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Annapurna Circuit September 2013
Well we started with a long drive out from Kathmandu in a large comfy 4×4. Feeling very excited and everyone getting to know each other. I think it took about an hour or so for Lisa to comment that Pete and Fra sounded like they sounded like good friends already! Our plan was to stay the night in Chyamche on the eastern side of the Annapurna circuit trek, hence missing two days of the full circuit due to Fra and Lisa having a strict time limit to be back home. After a few of the inevitable delays that occur on the roads in Nepal we were a few hours behind schedule and so arrived in Jagat (1300m), the village before Chyamche well after dark and decided to call it a day. After some excellent food and a welcome cup of black tea it was time for our first night in the mountains.
The morning was bright and warm with just a few small clouds around us. The view up the valley looked welcoming with the greenery of the forest enticing us in. We had decided that we would walk along the newly built road because it seemed both the easiest route to take and offer the best view. It was the first time any of us had been along the new road and it did not disappoint! Magnificent views up and down the valley from the outset. As we were walking shortly after the monsoon season we did come across some landslides that had blocked the road. This meant that although jeeps could no longer get past, anyone on foot had no problem. The route meanders through the valley, following the Marsyangdi Nadi river, leading us to our next stop in Dharapani (1860m).
After breakfast we set out once again along the new road, but today decided that a few shortcuts were going to be useful as the road goes a fair way off course. Most of the day was easy going with just one or two short steeper sections to tackle along the way. We decided a mid morning break was in order at Timang, so it was biscuits and hot lemon all round. Then, after getting our breath back and letting our legs recover a little, set off for Chame (2670m). We stayed in one of the last tea houses in the village, as it is not only one of the best but located 150m from the natural hot springs. I can assure you this works wonders for tired aching muscles! After soaking in the hot springs for over an hour we went for a walk around the village. Chame is one of the larger villages in the area and offers everything from a snooker/pool hall to a post office. We happened to stumble across a large group of locals having an outdoor party with loud music and dancing. At first we hung back and watched them enjoying themselves but as soon as we were noticed they invited us in to dance with them. Lisa and Pete were both dancing away for some time, although I have to say Lisa is certainly more naturally gifted in this particular area!
We set off the next day with the knowledge that we could stop in Lower Pisang (3200m), or if we were feeling strong, move on to Humde (3280m). All the way from Chame we had fabulous views of Annapurna 2 3 and 4 (7937m, 7555m, 7525m) towering above us to our left. The trail to Lower Pisang is very easy going with nothing to challenge you. We made very good time to the half way point to Humde and decided as a group that we would make that our stop over for the night. After some light refreshments in Dhikur Pokhari we moved off, with Humde our next stop. Once again the trail was easy going for the next few kilometers, then rising up a few hundred meters to a pass. Dropping down for around two kilometers before you arrive in the small village of Humde. Although it is one of the smaller villages, Humde is on level ground so it boasts a modern tarmac air strip. Not something you expect to see there to be honest.
After the extended day before, we had a short, and easy going stroll to Manang (3540m). Even with regular stops to take pictures back down the valley towards the imposing Manaslu (the worlds 8th highest peak) that towers above almost everything else at 8156m, we were still in Manang in around 2 hours. Manang is a village of 2 halves. The eastern side being relatively new with tea houses and modern buildings, the western side being the ‘old town’ with traditional houses and temples. This would be a 2 night stop over to help acclimatize to the altitude now that we were getting reasonably high. To pass the time, we played a lots of cards, showed each other new games and tricks and even went to the local cinema to watch ‘Into Thin Air’, a film about the 1996 Everest disaster. There is also an information centre to visit and find out about the local culture and heritage. We even came across an elderly American Buddhist priest, which was not something we expected! On our rest day we climbed up the hill at the side of the valley to a view point around 300m above Manang. From here you can look down on the village and see all along the valley. On the way up you are greeted by a lake, created by the Ganggapurna Glacier which feeds into the river far below. From the viewpoint you can see the Chulu peaks (6500m) opposite and a much closer view of Annapurna 3 (7555m) and Ganggapurna (7454m) looming overhead. This climb also helps your body to acclimatize for the days ahead so is strongly recommended.
An early morning to see the, quite fabulous orange and red sunrise meant we were on the road by 7am. We follow the narrow trail out of the valley that we had followed all the way from Jagat and started up hill towards Ledar (4200m). Although the trail was by no means steep, the altitude started to bite and we had to take regular stops to catch our breath and take in water. At one point the view to the right opens up between two hills to reveal a staggering view of the Chulu peaks. All three are around 6500m, which made us think about how high we were going to be in a couple of days time. Just 1000m or so below their summits still looked an awfully long way up! We managed to get to Ledar before 12 for Lunch. Some of the group were starting to get the tell tale signs of getting to high altitude. Headaches and feeling lethargic are very normal at this height. After lunch Lisa, Pete and Dinesh went for a walk up the steep sided hill just past the tea house to try and help with acclimatization for the following days. After a 30 minute walk up it looked a lot like the first signs of rain so decided to head back, getting to the tea house in the nick of time before the heavens opened. Once safely inside, it was back to the usual game of cards before dinner, and then an early night.
By morning the sky’s had cleared and it was sunny and warm. We knew today would be a mixed bag of terrain, starting without too much height gain but ending with a tough steep accent to High Camp (4925m). Well it may have been less steep to start with but it certainly wasn’t easy. After gaining 100m or more in height, we then had to walk downhill to a bridge across the river. Very disheartening when you realize all the effort you just put in is about to be repeated once again. Although we were feeling the altitude, we were still making good progress, arriving in Thorung Phedi in around one and a half hours. After a very long lunch (I think we all wanted to put off leaving) we set out for the steep accent up to High Camp. From the base of the climb, you walk up a zig zagging path of loose rock and shale. It is hard on the legs and the lungs! The gain in height is around 500m from Thorung La and by the time we got to high camp an hour later the oxygen levels were down to around half that at sea level. After a well needed rest and cup of hot lemon we had a gentle stroll up another 100m or so to the view point above. From here we could see all the way back down to Thorung Phedi below. It looked almost vertical! Across the valley we got an even better view of the ChuluPeaks and the Annapurna range to the south. After many pictures (and video’s) were taken we headed back down, some running in a very peculiar manner. It must be the altitude. After some very tasty macaroni, cheese and tuna it was time for bed. It would be an early start!
After devouring as much porridge as is humanly possible we set off from High Camp at 5am. It was still dark and the cloud made the visibility even worse. The temperature at this altitude is striking, with all of us layered up like we were off to the arctic. The pace was slow and steady, with Pete leading the way. Any quicker and we would burn out too soon. Every few paces we’d need to stop and take a few breaths before continuing. Slowly as the sun rose and the mist started to disperse, we could see glimpses of the scenery around us. Bleak, almost other worldly, with no sign of plant life anywhere. Snow was scattered lightly around but not in large quantities. Visibility slowly improved as we made our way towards the top of the pass. Slowly we were able to glimpse the sides of Thorung Peak (6144m) to our left and Yakwakang (6482m) to our right. Shortly before our own summit at the top of the Thorung La pass the cloud and mist seemed to disappear. It must have known we were coming!
Thorung la 1
At 7.30am we reached the top of the pass. An oxygen sapping 5416m above sea level. It was a first for 4 out of the 5 members of the group, and everyone was ecstatic to be there at last. The summit was baked in sun but still cold enough to warrant the extra clothing. The views were sublime, the view across to the north west made it seem like we were stood on the top of the world. The peak of Dhaulagiri (8172m) the only thing above us.
Thorung la 2
After many photo’s, laughter and general pats on the back we started to descend towards Muktinath (3760m). What’s that they say about it being just as hard to walk down as it is up? Well apart from some sore feet afterwards, every step feels like your lungs have turned into hot air balloons, the air feels so thick you could swim in it! In no time at all we were in Yakgawa for lunch. About an hour short of our destination. Dal Bhat all round and a look through all the pictures we had taken on the summit. By this time we had descended so far that we were down to t-shirts from our down jackets and thick gloves on the summit. After meeting a few other groups that caught us up while we ate, we moved on down further still to the pilgrimage village of Muktinath. Here we found 2 holy temples and were allowed to see inside the first (from the entrance) and to wash away our sins in the 108 taps that surround it on 3 sides. We were then blessed with a Tika (red dot) on our head, and moved on to the second. Here, we were allowed to enter, to see the fire on the water. This is meant to be the God’s power, although the gas smell somewhat gives the game away. Having had our fill of temples for the day we walked to the other side of town to catch a Jeep ride to Jomsom (2720m) where we would spend the night in a HOTEL! Wow, the luxury of a hotel is unprecedented after so many nights in tea houses. It had been a long day, but there was still time to meet up with a friend we had made at High Camp from Holland called Bram. He was acclimatizing for a trip to climb Himlung, a 7126m peak near the border with Tibet. With some locally made Apple Brandy, and some Everest beers, we had a great night playing (and cheating at) cards and free flowing conversation about previous adventures and mishaps.
After a very long hard previous day, and in the odd case possibly a little too much apple brandy, we had a later than usual start. This section of the trip we would be taking the bus for the same time constraint reasons as before. We caught the 8am bus from right outside the hotel. The road is rough and dusty with the ancient bus bouncing around as it goes. For some time it is quite entertaining in its own way, and certainly has lots of character. However it does get a little tiring being thrown around after a while and we were all grateful of the rest stop to get a drink and stretch our legs. Once the bus got to Ghasa after about 3 hours it was time for another stop, and a change of busses. Well we all thought the first bus/road was a rough ride. Then we had a lesson in how rough it can get. The route all the way from Ghasa to Tatopani (1190m) is something that is only just able to be classed as a road. Other, very well travelled passengers on the bus were commenting about how they had never known anything like it. To say that we were happy when we arrived in Tatopani would be a huge understatement, I have never seen so many smiles! After a 15 minute walk through the village we arrived at our tea house, a beautifully kept coverted family home with lush green gardens. Quite a change from the dry desert like regions around High Camp of only 2 nights before! The other noticeable change was the insect population. They are everywhere and make one hell of a noise! The main thing to look forward to in Tatopani though are the natural hot springs. Much bigger that the one in Chame, they have 2 pools and a shower to relax in and help repair any niggles you may have. We spent over an hour there, maybe 2. There were several groups of other tourists there from every corner of the globe and it was good to chat and find where they were going and what they had been up to. Some were in Nepal for little more than a week, some for months. Some were travelling the world and won’t return home for several years yet.
The following morning after a big breakfast we set off up the hill towards Ghorepani. We were not going to go all the way there in one day, but do most of it and stay near the top of the hill and have an easier walk the day after. It was a hot and humid day and if you are not used to the heat it makes it a whole lot more difficult. The one British member of the team (Pete) was certainly not used to it. At one point saying ‘I’m sure there’s a more humane way to kill me’. The trail is close to forest all the way but seems to be almost always away from any shade so you get the full force of the sun. After 3 hours we arrived at Shika, where we had lunch and cooled down inside, away from the baking sun. After lunch we continued up the hill but the trail at last works it’s way into the forest and some shade. 2 hours later we were in Chitre (2390m) where we stopped for the night.
The view across towards Dhaulagiri at sunrise the following morning was simply breath taking, with hardly a cloud in the sky. The tea house has a handy balcony that’s perfect for taking photo’s, which was used to it’s full effect. The walk up to Ghorepani was much easier than the day before. Mostly covered by the trees it remains much cooler, and it’s only about 2 hours to get there anyway. From the Hill Top Lodge in Ghorepani we had a gorgeous view of the mountainous landscape, but we were all excited by what we would get to see the following morning from Poon Hill. The view point a few hundred meters above us.
We left the tea house at 4.45am to walk the 45 minutes or so that it takes to get to the summit. Boy is it worth the early start! The sunrise from Poon Hill should be in every one of those ‘100 Things To See Before You Die’ books. Views of the whole Annapurna range with the sun coming up over the horizon just to the south of Machhepuchhre (6997m) and lighting up the host of mountains in a multitude of oranges and reds. Simply marvelous. Then as the sun creeps higher and higher It begins to light the summit of Dhaulagiri across the other side of the valley, slowly working its way down its flanks. After around two hours of taking photo’s and enjoying the moment we headed back down for breakfast. Then it was a walk down the hill towards Tikhedhungga (1480m). The well trodden trail winding its way through thick forest. Not steep at first it gradually increased in severity until we got to the top of the 3280 stone steps that lead to Tikhedhungga. These are tough on the knees and calf muscles. As we descended it also warmed up considerably again which added to the effort. The steps are steep and meander left and right as you descend. Not always even and with smooth placements for feet, great care had to be taken not to twist an ankle. As we made our way down we split into 2 groups, at the front Lisa, Sali and Dinesh. Then bringing up the rear Fra and Pete. Both suffering with knees and Pete with the heat again. When we got to the tea house a cold drink or 3 and a sit down in the shade could not have been more welcome. It was to be our last night in the mountains but we were still in good spirits and had all met some new friends along the way, both in our little group and others.
A 7am start for our last days walk down to Nayapul (1070m). An attempt to avoid the heat of midday. A steady, slower walk today to savour the last day of walking in this beautiful part of the world. Once again the new road was our route down but it was free from cars and Jeeps due to landslides further down. We stopped to take photo’s of the view up valley that we had walked down the day before. When we arrived in Birethanti (1025m), where we intended to get lunch, it was still early and we had all had a good breakfast so we just had some drinks and moved on. Taking the new road bridge we crossed the river and walked along the dirt road to Nayapul (1070m). From here we met the car that was to take up to Pokhara and back to the real world.
It had been a pleasure to enjoy the past couple of weeks with such a fabulous group of people, in such a special place.