End of the Annapurna Circuit

Day 9.5: Thorong-La Pass to Muktinath

After the great excitement of the avalanche, it was a knee-crunching three hours of downhill to Muktinath, with a stop at a small teahouse on the way down for some fresh apple juice and a breakfast bar. It was 10:30am, and I’d already been up for 7 hours. We didn’t linger for lunch, since we were less than an hour from our stop in Muktinath, and I was keen to get to the bottom to rest my legs.

Muktinath is an interesting place; a holy site for both Buddhists and Hindus, some of whom make a long pilgrimage to the village barefoot (although not over the pass!). Buddhist prayer wheels sit next to statues of the Hindu god Vishnu, the two religions side-by-side in this mountainous town. As it turned out, we were the first people to arrive in Muktinath who had done the Thorong-La crossing that day. I think my slightly unwell state had led to us powering over the pass in record time. Number one! We had shots of local apple brandy to celebrate which, after a couple of weeks of no alcohol and no meat, went straight to my head. I think I slept for a few hours before emerging again in the afternoon to explore the village.

Later in the evening, as more trekkers arrived at the hotel, the celebratory atmosphere continued. A couple of people, however, were worryingly sick from altitude – and a few had stories of being carried over the pass on horseback, another reminder that trekking at 5,416m is not to be underestimated. I felt grateful to be feeling much better – both stomach and altitude-wise! 

Day 10: Muktinath to Jomsom

When I woke up the next morning, my mood was strangely bittersweet – my final day of trekking had arrived! This was listed on my itinerary as “the easiest walking day by far” but I’m not sure I would agree with that. Nine days of hard trekking – especially the effort of the previous day – had caught up with me, my hips and knees aching and my enthusiasm slightly waning. Still, I wasn’t going to opt for the Jeep option and cheat myself out of a final day’s experience. I’m glad I didn’t, because although this was a dusty day, made more challenging by an ever-present and slightly tedious head wind, the views were completely different to anything else we’d experienced in our circuit so far. 

For one thing, by crossing Thorong-La, we’d left the “Manang” region of Nepal and entered “Mustang”. This is divided again into lower and upper Mustang, and we were walking in the lower part. To access Upper Mustang you need an expensive permit – it was formerly the independent “Kingdom of Lo” and is still one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Nepal, where Tibetan culture is remarkably well preserved. We walked through the arid, desert-like landscape of lower Mustang, spotting a sand fox creeping up the hillside, following the path of the mighty Kali Gandaki River, which cuts through the mountains creating (apparently) the world’s deepest ravine. I questioned this because I’ve been to a few places in the world that claim to be the “deepest” ravine – there’s no real standard of measurement here. The claim for Kali Gandaki comes from the fact that if you measure from the top of the world’s seventh tallest mountain on one side of the river (Dhaulagiri) to the bottom and then to the top of the world’s tenth tallest mountain (Annapurna I) on the other, then the depth is the deepest in the world. Fair enough!

I particularly enjoyed this walk because I felt as if I was trekking through the sand-scoured landscape of my first novel, The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, and in my head I was following in Raim and Khareh’s footsteps. The trail travelled along an old caravan trading route and we stopped for lunch in the medieval village of Old Kagbeni. This was also the home of the Thakali people, who originated dhal bat – and frankly, it was far superior here than anywhere else I ate it – with an array of different chutneys to try, fresh stir-fried vegetables, the best curry and lentil soup. Delicious! 

After another couple of hours walking along the Kali Gandaki riverbed, we arrived in Jomsom, a windy and slightly soulless place, and the largest town since Besisahar. One cool thing we passed was the “mountain warfare training academy” for the Nepalese military, which was really interesting to see. When we reached our hotel, it was time for hugs and high fives all around – this signalled the end of my time with Gyan and Madi, not just my guide and porter, but my companions for the past ten days. I booked this whole trip through Trek Nepal Int’l and I can’t fault them for their professionalism and helpfulness throughout the entire experience – from the initial booking through to making sure I had the right ticket for my flight from Jomsom to Pokhara (not as simple as you would think!). Gyan was knowledgeable and thoughtful, while Madi was always ready with a helping hand (sometimes quite literally, as on the ice lake trek!) I thoroughly recommend their services if these blogs have inspired anyone to give it a go themselves!

The Annapurna Circuit is definitely something special – challenging but achievable, with hard sections offering brilliant rewards, showcasing some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. Truly the roof of the world. It’s a well maintained trail, with plenty of welcoming accommodation and friendly locals. November was the perfect time of year – I had bright blue skies and sunshine every day. Just remember to pack lots of warm clothing!

Namaste!

The Annapurna Range

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Annapurna Circuit, days 7-9: the big pass and a small avalanche

 

Day 7: Manang-Yak Kharka

 

The previous night I’d been showing classic signs of AMS (acute mountain sickness), including headache, nausea, fatigue and loss of appetite – I couldn’t eat more than a bite of my dhal bat. Gyan warned me that if I wasn’t feeling better then we would rest in Manang another day rather than continuing on, and if I continued to get worse then we wouldn’t make the pass at all. I was disappointed. But I also felt so grim that I knew he was right to keep an eye on me and help me face up to the potential reality. I chatted bleakly with a couple of people who had (wisely) decided to chill out in town, take in a movie and visit the AMS clinic, which offered daily talks about the dangers of altitude and how to overcome them. Since I had some diamox (medication to help with AMS) tablets with me, they recommended I take half a pill that night and see how I felt. I’m glad I listened to their advice because I woke up in the morning feeling like a new woman – no headache or nausea, appetite returned – and Gyan was satisfied and happy for us to continue our journey. Yay for western medicine! The fact that they had sent me to bed with a hot water bottle to snuggle helped immensely too – I spent my first night properly warm and cosy in my bed, and despite my sickness I slept well.

It was only a relatively short three hour jaunt to Yak Kharka (4000m) – again, we’d had such a long day previously, there was no need to overdo it – and the suggestion is that you only ascend for sleeping purposes by 500m max at a time to avoid worsening AMS. Thankfully the path out of Manang is gloriously motorised vehicle-free – not even motorbikes charge their way along the path here, only long trains of donkeys, their backs laden with supplies. I imagine this was what the entire Annapurna Circuit was like at one time. Progress, in some ways – a road (dodgy as it may be) enables a lot more commerce in the region, and helps to support the growing local population. But it is to the detriment of the famous trail – so much so that a lot of trekkers I’ve met are opting for more off-the-beaten path routes, thereby leading to less tourism in the region. Kind of a catch-22 I guess.

At any rate, this section of the trek was pleasant, with only low-lying shrubs (and those infamous thorn bushes) growing at this altitude. We stopped a few times for hot sugary tea and veggie samosas, admiring the views of Cholu West peak and waving goodbye to Tilicho peak and the Annapurna range for a little while. We finished our climb to 4000m by midday and the difference compared to Manang is a world away. Yak Kharka is a tiny village; with no motorised transport, it has the feel of an old West outpost, a frontier land – especially with enormous shaggy yaks grazing the hillside and horses tied up outside. Manang was hustle and bustle – this is peace and quiet. And alas – no WiFi, so I haven’t been able to blog or update Instagram as much as I would have liked, but I did manage to finish La Belle Sauvage while lying in the glorious sunshine, drinking a cup of steaming hot ginger lemon tea, feeling so much better than the night before that I could hardly complain about not being able to check Facebook. And hadn’t I come on a trek like this to get away from it all, at least for a bit? Still, my fingertips tingled with the inability to connect to the outside world… or maybe that was just a Diamox side effect. Time to break out another book, at any rate, because it seemed for another night we’d found a guesthouse with no one else around. My guide knows me too well already!

Day 8: Yak Kharka to Thorong Pedi

 

Dinner last night was garlic soup so fiery with raw garlic, it almost burnt my mouth! Garlic is supposed to help with altitude as well, although I don’t remember hearing much about that in South America. Still – it definitely would keep any vampires from my door.

After a filling breakfast of apple porridge and hot, black coffee, we started the trek to Thorong Pedi/base camp, our last stop before the BIG pass crossing day. The sun didn’t quite reach the depths of the valley we were walking in, so it was bitterly cold for the first half an hour. A warning of things to come! I cursed my stupid Under Armour mittens, which for some reason leave my thumbs totally exposed. What’s the point in that? Instead I dug my hands deep into the pockets of my (well, my friend Tania’s) down jacket and prayed for us to reach the sunshine. Once we did, the layers quickly came off and it was back to comfortable trekking as usual.

None of the tea houses on the way to Pedi were open, because today was Election Day. No sugary black tea for me! Boo. There was almost no vegetation en route, but a strange, Martian landscape of rock and broken shale – the Marsyangdi River way down at the bottom of the valley, the only constant. The trail dipped up and down in elevation, and the waterfalls we passed now were almost totally frozen.

We reached Thorong Pedi (4520m – still not quite as high as the ice lakes) at 10:30am. It’s a weird, hippy place – the first I’ve seen staffed by Westerners as opposed to locals – with reggae music blaring over loud speakers and incense burning (probably to cover the stench of trekkers who haven’t had access to a decent shower in days). I ate the world’s biggest and most satisfying cinnamon roll and eavesdropped as my fellow trekkers discussed the plan for the following day: stay in Pedi or head to High Camp? Leave at 4am in the dark or wait until 5 and risk the wind? Our plan is to stay the night in Pedi, where there are better facilities (and therefore we are more likely to have a better night’s sleep) and then wake up at 4am for the pass crossing. It apparently gets extremely windy across the pass after 9/10am, which is why everyone attempts to get up and over in the early morning. My plan is also to sleep in all my clothes, ready to just roll out of bed early doors. Apparently though, the ice lake trek is much harder than the crossing so I should be well prepared!

After lunch (dhal bat again), Gyan and I climbed to High Camp to keep in sync with the old acclimatisation adage of “hike high, sleep low”. I reached a new record height (4800m!) but as we came back down it was cruel knowing I was going to have to do the exact same (tough) hike in the early hours of the morning. I also was starting to feel unwell again – not AMS this time, but my stomach was churning uncomfortably. It would be just my luck to get food poisoning right before the biggest day of the trek! Maybe it was just nerves?

Day 9: Thorong-La Pass Crossing

 

Alas, no, it wasn’t just nerves… and of course it had to be in the place with the worst facilities! As I dashed out of bed at 1:30am (it really is hard to “dash” out of a mummy sleeping bag), throwing a down jacket over my thermals for the third time that night, I discovered a new peril of pit toilets – namely that if some intelligent individual before me decided to wash down the entire concrete floor with water after using the facilities then I’d end up with the additional challenge of going to the bathroom on an ice rink. This is about as fun as it sounds! I mean why don’t they write about this sort of thing in the Lonely Planet?

By the time my alarm went off at 3:30am, I was already exhausted and in no real mood for an 8 hour hike. Thankfully the worst of my stomach woes seemed to have passed and, as I dragged my sorry form into the dining room, I saw Madi sitting there looking equally sorry for himself. Turned out anyone who had consumed the dhal bat (so mostly the porters and the guides) had been as ill throughout the night as I was, and had complained bitterly to the owner. At least I felt better that I wasn’t the only one. Revenge of the dhal bat! And there I was thinking I’d been so clever eating only what the locals eat! I guess locals get sick too.

I couldn’t stomach any breakfast, so there was just about time for tea and to share nervous chitchat with the other trekkers. Turns out, even without stomach problems, most people had had trouble sleeping, so it was going to be a fun day for everyone. Procrastination over, there was nothing else for it but to start the long hike up… so off we went!

It was pitch black apart from the tiny bobbing lights of head torches heading steadily up the steep slope towards High Camp, and the stars. It was also bitterly cold, hovering at -20C before the wind chill. I’d layered up in almost all my clothes and yet still wished I’d worn more. For anyone who wants to do this trek as comfortably as possible, I’d suggest getting the warmest gloves possible – my mittens were useless, my fingers freezing inside my pockets. But maybe there is no real way to do this part of the trek comfortably. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s windy, it’s relentlessly uphill, and it’s 3-4 hours’ worth of that state of affairs… it’s going to be uncomfortable. Maybe a bit of suffering and doubt is the price you pay for such a sense of accomplishment? (Hmm… I think this probably applies to lots of things, novel writing included!)

After High Camp, the hike was brutally monotonous. Even as the sky lightened, there wasn’t much to see except the trail snaking its way up (always up) the rocky landscape. It was also still absolutely freezing cold. My mantra became “every step forward is a victory” as we headed on with the end still nowhere in sight. Then, suddenly, I felt warmth on my back and my shadow extended long out in front of me. The sun had broken past the mountains and had come to join us on the walk! I honestly jumped for joy; I was so deliriously happy that the sun was up and I might finally have a shot at getting warm. I even whipped around to take a picture and Gyan laughed at me – but I could tell he was happy about it too.

With the sun on our backs, things were easier. I mean there was no hope for my fingers, but the rest of me warmed up nicely. And then, we turned a corner and saw the vast, bright collection of Buddhist prayer flags that marked the top of the pass. We had done it! I practically skipped up to the sign, my frozen fingers fumbling with my backpack zips as I took out the copy of The Potion Diaries: Going Viral I’d dragged all the way up there. Woohoo! We posed for lots of photos, grinning from ear to ear. Even though there must have been hundreds of trekkers planning to do the crossing that morning, we had the place to ourselves for a little stretch of time, and it was great. The sky was still that incredible blue I’d been blessed with the whole trip and – food poisoning, AMS and frozen fingers aside – I couldn’t have been luckier.

Photo shoot over, we dashed into a little tea hut to warm our hands. The atmosphere inside was a mixture of exhaustion and triumph. It was nice to see some familiar faces from along the route and feel like we could celebrate the accomplishment together.

 

But what goes up must come down! And we’d only really completed half our day’s journey. Eager to get to Muktinath as quickly as possible, we didn’t hang around – and more groups were arriving for their pictures by the minute. I trailed behind a group of Chinese trekkers when all of a sudden we heard a thunderous crash from above our heads. We spun around to see a great cascade of snow and ice tumbling from opposite Thorong Peak; an avalanche! Camera at the ready, I started filming, standing shell-shocked and stunned with my Chinese companions. That was, until Madi came barrelling down the hill from behind me, running for his actual life, followed by the local porters. The guide for the Chinese turned and yelled at them to run, and Madi did the same to me. I mean… to me, the danger looked miles away – but then the possibility that the snow fall could trigger a rock/landslide much closer to where we were standing hit me as very real, and who was I to stand there like a dope with my camera while the locals were running? They had more experience than me! So, yup, I ran down the hill after the Chinese trekkers and my porter. As it turned out, the snow settled not long after that and there was no more damage done – but with that hit of adrenaline and cardio, I was definitely nice and warm, fingertips and all!

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Annapurna Circuit, days 4-6, aka the path of most resistance

Day 4: Chame-Lower Pisang 



I can’t believe how insanely lucky I’ve been with the weather. Every day has been crystal clear blue skies and bright sunshine. They say that blue skies appear even more blue with altitude, and that definitely seems to be my experience. 
This day was much more gentle than previous. We wanted to gain altitude slowly and I had already beaten our schedule by a day – there was no real benefit to me to go around the circuit any quicker, so better to take it slow and enjoy the scenery. 
The walk meandered slowly up through a pine forest (and past another gushing waterfall) before we came upon a rather unexpected sight: a giant apple tree plantation, and probably the most “modern” set-up I’ve come across so far. The apples grown here aren’t native to Nepal (they’re an Italian variety, apparently), but they were delicious and sweet. The teahouse looked more like an Alpine chalet, and they were doing a roaring trade in everything related to apples: apple tea, apple muffins, apple pie… the list went on. It was also the first teahouse with western toilets, a bar and sofas around a big stone fireplace – again, more reminiscent of a ski lodge than the threadbare Nepalese accommodations I’d come to expect. Maybe a sign of what’s to come as more people visit – though I guess part of the appeal of this route is the rustic charm!
After having our fill of apple-related products, it was a relatively short walk to Lower Pisang, where the view was dominated by a giant, sloping rock wall to our right. Soon, the monastery of Upper Pisang came into view, its golden stupa glinting in the bright sunlight. We walked up to the monastery in the afternoon, marvelling at the glorious painted ceiling and saturated colours of the temple walls. The monks lit candles and chanted as we sat quietly in the shadows around the outer perimeter of the main monastery room. It was incredibly peaceful, and one of the joys of the trek has definitely been learning more about Buddhist culture. 
My teahouse room for the night has a private bathroom – joy! – and since I was the only guest, the lovely owner made me my very own apple pie (as if I hadn’t consumed enough apples today). I watched as she rolled out the dough, filled it and fried it – it was more like a big apple samosa than a pie, loaded with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, and all around one of the most delicious dishes I’ve had so far on the trek. It’s not nicknamed the “Apple pie circuit” for nothing. 
Day 5: Lower Pisang-Manang



It’s election time in Nepal, and that means lots of locals are returning to their home districts in order to cast their votes. This area is predominantly Maoist/Communist, and we’ve passed by several large (but thankfully non-violent) rallies. Unfortunately it means that the road to Manang that we are walking along is busier than usual with jeeps and motorbikes, making this a very dusty trek into the centre of town. Thankfully this is the last we will see of motorized vehicles as the path beyond Manang is for people, yaks and donkeys only. 
The walk into Manang is stunning, and the closest we’ve come to the Annapurna range. Annapurna II, III & IV, Gangapurna and Tilicho Peak dominate the skyline to the left, and on the right, several abandoned monasteries cast spooky shadows on the hillside. Manang itself is the busiest little town we’ve come across, since most of the trekkers take a rest day here. There are movie theatres (!) showing Everest, Into Thin Air and Slumdog Millionaire on repeat, cafes serving “real” Lavazza coffee and restaurants dishing up sizzling yak steaks and burgers. (I still am too chicken to try anything except dhal bat or vegetarian dishes). It’s so busy with locals returning home from Kathmandu for the election that the first few hotels we try are full – thankfully, Gyan scores me a nice private room with bathroom on the third floor of the Yak Hotel and I get settled in nicely. Unfortunately, the promise of a hot shower was not fulfilled – instead, I braved an icy cold one and washed some of my dusty clothes at the same time. 

I also met up with some of the people I’d met earlier on and lost track of on the trail – the young Canadian siblings I shared an uncomfortable bus journey with from Kathmandu to Besisahar, a British couple, one of whom worked briefly for HarperVoyager – small world! – and an American ER doctor who’s powering around the circuit in double-quick time. Everyone (and especially me) looked a little more trail-weary now, faces pink with sun and wind exposure, muscles sore, wary of the next few high altitude days to come. It was early to bed for me though, as I’d made the executive decision (against the best attempts at discouragement by Gyan and Madi) to trek to the Ice Lakes (4640m) the next day, a good kilometre-and-a-bit above Manang (3450m). It’s apparently great for acclimatisation and spectacular views, but it’s potentially a long old slog. Still I felt good about my legs and lungs so wanted to go for it… 

On my way back to the room, I checked out the clothes that I’d hung out on the line to dry. They were all completely frozen and my towel made an awkward cracking sound with ice as I shook it. Oh well – I could only hope they’d thaw out in the next day’s sunshine!

Day 6: Manang Rest Day – Ice Lake Hike

Don’t you feel that so far this Himalayan adventure has been lacking in Actual Peril and High Danger? Well, apparently, so did the universe. The day started well enough – up bright and early, I emptied my daypack of anything except what was absolutely necessary (which meant it was filled with water and kitkats) and met Gyan and Madi for our hike to the ice lakes. We had to backtrack our steps to Braga village, where we began our climb up past one of the atmospheric abandoned monasteries. The way was steep almost immediately, some of it slick with ice, and we had to move “pistare, pistare” (slowly, slowly) along tight switchbacks that zig-zagged their way up the hillside. 
Going up, I found, was not such a problem – yes, my muscles were working hard but generally I felt quite safe and we took plenty of breaks for water and to stop and stare at the, frankly, incredible views. There was plenty of motivation to keep me going. The only thing I couldn’t do was look down at my watch. Knowing that the hike up was going to take at least 3 1/2 – probably more like 4 – hours, I didn’t want to be too aware of how much more uphill we had to go. Better to just keep believing the lakes were  around the next bend (they weren’t). 
Still, those views I’d been promised? They were beyond breathtaking as we climbed higher and even more peaks appeared. Even the very top of the notorious Annapurna I eventually became visible, and the giant Manaslu, that I thought we’d left behind, showed his face again. Condors soared above our heads, so close sometimes we could hear the rush of their flight, the downdraft buffeting our foreheads. We stopped for a snack of (you guessed it) more apples before giving it a final push to the top. 
Elation! We made it! High fives all around, and we took a few photos mucking around on the surface of the completely frozen lake. The lake itself isn’t that exciting, certainly not the dramatic climax such intense effort to reach it deserved, but we pretended it was amazing to make ourselves feel better. There were a few more groups of hikers up there, all having made the intrepid effort to acclimatise in the most challenging way possible; there was a good sense of camaraderie. We ate our packed lunch of boiled eggs and (now-frozen) chapati, before deciding to begin the trek back down – it was definitely far too cold to be sitting around without moving, well below freezing (the temperature in Manang was about -12C that day). We passed a second lake (I’d say more ice pond) and a small group of yaks, as we legged it back down the hill. 
I was hoping that the way down would be a lot faster, but it wasn’t to be. We made it about halfway without too much incident, except that I find downhill is always much harder on the knees and a headache was slowly but surely creeping into my temples – although whether that was from the altitude, sun exposure or exertion I wasn’t so sure. Regardless, we were entering hour 5 of our day out, the boiled egg I’d eaten at the top wasn’t sitting all that well, and I wanted to be back down at lower altitude and in my nice warm sleeping bag ASAP. We passed by a few people who were still making their way up – including one French girl who was in tears at the prospect of continuing; I felt her pain. 
Now, what follows is a situation where ironically, had I NOT been with a guide, things might have gone smoother. I would have followed the signs down religiously, whereas Gyan and Madi – keen to avoid going down the slick, steep and icy slopes we’d climbed up – decided to follow a different trail (which I would’ve argued was more of a gap in the brush than a trail, but they’re the professionals). Well – things went RAPIDLY downhill (in all senses of the word) from there, as we picked our way down a “trail” that was nothing more than loose dirt, sand, scree and a few low-lying, spiky af thorn bushes. I quickly abandoned my poles, clinging instead to the least prickly parts of the thorn bushes, or to Madi’s outstretched arm, as we scrambled for footing on the loose ground that wouldn’t send us tumbling down the slope – while Gyan scouted ahead for a route back to the main pathway. The only good thing was that the extreme levels of concentration it was taking to make sure I didn’t fall was keeping my headache at bay. At last – finally! – we saw the main path. But it involved crossing a wide patch of scree that was the steepest yet – and there were no thornbushes to cling to, nor could Madi stop in the middle to help me across. He crossed over tentatively, and with difficulty, clearly deciding it wasn’t worth the risk. He and Gyan debated over my head whether we should turn back or find another way… but the path was so close (and I was pretty annoyed at them for leading me so astray in the first place) that I decided to go for it and strode my way across the perilous slope with as much confidence as I could muster. (Altitude clearly affecting my judgment there too). I think it was worth it just for the look of pure surprise on Madi’s face! 
But, after my brief moment of triumph, my headache was back at full blast, along with nausea and just general fatigue, and we were still a good two hours away from when I could legitimately stop moving, the village still looking terribly small and far away beneath us. Even the main pathway down was only as wide as a single boot, so I couldn’t afford to lapse in concentration either (also, I knew that most accidents happen close to the finish line, and I didn’t want to add a sprained ankle to my woes). Gosh, I sound really self-pitying now! But I think the altitude was really getting to me. Even the relatively flat path back from the village to Manang felt interminable, but there was no other option but to walk under my own steam. Later, when I was speaking to some of the other trekkers, I think I could have easily acclimatised with a short 2-3hr round trip hike to a nice monastery as opposed to my 7.5hr journey! But I only had myself to blame as I was the one who had insisted on the ice lakes. 
Still, at least I felt I had earned the respect of my guide and porter. When we finally reached the Yak Hotel again, Madi turned around and gave me a big double high-five. “You’re a real trekker now!” he said. And with that gratifying thought in my head, I climbed up to my room, crawled into my sleeping bag, and slept like the dead. 


(It was 3pm.)

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