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Himalayan Shangri-La: The Annapurna Circuit, Experience An Ancient Culture On This Classic Nepal Trek
Editor’s note: This story and accompanying photos are a guest post from Michael Lanza’s blog The Big Outside. Regular Traveler readers might notice the reference to Penny as Michael's fiancée. This story arose before their marriage some years ago and, of course, before they took their family to Glacier National Park more recently.
The old school bus rumbles to life with a painful metallic grinding and we roll forward, our chariot rocking side to side down a rutted, muddy street of a small crossroads town called Dumre in central Nepal. Angling down a hillside, the bus lists heavily to starboard and moves too slowly to escape its own cloud of choking exhaust, which drifts in through the open windows.
As we round a bend, an excited murmur rises among the Western trekkers on board. The bus, still inching forward and lurching violently, is heading straight for a swiftly running, rock-strewn creek. I glance at the Nepalis on the bus, searching for concern in the faces of those who have taken this ride before. They look bored.
Moments later, the bus drops with a vertebrae-fusing thud into the creek. Its submerged wheels churn up brown water. The bus claws up onto the opposite bank, shuddering as if to shake the water from its body and eliciting a spontaneous outburst of relieved laughter from the Western passenger. Then it stalls out.
After more engine grinding, the driver gets the bus moving forward again. Finally, after several hours on two different buses from Kathmandu, we arrive in the dusty burg of Besi Sahar, quite literally the end of the road.
My fiancée Penny and I are on a premature honeymoon, having hacked almost a month out of my work schedule and her medical training for this trip. After 35 hours on four flights spanning three continents and half the planet’s time zones, we landed in this small country with the world’s tallest mountains, addled but eager to embark on one of the world’s greatest treks: around the Annapurna Range of the Himalaya.
Carrying our gear and clothing in backpacks, we will walk about 150 miles from village to village through two roadless valleys where the Industrial Revolution is still largely science fiction, eat and stay in “teahouses” run by locals, and follow an ancient trade route over a mountain pass higher than any established trek in the world except for Mt. Kilimanjaro. We’ve planned 17 days, the minimum time needed to do it, according to the two guidebooks we’ve pored over.
But despite the books, we have little idea what to expect—including whether 17 days will be enough time, whether we’ll get sick from contaminated water or food, or how much trouble we’ll have just communicating with locals. Our biggest concern, though, is whether we’ll make it across the Thorung La, a mountain pass at 17,769 feet—where, we have been warned, “people die every year.”
With buildings of stone and brick and corrugated-tin roofs standing shoulder-to-shoulder along the dirt main road, Besi Sahar evokes exactly what it is: a frontier trading post. At the best hotel in town, 120 rupees—about $2, what will turn out to be one of our most expensive nights on the trek—gets Penny and me a room where we lay sleeping bags on the thin mattresses of twin beds. Our bathroom features the standard Nepal toilet: a hole in the floor.
A Season For Trekking In Nepal
The next morning dawns clear and warm for the start of our long walk. It’s late October, post-monsoon, which here, almost within shouting distance of the Tropic of Cancer, mimics September in New England or the Pacific Northwest: T-shirt days, fleece-jacket nights. Penny and I weave among mules, people, and merchants standing before open storefronts on Besi Sahar’s main street; then, beyond town, follow a dirt track the width of a country road. Lush forest and rice terraces like endless staircases climb high up precipitous valley walls.
The Marsyangdi River, which we will follow upstream for 10 days, roils murky with glacial runoff. Far off, framed by the bookend walls of the valley, the world’s eighth-highest mountain, 26,760-foot Manaslu, pastes daunting walls of snow and ice against the sky.
A few other Western trekkers share the road, but mostly we see Nepalis walking between villages, including porters carrying huge loads on their backs. From wood shacks small children call out, “Namaste!”, a common greeting among Nepalis which translates literally as “I salute the god within you.”
In the village of Khudi, we cross the first of innumerable suspension bridges spanning the Marsyangdi, a structure of steel cables, bamboo and wood that sways under its constant human traffic. In Bhul Bhule, we stop at a hotel for a typical Nepali lunch of garlic soup and daal bhaat, a staple consisting of white rice, lentils, and vegetables.
Later that afternoon, in Bahudanda, a village where chickens, goats, and cattle roam dirt streets and fires flicker on stone floors inside one-room homes, we get a room whose window shutters open onto a view of mud-and-thatch huts and rice terraces cascading far down the valley. I take a frigid shower in a cell-like outbuilding where faint daylight filters in through a tiny window. A sign unnecessarily pleads: “Please conserve water. It is carried up here.”
That evening in our hotel’s “restaurant,” we sit around one of three picnic tables with four companions we met today and will hike with for the remainder of the trek: Mikael, Tom and Charlie, all from Seattle, and Gorazd, who is from Slovenia. While we trade travel stories, the innkeeper’s wife periodically bursts from the kitchen, calling out in words vaguely English the name of the dish in her hands. Each time, we exchange puzzled looks with the guests at the other two tables. It’s hard to say whether the confusion is lessened or exacerbated by the fact that the fare varies little: daal bhaat, garlic soup, fried potatoes, or fried macaroni and vegetables.
The lights go out during dinner, throwing us into complete blackness. The innkeeper quickly lights candles for each table, explaining that Bahudanda just got electricity a month ago, and service is sporadic. In fact, only a few buildings have power; for most villagers, it might as well be the formula for atomic weapons for all their means to access the technology.
Ever Upward Through The Landscape
Joined by our four new friends the next morning, Penny and I walk up a valley whose constricting walls squeeze the turbulent river through a rock gorge. Streams tumble hundreds of feet off sheer cliffs. High above the Marsyangdi, we walk along a catwalk blasted out of the cliffs—rural Nepal’s version of an interstate highway. Villages of a few dozen mud or wood homes perch improbably on steep mountainsides, surrounded by rice terraces which impose tiny, cashew-shaped islands of flatness upon terrain defiantly non-horizontal—one of many vivid symbols of the people’s struggle not so much to tame the land as subsist marginally on it.
Trains of pack mules announce their approach with the clanging of bells. Porters plod along, bent beneath unfathomable loads carried by means of a cloth sling over their foreheads. One man, his face lined with age and grimacing with pain, leans on a walking stick beneath four burlap sacks of grain and three cases of Coke and Sprite bottles, his back-breaking cargo on its way to tourist hotels farther up valley.
In this stretch of the valley, the trail gets periodically relocated to whichever side of the river has suffered the fewest landslides. We traverse scars as wide as the length of a football field, where the ground has turned inside-out, coughing up boulders and gravel. In Bagarchap, we walk solemnly past disquieting memorials to 20 people killed by one such landslide just two years ago.
But the landslides are just one commuting hazard in rural Nepal.
Hiking up a hill along the trail, I’m startled by the sudden thunder of hooves. I look up into the wild eyes of a beefy ram, horns lowered, charging. There’s no time to react. But the ram dodges us and disappears around the next bend. Moments later, a teen-age boy appears, pauses, looks around. I put my forefingers to my forehead, mimicking horns, and point down the trail; he sprints off.
On our fourth day, in Chame, a town of several hundred people, government offices, and numerous shops along its cobblestone streets, several children approach me. Using my few memorized Nepali phrases, I tell them my name and that I’m from America—and a crowd of adults and children suddenly materializes to hear the foreigner speaking in their tongue. The children babble excitedly, their words completely unintelligible to me. I don’t even know the Nepali phrase for “I do not understand.” Lost in confusion, I sheepishly wave and shout, “Namaste!” and walk on.
Looming above Chame, twice again as high as the ground where we stand, the white faces of Annapurna II and Lamjung Himal wear the dawn hours before its light finds Chame’s stone buildings.
And here in town, at 8,000 feet, those mountain walls extinguish the day early: When the sun fizzles behind Lamjung Himal at 3 p.m., an icy wind appears with the stealth of bats, foreshadowing the days ahead.
Several days into our trek, at 10,000 feet above sea level, my own labored breathing fills my ears as we walk uphill. I pause and look up. Just ahead, the blockish, dirt-and-fieldstone homes of Upper Pisang, which from a distance virtually disappear into the bleak, brown mountainside beyond, look as ancient and lifeless as ruins.
Greetings From Children, Cows And Goats
Then the village children rush out to greet the six of us, and pandemonium breaks loose.
Screaming and laughing, more than a dozen teens and young children fall upon us, crying out, “Rupee! Rupee!” Though we give them no money, they continue shouting and singing the word; it’s a game to them. Four or five screeching girls tug at Charlie’s arms and clothing like he was Elvis. Two girls about six years old extend their arms to Penny, then giggle hysterically when she tosses them into the air. Watching from a distance, several adults laugh at their kids and us.
We exchange names with the kids. Then they lead us on a tour of their village, chattering excitedly, little of which we understand.
A narrow, muddy path meanders maze-like among two- and three-story homes of mortarless stone and wood, their Tibetan-style, flat, dirt roofs piled high with firewood. Cows and curly-horned goats scatter before us. Logs with notched steps lean against walls to access upper floors and roofs. Hundreds of Buddhist prayer flags strung pole to pole across every rooftop snap in the sharp wind.
We’ve now left behind the lush, warmer, lower Marsyangdi River Valley and entered the colder, arid, upper valley. Gone is the carpet of forest and green rice terraces climbing the mountainsides. In this treeless, broader part of the valley, the people coax barley, beans, and potatoes from the rocky earth. We enjoy constant views of Himalayan peaks rising to 26,000 feet, their vertical walls of snow disgorging great rivers of ice. The daytime sun grows ever more intense the higher we climb, but temperatures at midday hover in the 40s and 50s, and nights feel wintry.
In sharp contrast with the aloof Hindu people of the lower valley, the Nepalis up here are mostly of Tibetan descent, Buddhist and more gregarious. Some are well-traveled and do business with the outside world. Manang, the largest town, has an airstrip.
Before dawn the morning after our guided tour with the village children, Gorazd and I hurry with our cameras through the numbing cold up a hill above Lower Pisang. As we grin and blow on our hands to warm them, the first golden light of day ignites a cloud-like plume of wind-driven snow billowing hundreds of feet off the top of 26,041-foot Annapurna II.
Coping With The Altitude
Later that morning, the six of us continue up the trail. Men gallop past on horseback. Porters, male and female, carry goods on their backs, even 20-foot-long wooden beams for buildings under construction. We meet trekkers heading down valley, bearing alarming news: A Nepali porter died this week of altitude sickness while attempting to cross the Thorung La, still five days ahead of us.
The six of us rest a day in Manang, where at over 11,000 feet our bodies can further acclimate for the higher altitudes ahead. In the morning, Gorazd, Penny and I follow a trail switchbacking above Manang, beneath the soaring heights of Annapurna III, Gangapurna and Glacier Dome across the valley. We pass grazing goats and yaks and more prayer flags fluttering from poles, and reach a Buddhist gompa, or monastery, built into a cliff.
A stooped old woman missing several teeth ushers us down a narrow passageway between the gompa’s stone walls and the cliff. She stops outside a low doorway and gestures for us to enter. Ducking inside, we are greeted by the broad smile of a tiny old man attired in the bright gold robe and pointed red headdress of a monk and squatting on the floor of a cramped room overflowing with photos of the Dalai Lama and Buddhist icons. He motions us to a low wooden bench. We obey silently, shooting each other glances, not sure what to expect.
The monk gestures for Gorazd to kneel before him, reassuring us in broken English, “For good luck—Thorung La.” Chanting softly, he knots a colored string around Gorazd’s neck, pours seeds and a few drops of oil into his palm and motions for him to eat them, and lastly touches a large book of the Buddha’s writings to Gorazd’s forehead. He then repeats the blessing with Penny and me.
Afterward, hiking back to town, we can’t stop talking about it.
Manang is the highest town in the Marsyangi Valley that’s occupied year-round. Above it, the few scattered, tiny settlements are seasonal, there to serve trekkers, porters, and traders. We walk just a few hours each day, each night sleeping no more than a thousand feet higher than the previous night, a precaution against altitude sickness.
From Manang we walk to Gunsang, at 12,700 feet, a handful of stone dwellings huddled together as if bracing for the approaching winter. Sitting outside our four-room “hotel” under a blazing sun, we wear fleece jackets in the icy breeze. The phlegmy rumblings of avalanches on Glacier Dome reach us through the dry air. Everyone complains of a common physiological reaction to the thinner air: having to crawl out of a warm sleeping bag three or four times a night and trot outside in the biting cold to pee.
The next day, we reach a teahouse in Churi Lattar, at 13,700 feet. That afternoon, as 10 or 12 trekkers lounge at plastic cafe tables outside the hotel, a team of yaks comes up the trail, thick sections of log strapped to their broad flanks. The first animal hesitates, unnerved by our noisy conversation—then leads a sudden charge through our ranks, upsetting benches and chairs and sending trekkers leaping out of the way.
And a day later, we walk over a skein of fresh, wet snow blanketing the ground up to Thorung Phedi, two stone hotel buildings and nothing else. At 14,700 feet—higher than anyplace in the continental United States, higher than Penny or I have ever stood—Phedi must be one of the planet’s most remote outposts of human civilization, a way station for a rare breed of traveler for half the year, abandoned to the snows the rest of the year. Today, with the weather clear, more than 100 trekkers fill the hotel to overflowing, staging for a 4 a.m. departure to hike over the Thorung La, which we hear has become passable during the recent days of sunshine.
Sleepless Nights And Trekking Above 15,000 Feet
That evening, I swallow two ibuprofen and a Diamox pill to combat the expected headache and difficulty sleeping, but it’s no use. Each time I start to slip into blissful unconsciousness, I awaken and sit bolt upright, gasping for air. Penny, who hasn’t slept well since Manang, tosses all night, too. It’s a relief when 4 a.m. arrives, so we can pack up and leave.
With a faint predawn light touching the distant snowcap of Gangapurna, Penny and I join a slow parade of headlamps in the freezing darkness, taking our first ponderous steps on a 3,000-foot climb to the Thorung La.
Walking uphill above 15,000 feet is just about the nearest that walking gets to standing still. Each of us moves like the very old—head bent forward, every step comically slow and punctuated by a pause, as if each one requires a moment’s careful consideration. Experts on altitude sickness advise against hiking so fast that your breathing becomes accelerated. But in reality, you walk at an absurdly slow pace because that’s the only speed possible.
A hard shell of packed snow and ice covers the trail. Once the sun rises, we see our surroundings: a starkly beautiful landscape of rocks, snow, and high peaks, every square inch of it reflecting the sunlight like aluminum foil. As the line of trekkers strings out, at times, Penny and I feel alone in this snow desert.
More than four hours after leaving Thorung Phedi, we crest a small rise. Some 200 feet ahead, trekkers stand around a pile of stones where prayer flags flap in the wind like handkerchiefs drying on a clothesline: the Thorung La. We have walked 11 days to reach this saddle more than three miles into the troposphere, where the density of oxygen is half that at the beach. Today is Penny’s birthday.
We stagger up to the squat stone teahouse which operates during the trekking season—surely one of the highest places on the planet where one can purchase a pot of hot tea. I gratefully drop my backpack on the snow and take in the panorama of white-robed Himalayan mountains rising and falling to far-off horizons.
We take a few photos and would like to sit for some tea, but a nagging headache squeezes the back of my skull and we both long to just feel well again. Minutes after reaching the pass, we start a 5,000-foot descent which proves nearly as arduous as the climb had been, the trail varying between treacherous firm snow, loose gravel, and mud. Nine hours after setting out in the dark from Thorung Phedi, we shuffle, exhausted, into the town of Muktinath, drinking copiously of the relatively rich air at 12,700 feet.
We round a bend to find Gorazd, who walked well ahead of us all day, sitting outside a hotel, grinning wickedly. He utters perhaps the only two words that could abruptly turn our spirits 180 degrees: “hot shower.”
Our first in 11 days, the steaming showers portend the remainder of our trek.
Threads Of Western Amenities
In striking contrast to the primitive Marsyangdi Valley, the Kali Gandaki River Valley, which we walk down for two days, has more creature comforts thanks to a heavier flow of Western trekkers, partly because of a small airport. We still throw sleeping bags on inch-thick mattresses, but revel in the decadence of daily hot showers, indoor bathrooms (with the standard hole in the floor), and a greater variety of food. Most of the hotel owners speak English, many fluently. Electricity has reached the major towns and we pass workers using pick and shovel to erect utility poles. We feast on croissants, cinnamon rolls, chocolate brownies, cheesecake. At the Kalopani Guest House, we drool over a menu that includes 13 soups, lasagna, huevos rancheros, chocolate mousse and apple pie—and flip through the current issue of Business Week, to which the owner subscribes.
If the comforts eclipse the other side of the Thorung La, though, the land mirrors the upper Marsyangdi Valley. Treeless brown and yellow hills rise above the river; higher still rise one towering white fin after another, dominated by the world’s seventh-highest peak, 26,810-foot Dhaulagiri—a mountain so tall we will walk within sight of it for five days.
And the challenges haven’t disappeared. In the Kali Gandaki Valley—the world’s deepest gorge, where Dhaulagiri and 26,504-foot Annapurna I flank villages as low as 4,000 feet, and the ancient route of the salt trade between India and Tibet—we walk into the teeth of harsh dust storms that blow daily from late morning until sunset.
Nor have all of the countryside’s primitive qualities evaporated. Farmers sing at the top of their lungs as they drive yak-powered plows across terraced fields on the outskirts of villages. In Kagbeni, narrow cobblestone streets wind like catacombs between stone buildings two and three stories high, often dead-ending in tiny courtyards. A boy of six or seven rushing down the street with a live chicken under one arm pauses to play with the Velcro on Penny’s jacket, then dashes off.
More than two weeks into our trek, we start its last big climb, six hours and 5,000 feet uphill from Tatopani to Deorali. On the dusty trail, we have to step aside for a procession of Nepalis walking solemnly but quickly in the opposite direction. Several men carry a body shrouded in colorful robes, laid out on a wooden stretcher; beside it walks a young woman, wailing loudly. Behind them follow maybe another hundred people, most carrying a log or two or bundles of kindling for a funeral pyre.
On the final morning of our trek, in the dark and fierce chill of 5 a.m., Penny, Gorazd, and I join one more parade of headlamps on a 45-minute walk from Deorali to the bare crown of Poon Hill, at over 9,000 feet.
Overhead arcs the familiar dome of a Himalayan night sky riddled with stars. Scraping a long swath across it, the five giant, milky silhouettes glow faintly in the moonless hour before dawn: Dhaulagiri, The Fang, Annapurna South, Hiun Chuli, and Macchapucchare appear to float above valleys still black with night.
We stand quietly, exhaling clouds of breath, waiting and watching.
Then rich bands of red and yellow slowly ignite on the eastern horizon. Dawn seeps across the sky. A flash of golden light strikes the snow cap of Annapurna South, and then leaps like wildfire across the tops of the other peaks. Within a few short minutes, the rising sun turns the world’s greatest mountains blindingly white, a dramatic closing scene to one of the world’s greatest treks.
If You Go
Guidebook: Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, $22.99, from Lonely Planet, lonelyplanet.com. Trekking in Nepal, by Stephen Bezruchka, $19.95, mountaineers.org.
Resources: Nepal Tourism Board, welcomenepal.com. Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal, taan.org.np. Wikitravel, wikitravel.org/en/Annapurna_Circuit.