The gravest difficulty of planning a trekking trip in Nepal lies in choosing an itinerary. In a country hosting eight of the world’s fourteen eight-thousander peaks and so great a number of immense mountain ranges, the possibilities are virtually unlimited, so that one will inevitably need to meditate upon the inadequacy of one human lifespan while in the process of selecting one.
Anyhow, in my case that choice happened to be, after all, the circuit of the great Annapurna Massif. That enormous bulk of rock and ice, located in the north-central Nepal, is defined by the Pokhara valley on the south, the Kali Gandaki Gorge on the west and the Marshyangdi River on the east and north. It contains sixteen peaks over 6000 m, thirteen over 7000 m and, of course, the 8091 meters tall Annapurna I, the all-renowned tenth highest mountain of the world. This latter one is considered the most dangerous summit ascent in the world. As of March 2012, 191 people had climbed it successfully and another 61 died trying, giving it a 32% fatality ratio.
The classic Annapurna circuit trek, the circumference of the entire massif, starts from the town of Besisahar on the southeast and circling the massif anti-clockwise terminates at Beni village on the southwest, covering a distance of ca 230 km through mountainous landscapes of extraordinary beauty. The trek takes commonly 15-20 days, and there is a great multitude of trekking agencies in Kathmandu and elsewhere in the country eager to organize your trek for fairly modest prices.
However the trek is fairly easy and straightforward to be completed independently by anyone who believes – what I personally do – that, exactly as in life itself, the most satisfying part of a trekking adventure is to be actually leading it.
In order to trek Annapurna independently a permit (TIMS and ACAP cards) must be obtained by the Nepal Tourism Board. I did that at their office in Kathmandu (Pradarshani Marg, Kathmandu 44617, Nepal) consuming less than 1 hour and paying 40$ all in all (20$ for each of the cards).
The most favorable, climatewise, season to do the trek is from October to November after the monsoons secede by late September and before temperatures sink to harsh levels in the winter months. In my opinion, however, I deem September to be the best month. The rains, even though occurring, are not as frequent and heavy as in the summer months. And you have to share the trails with fewer by several hundredfold percent other people than in the two following months, which fact also renders prices of commodities along the way by far cheaper.
So, that morning in September I was boarding that derelict bus at Kathmandu bus station bound for Besisahar. According to the guy who sold me the ticket, the trip would last for about four hours, though I did not believe it could take less than seven. After about ten hours we had finally reached our destination.
I wandered around the small town’s dark streets for quite some time, and stopped by at pretty much all the guesthouses I found, till I managed to negotiate a fair price for spending my night at one of them. My original idea was to complete this trip alone and generally refrain from using my tongue much throughout it. However, from that night already, I was to quit this idea. It was that girl that happened to be playing football with the neighborhood’s boys right in the street outside my guesthouse. We soon got to speak to each other. She was actually the only foreigner I got to see that whole day, and out of a strange coincidence, she was about to start the Annapurna Circuit in the next morning, exactly as I was. She was Maral from Iran, good-natured girl with high morale. So, next morning by 8 am we were starting together our long trip to circle the Annapurna Massif.
Day 1, from Besisahar to Ghermu
We took a steep trail getting us down to the ravine, and we were soon crossing that sketchy wooden bridge over to the east bank of the raging Marshyangdi River. The weather was sulky and was to remain so for all the rest of the day. Although, fortunately, no rain fell, with the exception of a brief dribbling, which coincided to occur right while we had stopped for lunch at one of the first villages to be found along the river’s bank.
Early afternoon, and so far we had perceived no sign of other trekkers. Until, in a very suddenly expressed moment, I heard someone’s tread approaching us hastily from behind. A short instance later I turned my head to see that Peter-Pan-looking guy slowing down his pace and pantingly uttering “Hi! I’m Kasper!”
That new Polish friend of us came to complete the team. He would join us for all the rest of the trip. The second thing I heard from him after his name was: “I am doing the circuit on a 100 dollars!” He was serious about it. His mission was to complete the circuit in as little time and food as possible – Ache came upon my stomach seeing him going for hours and hours putting nothing in his mouth. After making the calculations, we concluded that the money he is to save out of this all would make for a McDonald’s meal, going afterwards to London.
I could not have asked for a better company. Maral and Kasper were very well-cooperating and excellently interesting people to talk with. The hilarious sister-to-little-rebel-brother relationship they developed was to also keep me entertained along the way. And, most importantly, they proved themselves astonishingly strong, completing the circuit in ten days. (Cheers guys!)
We proceeded up the ravine, in between its high walls towering into the clouds on either side. We went past plenty of waterfalls rushing down maniacally through the soggy evergreen forests and past numerous sweet villages surrounded by terraced rice farms and inhabited by beautiful people. At about sunset, and after some 28 km of striding, we had made it to Ghermu village. There was a nearly empty, cute guesthouse, where we agreed with his kind owner to get a free room in exchange of eating our meals there. Night fell and a day left.
Day 2, from Ghermu to Khorte
We were up by first light’s advent. There was, fortunately, some power in the guesthouse’s solar battery so we got to charge our devices a bit while having breakfast. The morning progressed, brightening up the deep Himalayan gorge, and we set off.
With the exception of that lonely Spanish traveler who shared the guesthouse with us, we had so far encountered no other trekkers. I was expecting the traffic along the trail to be relatively scarce, but the utter absence of it on the first day had me bewildered. I figured out why that was happening only when we crossed back to the west bank of Marshyangdi, soon after we left the guesthouse. There was the road, and a considerable amount of tourist-carrying-jeeps were driving up from there. It was not that there wouldn’t be any trekkers doing the circuit concurrently with us, but just that nearly all of them had chosen to start from some later point.
Except for the other trekkers we started to meet along the way on that second day, there was also another new company we got, a very unpleasant one indeed. The whole place was full of leeches. Those little sneaking vampires gave us a lot of trouble. I was prepared enough for them, wearing long pants and thick long socks. It was only that small, unnoticed hole in my right sock about the ankle, which gave a spot for a meal to just a few of them. But poor Kasper, he was going on shorts. We tried to hold a count of his bites but after a while, it was impossible anymore. Both his legs were all-over rummaged, and they even made it to his arms somehow. He resembled a gladiator after a hard, bloody battle.
And the leeches was not the only misfortune reserved for my Polish friend that day. It was when we stopped for a beak at a point where a waterfall was scurrying down a steep, deep cliff by the side of the trail. Right by the side of it did Kasper sit on a rock and placed his backpack aside. I had time enough to pronounce the word “oh” thrice while observing the bag leaning towards the edge of the cliff. The very next instance, all the three of the us were standing by the edge watching the bag rolling down speedily, bouncing up in the air and making spins through it every when it bumped against some rock, for about an entire minute till it finally got stuck, way down there, barely discernible at all.
“What can I do now?” he asks me in a languid desperation.
“Go down and get it, I guess…”
I did go after all. It was quite long, tricky and wet way to get down there, but it was fun – I wouldn’t complain. I brought the backpack back to my friend, waterlogged and twice as heavy as before. And we continued up.
For some 20 km we progressed that day, and finally stopped by sunset at Khorte village. It was a nice guesthouse we found there. We were offered a free room and 10% discount on our food. We took a freezing shower and spent the evening by the fireplace, we three, a Bavarian couple we met there, and that hilarious local family who kept the house.
That was pretty much as far north we had to get to. Next day we’d proceed westwards along the north side of Annapurna.
Day 3, from Khorte to Chame
It was a murky day. Thick fog pervaded the Marshyangdi Gorge throughout our entire trip on that day. And a mild drizzling was alternating with brief chilly showers, again and again, compelling us to make use of waterproof gear.
We soon, that morning, went past Dharapani village, whereat the river changed its north-south direction for a west-east one. The altitude was getting continuously increased, and the lower rainforests of Annapurna were gradually subsiding, giving space to ancient, otherworldly forests of gigantic conifers.
We proceeded rapidly utilizing the road until Danagyu village. We then took a steep trail through a misty fir-forest crowded with hasty turquoise streamlets. Exiting the forest and reaching Timang village, we found ourselves into a still, drearily thick fog, which nothing but grave silence permeated.
We could perceive no sign of human presence along the village’s cobbled paths. We, after all, found the owner of one of the houses and we were offered a warm, cozy room to have our lunch and dry off some of our clothes by the stove.
We continued further. The leeches and the flies had by then been rendered completely absent. We moved through a series of scenic villages surrounded by pink buckwheat farmlands, which gave a charming accent to the otherwise dull landscapes.
By late afternoon we had made it to Chame village, where we intended to overnight. On the way we had got the additional company of two German girls, so, being a group of five, we had a great advantage negotiating a good deal with the guesthouses of the village. We got two rooms for free, plus 20% discount on our food. That was the best deal we were to make throughout the entire trip. And that was also the best guesthouse by far. Clean rooms, delicious food, amiable people, and even hot water! Yet another day had passed around Annapurna.
Day 4, from Chame to Manang
Yet another misty and rainy morning we got to experience leaving Chame that day. Our friend Kasper was sharing a similar mood with the weather. He wanted to be alone. He was left behind in the beginning, and then, after me and Maral moving slowly engaged in conversation, he overtook us and we saw not much of him for the rest of the day.
We were moving steadily up through the spellbound Marshyangdi gorge. The original plan was to take the upper Pisang trail, wherefrom mighty views may be seen towards the lofty, snow-capped peaks of Annapurna. However the mist did not allow of anything exceeding the range of a few meters to be seen, thus we decided to move along the lower Pisang trail and save some way instead.
By afternoon we were ambling through the gorgeous Manang Valley, approaching Manang village. Some great portions of sky cleaned suddenly up upon us getting there. Glorious sunlight was diffused into the valley, and we got to witness images of affable beauty, from the ones that, passing through the eyes, get instantaneously imprinted into the very core of one’s soul, never to be erased. Grass, bush, the few trees, birds and every conscious being that happened to have come alive inside that valley, seemed to be bearing a refined emotion, identical to my very own. With some imagination, you could even discern the water molecules consisting Marshyangdi River interacting to each other in mirthful, vivid patterns, charged by the augmented sun’s energy. Some rock pillars, resembling gargantuan termite mounds were defining the valley’s north end. And the distant, inaccessible, formidable peaks of Annapurna to the south, were playing seek and hide among the white, purple, orange and red clouds.
The sun was lost and they valley abandoned to outright darkness by the time we finally reached Manang. That was a much larger village than what I could have expected, almost a town. A great number of guesthouses, trekking gear shops, and even European bakeries were to be found there. Despite the broad competition, I found it very difficult to bargain with the guesthouse-keepers. I had tried my chances in several places, achieving nothing but a tiny discount for the room only. It was thanks to Maral we finally got a free room plus food discount on her first attempt to do the talks instead of me. (Negotiating surely is a woman business!)
That was it pretty much about the first leg of the trip. New adventures and deep excitement were awaiting us from now on, up there, in the world of the soaring Himalayas we were to head to the next day.
Day 5, from Manang to Tilicho Lake Base Camp
“Holy fu✗✗ing cow!” thought I, out of overwhelming excitement, as soon as I exited to the guesthouse’s porch to drink my tea and smoke a fag, that morning in Manang. It was our fifth day trekking around Annapurna, and my mood had by now become habituated to the gloomy weather which generally dominated the skies throughout these first days of the trip. But now, finally, the sky upon Annapurna had adopted a new, bright, glorious mood.
The sun had just risen over the eastern ridges and was diffusing blinding light through the immaculately blue sky prevailing over the Manang Valley. So, adopting ourselves the mirthful mood of that morning, we started on our way towards the highest lake in the world.
After we had lost Kasper the day before, having seen no sign of him whatsoever, I was doubting we were going to see him again throughout the trip. But we did, this morning already. It was due to that cinnamon roll I’d spotted displayed at a bakery’s showcase the evening before, that we decided to get back down to the other edge of the village, before heading up towards Tilicho Lake. And right there, at the same bakery, was our friend Kasper. He was teamed up with a group of English trekkers he met, and they were also about to start to the lake soon. We agreed to find each other at some point along the trail, and, me and Maral, started ambling upwards.
Leaving Manang behind, we found ourselves moving along the gorgeous bank of Marshyandi, right near its headwaters. The trail soon turned steep, ascending straight to the 3700+ AMSL Khangsar village. Passing through the village, we stopped soon after it under a lonely tree, to enjoy the marvelous views and the cinnamon rolls. That’s where Kasper and the rest caught up with us. We proceeded up all together, having plenty of talks and listening to high volume gangster rap from the mobile speaker one of the English guys was carrying with him. It was ok for a while, but I soon decided to run in front for some solitude.
That was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip altogether. The trail was mostly running along a steep scree slope with some grotesquely formed, pillar-like flimsy rocks penetrating out of its surface. The views down to the deep, partly forested ravine and to the otherworldly white peaks up there, were absolutely magnificent. Moving alone rapidly, I had by noontime made it to the base camp.
The oldest, and most comfy, guesthouse out of all the three, was full of other trekkers, and its owners did not seem willing to negotiate with me a better deal for the pricing. I rather went to the newest guesthouse, which was still under construction, where I easily got for free the only operating room for me and my two friends who were on the way. Having arrived there so early, I took advantage of the spare time to explore the area a bit and lay under the sun doing nothing.
An equally magic night followed that day. I was not actually supposed to get to know of it, as we had set the alarm at 4 am, and I should be sleeping by a long time, when, past midnight, I was sitting alone staring at the moon throned in the center of the black sky. But the enchanting qualities of that night, in combination with an overwhelming tension that took over me while contemplating the great adventure that was to start in a few hours, wouldn’t let me sleep.
Day 6, up to Tilicho Lake and down to Yak Kharka
It should have been about two hours since I had fallen asleep, after all, and the piercing sound of the alarm rang cheerfully through the dark room. And it rang so, cheerfully, because it was not for announcing “time to go to work” or any sort of tedious business, as usual, but rather “time to go the highest lake of the world”!
We got our torches and warm clothes – Kasper got wrapped in his sleeping bag as he did not have any such – and off we set in the dark, cold, lonely night. The quiet was absolute, and the visibility very limited inside the dense fog. We got to move slowly along the muddy, in the beginning, trail, and soon steadily up towards the lake.
The twilight caught us about half the way, and we got some glimpses of white peaks shimmering up in the sky through some holes in the clouds here and there. It was officially morning when after completing the hard, steepest part of the trail, we found ourselves on that desolate plateau, 5000+ above the sea’s surface. It was a new, grotesque world we witnessed up there. The sky was making some serious efforts to clear up, and we could see nothing but enormous mountain-tops and massive glaciers all around us.
As the sky can change his moods startlingly fast in such alpine landscapes, upon arriving at the lake, by early morning, snow started falling and the air felt severely freezing. We weren’t lucky enough to have the best weather we could have asked for, though the lower sky was clear enough to let us witness the Tilicho Lake in its entire length. What a miracle! All this water, having left the surfaces of the various seas around the globe, traveled epic journeys through the skies, fallen and stayed solid atop those Himalayan peaks for… who knows what ages, and finally got concentrated in this concavity to form this majestic lake, ready to take its course towards the oceans once again.
We could not have easily gotten enough of marveling that miraculous lake, but we soon got enough of freezing, so we started on our way down again. We crossed several other trekkers along the way who were normally going up during the daytime. And we had apparently crossed them all by the time we were back at the base camp, as we there found nearly nobody.
We had a pizza each for breakfast, and by noon we were on the way back down to Manang Valley. Yet another gloriously bright day we experienced on that part of the trip. We took the same way until some point a bit before Khangsar , where we followed another trail moving high up along the slope, around the mountain, and north into the valley of Jharsang Kholla River.
It was also, that one, one of the most picturesque parts of the trip. We merely encountered any sign of civilization at all along the way, apart from a long-abandoned village. At the point where we reached the tip of the mountain, changing direction to the north, we got also to wonder at a fantastic view down to Manang Valley, one of the most spectacular views we got to see along the trip altogether.
That was the longest day of our trip, also. Having started at 4 am, we only made to Yak Kharka by sunset time, some fourteen hours later. Quite tired I was, and to a legendary sleep, I surrendered myself that night.
Day 7, over Thorung La Pass and down to Ranipauwa
Before sunrise, we were up again next morning. We had a royal breakfast and started on what was supposed to be a very short day of trekking. We already were quite close to Thorong La Pass, so the idea was to make it to one of the two lodges to be found before the pass, have a day of proper rest, overnight and cross over the pass the day after, which would be the hardest section of the entire circuit.
After some two hours of walking through the pervaded with light gorge, we arrived at the first lodge. It was a very nice one indeed. It even had a bakery and a guitar I fancied making use of. However, after getting aware of their prices and their unwillingness to negotiate, we decided to rather try our chances at the next one.
We took the steep trail straight up to the pass. I moved ahead rapidly myself, and after half an hour I was at that second lodge. Their prices were as high as the others’, but I didn’t get the chance to care much about it, as I took an immediate dislike towards its owners, who, unlike any other local people we had so far met in that region, were unfriendly and rude. Thus I resolved myself to not stay there at any cost. Those people were actually having the impression that we’d be in absolute need of them and their lodge, as it was already noon and there was no other shelter until the pass and a good deal of way after it.
When after a while Maral and Kasper reached me there, I exposed to them the new plan: “No way I am staying here. I am going over the pass today”. Exactly as I expected, they both demonstrated eagerness and high spirits to undertake this venture.
A problem was that we had not yet had lunch. There was supposed to be tea-house somewhere along the way to the pass. And, indeed, there was. But we could not possibly eat anything there if not ramming the shut door down. We continued up, having compromised with the idea that we are not going to eat anything until very late. But we were lucky after all: On the way, we ran across two Nepalese guys, who turned out to be the owners of the tea-house we had bypassed. They were just going there to open it. That would be a bit too late for us, but the good news they got us aware of was that there was yet another tea house right on the pass, and one of them could come along and open it for us. It could not have been any better. We were at the pass at 5416 AMSL, the highest as well the most spectacular point of the Annapurna Circuit, and we also got a rewarding meal!
We left our Nepali friend to go down his way, and we also went down ours. It was unbelievable what we got to behold during the first hour or so of the descent: The sky remained clear, and all those ever-white peaks and glaciers were shining like the sun himself all around us.
It lasted for as long as it lasted, and we then entered into that thick, gray cloud. For all the rest of the afternoon, we saw nothing but an endless gloomy grayness. It was only just after sunset we, after all, left the fog and got to peer for a while at what a marvelous place we were heading to: the west of Annapurna, Mustang and its nude, wild mountains. But that was for tomorrow. For now, it’d be that village with its glowing lights, down there, below… a hot cup of tea, a fat dinner and, finally, a bed.
Day 8, from Ranipauwa to Old Jomsom
A dismal, chilly fog was permeating the valley of Muktinah that morning. We got up quite late and had breakfast with a group of some Swiss cyclists and two Nepali pilgrims who took a break at our guesthouse before heading up the way we just had come the day before. Ourselves, we were soon ready to head down. The uphill was done. Only a long descent was awaiting us for the rest of the trip, till we reach Beni.
Like as we had an agreement, the fog got suddenly dissolved right after we started. The landscape we were hiking through was of a dramatically different character from any we had so far witnessed by the east and north sides of the massif. The vegetation was scarce, and only to be seen in the little gardens maintained in those few little villages we were passing through. For the rest, there was only rock and coarse shrubbery. And with no forest present, the views were only limited by the distant icy peaks surrounding us.
At around noon time we had made it to Khinghar village. That’s where Kasper disappeared once again. He continued further by himself after I and Maral stopped for lunch at a cute house of the village.
About an hour or two later, with full stomachs, we also started our long way towards Jomsom. We left the road some few kilometers before Kagbeni and the confluence of Jhong Khola and Gandaki rivers, to take a shortcut from higher up the slope. That was an absolutely magnificent section of the trip. We encountered no human presence and the views down to Gandaki gorge and up to the west peaks of Annapurna were just splendid. A strict stillness had been prevalent in the air throughout the entire day, and then… a vehement gust blew, all of a sudden, bringing a hubbub and a whipping volley of sand with it, and a few seconds later the stillness was restored as strict as before. This phenomenon kept repeating itself in briefer and briefer intervals as we were approaching the purview of the slope where we’d change our direction southwards along the Gandaki Gorge. Until, finally, upon us reaching that point, it blew for one last time. Not to never blow again, but never cease blowing rather.
It was incredible! What a brutal wind! As like the entire air mass of the Indian Ocean had been compressed inside that gorge, and it was traveling at furious speed up north towards Tibet. The whole surface of the river below was undulating abruptly, and a massive dust haze was levitating, flouncing and whirling, in height of hundreds of meters above it. It was, indeed, hard, if possible at all, to keep balance standing on one leg.
So, with great difficulty, and at points having to cover my entire face with my shirt, we moved steadily against the violent wind and under the savage sun till by late afternoon we reached Jomsom. We stopped by at pretty much every guesthouse in the village, failing miserably in all of them to make a good deal. We, after all, ended up in the biggest one, where, after hard bargaining, we only managed to get but a small discount for the room. But we’d take it, there was nothing better. And then… deus ex machina, Kasper reappeared. He had also ended up at the same place. “What did you make for a deal?”, I asked him. “Got the room for free!”, he let me know. “Hey man! My friend here says you gave him a free room!” I shouted to the guesthouse keeper while running towards his part at the same time. He was obliged to renegotiate with me… Our whole team was together again, and next morning we’d set off for the last part of this great adventure.
Day 9 and 10, from Old Jomsom to Beni
A beautiful, sunny and relatively windless morning came upon the west side of the Annapurna Massif. Nicklas, a German guy who sojourned at our guesthouse, joined up our team. So, a group of four that day, we took the long way to the south.
The surroundings were gradually taking a more earthly character. It was first those bent, windswept cypresses and the lonesome willows. Then apple and cannabis trees by the margins of the quaint villages we were coming through. Until, finally, tight conifer forests had once again reigned upon the extensive slopes on either side of the deep gorge.
We had been moving rapidly, merely stopping at all, throughout the entire day, and we had covered a great distance, when, by afternoon, I fancied taking one shortcut, as I usually take pleasure doing, not only to save way but to break the monotony of well-trodden paths as well. It was that protracted, some two km long, circumvention the road was carving around a large rubble area of the river-bed, intersected by a number of impetuous streams. I took my shoes off and on hand, and headed straight line towards the other side of the road. Maral decided to go around. Kasper and Nicklas started to join me in that venture, but upon me reaching the other side and looking back, they were still standing contemplative in front of the first torrent.
All of them would surely take their time. They had been, anyway, earlier, talking about quitting this last part of the trip and finding some transport to Beni. So I decided to leave them there and continue myself. So I did, but about an hour later, just before reaching Kalopani village, I felt remorseful for abandoning them like that. I stopped at the village to have a cup of tea and see if they will show up sometime soon. I waited for a good deal of time after all, and right at the time I was ready to leave, thinking they had probably stopped, Kasper appeared on the verge of the road. The other two had indeed stopped at some village along the way and would look for a jeep to carry them down the next day. Kasper was eager to join me all the way down.
Yet another interesting shortcut we took, me and him, that evening. It was right about sunset time we were standing in front of that bridge I had spotted on the map and would save us some way. But, standing in front of it, it was not the kind of bridge one should normally feel confident utilizing to cross over a 30 m. deep crevasse ran by a fierce torrent, we found out. Out of the six wire ropes which were holding it at the time of its construction, only two were intact. And its aisle was hanging perilously, leaning close to verticality at parts. I convinced him to take it, one at a time. I went first, and carefully holding myself from the strong wire, I made it to the other side, where I found the aisle taking end, obliging me to hang from its edge and jump down some four meters to the sandy slope beneath. Kasper followed, with my aid he also made the jump, and we climbed the loose slope to reach back to the road. We had a good laugh – a must when just having fulfilled a brilliantly stupid idea – and we continued.
We spent that night in Ghasa village. And next day, walking for many hours along the muddy road, we had by evening covered the remaining, last 40 km to Beni. Thus completing the Annapurna Circuit plus the Tilicho Lake detour in ten days.