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, cosy 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 at 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 excitment were awaiting us from now on, up there, in the world of the soaring Himalayas we were to head to the next day.