Trekking in Nepal: The Annapurna Circuit, Part 1
Trekking in Nepal was a big experience, so I’m splitting this up into 4 posts. This is part 1. The devastating Nepal earthquake hit while I was out on this trek. I’m raising money for earthquake relief by selling prints of my Nepal photos, here. (Over $1,500 raised so far.) Lots of words and pictures below.
What’s a Trek Again?
By the time we arrived in Pokhara, Nepal, Mila and I (and our Bromptons) had traveled for one month in Thailand, one month in Sri Lanka, 2 months in India, and a week of riding through Nepal. We decided it was time for a break. A break from cycling to a new town or village almost every day, and a break from each other. We love to travel together, and we’re good at it, but after over 4 months of spending nearly every waking moment in each other’s company, we both looked forward to a chance to do our own thing. Mila would stay in Pokhara doing a 4 week yoga training program, and I would do what thousands come to Nepal to do: go on a trek.
Click and drag around the image below for a better sense of scale.
Before coming to Nepal, I wasn’t quite clear what a “trek” meant. The word summoned image of guide (or is it a sherpa?), an organized group, and lots of camping equipment that I didn’t have. It turns out all these things CAN be true, but that Nepal has something unique to offer: the teahouse trek. The country has a network of footpaths through the mountains that have been used by traders, herders, and travelers for centuries. Over the years, small teahouses have sprung up along the trails even in remote places to feed these travelers as well as offer a floor to sleep on for the night, usually in the one common room. As more and more foreigners came to Nepal to trek, many teahouses grew into full-fledged lodges, offering food and rooms for the night. So if you go on a route with teahouses, you don’t have to carry your own food or camping equipment.
The Annapurna Circuit
I chose the Annapurna Circuit (“AC”) trek, a classic route that circumnavigates the Annapurna mountain range and is a quintessential teahouse trek.
What’s great about the AC is that, as diverse and remote your surroundings become, you’re still never more than 1-2 hours’ walk away from a hot meal and a bed at a teahouse/lodge. The Annapurna Circuit is also so well-traveled and well-marked that hiring a guide is really not necessary. Quite a few people do hire a porter to carry their heavy packs, but after months of cycle touring I know how to pack light. Plus it would feel weird to me personally to have someone else tote my things for me. There’s nothing wrong with it, and portering is a sought-after and lucrative job for many Nepalis.
The classic Annapurna Circuit trek usually takes 15-20 days to complete. The diversity of elevations, climates, vistas and cultures make the trek famous. Per Wikipedia:
The trail passes along paddy fields and into subtropical forests, several waterfalls and gigantic cliffs, and various villages. Annapurna Circuit has often been voted as the best long distance trek in the world, as it combined, in its old full form, a wide variety of climate zones from tropics at 600 m asl to the arctic at 5416 m asl at the Thorong La pass and cultural variety from Hindu villages at the low foothills to the Tibetan culture of Manang Valley and lower Mustang.
So, on a crisp April morning, toting a knockoff North Face backpack from one of Pokhara’s dozens of trekking shops, I found myself on an early morning bus ride to the village of Besi Sahar, the traditional starting point for the AC. Traditional, but no longer so common. This used to be literally the end of the road, but a rocky dirt jeep/bus road keeps expanding year after year, bringing motor traffic deeper into the circuit and to new villages. Most trekkers now catch another bus or a jeep in Besi Sahar and ride farther along the route, so as to avoid the busier stretches of road. I had plenty of time on my hands so I decided to just start walking.
A word on the road. The continued expansion of the dirt jeep road deeper into the trek route is a point of contention among trekkers, guides, and Nepali villages and lodge owners, and you will hear discord about it within each group. Trekkers wanting a remote experience usually bemoan it, while it’s hard to begrudge people living in remote villages a new pipeline to transportation and commerce. On the other hand, as more trekkers skip the newly vehicle accessible parts of the trek, lodge owners along that route lose most of their business.
I saw this first hand on my first day. Walking along the road I saw no other trekkers, apart from the dozens who rolled past me in jeeps and buses, bound for the village of Syange. This fact, combined with the slower season (high trekking season is in October), meant that the lodge owners here had a desperate air that I didn’t encounter farther along the trek. A very insistent woman cutting wood alongside the road persuaded me to stop at her lodge for lunch. As I sat down, she made a call on her mobile. Ten minutes later, her daughter came along to cook me dal bhat. I was the only guest, and I suspect none of her 4-5 rooms had been occupied for some time.
As the road has made incursions into the traditional route, the “official” AC trail has sometimes been re-routed, and so the first half of my first trekking day was spent walking on a foot path through tiny farming villages high above the road. It was quiet and peaceful, and the only other humans I encountered were typically genial Nepali villagers and their small children, whose standard greeting was a statement (“Namaste!”) immediately followed by an entreaty (“Sweet?”). I had nothing but some granola bars buried in my pack, so I had to disappoint on the candy front.
I ended the day’s walk at a lodge in the village of Bulbulhe, with four other trekkers, who, like me, were lured there by the intrepid owner. His method was simple. Bulbulhe sits at the top of a tall ridge, and the trail is visible for a couple of kilometers below. He simply headed us off at the pass just ahead of his lodge and offered a super cheap room. Actually, rooms on the trek are always cheap. Sometimes they’re even free. Lodge owners make their money on food, so the cheap rooms are contingent on your agreeing to take your meals at the lodge. If for some reason you decide not to eat there, your room price can suddenly jump from 100 Rupees ($1) to 1,000.
Two of the other trekkers were people I recognized from my bus ride in the morning. This was the first instance of what would become a regular pattern: running into familiar people day after day, sometimes with days or weeks in between, as we all worked our way around the Annapurnas.
The Day to Day
For me, trekking is a perfect blend of solitude and community. During the days, I walked alone, a pleasantly meditative experience. Some days I would hardly see another trekker on the trail, and my only interactions would be friendly “Namastes” with locals. Kids in villages, women working the fields or carrying firewood. The evenings were a chance for a chat with other trekkers at the lodge – English, French, Israeli (so many Israelis!), many others. Some faces I would see day after day.
The days begin to develop a comfortable routine. Because there’s nothing much to do in the evenings, you were probably in bed by 8pm. Up with the sun. Breakfast. Settle your bill with the lodge owner. Start walking. Walk as long as you like. Get to a village. Pick a lodge and book a room. Spend the evening gathered with other trekkers around a single wood burning stove in the middle of the dining room – the sole source of heat in any lodge on the Circuit. Get to know some other travelers, or get lost in a book. Go to bed at around 8, and do it again the next day.
What isn’t routine is the scenery, which is spectacular and different with each passing day. The diversity of surroundings along the Annapurna trek is one of the reasons for its popularity. You start out subtropical. Palm trees, terraced farms. Occasional glimpses of snowy peaks as you progress. Higher up, the terrain gets more rocky and stark, and the villages and people change as well. More Tibet than Nepal. The real focal point of the trek is the Thorung-La pass – the highest mountain pass in the world at 5,416m (17,769ft) above sea level. It’s a source of trepidation for most trekkers. Altitude sickness becomes a real concern once you’re above 3,000m or so, so the ascents have to be timed carefully, with ample time to acclimate. Mess this up, and you might be coming off the mountain in a helicopter (I saw this a couple of times, more on this later.)
That’s about it for part 1. In following posts I’ll write about side treks into lands of ice and snow. crossing the Thorung La pass, living through the earthquake, and trying to get down from the mountains on two wheels in the aftermath. In the meantime, some more photos below.
One more time: I’m raising money for earthquake relief by selling prints of my Nepal photos, here. (Over $1,500 raised so far.) Consider buying a beautiful photo and helping Nepal all in one fell swoop!