James Annapurna Story

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These big mountains are awe-inspiring and I couldn’t help but say out loud “holy shit” or “wow” every time I turned around to look at them on the way up.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 1: Bus from Kathmandu to Ngadi.

The first day was a long, hot, and bumpy but uneventful bus ride; the actual walking began the following day. All these photos are of Hotel Peace and Love where we stayed in Ngadi.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 2 Morning: Ngadi to Jagat

Walking through Ghermu.

 

Suspension bridge over the river at Syange.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 2 Afternoon: Jagat to Chamje

It’s undeniable that the construction of the road in this area has had a negative impact on the quality of the walking and natural beauty for everyone, but it makes it easier for locals to travel and deliver goods. I’m not sure it’s my place as a tourist to say whether or not it’s a bad thing.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 3: Chamje to Koto

The town of Tal, which I really liked, probably because the road doesn’t run through it, leaving the public space for people to live life on foot in peace. In the early part of our trek, we were unsure of our schedule and pace, so we rushed to walk big miles every day instead of stopping to soak in the nice towns like this, which I regret in hindsight.

 

The hilltop town of Thanchowk, which we passed through on our only rainy afternoon of the whole circuit. Maybe it was the moody weather, but this place gave me the sense of a very hard-working, melancholic yet determined population.

 

Koto, where I hung out on the balcony watching the street as I waited for dinner. I can’t say Koto was a pleasant place, but the street life was probably the most vibrant of any village on the circuit. Children played, someone from each household went one by one to the chicken butcher to buy dinner, and a team of ponies delivering supplies seemed to be managed cooperatively, without any system I could understand, by anyone that passed by. From what I can tell, life in the Himalaya is very hard, but healthy and enriching.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 4: Koto to Ghyaru

This was the first day that we got to see the huge mountains that the Himalayas are famous for, most notably the 7937 metre-tall Annapurna II, which towered way over us, even in the high altitude village of Ghyaru at 3730m. These big mountains are awe-inspiring and I couldn’t help but say out loud “holy shit” or “wow” every time I turned around to look at them on the way up.

 

The village of Ghyaru and the Yak Ru hotel were my favourite of the whole circuit. The view was definitely part of the reason, but there’s also something I can’t quite put my finger on about the higher-altitude farming villages that felt special to me. With no electricity, we ate dinner by candlelight and were served fresh apple pie by a very friendly elderly woman running the hotel all on her own. She had a warm smile on a weathered face that only comes from a lot of years of very hard work.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 5 Morning: Ghyaru to Braka

For me, this section of trail was the aesthetic highlight of the whole circuit. We were lucky enough to get crystal clear views of Annapurna II, III, and IV all morning, and I loved the vibe in the high-altitude villages of Ghyaru, Ngawal, and Julu, especially with a belly full of hot apple pie.

 

Me spinning prayer wheels on a mani wall in Ghyaru. I learned that these wheels are inscribed with the Tibetan Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum” and also contain many papers on which the mantra is written, and each time I spin the wheel it’s the equivalent of me reciting the mantra out loud as many times as it’s written on and within the wheel. So during a quick walk past the wall, I could easily get in a few million mantras before lunchtime. Seems like cheating to me, but I don’t know anything about it.

 

The village of Ghyaru, many of its homes actually abandoned by families that went to lower elevations searching for an easier life.

 

A statue of the Guru Padmasmbhava in Ngawal, consecrated less than a month before we visited.

 

A bakery famous for its cinnamon buns in Bhraka. Honestly, they weren’t very good.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 5 Afternoon: Bhraka to Khangsar

Movie theatre in Manang. Manang is the end of the road on this side of Thorung La, which means that a substantial number of tourists actually take a Jeep up to this point and then begin hiking there instead of starting days earlier in Besisahar, as was the tradition. As soon as we walked into Manang, we noticed the difference. It felt more like Whistler or El Chalten than a small Nepali village, and this vibe would persist until Jomsom. Thankfully, our detour to Khangsar that evening took us back off the beaten track.

 

Manang locals gathering buckwheat.

 

Hotels in Khangsar. We were the only guests that night at the simple Tilicho Hotel, and the owner seemed very proud to have us. He had recently constructed a new dining room, and he made very sure we stayed warm by firing up his new table-side fireplace while he cooked Dal Bhat by flashlight. Although the village is hooked up to the electricity grid, the power in the entire area from Manang to Jomsom would frequently cut out. I’m not sure why.

 

Annapurna Circuit Night 5: Khangsar


As I stood in the middle of the street in the dark with my tripod, a local woman approached me, asking if she could see the photos I was taking. Try explaining through a language barrier, without sounding rude, that she needs to wait 15 seconds for each exposure, and each time she touches my camera I need to restart. We eventually figured it out, but she didn’t seem impressed. Maybe when you live at 4000 metres, a clear Milky Way is no big deal.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 6: Khangsar to Churi Letdar

Fall colours on full display with (I think) one of the Annapurnas in the background, crossing the Marshyangdi valley to rejoin the main trail from the Tilicho side trail.

 

Tare Gompa (monastery) with the little tourist town of Shree Kharka above it in the background.

 

The spookily abandoned Old Khangsar.

 

The Nirvana restaurant. Funky music, Buddhist art, and yummy noodle soup.

 

A team of packhorses heading back to Manang after delivering their goods to the Thorung La area.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 7: Churi Letdar to Thorung High Camp

This was an unusual day. From our research, we had heard plenty of stories about high camp running out of beds, and trekkers forced to retrace their steps to the previous town. To avoid that happening to us, we got an early start in Letdar and arrived at High Camp (4700m) before 10am, and that’s where we stayed for the night. The hiking that morning was beautiful, but I didn’t find waiting around at High Camp very enjoyable.

Maybe I’m a hiking elitist or idealist, but I don’t like being around the whole commercial hiking scene with guides, porters, and my least favourite: huge tour groups. And on this day all we did from morning until evening was sit in a crowded dining hall, making small talk and waiting for an appropriate time to go to sleep. All while my body complained about the lack of oxygen in the air, a pretty nasty headache settling in for the day.

It wasn’t all bad. We met a very pleasant Malaysian group on their 9th trip to Nepal who shared a lot of valuable wisdom about the best places to visit. We hung out with a German man that shared his novel to pass the time and asked his guide to help us order a second helping of dinner amidst the chaos. And we bantered with a British couple that gave us the inside scoop on the illegal gambling that takes place at women’s tennis games (but the real money is in cricket, if you must know).

If you’re wondering why we didn’t just continue beyond High Camp since we had arrived so early in the day, all the literature says that the safe limit for elevation gain in a day above 3500m is 500-600m, and we had already reached that limit. Honestly, I’m not convinced we couldn’t have just gone over the pass the morning, but who knows? Some risks aren’t worth it.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 8: Thorung High Camp to Muktinath


Thorung La is the high point of the Annapurna Circuit, both in terms of its actual altitude at 5416m and also for the way it acts as the emotional focal point of the trek. It almost uniformly divides the circuit into the “uphill part” and the “downhill part”. I’m still not really sure why, but most of the other trekkers at the hotel woke up very early and set off into the darkness and subzero temps to start this hike at 5, 4, or even 3AM. So when we strolled into the dining area for breakfast at a leisurely 6AM, things were pretty chilled out and I was happy to get away from the crowds of yesterday’s dinner. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

There’s no getting around it, hiking up to 5400m is a physically demanding task. But on this day, the sun was shining, the views were beautiful, and we had all the time in the world to do it at a comfortable pace. We took it easy, enjoyed the scenery, and made a slow and pleasant journey up to the pass. I don’t remember it being a slog; it was a fun morning. After a few hours of heading over false passes, the prayer flags of Thorung La came into view pretty suddenly and anticlimactically. We waited in line to take some photos with the iconic plaque, I sipped on a very expensive but worthwhile cup of instant coffee, and then when it got too cold and the sense of accomplishment wore off, we started the steep and fun descent to Muktinath.

Going over Thorung La was cool, but for me it was far from the best thing on the circuit. I think for a person to only trek from Chame or Manang to Jomsom, making Thorung La the focus of the trip, would be a mistake. It’s just something that has to be done to get from the east to the west side of the Annapurnas, not a destination.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 8 Afternoon: Muktinath

Muktinath temple is one of the most sacred sites in the world for Hindus, and pilgrims come from all over Nepal and even India to worship here. So when we came down from Thorung La, we were a bit startled to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of a pilgrimage, but I really enjoyed it, and it gave me a new perspective and appreciation for what this hiking trip was. It made me realize that we weren’t on some grand wilderness adventure. We were just visiting a bunch of sites and villages, but we were doing it all on foot, which is a rare privilege in this age.

The heart of Muktinath is a natural gas flame and a flowing stream which make it the meeting place of the elements fire, water, earth, and air. Tourists aren’t allowed in the shrine, but I snapped some photos of the crazy scene which involved fire, ice-cold baths, and offerings of rice and other food. It was a kind of beautiful, organized mess.

The other highlight of the temple is the 108 fountains which pour what I understand is some kind of holy water. People touch each of these and even bottle some to take home for their family.

What I found to be one of the coolest things about Muktinath is that Buddhists and Hindus worship together there, since it’s a sacred site for both. I learned that this is actually the standard for temples in Nepal. It’s very odd for someone used to the North American way of practicing religion, but I like it.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 9: Muktinath to Kagbeni


This was a good day. Most hikers were heading straight to Jomsom to catch a flight or jeep out of the area, so we were back to relative peace and quiet on the trail. I think we saw more goat herders on the way to Kagbeni than hikers. This day gave us a taste of the Upper Mustang area, a desolate but beautiful place. It’s much drier here than on the east side of the pass, and all along the Kali Gandaki valley, a fierce wind that will blow your hat off and whip pebbles into your face kicks up around 10AM and continues throughout the afternoon. This would be our reality for the next few days, and I found it amazing that anyone would choose to settle down in such a harsh place.

Kagbeni is a cool village. The old part of town is a network of narrow, winding streets, similar to a medieval European city. Goats, cows, and buffalo roamed freely despite the close quarters. On the whole trip, exactly who all these wandering animals belonged to was a mystery to me. We took a tour of the gompa, a Buddhist temple/monastery/school, and were almost shocked at how nice the buildings were compared to the typical local houses and even the tourist hotels. I’m not sure how these things are funded, but it was clear in every single village in this area that the people living in the monasteries enjoy a quality of life that is orders of magnitude better than most of their neighbours.

In the new part of town, the lodges were of a quality we hadn’t seen before. There was Yacdonalds, where you can get a Happy Meal (this is not a joke) including a yak meat burger with a slice of yak cheese. We stayed at the Annapurna hotel which is known for, surprisingly, serving traditional Austrian food. Apparently an Austrian woman stayed there for a few weeks some time ago, she taught the staff her recipes, and they’ve been using them ever since.

When I tell friends and family that I just came back from this Nepal trekking trip, most people assume that it was camping thing, similar to what one would do in North American national parks. Nobody imagines me being served cabbage rolls while watching Indian soap operas.

 

Annapurna Circuit Night 9: the Milky Way over the Kali Gandaki Gorge, taken from Kagbeni

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 10: Kagbeni to Marpha

It started with a road walk to Jomsom, where we saw most of our fellow trekkers head towards the airport or bus station to end their hike. A common perception of the Annapurna Circuit is that what was once one of the best hikes in the world has been ruined by road construction in the area, and the only section worth hiking is the one from Chame to Jomsom, with the rest to be skipped in favour of a jeep or plane ride. I flat-out disagree with this perception. I have no doubt that things were better for hikers before the road, but we experienced so many incredible things beyond day 10 that would be a shame to miss out on after coming all this way to visit the area.

After Jomsom we continued to the very pleasant little village of Thini and were joined for a while by a young local girl on her way back from buying onions in Jomsom. “What is your name? How old are you? What is your father’s name?”, she asked. The locals also seem to get a kick out of pointing out the big mountains on the skyline. “Nilgiri. Dhaulagiri”, said an old man who gave the impression of spending his days hanging out in the streets waiting for tourists to pass by so he can give his brief tour.

It was a rough afternoon after Thini. A strong wind picked up, as advertised, and even when the famous apple orchards of Marpha looked close enough to touch, the trail forced us to overshoot the town by an hour and then make our way back along the road, which was very dusty and noisy at that time of day. The negativity generally evaporated as soon as we made it into the heart of Marpha. Unexpectedly and suddenly, the streets were paved with stone and all the buildings were painted matching white. The narrow streets were sheltered from the craziness of the road, and children played in front of shops selling apples and tourist souvenirs “Come in and look! No need to buy, just look. If no like, no buy. It’s okay, just look.” We had apple pie with both lunch and dinner.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 11: Marpha to Kalopani


The highlight of this day was the village of Chimang. We climbed stairs to a plateau a couple hundred metres above the valley floor and ended up in the apple orchards on the outskirts of the village. We said “Namaste 🙏” to farmers with baskets heading out to harvest apples, and to children who, just like yesterday, wanted to know some useless information about us like our age and mother’s name. I think kids in rural Nepal learn just a few English questions and repeat them to every tourist they meet. It’s cute and endearing and not at all annoying even if a bit pointless. Chimang itself was charming and can only be accessed with ladders because the residents let their goats and cows walk around the streets and don’t want them to wander off.

We took lunch in Sauru, a village in a totally exposed part of the Kali Gandaki valley, which means that the afternoon wind I have been writing about whips right through it. We held onto our hats, breathed in dusty air through filter masks, and closed our eyes against the pebbles being blown at us, all while farmers gathered buckwheat and shepherds walked their goats, not seeming to mind all that much. I assume they do this every day and it’s almost hard to believe. It must take some kind of heartiness and even stubbornness to live in a place like that.

Awesome views of Dhaulagiri all day and then even of Annapurna I, the star of the show, from our hotel in Kalopani.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 12: Kalopani to Tatopani


I spent some time going through my maps and photos of this day, thinking about what interesting anecdotes I could write about, but I didn’t come up with much. We woke up, ate breakfast, walked, ate lunch, walked, ate dinner, and then went to bed. It was a wonderful day. That might sound like a joke, but I mean it.

I was involved in a discussion on the internet a few years ago about why long-distance hiking is so enjoyable, and I remember reading a comment that really stuck with me. The commenter wrote that through-hiking is so rewarding and fun because it’s “simple and hard”, whereas everyday life is “complicated and easy”. Each day presents the through-hiker with a singular goal: walk in one direction as far as you can. That’s it, simple. Hiking can be a very difficult, stressful activity. You can end up physically exhausted, hungry, dehydrated, sunburnt, lost, and way worse. Every day is guaranteed to present some significant challenges, but those challenges are almost always overcome, and it feels great when they are. There’s nothing like the feeling of cresting a big pass or spotting a trail marker after hours of searching. Simple and hard.

Contrast that with everyday life in a developed country. You need to make a hundred little decisions and accomplish a hundred little tasks each day, none of which may even challenge you. But these things still add up and clutter your brainpower and time. Sometimes you make it to bedtime and you’re not even sure of what you’ve accomplished that day, but you know that it took 16 hours to do it and your head hurts. Complicated and easy.

Don’t get me wrong; time at home isn’t all bad. There’s a lot of ways in which the 9-5 is better than hiking. This is just a way to understand why doing nothing but walking all day is so good.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 13: Sikha to Ghorepani


That confusing mix of apprehension and homesickness was starting to sink in; this was our second to last day on the trail. A friendly Ottawan couple that we met a few days earlier warned us that hotel beds in Ghorepani fill up early in the afternoon because it lies at the intersection of the Annapurna Circuit, the Annapurna base camp trek, and the Poon Hill trek. So we arrived early and spent the rest of the day in the de facto town square area where all the treks meet.

It was pleasant to sit in the sun and watch the mix of people and animals go by. People haggled in the small market, donkeys and horses showed up with their loads of rice and potatoes, and all kinds of tourists were on display. Everyone from the hardcore though-hikers with roll-top Dyneema backpacks to the guided and portered first-timers walk though here.

The hustle and bustle of Ghorepani dies down pretty early, because most people wake up well before sunrise the next day to watch it come up from the viewpoint at Poon Hill.

 

Annapurna Circuit Day 14: Ghorepani-Poon Hill-Naya Pul


This was it, our last day on the trail. It seemed like the whole town of Ghorepani woke up around 3AM and was not the least bit concerned about whether anyone else might be sleeping. We eventually rolled out of bed around 5 and started our short but steep walk up to Poon Hill under a clear, starry sky to watch the sunrise from the viewpoint.

Poon Hill is one of the most famous viewpoints in Nepal. It’s only 45 minutes away from the town of Ghorepani, but it provides an expansive view of the surrounding area. From there, you can clearly see two eight thousand metre peaks, Dhaulagiri I (8167m) and Annapurna I (8091m), in addition to the baby sister Annapurna South (7219m and pictured above) and the sacred Machapuchare (6993m).

To be honest, I didn’t love it. Like I said, every tourist and guide in the area was there for sunrise, which meant that there was no peace or quiet to soak in the view. Having said that, it was still quite beautiful and a new experience and certainly more interesting than what I’m doing most days of the year at six in the morning.

The rest of the day was mostly endless descending on stone stairs in the hot sun, followed by a cab ride to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal and the start or end of all trips in the Annapurna area. The lakeside tourist neighbourhood was cool, but a little bit overwhelming after two weeks in the mountains. I always feel the same after multi-day hikes. Urban civilization takes some getting used to.

The trek was over and all that was left to do was make it back to Kathmandu, squeeze in some sightseeing there, and then get on a plane home.

 

Annapurna Circuit Post-Hike: Final Days in Kathmandu


That’s all, folks. This concludes my posts about my recent trip to Nepal. Thanks for following along; it’s been valuable for me to reflect on the trip and this has been a good way for me to do it. I was a bit worried that all of you would get fed up with hearing about it, but the response has been encouraging, and having an audience has pushed me to be a better writer and photographer.

James Lamers

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