We had met a few people on our travels who had been to Nepal and they unanimously agreed –amazing country. We had even met one girl who had been there a month and declared it her second home. I knew what she meant the second I walked into the tiny airport in Kathmandu. The people are so lovely – just the right amount of friendliness while not being pushy and generally a fantastically high level of English which was completely unexpected. It is of course also a trekker’s heaven so as well as beautifully turned out Nepali men and women you are jostling most of the time with other (mainly) American and European North face clad trekkers which gives a great sense of camaraderie.
We picked up our bags and headed for our hostel in the tourist district of Thamel. I really liked it here – yes its touristy but for 2 days pre or post hike (we did post as we were worried about getting back to Kathmandu for our flight on the buses) it’s perfect. Great restaurants and really cool bars with great food, décor and service at Nepali prices, lots of places to get your last minute presents (jewellery and cashmere is beautiful here) and loads of spas offering to make your body feel normal again!
After one night here we caught a bus to Pokhara, another great trekking town built around a lake which has a more peaceful vibe than Thamel. It was here that we were preparing to leave from so we spent 2 and a half days getting all our stuff sorted. Paul and I didn’t want to walk with our main bags but yet our small day packs weren’t up for the job for three weeks of hiking the Annapurna trail. Pokhara has a plethora of shops selling everything you could possibly need from bags, jackets, sleeping bags, shoes, poles, medicine – EVERYTHING! So we both bought bags, down jackets and altitude sickness medication (just in case) and I also got a pair of poles. We also needed to sort out the administrative side of bus tickets to the start of the trail, maps and permits (2 different ones!) It’s really funny as pretty much everyone there is a trekker and you can tell by the colour of people’s faces whether they are pre or post trek 🙂 It sure is a good reminder of the importance of a high spf!
We went out to dinner the night before to load up on carbs and realised that each of us was feeling quite nervous. Logically there was no need to because all the research we had done said the same: the trail is fantastically marked, one doesn’t walk much longer than 2-3 hours (frequently less) before passing through a village where you can buy anything from a full meal to a snack of tea and snickers or also stay the night if you’re tired (or its raining:)) However, without knowing exactly what was ahead of us we felt like we had done all we could do but yet was it enough?
The Annapurna trail is 200km long from Besi Sahar to the South East of the Annapurna mountain range to Birethanti in the South West. (You can do it the other way round but the gain in altitude is more punishing so it’s not generally done). Again generally speaking it takes 18-19 days to trek which would be to walk every day bar a couple of rest days. I say generally because one of the best things about the Annapurna trail and region is it is so flexible precisely because of the tea houses. You could trek up to a month or more if you wanted to do the side trails and overnight trips or a lot less if you were short on time and didn’t mind getting the bus where possible.
“The bus” was something Paul and I were unsure of when we were doing our research. For a long time the Annapurna trail was regularly voted the most beautiful hike in the world, but then as part of a national development programme a “road” was planned on large parts of the trail. Such was its impact on trekker’s enjoyment that in 2010 a couple of Annapurna specialists approached the Annapurna Conservation agency with the aim of introducing alternative trails away from the road where possible. From reviews on the trail pre 2010 I would say this has made a massive difference and is probably the best middle ground for the villagers for whom the road is generally a positive development and for the trekkers for whom it generally definitely isn’t. The NATT are really easy to follow on the ground and in any case there is a huge pdf document on the internet for free (written by the 2 specialists) which breaks down each segment from village to village in great detail (just google NATT). It was really only on the first day that we noticed the road at all as there is no other way and it is not pleasant to wind through the traffic jam of jeeps and building construction vehicles on a one way “road” but thanks to some of the more recent reviews we knew this was likely to end the next day and so it did!
We were planning to walk between 10-15km a day depending on how we felt and not rush through. We had 3 full weeks so had the option to complete it or perhaps spend a few days in a few of the villages to gain a fuller perspective of life in the Himalayas and catch a bus some of the way, once the pass was completed. The pass is Thorung La – the biggest pass in the world and a breath taking 5,416 m high (17,770ft). We also didn’t know how the altitude was going to affect us. Paul has climbed Kilimanjaro which is higher but had terrible altitude sickness (a result he thinks of not acclimatising properly) and I had only been to 5000m where I had got a pretty bad headache but was otherwise fine. Altitude sickness is not something to take lightly. At the start of the trail where you get your permits stamped there were quite a few posters put up by families of climbers who have gone missing – most likely as a result of altitude sickness. As well as severe headaches and vomiting (never nice) it can give the afflicted a drunk feeling of everything’s fine. In it’s extreme form one can’t walk straight or speak properly yet will insist they’re fine and want to carry on – particularly dangerous if you climb on your own (not recommended for the pass). It was really sad to see and a bit of a wake up call that bad things can happen and the consequences can be fatal in such a harsh environment.
Day One: Besi Sahar – Bhulbhule
However Paul and I were still massively excited as we got off the bus with the other trekkers got our permits stamped and set off. People had introduced themselves on the bus and there was a range of ages and experience. Seasoned trekkers off to explore the more remote reaches and newbies like us. We met another rookie couple (Australian living in London) who were lovely and we walked the first day with them. This was great as we found our way together – not in terms of the trail but once we wanted to stop, the do’s and don’ts of getting a room (what questions to ask) and what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised – the rooms of all the teahouses are pretty much the same. A basic room with 2 single beds and a table. Some have electricity in the rooms (most don’t) but there will probably be a plug in area in the common room where you can gather to drink tea after you’re day and chat to other trekkers. Most places we stayed had hot water and flushing toilets but there were exceptions and all had exactly the same menu that is meant to regulate prices and standards.
Day Two: Bhulbhule – Ghermu
The next day Paul and I decided we wanted to trek alone so we had breakfast and said goodbye to our new friends hoping to see them again that night. We had gotton as far as Bhulbhule after we got off the bus and so were hoping to trek as far Syange or Jagat on our first full day. It was a beautiful walk – especially as we rounded into Nadi Bazaar and the spring flowers were out in full bloom. We decided this was a great place to stop for half an hour and have tea. The owner’s 3 year old daughter decided to come and make friends with us and was fascinated with Paul’s SLR trying to figure out how the flowers got “into” the camera.
We waved goodbye and continued on our way walking for another couple of hours and stopping for lunch after an exhausting set of stairs set to the cliff. Something that we hadn’t been expecting was the humidity and warmth in these lower reaches of the walk. We were so worried about not being warm enough we packed thermals galore but I didn’t I would need multiple vest tops! That day we stopped a little earlier than we had planned as it was hot and heavy going and we weren’t yet used to our packs which were making our shoulders ache a little. We were feeling pretty frustrated at our lack of fitness when we heard two very familiar voices haggling for a room! The fact that our two aussies friends had also decided to stop was definitely a nice feeling and we compared notes over numerous cups of tea!
Day Three: Ghermu – Chamche
We kept to the same routine as the morning before and which was to become our routine for most of the days, get up, breakfast, collect water from the village tap and then treat it (chlorine tablets), pack bags, suncream and head off about 9 (this was late by other trekker standards but we don’t like rushing and it also meant that most other walkers were well on their way so it was rare that we saw another trekker except for at night). As mentioned the weather was pretty humid in these parts and on both the preceding days there were heavy downpours in the afternoon from about 4pm onwards (which was fine because we had stopped by then). On day three however we had only just stopped for lunch about 1pm when the dark clouds gathered and huge plops began to appear. Neither of us particularly wanted to walk in the rain as apart from being uncomfortable, we would also miss a large part of the scenery which was getting more spectacular by the day. We thus decided to stay put and have a chilled out afternoon reading while snugly under our sleeping bags watching and listening to the downpour. It meant that we only got “halfway” that day but it was a good decision – the place we stayed was lovely and when we woke up in the morning the skies were crystal clear and we could see the views perfectly!
Day Four: Chamche – Danakyu
This was a long day and it was made even longer by Paul’s bag breaking. Not in a “oh that’s annoying” kind of way but in a “oh I only have one arm strap” kind of way. It did however make me feel pretty smug about the items I had brought with us including scissors, duck tape and spare D-rings or to paraphrase Paul (pre bag break) “all that crap you’ve been lugging around for months”. I won’t go into details about how Paul reacted to the incident but it wasn’t pretty. Luckily enough we were 15 minutes away from where we had planned to have lunch and so we could do emergency repairs there. We managed to work out something that we hoped would hold for the rest of the day until we could spend some more time devising a more permanent solution. We were pretty bummed though as there was no way we could continue if we couldn’t get a more permanent fix. To have 12kilos of gear on your back on one shoulder would be impossible and to carry the strap load in your hand would be dangerous – especially on pass day. We were lucky and the bag held for that day and that night we came up with a stronger alternative which we hoped would last…..
Day Five: Danakyu – Chame
This was a really beautiful day. We actually walked on the road as opposed to any trails but only two jeeps passed us all day. (To be clear when I say road it isn’t a tarmac western style road, it’s little more than where the mountain has been blasted and is roughly wide enough for jeeps that can take the bumps!) The view of the mountains really came into its own on this day and the road/trail passed through many gorgeous rivers and under waterfalls. With such clear weather we actually walked through a rainbow – so cool! The scenery changed from the humid dense forest of the beginning to alpine pine forest with mountain views and it was amazing as they felt so close and we knew we were getting further and further into them.
That night we met 4 retired Australian trekkers who were so nice and on the fourth trip to Nepal. Before dinner they had gone on a walkabout around town and seen a couple of tailor shops with sewing machines. I was really excited about this and thus had to explain about Paul’s bag – from what they had seen they were pretty sure we would be able to get the strap sewn up. We went to bed that night feeling relieved!
Day Six: Chame – Upper Pisang
This was an awesome day. First we found a tailor and he sewed up Paul’s bag nice and strong for roughly 20p. Secondly the view was quite simply outstanding and by the time we got to Upper Pisang you felt like you could reach out and touch the Annapurna’s that nestled around you. Thirdly the trail to get to Upper Pisang was hard but infinitely worth it (you can stay at Lower Pisang – it’s a 200m straight climb up at the end of the day) and we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular sunsets that we could watch because the lodge had just built a common room with panoramic windows: result! Lastly, the Buddhist culture really begins to stand out and the prayer flags and wheels are frequent sights. All that made this day a favourite for me even after we had completed the walk. It is also one of Paul’s favourite’s days but he has another reason…. At lunch we ate outside in an alpine style restaurant which was great and on the tables near us there were some Chinese girls we had seen a couple of times and who we had chatted to briefly. Paul was paying inside and talking to a couple of them and they told him he looked like a young Harrison Ford. This is still one of his highlights.
Day Seven: Upper Pisang – Nawal
Nwal is on the upper route to Manang (along with Chame one of the bigger towns and administrative centres for the region). Manang is also where it is advised you take your first rest day to acclimatise for the upcoming push for the pass. Some people hike from Upper Pisang to Manang in one day but that’s tough and if you don’t need to why punish yourself?? The upper trail is incredibly steep and there is one section in particular which is so hard but again it’s so worth it. On the way up Paul and I had stopped for a breather and something caught our eye on the mountain opposite – we turned and saw a huge avalanche picking up speed and then coming to its end. It was amazing and a surreal experience to watch from the mountain opposite, the air around us was incredibly still and peaceful. Another 30 minutes of climbing and we were at the top – at a Buddhist Gompa covered in prayer flags and with the most awe inspring view of the mountains going as far as the eye can see. It was so beautiful I got tears in my eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so privileged to see anything like it in the world.
After tea and a well deserved snickers we continued on to Nwal. We had already decided to stay here but after 30 minutes we were so glad. We just managed to have lunch in the sunshine but shortly after that the clouds blew over and we had a complete white out. It was then that we knew what cold was. Fully clothed in our thermals, down jackets, hats and yak scarves we huddled in our sleeping bags under the blankets looking at the snow and feeling the draught counting down the minutes until dinner and we could get some hot food inside! It was even too cold to read as having hands exposed was a no no so we did what any sensible person would do and napped!
Day Eight: Nwal – Manang
We had bag issues again at the start of the day which delayed us a little bit but we soon got a good pace up and had another beautiful day as the alpine forests gave way to a starkly beautiful panorama of granite towers topped with snow. We reached Manang as the snow was beginning to fall again and we ate a great dinner watching other tired trekkers trudge through and try and find lodging.
Day Nine Manang rest day
We had hoped to do a day walk up to the Ice Lake but the weather had other ideas. This was the only day out of the entire period where we didn’t wake up to gorgeous blue skies. Instead we woke up to the white of the afternoon before where we actually couldn’t see anything. It was pretty depressing and a little scary as there was no demarcation between land and sky – everything was white and it was disorientating knowing there were huge mountains so close completely hidden. It was also extremely cold so we decided to venture out to the “cinema” where we knew there was a fire, a hot cup of tea and some popcorn. It was pretty cool – we watched Into the Wild which I found really sad especially with the weather like it was the feeling of being cut off was getting to me and the real life film just added to the sense of being very little in terms of the awesome power of nature. We ate well again that night as we knew we leaving the last “big” town before the pass so anything we wanted/needed in terms of charging batteries/getting some snacks/ buying some thick socks we had to get now.
Day Ten: Manang to Leder
The sense of anticipation built with every step on this day as we became more encased by the mountains and we could feel the lightness of the air. We had decided that the night before the pass we wanted to sleep at High Camp. There are two option when deciding – Thorung Pedi and Thorung High Camp. For acclimatising to high altitude it is advised to Climb High Sleep Low. For this reason many people choose to sleep at Thorung Pedi and have a longer day when climbing the pass. The difference between the hour is only 1km but it pretty much a vertical climb that will take approx an hour. To cross the pass you should really be leaving between 5-6am from Torung High Camp and so between 4-5am from Thorung Pedi. This was not appealing to either Paul or I and we decided for a little bit longer to sort ourselves in the morning and to make a shorter day of walking. As such we stayed at Leder the previous night which is a little bit further on than Yak Kharka. The lodge we stayed in was great and completely full but was missing one thing: a shower! We had walked pretty quickly that day so were the first to arrive asking for a room. Once settled in I took all my toiletries downstairs and asked directions for the shower. No shower they said but pointed me to the river – hot water from hose they smiled. Oh great – in Manang the water had been freezing (it’s solar powered and with the white out there was only really cold water) so I had only had baby wipe showers for a couple of days and really needed to wash my hair. OK I can do this I thought to myself as I made my way down and felt the water. It’s true the water continuously coming from the hose is river water that’s been siphoned off into a tank that has solar panels on it – an interesting contraption. I knelt on the egde of the bank and washed my hair while fully clothed feeling like a complete ninconpop as I’m sure I did’t look as graceful as the Nepalis I had been watching do this for the last few weeks. Of course it did’t help when other trekkers walked past or when Paul shouted out what was I doing….Errr what does it look like I’m doing! At least they had a sun room so within an hour my hair was dry despite it being freezing outside, all the girls who turned up after me were quite envious of my trip to the salon and so (and I do realise I sound very princessy) I was quite proud of myself!
Day Eleven: Leder – High Camp
The climb from Thorung Pedi to High Camp was GRUELLING! Paul skipped up like a mountain goat but unfortunately paid for it later as a searing headache came on about an hour after he got into the room which didn’t really dissipate until the following morning. We ate dinner (awful reviews but I thought the food was good!) and packed our stuff ready for the early morning start. We ordered breakfast for 5.30 hoping to be off by 6.
Day Twelve: High Camp – Muktinath
The dawn at High Camp was beautiful and we were stoked we had what looked like perfect conditions for our climb. I had heard people setting off what sounded like all through the night but was probably only from 3am onwards. Each to their own and if you’re a slow walker maybe you need to do this or if you’re in a group maybe the same applies but I AM VERY GLAD Paul and I did it slightly later as to be able to see the path is a definite advantage when its steep, slippery snow and there’s a massive vertical drop inches away from you! The only downside of leaving after most others is that if it’s a sunny day like we had the path after the pass can get a little slushy and slippery – this is fine if you have 2 poles. If you have one like me because Paul wanted one of mine that day this can be a bit tricky. Luckily there was a lovely French man behind me who lent me one of his poles to negotiate a bit I was genuinely scared on …merci 🙂
We pretty much had the path to ourselves the whole way which was wondrous. We kept stopping and looking at the beauty of the mountains in which we were folded. A Sherpa past us with his 2 horses going the other way and the sound of their bells is something I’ll never forget. Unfortunately we met a couple coming back who were too sick with altitude to continue and were returning to High Camp. I recognised them from the night before and they had certainly no problems then so it was a surprise and another reminder that you always have to be careful.
We got to the pass itself about 10.30am and celebrated with photos and a hot chocolate! Now it was time for the really hard part! I had read that the descent is harder on the body than the up as it is steep and slippery scree and uneven steps which can play havoc with the knees. You pretty much descend 2000 metres after the pass before you reach the next town. It was actually ok the knees didn’t protest too much and just when you thought you’d had enough the trail comes off the mountain and onto a more even road in the valley which helps a lot. It is long but then Paul and I didn’t stop. At the bottom of the mountain there are a few restaurants but for Paul and I to stop would have meant getting into Muktinath really late and we didn’t want any hassle in finding a room so we continued and arrived exhausted ready for a hot shower and dinner about 5pm. We found a great corner room that had 3 sides of windows so we had great views and an ensuite bathroom!! This was perfect as we knew we wanted to have a rest day the next day. As it turned out we really needed it because after showering and eating we both began to feel pretty bad and went to bed about 7pm. The next day Paul was no better although I felt a little livelier and did some shopping and exploring in the town which has been a Hindu pilgrimage site for centuries which was fascinating as the culture changed again. Paul really felt quite sick with a heavy head cold and cough so we decided to work out our next move in the morning.
Day Fourteen: Muktinath to Kagbeni
Kagbeni is regularly voted momst walkers favourite village in the Annapurna area and the NATT authors voted the Muktinath to Kagbeni trail their favourite. Obviously this mad me very keen to do it but it was another 15km downhill and I wasn’t sure Paul would be up for it. But after breakfast he decided he was and so we set out. It was a beautiful trail however we should have left earlier. We had noticed that the weather regularly got windy about 1pm – this didn’t matter so much on the other side of the pass as the environment was more foresty and even when it got barren it didn’t seem to have any great effect. However for whatever reason the wind had a massive effect on the side we were now on and as we approached Kagbeni the wind really picked up the dust and made walking really unpleasant for the last 1.5-2 hours. By this time as well all of Paul’s energy had gone and it was a real relief to enter Kagbeni which is a beautiful village and find a great lodge. (I later read it was the NATT author’s favourite and although I didn’t know that at the time I can see why). The food was excellent and varied compared to what we had been having while the beds were really comfortable and again we had an ensuite! We met a lovely Australian man that night who was teaching English in the local monastery. He was staying there for about 2 months and showed us his lesson plans etc. He had done the trek before and so told us some good information about the upcoming parts as we beginning to feel like we would like to get a bus a bit of the way as by the time Paul had rested to get over his sickness we wouldn’t have enough time to complete the circuit anyway. He was a really useful source of information and we slept well that night knowing we would most likely remain in kagbeni the next day an night. Again it was the weather that made our decision for us as it was a dreadful day and howled with wind and rain most of the day. We spent it eating in a nice warm dining room, reading, napping and chatting.
Day Sixteen: Kagbeni – Ghasa (by bus)
I had read that due to the wind the most pleasant way to get the 9km from Kagbeni to Jomson (next town) is by jeep/bus and this had been confirmed by our Australian teacher friend so we got up early the next morning to get the jeep/bus/whatever we could to Jomson. All I can say is the wind must by horrific because any vehicular journey seemed to be a spine smashing, teeth jarring nightmare no matter how slow the usually very careful and good driver goes. By the time we had changed in Jomson and the bus had been filled to capacity (we got our tickets with 2 hours to spare, had lunch and went back 40 minutes before the bus was due to depart and only just got seats!) it was 4pm when we tumbled into Ghasa to find a room for the night. Surprisingly Paul did feel a bit better so we decided all being well in the morning we would walk to Tatopani where there are hot springs and where many people finish the trail and get a bus back to Beni.
Day Seventeen: Ghasa – Tatopani
Our last day of walking and so we feel re-energised! We were again blessed with exceedingly good weather and it was a joy to be back on the trail with flora and fauna similar to the lower altitudes we had started out with nearly three weeks before! The river cuts through the valley and gorges tower above you – it is the scenery you associate with Tibet or long lost Chinese Kingdoms. Very atmospheric and stunning to walk through. We walked into Tatopani around 3pm and found a lovely cottage style lodging with beautiful gardens. By the time we had eaten and showered we were exhausted and fell into bed – no hot springs for us 🙂
Day Eighteen: Tatopani – Beni – Pokhara (by public bus and private minivan)
We met a group of lovely Isrealis on the public bus to Beni who invited us to joining them in their private minivan to Pokhara – result!! It was approx 3 hours quicker with the best suspension we could hope for so arrived in more or less one piece! Thank you!!!
We spent the next few days at the Shrangri La village resort in Pokhara, splurging out for the last few days of this amazing, life changing trip. Relaxing by the pool gave us the chance to take in all that had happened over the previous 8 months going all the way back to these first 3 days In Johannesburg wondering what would come of this adventure. Despite this blog there really are no words to describe what this trip has meant to Paul and I. It has strengthened us in ways I never imagined and has truly been the most perfect way to start married life……now for real life! 🙂