Theo and I had had Nepal on our travel list in a tentative manner since we first conceived of our trip. As we headed into the Asia portion, we decided that we would try to make a very specific trip to Nepal happen: A multiday rafting trip on the Karnalli river in Western Nepal, which we would combine with some trekking. We went back and forth with a company for months trying to get enough people to make the trip go, changing dates multiple times, and even adding flexibility to our river choice. In the end, three weeks from when we intended to be in Nepal, we just said screw it and bought the plane tickets.
The rafting trip fell through so we quickly threw together our alternate plan to hike the Annapurna Circuit. We hit the ground having done about as much research as is possible from the Lonely Planet hiking guide that we had on our Kindles and a few other online write-ups. Our overall schedule looked something like this: 18 hours in Kathmandu securing trekking supplies, sleeping, and catching a bus to Pokhara; two days in Pokhara securing permits, figuring out transit to the trail head, and just relaxing because all of this other stuff only takes a few hours; 14 days hiking (mostly) around the Annapurnas; three days back in Pokhara relaxing; 20 hours in Kathmandu and back on a plane to the next destination.
Going into this trek, Theo and I were torn on hiring a guide. Some friends had and some hadn’t, but those that did said it added to their experience plus it is great for the local economy to provide some employment. However, in the end our past experiences with guided trips ruled out hiring someone and allowed us to go about the trek on our own schedule. (A note here, for this trek if you have any experience at all, you don’t need a guide so it comes down to your personal preference around guides and porters.)
March 14 – April 3
Day one: Our hotel had arranged for someone to pick us up from the airport and we got a quick view of Kathmandu, its dust and chaotic traffic (we thought it felt like Hanoi mixed with Fes) on our way to the relatively pleasant tourist district of Thamel. The permit office in Kathmandu was closed by the time we arrived so we decided to go to some of the many gear shops to pick up a few items we were not already traveling with. We found a little café for dinner that funnels all of their profits to a project helping street children, we also tried “Nepal’s first craft beer” here, which would be the beer we craved for the remainder of the trip. It wasn’t the best beer but it was far superior to any of the lightweight SE Asian beers that we had grown used to.
The next morning we were on a “tourist” bus for the 9hr (200km) ride to Pokhara (a moderate pace if you are biking, pretty slow in a bus!). The bus picked up many many people after leaving the tourist bus station with a guy leaning out of the open door yelling at people and sometimes running ahead to drum up additional customers for the hour and a half that it took to drive through greater Kathmandu. We finally made it to Pokhara a bit worn out from the ride but decided to make a beeline for the permit office where we got our ACAP and TIMS permits. We grabbed a cab to the hotel and found that our “mountain view” room had a great view of, well, the air pollution. We dropped our gear and headed out in the touristy Lakeside District, eventually settling on a dinner of mo-mos (basically potstickers) that were delicious. As we made our way back to the hotel, some weather started to roll in which turned into massive thunder storms for most of the night. This cleared the air and we woke up to great mountain views.
We spent our one full day in Pokhara finding sleeping bag rentals that were not complete garbage and getting tickets for another “tourist” bus to the trailhead. Once our errands were done and our bags packed, we just enjoyed the day and walked along the lake.
The next day we bused to Besisahar and then caught an additional local bus a bit further to Ngadi where a new large hydro project dominates the river canyon. We started out on foot from here making our first day fairly short stopping in Bahundanda as some weather rolled in. We had heard that the accommodations along the trail were pretty good but this first night had us questioning things when our room was basically in a plywood shack with open air windows and a large spider in Theo’s bed; it definitely improved from here. Almost every place after the first offered WiFi and hot showers, which sometimes even worked. From here we got into a rhythm: usually hitting the trail/road by 8am or so, following our way up the river valleys through countless little villages, and stopping for lunch when we felt like it. Lunch was always a long affair as most of the food along the trail is prepared from scratch once ordered so this was typically an hour and a half break in our day. We would then walk on, stopping between 2pm and 4pm for the day, getting to a town and checking out a few accommodations before settling on one.
From our starting point in the terraced rice fields and banana trees, it took a few days to feel like we were in the mountains. As we continued along, there was a lot more hiking on roads than we had anticipated, as even many of the alternate trails have now been made into jeep tracks. On the plus side, the air started to clear up once we were a few days in and we started to get views of the massive peaks that we were walking around. On this side, the Manang side, the road traffic wasn’t too bad. There was the occasional Jeep transporting people much farther along the circuit and locals on motorcycles navigating the rough roads. There were still plenty of moments where you were walking on what could have just been a very wide trail. There were however the occasional moments of asking ourselves why we didn’t just take a jeep farther; usually these moments involved dust, wind, heat, long uphill sections on the road, or some combination thereof.
The scenery continued to improve as we made our way higher, passing through the picturesque village of Tal, making our way through the relative chaos of Chame, and eventually along a beautiful high trail after Upper Pisang. We found ourselves down a bit on a particularly long and dusty stretch heading into Manang, but at least there were “German” bakeries here to lift our spirits with pastries. As part of the recommended acclimation/acclimatization schedule, we spent two nights in Manang with a day to explore the area and get in a side hike to some higher elevations. It also gave us plenty of chances to revisit the bakeries in town! From this point, anticipation of the pass started to build as it would be well above the highest point that either of us had been to outside of an airplane. We practiced hiking high and sleeping low for the next few days as we made our way closer to the pass.
The section to the pass works a bit like a cattle chute, taking the spread-out group of trekkers and pushing them into fewer and fewer accommodations each day closer to the pass. The upside of this was that each new place had many familiar faces and most nights turned into a shared group chatter of anxiety about crossing the pass. This section also felt like the Nepal we had imagined, with no vehicles, stone paths, and small friendly villages. We were definitely feeling tired from the altitude even after relatively short days.
The final day before the pass, we stayed at Thurong Phedi (~14,500’) in a well-run lodge with reggae going in the common room just about 24/7. We watched as one group who was pushing higher for the day left a member to be evacuated due to mild AMS symptoms. This got to me a bit as they probably would have been fine if they rested or went back to the previous town but their organized tour schedule didn’t allow for this and the ~$1000 kick-back that guides get for organizing helicopter rescues skews the decision-making (at least it’s to the conservative side!). I spent the afternoon hiking up to a small outcropping above the high camp and realized that I was well above the highest peaks in the Lower 48. After returning to the lodge we just passed the afternoon playing games and eating. We were in bed early as we planned to be moving around 5am the next morning.
The morning of the pass, our alarms went off at 4:30am and we found our way to the dining room for cinnamon rolls and masala chai. Probably the best alpine-start breakfast I have ever had. We were plodding up the trail by 5:15am and got to watch as the mountains changed color through the sunrise. Theo’s all-day pace once again had us passing groups on the way up (just don’t stop, people!). We were at the pass around 9am with clear sunny skies, a cinnamon roll to split, and tea from the tea shop that is at the pass, because for some people climbing up there is just how they get to work each day… This was definitely one of the high points (literally! Ha!) of our trip so far and it really was a great feeling of accomplishment.
Unfortunately, short of calling a helicopter, you can’t end the trip there. What follows is a knee-crushing—and, on this day, very slippery—four- to five-hour descent. Eventually we came to Muktinath which was just overwhelming. This is a very holy city and it was festival season so the whole place was full of pilgrims arriving by foot, bus, jeep, mule, and even helicopter. The juxtaposition and exhaustion of the day plus some challenges finding a room for the night put us in bad spirits and all we wanted to do was move on.
We decided we would hike to Jomsom the next day via Lubra as it was supposed to avoid the road. Next time I would just catch transit from Muktinath… The trail started with a fairly mellow climb but then descended a very steep and loose trail for several hours. The town of Lubra itself was great and incredibly rejuvenating—a perfect oasis in the dry river valley. However, after lunch we opted to take the trail instead of descending to the river bed and found it to be very challenging. Our reward for taking the harder path was having to navigate massive road cuts at the end when the trail just ended in one of them. What followed was a two-hour, incredibly dusty, heavily traffucked, walk into Jomsom. Most of the shops had metal rollaway doors over them as we walked through and there was a bit of a wind tunnel coming up the street at us, but after poking our head into a few places, we did find the nicest accommodations of the whole trek. Complete with a great restaurant, a carpeted room with attached and (actually) hot shower, western toilet and comfy bed; amazing what $15 (supper expensive by the standards of this trek) can get you.
At this point, we knew we didn’t want to hike along the road but still had a few more days so we hired a jeep for the next day to take us about 60km down the road to Tatopani. We were informed in the morning that the Jeep was not going and we needed to get on a bus (think, rally-racing in a school bus with Indian pop music blasting for four hours along a road that could easily prove fatal…); better than walking for two days in the dust, maybe.
The next day we were supposed to be away from roads rather quickly with the largest climb (~6000 feet) of the whole trek. However, once again we found out how quickly the roads are pushing into the mountains as we were on moon dust-covered jeep tracks breathing air thick with pollution for most of the day. The last hour of the day we found ourselves in absolutely beautiful rhododendron forests as we made our way into Ghorepani. Shortly after finding our accommodations for the night, weather set in and there was some spectacular thunder, lightning, and hail. In the morning we opted not to climb up the famous Poon Hill for sunrise, instead sleeping in to a reasonable hour and enjoying almost identical views from a bit of trail along our route. We spent the next two days hiking from village to village on stone trails through rhododendron forests without a road in sight. It was a great portion of the trek. When we got to Ghandruk, we stopped for tea and noticed a lot of people who appeared to be day hikers. Stopping one group to chat we learned that the road on this side now stopped at a jeep stand just below town, a day closer than the map showed. So instead of continuing on with our plan we decided to end on a high note and get a jeep back to Phokhara a day early. As thunderstorms set in and we passed many miserable looking trekkers from the relative comfort of the jeep, our decision was only reaffirmed.
One of our motivators for traveling has been to try to get to places before they are gone and I feel like we might have been a few years behind the curve on this one. There were beautiful sections of this trail and putting them together into a shorter trip would be well worth it. However, the roads will likely continue to shorten this over the coming years making the added effort of getting to some of the other regions more attractive. The people, both local and foreign along the trail were great. On the few times that navigation proved challenging, there was always a nearby local willing to point us in the right direction and the hospitality of the lodges was generally outstanding. We were also both pleasantly surprised by the food which, while seasoned with the hunger of a day’s hike, was really good on all but a few occasions. So if you are thinking about going to Nepal, absolutely go, just maybe make the extra effort to get to a less impacted region.
Check out more photos from the Annapurna Circuit here!