After the Everest basecamp and Gokyo Valley treks we decided to take a break of exactly eight days before going off to the mountains again. After about five days of the city life in Kathmandu we needed another fix of the Himalayas. We took a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal, about 200km west of Kathmandu. We spent a couple of days there getting all gear and snacks, and securing our permits for the trek.
This time it would be the Annapurna circuit. This is one of the most popular treks in the world with about 230km of a combination of mountain trail and road. The construction of the road began in 2009 and has unfortunately taken a bit of the trek’s popularity away. A lot of people opt to do the first 140km from Besisahar at 820m (2,649ft) to Jomson at 2,720m (8,786ft) a few towns down the way from the highest point on the trail, the Thorung La (pass) at 5416m (17,493ft). We wanted to avoid trekking on the road right off the bat so we took an additional bus on the very bumpy road from Besisahar to Ngadi at 890m (2,875ft). If you do the entire trek it can take up to 21 days to complete and if you just go to Jomson it takes about 12 days. From Jomson you can catch a bus or even a plane back to Pokhara. The trail takes you through a variety of beautiful mountain scenery, from lush sub-tropical valleys, farming terraces, to high pine forests and arid and dry valleys with beautiful canyon formations in the Mustang region, often with great views of the high, snow-capped peaks of Manaslu, Langtang Himal, Annapurna I, II, III and IV, Gangapurna, and Dhaulagiri. If you make it to Poon Hill, at the end of the trek, you get views of South Annapurna and Macchupucchre, aka Fishtail Mountain. From Poon Hill you can catch another trail to go to the Annapurna basecamp, aka Annapurna Sanctuary trek.
What makes the Annapurna trail very special and even more interesting than other treks is the cultural aspect of it. During the trek you go through four major regions, the Lamjung and Myagdi at the lower elevations; which are predominantly Hindu and the Manang and Mustang regions; which are predominantly Tibetan Buddhist. The people in the Manang region are Gurung (not Tibetan descent) and the people of Mustang identify themselves with Tibet as the region is both culturally and geographically part of the Tibetan plateau. There are police check points making sure that anyone entering the Upper Mustang region past Tiri, beyond the popular town of Kagbeni, have the necessary $500 permit to enter (for 10 days) this almost undisturbed Tibetan culture area. The people in the Mustang area are highly religious and belong to the Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism; which is represented by stripes of grey, white and red on the Sakya Monasteries.
This trip was a bit cheaper than the Everest basecamp trek. The rooms were usually offered to us for free as long as we ate at least two meals in the guesthouse’s restaurant. There were water stations along the way in different towns where you could fill up one liter bottle with water for 40 rupees (40 cents). You could always buy dal bhat (lentils, rice and curry) for around US$3.50-$5.00 with free refills. Other pasta, fried rice, chowmein and noodle meals were around the same price. The guesthouses usually provided showers, battery charging and wifi for free (if they had it).
Here is a quick summary of each day:
Day 1- After 7.5 hrs of bus travel we arrive to Ngadi and have a nice brunch before beginning our trek. We only make it as far as Bahundanda, about 1.5 hours from Ngadi as the sun starts to set. We stayed in a guesthouse at the top of the mountain with great views of the farming terraces on one side and a beautiful valley with the river running through it on the other. We met two very interesting people, one Dutch man that has been going there for 30 yrs and who is helping the guesthouse owners rebuild their home after it sustained bad damage in the recent earthquake. The other, a French man who has been cycling around the world for ten years and is now starting a one year trip with his wife to cycle together from Nepal to Asia. He was a very interesting man with lots of great stories. If you can read in French, his blog is http://www.rouletabosse.com
Day 2- Now it really feels like we are trekking in rural Nepal and there aren’t many tourists on this trail… We see beautiful scenery of about six or seven canyons, various waterfalls and lots of farmland. Kids greet us with a Namaste putting their hands together in prayer form and we see families of goats, hens, and cows. There are not many yaks in the lower parts of the trail as they are not needed to transport supplies since the road construction began. We arrived in Tal a beautiful place by the river and waterfalls. At night we felt an earthquake and later learned it had registered a 5.1 on the Richter scale. It definitely scared us!
Day 3- The trekking begins to get a bit hard for me as I start to feel the weight on my back. We decided not to hire a porter this time and carry our own backpacks. Mark and I separate at one point and I decide to hike mostly on the road as the ascent feels a bit more gradual than on the steep trail. I continue to meet very interesting travelers on the trek from different countries, Roberto from Peru (who is also traveling around the world) and Tim from Germany. Mark and I reunite in the village of Chame at a cozy little guesthouse by the bridge right at the end of town. From the restaurant we get views of the snowcapped Lamjung Himal mountain. The guesthouse is run by a young family with two little baby girls who keep us entertained all night.
Day 4-We arrive in Upper Pisang where I fall ill with a stomach bacteria (from the food or water?). We meet a very nice couple of Spanish people Ruth and Fermin, a couple of friends also traveling around the world for one year. We quickly become friends.
Day 5- The hike from Upper Pisang to Rumchi kicks my ass as I have to hike with this annoying stomach parasite; which has me going to the bathroom every hour. The trail quickly ascends about 1000m (3300ft) to the village of Ghyaru and continues to go up and down through the next few villages before we reach Rumchi where we end up staying the night. This is a small village right before the popular towns of Bhraga and Manang.
Day 5- We went through the picturesque town of Bhraga and then onward to Manang. I did a day hike to the old Praken Gompa (monastery) for a bit of acclimatization while Mark went to the nearby Milarepa caves. The views of the valley, the town, and the Ganggapurna lake from the top of the mountain were the gompa sits were spectacular!
Day 6- Mark went ahead on the trail early that morning to try to reach the pass a bit quicker so he could save some time to do the Annapurna basecamp trek. I continue the hike with my new friends Ruth and Fermin from Spain. This was one of the best days on the trail. We hiked approximately five miles and ascended around 2,261ft; which I hardly felt at all as Ruth and I talked the whole way there. I could have kept going to the next village but I knew it was important to stay the night in Ledar at 4200m (13,566ft) for acclimatization purposes. Ruth is the happiest, most passionate, amazing soul I have ever met. She gave me so much joy in a few hours that I feel we have been long time friends. We stayed the night at a guesthouse; which later in the evening filled up with some amazing people from Nepal, and other countries. We met a couple of Nepali who were doing the trek (usually you just see foreigners), another Spanish girl Mireia from Barcelona, an Israeli/Latvian guy David, a french man Jean Luc, and an american couple among others. We all became friends quickly and enjoyed the sunset over the peaks, a very nice Nepali meal and even some singing and dancing performed by the local Nepali guesthouse workers. What an amazing and unforgettable day! This is exactly why I travel, to meet others and learn about different cultures! What a Happy Thanksgiving this turned out to be!
Day 7- We had a good long hike to Phedi (foot of the mountain) right before reaching the High Camp. We are now at 4450m (14,374ft) and Ruth begins to feel some altitude sickness. We stopped at a guesthouse for some amazing cinnamon rolls freshly made that morning.
We push on to High Camp at 4925m (15,907ft) where we meet a big group of people, some of our friends from the previous night plus others. We represented about 20 countries in one room. We talked and enjoyed some good Nepali food and pasta dishes by the fire. It was very cold and windy at this altitude and very hard to sleep at night.
Day 8- we got up at 5:30am to get ready to begin our trek up to the Thorung La pass. We begin our hike at 6:45am right after breakfast. It was very cold, windy and the trail was icy. Ruth continued to feel really sick from the altitude so I stayed with her most of the way up until we caught up with Fermin, who then takes over. I have to move forward faster as my feet are freezing! It took us a total of 3 hours and 15 min, a bit long but not too bad considering Ruth’s sickness. I was wearing about half of the clothes I had brought with me so my backpack did not feel as heavy as previous days. Two other friends got really sick and had to rent horses to get them up to the top of the pass. We reached the highest point at 5416m (17,494ft). My bottle of water froze on the way up. The hike down was slow and tedious but beautiful nonetheless with views of some spectacular glaciers. Ruth continued down with Fermin and our friend Mireia was feeling very sick from the altitude as well so I tried to stay near her to make sure she was ok. Thankfully we ran into this amazing couple from Finland who were very well prepared for any kind of mountain mishap, who brought her back to life. We all made it down safely to the village of Muktinath.
Day 9- A bunch of us took a day of rest at the Bob Marley hotel in Muktinath. I made a new friend from the US, Eileen who invited me to join her on a sight-seeing tour of the nearby village of Jharkot and its beautiful Sakya Buddhist gompa.
Day 10- I continue to hike with the Spanish group Mireia, Ruth and Fermin and we are joined by Eileen and Stewart (the English guy Mark and I had met on the EBC) to continue on the circuit route. We take the high trail to the Mustang region. We go through three small and picturesque towns of Chongar, Dzong, and Puthak. Eileen, Stew and I go up a small steep hill to the beautiful old Zakya monastery in Dzong; which overlooks the ancient fort ruins. The red-walled monastery has colorful religious paintings. We get views of the entire valley that we are about to enter as we commence our descent to the village of Kagbeni in the Mustang region.
We hike through very arid land and are greeted by high winds blowing through a small canyon as we descend further into Kagbeni, a beautiful medieval-looking village located in the valley of the Kali Gandaki river.
We are soon greeted by the town protector, a clay male figure with an erect penis; which is said to have been replaced many times as people keep taking it (?!).
We continue down the village’s narrow streets and find a beautiful place situated on a small hill with perfect views of the local gompa’s (monastery) rooftop. We hear the sound of horns coming from the gompa. It is the monks that come out during sunset to play their traditional long horns or trumpets called dungchen. You can’t help but feel spiritual in such a special place where religion permeates the entire region.
Day 11- We wake up to the sound of a drum; which seems to come from inside our own guesthouse, and the monks from the gompa chanting. We move to the dining room for breakfast and we see the women of the house spinning the wall of prayer wheels in the next room. You usually see these outside in the open air for all in the village to spin as they purify their souls. In this case, they are inside the guesthouse. We admire the old thangkas (old paintings of deities) protected behind glass walls. It feels like we are inside a museum, or the remains of a gompa so I ask Tenzing, the owner, if this was in fact a gompa in previous times. He responds with an invitation to see the 300 year-old temple in the next room. What?! a 300 year old temple?! He explains his great great grandpa built it, who was a “like -lama” figure. He opens the lock of an old door and we go into what feels like a cave. It is dark but beautiful, full of old religious Buddhist relics, paintings, boxes with tantras in them (just like you find in monasteries) and a big statue of Buddha. All five of us listen attentively as Tenzing explains about the five sects that make up Tibetan Buddhism and how the top lama in the Sakya sect is allowed to marry and have children, among other interesting facts. Stewart and Tenzing start sharing stories about seeing/meeting the Dalai Lama and I listen with a bit of jealousy as I think that I need to travel more and experience more. How lucky are we to have chosen this guesthouse?!
Ruth and Fermin move ahead to the next town down the circuit and I stay with Eileen and Stewart to go the village of Tiri. This is the last stop in the Upper Mustang region before entering the strictly permitted area. It costs US$500 to get a permit for a 10-day visit. The hike is absolutely gorgeous! We spot the caves or small canyons on the cliffs across the valley. We enter the town and see yaks, goats and dogs everywhere. We hike up to the local gompa and try to find the local medicine man up there but everything is locked up.
In the late afternoon, I hike about 7km on my own to the town of Jomson through high winds down the valley. I meet Ruth and Fermin again in Jomson where we rest for the night before our bus ride to Beni and then Pokhara the following day.
I hate to leave this magnificent trail but I am offered the opportunity to help Ruth and Fermin work on a project at an orphanage near Kathmandu. I can’t refuse…
I will be back to Nepal later to finish this trail and hopefully get a permit to visit the entire Upper Mustang area of Nepal.
People ask me if they should do the Everest basecamp trail or the Annapurna circuit. My response is always: Do both if you can!