Monday, 30 May 2011

The Annapurna Circuit

Mountain view on the Annapurna Circuit.

No trip to Nepal would be complete without a trek into the mountains. For me, it was Annapurna and the surrounding massive peaks that were the attraction.

Annapurna stands in the central Himalayas close to the unimaginatively named Annapurna 2, Annapurna 3 and Annapurna 4. At 8091m tall, it’s the 10th highest mountain in the world and said to be the most difficult to climb of all the 8000m-plus peaks. It was the first of all to be conquered (by Maurice Herzog in 1950) and, incredibly, it was done so on the first attempt, three years before Everest. In fact, the ascent of Everest took several years of preparation whilst Annapurna wasn’t even the mountain Herzog and co had set out to climb. Even now, a large percentage of people die attempting to reach the top of this huge rock.

It stands in the centre of the Annapurna Sanctuary, a protected area of Nepal. Inside this area and skirting its boundary is the Annapurna circuit, a 259km trail granting trekkers picture-perfect views of all the majestic peaks. It’s normally tackled counter-clockwise for reasons that will become clear later, beginning in the small, hot and dusty town of Besi Sahar. I have to admit a certain amount of cheating took place at this point – a three hour bus ride to Syange seemed a better idea than a day and half walking at low altitude with no mountain views, and then it was just a two hour walk to Jagat.

A typical village scene.
Jagat was indicative of the tiny villages to come: a few wooden lodges that let you stay for next to nothing in return for eating dinner and breakfast there. It’s quite remarkable what dishes they’re able to prepare and how well furnished the buildings are given the distance the goods have to be carried and the quality of the road. The owners are experts at creating a charm inside the wooden guesthouses that is missing from most city locations: they carefully think about the views from the rooms and have peaceful courtyards where trekkers can relax after a hard day’s walking. They know the needs of trekkers well, stocking their larders with carbohydrates, supplying endless hot sweet tea and even providing hot water bottles for the cold nights. They even have hot showers, heated by solar energy through the day, though you have to be quick before someone else uses it all up. The only negative thing to be said about the lodges is that each one seems to come with a dog and that the owners are apparently deaf to the sound of barking at night. Recommended item: earplugs.

Together with a similarly paced Dutch couple, we walked onwards, north along the River Marsayangdi, staying at the villages of Dharapani, Telekhu and Humde. Following a river it’s easy to forget that you’re constantly climbing, since you always appear to be at the bottom of a valley; but climbing we were, through scenery that changed rapidly from green, lush gorges to pine forests to rocky valleys. The jeep track ended long ago, just after Syange; the only way supplies can be brought up further is on the backs of donkeys and porters. These porters are outstanding individuals. Some carry the bags of the lazier tourists and others haul the goods for shops and lodges. We passed men and women carrying cages of chickens, cola, and huge bags of flour or tsampa (the staple diet of roasted barley). But most impressive were those lugging metal poles, around 5m long, used for plumbing or even telegraph poles. They strap them over their backs, loop a piece of fabric over their foreheads and trudge on solemnly. Some preferred to carry them lengthwise, but this meant they had to bed over almost to 90 degrees. The others put them across their shoulders horizontally, but then they had to walk sideways along many of the tiny paths. I tried to pick up one of these poles and it was heavier than my pack. They carry four at a time.

A porter carrying some ridiculously heavy poles.
Humde actually has a small airfield and at 3300m it’s one of the highest airports in the world. Flights leave, weather permitting, once a week. It’s not a good idea to rely on this to get home. We got into a routine of leaving early in the morning, between 6 and 7am, eating lunch at around midday in another village and then pushing on until about 3pm. In the early mornings the weather was fantastic but after about 11am the clouds would roll in and it would invariably rain a little in the early evenings. We continued on to Menang.

Humde airport, 3300m.
We began to feel the effects of the altitude and the associated reduction in oxygen. At 3000m – a relatively low altitude – we had already came across people suffering from mild Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS. It’s a funny thing, AMS, attacking people almost indiscriminately. People think that if you’re fitter or healthier you’ll be ok, but that’s not the case at all; in fact, the only factor that seems to play any part is age: if you’re over 50, you’re less likely to get it. (A theory for this is that older people’s brains have started shrinking and can therefore cope with the swelling that occurs, but it’s more likely due to the fact that they tend to take things more slowly and thus have more time to acclimatise.) The sickness occurs because the body is getting less able to get as much oxygen as it needs and this results in lots of nasty things happening, starting with a headache and ending with death. There is a fantastic cure if any of the stages before the last one occur: go down. The good news is that we humans have the ability to get used to this lack of oxygen by adapting our breathing, heart rate and red blood cells, but it takes time. Go too fast and you’ll get sick. Despite what people will tell you, eating garlic or doing yoga won’t help you, but taking it slowly, sleeping lower than you climb each day (the symptoms get worse at night) and drinking lots and lots of water will. The terrible thing is that this amount of water and the altitude combine to make you want to pee. A lot. Which is very annoying at night when it’s pitch black and freezing cold outside.

View from above Menang. Not bad.
In Menang, at 3500m, there are volunteer doctors who stay throughout the trekking season in order to deal with the people who get themselves into trouble every week. We took their advice and stayed for an extra day to acclimatise. The locals know it: they’ve created a town full of useless of necessary comforts such German bakeries, snooker and a cinema. Granted, the cinema is basically a wooden cellar with tree trunks for seats and a tiny screen showing ominous true-life films about mountaineering disasters, but the free tea and popcorn is welcome. My pack felt twice as heavy when I pulled it on again to continue the trek, but the views afforded higher up were worth the pain.

Another not-bad view from above Menang.
The next stop was Yak Karkha at 4020m where, conveniently, I spotted my first yak. These heavy, hairy creatures populate the impossibly steep hillsides and are used for transportation and food. Every other item on the menus seems to include some form of yak butter, yak cheese or yak meat. By far the worst tea experience of my life occurred here when I tried Yak butter tea, a Tibetan staple. Imagine taking some nice black tea and then ruining it by mixing in some rancid, salty butter. It’s truly vile. But it’s the energy that counts in these parts, so the butter is used in everything. It’s curious that so much meat is eaten in these mountain villages given that people are so fervently Buddhist, but the simple fact is that people wouldn’t be able to survive otherwise. Very few vegetables grow here and protein is hard to come by.

Throughout the trek, the lodges always had very similar items on their menus including spaghetti, spring rolls, several soups and burgers. But as we climbed higher and became more exhausted, the Nepali regular of dal bhat became a good choice. It comprises lots of daal (lentils), lots of potato and yak curry and plenty of rice. Best of all, as soon as any component is finished, they’ll refill it for you. We stuffed ourselves every night in the hope that, coupled with a hearty tsampa porridge and boiled egg breakfast, it would keep us going until lunch the next day.

The ubiquitous prayer wheels.
By this point, the villages had the bare minimum of practicalities. Gone were the large Buddhist chortens (solid, white stone temples) that one must circumambulate clockwise, no more were the insanely long lines of metal prayer wheels that would be spun by everyone walking past. No hot showers, just one tap for running water. The villages still show their allegiances, however, through the ubiquitous hammer and sickle flag: these are Maoist locals, who recently fought a long civil war with the government. A few years ago, trekkers had to pay ‘donations’ to these rebels when passing through. Whilst the cities of Nepal are highly capitalist, these villages have committees that fix, amongst other things, the menus and prices.

Looking back down at ThorungPhedi (4200m).
A slow slog to Thorung Phedi, 4200m. The scenery was spectacular – we were surrounded by towering snowy peaks, glaciers inching their way downwards and evidence of avalanches. No matter how tired I was, the sight of these massive, natural giants spurred me on. The next day we staggered to Thorung High Camp at a breathless 4800m, the last place to stop before the high pass. There’s not much to do here except for stare hypnotically at the mountains and try to stay warm in the lodges restaurant. The few of us who slept here huddled together around a single table with a wood burner for warmth. The Marsayangdi had dried into a trickle and now there was not enough hydro-electric power to light the lights for long or keep any electric heaters burning.

View from Thorung High Camp, 4800m.
And finally, after the hardest, steepest climb of the trek, we stumbled up to Thorung La, the highest pass at 5416m. Every step was an effort and it was all we could do to get enough air into our lungs, but we’d made it: the northern pass of the Annapurna circuit, the most incredible views, and by far the highest cup of tea and a Snickers I’ve ever had. A million prayer flags (coloured squares of fabric with Buddhist mantras written on them) fluttered in the wind, sending their good intentions back over the long deep valley we’d climbed through during all those days.

On top of the Thorung La, 5416m.
And then we began the steep, knee-pounding descent to Muktinath. The landscape changed dramatically, the snow all gone and the mountains a bleak brown, protected from the weather by the ones we’d just climbed past. On the way down we met a group of Russian Buddhists who had decided it would be a good idea to tackle the 1500m climb up to the pass “as a day trip.” I told them they were mad because the weather was coming in and they were only a third of the way up (they’d been walking for five hours already). On top of that, it’s a sure-fire way to get AMS. “It’s ok,” they told me, “we’re taking vitamin B6 and doing yoga.” I don’t know if they made it.

Muktinath is an anticlimax – it’s not geared towards trekkers at all because it’s more important as a pilgrimage sight for Buddhists and Hindus. A large temple stands at its entrance, filled with throngs of people bathing in holy showers, lighting incense and praying intensely. We felt rather out of place in our dirty trekking gear, so we took a jeep on to Jomsom, then buses over the muddy bumpy roads around the descending trail to the town of Beni. From here we were able to get a bus straight back to Pokhara for a well-deserved steak.

Of all the things I did in Nepal, this was by far the most memorable.

1 comment:

  1. wow! what more can we say - and you survived..! Msy