Our main reason for coming to Nepal was to do the Annapurna Circuit - traditionally, a 20 day, 300km trek through the Himalayas. In our case (as the title indicates) it was a 15 day, 200km trek. Our trek was shorter because in 2010 they decided to build a road over a large part of the trekking circuit to make bringing in supplies and emergency access easier. Since trekking over a dusty road with a lot of Jeep/bus traffic isn't so much fun, we opted to spend one day on a bus (to skip over a section of the road after the Thorong pass), and instead spent the extra days trekking through part of the Annapurna Sanctuary. Overall, the Annapurna trek turned out to be an awesome experience - it was a perfect balance of walk and rest time, and had a great variety of scenery including old villages & monasteries, rice fields, waterfalls, forests, and, of course, Himalaya mountain landscapes. Since Annapurna has become such a popular trek over the years, the accommodations and food quality were surprisingly good, especially considering how small and remote some of the villages are!
Day 1: Local bus to the start of the circuit (4km)
Our first day involved a 7h local-bus ride from Kathmandu to the start of the circuit, Besheishar. Since the local bus was late (it took 2 hours just to get out of the Kathmandu traffic jam), we had to make up time by taking another local bus to the next town, Bhulbhule. We then did a quick 45 minute walk to the village, Ngadi, where we spent our first night.
Day 2: Ngadi to Jagat (22km - 470m elevation gain)
For our first day of actual trekking, we hiked 22 km through huge valleys of gorgeous rice terraces - appropriate since the name Annapurna comes from the sanskrit meaning "full of food".
Day 3: Jagat to Bagarchhap (17km - 800m elevation gain)
We spent most of the day climbing uphill along a new road that is currently being built along the circuit. Nothing spectacular happened, but we could slowly see that the vegetation was already slowly changing from rice terraces to trees and scenery similar to the Rockies.
Day 4: Bagarchhap to Chame (12km - 600m elevation gain)
This was the first day that we started seeing some of the Himalayan peaks including Manasulu (8400m), Annapurna 2 (7925m), and some others that we don't remember the names of :). We also found a small hot spring in Chame, where we dipped our feet in for a bit. After dinner, we watched the movie "Into Thin Air" that was playing at our restaurant - a film based on a book that was written about the Everest Expeditions in 1996 where 12 people died attempting to summit Everest.
Day 5: Chame to Lower Pisang (12km - 500m elevation gain)
Today the vegetation started changing to conifers. The evening temperatures are much cooler here so we already had to start wearing sweaters and long pants in the evenings. We felt right at home since, other than the villages and Himalayan peaks in the background, the scenery felt exactly like hiking in the Rockies. From here on, we saw great views of the Himalayan peaks every day. We arrived at Lower Pisang and relaxed a bit before crossing the river and climbing uphill to explore the village of Upper Pisang and its Buddhist Monastery. We enjoy a cup of Lemon tea, courtesy of the monks, while admiring the sunset and view of Annapurna 2. On our way back down to Lower Pisang, our guide, Dipindra, pointed out some Marijuana plants which, apprently, grow freely along the country side.
Day 6: Lower Pisang to Manang (19km - 700m elevation gain and 400m elevation loss)
We arrived early in Manang (3500 masl), so we visited the well-preserved older parts of town to get a feel for the lifestyle and culture of the people living here. In the afternoon, while Jen took a nap, Dom and Guy hiked up an extra 300 meters to check out a Tibetan Stupa. Along the way, they ran into another group of people who told them about a monastery a little higher up where you could get some tea. Once they reached the top, to their surprise, they met the "Hundred Rupee Lama" who gave them tea and a blessing for 100 rupees. The Lama, now 96 years old, lives with his 64 year old daughter and spends most of his day meditating in his house on a cliff.
Day 7: Acclimatization day in Manang (5km - 400m elevation gain, and back down)
To help avoid altitude sickness at altitudes higher than 3000 masl, the rule of thumb is to "hike high and sleep low" to help your body adjust to the changes in altitude. So we did an acclimatization day and hike in Manang, which involved hiking up to about 3900 masl to see another Tibetan Stupa, an abandoned village, and a view of the Machapuchare "Fish Tail" Mountain (6993 masl), Machapuchare Glacier, and Machapuchare Lake (3600 masl). We then returned to Manang to sleep. Since the acclimatization hike took less than 3 hours, we spent the afternoon reading and then checked out a movie at the local projection hall. They served hot mint tea and popcorn, and played "Seven Years in Tibet"… still a great and inspiring movie, even after all these years :).
Day 8: Manang to Leder (10km - 700m elevation gain)
The day started a bit roughly.. Guy had bad diarrhea that kept him up all night.. and the next morning, Dom accidentally dropped the lid for his SIGG water bottle into the squat toilet that was backed up.. but.. other than that, and Jen starting to have stomach issues later that day.. the rest of the day was really amazing! Only 1 hour after departing Manang, we stopped at a little tea house in Gunsang where we saw one of the greatest views of the Annapurna ranges. The weather and tea house atmosphere was so reminiscent of warm, spring-skiing days at a ski lodge patio (minus the smell of burgers cooking on the bbq), that we just had to stop and sit out on the patio to enjoy the view with a cup of hot Sea Buckthorn tea made from berries that grow in the area (packed full of vitamins and other good stuff) ;).
By the end of the day, we reached Ledar - 4200 meters above sea level. In Ledar, evening temperatures went below 0 and the buckets of water for "flushing" the seat toilets were covered in ice by morning. We were lucky to stay in a tea house that had a "sun room" where we spent the afternoon soaking in the few remaining hours of warmth while reading and playing cards until the sun went down and the temperature took its drastic evening dive.
Day 9: Ledar to High Camp (11km - 600m elevation gain)
High Camp is the last camp before going over the Thorong Pass, to the valley on the other side. When we stopped for lunch in Thorang Phedi, our guide (Dipindra) sent our porter, Diplal, up to High Camp ahead of us to obtain rooms (most camps are first-come-first-serve). By the time we arrived, we discovered it was a good move as we encountered several other trekkers who arrived to discover that the camp was full. Since they didn't get rooms, they would have to spend the night sleeping wherever they could find floor space in the dining hall. Just before dinner, we did a quick little hike up to another nice view point of the valley. Here, we had to layer on all of the warm gear we had, as the temperature and wind chill was now really cold.
Day 10: Thorong Pass: High Camp to Muktinath (15km - 600m elevation gain, then 1700m elevation loss)
After a short night of cold and very poor sleep (at this altitude, 4800masl, the air is quite thin so all 3 of us repeatedly awoke due to lack of air), we got up at 4AM and went off into the dark to cross Thorong Pass, 5416 meters above sea level. We were very lucky that none of us got altitude sickness - we saw several other groups with people complaining of headaches and/or vomiting in the morning. We even encountered a few people who had to hire donkeys to carry them up through the pass because they were too sick and weak to walk up on their own. By the time we reached the top, we were absolutely frozen, but managed to stop for a few quick pictures and a cup of hot tea before starting the long journey down. In total, we went up about 600 meters and down 1700 meters before finally (and exhaustedly) arriving at Muktinath around 1pm.
We took a nap and then hiked back up a hill to visit the local Hindu and Buddhist temples. Dipindra and Diplal performed a ritual where they burned incense and gave offerings at the temple. They then gave each of us a tikka and tied a coloured ribbon around our necks for good luck. We also washed our sins in the 108 dhungedhara (stone taps), sat and listened to some Buddhist nuns chanting Tibetan mantras, and saw a natural gas fire that forever burns in the Buddhist temple without being fed.
Day 11: Muktinath to Jomsom (20km - 1100m elevation loss)
On our way to Jomsom, we stopped in a village called Kagbeni to visit a Tibetan Monastery that was built in 1429. We also encountered tons of mini cows along the way, which we thought were all baby cows, but it turns out that this is actually the full grown size of cows in this area. They were super cute, and one stopped to try to eat Jen's hand :).
The typical Annapurna Circuit trek involves spending a night in Kagbeni, but since we wanted to make our way to the Annapurna Sanctuary sooner, we continued on to Jomsom. What we didn't realize is that every afternoon in the Mustang Valley, the winds really picks up, lifting all of the dry and barren dirt from the ground into a nice gusty dust storm. Luckily we had purchased neck tubes for the trek and they made fairly decent masks for minimizing the amount of dust getting into our faces and lungs. As we passed along the dried up river bed, we also searched for fossils by finding the right type of rocks and breaking them open by smashing them with bigger rocks. After a few attempts, we actually managed to find a couple of cool ones :).
Day 12: Jomsom to Tatopani by Local Bus
Normally at this point, completing the traditional Annapurna Circuit would involve walking 2 more, 6-hour days on a windy, dusty, trafficked road to reach Tatopani. Since walking this road wasn't overly appealing to us, our guide had recommended that it would be far more interesting and enjoyable if we instead took a local bus to Tatopani and spent more time in the Annapurna Sanctuary area… to be continued in another post.