Almost 15 years ago, Roelie walked with her girlfriend Barbara in Nepal to Mount Everest Base Camp and Kalapathar. It was heavy, primitive, (too) high but very beautiful. Since then she has been dreaming of walking the Annapurna Circuit, the other big and famous multi-day walking tour in Nepal. It is therefore only logical that this walking tour is in our itinerary.
The total length of the route depends on where you start and stop but can reach about 250 kilometers, crosses various river valleys and circles the Annapurna Massif with the majestic Annapurna's I to IV with their peaks between 7,500 and 8,100 m. Other peaks between 6,000 and (over) 8,000 m surround the Annapurna Massif. The trail reaches its highest point on the Thorung La Pass at 5,416 m (17,769 ft) altitude.
In Kathmandu we get the required permits and we are taken to Besisahar in a private car, starting point of the Annapurna circuit. A few things have changed in 15 years. A "road" has been constructed and it is now possible to cover a part of the route per jeep. Besides a lot of backpackers, there are a few bikepackers on mountain bikes in Besisahar. We have a chat with three boys from the UK. We ask if they are planning to cycle Annapurna circuit. That is indeed the plan: not always the footpath, but apparently the 4WD road with a MTB is doable.
We see the majority of the backpackers leave from Besisahar by jeep. They skip the first part (one to three days) of the route. We choose to start the circuit from the beginning, even though the apparent possibility of renting an MTB remains in our heads. In retrospect, we are very happy for several reasons that we did not do that!
Our plan is to keep following the circuit until the end of Nayapul and, if possible, on the way up a challenging D-tour to the Tilicho lake. We think we will need two weeks for it. That was the plan ... All five ATMs in Besisahar are empty. Only in Jomsom (after 3/4 of the trip) we will only encounter two ATMs again but they would also often be empty. This makes our trekking trip a bit more difficult. We have to budget tightly.
Day 1: Besisahar (820 m / 2,690 ft) - Ghermu (1,130 m / 3,707 ft): approx. 22 km
As said many hikers skip the first day (and 2nd and 3rd) because this part would be less beautiful and one wants to have a direct view of the highest mountains. But what is less beautiful? We walk through countless rice fields on which the harvest is brought in. We see monkeys and walking through (sub) tropical forests with bamboo, banana trees and palm trees, the people on the land and in the hamlets are friendly. Children in neat uniforms are cheerful and call us without exception: Namaste. We would not have missed this!
On the way we are approached by a restaurant owner to have lunch at his restaurant. It is still before noon and we find it too early. Both a large plate at the restaurant and the owner indicate that the next restaurant is 7 km away, or 2.5 hours walk in this mountainous area. We do not believe that, however, and we decide to take the risk and move on: certainly in this country, where there seems to be a shop or a restaurant everywhere. Half an hour later (and after passing many little restaurants) we stop at the last point that can be reached by buses. At this bus station is a good eatery and we both order a plate of delicious fried noodles with fresh vegetables and egg. It costs only 150 rupees (converted just one euro). Unfortunately we do not encounter such low prices afterwards.
We find a nice guest house in Ghermu: Rainbow offers an ultra-thin mattress on a plywood plate (as in Besisahar), a shared hot shower and a private toilet. Here we meet the first fellow hikers: a Spanish couple and three Canadians with guide and porter.
Day 2: Ghermu - Dharapani (1,860 m / 6,102 ft): approx. 21 km
We are the last to have breakfast. The rest is already ready for a new walking day. We enjoy a good and -according to out standard- big breakfast with baked potatoes, oatmeal porridge, fried Tibetan bread, omelet and coffee. And this is called the 'breakfast light set'.
On the second day the walk is sometimes tough. On the map it looks like you are following the bank of the river, but it is a lot of up and down and sometimes quite steep with steps. Other parts again run over the "new" road, which can be driven by jeeps. We now also share the route with a few other hikers, guides and porters, but cows and yags too.
There are still many rice fields, but the valley is becoming narrower, so that the terraces are becoming smaller and higher up the mountain slopes. Occasionally we are overtaken by a mountain biker with a number on his steering wheel and without luggage. In the nice village of Tal we see that these mountain bikers finish. There are 32 participants in the 'Yag Attack 2018' and in a few stages they will cross the enormously high pass. The road is often bad, a lot of loose sand, steep parts, rough boulders. Even without luggage, the racers regularly have to push their bikes.
We decide to continue to the next village. That is called Dharapani and is actually just a little too far away and the route is just a bit more tough than expected. We are quite tired and it is already late when we inquire at the first best guesthouse to a room. The man immediately tells us that the whole village uses the same prices and has the same menu card. The prices are high compared to what we have seen so far. We get ourselves to walk for another kilometer or two to the next village until we recognize a group that we saw earlier in Tal and are now walking in the opposite direction. The accommodations in the next village appear to be fully booked. There is no other option than to accept the high prices in Dharapani and to express to each other our misgivings about the "cartel formation" and, as a result, the high prices of the guest houses in this village.
Day 3 Dharapani - Chame (2,710 m / 8,891 ft): approx. 15 km
On day 3 the walk starts with a check at a checkpoint. There are two systems: tourists time registration and access to the National Park. Of both we have already passed several checkpoints without knowing it. Now we see the mail and they register us. It is a relatively easy stage today at least in terms of distance. The previous days we have walked more than 20 kilometers and today we only walk 15.
On the way we stop for a cup of coffee. Two dogs walk around the tea-tetry, which, just like the Hindus, got paint on their foreheads. The bindi symbolizes the spiritual third eye and protects the dogs against ... what?
We see the first really high mountains around us: behind us Manaslu with 8,163 m (26,781 ft) and in front of us Annapurna II with 7,937 m (26,040 ft). It is now also considerably busier with walkers. We estimate that half of the hikers have a guide and a porter. The other half don't, just like us. We arrive early and can even have lunch in the guesthouse where we will spend the night. In the afternoon we walk through the nice village of Chame, which is larger than the previous ones on the route and also has some shops and many guest houses.
As the afternoon progresses, the village is flooded with large numbers of backpackers. We notice that we are in a kind of "wave" of walkers: everyone seems to choose the same places to stay, which leads to full guest houses and quite some crowds in the morning when everyone starts the next stage. It also leads to a feeling that we have to hurry a little during the day to walk in front of the troops and find a place in the guest houses. It turns out, however, that hikers with a guide use the opportunity to book a place through their guide at a guest house in the next overnight stay. People without a guide do not get the opportunity to make a reservation ...
In the evening we sit in the dining room of our guest house. It is pleasantly full: every guest basically eats at the guest house where one also sleeps. This is an unwritten (but also increasingly written) rule. For the first time, the wood-burning stove is switched on and a circle is formed around the stove for walkers, guides and porters. There is a nice chat and people share experiences and travel plans for the coming days. This group feeling around the stove will keep returning over the coming evenings. Fun!
Day 4 Chame - Ghyaru (3,670 m / 12,041 ft): approx. 19 km
In the morning, other hikers tell us at breakfast that we have to make a choice today between the road to Upper Pisang or to Lower Pisang. To Upper Pisang is more beautiful but also a bit more tough. We opt for that and realize that we may not have been that very well read in the Annapurna trail. At the splitting to Lower and Upper Pisang, a young man addresses us because he's is wondering which road will go to the lake. He has heard something about a high, big lake and he wants to see it today. At one point we realize that he is looking for Tilicho Lake. It is still a day and a half walk before you reach the exit to Tilicho Lake and then for at least a day and a half to the lake. Apparently there are people on the road who are still a lot less well read in and also travel on their own ...
We arrive early in Upper Pisang and decide to walk to the next village, Ghyaru. In this way we also escape from the "wave" of hikers who are almost all expected to select Upper Pisang as a place to stay. To get to Ghyaru we have to climb a lot, about 400 meters straight up via short hairpin curves.
Once upstairs from guest house 'Angel View Point' the view is overwhelming and a room costs 300 rupees; less than € 3. That (and the heartwarming enthusiasm of the young couple who runs the guest house) compensates the other facilities ... A shower is not there; we can wash ourselves with a bucket of warm water. Wifi is also not available. The dining room unfortunately has no stove. We sleep in a XS wooden cabin in which just two beds fit in and where the temperature corresponds to the temperature outside. Tonight it will freeze heavily; we are already looking forward to the nightly toilet visit in the loft outside which is located a bit further away. Brrrrr.
Day 5 Ghyaru - Manang (3,540 m / 11,614 ft): approx. 15 km
This relatively simple stage meanders through old villages and various types of rocky landscapes and offers a great view of Annapurna II and III. We walk around the tree line (here at a height of 3,500 m) in a warm sun. By noon it will always blow hard. The wind is cold, but we have it in the back and are not bothered. Our higher route is apparently walked by far fewer hikers than the lower one (via Lower Pisang). We barely meet people and fully enjoy it.
Everything comes together in Manang. We have considered to continue to the next village on the route to the Tilicho lake to avoid the crowds again. But Manang is fun. It looks like a wild west town from a film by Sergio Leone (what is lacking is the accompanying music by Ennio Morricone). It has no less than 6,500 inhabitants and is also the last place where the jeeps can come. The Ganggapurna glacier almost seems to reach the border of this town.
In general it is recommended to have a rest day or better acclimatization day in Manang. Around 3,500 meters lies the boundary above which you have to take seriously into account the height and how your body reacts to it. In order to deal with altitude sickness preventatively, the well-known advice is to be higher during the day than where you end up sleeping at night. Many people choose to make a trip to the Ganggapurna glacier on the acclimatization day, or to go to Ice Lake with more effort. We have already opted in advance for the D-tour to Tilicho Lake, which means that we will sleep over 4,000 meters for 2 nights and will walk to the lake on the "between-day" and come to a height of just over 5,000 meters. A more beautiful and perhaps better way to acclimatise without losing time.
It is crowded and the numerous guest houses are a size larger than normal. In Himalayan Singi we find a nice guest house with its own toilet and even its own (lukewarm) shower. In the evening we sit close to the stove and we chat with two Danish girls, two Dutch boys and the English / French quartet that we met in the guesthouse of Chame and informed us about the route choice. At night the water is closed against the freezing; tonight the mercury will drop to -9 degrees Celsius. In the bathroom is a bucket that we can fill in the courtyard. From this we can wash, brush your teeth and flush the toilet.
Day 6 Manang - Shreekharka (4,075 m / 13,370 ft): approx. 14 km
When leaving, it is immediately clear that we are back in "the wave". From Manang we walk with many dozens of backpackers to Khangsar, the last village on the D-tour route to Tilicho Lake. We had hoped that most would stay on the trail of the Circuit in the direction of the Thorung La pass, but it seems that the majority also opt for the trip to the world's highest lake (at least in the "big" category; there are a few smaller lakes in the world that are located higher).
On the way we hear that the accommodations in Tilicho Base Camp are fully booked. Guides can, as mentioned before, book for their tourists. We also hear that no one is sent away: you can sleep in the dining room. However, we do not have our sleeping mats with us.
Just before noon, when we walk through Shreekharka -a small collection of guesthouses- we decide not to continue to the Base Camp but to stay here for two nights. From here it is still 11 kilometers to Tilicho Lake and then 11 kilometers back. That's doable, we consider. The advantage is that we can now minimize all our luggage and prepare ourselves in our own room instead of a spot on the floor of a dining room. Before we have lunch we walk a little further towards Tilicho Base Camp to get some altitude meters in our system.
In the evening we hear from two young Dutch boys that we have a big challenge. They took on the same challenge and walked from Shreekhara to Tilicho Lake and back again: they left at 6 o'clock in the morning and returned from Tilicho Lake at 5:30 pm. They are cold and are exhausted. It was too much for them.
Day 7 To Tilicho Lake (4,920 m / 16,142 ft) and back: approx. 22 km
When we walk to the dining room at 6 o'clock we see clouds hanging. It will not be that on the most beautiful day of this trip we only see clouds?
We leave at 6:30 am after a good bowl of hot porridge with apple. The route is breathtakingly beautiful despite the cloud cover. We first walk through a kind of mountain step with wild mountain goats and then a ridge in the rubble of landslides where occasionally rock pillars protrude in all possible sculpture forms. In front of us we see holes in the cloud cover that offer windows on the snowy peaks that shine in the morning sun. We feel rich and are unwise curious what kind of good things are waiting for us today. Excited as we are, we have a strong walking pace.
We thought we had to climb a lot to Tilicho Base Camp, but after a challenging strong climb in the first 2 kilometers, it goes down again. The Base Camp does not seem to be much higher than our guest house. The path through the landslides promises a tough effort for the way back. Eventually we arrive at the Base Camp after more than 5 kilometers and almost two hours of walking. And indeed the accommodations bulged out: in addition to the dining room, people even had to sleep in a number of makeshift tents.
We buy some cookies and water and then start the ultimate climb to the lake. The road is not long (5.5 km) but goes up considerably (900 m) and together with the lack of oxygen it will take 2.5 to 4 hours to reach the lake. Only a string of clouds remains behind us in the valley above Manang. The further we climb, the more visibility we get on all those extremely high peaks of the Annapurna Range. The walk is tough and we reach the 5,000 meter. We take just over 2.5 hours to get face to face with the lake. Thanks to the sun we can take a break. The temperature is below zero and the ice-cold wind blows hard. We celebrate the highest point with the cookies and rather cold water from the bottle. We skip the cup of tea in the tea house. It costs 5 to 6 times more than normal: 300 rupees. That is just a little more than € 2. Not really expensive but we have to pay attention to the money. After that, we bounce down the mountain and often stop to take pictures and videos.
Once back in Tilicho Base Camp it is 1 pm and lunchtime. After a noodle soup we again walk that beautiful part over the ledges between the pillars, through the landslides and over the steppe where we fully enjoy the phenomenal view.
Just after 3 pm we are back at the guesthouse and are quite proud of ourselves: including lunch and Harry's rebellious intestines we have done it in about 8.5 hours.
It will be a pleasant afternoon and evening: we speak to the three Spaniards who have undertaken the same exercise today. We talk for a while with two American ladies from Colorado about the Annapurna Circuit and of course our visit to their state last year during our adventure of the Great Divide Mountainbike Route. And we chat with a young Brabant couple who, after the visit to the lake the bad experience of altitude sickness, unfortunately decide not to go for the Thorung La pass and return to Phokara via Manang. Eventually we settle again near the stove and enjoy the warmth and the connecting feeling with the other people who share the same adventure.
Day 8: Shreekharka - Thorung Phedi (4,560 m / 14,961 ft): approx. 17 km
Day 8 is an intermediate day to return to the circuit of the Circuit around the Annapurna Massif. First of all, there is a lot of climbing. We walk through Upper Khangsar, an abandoned village except probably one farm, considering that this farm is not dilapidated and there are prayer flags fluttering on the roof. Around the village are large walled "meadows" with grazing yags.
The motivation is less for us both today. We feel that we are going to a less beautiful valley than we have left. At the viewpoint on the ridge that forms the dividing line between the two valleys, several hikers are waiting for each other to take a picture. We join and look at the photo shoots of the others until it is our turn.
In the descent to the Thorung valley strangely enough, well above 4,000 meters, a birch grove is reached. The birches have thick and capricious trunks and will probably be very old. They are (and will) not bigger than the size of a bush.
On the mountain slope on the other side of the valley we see hikers who have stayed at the Circuit from Manang and walk towards the Thorang La pass. We descend to something of 3,800 meters, cross the river and join a little higher up with the many other hikers coming from Manang. It could be difficult to find a room in a guest house again. But our pace is higher than most other hikers and a few kilometers further we have left the main group behind us.
In the last "real" and authentic village Yak Kharka (indeed full of Yags) we meet the English guys Shaun, Will and Chris, who we met at the beginning in Besisahar and ride the Annapurna on their MTB. Like us today, they want to go to Thorang Phedi and, like us, fear that the accommodations will be overbooked. We agree that whoever arrives first will also reserve a room for the others.
The last part is quite tough, partly because we have the stage to Tilicho Lake yesterday `"in our legs". On the way we meet less fortunate hikers who, due to altitude sickness, are forced to start the descent again, this time under supervision. We arrive earlier than the cyclists who certainly are not in favor in this area and will often have to push the bike. Two of the three guest houses are already full, but we are lucky enough to get a room for both us and the boys.
There is limited electricity (solar panels), no running water and no hot shower or bucket of hot water in Thorang Phedi. It is also cold. Well what do you expect above 4,500 meters in November. We go to the restaurant and stay there for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The boys come to us a little later (very happy with the room reserved by us) and later follows Lily, a Swiss lady with a Dutch mother whom we have spoken more often in the last two days. What follows is a very cold, but also very nice evening.
Day 9: Thorang Phedi - Thorung La Pass (5,416 m / 17,769 ft) - Muktinath (3,760 m / 12,336 ft): approx. 14 km
We are the last one at breakfast (once again, but deliberately). And then it is only 7 o'clock in the morning. For us incomprehensible reasons the walkers leave at -in our opinion- inhuman times. Why would you go climbing with a headlight at 5 am in the dark if that is also possible at 8 o'clock in the sun? The only reason is the cold wind that blows in the morning. Anyway, we enjoy a simple breakfast in the completely empty dining room and then start the climb. It takes us 3.5 hours to get on the pass.
It wasn't easy. We are continuously out of breath, the legs are heavy and it is icy cold due to the strong headwind even though we are fully in the sun. Occasionally we see our English friends who have left a few hours earlier and push their bikes up a hundred meters higher up the steep slopes. We call and wave at each other. We consider once again the adventure that these guys have entered into: we have a lot of respect for the efforts they have made and the Circuit will not be out of place on their "palmares", but the Annapurna Circuit is in our view not suitable for cycling, quite simply because you have to push around half of that your bike. If there is something we have a huge dislike, then it is pushing the bike.
On top of the pass there is a sea of Buddhist flags. This would be the place where Roelie eats the snicker she has bought in Besisahar and has kept for the highest point: 5,416 m / 17,769 ft. But we have no breath, it is really too cold and we are flogged by the wind. Maybe those early birds still have a point ... We are descending quickly.
The village of Muktinath is a true pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus. The contrast with Thorang Phedi on the other side of the mountain is therefore huge. We see that the pilgrims on the back of motorcycles and horses are taken to the temple. There are many souvenir stalls along the road.
In our guest house is a lovely hot shower and there is generally electricity: there is even a TV in the dining room which is heated by a gas stove and there's a washing machine in the hallway. You would almost say that we have already returned to the modern world ...
Day 10: Muktinath - Jomsom (2,727 m / 8,947 ft): approx. 18 km
The unexpected last day. In the morning we see clouds and a little later we walk in the middle of it. It gives a mystical image and after days perfect weather it is great to see thick dark clouds again. At least, as long as there is no rain. Before we descend to the village of Lubra, we first have to cross a ridge.
We descend to a quite spectacular gorge. At 11 am we are in Lubra at a noodle soup and say that today we actually want to walk further than Jomsom which is the standard final destination from Muktinath. Most important is to withdraw money in Jomsom so we can walk out of the whole circuit.
After Lubra there is another spectacular ridge high in the gap. By construction of the road the last part of the path is missing and we slide down our belly, looking for some grip on the loose stones. Well, you always come down, the only question is how. We will get away from it undamaged. The last hour to Jomsom we walk on the road on which also jeeps and motorbikes run. It is incredibly dusty, boring and it is very windy. This causes a damper in the mood that is completely ruined if it turns out that we can not withdraw money from both ATMs: not because they are empty, but because they do not accept foreign bank cards. What a disappointment! Incomprehensible when you consider that tourists (99% foreigners) should be able to spend their money in this region.
We discuss the options: 1. continue walking around this valley for about 2 days with all the dust and traffic when the money runs out and we take the bus to Phokara with the very last rupees or 2. travel from here to Phokara / Kathmandu and quickly start cycling again. We choose option 2 and suddenly realize that our Annapurna circuit ends in Jomsom. We buy a bus ticket for tomorrow morning.
After 10 hours in a small bus, a la 'the bumpy goat' at the Grouster fair or an old fairground attraction at an annual market in Limburg, we arrive in Pokhara. We spend the night in the popular Lake District. The next morning we walk to the Tourist Bus Park and get into a big bus that takes us to Kathmandu in another 9 hours. The hike is over. Faster than planned but what was indescribably beautiful!