300 km, 19 days, 15 kg pack, zero blisters
“Walking in the
(p. 62 in Larsen, K. 1993 “Around Manaslu”
Buzzworm: The Environmental Journal 5(3) 60-64
Assembling the cast:
We met our son, Llew and his Kiwi
girlfriend, Sarah, in Pokhara in central
Sarah, Llew Nancy, Mike
There is something faintly unsettling about
the idea that one can now travel and be fairly sure that you can meet someone
on a street corner half way around the world.
(Of course Llew can beat this and that just by coincidence. After leaving us, in a small city in
After getting our trekking permits from the Annapurna Conservation Office Project (ACAP) office in Pokhara, we were off to the start of our trek from Besisishar. The first of several checkposts that ACAP operates on the trek is located here.
The Annapurna Conservation Office Project (ACAP) was set up in 1987 as a response to environmental issues that begun to plague the Annapurna Region. It has become a global model for management of natural areas. Management the region does not follow that of a traditional North American-style national park, but rather involves a integrative and cooperative approach with the residents. An independent not-for-profit organization, ACAP now has responsibility for an area of 7629 km2 including all of the districts of Manang and Mustang and the entire Annapurna massif.
ACAP funding comes from the fees paid by trekkers for their permits. These funds go to providing the basic needs for villages: secure drinking water supplies, sanitation, health centres, bridges, microhydro projects and schools. ACAP also sponsors reforestation and other conservation programs implemented at the local level. Education programs stress the need for conservation and encourage alternatives (improved stove design to reduce firewood consumption) as well as providing training in business operations and food preparation. The guest houses in each local district have formed ACAP-sponsored management committees which meet and develop set menus with agreed-upon prices to reduce loss-making competition.
Communal water supply in Ranipauwa Microhydro plant on high trail north of Danagyu
Besisishar is the end of pavement (or what
was once pavement—Nepalese roads can be a challenge). A rough jeep road has been built heading
north on the west bank of the
Getting the trekking permits in Pokhara Nancy at ACAP checkpost in Besisishar
The first two days of the trek are at low elevation (Besisishar is at 820 m). The first day was a sweaty slog. We didn’t anticipate the amount of water we’d need and by the time we got to the steep hill up to Bahundanda I was knackered and couldn’t face the climb. The one guest house at the foot of the climb (“location, location, location”) was a respite—we spent the night there. It turned out to be our most rustic accommodation on the trek, but the first of many meals of dhal bat was what we needed—we were up and over the ridge of Bahundanda before breakfast.
In the first two days the terraced fields climb up the wide valley walls.
Hillside terraces north of Bahundanda
We finally caught up with the road construction when we crossed over to the east side of the valley south of Jagat. By now the river valley had narrowed into the gorge we’d follow for the next few days. The crew was drilling holes for the blasting with chisels and sledge hammers, breaking large boulders and manhandling the rock over the side to the river below. We had to wait as they cleared debris from the previous blast from above the trail. Then it was clear. The picture below doesn’t quite convey the hazard. The trail was about a meter wide, covered in fine rock and sand at a 30o angle, the river 100 meters or so below, the rock jutting out on the left touching and catching the top of the pack, and with fine debris still raining down from above. Not the best way to test my vertigo on the second day of the trek. I did know that, once over, that I’d make the whole trek—I wasn’t going back that way.
Road building and treacherous passage south of Jagat
Jagat itself is a picturesque village built around, under and above massive boulders.
Night two was spent in Chamje, lulled to sleep in the guest house by the white noise from the ~200 m waterfall on the opposite valley wall.
Waterfall at Chamje
Chame is at 1430 m—high enough that the heat of the valley was behind us. The gorge by now was a narrow defile with the trail cut into the steep slopes and steel suspension bridges carrying us to the opposite sides whenever active avalanche chutes and impossible slopes had made trail-building too difficult. In several places on the trek new trails had had to be cut and crossings constructed when avalanches had taken out the trail.
Gorge of the Marsyandi River north of Chamje Suspension bridge over the Marsyandi River north of Chamje
Evidence of the Maoist insurgency that had operated in the Annapurna region was verified by the military presence and Maoist slogans painted on rocks. As I mentioned in the Kathmandu blog entry, when we were in Nepal the parliament was reconvening after the Maoists had gained surprising control of the parliament in recent elections.
Military post south of Tal Maoist slogans in Marsyangdi valley north of Tal
Day three was a bit foreshortened. The upper respiratory infection that Sarah
had fought since the
Marsyandi River and the village of Tal
By now we had crossed the cultural divide
Prayer wheel wall in Danagyu Prayer wheels in Chame Water powered prayer wheel in Chame
Between villages mani walls with carved prayers are often to be found astride the trail.
Mani wall between Lower Pisang and Ghyaru Carved prayers on mani wall on trail between Gharu and Ngawal
The low trail between Danagyu and Kota Quapr had been taken out by landslides, so we had to climb. In early spring the trail here is a riot of rhododendrons; we were too late, only one tree retained much in the way of flowers. However, the cloud forest here could make one believe in trolls.
Rhododendron in flower on high trail north of Danagyu Cloud forest on the high trail north of Danagyu
Another day of rollercoaster climbs and descents led us from our overnight at Koto Qupar (2600 m), through the administrative centre of Chame (with the only bank on this half of the trek) and past the overshadowing rock wall of Paungda Danda where the valley takes a sharp 90o turn to the start of the wide Manang valley, and the village of Lower Pisang (3200 m) where we spent the night.
Paungda Danda Paungda Danda
The only way for goods to get beyond the end of the jeep trail, three days behind us, is on someone’s or something’s back. Mule trains were ever-present—we passed or were passed by several each day. Porters also carrying goods in to the villages—we were told they are cheaper transport than the mules.
Mule train in Lower Pisang
In 2000 the
water station in
Beyond Lower Pisang on the way to Manang there are two routes, a low trail hugging the westward side of the river and a high trail on the east side climbing 470 m to Ghyaru (3670 m). There is really no choice: the high route finally takes one above the tree line. Not only does the climb give a chance for a nice bit of altitude acclimatization, the views of the Annapurnas and the Great Barrier from Ghyaru are outstanding. As well, the mountainside medieval villages on the upper route are as picturesque as any on the Manang side of the circuit.
North face of Annapurna II (7937 m) from village of Ghyaru Crows flying in front of north face of Annapurna II from Ghyaru
Village of Gharu Village of Gharu and fields Village of Ngawal
Manang at 3540 m is high enough that AMS (acute mountain sickness) can become an issue. In order to acclimatize most trekking guides recommend spending two nights in this village which sits on a bluff overlooking the Marsyandi valley. As a result the village is well stocked with guest houses, stores, and bakeries; there are even a couple of movie theatres with a couple handfuls of seats that will have, at least in the low seasons, shows on demand.
Village of Manang from south side of the Marsyandi valley
Data provided by the ACAP information
centre gives a good idea of the seasonality of trekking in the
One service not to be missed in Manang is the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) lecture on Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). The HRA staffs a clinic in Manang each trekking season providing clinical services to villagers and trekkers as well as the daily lectures on how to recognize and avoid AMS. They provide emergency services and evacuation for the most serious cases. But it is revealing they claim they’ve never had to evacuate anyone who has attended one of their lectures—a little knowledge seems to go a long way in avoiding real problems. We did see one trekker suffering from an obvious case of pulmonary oedema a couple of days later while we were at the high camp.
Himalayan Rescue Association lecture re AMS in Manang
From Manang one gets a real sense of the scale of the Great Barrier with the peaks of Annapurna III and Gangapurna. Gangapurna sits almost directly across the valley fro Manang and the Gangapurna glacier cascades off its face in a series of icefalls.
Annapurna III (7756 m) from Manang Gangapurna (7455 m) from Manang
Just past Manang one goes through Tengi,
the last village on the circuit before the high pass,
Yak Kharka (4018 m) Yak (nak?) at Yak Kharka
Soccer game at Yak Kharka Volleyball at Confluencia (3440 m) on Aconcagua, Argentina
Beyond Yak Kharka the trail rollercoasters, but always more up than down, crossing exposed ridges and bridging rivers through narrow gorges to the base camp for Thorung La, Thorung Phedi. The base camp is a fairly bleak place—two basic guest houses with marginal food, expensive in Nepalese terms (no wonder given the distance that everything has to be carried), too cold for comfort (standing water froze overnight), and high enough that many are feeling the discomfort of mild AMS (air pressure is about half of that at sea level).
Suspension bridge between Yak Kharka and Letdar Yaks in the Jhargeng Khola valley near Thorung Phedi Nancy arriving at Thorung Phedi (4450 m)
An overnight and we headed higher. Many guided treks go over Thorung La from Thorung Phedi. None of us had any AMS symptoms, but decided the cautious route was to go only as far as the high camp at 4880 m. It was a quick climb passed small herds of blue sheep (I guess it was a bit optimistic to expect to see their prime predator, a snow leopard).
Blue sheep between Thorung Phedi and High Camp
The views from high camp were worth the cold night. From a high ridge behind the guest house one could look down both on the high camp and all the way down to Thorung Phedi. Alpine coughs played in the winds and through the clouds we got glimpses of the Annapurnas gleaming in snow and sunshine.
High Camp Thorung Phedi from High Camp Alpine choughs at High Camp
Ice falls on the Annapurnas from High Camp Light on the Annapurnas from High Camp
An early start for a long day and we were
Nancy nearing Thorung La
Up to Thorong La
La (5416 m); 600 m higher than the highest peak in the
And then down, down, down—the next village, Ranipauwa, lies over 1700 m below. Most of trail is pretty solid; the knees suffered only moderately.
The way down from Thorong La Dwarf irises on way to Ranipauwa
A few of those we had met at the high camp
and who had gone over Thorung La on the same day gathered for a celebration in
our guest house in Ranipauwa. There Llew
revealed his secret load. He’d carried a
bottle of wine that he and Sarah had bought at a winery in
Dinner with Lebanese wine in Ranipauwa
Just outside Ranipauwa is one of the most
important religious destinations in
Muktinath temple complex Some of the 108 brass water spouts at the Vishnu temple in Muktinath
Pilgrims can now reach Muktinath in a number of ways. There is even a helipad just outside the temple complex. Most, however, take more or less taxing routes: trekking in all the way on the same the trails that trekkers follow, or flying in to the Jomsom airport, crossing over to the east side of the Kali Gandaki River and taking a jeep (or walking) from there. As of 2008, however, the last barrier (south of Ghasa) has been breached and jeep roads extend all the way to Jomsom and it is now possible (subject to closures due to landslides and erosion) to jeep all the way.
Pilgrim group in Ranipauwa Jeep road between Jomson and Muktinath
All references seem to attribute Bob Marley’s 1970s visit to Nepal, and to Muktinath in particular, to “legend. His music is probably revered no place more, Jamaica excepted, than in Nepal and the “legendary” visit is at least resurrected in commercial circles. There are several signs of the “Bob Marley slept here” genre.
Hotel Bob Marley in Ranipauwa Bob Marley Restaurant in Tatopani
The path down from Ranipauwa is
particularly scenic: past the
Picturesque village of Jharkot Barley fields around Kagbeni Trail above Kagbeni
Kagbeni was an appealing village, equal to
any on the trek. Dominated by an old
fort, it acts as the entry to the until-recent “forbidden”
Old fort in Kagbeni Start of Upper Mustang valley from Kagbeni
YakDonalds in Kagbeni: one would think Inner courtyard in Kagbeni: note the ladder from a single tree Sarah and tiny calf in Kagbeni:
someone might have a trademark issue here trunk giving access from animal quarters to the housing above has this town got the smallest cows in the world?
17th century paintings inside Kangni Chorten in Kagbeni Animist figure at gate to Kagbeni
Traffic jam in Kagbeni Nilgiri (6940 m) looming over Kagbeni
From Kagbeni the trek route leads down the Kali Gandaki valley, through the regional centre of Jomsom with its airport and guest house strip (too developed), and the quaint (and tidy) village of Marpha with its orchards and fruit brandy distillery (had to sample in the interest of research: raw but nice when blended with juice). In a model of reuse, the fruit juices and brandy come in old beer bottles, an endless supply of which is generated by trekkers.
Street in Marpha
The valley itself is formed of seemingly
endless alluvial. South of Larjung the
valley passes between the 8000 m peaks
Grand Canyon, Arizona Colca Canyon, Peru Kali Gandaki valley south of Marpha
Cloudy days meant we had only one good glimpse
of the world’s seventh highest peak, Dhaulagiri (8167 m), from the Kali Gandaki
valley: in the early morning from
Larjung. Llew decided to trek up to the
I was, I must confess, not entirely unhappy to see that the jeep route had problems. South of Lete the road had been entirely washed away and jeeps had backed up on both sides with passengers making their way over the washout. I am sure the improved transport link has meant much to the villages along the route: no longer totally reliant on getting only mule- and porter-carried goods, having to get around only on foot, and being general inaccessible. Nonetheless, as the route by-passes some villages, they may become commercial backwaters as trekkers and other travelers go by. More important to the economic health of many, what will now happen to trekker numbers and route choices? For much of the Mustang (west) side of the trek the trail now goes along the jeep road. For all the interesting villages and scenery, how many trekkers will forgo this part of the circuit rather than walking on a road—perhaps continuing going up the Manang side (it’s hard to imaging jeep roads being able to breach some of the barriers there, although disjointed sections of track are being built up much of the lower parts of the valley there), and opting to fly out of Jomsom.
Landslide on trail between Lete and Ghasa Jeeps backed up at landslide between Lete and Ghasa Llew, Sarah and mule train on the jeep road south of Dana
Between Tatopani and Ghorapani the trail for
kilometres is built mostly of the rock of the surrounding hills—marble. It’s strange trekking with one’s eyes cast
downwards and having the déjà vu sensation of being in
Nancy, Sarah and Llew climbing marble steps between Tatopani and Ghorapani
We did get a good view back to Dhaulagiri—little wonder that at one time it was thought unclimbable and it was, except one, the last of the world’s fourteen 8000 m peaks to be scaled.
Dhaulagiri from trail on way to Ghorepani
There had to be some good reason that we
didn’t take the easy way out and instead climbed another 1560 m from Tatopani
to Ghorapani, after all, from Tatopani a paved road at
Nancy and another meal of dal bhat in Ghorapani Ghorapani guest houses
The reason for the climb was so that we
could wake before dawn and climb another 450 m to the top of Poon Hill. The clouds did hang a bit, but the views
were panoramic—from the iconic Machhapuchhre (
Machhapuchhre (Fishtail Mt) at dawn from Poon Hill
8000 m peaks and lesser giants: panorama from
All that lay before us now was an 11 hour trek out to the roadhead at Nayapul. Mostly downhill and pretty enough. Between Ulleri and Tikhedunga the trail descends from 1960 m to 1515 m in a series of 3421 stone steps (we think the count is accurate)—surely one of the longest staircases in the world. One of the strangest sights was a video store sitting by itself between the towns (at about step 2100)—location, location, location?
Small waterfall south of Ghorepani Kid and chillies in Ulleri
Near top of the 3421 steps in Ulleri Video store on the 3421 steps down from Ulleri
A long trek, a taxi to Pokhara (a late-in-the-day discounted last-chance fare made it as cheap as the bus for four of us), then to the important things in Pokhara the next day.
Nancy and Sarah getting haircuts in Pokhara
And some final thoughts about the environment, the accommodations and porters.
We had made a commitment to produce as little waste as possible and be responsible re resource consumption.
One of the key issues facing the
Dhal bat usually comes on a partitioned platter: rice, vegetable curry, a watery dhal (lentil) soup and some sort of pickle. The pickle portion was the most varied—we had everything including pickled fiddleheads to some sort of sweet/tart/aromatic fruit that was two-thirds stone—delicious. The kitchen will make enough for seconds (and, apparently, thirds if your name is Llew). It did get a bit boring and every two or three days I had had enough of white rice and just had to have something resembling bread—but we tried.
Firewood on trail near Chame Sarah and dahl bat at Shangri La guest house Kagbeni
Firewood collection doesn’t always mean trees are felled. The yak herders near Yak Kharka collected dead branches and twigs from the low bushes there and in many places trees are pollarded—branches cut from living trees for animal forage and firewood.
Gathering firewood near Yak Kharka Pollarded trees on way to Ghorapani
The waste generated by trekkers does pile up. Everything has been carried and it doesn’t pay to carry waste out—it is burned and/or piles up.
Snickers, beer, Pringles… just the food basics Garbage at Yak Kharka
The most apparent waste comes from water (and beer) bottles. Using the safe drinking water stations or otherwise using iodine completely eliminated the need for plastic water bottles—we did buy one on the dash out on the last day, and carried it out. And, despite the hardship, giving up on beer meant that we really didn’t have to justify having the weight of the bottles lugged in.
There are something like 200 guest houses
Guest house in Jagat
Facilities are fairly basic. A treat was something more Western than a squat toilet, although as an “ensuite” even that was better than a cool early morning walk down a balcony. Hot showers were largely a myth. Many hotels are equipped with solar water heaters, but cloudy days and late stops meant either little hot water, or none left by the time we stopped.
Rooms are basic wooden bunks with a foam mattress with a sheet or two for bedding (and generally a quilt at higher altitudes)—no complaints and no bugs. Our -20o C sleeping bags were great for the few days up high, otherwise they were nice as comforters.
Ensuite toilet in Tilicho Hotel in Manang Room in Tilicho Hotel in Manang
We chose to travel without guide or
porter. Llew had travelled the circuit
alone two years earlier. And with a good
guide book (we used Bryn Thomas’s Trekking
in the Annapurna Region, the edition just getting a bit dated now), we saw
no need for a guide and the issues of having someone else dictate
schedules. We certainly did not want to
travel as part of an organized group—everything we saw of that confirmed the
decision. As Larsen says in describing
one of the first commercial expeditions around Manaslu, “We are a small
municipality moving through the mountains.”
Getting a good guide seemed to have been a bit of a crap-shoot with the
groups we saw. Some were experienced and
apparently knowledgably although language skills and jocularity seemed to have
been more important on their resumes. So
far as we could determine, none was originally a local villager. More monies were flowing back to the operations
Most trekkers, all organized groups and many travelling solo, carry small day packs, porters lading everything else (typically two of the trekkers’ large backpacks strapped together). There is no relationship developed. Larsen says that, “We rub shoulders with the porters constantly, but we never really meet them. It’s hard even to look them in the eye because their eyes are always on the ground.”
We each carried our own pack. There is an argument for hiring porters. Certainly, there is a case to be made for doing so. For one thing, carrying trekkers’ packs (even two of them at a time) may actually be less of a load than the porters do normally. (The oddest load we saw was a (small) office desk and chair.)
Porter load in Ghasa Chicken porter near Bahundanda
For too many trekkers there seemed a bit
too much of a neo-colonialist sahib mind-set: images in mind (and actuality) of
the tall striding pale-complexioned trekker pole in hand, followed at a
respectful distance by the shorter shuffling heavily-laden Nepali. Other than one hard-core mountaineering group
who had done the treacherous
Trekker and porters on way to Thorong La Porter with suitcase near High Camp
Hiring local porters does leave much needed money behind in the villages—a few dollars a day—although many porters, as with the guides are from afar. Only on one day do some few lucky porters earn a reasonable wage. A few of those who had carried their backpacks the whole way in to Thorung Phedi did opt for insurance and hired a porter up to the pass for (a comparatively astronomical) 1500 rupees (~$25). A better way to leave a long-standing impact might be to send a few dollars to ACAP (http://www.ntnc.org.np/feedback.php) or HRA (http://www.himalayanrescue.org/hra/donation.php).
And finally, how tough was the trek? You judge. Loved it.
Pre-trek chubby End-of-trek emaciated
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