Namaste (pronounced nuhm-uh-stey) is a conventional, and respectful, Hindu expression on meeting or parting.
While hiking the Annapurna circuit I was greeted this way half a thousand times, and answered in return as often.
The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal sees thousands of foreign trekkers every year. Its route snakes through lush rice paddy tiered valleys, across roaring rivers, into Tibetan and Buddhist villages, beside large buckwheat fields, past Hindu temples, and climbs high into arid Himalayan peaks.
It can take 17 days to complete the entire circuit (or 10-12 days to do the first half, as we did), provided you don’t run into snow in higher altitudes. Conversely, one can take one’s time wandering within the confines of the circuit for weeks, and even months.
Planning for the Annapurna Circuit
When planning the trek my dear friend Amy and I decided that we would take no guide and hire no porter. We wanted to do it on our own, and we didn’t actually have the budget to pay what we considered a fair wage. Essentially that meant we had no translator, no one to show us any cool shortcuts, or give us some background info, and most importantly no one to carry our stuff. Anything we brought with us would ride in our packs, or on our persons, from the start till the very end. Through a strict process of brutal elimination we managed to cut our pack weight to about 10 pounds each, taking only essentials, a couple of “toys”, and warmer clothing for the higher altitudes we would enter.
The Annapurna Circuit used to be hiked in a clockwise fashion, starting at Phedi and passing Jomson before hitting the pass. Most people travel it counter-clockwise nowadays and we decided to do the same, for the following reasons:
A – There is a “road” (a dusty path) that has been under development from Phedi to Jomsom and from Jomson to Mulktinah for a few years now, making the clockwise route busier, dustier, and less pleasant than it used to be. Jeeps and buses do not make for interesting trekking buddies.
B- Tackling the pass from the east ascent is easier, the climb gentler and less steep, which is a blessing since slogging up to the pass has to be done all in one day.
The Journey Begins
We set off out of Pokhara early on the first day, and took one of those terrible developing world bus rides to the town Besisahar, the entry point into the circuit. This particular bus ride stands out as it introduced me to the idea of Nepalese personal space, as in…there is no such concept. The bus was overloaded, about 20 seats and maybe 40 people packed in like sardines.
Five uncomfortable hours later we were mercifully out of the bus, ready and eager to go. Just our packs on our backs we took our first steps into the Annapurna Circuit. I had waited for this moment for a very long time and the low thrum of excitement that had been building up within me made me giddy with glee.
I have a tradition of starting every hike/trek by searching out a suitable piece of wood to act as a staff. I located a wonderful bamboo pole within minutes of undertaking our journey and it, along with Amy, would be my constant companion for the next 12 days.
The circuit starts at 800 meters altitude and climbs every day until the ultimate ascent into the Thorong La Pass which looms at a hefty 5,450 meters above sea level. In comparison, the Empire State Building in New York City stands at a total height of 380 meters. Mt McKinley in Alaska, the highest peak in the USA, has a total height of 6194 meters. One last piece of trivia – the human body process 53% less oxygen at an altitude of 5,000 meters. This, as it turns out, makes breathing REALLY HARD after you pass a certain point in the circuit. More on that later, however.
On day one we started far below the cloud line. Since it was October the monsoon season was nearing an end, but it was humid and wet every inch in the lower valleys. We slowly made our way through lush hills and over swollen rivers, into and out of bamboo forests, and along muddy mucky leech inhabited track. A quick side note on leeches – the little bastards are sneaky, they get on your shoe as you pass over a puddle or step into some mud and crawl inside, numbing the area they sink their slimy mouth over before sucking your blood. Finding them on our persons was always an unpleasant experience.
Sometimes the trail would vanish under a rushing stream and we’d take our shoes off and wade across, sometimes it would be enveloped by a waterfall which had to be traversed with utmost care. We skipped from rock to rock with our packs on our backs like Mario and Luigi, except without the benefit of one- ups or extra lives. At one point, on the second day of our journey, the trail wove its way into a hillside which was nothing but gold and silver speckled mud. This giant hill of muck perplexed us greatly. Every sign of the path disappeared and when I made the mistake of putting my foot into the mud I sank down to my ankle, and probably would have lost my shoe if Amy hadn’t yanked me back onto a rock. It wasn’t until a few locals passed us that we figured out how to gingerly navigate a path of half immersed boulders.
Each night saw us staying in a different village along the trail. All of our “tea house” accommodations were pretty basic and we learned to appreciate small things like thicker sponge mattresses, walls without cracks to let the critters or the cold night wind inside, a “shower” that ran from tepid to warm as opposed to stone cold to still cold, a squat hole that didn’t stink TOO badly. One place, on our 7th day or so, even had a toilet! This wonderful porcelain contraption seemed to us a gaudy throne. Amazing how quickly you can learn to appreciate things you take for granted everyday.
Dinner (and for me usually lunch) consisted of dal bhat, a local dish of rice, soupy lentils, curried potatoes, and something pickled, usually something I could not identify. It was all food found in the ecosystem around us and eating it was akin to consuming pure energy. My body grew accustomed to the fare. I stopped feeding it booze and meat, and my intestines responded in a happy fashion. My only vices were the occasional soda consumed for a quick burst of sugar, my small hoard of Snickers bars, and the cigarettes that I foolishly brought up with me.
Everyday we climbed higher into the hills and everyday we saw the climate around us change. The bamboo forests gave way to pine, the rain came only at night, the humidity declined, and the mosquitoes disappeared altogether. Low valley gave way to green foothills, muddy track to dusty path. At some point we started to catch glimpses of the snow capped mountains looming to the north, and they were beacons. The trail would turn and dip into a valley, the peaks would vanish, but we knew they were there in front of us, waiting. The very land seemed to expand at some point, and we walked past fields of wheat and pasture for horse grazing where before we jaunted along narrow paths amid tiered rice paddy.
Day six and seven saw us staying in Manang, a small village resting at 3,700 some odd meters altitude. We were advised to stay there and acclimatize to our new breathless heights, and so we did, using the day to rest, sipping tea, taking in the spectacular mountain views and reading in leisure.
The road grew rockier and harsher after those two days, the air thinner, the nights colder. The frigid mountain air rubbed our throats and sinuses raw until we were both producing thick mucus and a dry persistent cough. We took to sleeping in multiple layers, under the heavy yak wool blankets, and we were still cold. I have a hard time getting real REM at altitude and my nights were filled with disjointed yet mostly epic and entertaining dreams.
At the end of each day we would consult the map to chart our progress and we would see Thorong Pass approaching, looming ahead of us like some final boss in a video game. The hardest day of the Circuit was drawing near. We knew that soon we would have to face the 1,000 meter ascent and subsequent 2,000 meter descent.
Ascending the Pass
That day came on the 11th of the trek. It started at 4:30 on a frigid morning in the Himalayas, altitude 4,000 meters. Neither of us got much sleep that night, it was simply too cold, and we were both jazzed up by the thought of the next morning. Breakfast was tea and a couple of boiled eggs, my usual. By this point in our journey we had hired a porter, a rather silent and inexpressive chap named Tashi, specifically for the final leg of the ascent. We had heard how difficult the climb was, 1,000 meters at extreme altitude, with no time to waste. Upon reaching the Pass we would then have to climb down about 1,800 meters to find the nearest accommodation. And we had to do all this before the sun set.
Amy and I split up our stuff, leaving one bag a bit lighter than the other, and rotated carrying it while Tashi hefted the heavier of the two. We attempted a 200 meter initial ascent in the dark morning hours but the altitude got to Amy, inflicting her with nausea, shortness of breath, and a general inability to climb higher. We descended back down and waited a few minutes before trying again. This time we made more progress but again the altitude gain was too quick. If we had an extra day to acclimatize I have absolutely no doubt that Amy would have conquered the pass on her own, but we did not want to spend another freezing night in the desolate “village” of Thorong Phedi (really just two tea houses, a score of yaks, and some horses) nor did we want to risk an acute onset of altitude sickness so we decided that Tashi would accompany Amy back down to find a horse she could ride and that I would proceed on foot. We split up our gear right there on the moonlit slope so that I carried as little as possible on my back. I watched Amy and our porter make their way down the hill until they became dark specks.
Alone for the first time on the trek I ascended, step by tiny step. The going was slow, the air painfully thin. I made sure to keep my breathing under control, not too deep lest I hyperventilate, not too shallow and too fast lest the same happen. I created mantras in my head, distracted my brain from the burning in my lungs and muscles with thoughts of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi novels, and used some blaring hip-hop as motivation. Jay-Z as a motivator struck me as hilarious at that moment but the beats helped me keep going.
Hours passed, the sun came up to keep me company, and my feet shuffled slowly but steadily, my forward weight leaning on my bamboo pole. I rested often and took in the spectacular mountain views on all sides while eating my last three Snickers bars. Even eating has to be slow and methodical at altitude or you can suddenly find yourself gasping for air while chewing on a mouthful of chocolate and peanuts. My first trip into altitude in the Andes the previous year had left me vomiting and feverish, mewling like a little babe. I was determined not to let that happen again.
That is how I found myself sitting on a small rock, face to face with the snow caps and some of the mightiest peaks of the Himalayas. I was overcome with a sense of awe, a humbleness bordering on servitude. The mountain was all that existed and I was its little bitch. I exalted in the feeling, in being a small tiny creature climbing a giant king of a rock, of doing something that a year prior had bested me.
I thanked whatever willpower allowed me to stand up, and continued on.
Five hours after I took my first steps that day I found myself clearing one last camel back, one last false summit, and there it was. Thorong Pass. Amy and her horse arrived soon afterwards and we both celebrated our accomplishments. She was a tad irritated with herself for having to ride a horse for the final stretch but altitude sickness is nothing to take lightly. Her shame was unwarranted, I argued. She was still a bad-ass in my eyes.
We celebrated, took a few photos at the pass, and reflecting back on the previous eleven days. Eleven days of walking, eleven days of mentally and physically preparing for the rigors of climbing the pass, eleven days of adventure and exploration on a scale neither of us had ever attempted before. Eleven days of sore muscles, aching feet, and frigid showers. Eleven days of beauty, elation, humbleness, hardship, and perseverance.
It was all downhill from there, quite literally. 1,800 meters nearly straight down, which is pretty painful in its own right. I pity anyone with a bad knee attempting that descent so quickly after the uphill slog. The trail took us down the other side of the pass to a small town of Mulktinah. Mulktinah is connected via the “road” I mentioned at the start, and its impact was instantly visible.
The town was filled with motorbikes and pick up trucks; loud, dusty, and perverse after the peace and solitude we found on the other side of the pass. On the far end of town we located a jeep depot with dozens of jeeps waiting to take us down the dirt road to the larger town of Jomsom. We decided to take the first available ride south, somewhat disillusioned by what we found, and hauled ass to Jomson. We spent the night in a quiet hostel and engaged in conversation with its owner over dinner. He told us a bit about the history of the town and bemoaned the stingy tourists the circuit has been attracting recently. He shook his head sadly while telling us about tourists who haggled over five dollar rooms, quibbling over what literally amounts to pennies.
From Jomsom we booked passage on a tiny airplane that navigated its way no higher than the tops of the foothills, flying south through the valleys. Before we knew it we were back in Pokhara, (which seems like a booming metropolis to someone who had been away from modern civilization for two weeks), almost as if we had never left. The transition was jarring and a bit melancholy. We immediately missed the unspoiled beauty of the circuit. I was just a brief visitor and I was going back to where I really belonged, a place of machines and carbon monoxide and commerce. It was not a happy thought. But the memory of the ciruit, our adventures and experiences, have stayed with me to this day.
Reflections on hiking the Annapurna Circuit
Porters and Gucci
We met many a trekker on our journey, and for every two tourists there was a local porter or guide. Some of the porters were carrying far more than they should have been, an over sight by the tourists that hired them, and the greedy trek companies that organized the trips. We met porters who were carrying not one but two, or three, suitcases on their backs, all using a sort of sling harness that went over their foreheads.
Now, I understand that some people just NEED to bring extra food, extra fleece, extra make-up, extra selfie sticks, but really, a suitcase? Why stop there? Why not hire a team of porters to carry you upon a gilded throne? I guess what I’m saying is…leave your fucking Gucci luggage in the hotel and invest in a proper backpack, especially if you are using a porter to haul your stuff. Please! These stooped locals made their way up the path faster than the tourists, but I sincerely doubt whether the toll on their bodies was worth the meager earnings they pocketed.
Equally as bad was the accommodations these local porters were subjected too. Every hostel and tea house had a “Nepli Room” which was usually the worst room in the establishment. Lined end to end with twin beds with no room for anything else, the porters slept side by side in absolutely zero comfort, with no blankets or pillows. None of the porters I communicated with seemed to think anything was out of place and that just pissed me off more. These are people, not mules. I took a tiny comfort in knowing that we hadn’t exploited a local in this fashion, but it was purely a moral victory. And in the end we had to hire someone for the last leg of our trip anyway. We did not haggle over prices with this fellow however, and paid him what he asked for.
Living the “Unspoiled” Life
Local life, as I observed, was hewn from the very land the people of the Annapurna region inhabit. To an outsider like me it was like someone turned the clock back one hundred and fifty years. No Lexuses, no Rolexes, no iPhones, no scratch off lotto. You eat what you harvest, you trade for what you need, you build your habitats from the materials on hand, and you live life seemingly closer to the essences. Does simple mean better? Is there more inherent value to the lives these people lead than the one I do?
It’s a complicated question. From my observer’s perch, mine eye already sensitive to the garish nature of my culture, the crudeness of western civilization and its impact stood out like bold typeface amidst a page of sanskrit. Young Nepali boys running around with life-like plastic Glocks, shooting up the hills, the chickens, each other. Ninty percent of them wore World Wide Wrestling t-shirts. The WWF…. ambassador of Americana? In terms of culture it doesn’t get any worse.
In one tea-house I observed a particularly disquieting scene over dinner. This establishment must have been doing well, as it sported a high-definition flat screen TV in the dining area, and even had a satellite uplink. Porters crowded around the set as it spewed colors and lights until they were dislodged by the white people, myself included, who came to eat. At that point the channel was changed to a movie channel, Starz or something, presumably in a misguided effort to make the westerners feel at home. The movie playing was one of Hollywood’s finest productions, the cinematic masterpiece…Van Helsing. Nobody wanted it on and it went unwatched with the glaring exception of a little Nepalese girl, daughter of the innkeep. She stared at the TV in rapt fascination as monsters and grotesques did battle with one another. The screen depicted a succubus, seductive and sexual, engaging in some act of ridiculous violence with the protagonist. The little girl whirled her head around, eyes wide, to check if we were paying attention. I wanted to tell her that what she was watching, while glossy and flashy and stimulating, was trite tacky souless turd. Instead I shook my head sadly and kept silent. Who was I to say anything? As a tourist in these mountains, I was partly to blame for introducing my country’s garish culture on the inhabitants of Annapurna.
On the other hand you can’t completely discount the positives Western society brings to the table. Health care, clean water, some sort of model for an educational system (the locals were terrible at math, stumped by the simplest room and board bill). Yet as I sit and type these words they ring false. In the end, I think the peoples of Annapurna and its many small villages would be better off if we had never inflicted our culture and our values upon them.
Every month, every year, progress is made on the road that traced our route. One day, maybe less than a decade from now, the circuit as I experienced it will be a forgotten memory; a place of buses, and jeeps, and day trips for rich tourists.
So, the sad reality which greets many a destination around the globe rears it’s ugly head here as well. Thus, if you harbor a desire to walk the Annapurna circuit do so quickly, before “progress” renders it obsolete.