The Annapurna Circuit is a long distance trek around the Annapurna Massif that stretches 230 kilometres and crosses its highest point at Thorong La Pass, 5,416 metres above sea level where it touches the edge of the Tibetan plateau. It has often been voted as the best long distance trek in the world, as it combines, in its old full form, a wide variety of climate zones from tropics at 600 metres to the arctic at 5,416 metres and offers a cultural variety from Hindu villages at the low foothills to the Tibetan culture of Manang Valley and lower Mustang.
It was happening and I was ecstatic. I would trek the Annapurna Circuit and hoped to also trek to Annapurna Base Camp. I had one day in Pokhara to prepare and enjoy one final serving of fresh coffee, brownie and ice cream at Himalayan Java. I acquired the necessary trekking permit and TIMS card, I bought a map of the Annapurna conservation area and stocked up on snack bars. That morning Mohadeseh from Iran who was considering the trek decided to join. I also had received news that Emma, who had contacted me through Trekking Partners, was having doubts that she wouldn’t have time to trek the Annapurna Circuit and enjoy a few days of downtime in Nepal before her flight home. Coincidentally, she bumped into Jemima at the trekking permit office. Jemima had plans to trek the circuit and needed to be back in time for her flight home which was the day before Emma’s. With little time to make a decision we all agreed to meet by Phewar Lake to discuss our options. Half a beer later and some gentle persuasion and Emma was in. The four of us would set off at the crack of dawn the next morning in the direction of Besi Sarhar.
Besi Sarhar, the most common starting point for the Annapurna Circuit trek, was a four hour bus journey from Pokhara. Thomas, an Austrian who was prepared to trek solo, was on the bus and decided to start the trek with us. After a swift meal in Besi Sarhar we took to the hills leaving comfort and luxury behind. The first few days lead us through small villages, across hanging bridges and we passed many waterfalls. The trail was clearly marked with red and white painted stripes, though we still somehow managed to wander off the path at times. We quickly took to the life of a tea house trekker. We stayed in simple but cosy tea house lodges and began to bond as a trekking family. Jemima lead yoga classes and like a troop of chimpanzees picking fleas out of each others fur, we would take turns massaging each others shoulders and back to ease the tension from carrying a heavy rucksack for up to eight hours a day. The days were hot and the nights were cold. Brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine welcomed us to the Annapurna Circuit for the first week of our trekking experience “I can’t believe how blue the sky is!” I caught myself repeating every few hours. Though, as days passed, we would come to realise why trekking in January is the quieter off-season, with temperatures plummeting below zero. But I would happily sacrifice a few degrees for solitude on the trail.
Tea house life was delightful, except for having to brave an ice cold shower most nights which was actually extremely invigorating and washed away the clammy sweat that accumulated throughout the day. Most lodges were family run establishments, we were always welcomed with open arms and warm smiles, though it became apparent that most lodges and restaurants offered the identical selection of high calorie, high carbohydrate Himalayan trekking meals that gradually increased in price as we gained altitude. In an attempt to vary my nutritional intake I balanced my carbohydrate heavy diet between potatoes, noodles and rice. The most renowned dish of the circuit and one that I would shovel down with a tumultuous rapacity, was daal bhat, a rice based dish usually served with vegetable curry, green leafy vegetables, papad, pickle and a bowl of daal. Best of all, despite being the most expensive vegetarian option on the menu, it was a bottomless meal, the restaurant or lodge owner would happily pile up your plate with a second helping of rice, usually twice the size of your first portion, another bowl of daal and see your vegetables replenished. It was hard to control my glutton but what better way to burn it all off than trekking from sunrise to sunset the next day. It must be said, life was good.
The trail undulated upstream along the vibrant turquoise torrents of the Marsyangdi River, sections of the trail must have been cut out of the rock face and snaked precariously along the valley walls. Across the river clinging to the underside of the steep sided walls hundreds of metres from the valley floor we sighted huge semi-circular bee hives and envisaged the ludicrously brave locals climbing hemp rope ladders in an attempt to harvest the gloopy liquid gold. As we passed our first ACAP permit checkpoint we finally caught a first glimpse of our first snow capped Himalayan peak, the mighty Mansalu at 8,163 metres.
The third day of the trek was challenging, we had trekked from sunrise to sunset and arrived in Chame as dusk set in. With a “Michael recommendation” a saying that would become rather common throughout the duration of the trek, we stayed at the New Tibet Hotel where a log burner roared in the centre of the dining room. Chame was equipped with a natural hot spring and before dinner, Emma, Jemima and I bathed in the steaming water under the twinkle of starlight, the crescent moon hanging elegantly in the sky. My legs and feet were certainly grateful for a relaxing soaking.
The first few days we trekked hard, putting in up to 10 hours on the trail. We were a hardened bunch, Jemima would trek all day after nights of little to no sleep at altitude, Emma continued hiking despite severe stomach cramps but fortunately, as a trainee doctor after a quick diagnosis self-assessment and hunt for antibiotics was quickly back on her feet. Unfortunately, our brisk pace meant that we sadly but mutually agreed to part ways with Mohadeseh, who I hope was picked up by another team of trekkers.
Each day we continued to climb and with the increasing altitude the trail cut through pine forests as we approached the small village of Upper Pisang. We quickly learned that nights on the Annapurna Circuit were bitterly cold and the lodges lacked any modern insulative properties, so one priority when it came to tea house triage was ensuring the roof of the dining area was perforated with a chimney and preferably had smoke billowing out. Passing the trail test, we settled into the Mandala Lodge with expansive views out across the valley and with a few hours to spare and with Jemima’s assistance, an emergency crotch repair operation was underway of my one and only pair of trousers.
We had another long day planned and woke before sunrise. The trail from Upper Pisang ascended up a series of 27 steep switchbacks to a Buddhist Gompa that offered spectacular views of Annapurna III and the valley below. As we continued along the trail the view just got better and better, I genuinely couldn’t believe where we were. I kept having to stop and try to visually soak up the landscape, the view was unbelievable, heaven on earth. As darkness closed in we plodded into Manang, where we would spend time to acclimatise in preparation for crossing Thorong La Pass. I had my sights set on a two day side trail to Tilicho Lake at 4,919 metres.
The four of us had got on extremely well, we had great laughs along the trail, we were highly encouraging, motivational and, being in each others company for 24 hours a day, we quickly became a close knitted group. I was glad that our paths had crossed. Something had occurred me during these first few days, I opened up and told my life stories to my new friends who I had known for less than a week. I have noticed in the past that I tend to do this when meeting new people, whether they are travel companions or even new work colleagues, I often talk about deep personal topics early in a new friendship, maybe it is just a trait I have or my way of showing that I trust an individual or perhaps a sign that whoever my new acquaintance is, we share similar values and aspirations.
The hardest and most challenging part of the trek was yet to come. With a doctor, a yoga instructor, an Austrian who could carry two rucksacks and myself as navigator and photographer, I felt that surely we were in good hands.