Annapurna Circuit Part One

As said in a previous post, trekking was something that I definitely wanted to do whilst in Nepal so, after deciding on the Annapurna Circuit, I bought my permits (costing $40 total) and sourced some much needed gear. I’m not going to bore you with a checklist of what you need to buy, you’re not idiots, and if you really want one, there are plenty of other blogs out there with endless lists of things you will and won’t need. However, I will mention that, as a Diabetic, I took precautions in the form of a spare pen and an extra supply of strips, just in case I were to lose any. I also made sure I had at least one bar of chocolate in my pocket each day (the only sweet things you can find on the trail).

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Far more greenery lower down…

Before setting off on my trek I stayed overnight in Pokhara, ate a decent ‘final supper’, and made sure I had everything I thought I needed. Now, you can get to Besisahar (820m) from Kathmandu after a 7hr bus journey, which I think is a little stupid; you might as well stay in Pokhara (which is where the circuit ends) and take an hour long local bus or taxi to Besisahar – this way you can still get a fresh and early start on the trek. Before setting off, I had to check in at the ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) checkpoint; here they stamp your permit and take note of your name, nationality etc in case something goes wrong whilst on the trek; there are many of these checkpoints scattered in various villages throughout the circuit.

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The first day was pretty easy and there wasn’t much to see other than a couple of Hydro-electric facilities being built. Of course the scenery was beautiful, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t really seen before back home somewhere so, earphones in, I stormed on to my first bed for the night. I’d just like to point out that when I did the trek (June) there was no need to book ahead at any guesthouse as it’s technically off-season; I just turned up and got the room free of charge as long as I ate at least two meals in the same place (though the meals get more expensive the higher up you go).

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The days soon passed; I’d be up for 6am, eat porridge with a cup of tea, then head out around 6:45am, walk until around 3pm, only stopping to re-fill my water, eat a large late lunch, then find myself passing out around 7pm in bed. The days weren’t particularly long, but considering I was covering an average 12miles per day, and mostly uphill at this point, I found myself exhausted by late afternoon.

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Most villages are little more than a few houses perched on the side of rivers

Each day took me up hundreds of metres, sometimes having to drop down again as that’s the way the route took me, sometimes the whole day would be an uphill battle, each day different in its own way. The scenery for the first 6 days didn’t change for the most part; the route followed a fast flowing river beneath a sheer drop, and the mountains seemed to be getting closer, though a lot of the time I couldn’t see them because I was in a narrow valley. I’d pass through small settlements and larger villages, each with its own character. There was something intriguing about these little places; some perched on cliff edges, some built on both sides of a narrow horse trodden path- these places were old; you could see it in the architecture and the way the folk acted. It became clear that a lot of these villages had switched from being self sufficient, from growing their own food and livestock (which many still do), to relying on trekkers passing through; the circuit in particular has become very popular over the past few decades and the locals were capitalising on it; even some of the smaller villages had one or two guesthouses which advertised ‘free wifi’ as a major selling point- hell to the hot shower and decent meal, after 8hrs of walking, people obviously can’t live without wifi!

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You can see the narrow path on the left.
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The small ‘town’ of Tal is one of the larger settlements on the trek, and one of the more pleasant.

The one constant during this part of my trek, before I got above 3000m, was the sound and sight of the many rivers I seemed to follow. The fierceness of the river made walking a little unnerving sometimes as I was tip toeing around fallen rocks on paths that, for the most part, were eroding away; the 50 or so metre drop would be enough, but the fierceness of the river and rocks below left me feeling a little anxious. Many times I thought that, if I did take a tumble, the chances of me being found were slim, and it’d take people a few days to realise I was missing in the first place. I was walking alone, in sporadic contact with people back home, and so the ACAP guys would only become aware something was wrong when they’d notice I’d checked in at one place, but then not the next place, and this could take a long time (there were several ‘missing’ posters of people who’d recently vanished on the trail). Of course, nothing ever happened (apart from a landslide incident on my way down, which I’ll talk about in the next post), and I managed to avoid any injuries.

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The major turning point in the trek was when I reached a place called Upper Pisang, at around 3200m. After crossing a couple of rivers and climbing up through a steep forest, I found this place in a large valley, with the Annapurna range on one side, and the higher Himalayas on the other. The views from the small Nepali village were breathtaking, though, as with most places on the trek, the best time to see anything is around 5:30am before the clouds settle. I met a few people here, who turned up later than me: an American girl I’d previously met a day earlier, an Israeli guy and his niece (who also had a guide), plus a German guy and his son.

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Now, what you’ll find on the trek is that you bump into a few people, and sometimes more than once, as people have different paces, start and stop at different times etc. We broke bread and talked about this and that, before deciding that we’d all start off together the next morning. As with most places on the trek, the night before I’d check the map and the distance, and decide how far I thought I could get; from here there were a few villages to choose from, and after that a major village called Manang (I’d highly recommend taking the ‘high pass’ here as it’s far more scenic).

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Not sure if this is Annapurna II or Annapurna III. I could never tell…

Manang was a place you had to stop at to acclimatise for at least one day, otherwise there was serious risk of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). It was a little further than I’d normally walked, but I decided I’d go for it anyway. Funnily (to me at least) it only took me half an hour the next morning to lose the rest of the guys but, me being me, I preferred it that way (there’s nothing worse than people rattling on in your ear all day). One thing of note regarding AMS is that when I reached Thorung Phedi, a guy had to be airlifted down due to him ignoring his symptoms and becoming very ill.

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View from the Monk’s hut with Manang at the bottom.

My rest day was spent mainly eating and reading, though I did climb to a small hillside temple to find the ‘100 rupee Monk’, who wasn’t in at the time, but it was a nice view nonetheless. The next day, which was supposed to leave me with another day or so to reach the Thorung La Pass, I made a mistake (though it didn’t turn out bad in the end). I was supposed to climb 730m to another, lesser populated settlement called Letdar.

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I’m not sure if I was walking too quick, or whether my head was literally in the clouds (as it would be higher up) or whether I was just too busy listening to Robert Plant in my earphones, who knows? But I managed to skip Letdar entirely and, when I stopped for some tea a bit further up, at what can only be described as one of the world’s most isolated tea-houses, I was told by the lady there that Letdar was further down. She asked where I’d come from, and after telling her, she looked shocked and a little worried, but nevertheless I carried on up to Thorung Phedi; the only way I was going back down was if I was ill, which I wasn’t.

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One of the older Tibetan villages
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I think this may be Letdar, where I was supposed to stop but didn’t!

By this point, the scenery had changed completely. The greenery had mostly gone, and snow topped mountains were clearly visible. The greenery had been replaced by brown and grey; the bare rocks of mountains were visible, landslide warnings were found everywhere (even covering where I had to walk, which was more than scary), and the air definitely colder. Yes, at this stretch of path, I had to keep looking above on the hill, as well as down at my footing; the chances of hearing a landslide and being able to move out of the way here were slim (I was later told that many Yaks are lost due to this).

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The rocks are dangerously loose and the landscape a lot more bleak.
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The view for pretty much the whole way up.

Eventually though, after having a final kip at Thorung Phedi (and learning of a missing person’s fate), the day arrived where I’d have to tackle the Thorung La Pass. I left at 4:30am, and made my way up through clouds, rain, snow, and finally a very bitter chill to reach the peak of the whole circuit. At 5,416m, the rock faces were sheer, the temperature below zero, and the wind harsh, but my feeling was one of elation. There are rumours of avalanches here, attacks by snow leopards, people getting lost etc, and I could understand how.

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The weather changes rapidly, and I reckoned that if I didn’t manage to get down from the main peak within a couple of hours, I’d be in a bit of trouble but, alas, I managed to get out of the ‘danger zone’ without problem; and surely the next week of walking downhill would be easier…

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Done!