Sometimes you just have to grab the opportunities out there when you have the chance. That was very much my mindset when I boarded a less-than-luxurious “tourist” bus from Kathmandu bus bound for Pokhara, in the autumn of 1993 and with the aim of “doing” the Annapurna Circuit. I’d more or less finished my 2 year stint as a volunteer working in natural resources management with VSO in Nepal – now it was time to see a bit more of the country before the stark realities of departing back to life in the UK.
The Annapurna Circuit is often regarded as one of the World’s classic treks; the route passes through 160–230 km (depending on your start point) of incredibly diverse terrain through the mountain ranges of Central Nepal. It circumnavigates the mighty massif of the Annapurnas itself and follows two major river valleys; the Marsyangdi – which leads towards Upper Manang- and the Kali Gandaki, which flows through the deepest gorge in the World between the towering 8000m ranges of Annapurna and Daulagiri. The Region was first opened to foreign trekkers in 1977 after ongoing border disputes were settled.
The route combines diverse climatic zones, ranging from subtropical forests at just 600 m above sea level, to high mountain terrain close to the snow line, reaching its highest point at the Thorung La Pass (5416m/17769 ft), a desolate and windswept col on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. It passes from a landscape of lush green rice paddies through to arid, semi desert areas in the rain shadow of the peaks. The Circuit also encompasses huge cultural diversity, from Hindu villages in the low foothills, to the Tibetan cultures of the Manang Valley and lower Mustang area.
I got off the bus at Dumre on the main Kathmandu to Pokhara highway and then found local transport to Besisahar, aboard some decomposing Former Russian army jeep which served as a taxi. Bus travel in Nepal isn’t so much fun; buses are usually crammed to the brim with people, chickens and goats and lurch dangerously around blind corners, the driver continuously sounding his horn whilst swerving to avoid oncoming vehicles (& seemingly oblivious the abyss below).
Fortunately, my journey went relatively smoothly on this occasion. When I reached Besisahar, the local kids were having fun playing on a giant swing, specially set up for the Dashain festival. This looked great fun and I was even persuaded to to join in and have a shot on the swing myself. Perhaps this is the closest that the kids in Nepal really get to experiencing a theme park.
My plan was to pick up the trail from Besisahar in the Marshyangdi River Valley and to continue from there right around the Annapurna Massif to the end point, via Poon Hill to Phedi near Pokhara. As I’d been living in Nepal already and hiking extensively around the Solu Khumbu region through my job as a community forester, I felt confident to undertake the trek by myself.
The route was well provisioned with small guest lodges and tea houses along it’s entirety and given the relatively social nature of tea house culture, it seemed highly likely that I would encounter other people on route to chat to – and to potentially tag along with for sections of the trail. Little did I know, that in the end things wouldn’t work out quite the way that I’d planned.
The landscape during the first day or two of the trek is a relatively gentle one. Irrigated rice terraces near the start of the trek were a brilliant vibrant green and gold as I made my way along the Marshyangdi Valley. This is the most popular hiking season in Nepal, when due to the recent monsoons, everything along the circuit is refreshed, clean and vibrant. Views are usually good and the night sky is extremely clear. Though the weather is generally warm, nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing however, especially on the higher parts of the trail.
It’s always interesting to look at some of the “excess baggage” being transported along the trail. In those days it was perfectly normal to get stuck behind porters carrying unfeasibly large loads on their backs, using only a headband to provide the required leverage – it must have been backbreaking. Loads that I spotted included office furniture, supplies of beer and toilet roll and in one instance, a kayak. The longsuffering porters, clad often just in flip flops, had to negotiate all sorts of obstacles en route, including wobbly bridges, exposed rocks and even ice and snow – often trekkers who hired porters, didn’t bother to equip them with the right clothing for the conditions. Nowadays, by contrast, many goods are brought in by vehicles.
With hindsight, I feel very lucky to have undertaken this trek at a time when the route was relatively underdeveloped compared with the present day. At that time, in the early 1990s, the trek was an epic 3 weeks of entirely road-less terrain, following traditional routes used by traders. In recent years however, continuing road construction projects have shortened the trail considerably and changed the character of the villages along the route.
The Besisahar-Manang road, described by some as the “most dangerous road in the world” (because of it’s precipitous drops, rough surface and propensity to landslides), closely follows the trekking route for much of the time. All this road development has had impact of drastically reducing the total distance of the trek; it now being theoretically possible to circumnavigate the range with only 3 full days spent on foot, between Manang and Muktinath.
Further up the Marshyangdi, the valley sides start to close in, the trail becomes steeper and the scenery increasingly wilder. I was enjoying the trip, but perhaps, I’d just become a little too complacent about trekking in Nepal – one moment I was happily hiking along, singing a little ditty to myself, in the next, I was tumbling down the bank and heading for oblivion, after tripping over some unknown object.
Fortunately, I rolled ungracefully to a halt before the slope got too steep to prevent a freefall to the river below. I emerged back on the path, bruised and bloodied, but still luckily still mobile – it could have been a lot worse, if I’d carried on sliding ! Maybe trekking alone wasn’t such good fun after all.
I limped on to the next village, nursing my wounds and cursing misfortune. As I entered the village, the idea of a beer very much on my mind, I couldn’t help but notice two very familiar looking figures sitting on a travelers’ rest platform, in the shade of a huge fig tree – it was fellow VSOs Keith and Louisa.
We exchanged pleasantries – the couple, whilst seemingly not quite ecstatic to bump into me, weren’t openly hostile either and soon warmed to my travelers’ tales of woe, involving rolling down mountain sides (either that or they just felt sorry for an unfortunate incompetent !). Anyway, we swapped plans and suggested that maybe we should all team up for a day or two; safety in numbers after all (especially as I seemed to be rather accident prone on this trip) !
And so it was that we set out together the next day – then the next… and the next… and so on. It was certainly good to have some light hearted banter and good company on the trail, even though the occasional “domestics” and the pleasure of listening to heated discussions about the relative hygiene practices of cats vs. dogs could sometimes wear a bit thin. However in general, it seemed better to be “team” than not.
This was a beautiful part of the trail, the vistas opening out and becoming ever more spectacular each day, providing tantalizing views of the high peaks of the Annapurna. We passed wayside chortens (small Buddhist stupas) and mani walls bedecked with spinning prayer wheels, a sure sign that we were now moving into areas of more Tibetan cultural influence. Quite often we’d find ourselves stuck in “traffic jams” – convoys of mules or horses transporting goods up to the Manang Valley or occasional flocks of sheep or goats heading in the opposite direction. Nowadays, the “road” (albeit a rough jeep track) now reaches as far Chamje close to the Manang Valley and so maybe these mule trains are now a thing of the past.
A quite amazing geological feature close to the Upper Manang is the Paungda Danda. This amazing mountain is notable for its western rock face that rises dramatically 1,500 m above the Marshyangdi River. The mountain’s vast and smooth western face is known as the “Great Wall of Pisang”. It is composed of slate rock and formed as a result of an ancient lakebed being uplifted during the creation of the Himalayas. The Paungda Danda is also referred to locally as “Swarga Dwar”, or Gates to Heaven. Local people believe that the spirits of the dead must ascend the wall to reach the heavens.
Not far from Paungda Danda, the trail diverges, the main route following the main Manang Valley, with a high level variation via Pisang, Ghyaru and Ngawal to Manang. This latter option is highly recommended, as the views are spectacular and the two villages encountered en route are amongst the best-preserved Tibetan style villages remaining in the region. Traditionally, the inhabitants were international traders between India and Tibet. The flat roofs here are and indication of how arid climate is here, being located in the rain shadow of the Annapurnas. Staying overnight in these villages can also help with acclimatization, particularly useful later for crossing the Thorong La Pass.
The trail also passes by the sublime Mring Taal lake, as it meanders along the valley side, clinging to the slopes. The lake itself can only be described as a little glimpse of heaven; its wonderful aqua marine water perfectly mirroring the surrounding greeny-blue of the pines and the mighty snowfields of the majestic peaks behind.
The villages of Ghyaru and Ngawal were fascinating places to spend time, ancient and timeless places with an almost medieval atmosphere about them – a veritable maze of winding passageways and descending vertical ladders providing access to the thick walled stone houses. These were packed tightly together to maximize efficient use of the sparse natural resources in the area and to offer protection from the harsh climate and biting winds here. We also found some really great places to simply chill out. One such teashop had a terrace with the most fantastic view out over the valley, somehow reminiscent of a Swiss mountain hut. We even encountered a friendly native of Switzerland hanging out there – just to complete the picture.
Close to Manang itself, the Bhakra Monastery near to Braga proved a fascinating and worthwhile stopover. The ancient Buddhist monastery is perched high upon a rocky spur, overlooking the village and blending so perfectly into the surrounding geology. We went to meet the resident lama of the gompa who appeared to do a roaring trade, blessing travelers about to cross over the 5,400m Thorong La into the Kali Gandaki valley beyond.
And so we arrived in Manang, seemingly a metropolis after the small villages which we’d been passing through the last couple of days. Nowadays Manang has changed character significantly due to increasing accessibility. It’s a mecca for gourmet fans of western food, including apple cake, pizza and muffins galore. Unlike in the early 90s you can now find plush lodges offering wireless broadband, shopping opportunities and “wellness” facilities – all a far cry from traditional notions of Himalayan trekking.
Different types of tourism are also developing. Manang, like the Mustang area is now becoming one of the world’s most popular mountain biking destinations. Those heading over the Thorong La, often spend a few days around Manang for acclimatization purposes. A popular side trip is to walk to, the once remote, Tilicho Lake. There are now lodges there at the so-called Tilicho Base Camp.
It’s a three day hike over the 5,400m Thorung La Pass to reach the sacred Hindu pilgrimage place of Muktinath, located high above the Kali Gandaki valley. Although crossing the pass normally goes without incident, the trip should not be underestimated. The climb from Manang is a gradual one, however, the altitude is extreme leading to shortness of breath for the unfit and unacclimatized.
The summit of the col is an exposed and uninviting place in bad weather, just short of the snow line. In October 2014, a sudden blizzard killed over 43 people, many of them Nepalese. It was caused by cyclone which had ravaged the eastern coast of India. In reality, there were about 350 hikers caught in the unexpected blizzard.
After what seemed like a never ending ascent, it was a great feeling to stand at the summit of the Thorong La pass and to be able to look down into the Kali Gandaki Valley and across towards peaks of the Daulagiri Range. From there it was all downhill towards Muktinath and to our destination, the small village of Kagbeni, nestled far off in the valley down below.
Heading down we passed the pilgrimage site of Muktinath, sacred to Hindus. I stopped only briefly here however, though it would have been tempting to linger and look around. I was beginning to feel somewhat queasy, which was possibly an affect of altitude. It seemed that the best thing would be to lose as much height as possible and as quickly as possible.
Like a scene from Middle Earth, I passed the dramatic hilltop village of Jharkot, somehow reminiscent of Tolkien’s “Edoras”, set starkly amidst the arid semi-desert terrain. Keith and Louisa in the meantime were taking their time on the descent and enjoying the sights on the way, whilst I just wanted to get to the bottom.
Nowadays, there is a tarmacked road to Muktinath from Jomosom in the Kali Gandaki. Since 2011, companies in Muktinath have rented out mountain bikes to tourists allowing a much faster descent than we were able to enjoy. Apparently, the road sees little traffic, and so you can effortlessly breeze downhill from Muktinath to Tatopani, descending almost 3000 meters in 2–3 days. In 1993, though I definitely wasn’t breezing.
As I at last reached the one-horse town of Kagbeni in the valley, I started to feel really ill, with a headache and a temperature. I waited for Keith and Louisa and we checked into a lodge, which with hindsight could have been accommodation straight out of “Game of Thrones”.
Kagbeni felt like the end of the earth, being somewhere on the way to the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang – a sort of place where “Dr Who” meets “High Plains Drifter”. On reaching the accommodation, I completely flaked out and proceeded to spent the next few days in bed with a high fever and periodic hallucinations.
It was indeed a quite surreal few days all in all; Keith and Louisa, concerned for my wellbeing summoned a local “doctor” of sorts, who recited a few incantations and chucked grains of rice over me. He also gave me bright red tablets to swallow, which was probably more helpful in the end. Disturbingly, there was also a cult group of Swiss new age style “monks” sharing the place with us. They’d created their very own spooky religion of sorts. This required the donning of sinister-looking sackcloth robes and walking about the place after dark chanting and carrying candles.
To make matters worse, one of the “monks” (the spookiest one) was blind-folded and also had his hands bound tightly together with a thick hemp rope, the end of which was held by his cohorts – apparently so that he could focus upon powerful “natural forces” and thereby guide his comrades to Mother Earth’s “Sacred Centre of Energy” (that’s what they told us at any rate !).
After a few days of the chanting monks, I think we’d all had quite enough and were starting to get a bit pissed off with the company and surroundings of Kagbeni. Time was also moving on and Keith and Louisa were due back at their VSO posts in Kathmandu; I had to make arrangements for getting back to the UK. However, walking out wasn’t an option for me at this point. It seemed that I had a bad chest infection, a fever and no energy to speak of whatsoever. Keith and Louisa, however came up with cunning plan of hiring horses to take us all down the valley to Jomosom, from where I would be able to catch a flight out.
And so we set off down the Kali Gandaki, through the deepest gorge in the world, between the 8000 peaks of Dhaulagiri and the Annapurnas. Arriving in Jomosom later that day, we must have looked a rough bunch of despots – especially me and Keith, who were disheveled, sunburned and unshaven; perhaps like some fearsome rebel tribesmen, who’d taken the wrong turning in the Karakorum somewhere.
After unloading our gear in Jomosom, Kieth and Louisa helped me to sort out a few things including booking a flight to Kathmandu scheduled for later that day. We then exchanged pleasant farewells before they departed off on the trail again in the direction of Tatopani, leaving me to wait for the plane to arrive.
I sat by the simple, dirt airstrip for an hour or two before hearing the comforting drone of a turboprop coming into land. The plane circled around before making a final approach followed by a perfect, albeit rather fast, touchdown. I listened to the changing tone of the engines as it disappeared off down towards the end of the runway and out of sight – abruptly to be followed by an almighty screeching, a loud bang and the unmistakable crunch of metal !! A large cloud of dust appeared low on the horizon, accompanied by the putrid smell of burning rubber.
In the next instance, pandemonium broke out and people were running toward the end of the airfield from all directions. It seemed that the plane had overshot the runway and had fallen down a bank at the end and into in the river below, snapping off a wing in the process. Judging from the commotion, there were clearly injured people (or possibly worse) who were already being carried out from the wreckage by impromptu rescuers.
Snippets of intelligence from the locals suggested that there were some serious causalities from the incident who would need to be taken to hospital in Kathmandu or Pokhara. In the meantime the airport would be closed for some time and all flights cancelled. Suddenly flying didn’t seem a good option to say the least.
Failing any other plan (and not being able to contribute in any other way), I determined to walk out, come hell or high water. Almost without thinking about it, I grabbed my rucksack and set off down the trail in the direction of Tatopani. It was a long, tiring and dusty solo walk along the Kali Gandaki below Jomosom, a constant wind whipping up sand from the largely dríed up river bed. However I persevered and after an hour or two, I started to feel some strength return to keep going.
I soldiered on, eventually reaching Tatopani for nightfall. Keith and Louisa were completely gob-smacked to see me there, limping into the place when they assumed I would now be sitting comfortably in some hotel in downtown Thamel. Tatopani, literally means “hot water”, the place being renowned for it’s thermal springs. It’s also a green and pleasant place, a real oasis after the arid lands to the north, blooming with subtropical greenery in abundance.
I spent an extra day in Tatopani, enjoying the luxury of an extended hot bath for the first time in weeks. It was a great, relaxing place to be after the rigours of the past days. In the meantime Keith and Louisa, gave their farewells (again) and then headed off down the valley to the road head where they could catch a bus to Pokhara and beyond. Meanwhile refreshed and reinvigorated by the hot springs of Tatopani, I decided to complete the last challenge of the circuit. This involved a long ascent to Poon Hill, from where there were reputed to be fantastic views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Ranges. Although it would be hard work, it seemed worthwhile.
The next morning, I awaited with a group of expectant onlookers for the sunrise on the summit of Poon Hill. Certainly, it was a spectacle worth witnessing, as the morning sun appeared over the horizon, illuminating the mighty peaks with golden light, the tones progressing from rosy pastal shades through varying degrees of intensity. Suddenly all the pain melted away – the journey had been worthwhile !
And so I arrived footsore and weary, in the city of Pokhara, which at that time was just a relatively small and laid back place by a lake. I sat by the water’s edge and contemplated the soaring and sacred peak of Machapuchare (the never climbed, “Fish Tail” mountain) – drawing inspiration from it’s mighty presence and perfect form.
So, I’d conquered the formidable Annapurna circuit and lived to tell the tale, though to be fair, the Annapurna Circuit had almost conquered me. More importantly I’d experienced two years of living in Nepal – one of the World’s most fascinating, beautiful but also most challenging countries. It seemed that there would be at least a whole lifetime’s worth of experiences and memories to take away and process from all of this…