Nepal III: Annapurna Circuit Trek


300 km, 19 days, 15 kg pack, zero blisters





“Walking in the Himalayas creates its own sweet logic, a fluent cycle of exertion, progress, sustenance and sleep.”

(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 Nepal.  Llew’s peripatetic life had led him to New Zealand for a year.  Sarah took a leave of absence from her job as a meteorologist and they traveled to Canada for six months and were now on their way back to New Zealand—Sarah was due back at work for the beginning of September.  They arrived in Pokhara the day after us, via the Czech Republic, Germany, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.  His blog at tracks his travels twice around the world (once in each direction) over the last few years.



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 Bangladesh after having seen just a handful of other Westerners in several days, he ran into an old friend from Toronto just walking through a hotel lobby.)


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.


IMG_2209%20communal%20water%20supply%20in%20village%20of%20Ranipauwa%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_1833%20microhydro%20plant%20on%20high%20trail%20N%20of%20Danagyu%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal

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 Marsyandi River and construction continues to extend the road farther up the valley.  From the trail on opposite side we could see that, as the valley narrowed, long sections of the road are nothing more than a notch carved in the steep walls, at times crossing active avalanche chutes.  We were glad to be on our own feet. 


IMG_1764%20getting%20the%20trekking%20permits%20Pokhara%20Nepal%202008           IMG_1780%20Nancy%20at%20start%20of%20trek%20in%20Besisishar%20Nepal%202008

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.



The village of Jagat


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.


IMG_1806%20Marsyandi%20River%20valley%20N%20of%20Chamje%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008           IMG_1805%20suspension%20bridge%20over%20Marsyandi%20River%20N%20of%20Chamje%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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.  


IMG_1807%20military%20post%20S%20of%20Tal%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008           IMG_1814%20Maoist%20slogans%20in%20Marsyangdi%20valley%20N%20of%20Tal%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 Middle East meant that she was dragging as we approached Tal.  The steep valley headwall was the last straw in a morning that saw us go up and down with an overall altitude gain from 1430 to 1700 m.   Llew loaded her pack on his chest and with a load approaching that of a Nepalese porter (more later) carried both packs up.  We spend night three in Tal.  The village of Tal is built on the lacustrine bed from a short-lived lake.  Sarah was reenergized by the morning.



Marsyandi River and the village of Tal


By now we had crossed the cultural divide in Nepal, leaving the Hindu lowlands behind and entering the area more linked to Buddhist and Tibetan influences.  Instead of wooden homes with peaked roofs increasingly the norm became Tibetan-style stone buildings with flat-roofs.  Almost each village now had a prayer wheel wall where, passing to the left, one could spin a series of inscribed metal wheels containing scrolls of Buddhist prayers.  Each spin was to carry the prayers skyward.  One could get the same result with a water powered wheel.


IMG_1826%20prayer%20wheel%20wall%20Danagyu%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal           IMG_1865%20prayer%20wheels%20in%20gate%20at%20N%20end%20of%20Chame%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008              IMG_1859%20water%20powered%20prayer%20wheel%20Chame%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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.


IMG_1906%20mani%20wall%20between%20Lower%20Pisang%20and%20Ghyaru%20%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_1939%20mani%20wall%20on%20trail%20between%20Gharu%20and%20Ngwal%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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.


IMG_1849%20rhodendron%20in%20flower%20on%20high%20trail%20N%20of%20Danagyu%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal                                     IMG_1844%20forest%20on%20high%20trail%20N%20of%20Danagyu%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepa

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.


IMG_1882%20Paungda%20Danda%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_1887%20Paungda%20Danda%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 New Zealand government sponsored the development of a system of ACAP safe drinking water stations around the Annapurna circuit.  Not only does this provide trekkers with safe water, but it can reduce the waste in the form of the 100,000+ plastic water bottles which are disposed of on the circuit each year.  The purification systems use ozonation to produce water at lower cost than those bottles carried in by mule or porter.  ACAP is responsible for the technician training and local women’s groups in each village with a station maintain and run the stations, using profits for local projects.



Safe water station in Lower Pisang


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.


IMG_1912%20north%20face%20of%20Annapurna%20II%20from%20village%20of%20Gharu%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008                        IMG_1926%20crows%20flying%20in%20front%20of%20north%20face%20of%20Annapurna%20II%20from%20village%20of%20Gharu%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

North face of Annapurna II (7937 m) from village of Ghyaru      Crows flying in front of north face of Annapurna II from Ghyaru


IMG_1933%20village%20of%20Gharu%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_1937%20village%20of%20Gharu%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008              IMG_1944%20village%20of%20Ngawal%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 Annapurna region.  We were there in late May at the tail end of the spring season.  The summer monsoon season and winter cold keep most visitors away.  The fall attracts most trekkers since, generally, skies are clear and cloud free making for the most impressive views.


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.


IMG_1956%20Annapurna%20III%20from%20Manang%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2049%20Gangapurna%207455%20m%20from%20Manang%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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, Thorung La.  From now on there is little other then periodic clusters of guest houses, such as that at Yak Kharka (“yak meadows”).  And, yes, there are yaks (and naks—the females), and yak herders.  When we stayed there the herders were playing a vigorous game of soccer (at over 4000 m!)—but they did have good periods of rest when someone had to go after an errant ball which had gone over the edge down into the valley.  There didn’t seem an easy way to join in—I could have beaten my personal sports altitude record of 3440 m playing volleyball on Aconcagua in Argentina.


IMG_2059%20Yak%20Kharka%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2072%20yaks%20at%20Yak%20Kharka%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

Yak Kharka (4018 m)                                                     Yak (nak?) at Yak Kharka


IMG_2058%20soccer%20game%20at%20Yak%20Kharka%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_0040a%20P1180603%20Volleyball%20at%20Confluencia%20Aconcagua%202008

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).


IMG_2080%20suspension%20bridge%20between%20Yak%20Kharka%20and%20Letdar%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2089%20yaks%20in%20Jhargeng%20Khola%20valley%20near%20Thorong%20Phedi%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008               IMG_2090%20Nancy%20arriving%20at%20Thorung%20Phedi%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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.


IMG_2122%20High%20Camp%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008           IMG_2115%20Thorung%20Phedi%20from%20High%20Camp%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2126%20Alpine%20choughs%20at%20High%20Camp%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

High Camp                                                       Thorung Phedi from High Camp                                  Alpine choughs at High Camp


IMG_2137%20ice%20falls%20on%20the%20Annapurnas%20from%20High%20Camp%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2141%20light%20on%20the%20Annapurnas%20from%20High%20Camp%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 off to Thorung La.  A bit of disappointment that the tea house on the way was closed.  Slow and steady and soon we were posing for the obligatory photos among the prayer flags.



Nancy nearing Thorung La


Up to Thorong La



Thorong La (5416 m); 600 m higher than the highest peak in the Alps, Mt. Blanc, and 1000 m higher than Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S.


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.


IMG_2174%20the%20way%20down%20from%20Thorong%20La%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008           IMG_2177%20irises%20on%20way%20from%20Thorung%20La%20to%20Ranipauwa%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 Lebanon at the bottom of his pack.  Must confess I hadn’t really heard or even conceived of a Lebanese wine industry, but the bottle was wonderful.  Llew had also left a couple of bottles back in Pokhara and I can reveal from subsequent tasting that it wasn’t the climb or the prior abstinence—wines from Lebanon can be great.



Dinner with Lebanese wine in Ranipauwa


Just outside Ranipauwa is one of the most important religious destinations in Nepal, Muktinath.  Both Buddhists and Hindus have been coming to the shrines for centuries.  The most noteworthy shrine is that of the Jwala Mai Temple where a perpetual flame of natural gas burns.  Outside the temple of Vishnu there are 108 brass waterspouts, most in the shape of a cow’s head—bathers seeking salvation immerse themselves in the icy water under each of them.


IMG_2190%20Muktinath%20temple%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2185%20108%20brass%20water%20spouts%20at%20Vishnu%20temple%20in%20Muktinath%20temple%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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.  


IMG_2227%20pilgrim%20group%20in%20village%20of%20Ranipauwa%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2237%20jeep%20road%20between%20Jomson%20and%20Muktinath%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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.


IMG_2200%20retail%20in%20village%20of%20Ranipauwa%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2442%20retail%20in%20Tatopani%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

Hotel Bob Marley in Ranipauwa                                    Bob Marley Restaurant in Tatopani


The path down from Ranipauwa is particularly scenic: past the village of Jharkot with its red-roofed temple to Kagbeni.  Approaching Kagbeni in the afternoon meant we experienced the famed winds of the Kali Ghandaki valley.  Each afternoon the up-valley winds build to gale force.  It pays to get an early start, but watching the barley fields around Kagbeni ebb and flow in verdant ripples was as commanding a scene as any on the trek.  In another vein, the high trail above Kagbeni was a vertigo-inducing as any I have ever seen—thankfully our route led elsewhere.


IMG_2236%20Jharkot%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal            IMG_2243%20barley%20fields%20around%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2242%20trail%20above%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008%20Nepal%202008

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” Kingdom of Lo of the Upper Mustang valley.  The valley was only open to outsiders in 1992; access is only by organized groups, numbers are restricted, and the entry fee is US$700 (there’s no accidental extra zero there).


IMG_2246%20old%20fort%20in%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2256%20start%20of%20Upper%20Mustang%20valley%20from%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

Old fort in Kagbeni                                                       Start of Upper Mustang valley from Kagbeni


IMG_2248%20YakDonalds%20in%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008             IMG_2250%20inner%20courtyard%20in%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008                        IMG_2258%20Sarah%20and%20tiny%20calf%20in%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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?


IMG_2269%20paintings%20inside%20Kangni%20Chorten%20in%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008                        IMG_2272%20animist%20figure%20at%20gate%20to%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

17th century paintings inside Kangni Chorten in Kagbeni         Animist figure at gate to Kagbeni


IMG_2284%20goat%20traffic%20jam%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2277%20Nilgiri%20from%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri, arguably the world’s deepest valley, although that’s a bit too cute.  The peaks are 35 km apart and there is no real sense of depth walking along the valley looking up at the valley rim—better to go see the Grand Canyon in Arizona or Peru’s Colca Canyon (although there too the depth is amplified by measuring from hidden peak to peak).  You decide.


059%20View%20from%20GC%20Village%20Field%20Camp%202002            IMG_5373%20Peru%202005%20Colca%20Canyon%20depths            IMG_2380%20Kali%20Gandaki%20valley%20S%20of%20Marha%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 icefall on Dhaulagiri and the rest of us went on.  He eventually lost track of the route and faced with sheer walls to climb retreated and caught us as we sat sharing half a bottle of apple brandy in the village of Dana.




Dhaulagiri (8167 m) from Larjung


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.


IMG_2388%20landslide%20on%20trail%20between%20Lete%20and%20Ghasa%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2392%20jeeps%20backup%20at%20landslide%20on%20trail%20between%20Let%20and%20Ghasa%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008              IMG_2409%20mule%20train%20S%20of%20Dana%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 Athens or Pompeii then trying to reconcile the feeling with the Nepalese landscape when one looks up.



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 Beni is reachable in a day.  And this with me now hampered by a upper respiratory track infection and needing a rest climbing every 50 stairs—on the trek only Llew did not end up with some sort of respiratory infection, but he was the only one with digestive issues (a case of Guardia that he, recognizing the symptoms from his prior bouts, caught early).


IMG_2497%20Nancy%20and%20dal%20bhat%20in%20Ghorapani%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2487%20Ghorapani%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 (Fishtail Mountain) to Dhaulagiri.  A couple of 8000 m peaks (and had the day been clearer we may have seen a third, Manaslu, in the distance) and the entire west face of the Annapurna massif.



Annapurna Massif from Poon Hill



Machhapuchhre (Fishtail Mt) at dawn from Poon Hill


Two 8000 m peaks and lesser giants: panorama from Dhaulagiri to Machhapuchhre at dawn from Poon Hill


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?


IMG_2524%20small%20waterfall%20S%20of%20Ghorepani%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2528%20kid%20and%20chillis%20Ulleri%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

Small waterfall south of Ghorepani                              Kid and chillies in Ulleri


IMG_2526%20Mike%20near%20start%20of%203421%20steps%20%20Ulleri%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2533%20video%20store%20on%203421%20steps%20down%20from%20Ulleri%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 Annapurna is deforestation.  Adding to the pressure for wood is the fuel needed to provide for trekkers.  In guest houses, especially in the low seasons when we in some cases were the only guests, stoves had to be lit and meals prepared especially for us.  Generally, the more varied the meal orders, the greater the fuel needs.  It may be a small thing, but we each tried to order the same meal—generally the ubiquitous dhal bat, the same meal porters have twice a day.  If it provides them with their energy needs, it should be enough for us.


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.


IMG_1854%20firewood%20on%20trail%20near%20Chame%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008           IMG_2280%20Sarah%20and%20dahl%20bat%20at%20Shangri%20La%20guest%20house%20Kagbeni%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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.


IMG_2060%20gathering%20firewood%20near%20Yak%20Kharka%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2485%20pollarded%20trees%20on%20way%20to%20Ghorapani%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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.


IMG_1809%20goods%20for%20sale%20in%20Tal%20guest%20house%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008           IMG_2061%20garbage%20at%20Yak%20Kharka%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 on the Annapurna trek.  They vary in quality from rustic caravansaries more used by the mule drivers and porters, to places of some comfort—there is even a self-styled 5-star resort in Jomsom (the Jomsom Mountain Resort catering to the well-heeled).  Most guest houses offer basic facilities at modest cost.  There was low enough demand during the low season in a couple of villages that we were offered rooms at no cost if we simply ate dinner and breakfast with them.  Costs do rise in the more remote areas closer to Thorung La.



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.


IMG_1953%20ensuite%20toilet%20in%20Tilicho%20Hotel%20in%20Manang%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008           IMG_1954%20room%20in%20Tilicho%20Hotel%20in%20Manang%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 in Kathmandu and Pokhara than stayed in the mountain valleys.


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.)


IMG_2395%20porter%20in%20Ghasa%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_1784%20chicken%20man%20porter%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 Dhaulagiri circuit, we didn’t see one trekker sharing the load.  There’s enough of a mediaeval air about social relationships in Nepal without perpetuating and reinforcing them.  Near Thorung La we actually did see one set of two porters carrying large wheeled airport luggage—we never discovered if the trekking decision had been a last minute decision in Kathmandu airport.


IMG_2139%20trekker%20and%20porters%20on%20way%20to%20Thorong%20La%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008            IMG_2108%20porter%20with%20suitcase%20High%20Camp%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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 ( or HRA ( 


And finally, how tough was the trek?  You judge.  Loved it.


IMG_1762%20Mike%20and%20Nancy%20Sauraha%20Nepal%202008 IMG_2507%20Mike%20and%20Annapurna%20massif%20at%20dawn%20on%20Poon%20Hill%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

Pre-trek chubby                                      End-of-trek emaciated