Trekking the Annapurna Circuit: Week 1 in Himilayan Paradise

After the hectic craziness of our two weeks in India, it was nice to slow down in Pokhara, Nepal, where we spent a slow, relaxing day getting permits and a few supplies–mostly replacing things that I had broken or had confiscated in airports–knives for instance–for our trek.  We also learned that Nepali coffee is very good, and we took advantage of the day to cleanse our palate of two weeks of varying Nescafe nastiness.

On the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 9, after weeks of excited anticipation, we boarded the local bus for the three hour ride to Besi Sahar, the town where our trek would begin.  The bus ride was not nearly as crazy as we had anticipated, although only half of me fit on the bus, and I spent the first hour with my knees protruding from ears until a cramped hammy necessitated my sitting sideways in the aisle for the remainder of the ride.  Still, no chickens climbed aboard, and we have actually enjoyed the busyness of the business of riding the local bus here.

Because it takes most of a day to get to the start of the trek, our actual hike was only about 2 1/2 hours.  The entire trek was on the bumpy dirt road, and we had to dodge the occasional jeep, bus, or tractor.  Still, it was exciting to finally be on the trail, and we got our first view of the mountains, Manaslu Peak, towards the end of the day.  Our day ended when we left the road by crossing the first of many suspension bridges to the village (really just a couple of tea houses) of Bhulbule–no two people pronounce this name the same.

Neither Sarah nor I knew what to expect from the tea houses, and this one–like most of the others–was not the rustic cabin we had envisioned.  Most tea houses were simple concrete or plywood-walled rooms with a couple of single beds.  Down low, most had gas- or solar-heated showers, and a separate dining area.  This one had a western toilet, although most had squat toilets; due to the utter grossness of Western hikers, we actually preferred the squat toilets by the end of the trip.  I would like to go on record in thanking our parents for teaching us that it goes in the bowl and not on the seat, and flushing is not optional.  Good lord!

On a more pleasant, and probably appropriate note, we enjoyed a lovely sunset over the mountains of Himachuli and Manalu Peaks before dining on potato curry, veg spring rolls, and mint tea.  It was a very nice evening.

Day 2 of the trek took us from Bhubule to Ghermu (I am sure you all just nodded to yourselves knowingly and repeated, “Oooh, the town of Ghermu…”).  Most of the day was spent hiking along a quiet trail that climbed beside perfectly terraced rice paddies and through small villages.  We did have to battle a group of small girls who were attempting to blockade the path with a series of knotted t-shirts, but eventually we made it through.  Most kids, if their parents are not around are content to scream, “NAMASTE!  GIVE ME PEN!” as they run by you, but this squad was persistant–even trying to physically block me.

We chose our tea house based soley on their sign that said they had organic coffee, but they ended up having pretty comfortable beds.  At dinner, we made our first two sets of friends–a couple from British Columbia and two young Swedish guys–all of whom had been traveling for a while, so it was fun to share stories.  While we visited, we enjoyed the view of a large waterfall across the river.  The organic coffee?  Nescafe.

Day 3 was a lot tougher than the first 2 days–630 m gain on a very hot, muggy day.  For the most part, we had left the rice paddies behind and were now hiking up and down steep ridges on both sides of the river (khola in Nepali)–every time we crested a hill, we would pass through a small village before descending to the river and crossing a suspension bridge, only to repeat the process on a bigger hill.  We did get many nice views of the numerous cascading waterfalls in the area, and it was nice to be in the trees again for the first time in over a month.  This was also the first day that we really encountered the huge trains of donkeys that carry many of the supplies into the region. Lunch was also a highlight, as we had fresh pumpkin soup and our first momos, potato filled dumplings.

As the afternoon rolled on and the thermometer rose, civilization met nature in the form of dynamite.  This is one of the areas where they are working to extend the road that they hope to build all the way through the circuit, and someone at the top of the hill would have seen the following ascending a particularly steep section:  2 or 3 machine gun toting soldiers, 50 porters with boxes of dynamite strapped to their backs, the two white faces of the Raffs bobbing up and down, 50 more porters with boxes of dynamite strapped to their backs, and 2 to 3 more machine gun toting soldiers.  At one point, the porter in front of Sarah dropped his dynamite, and both he and Sarah held their breath until realizing that they had not been blown to kingdom come.

Our destination for the night, Tal, was the first village that we passed through that had a Tibetan gate at the entrance.  As we would trek further through the eastern section of the circuit, most gates would also include circular Tibetan prayer wheels–you are supposed to always stay to the left of the wheels and spin them clockwise.  We enjoyed the Tibetan feel to these villages.

The next day of our trip was even tougher, and it was the first day that Sarah and I realized that our lack of activity over the past 3 weeks might rise up and bite us in our collective, tired rearend.  Our schedule had us moving 20 km from Tal to a place called Chame, with an elevation gain of 1100 m.  We managed to make most of it.

Our morning was easy enough–the weather was cool and the path mostly flat with a few rolling hills.  We met up with both the Swedes and the Canadians along the trail, but both of them were on faster paces than we were, so we simply exchanged pleasantries (yes, I am capable of exchanging pleasantries from time to time).  Around midmorning, we came to the village of Bagarchap, and being unable to simply pass through a place with a name that so closely resembles Booger Champ, we stopped for lunch–actually there was a WSU sticker on the window, and so I insisted on stopping (believe it or not, we had actually passed a porter who was wearing a Purdue cap only minutes before!).  The food was great, but we sat for almost 2 hours waiting for it, and the weather was getting much colder…momentum killer!

The afternoon was much tougher–stiff and cold, we had to immediately descend most of the elevation that we had gained before struggling back up a neverending staircase and then a steadily climbing hill.  Normally, you get your first mountain views since day 1 along this portion, but today, it had started to rain.  We hiked pretty much all afternoon through the forested hills, clouds, and rain before finally reaching the town of Koto.  By this time, it was around 4:30 (it gets dark around 5:00), and our feet had suddenly been replaced by four angry, barking dogs, so we stopped a half hour short of Chame, and took the first tea house we encountered.

We were the guests of honor, mostly because there were no other guests there…possibly even in the entire village, and we were treated quite well.  The region had lost power for the night, and I will never forget the candlelight games of Uno (is that blue or green…I can’t tell!) that preluded an intimate dinner of veg-egg fried rice and mint tea.

Our fifth day in the region was much better; this was the day when we really entered the mountains!  It began with a bang, literally, as we awoke to what we thought was the sound of animals stomping through towns–actually a 5.0 earthquake was shaking the tea house.

Our first couple of hours were cruisers before we started to ascend, and the weather had returned to its normal splendor.  Because we had stopped short yesterday, we thought that we would probably not see our friends again, but to our surprise, we ran into Tim and Tara, the couple from British Columbia, about the same time as we got our first great mountain view of the day.  As we all hiked together, it was clear that we got along well, and the day flew by with our new friends.

As we climbed higher, the forest ended, and the trail opened up and offered some tremendous rocky views–the most impressive of which was the Paungda Danda, a slabby face that Nepalis believe sprits must ascend on their way to heaven.  As we neared our end point of Pisang, the peaks of Annapurna II, Himalchuli, and several others began to dominate the sky!

Pisang is divided into upper and lower regions, and taking the upper course means that you are committing to a tougher but vastly more scenic route to Manang–the main stopping point for people looking to acclimatize before attempting the main pass.  We opted for Upper Pisang and ended our day’s hike with the steep 20 minute climb up the stone staircases (I was beginning to develop a love-hate relationship with the inventor of the stair) that led to very basic lodges with very awesome views–from the windows in our bare, plywood room, we were treated to an amazing view of Annapurna II directly across the valley!  This was also one of my favorite lodges because the owner, a man who had grown up in Pisang, sat down and talked with us for about an hour before dinner–a great bonus!

The last day of the sort of introductory phase of our trek was the trek up to Manang, which at 3540 m is not only the largest town in the region but also the best place to spend a day or two getting used to the higher elevation before moving up the hill.  This was the most scenic day so far, and it ended up being one of our favorite portions of the entire trip.  The day that began with tremendous views of Annapurna II and III gave way to equally amazing views of several smaller peaks before ending with Gangapurna towering over Manang.  The villages were increasingly more Tibetan in feel, with temples–or ghompas–sitting high on many of the hillsides, in addition to the gates and prayer wheels we had been seeing.  Also, donkey trains were being replaced by yaks, which grazed freely almost everywhere.

 

The lodge in Manang was huge, and yet it filled up–this was in part because tour groups from the Everest region had taken to the Annapurna Circuit because of flooding.  This extra strain on the infrastructure of this region also was leading to higher than normal rates of GI and stomach problems–several groups had been stuck in Manang for a week–so Sarah and I tripled the hand sanitizer frequency…in fact, I would not have been shocked to overhear someone describing us…you know, those two Americans with the HUGE backpacks who are constantly dousing themselves in hand sanitizer like the world is infected…

In addition to Tim and Tara, we were also reunited with the Swedes, Jonatan and Max, in Manang.  The six of us spent our “rest day” in the town before setting off up the hill together the next day.  Two events stuck out for the day:  first, we hiked up the hill above Manang for an additional 400 m (a nice way to acclimatize) to a cave that housed the “100 Rupee Lama,” a 95 year-old lama who had lived there for 45 years; for 100 Rupees each, he blessed our impending journey over the pass, tying a braided string around our necks for luck.  The second event, believe it or not, was a trip to the movies; we watched “Seven Years in Tibet” in a small theater with yak-covered blankets covering stadium seating benches centered around a wood stove–halfway through, they gave popcorn and a cup of black tea.  I can safely say it was the strangest–but coziest–movie theater I have ever encountered.

As we left the theater, it was snowing a bit; this was a bit worrisome, considering the pass is not recommended to attempt for about a week after a good snow.  We had enjoyed a great week, but now many things–altitude sickness, a stomach ailment, the weather, being gored by a yak–could prevent us from successfully making it over the 5400 m pass…

 

 

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8 Responses to Trekking the Annapurna Circuit: Week 1 in Himilayan Paradise

  1. Doug says:

    This was a great write-up. The pictures were wonderful and gave a small peek at the unbelievable scenery you were going through. I really liked the shot of the prayer wheels and the 100rupie guy. I hope I look that good at 95, and probably not a bad business to go with it. Can’t wait for the rest.

    • Mike says:

      You could be the $100 ShutterNutter and work out of your basement layer. The lama had a daughter who walked up and down the hill everytime he needed groceries; Mary lives pretty close to you and Fay…

  2. Lara says:

    Oh my….I am breathlessly waiting for the rest….this is on my short list- friends went to Bhutan last year and did the Snowman Trek, but you are doing what I aim to do…. more more more!!…thanks for sharing all the adventures- what an amazing trip so far…

  3. Torun says:

    Wow! Your journey looks amazing and beautiful. Isn’t it fun all the random things that happen on trips that you could never plan for. Glad to hear from you guys.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks, Torun! Yeah, it’s funny, sometimes you forget to write about the little things, but they are the ones that always come up most in conversation afterwards!

  4. Anya says:

    My old co-worker, Mike Ondeck, sent me your blog since my Husband and I are doing a 1.5 year honeymoon (just like y’all)! We actually start in Nepal on 9/10 so it’s super fun to read about your experience on the Annapurna as we are planning to do it with some peaks added to it. Thanks for sharing your stories, absolutely love reading it all.

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Anya! Thank you for your comment and glad you are enjoying our blog. Congratulations on your marriage and amazing honeymoon! It is a great way to celebrate together. Hope you get a few ideas. Have a great Many Moons!

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