Baggin’ the Annapurna Circuit

After spending two weeks laid up in Kathmandu with a severe gastrointestinal bacterial infection and a bruised ankle, I was eager to get back on trail.

I picked the Annapurna circuit since all the villages on the route have infrastructure catering to trekkers. Thousands of people do the circuit every year, so local people are not shocked to see foreigners with big backpacks ambling around, and they look at us as business opportunities, not as targets for mischief.

Children I met in the Annapurna region.

Children I met in the Annapurna region.

Annapurna region

Annapurna region

I took a bus to Pokhara then to Tatopani, and started trekking from there. At first the path was fairly low elevation, so the temperatures were hot and the air, humid. I trekked through jungle and mud and arrived to each village in a sweaty mess.

Soon, as the trail climbed north and into higher elevations, the trees turned from jungle into evergreen forests, and started getting shorter and shorter. I spent a whole day winding around a wide river plain, where the winds were wild and dusty. This day I reached my favourite Nepalese village so far, Marpha. A charming and well-cared for little town, Marpha is the cleanest settlement I’ve seen, with no trace of any trash on the streets, and I’m pretty sure the locals even wash the walls of their buildings to keep them white. Marpha is the location for an agricultural project growing apricots, apples, and other delicious fruits. It’s set to the background of massive hoo-doo cliffs, and also contains a picturesque Buddhist monastery, which I was permitted to enter during my visit.

Town of Marpha

Town of Marpha

Temple in Marpha

Temple in Marpha

As much as I wanted to stay in Marpha, I had to continue trekking up, up, up. Now the landscape changed to dry, almost barren, with only low shrubbery left growing in the wild. Locals planted terraced crops of buckwheat which was blooming bright pink, a beautiful contrast to the sandy browns and beiges of the arid hills. I stayed next in Kagbeni, which is part of the Annapurna circuit, but also the jumpoff point for those entering the Upper Mustang kingdom. I have to say that after peering down the valley toward this region, I’m now very interested in visiting the barren landscape which is home to an entirely different type of Nepalese person. Another trip.

My altitude acclimatisation began in Kagbeni at 2800m. After checking into a hotel and dropping some heavy things, I continued trekking up to and elevation of 3300m, then came back down to stay in Kagbeni. When acclimatising they stay hike high by day, sleep low at night.

Above Kagbeni

Above Kagbeni

Near Kagbeni

Near Kagbeni

The next day I hiked up to Muktinath at 3800m to repeat the process. I checked in, hiked up, hiked down. In Muktinath I also visited the town’s famous temple, which is a place of pilgrimage for both Buddhists and Hindus. Many tourists were here from India to step into Muktinath Temple’s cleansing pools to wash away their sins. I should mention that up until this point I had crossed paths with precisely zero other trekkers. But in Muktinath I met a soft spoken Czech girl with her guide, heading toward Upper Mustang, and a knowledgeable Austrian man, solo like me, who knew the cure for AIDS and cancer and any other malady you can think of.

Near Muktinath

Near Muktinath

Muktinath had a weird touristy feel to it with locals trying to sell trinkets and handcrafts to all three of us tourists. So I was happy to move to the next highest village, Champarbu, to repeat my acclimatisation process, this time adding in a little diamox to help me along the way. Champarbu, at 4200m, seems to exist solely for the purpose of trekkers coming up or down off the Thorung La, as I believe there were only about 8 structures, 7 of which are hotels. Not too far up from Muktinath, it was a good place for me to sit, relax, and practise breathing at high altitude. The trail here was steep, but offered a stunning panorama of the deep valley below. I experienced my most striking Nepali sunset from this vista. The villagers here are also purely Tibetan Buddhist, and I had the privilege of hearing them speak a totally different dialect which was nothing like Nepali.

After Champarbu it was time to take on the Thorung La. I started hiking at 6:15am and slowly climbed higher and higher and higher. I was careful to not walk to fast as its dangerous to overexert yourself at altitude if you’re not fully acclimatised. I experienced slight numbness in my fingertips at 4900m, but I rested for a few minutes and it went away, so I think my hands were just cold. Otherwise I didn’t experience any altitude sickness whatsoever. Win! As for the physical challenge, I admit that while it was a bit of a grind, the hiking was not terribly difficult. The trail was a little steep in some parts, but it was not technical, and steered clear of any potential hazards. Navigation was extremely obvious, being a well trod path, and marked by large metal poles with white flags so people could find their way if crossing in a storm. I’d liken the Thorung La to climbing up a big hill. I can see how you wouldn’t want to be stuck up there in a storm, though. I crested the pass at 10:00am on the dot, having climbed up 1200m in 3:45. I passed about 10 other groups of trekkers going the opposite direction. I believe every group but one had a guide. Almost all of them commented on the fact that I was coming from the difficult direction. Favourite adjectives people used to describe me/my choice of direction: “strong,” ” brave,” “fast,” and my favourite, “aggressive”. Just say it, you think I’m slightly stupid but you also admire the extra effort I had to put in. After the pass I descended quickly and easily. I felt like a million dollars coming back into oxygen and reached my intended destination of Ledar by 1:30. I stopped briefly for lunch and considered whether to stay or not. I thought, “nah, I feel great!” so I kept on going all the way to Manang, arriving after a cool 11 hours of hiking (save for the quick lunch break).

On top of Thorung La, 5414m

On top of Thorung La, 5414m

Descending from Thorung La

Descending from Thorung La

I found a comfortable hotel in Manang and spent dinner chatting with an extremely friendly group of four people around my age who were doing the circuit without a guide. They were from Germany, New Zealand and England, and all had a great sense of humour. I thoroughly enjoyed joking around with like-minded people, which actually ended up making me realize I was lonely. Darn.

The next day I found some WiFi at another hotel to communicate with my trekking company. I also crossed paths with a French guy, Sylvain, 25, who expressed interest in doing a side trip from Manang up to Tilicho Lake. I had also been considering this side trip so we agreed to go together and set off almost immediately. This time, I couldn’t have been happier to have a trekking buddy. The trail wound up through hills and eventually came to an “advanced” section that truthfully, I would not have wanted to do alone. The trail crossed an extremely steep scree slope, covered in loose crumbling rock between hoodoos, caves, arches, and slowly eroding rock. It was evident that the slopes landslide all the time, and even we set off a couple of small ones, which sent rocks tumbling hundreds of meters below into a raging river. I’ll describe this part of the trail as the type of trail you wouldn’t want to tell your mom about. Sorry mom. Any one misstep would have meant certain death. Naturally, I came alive. I LOVE terrain that forces you to use all your wits and senses. I’ve never hiked anything quite like that section before – it was engaging, beautiful, challenging, and all-around awesome. And then, against all odds, we spotted some Nepali men using the same “extreme” trail, each carrying 150 pounds worth of wood beams on their backs, supported with head slings. And they were wearing plastic sandals. Nepalese people never cease to amaze me with what they are capable of enduring. Somehow, with very hard work every day, they manage to thrive in this landscape. I deeply respect their everyday struggles for survival, and it only makes me appreciate how easy we have things at home in Canada.

Sylvain trekking toward Tilicho

Anyway, I was grateful to have Sylvain with me for this section, and because he turned out to be a good trekking partner in other ways, too. He’s as quick as I am, if not a little faster, and we reached the Tilicho Base Camp after only four hours when the estimated time is six. We shared camp with a few other groups, which shocked me to see so many people. After a hearty meal of dal bhat we went to sleep at an altitude of 4150m. This time, I didn’t take diamox, which I regretted because I had a restless sleep.

In the morning, we set off for Tilicho Lake, which is the highest lake in the world at an altitude of 4920m. We got to the lake after only two hours of constant climbing, and wow – was this side trip ever worth the time and effort!!! The lake itself is that steely blue you only see with glacier fed lakes, and its about 4 sq km big. A massive glacier was feeding directly into the lake off of Tilicho Peak, and I even had the pleasure of watching some ice calving off into the water, with a loud thunder-crack and waves of ripples across the otherwise calm lake. All around us were glaciers of such impressive magnitude, heavily crevassed, and perched on incredibly steep peaks. I was in my own little ice heaven. I could have stayed there all day. Alas, we had to go back down. Sylvain and I crossed the treacherous section together again, then we parted ways as he headed toward Thorung La, and I went back to Manang. I decided to take a risk and eat a yak steak for dinner, and I was not let down! The steak I had was at least 95% as delicious as cow steak.

Tilicho Lake

Tilicho Lake

Descending to Manang

Descending to Manang

Today it is raining heavily and while I was considering checking out a nearby cave then heading back on trail, now I think I might take a rest day in Manang. Tomorrow is my 28th birthday. I might as well be feeling 110% for it, whatever adventures may come.

Over the past couple of days my ponderings have covered a great many topics, which I’ll hopefully be able to share with you at a later date. But for now, I want to send an empowering note to everyone who reads this that I heavily encourage you to make your dreams of adventure happen. Every moment I’m here I treasure, whether I’m exhausted, soaked, scared, or beaming of pride and happiness. I dreamed of these moments for three years and now I’m here actually living in it. I’m so thankful to myself for making it happen, and to you who have supported me. Guys, I’m trekking alone in Nepal!!! It’s incredible!!! These mountains are HUGE!!!

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