After two and a half relaxing weeks on the Thai islands, we hopped on a plane and headed to Kathmandu, Nepal. Even before we got off the airplane we knew that Kathmandu was going to be a little chaotic – as soon as the plane touched the ground, everyone jumped out of their seats and started to tear through the overhead compartments for their luggage. Getting out of the airport was another experience in its own right – oh, the pushing, the cutting in line and the incessant offers for a taxi. After spending three days in the city it occurred to us that Kathmandu was a fantastic combination of the chaos in South American cities (the unofficial transit buses, the crumbling infrastructure, the dusty streets) and the chaos in Southeast Asian cities (the crowds, the touts, the street food) – what a fabulous place! Frankly, Kathmandu was what we imagined a large Indian city would be like. And this was basically confirmed by several Indians we had met in Nepal, but they all suggested that Nepal was a more mellow version of India (one Indian described the difference as follows – in Nepal, people are all around you whereas in India, they’re on top of you!).
We spent the majority of our time in Kathmandu preparing for our trek (ie. purchasing our permits and buying/renting some equipment) but had a great time walking through the city while doing so. At one point we were approached by a younger local who offered to show us a couple of nearby religious monuments. Somewhat apprehensive at first, we followed him to a few different sites and when we told him we had to get going, he simply wished us a nice stay in Nepal. We were somewhat shocked that he didn’t ask us for any money afterwards – obviously he was just a friendly guy who perhaps wanted to practice some English. It’s always special to have a genuine encounter with a local, especially in the developing world where tourists are constantly approached (harassed even?) by locals that have something to sell.
So after a few days in Khatmandu, we left for Besisahar – the start of the Annapurna Circuit trek. The bus ride to Besisahar was itself an adventure – our driver appeared to have no problem passing people around blind corners with sheer cliffs on the side. We also booked our ticket so that we had to transfer buses part of the way and our second bus tuned out to be a real gem (not!) with people and animals packed in anywhere they could fit. While we were lucky enough to get a seat, our cushion wasn’t fastened properly so we kept sliding forward every time we went down a hill. The last leg of the trip was truly excruciating.
Once we arrived in Besisahar, we started trekking immediately (but only for a couple of hours since it was already quite late). For the next 20 days, we did nothing but trek with the exception of a rest day on Day 18 in a village named Tatopani (hey, it had hot springs and cold beer). On average, we trekked about six hours everyday – some days ended up being much longer and other days were quite short. In many cases, the distance we were able to trek each day was limited by the change in elevation – once we reached 3000m above sea level, we didn’t gain more than 500m a day. It should be noted that we did the entire circuit without a guide or porter – an approach we would highly recommend unless you’re travelling solo. When all was said and done, we trekked a total of about 250km over 20 days.
The Annapurna Circuit starts at about 800m above sea level and gradually rises to its highest point at 5416m above sea level (the Throng La Pass). We crossed the pass on lucky Day 13, after which we started to descend again to 1100m (the elevation of Nayapul, the last village on the circuit). Because of the significant changes in altitude, the landscape was constantly changing. We started the trek in terraced agricultural fields, passed through lush tropical forests, walked through pine forests, trekked through sparsely vegetated alpine and slogged through the snow over the mountain pass. This trek had an absolute incredible variety of scenery.
What makes the Annapurna Circuit truly special though is the charming villages that you pass through along the way. Unlike a typical wilderness trek, the Annapurna Circuit allows trekkers to experience Nepal’s natural and cultural beauty at the same time. The majority of the villages along the way also contain several lodges (or tea houses) that provide trekkers with room and board. Staying in these small lodges was a fantastic way to interact with locals and is actually the continuation of the Nepalese tradition of staying with local families while on a long journey (nowadays, most locals take a jeep instead of walking!). While basic, these lodges were exceptionally clean, often provided warm showers and generally offered a variety of food (pastas, soups and veggie burgers) and beverages (teas, soft drinks and even beer). Most lodges even offered apple pie for dessert, which is why the Annapurna Circuit is often referred to as the Apple Pie trek. And of course (being Nepal) everything was very affordable – we ended up spending less than $15 per day each on our trek.
Of course one of the biggest highlights of the whole trek was crossing the Throng La Pass at 5416m above sea level (the highest both of us had ever been). Our side trip up to Lake Tilicho (the highest lake in the world at 4919m) is also one of our favorite memories. Most of all though, we enjoyed the friendly encounters with the local villagers and fellow trekkers. In the end, we truly enjoyed the peace and (ironically) the relaxation we experienced during the trek – it was pretty surreal to wake up every morning for 20 straight days with nothing to do but walk.
Perhaps the only bad thing we could say about the entire trek is the impact that the new road has had on some sections of the circuit. About 10 years ago, an unpaved road was constructed in order to provide better access to many of the villages along the Annapurna Circuit. Although the road benefited many locals by providing better access to health services and markets for their crops, the road was (in most cases) constructed over the trail. This was ultimately bad news for trekkers – no trekker likes to have dust blow in their face from a passing jeep. After the construction of the road, the number of people trekking the Annapurna Circuit dropped substantially and, in response, officials have built many new trails that separate trekkers from the road. Although there are a few sections of the circuit where walking on the road is inevitable, we probably spent less than 5 hours trekking on the road over the entire 20 days by seeking out the new trails (more on this in a future post). One trekker that we met along the way who had trekked the circuit both pre-road and post-road suggested that the trek was now better with the new trails and smaller crowds.
After finishing the Annapurna Circuit, we spent our last few days in Nepal relaxing in the lakeside city of Pokhara. Although there is quite a bit to do in Pokhara, we spent most of our time taking it easy by enjoying the (relatively) quiet streets and delicious food. Our most ambitious activity was renting a row-boat and paddling around the lake for a couple of hours (we just walked 250km, what more do you expect?).
All in all, Nepal was a wonderful stop and will certainly be remembered as a very special place. When time permits, we hope to do another post about the logistics of the Annapurna Circuit (ie. what to pack, suggested side trips and what to expect along the way).