Annapurna Circuit Days 1-4

Trip Start Oct 29, 2011
1
36
48
Trip End Jun 01, 2012


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Flag of Nepal  , Western Region,
Thursday, April 5, 2012

So the actually trekking was to be over 18 days. The rest of the group arrived in Kathamandu on the Sunday night. We were to be 5 women (there was one man Edward who was meant to be with us as well but he cancelled at the last minute - probably heard he was going to be stuck with 5 women). So in the group there was Amanda originally from Stourbridge but now in Kingston, Sue from London, and Morag and Ruth from Northwich. It was great because we were all of a similar age and standard (I was the youngest though).  Morag and Ruth arrived late after a nightmare flight so just had an early night, but Sue, Amanda and I headed out for some traditional Nepali food with our guide Nabin. It was to be our first encounter of many with the Nepalese speciality - Dal bhat. It consists of steamed rice (Bhat means boiled rice) and lentil soup (The Dal). Dal bhat is often served with vegetable tarkai - a mix of available seasonal vegetables curried. There may also be yogurt, some spinach and a small portion of chutney or pickle (called achar). In Nepal it is generally eaten twice a day: mid-morning and early evening. We had all decided to opt for a vegetarian diet throughout the trip and for a no alcohol policy as well. I had planned to get some snacks in the supermarket but it was shut when we came back in – this was not boding well – how was I going to trek 210km without any opal fruits (yes they do have them in Nepal and yes they are called starbursts but let's face it they will always be opal fruits, just like Caesar will always be Mr Dog – not that I usually have that on a trek).

So the night before it suddenly dawned on me what I was about to do. The Annapurna Circuit is known as one of the world’s greatest trek’s but it’s also pretty demanding. You are walking for 18 days in a row and it includes going over a 5400m pass. There is also a bit of sting in the tail with a couple of very hard days at the end. So normally people actually do some training for this type of thing – oops failed completely on that account – well unless you can include a lot of drinking in South America. Whilst I wasn’t too concerned about the altitude as I had been on two occasions higher that than 5400m I was a bit worried about the 18 days in a row of walking. My current record was 6 !! Was I going to be fit enough and more importantly would I have enough pants !! You see we were only allowed a weight limit of 12kg (so the porters wouldn’t have to carry a heavy weight) so we couldn’t bring much.

So the next morning we all headed down the lobby with all of our gear ready to go. Needless to say I did have the most stuff. Amanda has less stuff than I would take for an overnight stay at a friends house.  So we all piled into the bus and headed off out of Kathmandu, through the Kathmandu valley to the starting point in Besihahar (760m). Well that was until we encounted the road block. Apparently there was a protest going on against the government. I was a bit confused because I thought the Maoist protest days were over because they were now the government, but it turns out that the new protests are now against the Maoists as they aren’t fulfilling their promises to the rural population of Nepal. After being delayed for 90 minutes we finally got moving again and headed to the start of the trail which is basically where the road ends. As well as the 5 of us there was our trip leader Nabin, our Assistant guide R.B. and our three porters, Bashanta, Kancha and Som. They all looked a little bit too small to be carrying our weighty bags but we were reliably informed that this was nothing to them and they had been trained from a very early age to carry loads much heavier than we were asking. Apparently some porters can carry up 50kg (100 lbs). So we started walking and so began our epic 18 day adventure...

Well day 1 wasn’t too epic – we only walked 9km and 80m ascent up to Bhulbhule (840m) (pronounced about like Bublé – as in Michael, which entertained me no end). We crossed our first suspension bridge (of many!) and it was pretty hairy as rather a lot of it appeared to be missing. We were a little concerned at this point about what was to come.  Now usually on such trips the first few days are about everyone getting to know each other and conversations usually revolve around topics like careers, where you coe from etc. However, myself Amanda and Sue were already getting right stuck in there and to the nitty gritty (usually it’s at least day 4 before this happens) and had a very interesting chat about whether we all wanted to have children or not (only day 1 of the trek? Whatever woud be talking about by day 18?). We arrived in the village at about 5pm and it was out first night in a tea house – the Thorong-La Guest House. They have very basic rooms – pretty much with a couple of beds in, table if they are deluxe ones and this was had outside showers (often cold) and squat toilets. The food was pretty good though – a big helping of vegetable curry and rice. Everyone piled into bed before 8.30pm (this was a late one as it turned out) to get some rest before the next day.

So onto day 2 and this was to be a bit more epic. Today was a 14km trek up 540m to the village of Jagat. The first few days weren’t to be at too high and at pretty low altitude, but we needed to cover some mileage before we got higher. So began our early mornings at 6.30am with our wake up call and cup of tea from R.B. Then at 7am it was breakfast, usually some form of porridge, or some form of eggs and then we headed off at 7.30am. We headed off up the Marsyangdi Khola (River Valley) through scrub forest and cultivated rice terraces. The aim was to keep on walking uphill until lunch which was to be in the pretty village (though on top of the hill at 1310m) of Bahundanda (meaning 'hill of the Brahams’) . This is where my lack of snackage problem started to unravel. Normally when I go trekking I have to eat something every couple of hours to keep myself going and after four hours I had had nothing (yes I know I was in Kathmandu for days before and could have quite easily have got snackage so I have no excuse – very poor form from me).  So I was really struggling (nothing at all to do with my complete lack of fitness). I made it to lunch though and in the afternoon I managed to get hold of (well just buy really – as otherwise it would be stealing and that’s wrong) some bourbons and some Mars bars. In the afternoon we walked along tracks next to bamboo groves and rice terraces where women were working in the fields. Agriculture is very traditional with very few tools used (except the use of water buffalo’s) and much of the work is done by hand (mostly by women).

On the second day we encountered our first experience of Buddhism in the form of prayer flags and a stupa. Nepal is a melting pot of ethnic groups and religions. Indian Take the concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism, add some Indian and Tibetan influence and a pinch of Tantric practice and you get a taste of Nepal’s spiritual stew.  In Nepal the two main religions are Hinduism and Buddhism* (although strictly speaking Buddhism is not a religion, as it is centred not on a god but on a system of philosophy and morality. Hinduism . The amazing thing about Nepal is its tendency towards assimilation and synthecy and hence the lack of religious tension.

*It is joked that Nepal now has three religions – Hinduism, Buddhism and Tourism. I would not actually add another one to that – the mobile phone !

So first of all Prayer flags.  A prayer flag is a colorful panel of rectangular cloth, often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas. They are used to bless the surrounding countryside and for other purposes. Traditionally they are woodblock-printed with texts and images. Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of five colours. The five colours represent the elements, and the Five Pure Lights and are arranged from left to right in specific order: blue, white, red, green, and then yellow. Different elements are associated with different colors for specific traditions, purposes and sadhana.  Blue symbolizes sky/space, white symbolizes air/wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. The center of a prayer flag traditionally features a Lung ta (powerful or strong horse) bearing three flaming jewels (specifically ratna) on its back. The Ta is a symbol of speed and the transformation of bad fortune to good fortune. The three flaming jewels symbolize the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), and the Sangha (Buddhist community), the three cornerstones of Tibetan philosophical tradition.

Surrounding the Lung ta are various versions of approximately 400 traditional mantras, each dedicated to a particular deity. In addition to mantras, prayers for the long life and good fortune of the person who mounts the flags are often included.Images or the names of four powerful animals, also known as the Four Dignities, the dragon, the garuda, the tiger, and the snowlion, adorn each corner of a flag.

Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. The flags do not carry prayers to gods, a common misconception; rather, the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space. Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all.By hanging flags in high places the Lung ta will carry the blessings depicted on the flags to all beings. As wind passes over the surface of the flags which are sensitive to the slightest movement of the wind, the air is purified and sanctified by the Mantras.The prayers of a flag become a permanent part of the universe as the images fade from exposure to the elements. Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old. This act symbolizes a welcoming of life's changes and an acknowledgment that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.

A stupa (from Sanskri meaning "heap") is a mound-like structure containing Buddhis  relics, typically the remains of Buddha, used by Buddhists as a place of worship. When you walk around any of the Buddhist places of worship you always need to walk around in a clockwise direction. Tibetans regard clockwise rotation to be favorable (and counter-clockwise as unfavorable as it’s the same way as our earth, the moon and the solar system are spinning and therefore meant to bring good luck. The other reason (and one I least prefer) that is The reason is in the old days before soap and even now, Asians use their left hand to clean themselves after a visit to the toilet for defecation. So walking clockwise ensured that if the religious monument was touched or meant to be touched, it was not desecrated by the unclean left hand.

Near to the end of the day the trail heads onto the new road that is being built. Road constuction is having a serious effect on trekking routes in the Annapurna region. There is already a road that was finished in 2008 in the second half of the trek and now there is a new road being built through the Marsyangdi valley. Whether road constuction here is a good thing is a hot potato. The locals are desperate for the new road because it will not only open up new markets for their products, but will also lower the price of consumer goods and provide cheaper access to schools and hospitals. However, for the tourists it is seen as a bad thing as it is affecting the very landscape we have come to see and will greatly affect the trekking experience. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project is restoring new trails away from the road. The road will also allow more tourists to visit the area as well, who aren’t as comfortable with the 18 day trek thing and are more at home in the back of a jeep. My first opinion was that the new road was a bad thing, but I guess I am being selfish because I want the experience of being in the middle of nowhere and seeing traditional life. But who am I to take away from people the new opportunities that the new road will bring and the chance for better health care and education. I forget that Nepal, whilst being this stunning mountainous nation it is also one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita income of approximately US$ 300. The total population of Nepal currently is approximately 27.1 million, among which 68.5% live on less than 2 USD per day. Developments will make a huge difference to these people’s lives and I’m also being incredibly hypocritical when after the trip I will head back home and get in my car and use the lovely roads back in the UK because they make my life nice and easy.

So after a long day of walking (although was coping surprisingly well), we arrived at the North Face River View Guest House (no it’s not really sponsored by North Face, but it’s very nicely painted with lots of colours) in the village of Jagat. The word means ‘toll station’ and it was once the site of a tax collection post for the Tibetan salt trade. So a slightly warm shower, a vegetable curry and another early night.

So the following morning we were up nice and early again and a particularly good vintage of porridge – with bananas !! (already our lives were being dominated by food, that and toilet quality and was there going to be a hot shower or was it to a wet wipe wash?). Today we would be covering 15km up 600m to the village of Dharapani.

We headed off again along the trail/road. Along the way we were crossing many supension bridges. Although at times a little scary (they tend to swing a lot, have gaps and dents where rocks have fallen etc) these bridges are an absolute lifeline to the local communties. Originally the bridges were made of wood and were close to the river. However, every year they were washed away when the monsoon rains came, basically cutting off communities completely for several months of the year. So in the 1960’s with the assistance of the Swiss government and the Gurkha’s from the British army the Nepalese government started a programme to build metal structures, high up from the river that would be more sturdy and sustainable. There are now 675 of these bridges in rural areas, and they are absolutely essential to people’s existence.

Also along the trail we encounted many of the mule trains. These are long lines of mules (mummy is a donkey, daddy is a horse – an ass if the other way around – I can never remember this one), ornately decorated with brighly coloured streamers and bells. Basically when you encounted the mules you just get the hell out the way as they tend not to stop. Also along the trail there are other porters (not just carrying the kit bags for the foreigners) carrying everything for the local communities. It was incredible to see the weights and difficult objects these people were attempting to carry. We were told some will carry up to 75 kilos (150 lbs) as they are paid by weight. It was incredibly humbling to watch these people when we were struggling with our day sacks containing some spare clothing, water and some snacks (I did also have a rather extensive first aid kit as well – but it’s hardly comparable). When we saw one porter carrying mattresses we then realised that every bed we were staying in at the lodge had been carried up there by someone and maybe to start being a bit more grateful for the facilities we did have.

The other sight we witnessed was wildly growing marijuana. The smell hit you first and then you looked down to see it growing like wild flowers. It’s now wonder the mules looked completely out of it most of the time.

On the other side of the trail was the new road being built, although due to the nature of the extremely steep sided cliffs it was meant to go through it was very difficult to see how they were ever going to construct it at all. Workers were using dynamite to blast through the rock but it seemed to be making very little impact. Even if they were to produce some form of road it would be lethal (‘a potential death trap’) with it being only single-filed. Heaven knows what would happen if two trucks were to meet. Also it would be at a huge risk from landslides. Locals predict it will take at least 15-20 years to be built.

So after several hours of walking we finally made it to the Tibet Guest House in Dharapani. We just made it in before the rain. We were all huddled in the dining area, with the porters who were watching Predator (never seen and from the bits I did catch I have not intention of either. We were only at 1943m but at night the temperature really dropped and out came the down jacket (wet wipes all the way today and done very quickly). I was hoping to hold out for much longer (day 3 – really!!) but needs must, it was freezing. I really did appreciate the warmth of my down sleeping bag too.

So day 4 – and we were heading off up again by 810m. We had a 16km walk to the sprawling metropolis of Chame (as it was being billed). We headed off in goregous sunshine and within the first half and hour we had our first views of what we had come to see – our first 8000m peak. To the NE of us is Manasalu (meaning ‘mountain of the spirit’) which is at 8,156m high the 8th highest peak in the world. We then headed up the trail to the village of Bagarcchap. It has typical Tibetan architecture with stone houses with flat roofs piled high with firewood. The roof is a place of storage for the firewood (the thickness of the firewood on the roof symbolises the wealth of the occupant). In November 1995 a landslide destroyed much of the village killing many villagers and trekkers. We then headed uphill through rhododendrn forests to lunch in the village of Timang. On the way up the hill swirling overhead were several buzzards (photos courtsey of Amanda of Ruth). We had now settled into more a food routine, so it was porridge for breakfast, noodle soup and bread for lunch and then a dal bhat or vegetable curry in the evening. Following lunch we trekked through several more villages, through pine and fir forests and crossed more suspension bridges. By day 4 of the trip my diet was well and truly underway with already some progress being made. However, this was more due to the dodgy tummy than anything else. For the past few days things hadn’t been completely right. Sue (my room mate was also suffering). We’d got to the point where we were now giving a score everytime we came back from the toilet. Level 10 was a result to be proud of, level 1 meant that shares in Andrex had risen rapidly and that the immodium plus was most definately required. We were both wavering between a 2 and a 3 and it wasn’t looking good.

In the late afternoon the heavens opened. The weather in the mountains at this time of year tends to follow a pattern in which mornings are clear and sunny and then it builds up in the afternoon with cloudy skies and usually rain in the evening. Today we didn’t get to the lodge in time and we had a good half an hour of trekking in the rain (it was just like being in Wales). At the entrance to Chame was a kani  or an entrance gate. The purpose of these is to ward of evil spirits and to give special blessings for a safe journey for those who pass through. Chame is the largest settlement this side of the pass and although it was just a large village it did indeed everything you possibly need – extra toilet paper (although not quite Andrex supersoft), antibacterial hand gel and some hobnobs.

By day 4 we had also started to get to know the other groups on the trail with us. There was a group of Dutch – recognisable by the girl who always had a tub of pringles in her rucksack side pocket and the bloke with lots of gadgets and a very dodgy selection of hats. There was the German group – who were all decked out in red and black Mammut clothing. Then the French, all in Millet and Quechua and then an Israeli couple. The Israeli guy seemed much more enthusiastic for the trip than the girl, she never carried her rucksack and her trousers were always falling down (I was desperate to shout ‘get yourself a belt’). I know it’s trendy but the Annapurna Circuit is no place for fashion – it’s all about practical, technical clothing (that fits !!!).

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Comments

Morag on

Fantastic blog and pikkies, wow! Looking forward to reading more! Hope EBC goes well, will be thinking of you.

BenedicteRobinson on

Amazing pictures Liz sounds like such a wonderful adventure. Thanks for the update xx

Marg on

Well this certainly isnt a holiday in my book - eating all that rice!! (i like mine in a pudding) and the hotels? are certainly not the Ritz!!. Anyway you seem to be enjoying it its going to be very boring when you get back. Look forward to seeing you. x

Georgia on

How lovely to be spirited away on your jouney for a while! It sounds like an amazing adventure Liz - I read it with a smile on face thinking of how much fun you are having. Hope the belly is better x

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