Annapurna Circuit Part Two

Eager to get down the western slopes of the pass, I made no time for messing about. The walk from Thorung Phedi to the marking of the pass, though short, was difficult to say the least; not only was it a steep hike all the way up, but the lack of visibility and the biting cold just made the whole thing tiring so, keen on getting some rest, I picked up pace on the way down.

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Change of scenery.

I noticed straight away how the landscape once again changed, but on this side the area was open. I could see mountains many miles ahead of me, towering over the now sandy coloured slopes, and could even see the settlement I’d be staying in: Muktinath. The ground was now dusty and full of loose rocks but, unlike the cold and fog that plagued the eastern slopes, the air was clear and so warm that I had to take off a couple of layers, but even then was drenched with sweat. There was the occasional gust of wind that cooled me for a moment or two, but other than that it was another world from the east. I managed to arrive in the village in the early afternoon so, after a much needed shower and large lunch, I explored one of the larger settlements I’d been in. Nestled in between ranges of mountains on both sides, the area was astounding and I managed to come across Jharkot, which is a very old and traditional village sat atop a small mound that protrudes from the hillside. After a quick walk around, I headed back and planned where I thought I could get to over the next few days.

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Jharkot

I found over the next day or so that, due to my 3-4hrs of walking down from the pass, my legs had tightened up somewhat; sometimes just going up or down steps was painful; after all, I hadn’t walked downhill for more than 20mins in the past week, so my legs simply weren’t used to it. This became a problem just after I passed through a village that was set on the steep banks of a dry river, a river I imagine is roaring during monsoon season.

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You can see just to the right hand side where I slipped…

The slopes on both sides of the river were made up of loose rock and slate, with designated paths cleared every couple of days. Now, I’m not sure if the trail had previously taken a higher route out of the danger zone, or whether they’d just made an easier route,, but I followed the typical red and white painted marker (these are found every couple of kilometers, or at crossroads etc), and ended up a little lost. I thought that maybe there’d been a landslide and the old path was permanently covered, so I climbed over a few jagged rocks to find the path but then, stupidly, realised I was stuck on a steep hillside with nothing to grab onto apart from the odd bramble type plant that stuck about between loose rocks. Fuck.

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By this point I could see the actual path, which was maybe 50m down the hill, and further below that I could see the river. Rather than attempting to climb back over the sharp rocks and find my way down, I decided to try and shimmy my way down the hillside: this was possibly one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done. I slipped a few times and, even though I was going down pretty much on my ass, I couldn’t stop myself. At one point, after a few rocks moved, I must’ve slipped maybe 20m down the hillside; even trying to dig my hands and feet into the ground didn’t work. At this point I really panicked; I could see the path coming up ahead of me but, given how fast I was sliding, I knew that I’d probably tumble over the path, which was only about half a metre wide, and end up plunging into the river. Luckily though, I managed to grab a few brambles and slow down, after which I climbed down onto the path; it was only a few minutes later, after I’d calmed down, that I realised my hands were bleeding and I’d made holes on the backside of my trousers- I like to call this episode the survival of the most idiotic…

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I must admit that this made me a little more vigilant for the rest of the trek but, thankfully, there were no more hiccups or dangerous situations. In fact, to be honest, the rest of the trek for the most part was a complete doddle; it was 80% downhill and the further down I got, the easier it seemed to be to walk, mainly because the terrain was kinder and the temperature generally cooler. Of course, the scenery was still astonishing in places; from large, dry river beds, to mountainside forests and yak populated farms, every day was like being in a different country.

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I bumped into a few people on my way down and a kind of competition ensued; we would cross paths at some point everyday and I would usually pass them by but, given that they were American, I decided that enough was enough, so one day I really pushed on and never saw them again (that is, until I was back in Pokhara- turns out I gained a day on them.) There were also two cyclists I saw at various points, though given their speed, after 2 days they were long gone; one of these I believe was either a current or former Olympic athlete (I can’t quite remember) and was cycling most of the route with his trainer. When talking to them they explained the difficulties; not only was cycling the route immensely tiring, but at certain points, like the Thorung La Pass, it was impossible to cycle up and so they had to carry their bikes over, in minus degrees, and in sometimes severe weather- I really had to give them credit if I’m honest.

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Naturally, to counteract these two cycling heroes, I met, very near the end of the trek, two Lara Croft type girls; y’know, short shorts, tank tops, pony tails- that kind of thing. They were doing the route in the opposite direction but, after being slightly impressed by this, I then noticed their two guides/porters lugging up their backpacks 10m or so behind…

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One thing I’ll mention here is that, even during the height of monsoon season, you do not need a guide or a porter; before you leave for the trek people will tell you that you need one and it’s very dangerous etc or even that by law you need one when, in reality, you don’t. If you have a map, some common sense, and keep an eye out for the red and white markers (or blue and white if you want to go off track for a detour or two), then you will not get lost. I spoke to many guesthouse owners about the various wanted posters and they all said that these people either committed suicide, got ill and disorientated (usually due to AMS) or were unlucky enough to be caught in a landslide or avalanche. None of these people will have gotten lost; it’s just not easy to do so.

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All in all it’s got to be said that the 13 days I spent on the trek (8 days up, 7 days down) were some of the best days I’ve had whilst travelling; Nepalese kids playing with slingshots at the side of rivers, wild yak roaming on hillsides, apple brandy being drank by locals at 11am, and, of course, the unbelievable scenery, all just made it near perfect. I spent 13 days walking trails and roads, traversing rocks, sliding over loose rocks, and falling into shallow rivers; it was just great. I also think that, due to the lack of motor vehicles for the top third of the trek (lower down there are dirt bikes etc), there’s a certain feeling of an old age; the only transport is by foot or horse and it can take days for people to reach the next village or major supply town; it really is a great thing to see and being cut off from the world, even if only for a few days, is something I wish I could feel more often…