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Sunset for the Annapurna Circuit

NEPAL | Monday, 28 March 2011 | Views [2821]

As we trudged into the stone walled, medieval-looking town of Chame on day four (or was it five?) of the trek, I asked our porter what the day would look like tomorrow.  In pidgin, barely intelligible English the answer came in his honest, emotionally-crushing way by saying, “Up, up and also the up.”  As usual, this was not the response we were hoping for.  

Welcome to the AC, or ‘The Circuit’ as it’s known by veteran trekking enthusiasts everywhere.  This is the Annapurna Circuit, the holy grail of long distance hiking for the past 30 years.  The 160+ mile hike through the Himalayas of Northern Nepal takes you over the highest usable pass in the world, then through the deepest canyon, skims the southern edge of the fabled Tibetan plateau, includes 13 distinct ecological zones that range from subtropical to alpine and even allows you to crash each night with the locals in the 70+ ancient villages located along the route.  The circuit takes a meandering path counterclockwise around the Annapurna Massif, a monolithic mountain range with 10 mountains exceeding 19,500 feet.  Annapurna, the highest, reaches 26,545’.    

Finally, in a couple of years, the Annapurna Circuit will be lost forever, crushed, quite literally, under the roads of progress.  

Unfortunately for Nepal, it’s sandwiched between China and India, the two largest population densities on Earth.  About a decade ago, someone decided it'd be great to build a roadway between these consumer behemoths thereby dramatically increasing trade between the two.  The wheels of progress sprung to life and this dream is now, to the horror of hikers worldwide, becoming a reality.  

Unknown to many of these industrialists, I’m certain, commerce had already been alive and well between these two populations for centuries.  The route had been blazed and then formalized by a parade of interesting characters that included wandering Buddhist monks, salt traders from Tibet, Mongol raiders from the Silk Road, as well as a helplessly lost Marco Polo.  When the planners mapped out the new highway it was a no-brainer to place it right on top of the trail that had been achieving their goal, albeit it on a much smaller scale, for over 400 years.  Adios Annapurna Circuit.

The Trek:

Like most big endeavors, our hike had a typically inauspicious beginning.  The 8-hour public bus we'd taken from Kathmandu stopped when the road abruptly came to an end.  We then got out, slung our packs over our shoulders and started walking; we didn't stop for the next 17 days.  In the past decade, fear of the Maoist uprising as well as knowledge of the new road has seriously hampered tourism in the Annapurnas.  Although it's unfortunate for the locals, it was a godsend for us because the prices were down, the guesthouses were typically less than half full, and we never felt the trail was overloaded with foreigners - mules, yes; foreigners, no.

Like most adventures of this scale and duration, the trekkers we met on the trail became close friends within highly compressed timeframes and this companionship will easily be remembered as one of the greatest aspects of the journey.  The circuit isn't difficult by climbing standards, although with 15,000 feet of incline, and subsequent decline - combined with several weeks of hiking - it can seriously wear you down physically.  Disparate groups and individuals tend to band together and share the hardship, moleskin, duct tape, Mars Bars, travel stories and motivation.  A number of travelers came and went from ‘our’ group, but the core remained the same: Biggi from Germany; Judith and Nout from the Netherlands; London James; Crystal and Amanda from Maine; as well as Morag and Dave, our new friends from Scotland.  This became our nuclear family for the next couple of weeks.  Others repeatedly crossed our paths and took on names like "That Quiet French Couple," "The Israelis," the "Maybe Lesbians," and "That Sweaty Irish Guy."  One thing we didn't expect yet witnessed in abundance was the attrition rate of travelers on the trail.  Issues included:

-  James:   Food poisoning

-  Nout:     Food poisoning

  1. - Judith:   Food poisoning

  2. - Birgit:    Lack of intestinal fortitude

-  Alex:      Physical stamina issues

-  Sand:     Irreconcilable spousal differences

In a guesthouse one night, I took note of the attendees at the dinner table. The countries represented were France, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Nepal & Israel.  Quite a diverse crowd, I thought, and I was proud to be offered a seat within the group.  Around the yak-dung-fired stove, everyone  nursed their hiking wounds, swapped travel stories and ate dahl baht, the national food of Nepal,  

My favorite story from the trip: 

Several nights previous, the New Zealander was playing charades around the stove with a group of travelers that included a number of Israelis and Germans.  When it was time for her turn, she drew and was forced to subsequently pantomime Schlindlers List.  How uncomfortable would thatbe?  Several of the other members of the group admitted later that they’d figured out what the answer was but were just too embarrassed to shout the answer.  

I will forever dislike this one French couple that flitted in and out of our lives every few days.  Every chance they got, the two of them sped off the main trail to complete the many ‘optional’ multi-day side trips.  I bet they added on another 70 miles to the journey which included, at the minimum, an additional 8000' of elevation gain/loss.  And, to add insult to injury, they looked great doing it - no bruises, no blisters, no limp, no complaints, nothing.  I hate them.

My journal on Day 9 states, "Emily got bit by a horse today."  That's it; nothing else.  I was too tired for words.  From the window of our guesthouse that evening I remember we had a view of a truly awesome sight - the peak of Manaslu, a titan of a mountain that shoots 25,758 feet straight up, looking so close you could rare back and spit on it.  Sadly, there’s no mention of it in the journal.  The horse altercation was pretty funny though...and Emily deserved it.  

One day bleeds into the next and after a week or so you get in this zen-like frame of mind that resembles a kind of meditative state.  Your life becomes euphoric - you walk, you fully relax, don’t think about to-do lists or cell phones - you just absorb the energy of being surrounded by the world’s most awesome scenery.  The company joining us on the journey assisted in our euphoria as well.  At least most of the company.  Nirmal, our intrepid porter, was the one blemish continually assaulting our nirvana-like existence.  In Kathmandu, based on a recommendation from other travelers, we hired a "Porter In Training."  It's a great concept; hire a guy to carry one of your bags for $12 a day, put some money back in the local economy, and give a young, ambitious kid some much needed experience on The Circuit.  

Nirmal was tee’d up as the guy that knew the trail intimately, yet understood and spoke about "20% English."  Once we got on the trail, we found out we were told only part of the story.  Nirmal did, in fact, understand 20% of what was spoken to him and knew most of the trail, but he was convinced he spoke and understood English at a rate that far exceeded 80%.  By Day 5 I kept catching myself thinking how easy it would be to shove him off a cliff.  (Fortunately for Nirmal, he was carrying one of our backpacks which is quite possibly the only thing that saved his life.)  With his limited grasp of our language and total lack of internal filter, our days were filled with his aimless, nonsensical verbal ramblings.  As I briefly mentioned earlier, one welcome, and equally heartbreaking, trait he possessed was his blatantly honest answers to our occasional trekking questions - when asked what the day would look like tomorrow, his response was "Up, up and also the up."  On the other side of the pass, it was "Down, down and also the down."  Questions like “Short day tomorrow?” would invariable be answered with hysterical laughter.

When we asked something he didn't understand, which happened more times than I’d care to admit, his eyes would glaze over, he'd blink slowly while staring at some imaginary object a half mile away and stand open-mouthed, motionless until you rephrased the query.  It's actually a wildly successful diversion tactic, and I can't wait to try it out in the States.  

One morning two guys in handcuffs passed us going the other direction surrounded by several important-looking men with guns.  I asked Nirmal what was going on and the response was his typical convoluted series of unconnected nouns and verbs.  His story: "Helicopter, woman, rupee, house, buffalo, stabbing, finish, burn, also the slapping."  

The story, as we found later from some English speaking porters, was that these two thugs broke into a guesthouse, slapped the owner and his wife, stabbed him to get the money and then burned the place down to hide the evidence.  He got flown out on a helicopter the next day.  Even after a number of follow-up questions, I still haven't figured out when the buffalo showed up.  

Every few steps on the trail were met with religious symbols that included prayer wheels, ‘mani stones,’ stupas or chortens, prayer flags, Buddhist and Hindu shrines, alters of all sorts, as well as rest benches below Bodhi trees.  The different ethnic groups you meet along the trail is mind boggling.  (I’m using the term ‘ethnic group’ as a convenient catch-all phrase to describe each tribe, clan, religion and caste on the trail).  Within one 100-meter stretch of the trail one day, we counted a multitude of Buddhist prayer wheels, a pile of Mani stones, tikka dots on the locals’ foreheads, an Animist alter and a wall-etched quote from Jesus Christ.  It’s amazing to think about the spiritual influences that have impacted this place over the centuries - even more so when you find little to no religious tension between the groups.

After Throng La Pass, we limped down several thousand meters to Muktinath, home of The Bob Marley Guesthouse.  Upon arrival, we gorged ourselves on cast iron pizzas, yak sizzlers, and a couple of cold ones.  One thing we did find interesting about the pass as well as Muktinath, is that these old men kept trying to sell us seashells - ammonites to be exact.  We’re talking about the top of the world here - in the not so distant past, the area that is now the Himalayas was a giant inland sea.  Ammonites are now found by the millions and if you keep a look out you’re liable to find one yourself.  Sadly, we didn’t.  

The next day we headed south through the Kali Gandaki Gorge, the deepest canyon on earth.  It’s so deep, in fact, that in several places it’s a 3+ mile vertical from the river floor to the top of the surrounding mountains.  It was an awe inspiring couple of days.  We ended up in the little town of Tatopani, home of the famous natural hot springs, where we stalled out for a couple of days doing laundry, sleeping, eating croissants and dahl baht, veg noodles and whatever else caught our eye on the elaborate menu. 

On Day 17 we walked out of the canyon, negotiated a taxi, then listened to re-mixed ‘Om Mani Padmi Hom’ Nepali music for the next two hours until we reached civilization.  Our destination was Pokhara, the gearing-up and tearing-down point for almost all major Nepali expeditions and a great place to replace some much needed sleep and calories.  Yak steaks, nak cheese (as it was eloquently explained to me, “Yaks don’t make cheese, stupid. The nak has the udders!”), Everest beer and pizza were on every menu and we indulged frequently.  

Namaste and Dhanydhad,

Chris and Emily

Tags: annapurna circuit, nepal, trekking

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