Annapurna Circuit Trek, a 20-Day Journey in the Nepalese Himalaya
(Put another way, I was about to climb three Sears Towers and then descend five.)
I lifted the curtain and looked out my window. The sky was dark but clear; the half moon burned just above the horizon – a good sign. I climbed out of my cocoon into the frigid room and pulled on every stitch of clothing I had.
I was walking the Annapurna circuit, a classic trek in central Nepal that stretches for 300km (186 miles) around the Annapurna mountains in the Himalaya. The trek begins at low elevation and climbs up to 5,416 meter (17,768ft) Thorung La pass. Along the way it passes through dozens of lowland and high mountain villages and some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the world.
Cast & Crew
Setting foot on the Annapurna trail is like stepping back in time. The trappings and distractions of modern society vanish. Life goes on in the mountain villages much as it must have a century ago. Gone are the sounds of cars, motorcycles, or machines of any sort. In their stead are the sounds of rivers and waterfalls, of women tending gardens, children walking to and from school, men porting goods or playing cards. Local products are made by hand; buildings are erected without the aid of machines. Because everything has to be carried into the mountains on the backs of porters, luxury items such as sweets and beer grow scarce.
The Himalaya mountain views are, quite simply, the most splendid natural views I've ever seen in my life. On a canvas too enormous to take in at once, rock and water and plant compete for attention. Gentle green mountains roll down to deep valley floors with ancient terraced fields carved out of their sides. Icy, unreal-blue rivers slice deep into rocky valley floors. New, angry, jagged cliffs tower off in the background, standing in stark relief against crystalline skies. An embarrassing abundance of waterfalls cut deep trenches into the rock face.
The Village People
Most people we encountered were genuinely pleased to see us, and greeted us enthusiastically with "Namaste" (I salute you!) whenever we passed. (Tourism is at a low in Nepal right now; we must have been welcome sights to the people who depend on tourists for their livelihood.)
As a general rule, Nepalese people are stronger than water buffaloes. Porters passed us on the trail carrying dump truck-sized loads in wicker baskets slung from the crowns of their heads. Children hauled loads of firewood, food, even stones that would make Western gym rats cringe. (Having a 60-year-old, load-bearing Nepalese lady speed past you on the trail, rock-solid calves pumping off into the distance, is a humbling experience.)
Cuisine on the trail ranged from decent to tedious. The Nepali national dish is dal baht: rice with lentil soup and vegetable curry. It's a tasty meal, but it can get monotonous after twenty or thirty servings. The alternative is to delve into the Western items on the menu, made by people who've never tried the real thing. Discovering a rural Nepali's interpretation of a veggie quesadilla is an adventure.
Regardless of food quality, I managed to gorge myself at least three times a day. My body demanded an amazing quantity of fuel. I'd often feel satiated only after devouring porridge, hard-boiled eggs, vegetable soup, milk tea, dal baht, Tibetan bread, trail mix, nuts, cookies, and chocolate bars – all before noon.
A standout discovery I made in the mountains is yak cheese, which tastes like a fine parmesan and enhances every meal imaginable. Seabuckthorn juice, made from a local berry that tastes like apricots, was another stellar treat.
By far, the most coveted food item on the trip was chocolate. I scaled new heights of culinary ecstasy with an air-cooled Snickers bar at 4000 meters. And never before have I eaten three Mars bars in a row.
The scenery changed for the better as we climbed higher up in the mountains. The hazy views of the pre-monsoon lowlands gave way to crystal clear blue skies and white capped mountains. Up above the tree line, the scenery morphed into a barren, Tibet-like landscape of brown hills, landslides, and jagged peaks.
The air thinned considerably above the 3,000m mark, which made steep climbs and rigorous efforts more difficult. But, although thin, the air felt so pure and fresh that I hardly noticed a change (after spending months in big Asian cities I'd grown accustomed to breathing less oxygen than usual).
Nepal is a southerly country (it's at the same latitude as Egypt and Florida) with a mild climate. But up above 3,000m the temperature drops dramatically, especially at night.
The thing about the cold in Nepal is that there's little you can do to escape it. Fuel for cooking is in scare supply; heating a room is out of the question. The only way to combat the cold is to layer-up; I took to wearing thermal underwear, gloves, and hat everywhere – to dinner, bed, the toilet, etc.
On the bright side, a week of freezing nights provided a great incentive to get over the pass and down to lower elevations as quickly as possible.
We were eating our usual breakfast of tea, apple porridge, and hardboiled eggs in Yak Kharka, a town at 4,000m in elevation, when another party's guide approached us and said, "Your guide is sick. Vomiting. Altitude. He needs to go down."
"Huh?" How could Toc Pun be sick? Toc was a rock, a pro. He was guiding us.
We went to Toc's room and found him in a sorry state indeed. He'd been vomiting all morning, was having trouble breathing, and complained of blurry vision – serious symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS). Alarmed, we broke camp and hurried Toc down to a lower elevation. His symptoms didn't improve. It soon became clear that he wasn't going to get well quickly enough to make it over the pass. Toc Pun had to go home.
The incident was an eye-opener. Toc was born in the Himalaya; he's crossed
Thorung La 22 times; he's a certified, professional guide. But AMS can strike
anyone, regardless of age, experience, or health.
The first hour hurt the most. The climb from base camp to high camp is impossibly steep, utterly unforgiving. Fighting for breath in the thin air, I'd pause every few meters, gaze up the unending mountainside, and indulge in a moment of self-pity. Then I'd stare back at the ground and put one foot in front of the other.
I felt my strength and optimism rising after an hour of climbing. I no longer had to stop as often; I was even able to make some breathy chatter with the people we passed.
Near the halfway point we met a cheery brown ball of matted fur. Christened Mountain Dog, the mongrel was immediately welcomed into our party. A pleasant, motivational mascot, M.D. made the climbs and the altitude look easy.
Past the 5,000 meter elevation mark the air became impossibly thin and dry. I had to pause every few meters to regulate my breathing. A dull ache began to grow in the pit of my lungs. My heartbeat accelerated.
Just as I was growing paranoid about my health, I glanced up and noticed some colors peeking out over the top of the cliff – prayer flags marking the pass! My shallow breathing and worrisome heartbeat fell away as I scrambled up to Thorung La.
Thorung La pass is marked by a large cairn (stone pile) strewn with prayer flags. Commanding mountain views greet visitors from every side. Magnificently, the surrounding mountains appeared to be at eye level or lower. I was on top of the world.
I noticed some movement by my feet. Mountain Dog gazed up at me. I swear he was smiling.
Murder on the Knees
The pure hell of descents came into sharp focus after an hour: the cartilage in my knees felt like it was compacting into rice paper, the tendon that runs down the front of my shin stiffened and spasmed, my toes jabbed against the toe of my boots.
The 1600m descent took its toll. Toward the end, I hobbled down the trail like a geriatric in a knee surgery ward, using my walking stick as a cane.
But I made it. And Mountain Dog made it too.
After a day of rest, we started the long climb back down to Pokhara, passing through more spectacular scenery, medieval villages, and surprisingly modern tourist towns such as Jomoson. There were rhododendron forests, German bakeries, hot springs, and local distilleries. There was Poon Hill, where at first light the mountains appeared to hover in midair. And there were more brutal climbs and descents too.
In total, we trekked the Annapurna circuit in 20 days.
Away From it All
Never before have I been cut off from news and communications for so long. I've never gone so long without seeing a motorized vehicle. I've never read so much, played so much chess, talked so much, thought so much.
Nepalese treks have everything going for them: culture, natural beauty, welcoming people, physical challenge, and value for the dollar. The Annapurna circuit trek has been a highpoint of my trip – one of the highpoints of my life, really.
Here's a four-part video series about the journey.
Part One: Kathmandu to Pokhara
How do you prepare for a 20-day trek in Nepal? With a load of bootlegged gear in Kathmandu.
Part Two: Pokhara to Thorung La pass
Setting foot on the Annapurna trail is like stepping back in time. The trappings and distractions of modern society vanish.
Part Three: Thorung La pass
The first hour hurt the most on this unforgiving trek over 17,769 foot Thorung La pass.
Part Four: The Long Walk Down
Circling back to Pokhara, we passed through more spectacular scenery, medieval villages, and surprisingly modern villages. Posted on April 29, 2003 06:59 AM