After our trek in everest region, we headed as quickly as possible to Pokhara to relax for a few days before heading to the Annapurna Circuit. Pokhara is a great, relaxing stop filled will tourists of all types, but not filled to the point that it feels crowded. Indeed, it was much more relaxed than Kathmandu. The combination of the beach-like feel of the community on the shores of Lake Phewa and the annapurna himal rising above is pretty spectacular. We relaxed here for two days at a pleasant lodge with a nice rooftop view of the mountains (the featured black and white photo of Macchapucchre for this post was actually taken from the rooftop of our lodge, not from anyplace on the trek).
The bus ride between Pokhara and our annapurna circuit starting point of Besi Saha was a bit extended due to a bus breakdown about an hour outside of Pokhara. The driver stopped in the middle of the road, and he and the assistant promptly ripped out the stick and about 15 peices from the gearbox, then went around the front of the Tata bus and ripped more parts out there. It looked dim as they continued with 45 minutes worth of work, which included bashing something with a hammer – i’m not sure that they were conventional mechanics. Eventually, they just started the bus and went on. Nobody said a word. It was as if this was a most ordinary experience, which I expect it is.
The Annapurna Circuit is perhaps Nepal’s most well known and historic trek. It is beautiful no doubt, though I’d say its natural beauty is not as encompassing or as dramatic as the everest region landscape. What it does have in abundance is culture. The path starts in the low altitude region among different Hindu castes and passes into people of Tibetan ancestry as you reach altitude. The buildings, the customs, the dress of the local people all change with each region and sometimes each small town, some of these distinct ethnic groups are entirely composed of under 10,000 individuals. Where the everest region is largely built up to accomodate tourists, especially beyond Khumjung, the towns of the annapurna circuit have largely retained their original form. Yes, some towns such as manang and muktinath are built up a bit (and jomsom is a nightmare), but you can choose to stay in little out-of-the way towns and avoid this.
The culture – that is the main value of the AC. However that is changing fast, particularly on the western side as the nepali government brings roads to the area. It is hard to lament the addition of a simple road which no doubt makes it easier for many nepalis to live in these towns, but it does and will change the atmosphere of walking the trail. We heard that eventually the round-manaslu trail will probably replace the AC as the main cultural trail in the region. The towns around manaslu are apparently much like the annaparuna circuit towns were in the 1960s or 1970s, and will no doubt become more attractive as the roads eat away at the unique culture on the AC. The manaslu trail, though, is still restricted and requires special permitting.
The trek is also threatened by a complete saturation of tourists and specifically large tour groups. Our first day on the Gokyo trek we talked to two women who had just finished the AC and claimed to have seen groups of 70-80 people starting the trail. I doubt the validity of this, but still, its a crowded trail. We decided to start in late novemeber largely to miss this rush even though we knew we’d have to put up with colder temperatures and that, should snow hit early, the thorung la might be blocked. It was a great choice – instead of the multitudes of people normally crowding the trail we walked most of it only seeing the same 10-12 people.
Our bus set down in Besi Sahar and we headed on walking to Bhulbule while most of the walkers on the bus opted to wait for a jeep. Unfortunately, a does road continues on from Besi Sahar to Bhulbule, so as we walked we were passed by a number of jeeps, each of which kicked up dry road dust lightly covering us. We walked a couple hours in the hot afternoon and arrived in Bhulbule sweaty and dust-covered. At the guesthouse, we met and ate dinner with a newly-retired German man, and our paths were constantly crossing over the next 4 weeks – all along the annapurna circuit to pokhara and even at the hotel in Bhaktapur just before we both headed home. Sadly, we never asked his name, but we talked often with him. He was one of the many very enjoyable people we met along the way. He wasn’t the only one we met that day either – we were followed for most of the trail by a dog that we dubbed Sir Alex Mortenson. He even came into the guesthouse and sat by us while we ate and read at the table with the german man.
The Annapurna circuit is known because of the villages, and the villages are usually no more than an hour or two walk apart. The trail weaves through some of these villages and sometimes the trail is not abundantly clear -no worry, we were confused at some points in villages and the people are always kind and help redirected you. At lunch in one village on our second day of walking, we climbed to the highest point and met a group of three Americans around our age- Sidney, Bart, and Leslie. They were kind enough to remind us that it was thanksgiving day. Again, we continued to see them along the way around the circuit and enjoyed spending time with them throughout the trekking. Another feature of the AC, moreso than everest region, is the suspension bridges of various lengths, builds and ages. Some were very nice steel designs, some were wood planked but sturdy, and one or two were a bit shaky or leaning.
The first few days were spent in the warm humid weather of the lower elevation foothills (~1000m). The villages in this region were of different Hindu castes and consisted of a very town center with a small stone/cobbled path surrounded by hectares of rice terraces in various stages of harvest – the first couple days of walking we saw rice still standing, but as we climbed most of the fields had been harvested due to the shorter growing season. Different grains and fruits were grown at different elevations – for instance, we saw corn and tomatoes in the low elevations and these were eventually replaced by potatoes, corn, cabbage and millet.
Angie particularly loved the old tibetan style stone towns, the first of which came one the fourth day of walking in tanchok. This is a small farming town with stone paths confined by either the very sides of the ancient stone buildings or waist-high stone walls separating the walkway from a home’s patio area. In addition, we had great views up the valley towards Manaslu (8th highest mountain in the world). In all, this was probably one the most scenic days of walking on the circuit.
From this point we seemed to exit the foothills and start the climb towards Thorung la, a mountain pass which is the highest point on the AC at 5420m (17,800 ft). Most travellers, and indeed everyone we ran into during our walk, stay two nights at the town of manang to acclimatize. As we’d already climbed Gokyo Ri, we decided that since we should have maintained a certain level of altitude acclimatization, we would forego any stay at manang and adopt a slightly different schedule.
We had stopped at upper pisang, a small town perched on a steep hillside above a town appropriately named lower pisang and which offered great views of the annapurna himal. Here we met Rob, a canadian who we would see many times along the way and who we had many dinners with and many card games with as well (dhumbal, the nepali game). That night, we were the only 3 people staying at a lodge at the very top of upper pisang and we shared magnificent views of the mountains. From pisang we head through the fantastically ancient town of Ghyaru to our final nights resting point of Nagwal. While Nagwal is before the standard stopping point for most of manang, it is actually higher in elevation by almost 200m, something we were not worried about considering our previous acclimatization. This proved to be a fantastic choice as we were the only two staying a small family-run guesthouse, the young couple who ran the place was fantastic and the lodge itself had a beautiful rooftop patio with walls built for protection from the strong winds that whip up the valley. The moon-lit mountains and the clear stars in the night sky were absolutely stunning from this patio.
From Nagwal, we descended to manang and the landscape changed dramatically. No more were the lush green wooded valleys, instead a much more arid landscape appeared. We passed through manang, happy to avoid the relatively bustling town filled with tourists (ie maybe 15-30 trekkers staying in a collection of maybe 15 lodges) and went on to the beautiful little down of gunsang. Gunsang is certainly beautiful with direct views of the annapurnas, but it is not really a town – there are just two buildings, both guesthouses. One of these guesthouses was vacant, the owner already giving up hope of any trekkers coming by that night and having headed to her home in manang. We stayed at the other guesthouse, where we later learned that the woman who ran the place would also have headed home to manang if we hadn’t appeared. Needless to say we were the only ones in town that night, and it was a beautiful and strangely warm night. We sat out and enjoyed the night sky over the mountains again and then hurried up in the morning to eat breakfast and sip tea at the outdoor picnic table with the mountains in front of us.
From this point on we met up with many of those we’d seen along the way, staying at a number of very forgettable lodges on the final days climb to the thorung la. We met up at the Thorung phedi guesthouse with the trio of americans and also met a young german here named Nils who both angie and I enjoyed very much.
We woke at 3.30am on the morning of the walk up the Thorung la and were on the trail by 4am. We navigated the first stretch by headlamp and were lucky enough to run across many blue sheep on the path in the dark. The light eventually appeared over the mountain tops as we continued our climb. The pass itself came with a sense of accomplishment, but we both agreed that the panorama was nothing compared to those offered in Gokyo. It was a long 1000m climb up, but an even longer 1600m descent down to muktinath.
After the long day we stayed two nights in muktinath, making a day trip to the nearby old fort town of Jarkot. The day from muktinath to kagbeni was probably our favorite day of the entire AC as we were able to walk on the mustang side of the the river – a trail that has been historically closed to tourists until its opening this year. The area was very arid, with bhuddist aesthetic caves on the cliffs from years gone by and the immense white profile of dhaulagiri’s north face (7th highest in world) dominating the landscape. We both agreed that this was a look very reminiscent of what we’ve been lead to believe afghanistan might look like, particularly the area immediately south of the Hindu Kush mountains. Beyond the landscape itself, the mustang towns were noticeably different from those we’d seen – the predominant use of oranges, whites and browns in their buildings and stupas and the impressive ruins of the fort of the long ago mustangi capital of Jhong were particular highlights.
Kagbeni was a very nice mustangi-influenced town but with a heavy touristy slant as well. By ‘touristy’, I mean that there were many lodges, a knockoff cafe named ‘Applebees’ (the area is known for its apples) and a knockoff restaurant called YacDonalds. Yes, we went to YakDonalds:
From here we walked to jomson, a dirty and completely unappealing little administrative town. Here we randomly run into our german friend Nils on the road and rush off to buy a bus ticket, hoping to get to Tatopani by nightfall. The entire western side of the old annapurna trail is now a dusty dirt road with fairly heavy bus and truck traffic and most walkers now opt for a bus or mountain bike. We get on a bus with Nils headed to Ghasa, intending to catch a bus from Ghasa to Tatopani. Here’s what happens:
- The bus stop in ghasa is on the far and southern side of the town
- There are two buses from jomsom that unload at ghasa
- there is apparently only one bus going from ghasa to tatopani and all the passengers want to continue.
- We do not know this, and the one bus is announced in only Nepali and the Nepali riders hurry onto the one bus
- About 14 tourists are left with no transport
- Oh, and the bus stop which is far from anywhere also happens to be a guesthouse
- Oh, and the guy who’s running the bus depot and who announced the one bus going to Tatopani in only nepali also happens to own the guest house.
Odd coincidence, eh? Anyway, of those left behind, the HRA volunteer doctors are included, and one of them is a nepali doctor. She rightfully gives the bus/guesthouse owner a mouthful and we all decide to walk on rather than give this guy any money. the next town is Dana, supposedly 3 hours away. Dark is to be upon us in 1 hour. And Nils can’t walk as he’s been injured, so he stays. A less than ideal situation, but we walk on – and luckly Dana is not so far and we get there just after dark.
The next morning we walk on to the low-elevation town of tatopani. Tatopani means ‘hot water’ and we take full advantage of their fantastic hot springs. We also have a happy reunion with Nils, who has caught a bus, and Rob, who has walked.
The next two days are a big climb back up towards Ghorepani and the famous lookout at poon hill. The entire walk up offers great views of dhaulagiri’s south face. While the south face is not nearly as striking as the north face, it is a great walk. It is well worth it.
From here, rather than head directly back to pokhara as most do, we decided to head towards Chomrong via tadopani (different from tatopani) in order to get better views of macchapucchre. Macchapucchre, which means ‘fish tail’, is the mountain that Brett saw a photo of years back and made him want to come to nepal. So that way we head.
Tadopani is a very nice town and our guesthouse is chosen based on its view directly out at the mountains. Unfortunately, the first clouds of our nepal visit sweep in only 10 minutes after we arrive in tadopani, and the mountains disappear for the night. The next morning, however, we are up for sunrise.
The next day we walk towards Chomrong, getting significantly lost along the way, but eventually getting great directions from a man we have to wake from his slumber as he waits for his grains to grind at a water mill. He points the direction and then traces with his finger the path down to the river below and back up the opposite hillside: “down, down, down, down… up, up, up, up”. Such is everything in Nepal.
The weather is sporadically cloudy in Chomrong, but we get some great views and have a relaxing two nights there. We take the strenuous walk out via pothana and damphus, which is well worth the views offered in my opinion (though angie’s view may differ).
From Damphus there is a 45 minutes car ride back to pokhara. It is a surreal feeling to come off 21 days of walking, off the last of what feels like 5000 stairs down the last hillside into a crowd of 5-6 taxi drivers vehemently competing for your business. We jump in a cab and spend the next six days relaxing in Pokhara and then two more days in Bhaktapur before getting on a 38 hour series of flights to chicago.