Annapurna Circuit Trek

In the October of 2016, I did the classic Annapurna circuit trip with an Exodus group. This was my first trip in Nepal. The experience was so positive that I planned to take other trips back in Nepal soon. For one reason or another, I haven't been back to Nepal. However I went to Kashmir in India in 2018 which I counted loosely as in the same neighbourhood.


Annapurna circuit is one of the most popular trek in Nepal. The tourism infrastructure is well established along the way. Trekkers can stay in the tea houses for the whole trip. Although you wouldn't have the solitude the variety of the landscapes and culture interests make it well worth the effort. The walk itself as organised isn't too hard (assuming that one doesn't suffer from high altitude). For most of the days we walked 6-7 hours including plenty of tea breaks and long lunches. For my own tastes, I'd say that there are too many breaks and that lunches are quite long (it took time for a large group to order meals). On the other hand, our group got along very nicely so that these meal breaks were enjoyable. Only the day of crossing the Thorong-la pass was long (9 hours) and hard due to the high attitude (5200 m).



 

Kathmandu to Manang


This stage took about a week. After the group met our guide in Kathmandu, the next day we drove to Bhulbhule. On the way out of Kathmandu, we made a quick stop at the monkey temple.





At the end of bus ride, we walked about one hour to get our first tea house. During the dinner, we had the dal bhat, a Nepali staple food, for the first time. Dal bhat was a combo of rice, lentil soup and pickled vegetable sides. By the end of the trip, I had grown quite fond of the dal bhat.


During the first two days, we walked past many rice fields. The leaches were a constant threat. They had the amazing ability of getting inside one's clothing. A few people in our group had to take off the shirts and trousers to get rid of them. I was lucky enough to never got one attached on me.



As we walked gradually higher, we passed steep gorges and rushing waterfalls. At one point, we also saw a group of monkeys hanging around by the rivers. The climate was humid and warm (the temperatures were in the mid-20s). Our main guide Keshar was in his late 30s or slightly order. He supplemented the natural sceneries with a lot of information of Nepal's recent histories, especially the impact of the 2015 earthquake. He was personally involved with many relief and charitable efforts to help the villagers from his home areas. When we approached Chame, we saw the sight of snow capped mountains and more Tibetan Buddhism prayer flags as the local populations were more Buddhists than Hindus.





From Chame, the trail took us to Pisang. Among the many small villages we passed, Pisang is one of the few which I still can see in my mind's eyes. The lower Pisang village where we stayed was in the bottom of the valley. Before we went to our hotel, we visited a Buddhist monastery on the side of the hill. If you have visited some larger Tibetan Buddhist monastery or temple in Nepal, India or Tibet, this one wasn't particularly impressive in size nor in decoration, but it offered a great view of the whole valley and the towering Annapurna III just on the other side of the valley. After dinner, I took a walk to the edge of the village. Because of the altitude (3200 m) , the evening was chilly. It had completely different feels from the weather just a couple nights before. In the chilly evening air, I admired the sun's setting on the top of Annapurna III.



From Pisang, we took the higher route to reach Manang. At the highest point of the trail, we got another view of the mountains and the Pisang valley. Almost at every high ground in Nepal, there were pray flags. They always felt a perfect fit to the surrounding the environment. The impression was most likely the results of thousands of imagery of Nepal that we had seen.




We reached Manang in the late afternoon. The air was cold and dry. The landscapes were also very different. There were few trees, the mountains were covered by small and dry bushes. It resembled those of Tibet high plateau. Manang (3540 m) was a gate way to the high altitude session of the trek. We stayed here for an extra day to acclimatise for the altitude. It was also a washing day. Our porters earned some extra by doing laundry for the trekkers. Many of the tea houses we stayed had shower facilities, but because the water were heated by the solar panels it tended to run out of hot water very soon. I caught a cold at Manang while taking a half cold shower. So far most of our group showed no symptoms of altitude sickness but one of us started struggling.


Manang had only one street. There was a Buddhist temple at one end of the village. And there were many prayer wheels lined the street. I noticed these little clay pots behind the wheels. Our guide told us that there were ashes of people.


Nepal's economy relied on tourism heavily. Walking on the main street of Manang, I saw as many westerners as Nepalese (most of the tourists are westerns although I have met a handful of mainland Chinese hikers on the trail). Many shops sold outdoor equipments and trail snacks. At the moment of writing(12/04/2020), being locked down inside my home in London because of Covid-19 just as billions of other people in the world, I wonder how this pandemic would impact the livelihood of people in Nepal.


On the morning of leaving Manang, we were treated with a beautiful sunrise on the distance mountains.




 

Manang To Kagbeni


From Manang, it took us two (short days) to walk to Thorong Phedi which was the base camp for crossing the Thorong La (pass). Now the landscapes were completely of the high Himalaya plateau. The vegetation were short grass or bushes. The window were dry and biting but the views were open and expansive. You saw the majestic mountains in all directions.




During the first night after Manang we stayed at Yak Kharka (4018m). There were a few tea houses near a hydro-station. There weren't much to do. And I remember that it got very cold at night. However, the morning rewarded us another glorious mountain views.




A fellow hiker was also admiring the sight.



The walk to Thorong-la base camp was pretty short but the altitude was all above 4000 meters. So we were going at very slow pace. I wasn't too affected at this altitude but the guide kept us on a slow and steady pace. The camp was a big compound of many lodges but there was only one dinning room. There was a river at the camp where you could find fossils. And quite a few people found some. We did a small acclimatisation walk before the dinner. Then everyone went to bed early to be ready for the big day.




The next day we started at 3 AM in the morning. It was dark and you see the string of head lamps snaking up from the base camp. The temperature was just about zero degree with a little bit of window. When we reached the first of the "high camps", I could see a glimpse of light in the eastern sky. My hiking companion had a bad reaction to the altitude so that she had to take a horse. I followed the horse and reached the top of the pass (5416 m) probably 30 minutes before the rest of the group. There was a tea house on the top.




After having a cup of tea, we started descending without waiting for the rest of the group because we didn't want the "patient" to stay at high altitude for too long. The other side was a series of long steep zigzag downhill. We stopped at a tea house about 1 hour before we reached Muktinath. There we waited for the rest of our group to catch up and had a nice late lunch under the warm sun. After the lunch we visited the famous shrine just outside the town. The shrine was quite interesting by itself but I mostly remember the afternoon light dancing on the fall leaves, fountain springs, and the prayers flags. At the dinner, we toasted the success of going over the Thorong-la.




From Muktinath we walked towards Kagbeni. The landscape changed again. It turned from Himalaya high pasture to high desert. There were still villages and orchids but there were all closes to river. We stopped by the village of Jhong. And Keshar took us to visit a villager's home. Amazingly I still remembered the head of the house was a woman whose husband ran away from home years before. There was also a Buddhist temple in Jhong on the top of an outcrop. We didn't bother to visit it. After the Jhong, it was relatively easy walk to Kagbeni but there were new interests along the way. For one, there were a lot of fossils along the walk. I found a big one which was roughly 30 cm long. There was also a long suspension bridge which really challenged one walker in our group.




Kagbeni was a typical Mustang style village with narrow alleys and traditional house. It was also the gateway to Upper Mustang which was one of the place I would like to visit someday.


 

Kagebeni to Pokhara


From Kagebeni we walked to the Marpha via Jomsom. Before the day break, I took a walk in the quiet village and enjoyed the morning view of Dhaulagiri. The south face of Dhaulagiri which you can see in the photo is one of most difficult big wall climbs in the world. So far no one has successfully summitted Dhaulagiri this way.



Jomsom has a small airport. Some Annapurna hiker finishes the trip here and fly out to Kathmandu. Tourists for upper Mustang region can also fly into Jomsom. The walk from Jomsom to Marpha wasn't very pleasant. Long sections of the trek were closed to the road. Because the area was desert like, all vehicles threw up a lot of dust. It was hard to breath even with a buff over my face. On the plus side, Marpha was a nice clean village. It had a temple on the side of the mountain. According to our the guide, the village was particular popular with Japanese tourists so that the lodging choices were better than average. Marpha was also well known for its apple brandy. I tried some. It reminded me of the Palinka but it was less refined.


The trek from Marpha to Totapani wasn't very memorable (maybe it was just my failing memory). There were still beautiful mountains and quaint villages with friendly kids. We passed a large refuge camp for Tibetan refuges established since 1950s. Finally we arrived at Totapani. The place seemed just a collections of tea houses congregated at the road side. However, there was a hot spring. I enjoyed soaking in the spring and having a cold beer.




From Totapani (1190 m), we made the last big climb to Poon Hill (3210 m). It was a steep up hill climb which took most of the day. The trail passed charming hillside villages while magnificent mountains loomed in the distance. Just below the summit of Poon Hill there was the village of Ghorepani where we stayed for the night. Next morning hundreds of the tourists woke up in the dark to see the sunrise on the summit. When we were there, it was a bit hazy but we could still see the snow topped mountains including Dhaulagiri.




After the watching the sunrise, we walked down to the village Birethanti for the last night on the hike. From there we took the bus to Pokhara and stayed there for a couple nights before we flew back to Kathmandu.


This was the my first (and only) trip to Nepal. My experience was overwhelmingly positive. The mountain landscape was beautiful and varied. It was easy to get around. The general infrastructure for tourism worked well. The picture of one of our guides perfectly symbolise the lovely people I had met on the trip. It works well as a nice conclusion of the my Annapurna trip.



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