Trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal
December 3, 2008 —
This may take me a while to write (I was walking for 20 days for crap's sake) and I have an elephant safari to go on tomorrow, so I'll put this together in pieces and then add photos when I can. Since protesters have closed down the Bangkok airport, I may have time on my hands soon. So stay tuned. . .
I think it began as one of those ideas that doesn't even qualify as an idea at the time. During the year I lived in New Zealand, I had moved into a flat with two Kiwi chicks who I actually spent very little time talking to. On the wall of the flat hung a poster of one of the most amazing mountain landscapes I'd ever seen. The caption read The Annapurna Circuit: Nepal. In one of the few conversations I had with either of the girls, one of them told me about how they were trying to raise money through various fundraisers in order to fund thier trip to Nepal and a trek on the Annapurna Circuit. To this day, I have no idea if they ever made it. Probably not, as their means of "fundraising" involved asking people to "sponsor" them. What sponsors would receive in return was anybody's guess.
I hope they did make it, but regardless, the vision from that poster has somehow stuck with me over the years. At the time, moving to New Zealand was my first solo-trip and was meant to be the last. Whatever happened to me over the next four years may require an entire team of psychotherapists to sort out, but to put it mildly, travelling has become a bit of an "obsession" for me of late.
So as I found myself struggling through some of my more troublesome classes as a teacher this past year in Korea, visions of that poster kept popping into my brain. The idea that wasn't even an idea, suddenly began to formulate into a plan as I stood daydreaming in my own classroom. There's nothing like asking students to write English words and then draw pictures of them to buy time for teacher to enter his "happy place" for 15 minutes or so.
Fast-forward to reality, and I found myself walking the streets of Kathmandu (a city I earlier described as the Biff Tannin-run "evil 1984" from Back to the Future II) in early November of 2008. It's not that Kathmandu was that bad, it's just that it was very far away from the scene that has lived in my mind as a vision from that poster and I wanted to get to that place as soon as possible.
My original plan was to head to Pokhara (where I sit today) to hire a guide, but walking through the touristy neighborhood of Thamel in Kathmandu is like running a gaunlet of tourism touts, souvenir salespeople and hash peddlers. Sooner or later I caved in, not to the hash, but to hiring a guide in Kathmandu. I just wanted out and that seemed like the quickest way.
Upon meeting my guide, Prakash, I thought this was really going to work out great. He was a young kid, but seemed very friendly and eager to impress. Those qualities stuck with him throughout the trek, but what he didn't turn out to be was much of a guide (more on that later).
To leave Kathmandu, we had to leave from the bus station. I suppose there are agencies that splash out the cash and put you on one of the fancy "tourist" buses that you can take here in Nepal, but I don't think I really went with the Cadillac of trekking agencies, so we set out on a local bus. And brash as it may sound, anytime you do anything "local" in Nepal, you're usually doing it the hard way. So off we went in something that kind of looked like a small school bus; but only if you were to take a school bus, then drop a bunch of acid, subsequently paint it and add decorations as the visions in your head dictated and then put it to use for 25 years without maintenance before turning it into a "local bus".
As we motored away from Kathmandu, I asked Prakash if these things ever crashed. Probably being too young to realize that death is not something most tourists want to think is impending, he told me about a crash several months ago that killed 14 people. Super Prakash, just super! But as long as we were sputtering away from Kathmandu, albeit with my long Western legs jabbing into the metal seat frame in front of me, I was a happy camper. Only seven hours to go to Besi Sahar!
Arriving in Besi Sahar after a long and perilous bus ride was only the first step in what would be a nearly 20-day trekking adventure on the Annapurna Circuit, or Around Annapurna, as it is more aptly called by the locals. As I sit here looking at a map trying to recall my exact route, it is clear to see that trekkers on this route, do indeed, walk completely around the Annapurna Himalayan Range. I can't tell you exactly what a circuit is (thank you very much expensive education), but I can now say for damn sure that I walked completely "around Annapurna"; so from here on out I'm siding with the local name - romantic poster from New Zealand be damned.
For those of you out there who have very little idea about what the Around Annapurna trek entails (trust me, I was in that camp until I actually found myself in too deep to turn back), here's the gist: The Annapurna Himalayas are a big damn set of mountains located near the center of Nepal. Without walking you through the names of each mountain and the day that we passed by them, I'll just name-drop a few of the mountains that were our constant, but ever-changing companions throughout the trek, literally, as we walked around them: Annapurna I (8091 meters), Annapurna II (7937 m), Annapurna III (7555 m) Annapurna IV (7525 m), Gangapurna (7454 m), Dhaulagiri (8172 m) and Machhapuchhre (6997 m). So, you have this big group of monsterous mountains that people actually climb, and then you have a trail that completely circles them at a much more reasonable alititude for people like me who don't possess the drive to conquer the world, but who'll work hard to see the view of what's possible and then settle in to a nice tall beer at the end of the day.
For many, the Everest Base Camp trek holds more sex appeal, as who wouldn't want to see the world's highest mountain (8848 m). But there is also a drawback to this trek, as you walk up and walk right back down the way you came. With the Around Annapurna trek, you never backtrack (unless altitude sickness causes you to do the "walk of shame" back the other way) and everyday provides a different backdrop, different villages to pass through and different people to encounter along the way. This ultimately swayed my decision to go with Annapurna over Everest. Plus, completing the Around Annapurna trek takes you over a 5,416 meter pass (nearly 18,000 feet), whereas Everest Base Camp sits at a measely 5,360 meters, so I feel like I'm well within my rights to snub my nose at the weenies who choose to take the easy way out and head to Everest.
Trekking, it is worth noting, is not neccessarily the same as camping. The beauty of the Around Annpurna trek (as well as many other treks in Nepal) is that the trails are essentially the local Nepalese "highways", carrying foot traffic between small and remote villages. Located in almost all of these villages are what are known as teahouses, a term that sounds pretty exotic, but I can tell you that they're just really basic guesthouses. This works out to be really convenient on a popular route such as Around Annapurna, as it gives trekkers the freedom to trek as far or as little as they choose in a given day. And at the end of each day, the teahouses all have a nice menu (that is pretty much the same as every other menu along the trek varying only depending on local ingredients available in each village) to order food from and relax with a cup of tea or coffee. Facilities are quite basic (I have become an expert at, and quite a fan of, the squat toilet), though generally cozy enough for a night. The other nice aspect of this form of trekking is that you begin to see the same people over and over again at each stop and soon you begin to form a bond with many of these people. Before long, you start discussing how long it's been since you've taken a crap with a nice old lady from England and it doesn't even seem wierd when she offers you some medication to get things moving again.
To be continued tomorrow from Kathmandu.
5 Comments on "Trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal"