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The Mighty Annapurna Circuit Trek

NEPAL | Saturday, 26 October 2013 | Views [1786]

Ruth found the idea of walking across the border odd, stepping into 'no-man’s land' and emerging in a different country. But it seemed fitting to 'walk' into Nepal since walking is what we had come for. Walking is also by far the most comfortable means of transport available in a country whose topography just about allows roads to be constructed.

Nepal is immediately different from India, which seems strange considering they share a border to the east, west and south, but when you cross, it suddenly gets cleaner, people smile a lot and women use public transport. We were pleasantly surprised as we enjoyed great food (I even dared to eat meat again) and a great hotel in Pokhara whilst preparing for the Annapurna Circuit.

We took 22 days to complete the 170km trek, it involved 9000m of climbing (150m higher than Sagaramatha - that's Everest), climbing to 5416m and spending 4 nights above 4000m. We also lost about a 5kg each, once went 7 days without washing, I found myself growing to prefer the squat toilets and also realised that there is a limit to the sex appeal of my beard (if there ever was any). The trek took us from green humid, rice paddies past grey muddy hydroelectric construction sites, through rainforests to forests of bamboo and rhododendron, to even higher forests of blue pine, oak and eventually birch, before dusty airy deserts and then on to misty black scree moraines leading to the snowy glacial pass. The landscape on the other side is initially windswept and sculptural, and the treeline is much further down. The pattern is then reversed, birch, blue pine, rhododendron, bamboo, and finally yellow (harvest time) rice paddies.

We saw wild blue sheep, huge Himalayan Griffons playing on the thermal winds and marmots scurrying around. All along, the landscape is pierced by turquoise glacial rivers and off course the towering giants loom above you. Annapurna I, II, III & IV, Gangapurna, Tilicho Peak, Pisang Peak, The Chullus, in the distance Manaslu and Dhaulagiri, and on the last day of the trek Machhapuchchhre eventually revealed herself, a perfect pyramid, yet unclimbed.

Still, this is only a fraction of the experience. The valley floor is lined with amazing little villages, with every 200m of altitude gain the architecture of them changing slightly, each village adapting to its environment. After two days trekking the villages change from Hindu to Buddist, prayer wheels, Chortens, Stupas, Mani walls and Kani arches line the trek and define each village. People and the way they dress change, Tibetan influences become more obvious, yaks are herded instead of cows and goats.

This is all shared with an international crowd of friendly trekkers, from M&M (Markus & Mona), Mona, who had never seen snow and likely being the first Phillippino to complete the trek; to the Italian Jakopo trekking with a pink fluorescent 80's bag containing essential items such as a hair dryer; to lovely Sophie & Aurelien from France giving us great side trip advice; to Bill O'Neil, the Irish expedition doctor telling legendary stories of success and failure from over 15 trips to the high mountains since the late 60s: to Tomil, the card and flute playing Israeli proving our stereotypes wrong; to Seth, Paul, Michael & Pete, the trek-hard-drink-hard-you-guys-are-crazy American Aussie group, to brilliant Arnie from Holland with his Dutch-Oven (farting under the duvet) story from which a woman apparently recently died (her husband blamed the curry he'd eaten that night, and Ruth woke herself up in the middle of the night still laughing about it), to Bob and Fay from Canada on their first trip outside America to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. From sharing travelling stories in the low lying villages, to sharing chocolate cake and bakery tips whilst discussing the latest cinema showings in Manang (there is a cinema here!! at 3500m showing films like 'Touching the Void' & 'Into thin Air', we went for one of Brad's finest; 'Seven Years in Tibet, you sit on raked timber benches covered in yak wool and the ticket includes tea and popcorn), to sitting out acclimatisation days whilst snowed in at 4000m, we've met some incredible people and the sense of community and friendship grew stronger as each day went on.

Not to mention all the smiling locals and porters and guides from all over Nepal, from Dinesh giving us his perspective on the reality a lot of low-lying villages are facing because of the construction of the new road (it's one of less trekkers, porters and mules leading to unemployment and businesses going under, he was still smiling nonetheless), to Satish giving us a Manangi history lesson whilst praising the Nepali women's constant hard work as the reason the country is doing so well (never seen so many women on construction sites anywhere in the world), to all the children shouting 'Namaste brother' as you walk past and giving you the widest smiles we've ever seen. After crossing the pass and eventually finishing the trek, the sense of achievement took several shared coffees, beers and dinners to celebrate with our new found friends.

The overwhelming feeling after the trek though is the sense of having been given time. The flow of waking up at dawn, walking all day and going to sleep shortly after dusk becomes the most natural thing. When walking at your own pace, taking in the landscape before you, opening your senses and giving in to daydreams, there is no other time than the present and it's the most refreshing feeling.

When talking to fellow trekkers and locals over lunch or at dinner you have time to enjoy and to finish the conversation, and you have time to reflect and learn from what was said. As the trek unfolds you see the seasonal colours change, from green and lush, to autumnal red and yellow. As time passes each day, from morning dawn to the evening sunset, you notice the subtle changes in weather, how the mountains dictate the daily pattern of both clouds and people, and how your own body gets stronger, not more tired. When sitting out a snowstorm, learning Israeli card games, you feel how uninviting the mountains are if you happen to be in them at the wrong time; you realise that you are there on their terms, not your own.

Ruth and I were, and still are, immensely proud of having completed this. Many people didn't make it over the pass due to altitude and very sadly two people died because they pushed on higher with severe symptoms. We were both worried before and during the trek, particularly with the recent experience in Leh, but our plan to walk slow, take tea breaks every 2 hours, stop in a village for more than a day if we liked it, do several side trips, yoyo up the last 1500m of the mountain (whilst enjoying damn good lunch stops), meant that we eventually crossed the pass without any altitude symptoms, with the breathing under control and feeling really strong. All because we gave the trek time!

I grew up by the sea, and wherever I am in the world, the sea reminds me of when I was little. I think it's because the sounds and the smells are always the same regardless of the shore. The same feeling is evoked when I'm in mountain environments. This is a feeling I've learnt to recognise much later in life though, especially after spending so much time in the Scottish hills. I think it is because the same principal rule applies all across the world's hills and mountains; if you respect them you will earn your time in these awesome places, and the reward is an addictive appreciation of the present moment.



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