I was wrong when I thought that things would calm down when we crossed the border from India to Nepal. We had no idea that we were arriving in Nepal in the middle of protests and a transportation ban because of their upcoming election. Democracy is relatively new to Nepal; their monarchy was officially abolished in 2008.
At the border town we were supposed to board a bus that leaves several times throughout the day for Kathmandu. But because of the transportation ban it was only leaving once a day and not for another four hours. The trip normally takes around six hours but it ended up taking us 18. We didn’t arrive until the following day. So much for the shower and bed I was so looking forward to that evening after spending the previous night on an Indian ‘sleeper class’ train. By the early morning we were in a convoy with dozens of other buses weaving along the curvy mountain roads. We stopped every hour to take a break for a few hours. I finally realized that the reason we were stopping so often was to let the Nepalese police and military go ahead to check for bombs or other trouble before they let our bus continue. The drivers didn’t speak much English but they repeatedly assured us that the protestors weren’t targeting tourists so we were not in any danger. Only after arriving safely in Kathmandu did we learn that protestors had thrown petrol bombs at another tourist bus that same morning and 13 people were injured.
After a busy two days of buying trekking equipment, securing permits, visiting friends, and lining up transportation, we were finally ready to begin the Annapurna Circuit trek! We had to shell out $100 USD to hire a private car to take us to Besisahar where the hike began because of the transportation ban. We were just glad to finally be out of the chaos surrounding the elections and into the peaceful small villages and mountains.
The Annapurna Circuit is said to be one of the best hikes in the world. We had high expectations but weren’t disappointed in the least. The 16-day, over 160 mile trek was incredible and one of the highlights of this entire trip. A cool aspect of the trek is that you pass through so many different climates and environments. We started and ended the trek in a tropical climate with palm trees, brightly colored flowers and other lush vegetation. There were waterfalls everywhere. Most of the way, there was a turquoise river beside us with wobbly suspension bridges that we often had to cross. In the middle of the trek we were in some of the most desolate landscapes we’ve ever seen, but also some of the most beautiful. We were surrounded by the world’s tallest mountains. The enormous Himalayas soared above us at over 20,000 feet. We paid the equivalent of $0 – 3 USD a night to sleep in rustic lodges (called tea houses) with 360 degree views of the rugged, snow-covered Himalayas. Each day, there were breathtaking sunsets and sunrises.
During the day we trekked through little Himalayan villages, where the residents still collected water from a well and herded yak and goats for a living. The adorable children greeted us with “Namaste” as we walked through, sometimes asking for a treat. The locals lived in stone houses with their livestock. It was fascinating to see the people truly living off the land. If you ordered chicken for dinner, the chicken had been running around the courtyard a few hours before. The vegetables came straight from their gardens. Anything not produced in the villages had to be hauled in by the mules and could take days. On the day of Nepal’s elections, November 19th, there were dozens of locals walking back to the villages where they were born so that they could vote. We passed countless prayer flags and rocks, temples, prayer wheels, and stupas along the way, witnessing both Buddhist and Hindu traditions. The trek skirts close to the Tibet border so we felt that influence as well. As we continued, the elevation increased dramatically and the temperatures dropped. There is no heat in the little lodges we stayed in and in the more desolate areas there were no trees. But don’t worry, the resourceful Nepalese people found a way to make fires. They dry clumps of yak dung and burn that in the evenings for heat. Most of the nights we went to bed as soon as the fire burnt out and it got too cold (sometimes as early as 7 p.m.).
But everything didn’t go according to plan, of course. I’m very clumsy and on the 2nd day of 16 days of trekking I twisted my ankle pretty badly. It popped loudly and swelled up to twice the size of my other ankle. Luckily, Bryan had enough foresight to carry a sturdy ankle brace in his backpack (he broke his ankle several times when he was younger). Without the brace, there is no way I’d have been able to finish the Annapurna Trek and that would have devastated me.
We added on a few extra days to the traditional Annapurna Circuit route by taking the Tilicho Lake side trek which came highly recommended. In our opinion, this was the most challenging part (more difficult than the Thorong La Pass). There was a narrow dirt trail along the side of the mountain with steep, high gravel drop-offs above and below, cutting across previous landslide sites. Occasionally rocks would tumble down as we walked. I was terrified, especially going downhill where it was easy to lose your footing. “HOW DO YOU ALWAYS TALK ME INTO THIS CRAP!?!?” I asked Bryan. But it was something I wanted to do just as much as he did (just not so much during the treacherous moments). The beauty of Tilicho Lake was worth my fears and near breakdowns. At over 16,000 feet, Nepal is proud to claim Tilicho Lake as one of the highest lakes in the world. We watched snow avalanches rumble down the mountains that surrounded the mirror-like lake. As the sun warmed the water, the lake’s ice chunks began to crunch and crack as they melted. Even better, there was hardly anyone else there. It was the best scenery of the entire hike. This side trek is not recommended for novice trekkers during inclement weather; the area can be dangerous due to landslides, especially in wet or snowy conditions. After completing the Tilicho Lake side trek, I was pretty proud of myself, but exhausted and we still had to cross the Thorong La Pass at nearly 18,000 feet.
The big pass was tough, but not nearly as hard as we expected. After several days in a row of all-day hiking we were in pretty decent shape and more confident trekkers. I was also pleased that I didn’t experience altitude sickness like I had in Bolivia and Peru. What motivated me that day was the thought of a hot shower and a piece of warm apple crumble waiting on the other side of the mountain pass.
Many people end the Annapurna Circuit in Muktinath right after the pass or in Jomsom the following day, but we had time and energy (and didn’t want to pay the steep price to fly back) so we decided to keep trekking. We’re glad we did. There were plenty of interesting villages along the way and more gorgeous scenery. We stopped in a few monasteries where the young monks showed us around and chatted for awhile. We also had some delicious food – Yak Burgers at YacDonald’s (I’m serious) and fresh chocolate apple crumble and the best apple juice in the orchard town of Marpha.
Bryan was already getting too skinny in my opinion after all of this exercise. His plan was to eat more and put on some weight once we got back to civilization. Unfortunately, when we finished our trek and went to Pokhara he accidently ate a raw chicken sandwich. The chicken was shredded and had vegetables mixed in so he didn’t notice until the last bite. Bryan thought he was in the clear because he didn’t get sick for the first day. But the symptoms conveniently began on the 8 hour bus ride back to Kathmandu. The bus kept stopping for long periods of time before we reached the city. Finally Bryan couldn’t wait any longer. He grabbed his bag and ran off the bus with me trailing behind. He was immediately surrounded by dozens of Nepalese men right in his face shouting, “Taxi, sir? Taxi?” He tried to be patient in the beginning and then he couldn’t stand it. “I DON’T NEED A TAXI! I NEED A TOILET!” he yelled back at the crowd of drivers. This is the best thing he could have done. One of the men escorted him to a little shack outhouse on the side of the busy road and asked a nearby lady for the key. The taxi driver and I waited outside for what seemed like forever. The driver tried to convince me that we needed to take Bryan to the hospital. I assured him Bryan would be fine . . . and eventually he was almost back to normal a week or so and a dose of Cipro later.
I can’t end with another bodily function story even though I know most of our readers find them amusing. 🙂 I will say that the Annapurna Circuit was definitely worth the sprained ankle, blisters, and all the effort. I’ve included some more info and tips for travelers interested in trekking in Nepal. There are a variety of excellent hikes to choose from in the region but I’d recommend doing the Annapurna Circuit as soon as possible because of the road they are building.
— The entire AC trek (from Besisahar to Nayapul) with the 3-day side trek to Tilicho Lake usually takes 18-21 days. Not the 16 that we did it in, so plan accordingly. We were on the trails by 6:30am every morning and hiked long days, but you may want to allot yourself more time.
–Kathmandu has many of the essential items you need for a trek, and they’re super cheap. It’s almost all knock-off brands but we were quite pleased with the fake North Face sleeping bags we bought for $11.50 USD each. They kept us warm and comfy even in the cold temperatures. We also bought good trekking poles for $3 USD each!
–Pack light, but bring warm clothes. We saw so many other trekkers with huge, heavy bags. That’s the last thing you need or want when you are hiking up steep inclines for weeks. Bring some warm things for the evening but pack as little as possible.
–Bring a water bottle and a way to purify water (a steripen, pills, etc.). You are in the middle of the Himalayas and they don’t recycle. All of the used plastic bottles end up on the side of a hill, definitely not adding to the spectacular mountain scenery.
–Sneakers or Hiking Boots? It’s very possible to complete the AC in sneakers – we both did. But I would have felt much more confident in my hiking boots. I’m also pretty sure that I would have never sprained my ankle if I’d been wearing them since they have better traction and ankle support. Don’t buy hiking boots in Kathmandu! The knock-offs won’t hold up, and we could only find extremely expensive ones at the genuine North Face and Marmot stores.
–“Shoulder Season” is a great time to go! October is the busiest month because the weather is usually good, but it’s crowded. We went in mid-November and the weather was perfect, and there were very few people. We had blue skies everyday and only saw a few clouds the entire time! Plus, we didn’t have to worry about leeches. Yuck.
–Accommodation: the AC is awesome because you don’t have to carry sleeping gear or food. There are plenty of tea houses along the way which provide extremely basic but comfortable lodging. They are very cheap – usually a couple of dollars or sometimes even free but it’s expected that you will eat dinner and breakfast at your teahouse. Meals are usually a couple of dollars as well. We only ended up spending about $20 – 25 USD a day for both of us but you will spend much more if you drink beer. Beer, soda, and candy bars are pricey because they have to be hauled up into the mountains by mules or people.
–We strongly suggest not joining a tour group. It looked miserable. We referred to the groups as “nose-to-butt hikers” because they walked in a line very close together and when they went uphill their noses were literally right by the butt of the person in front of them. The hike is well-marked and it’s easy to get a map so there’s no reason to join a big group.
–Every afternoon, the doctors at the Himalayan Rescue Association’s clinic in Manang hold a very informative free talk about Acute Mountain Sickness and the other dangers of high elevations.
–There is a road being built on both ends of the Annapurna Circuit. A rough dirt trail would be a better way to describe it. As this road reaches more and more villages, it obviously effects the “feel” of the trek. We felt that the hike was still excellent and definitely worth doing. If you’re debating on doing the AC or Everest Base Camp, and may be in Nepal in the future, do the AC hike now before the road is complete.