with someone who had the same trekking rhythm. If you've ever gone multi-day trekking you'll know it's not aleays easy to be in a group of people with similar speeds, starting imes, eating habits etc. i was lucky , Marco who i met on the first day was a perfect trekking buddy for me and we managed to squeeze about 3 extra days of tougher routes and side trips and still make it around fast ( of course not that fast is an aim but a nice yay i did it kind of feeling). Actually, i was lucky twice as Kerstin and i did the ABC in record time too...though i rather think it was Kerstin who propelled us forward with ideas of hot showers and chocolate cake.

Anyway, back to Tilicho Lake..we had to pass a fair few landslides to get there ( hats off to the porters who with their 40kg loads make it down and around these at times in sandals) and even though we ended up doing the 3 hour walk up in cloud and fog, reaching up to the snowy frozen bit before reaching a frozen lake and having the cloud part momentarily was elating.

2 days later we were rewarded though with our 4.30am ascent up from our camp at 4600 to 5416 Thorong La with perfect weather, and this time the adrenalin and just pure elation ( and perhaps slightly the thin air) was runnng high. Stopping halfway up, after overtaking just a few people:) i nearly ran iver and hugged people as thet came up for a rest. Reaching the pass there was much photo taking, jumping around, yoga poses (for pics) and f course some well deseeved snacking.

After about a hour frolicking around, we startes the relentless descent of 2000m, yes going down 2km in altiude in a couple of hours to reach (after an unfortunate wrong turn/detour) the rather unattractive pilgramage town of Muktinath.

We had heard great thing about a smaller oasis town (it was sort of gravelly, windy moonscape) called Kagbeni, so after the descent pushed on to the **jeep!! (yes the ONLY transport i took) and after waiting about an hur had enough people to make an extremely bumpy ride here. It was actually hilarious...14 people in 1 jeep, i'm butted up against the deadbolted (from the outside) back door, folded over with head in lap as the bumpy ride means my whole body is jumping into the air and into the ceiling (curiously in time to some justin beeber music!) funny funny ow funny!

Kagbeni was a complete gem; an oasis of willow trees; medieval houses in small alleyways, a room with the bells f passing mules and goats to wake you up ( though always starting early means that even now i'm waking up at 530am.), a nice lodge and even better roof top dining area. And it was called YacDonalds!

This half of the circuit is very different and many people take a bus or even fly back to Pokara. There are however trekking trails all well away from the road, and you also miss some beautiful towns like Marpha (apples galore!), Ghasa and many other smaller, now less visited villages.

In the end i'm glad that i walked this and it gave a couple of days of easy downhill walking ( we up and down and up but generally down) to rest before ABC.

The start of loads of up and down, up and down and more up and down!

With Kerstin at the Annapurna Base Camp as the sun came up

Beautiful Chhomrong Cottage

ABC was a completely different trek, now instead of going around the mountains, now we were in them. LOTS of up and down and up, but through pine and bamboo forests, the end of flowering pink and red Rhododendrons, lush green dappled forests, across some glaciers, back in bamboo all the way up to the base camps. We did a couple of mammoth days, one being from Chhomrong up to Machaphchhre Base Camp (most people do in 2 or even 3 days) through hail and rain for the last hour. The next morning we walked the hour up to Annapurna Base Camp for sunrise, which was spectacular with first pink then orange then yellow morning rays lighting up the bowl of mountains which we were in. Machapucche or 'fish tail' is a beautifully shaped cone to Annapurna's big massif (like Ama Dablam to Everest) and the great thing about the rest of the trek was that you were rewarded with views of the mountains all the way back to Pokara.

Local kids clowning around due to being off from school

A milky frappucino after our epic walk!

By this stage, 18 days in, we were both more than ready to head back to city comforts, but the most exhausting day was the last. Due to the bandha/protests, no buses were running so after close to 300kms of walking, and 4 hours that morning of descent, we walked the final 19 kms in just over 4 hours in blazing hot sun back to Pokara.

Oh but what a reward was to be had! Kerstin introduced me to her favourite coffee shops, and before even heading back to the hotel i was drowning delightedly on a perfectly made, coffee punching (first in 4 weeks) frappuchino.

Of course this doesn't eclipse all the other memories, but it was a sweet,chilled and poetic end to the amazing 20 days of trekking the Annapurna region.


  1. Lovely :-)
    I did the Annapurna circuit (a long time ago now!) and it was easily the best, most beautiful place I've ever been. Glad it's still lush. Your adventure sounds awesome!

  2. thanks for sharing Susan :) got to there one day ... see u !

  3. hey ben:) it definitely is still lush! though i think that circuit unfortunatley with the road being built is losing some of its enchantment...but it's just grabbed hold of me nonetheless!

  4. matt:) yes. you NEED to. I know you and Yas would love it!