Posted by: Tommy | April 19, 2011

Annapurna I : from Pokhara to Braga

I’d never heard of the Annapurna circuit until we were talking to a guy from Arkansas, Michael Addison, in Petra in November.  He described it as the most challenging, incredible thing he’d ever done – and he’d been traveling for over a year at that point.  We talked a lot about it in Jordan and I knew it was something I had to do, especially since Nepal was already on my itinerary.  More than 2 weeks in the mountains, totally removed from cars, roads and almost all signs of civilization?  That sounded like a fantastic change from the traveling we’d been doing – especially India.  Add to that the challenge and the commitment – every step you take for the first 10 days takes you further and further from your comfort zone.  March-April is the second most popular time of year to take the trek, so the timing was perfect.  Michael explained that he’d gone through a company to find a guide, but he gave me the guides direct contact info and said I could probably do it for half price that way.

I had set my heart on spending 2 weeks in the mountains, even before we got to India.  In India, traveling with Jay on the houseboat in Kerala, he mentioned that he’d be doing the Annapurna circuit starting in late March with a friend he’d traveled with before, Alex.  I’d already emailed Michael’s guide and found out he was already booked when I’d be there, so this seemed like another opportunity to do the circuit without paying a fortune or going alone (Anna had no interest in hiking with a heavy pack for 15 straight days).

The Annapurna circuit is considered the most popular trek in the world.  From start to finish, it covers 260 kilometers and reaches a maximum elevation of 17,769 feet (5416 meters).  The trail runs around the Annapurna mountain range, home to 4 of the 60 tallest mountains in the world.  From the trail, you walk by Annapurna I (#10), Annapurna II (#16), Annapurna III (#42) and Gangapurna (#59).  You can also see Manaslu, the 8th highest peak, though its part of a different range.  Annapurna I was the first 8,000 meter peak to be climbed – first done in 1950.

The trek begins in Besi Sahar, elevation 760 meters, a warm village in the Annapurna valley.  There is a rough gravel road running across a small river from the trail for the first 2-3 days. Then, you see no vehicles until you’ve crossed the pass 8 or so days later.  Everything you buy, everything you eat, has to be carried by Nepalis across the same mountain trails that you are hiking every day.

I thought my backpack was heavy. Yikes!

Consequently, the higher you go, the more expensive food becomes.  A Snickers bar costs 60 rupees (less than $1) in Pokhara, but more than twice as much at the top of the mountain.  Dal bhat (the basic Nepali food) was 200 rupees ($3) on our first night but 420 rupees at the top.  Prices on the mountain are regulated by the Nepal tourism board and the Annapurna Conservation Area Program.  Every menu is basically the same, all the prices in a certain town are the same and you can expect them to increase as you go higher and decrease as you descend.

Because the food is so expensive (relatively – off the mountain, you’ll pay max 100 rupees for dal bhat), hotels and guesthouses compete for your business by offering free rooms if you eat at least 2 meals there.  We were a very attractive group – for 1 triple room, we had 3 tourist eaters, no porters or guides (porters and guides eat at standard Nepali prices (almost nothing) but take up rooms that could go to tourists).  Consequently, I spent a total of $2 on rooms in 15 days.  At the very top, we each paid 50 rupees for a room with a bathroom (it was -20 C outside and snowing).  In Jomsom, Jay and I got screwed out of 100 rupees for the worst room, by far, of the whole deal.  (but that’s a story for another post)

Now that you know a little about the trek, here’s my experience:

We took the bus from Pokhara (second largest town in Nepal, 600,000 people) at 6:30am and arrived in Besi Sahar at 10:30am.  We’d been told the bus took, conservatively, 7 hours.  We were pleasantly surprised (that was the only time, in 6 months of traveling, I’d been pleasantly surprised by a busride).  According to the trekking guide we had, the first day was scheduled to end either by sleeping in Besi Sahar or in the next village.

By arriving so early, we thought we’d be able to make it at least that far but probably further.  And we weren’t disappointed.  We walked through lunch and had made it all the way to the middle of day 2 (by our itinerary) by 4pm.  We were exhausted but excited to finally be underway.  I’d been thinking about this trek for 4 months, but Alex had been planning for it for almost 4 years.

Jay and Alex, starting out from Besi Sahar

One of the great things about the Annapurna Circuit is the variable climate.  You are walking so far and changing so much in elevation, that you get several different weather systems and types of vegetation.  Besi Sahar was hot – 90’s during the day.  Jay and Alex are from Chicago and Connecticut, respectively.  They were both complaining about the heat and the dust on the first few days.  I, on the other hand, much prefer the heat to the cold we were expecting later in the trek.

We spent that night in the village of Bahundanda, sleeping for free in the loft of a family’s barn (they said it was a guesthouse, but I know a barn when I see one) and eating the best dal bhat of the entire trek.  We made plans to leave early the next day and cover the rest of day 2 plus all of day 3 (again, according to our itinerary) and be a day ahead.  This would give us some flexibility later if we liked a particular place or needed extra time to acclimate to altitude.

Day 2 ended up being a day that set the stage for the rest of our trip.  I had developed a blister on my heel, a small one, the day before.  I blame the rental hiking boots – I’ve never gotten blisters hiking before.  My the end of a 10 hour day 2, I had a massive blister on my heel – Jay nicknamed it “The Goiter”.  If you don’t want to see a gross picture of it, scroll quickly.

Why are you reading this? You should be scrolling faster. Ewww.

By the end of day 2, I came limping into the village of Tal, wincing at every step.  This would be a recurring theme.  Alex had developed blisters of her own, though she was able to walk through them and finish day 2 a full hour ahead of Jay and I.  Jay was having some trouble with his feet as well, but he’s also just a really slow walker.  We nicknamed Alex “The Beast” for her ability to out-walk us so handily, blisters and all.

On day 3, we were a full day ahead of schedule and ready to stick to 1 day’s itinerary at a time.  Unfortunately, we’d powered through the only short days of the first week.  Days 3, 4 and 5 would all be at least 6 hours.  We planned to stop day 3 in Chame, the administrative capital of the region and the largest town of the first week.  Chame’s elevation is 2670 meters – almost 2,000 above Besi Sahar, where we’d been only 2 days prior. We stocked up on a few items – Chame, being a bit larger than other places, had cheap chocolate and internet.

Chame in the morning sun

Day 4 was a bit shorter, but involved several steep climbs.  We opted to take the treacherous Upper Route on Day 5, so we ended up sleeping in Upper Pisang, rather than Lower Pisang.  Advantages: better views at sunset and the satisfaction that you’re hardcore.  Disadvantages: it was really really cold and the crazy devil-child of the owner stole Jay’s hat.  But check out this view.  We spent 4 hours just looking out over Lower Pisang.

Drying our socks at Upper Pisang

Another disadvantage of the Upper Route: for the only time on our entire trek, a guide would have helped us.  We asked a local Nepali which way to go at a particular junction and he waved us up the hill.  That made sense – we were choosing the Upper Route.  We climbed a steep slope with a bare trail for about 45 minutes – before encountering another Nepali, one who spoke English, who pointed out the real trail, far below us.  We’d climbed the wrong mountain and would have to descend, cross a river and then make an even steeper, more arduous climb afterward.  I seriously considered walking down to Lower Pisang at that point – my blisters were already acting up and we’d have to backtrack before starting an already-long day.

But I didn’t.  We’d committed, mentally, to the Upper Route.  I was going to do it.  They’re just sacks of skin and water, right?

We’d left, intentionally, very early – just before 7am.  Every day, the trails were getting a little more crowded as groups bunched up in the towns before the pass.  Every day saw a few more people entering the trail and the winter snows gave way to warmer spring weather.  To combat that, we’d wanted to leave early on the day of the Upper Route because of the immaculate views that the Upper Route is known for.  Because of our unfortunate detour, we missed out on that.  This was the first day that we really noticed a ton of other people on the trail.  We ended up behind a large group of middle-aged French hikers.  They had a ton of guides, porters and other assistance.  And tons of attitude.  Any time we tried to pass them (which was frequently, as they were slow, despite not carrying anything) they refused to move off the trail and forced us to walk dangerously close to the edge of the mountain or to wait for a curve.

We finally passed the last of the groups at the top, where we were treated to this view:

The view from the Upper Route

We lapped all of the groups, though we (along with everyone else) had some trouble, for the first time, with the altitude.  The air was getting noticeably thinner.  By the time we (and by we, I mean Alex) reached our lunching spot, we were tired.  She chose the first restaurant in village of Nawal, about 2 hours from where we’d quit for the day.  Jay and I caught her shortly thereafter.  We sat down and ordered lunch, only to be joined by the rude French group 15 minutes later.

Apparently their guide had come ahead and arranged their meal, because our lunch took almost 2 hours to come out, but theirs took less than 1.  I’ve gotta hand it to them – they had 3 courses, bottles of wine and some great-smelling dessert.  We scarfed down our tuna-fried macaroni and buffalo momos (like a potsticker and a staple Nepal food) and were back on the trail, only 15 minutes behind.  Jay and I made an agreement to pass the Frenchies before reaching our destination for the night, Braka.  About 5 minutes outside of town, we caught up to them and made to pass.  And for some reason, they decided to line up in two rows, 4 people wide.  As we went around them, one guy on the end threw a half-elbow at me.  I know what you’re thinking – rude French people is redundant.  So true.

We had achieved our goal and reached Braka first.  As our prize, the three of us all took long, hot showers at the hotel while the large group had to wait on us.  I’m not sure if there was enough hot water to go around – and I don’t really care.

Tomorrow, Braga, our favorite village.

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Responses

  1. I know I could never do it but it makes me want to. I love hiking but cannot handle altitude. And would have to train for a year as well. What an adventure!


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