We just returned from trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, climbing 140 km up and over one of the highest trekking passes, 5416 m above the world.
This will be a long post, and in two parts, so settle in. Get a cup of coffee or tea, and we’ll tell you what’s happened in the last several weeks.
On April 9th we left Tibet, crossing the Friendship Bridge into Nepal. Although we promised to post before we left on our trek, electricity and the internet here is very spotty. Rolling brown-outs (AKA “load-shedding”) are frequent and the internet is painfully slow. If it works at all. In Kathmandu, it’s normal to be without power for sixteen hours a day. So there was no blog posting for us.
Instead, we spent our first few days in Nepal preparing for our trek in the Annapurna region. There was some urgency to get on the road because they say weather can change a lot between April and May and we were not planning to start the three-week trek until mid-April. We didn’t want to climb all the way up there to see only the heat haze of summer.
Although Scott is a sort of outdoorsy type and has been known to do a bit of hiking/wilderness camping in BC, Karen is not known for her love of the outdoors. To Karen, “camping” is a fine B&B in an out-of-the-way (but still modern, comfortable, and convenient) picturesque town. Think Prince Edward County. But since our dear friends Lex and Li did this same trek several years ago, and told us several times that it was so “easy” it could be done in running shoes, we decided to do the trek on our own without a guide, carrying all our own crap up the mountain. No porter (someone to carry some or all of your stuff). Oh, there’ll be so much more on this topic later…
We arrived in Pokhara, from Kathmandu, on April 11th. We spent two nights at the Hotel Nepalaya in Thamel (Kathmandu) thanks to a great recommendation from Rob Steele, a trekking enthusiast from the UK who has a great website. In doing our research on Nepal, we came across Rob’s site and a guide named Nirmal. Nirmal is a trekking guide in Kathmandu. He helped us book a room at the Nepalaya for a cheaper rate than the web rate, he booked bus tickets and helped us get our permits for our trek. We even had the good fortune to actually meet Rob who just happened to be at Nirmal’s office the day we arrived. He had just returned from his own trek and wouldn’t be coming back to Nepal for another two years. Its not often that you read a well-known travel blogger’s website and then actually get to meet them. He was very helpful to with tips and suggestions on where to buy reliable gear. We’ll list all the websites for guides, hotels, etc at the end of the blog – in case you want to come to Nepal.
In Pokhara we stayed at the Sacred Valley Inn. Another gem and one that was recommended by a friend of Scott’s mother’s named Juliette. She’s a veteran Nepal traveler and suggested we go to Holiday Trekking to rent our sleeping bags and pick up some trekking supplies from her friend Mahendra.
We were set. Reality began to dawn on Karen. We would be carrying all our own stuff, in the wilderness, for weeks on end. Someone said it’s very cold the higher up you trek. Karen hates the cold. But in for a penny, we were now in for a pound… So we caught the local bus to a small village called Besi Sahar, a cramped and bumpy four hours away from Pokhara. This is the start of the famous Annapurna Circuit.
On the bus, we met yet another super nice Dutch traveler. His name was Freek (pronounced “Frayk,” not freak). He would be our trekking companion for the first few days.
The three of us got off the bus at Besi Sahar, had a quick bite to eat then headed up to our first stop for the night, in the village of Nadi. We ran into a man walking to Nadi who also happened to own a lodge. He asked if we would take a look at his place first. We said sure. It’s called Sky High Lodge. He and his wife and kids were fantastic. Very warm and friendly, and the food was great. It was our first night. The hips and shoulders and feet were sore from the mere three-hour hike in the sun along a dusty road. The tarp-roofed accommodation was little more than a tent (and a favourite hang out for bats). By now, Karen was super impressed by all of this. And that was before she saw the washing area: a little hose with a trickle of water running out of it from the nearby river. Ah, nature. But we slept well, had a coffee first thing at 6:00 AM, said goodbye to our hosts and started off on Day 2.
Our second day was hard. Carrying your own pack seems like such a great idea in theory. But adding 12 – 15 kilos to your already out of shape body, then hauling it and yourself up into the hills over rocks, streams, muddy fields, etc gets tiring very quickly.
Plus, our very young, and very long-legged Dutch friend was about six times faster than we were. He would be several kms ahead, then just wait patiently for us to catch up. We liked his company, but felt badly that we were holding him back. We thought he was fast, but this was Freek at a compromised pace. As we started out on day one from thebus, he told us he had broken his toe the day before. Uh, huh. He was six times faster than we were, with a broken toe… We were that slow.
But we were doing very long days. If it weren’t for Freek, we probably would have cut out after a couple of hours and just slept in the nearest cafe. But with Freek leading us on, we went several hours. It helped to know that at the end of each day, our bodies were getting stronger and stronger. At least, that’s what we told ourselves… At the end of day two, we made it to Jagat. And stayed at a place called the North Face at the recommendation of a guide named Purna that Freek had met when he did the Lantang trek a couple of weeks earlier. Purna was great. He made good recommendations for us to stay along the way, and gave us great advice. We really appreciated it. You see, the unspoken rule for accommodations on the “AC” (Annapurna Circuit for those “in the know”) is that you must eat at that guest house you stay in so long as you are in town. This is because the price to stay at a guest house is around 200 to 300 rupees a night for two people (about 2 or 3 dollars). The only way the family makes any money is if you eat at their establishment too. Therefore, picking a place with good food is critical. Especially after a long day of trekking…. all you want to do is eat. Then sleep.
At the North Face, we met two Newfoundlanders named Brian and Paul. They were freakishly funny. And crazy. The vast majority of trekkers doing the AC go counter-clockwise over Thorung La pass because you’re able to acclimatize easier, it’s a shorter climb over the pass in this direction, and a shorter day. Not these guys. They went from Muktinath to Throrung Phedi over the pass the steep way. It took them 13 hours, starting at 3:50 AM. And they saw a Korean trekker die in Manang from altitude sickness (and stubbornness, it would seem, because for two days his guide had been warning him to descend). As Brian and Paul put it, they’re writing songs about them all along the Annapurna Circuit. Two crazy 50-year old men from Newfoundland who went the wrong way over the top. Drunk.
Needless to say, their stories of caution and death along the trek made an impression on everyone. “Don’t be stupid – if your body shows signs of altitude sickness don’t push forward” and “Drink lots of water – you can take all the Diamox you want but fluid is the best way to acclimatize.” Over the course of our trek, we thought a lot about Paul and Brian. News about the dead Korean trekker touched everyone on the mountain. Trekking at high altitude is exciting and beautiful, but it’s also serious and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Day 3. At breakfast, after a couple of hours of hiking, we strongly encouraged Freek to continue ahead on his own. We think he was ready to leave us behind. He wanted to be in Manang in two days. At our pace, we were a week away from Manang. So we parted on great terms, hugged and went the same way at very different rates. After 5 minutes, there was no trace of him. We were then on our own.
We arrived in Tal for a late lunch. We bumped into Purna again who said Freek had gone by several hours earlier. Man, he was steaming along! Purna recommended we stay in a little lodge just before Danyku. We never made it. We were so tired on this, our third day, that we decided to stop in Dharapani and call it a day. A nine hour day. What we would do is go to the Royal Mountain Lodge outside of Danyku the next morning and stay there for a night. It would be a steep 90-minute hike then down for the rest of Day 4. We’d take a zero day.
Turned out to be a great idea. The Royal Mountain Lodge was in the middle of nowhere, with views of the mountains. Very quiet and the food was great. One of the best places on the whole trek. We had a good day of rest, refreshed in time for a great Day 5. Scott got a sore throat the day before we left Pokhara for the trek, and by now he had a full-blown cold and cough. So he very much needed a rest.
Day 5. It started out fine, then Karen’s Achilles heel began to hurt and get worse as we climbed, turning black and blue, and swelling up like a plugged garden hose. It was also a steep climb which made everything worse. We slowed right down and eventually made our way to Chame. By this time we were beginning to fantasize about hiring a porter to carry our stuff. The reality of this climb was beginning to set in. We asked how much a porter would cost but the problem was that to hire a porter from a guest house along the way would mean that your porter would have no medical insurance. Hiring a porter or a guide from one of the agencies in Kathmandu or Pokhara meant that – in theory – he’d be experienced at altitude and he’d have insurance in case he got injured. There are many pluses to hiring a guide/porter – they know where they’re going, for one – and they can provide historical/cultural context. But there are also down sides too – you may need to stay in guesthouses where they have connections, you will likely be on their time schedule, unable to take extra days of rest whenever you feel like it. I’m sure you can negotiate anything, but porters and guides have families too and they are not on vacation. They need to know when you plan to end your trek so that they can make other plans. We thought about it, and decided to give it another go without the help.
We stayed in Chame for two nights to give Karen’s leg a rest and to give Scott more time to recover from his cough. God, we sound old and out of shape… Wait, we are old and out of shape. Especially here where it seems the average age is 20.
In Chame, we were also able to pay some bills and send an email to the family telling them where we were and that it would be some time before they heard from us again.
So with Day 6 a rest day, we resumed our climb on Day 7. Good news that Karen’s leg was feeling much better. And Scott’s cold was on the mend. It wasn’t a bad day at all.
The highlight of this day was a perfectly clear view of Paungda Danda. This incredible granite wall rises 1500 m straight up. For the local Nepalese, Paungda Danda must be climbed by the dead in order to reach the afterlife. The place takes your breath away. Our photos suffer the fate of almost all photos of these magnificent mountains. The view through the lens is distorted and flattened so what you miss is the sheer scale of things in person. Paungda Danda appears quite suddenly as you come up and around a steep forested climb. Suddenly, there it is. Awesome. It’s not difficult to imagine the souls of the dead climbing over the top to whatever afterlife awaits them.
We made it to a peculiar place called Lower Pisang, staying at a lodge that looked like it came from the set of Deadwood. It was made from plywood, with walls so thin you could hear people breathing in the rooms upstairs. Tape was placed on the ceiling to stop sawdust from tumbling down on your head at night.
Bad choice. In fact, everything in Lower Pisang seemed kind of broken. We went to a local place that boasted internet. The two girls who ran the place made a big show of flipping switches and restarting things over and over again before stating, “Satellite not working.” They explained that the local microwave tower for cellular service, “got cut” (not sure how a tower gets cut, but it was clear that something serious had happened to it). It appears that after the cell tower “repair” the satellite service stopped working.
What to do? We just chatted with them for a while then asked where the local safe drinking water station was? Most villages along the Annapurna Circuit from Tal to Ghasa now have ozonated water stations installed by the New Zealand government to stop the pollution of empty water bottles. Lower Pisang is one of the villages listed as having a station.
“Oh, it burned down.”
“Oh my god! We hope no one was hurt?”
“[Laughing] One person died. House next door burn, too [Still laughing].”
Speechless, we thanked them and moved on. We needed to get out of Lower Pisang. The place is cursed.
Day 8. After a ridiculously loud night of breathing and snoring and whispering among our neighbours, we skipped breakfast and made for Upper Pisang where we had a lovely breakfast.
Then we made for the high route that would take us to Nawal where we could sleep at 3600 m. The day was tough, starting with an impossibly steep climb up switch backs to a medieval village called Ghyaru. There we stopped for tea at a lodge run by a Tibetan woman who was keenly interested in the blessings we had on our packs. We had got them from a monk at Drepung Monastery in Tibet. She was impressed and took out the charms she had around her neck that she had got on her last trip to Lhasa many years ago. After chatting to her about Tibet, we thanked her for the welcome lemon tea and started on our way along a high and precipitous ridge in bleak, dreary weather to Nawal, our home for the night. We were very tired.
As we climbed and climbed, we couldn’t help but think about all our friends who would just love this trek. Glenn was on our mind almost every day. We know he’d love this place. And we knew Ania and Irek would just love this adventure. Karen also thought much about Linda (a former co-worker) who has wanted to do this hike for some time. But most of all, we thought about Lex and Li, as they had done this trek several years ago. It is no wonder they got engaged somewhere along this route (at the top maybe?) because if your relationship is not already very strong, it will be by the time it’s over. Or it’ll be in ruins. You need to rely on each other closely, and the magnificent mountains and breathtaking views are overwhelming and romantic. As always, the photos do not do it justice.
Day 9 we awoke to a very cold but spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. After breakfast we descended back into the valley and made our way to Manang. About 20 minutes before Manang is a lovely village called Brakha. We stopped for lunch and liked it so much we decided to stay for two nights. The place was called the New Yak Hotel. How awesome.
The weather turned suddenly and it snowed for two days. We began to worry about conditions over Thorong La pass. The pass that was creeping ever closer as we climbed higher and higher. The only source of heat at New Yak was in the dining room and kitchen, a stove around which the family and travelers would sit and talk about the day and the weather. We spent our second night there, we talked late into the night with porters, members of the family who owned the hotel, a dutch woman and a crew of Nepalese architects who were in the area to work on restoring the village at the base of the 600 year old gompa we went to see the next day. It was a very enjoyable evening. We all joked around. Scott was at his best, making everyone laugh. Even with language barriers he’s super funny.
Next day – Day 10 – we spent exploring the 600 year-old gompa (small monastery) in the village up the hill from the New Yak. Across the valley at the foot of Annapurna III, is also a small cave where the Tibetan saint Milarepa meditated. While in Tibet, we saw Thankas and statues of Milarepa’s story everywhere. So it was a surprise to come across this place while trekking.
We were going to climb up to the cave for a closer look, but a local villager explained that when he was a boy he could climb right up to the cave. Because of glacial melting, things had shifted a lot and now the cave had moved up the mountain (as permanent ice had melted) to the point where it was inaccessible. You could see it, still, but you can’t get to it. So monks had built a second cave nearer to a small gompa. We decided if we couldn’t see the original cave, it wasn’t worth the 3-hour vertical climb to get there.
Day 11 we resumed our climb. We went through Manang and made it to Yak Karkha. A very small lodging place a few hours climb from Thorung Phedi, our last rest stop before the pass. We were beginning to feel the altitude. On the way to Yak Karkha, things started getting a lot harder. You breathe heavily and your heart pounds away despite little physical effort. All of which is normal according to everything we read. And our experience in Tibet had taught us that drinking 3 or more litres of water per day was key to acclimatization. So we took to ordering 2-litre vacuum pots of hot water and taking them to our room at night. The hot water kept us warm in the unheated rooms, and it kept us hydrated constantly. It’s hard to imagine how cold you can get here. There’s no heat. The high winds blast through windows and even the walls, at night. You feel constantly chilled. We stopped showering after Braka and just went dirty after that. The thought of a cold or luke warm solar shower was enough to keep your clothes on. All of them. In fact we slept in our clothes, inside our sleeping bags, with big wool blankets on top of that. And we still froze.
The other thing we started to notice was people turning back before the pass and returning down the mountain. They were feeling sick and giving up. A times, Karen thought enviously of those people. If only she could feel a little more sick, then we could turn back. But we were now closer to the other side than we were to Besi Sahar, and we felt pretty good given we were hiking at over 4000 m. So we kept at it.
Day 12. We climbed a hard day all the way to Thorung Phedi. At 4500 m., Thorung Phedi is the penultimate stop before the high pass. It’s possible to sleep a night one stop higher at High Camp, but everyone told us it’s miserable, so almost everyone stays at Thorung Phedi.
So far, for the entire way up, we were almost always alone. We’d see the occasional trekkers, maybe even see one or two in the lodge where we rested, but we ran into relatively few people. Until now. Thorung Phedi was crowded! Dozens of trekkers waiting to go over the pass. It was like an aprés ski party at Whistler. Yuck. We ate an early dinner, spending our time with one of the porters who was helping an unpleasant group of young Israeli women. He was a lovely man, though he was fed up with his charges. They were rude and cheap. Young, culturally insensitive and oblivious. Throughout this trek we were reminded that as a tourist, the only real value you have is to spread money and goodwill around as much as possible. The whole trek only exists for foreigner visitors. Nepal is a poor country with some of the kindest, loveliest people you will ever meet. Unlike anywhere else we have traveled, if you spend time to talk with locals, you will see they treat you like family. Always smiling. Always helpful. Why be cheap here? If your budget is so tight you can’t spread around money, you probably can’t afford to be here in the first place. Stay home or head to the crappy resorts of Thailand. The cost of everything here is so low. So add some value and spend money. And spend we did. We ate tons of food where ever we went. And we made a real effort to stay at one place and buy supplies at another to try and spread the money around. As is also true everywhere, warm smiles go a long, long way.
We are grateful to the kind porter. We had planned to stay another day in Thorung Phedi to rest up for the big climb. He said there had been some nasty days up here lately. Tomorrow, he said, would be a clear day without much snow on the ground over the pass. He told us we should go for it. The weather can change too easily, and if there’s a good day, you take it. So we heeded his advice, and started on our Day 13 at 5:15 AM.
It would be a very, very long day.
To be continued….. 🙂
Read Part II here: Our Trans-Himalayan Trek, Part II: “Haven’t I been brave enough, already?”