I spent a night at the border crossing, taking the opportunity to break the journey and have an impulsive haircut. Normally I avoid people that shout out offers for services, but to date no one seemed to have dared to offer a haircut to me so I gratefully took him up on his offer. It was then another long overnight journey to Pokhara where I put my feet up for a couple of days.
Soon the pull of the mountains became too much and I decided to take to the trails of one of the world’s most famous treks – The Annapurna Circuit. I was joined by Hans from Holland. All in I was a little sceptical by my trekking partner. He was a heavy smoker and had intended on leaving two days earlier, but had failed to wake up. After agreeing to trek together, he then managed to book a bus in completely the wrong direction. However, all concerns were soon left firmly behind when we hit the trail and he turned out to be an excellent trekking partner.
First stop was an early bus journey to a small town called Besi Sahar. With an elevation of 800m it would be another 5000m or so until we got to the highest point. We decided to cheat a little here and take a bus thirty minutes on to Bhulbule, which avoided the worst part of the road and is officially where the trail starts. For the next five days we walked from village to village, at times along a dusty road and others upon well marked trails crossing through stunning terrain. When we felt like we had done enough for the day, we stopped at the many lodges, which line the route. I must say that they have come a long way since the Everest trek five years ago, with most having hot showers and promising, although not delivering, wifi.
It was a gorgeous hike. The fresh mountain air was welcome, as were the stunning mountain views, which followed us everywhere we went. But most of all I enjoyed the simplicity. Wake up – have breakfast – walk – lunch – walk – dinner – in bed and indeed asleep by 7pm.
The pattern was broken in Manang, which sits at 3540m. Due to its altitude, it is one of those places where you are forced to down the bag so as to acclimatise. Although feeling pretty strong after five days, it was still a welcome break. The views from the village weren’t bad either.
On the previous days, we had barely met another hiker. Two Dutch girls (Becca and Cally) and a Bulgarian (Vladimir) and German (Jasper) hiker were the only ones who we occasionally shared the trail with. However, the walk to Manang brought us into contact with a number of other hikers, which made for a much more social experience in the lodge. But fundamentally, the enforced break gave ample time for reading. In fact so much time that I finished a book in one day. ‘Touching the Void,’ was a very fitting book to read when sitting next to a 7000m peak, however, perhaps not the most sensible book with the most dangerous part of the trail to come the following day.
On the second evening, Hans, Becca, Cally and I went to the local cinema, which consisted of a projector and various benches lined with Yak fur. There we watched Seven Years In Tibet. A wonderful story with some incredibly bad German accents.
The next day, we left the main trail for Tilicho base camp. The walking was nice, although the altitude was starting to make it slower work. On the way, we met up again with Vladimir and Jasper and would travel with them for most of the rest of the trek. The day itself was one of the hardest because of a race against time as we had to get across the landslide area before the winds picked up. From a distance the path looked lethal:
However, it was not the path or the drops that were the issue, but rather the danger of falling rocks. All passed by ok though and after an exhausting day we arrived at Tilicho base camp. At around 4,200m it was freezing. The water stopped running as soon as the sun went down and snow fell throughout the evening.
The next morning, we hiked eight hundred meters up to Tilicho lake, which in Nepal is considered to be the highest lake in the world. Further research suggests that my cynical response to this suggestion was well merited and indeed it doesn’t even come close. Despite this, and whilst frozen, it was still absolutely worth the effort. I arrived at the top a fair bit earlier than the the others and had the place to myself. I can’t honestly think of a place that can compare in terms of a lack of noise. No wind and no wildlife made it eerily silent and quite oppressive. The noise of Vladimir some ten minutes later was a welcome relief.
From Tilicho we made it back around to the main trail, where we began the final ascent over the pass at 5400m. Pretty well acclimatised, our final stop was at the High camp, which was at 4800m. Despite being very basic with minimal heating, it did manage to deliver the North London derby live on a small tv in a different room from the fire. It was worth being frozen.
At the top of the pass, we celebrated with a very expensive cup of tea, which was an interesting mix with the icicles which I had discovered hanging from my beard! Then we took a few photos, none of which were particularly kind to Vladimir or I, who had to stand next to the two giants in Hans and Jasper.
We then descended nearly two thousand metres leaving the snow far behind. Needless to say, the knees hurt! It brought the return of warmer weather though. It also brought a completely different type of trek.
If the first half had been about the mountains, than now it was about the villages. Most people leave the trek at Muktinath, the first place after the pass, deciding to race to Jomson and then on to the bright lights of the city. In fact, after a day of Wifi, I lost Hans this way and a couple of days later Vladimir followed too, although this was down to injury rather than temptation. Road building is at its most ferocious on this side and it makes it very easy to exit the trek quickly, however, with new hiking trails stretching all the way down, we barely touched it and it was every bit as good as the previous eleven days.
We passed through one of the most important Hindu temples at Muktinath (although the promised festival disappointed), visited the medieval town of Kagbeni and its goregous sister, Tiri, which marks the furthest point you can go for before ‘forbidden’ Mustang. Every tight corner, took Jasper and I another hundred years into the past and always brought us into contact with numerous animals.
As we continued we found many other villages routed in the past. We watched people preparing for archery competitions, climbed over the town walls using a ladder, because they never open the village gates, drank tea and ate soup in various local houses and enjoyed the apple orchid delight of Marpha – sampling piece after piece of apple crumble washed down by home made apple cider and brandy! And all whilst still having incredible mountain views.
Perhaps one of the most spectacular parts of the trip was witnessing the change of the seasons. We had departed in winter. The trees were bare and the landscape dry and cold. After going over the pass we descended into spring. Little chicks were everywhere as were baby goats. The ‘famous’ rhododendron blooms were in full flow. It was a beautiful change.
There was another less appealing change as well. As I made the 1700m climb up to Gorepani, I became aware that I was no longer alone. A winter start had brought with it low season. I shared the trail with a group of around ten, passing each other every couple of days. But now, crossing over onto the Annapurna panoramic trek, I was not the only ones in town. Rather, upon going up for the sunrise views at Poon Hill, I was surrounded by over two hundred people. The views were stunning:
But the crowds were not. When you’ve spent three weeks feeling like you have the Himalaya all to yourself, it is hard not to feel pretty empty inside when you find the one quiet place to enjoy the sunrise and are asked to move so someone can take a photo whilst stood on their head. I quickly made my exit and with a short day followed by a totally unplanned long day (the map was not entirely accurate with its contour lines)
I said goodbye to the mountains at Australian camp and exited at Kande. I hailed down a bus at the side of the road and then promptly regretted not choosing an exit point where bus originate from as I was forced to stand. A kind of relief came, when the bus broke down and I could sit on my bag at the side of the road for a while, but predictably that became rather dire after a while.
Arriving in Pokhara, I returned to my old hotel and put the bag down, had a very welcome hot shower and threw every ounce of three week old unwashed, sweat drenched laundry at the hotel owner. Twenty two days; close to 300km walked and an unaccountable amount of ascending and descending. It had been an incredible adventure