Annapurna Circuit Trek05/04/2011
Where to start?! What an experience! What a challenge! So much joy, pain, beauty I have never experienced in two weeks in my life (although may be that is a sadness of my life rather then a joy of the trek). The trip basically splits neatly into three sections, "Before the Pass", "The Pass" and "After the Pass" and so this is how I will describe it.
Before the Pass
The Annapurna Circuit Trek is a well trodden path and is one of the worlds longest, we also heard it is one of the highest with a maximum altitude of 5416m but we haven't been able to confirm or deny this claim at time of writing! We got an early morning bus on the 21st March along with about 20 other keen trekkers, most of whom we would repeated see from time to time on the "Before the Pass" trek. After 2 buses to the start (Khudi for us) we began the walking. The days quickly started to follow a similar pattern. We would get up fairly early and (depending on the route that day) either have breakfast at our lodge or walk for about an hour before stopping for breakfast. We would then walk, mostly up hill, for about 3 hours before stopping for lunch a little lodge. Lunch was normally either veg fried rice, veg fried pasta or veg fried potato. It wasn't exciting but it was a great source of energy. After an hour or two off for lunch while we waited out the heat of the day we would head on for another 2 or 3 hours finally finding ourselves in a little village looking for a lodge for the night.
The lodges on the whole trek had the most amazing views. I can't think of a single one that didn't have a picture postcard view of a river or mountain. The rooms were basic but clean. The food varied but was generally of a pretty good standard, and the showers were often good, although certainly not always. The loos were always a nasty experience and I think we only saw one sink on this side of the trek so brushing teeth was also frequently quite unpleasent!
The walking in this section of the trek was amazing. The path was clear and well trodden. There are no roads here (at the moment! They are in the process of building one which will completely transform the trek we are sure) and so we frequently shared the path with a little group of donkeys carrying everything and anything to the various villages. There were also the shirpas carrying huge loads that put our little rucksacks to shame. The days largely run into one another however here are a few key moments that stick in my memory:
- - Seeing a shurpa carrying a huge stack of random things, on the top of which was a little red tricycle for a small child.
- - Buying a necklace from a little stall set up just after a steep climb and over looking the most amazing natural slope called Paungi Danda
- - Repeated finding ourselves walking with, or talking to the same people doing the same challenge all in slightly different ways, in particular a friendly group of europeans who had met on the bus on the way to start, an couple of English ladies with their two porters and guide, and an Israli guy doing the trek on his own with his little camping stove and tea making equipment (which he kindly gave us a cup of tea from once and we started to wish we had one too)
- - Watching the beautiful green landscape slowly but surely be replaced by drier and more rocky scenes which I can't do justice to but the photos go some way to illustrate
- - being rushed up a very long and steep part of the trek by a man saying "hurry, hurry, 5 minutes" repeated to try and get us out of danger area before the army exploded some rocks on the other side of the river to create the road.
Because of the altitude of this trek we had to spend one day in Manage for acclimatisation. A wonderful day of rest involving a few games of chess, lots of food, a small trek up to a hill above the town (climbing higher being an important part of the acclimatisation process apparently) and time to get Seth's shoes fixed. Sadly this seems to have marked the point at which we lost almost everyone we had been trekking with so far, as they either stayed longer in Manage then we wanted to, or (we assume) they decided to head on without taking the day off.
By the end of "Before the Pass" we had walked for 10 days covering 63.7 miles and we were 3590 meters higher then when we started. We had changed from walking in shorts and t-shirts to long trousers, thurmal tops and a fleece, and were sleeping under 2 or 3 layers of blankets. Breathing was a struggle, as was sleeping and we knew the next day was going to get a whole lot harder!
The pass day itself started at 5am with a sprint out of the hotel being chased by a man with a large stick! I won't bore you with the details but the moral of the story is if you don't want to pay 10x the agreed price for a room on the Annapurna Circuit Trek, make sure you eat at least meal at the lodge. This was not a good start to the day. It meant us turning up slightly later then we planned to meet the others we had agreed to walk with today and only just having time to drink a cup of tea and get a couple of pastries (which tasted of petrol!) to eat on our way. This turned out to a really bad thing as the first hour of the trek that day was entirely up hill and very very steep (800 meters) taking us to High camp (4860m) for a much needed cup of tea. By that time we had lost everyone we started with as we had had to stop for a bit of food on the way but luckily we could see others following. After this the snow started and the climb to the top (5416m) was long, slow and very painful. The air at this height is very thin so you really feel every breath. Every now and again you would have to walk a little down hill, but while this was a nice break it also meant that you had to go back up again just to cover the height gain you had already done once before. Everything seems like a struggle at this altitude, even the simpliest things - I knew I wanted to offer Seth a sweet I had in my pocket and I can't explain why now but even this was too complicated for me at the time. Even asking for sugar for our tea was too much!
Finally though we made it to the top. I don't mind admitting that I struggled not to cry with relief. What a feeling! I have never been so glad to see prayer flags in all my life. There was another tea house here where everyone stopped and congratulated themselves on a job well done. Of course, you don't stay at 5416m for long so we had to start the hard work again, this time going down, by the end of the day we needed to be in Mukinath which is at 3800m.
The down hill was almost more hard work the going up hill. The good news was that with every step the air got a little thicker and warmer again however in order to get there we had to walk (slip and slide) through snow and ice where ski lessons came back to me thick and fast (thank you Kev! It was all good) but I still fell over about 5 times. Seth seemed more stable but still managed a few good slides. After 3 hours of down hill our knees and toes hurt, we were tired and hungry and energy levels were at their lowest but finally some little restaurants came into view and it felt that we had done it! There was still a bit further to go but the end was in sight. After a lunch of potatoes (of course) we had the energy to complete the final 500m - which by this time was a small descent - to Muktinath and checked into the Bob Marley hotel which had fantastic hot showers and equally excellent hot food. What a day! I hardly remember going to bed that night but I guess we did and I guess we slept well!
After the Pass
The pass day had broken us both. The day after the pass we had a very late start and large breakfast. It was only a short walk that we were needing to do that day but it was still all down hill and we were finding it all very difficult. My big toes had both become very badly bruised and it was already clear that it was just a matter of time before the nails were coming off so every step was starting to hurt just that little bit more.
After the pass everything changed. There is a road now all the way to Muktinath so much of the trek is on the road and the villages and people are very different. The road seems to be a bit of a mixed blessing to the people on this side. On the positive side it seems to have made life easier for the local people as all the goods they need can be brought up easily, on the flip side however the villages that used to rely on the trekkers for their income can no longer expect to do this. While on the "Before the Pass" side of the trek everyone is walking the same route and distance, after the pass people are getting jeeps and buses to and from all sorts of different places and not everyone follows the same route which means there doesn't seem to be enough business on any particular route to support local business, except in the big(ish) towns.
The impact of the road for us was that the walk was a lot less fun. It was easier walking on the road which was great for my toes, but it was very dusty and not a lot of fun. At times you could get onto proper paths and we did manage a lot of this on my birthday which was lovely but it was still only for part of the day and you still didn't get the fun of seeing people you had started to get to know. Also because everyone was doing this side slightly differently, when you did meet people you never got the sense of doing the trek together, there was far more of a sense of "I walked further then you did" that we really didn't like. Such a shame.
All that said we still really wanted to complete the trek. The countryside and scenery was still outstanding and the sense of achievement at the end of each day was still present. Sadly though at Tatopani we had to make the grown up decision that my toes were not going to survive the massive climb and descent that was needed for the last three days of the trek and we had to call it a day - for now! We WILL return to do this last little section and to do the Sanctuary which is meant to be even more beautiful. We just need to make sure we do it before they ruin it with a road...