Around Annapurna

The Annapurna circuit trek take 10 to 12 days from Besishar to Jomsom on the east side towards the north and one week more to close it on the west side. However, the west side is less popular now that the path is mostly the road.

Daniela met in India told me she did this trek just with an Israeli girl without any guide and porter, so it was pretty clear to me I would do the same. I spent only one day in Pokhara before starting the trek to get the permits, rent a smaller bag and a down jacket, and also look for a trek partner. I spent some hours chatting with 2 friendly Swiss guys, and though about trekking with them, but soon understood they were good old friends just meeting again after many months not seen. I spent a few hours chatting with them and we eventually took the same buses to the trek, but quickly let them just together.

In the 5h bus from Pokhara to Besisahar, Zoltan, a 50 year-old Hungarian Swedish, was sitting close to me and planed to trek the circuit alone as well. After some talk, we decided at least to start together, and we finally became good partners to trek almost all way together, sharing almost the same rhythm (Zoltan had more experience in many days treks, mostly the way to Santiago de Compostela in Europe) and the passion for photography. We decided to short cut the 2 first days by taking a 4WD bus from Besishar to Jagat, along with the 2 Swiss met the day before. The bus broke a few km before reaching Jagat so that we walked all together to the same guest house.

Zoltan and I started much earlier in the next morning, walking through the crow, especially some big French groups: the trek is indeed very popular, and maybe the fast that the 8091m summit was first reached by a French expedition (Maurice Herzog in 1950, the first 8000er ever), the French are the n° 1 trekkers here (before Germans)!

Despite the crow, the trek is splendid, you go up from 800m to 5400m within a week, get many different beautiful and colorful landscapes under a almost perfect blue sky!

During the trek, I ate the classic daal bhaat tarkari almost every evening: it is like the Thali in India, a traditional mix with rice, dal (lentils soup), and vegetables. Usually “all you can eat”, you get generally one refill. The Nepali variant is sometimes more impressive and offer more side dishes, but is often also less spicy (so that all Western can eat it) and less tasty.

In the first real walk day (30th of October). After passing Daraphani, we felt we could go to the next village. We choose an alternative and less touristic place to stay: we went many steps up to Odar, a farmer place over Daraphani. A cozy place, even if the steps almost killed Zokltan at the end of the day! We found a nice homestay  offering us the night and the classic dal bhat for Rs 300l The family son was the only one in the village going to college, and when we understood he was studying mechanical Engineering (what Zoltan did!), we decided to support the family and wished him good success!

The next stop was Chame, a more classic choice. There, I chose not to have dinner in the guest house but in a local place, letting Zoltan in another place. I got one of my best evenings there: I explicitly asked to eat with the family instead of being served before, and could share a very nice dal bhaat with the 40 year old Mother and her cute 17 year old daughter. The mum prepared also buffalo meat and actually ate almost only meat with here rice whereas the daughter and I were more on the veg side, even I could get some meat as well. The impressive part came later, when I figured out this place was the alcohol dealer of the village! A group of 3 Nepali got one liter local beer (Rs 100) and offered me one glass: interesting! Later, 2 other guys came and bough like 8 l strong alcohol (wheat based) à Rs 500 a liter. They said they were jeep drivers. Indeed, in the East side is now also partially a “jeepable” road, but pretty though to drive. Nevertheless, I hope the passengers never knew about the alcohol status of their drivers!

Most of the tourists walk from Chame to Pisang and get the lower trail up to Manang the day after. Passing upper Pisang and its Buddhist temple, we decided to keep going on the upper trail up to Gyaru. It might be the best part of the whole trek: smaller paths along the mountain, more color and less people! You walk for a while in a beautiful and almost flat area, cross a suspension bridge and then figure out by 3pm you have to go the 600m up to Gyaru in steeply serpentine! Fortunately, it was still on the sunny side!

The first hotel in Gyaru was occupied by the French groups, fully organized with French speaking guides, porters and own cook and dishes! We stayed in the other guest house, but had a very nice evening with locals, at some point the French speaking guide, and the very talkative (perfect English) owner of the first hotel who got paid without much effort! He could explain us more about the local culture in these few hours and we got in many days before: about the burial ceremonies, the vehicles, the portage (a kg of rice cost there by 3700m 35Rs more than in the valley to cover the porter).

In the next Breakfast, I discovered the Thakhali Buckwheat bread, something I got almost every morning the following days. It reminds me the galette from home, also with buckwheat meal, even if we do them as thin a crepe and not bread like. Both are however tasty and I think quite nutritious.

On the 2nd of November, we reached Manang, actually a little lower at 3500m. Most tourists stay for one acclimatization day to avoid altitude sickness, making some shorter walks around this marvelous place. We chose to go up to the Tilicho Lake for acclimatization, a 2 days side trek. The way up to 4000m was pretty tough; we had a lunch break in Shree Kangra in the mid way to the base camp. When we heard that the further way is very slippery, Zoltan preferred to skip the Lake and went to Yak Kharga the next day. I continued to the base camp in the afternoon, taking my time with photography on the way so that I arrived after 3pm. At one point, I got a bed, but then got kicked out by the manager who organized his rooms for a group of 10 Israeli; we finally found a solution so that everybody could get a bed.

I started to go up to the lake at 5:30 and was not the first. I was however walking alone and a little faster than the one before me so that I arrived the first of the day on the lake (by 5000m) at 8:15. I stayed a while there, walked on the side for a better spot and tried to get my wide angle lens working (without success, I have to send it to the service), My way up and down was probably too fast, I got pain in my Achilles tendon since then!

I stayed in Shree Khangra in the dorm. I had a very long journey the day after. Starting before 8am, I went down to Yak Kharga by noon, improvised a stick on the way by getting a part of a tree (!), and decided to continue up to Phedi (arrived at 14:30) and finally the high base camp (4900m)!

The high base camp had only one big hotel, but was already full when I arrived. I finally got a mattress to sleep in the dining room, as 6 other tourists and a few Nepali guides and porters. It seems to be a pretty common situation in this high season!

The food prices increase almost linear with the elevation: you can almost add 100 Rs by 1000m for a dal bhat:  about 100-150 Rs in Pokhara, 200-300 Rs in the way up, over 400 Rs over 4000m and 490 Rs in the high base camp (4900m). In the high base camp, I met again Zoltan and other people met a few days before, and got even a dessert: 270 Rs of an Apple Pie (you can get it for less than 100 in Pokhara).

I started up to Thorung La by 5:30 behind so many people, but on my own rhythm. It was actually pretty easy to get up to 5419m to the “biggest (i.e. largest) pass in the World”. I spent some time on the top enjoying the view (which is not that impressive, some passes in Ladakh, India were better, my favorite in the trek was the way up to Tilicho base camp). A group of French celebrated the pass with a bottle of Champagne and the Gwen Ha Du (flag from Brittany, my home region in France)!

I walked the way down to Muktinath (3800m) slowly, with Zoltan, Robert (the other Hungarian on the trek) and Megan, a pretty Australian girl working as dive instructor in Kho Tao, Thailand. I could share with here my experience there.

During the trek, I read many times an ad about getting down by mountain bike. It took me a while to figure out where the guy offering that in Mulkinath was, and waited with him for his bikes to get up. Logistics seems to be quite complicated out there. Nevertheless, Juriaan from the Netherlands is a very friendly guy and had nice conversations together speaking French or English.

Muktinath is a pilgrimage place for Hindu and in the last few years, Indians became the biggest tourist group in the Annapurna area (from 4% of the foreigners in 2003 to over 40% in 2010, proving the recent development in India!).

The next day in the afternoon, I finally got a bike. I started biking with 2 girls from England (living in Dubai) and Ireland (living in London) I met many times during the trek. As I got much more MTB experience, they however quickly let me go faster. I enjoyed the scenic upper trail down hill (other side of the river than Muktinath). Reaching the nice Kagbeni by 4pm, I still had 2 hours drive to Jomsom along the river bed and facing the wind. One of the tougher trail ever! Arriving just by the sunset, I was also worrying for the girls thinking they could never do it. Their guide was already in Jomsom (he came by Jeep), and told me they got another Jeep at Kagbeni. They arrived half an hour later and we ended up altogether in the same guest house behind the Airport. They flew indeed early in the next morning back to Pokhara.

The hotel was also pretty good located for me: the only ATM in the region was just the other side of the street and the way further down to Tatopani was after the Airport. I just did not notice these points immediately and lost one hour driving back in forth in Jomsom!

Driving trough some villages, I was looking for a local restaurant (without accommodation facilities) to have a breakfast, but did not find anybody ready or able to sell me something, so that I went to a “hotel restaurant” A little disappointment: I prefer to support other local families than the one having the bigger guest houses and hotel. I also figured out that the accommodation is so cheap (100 to 200Rs a night) so that the GHs increase their price of the food, accredited by the local tourism organizations. A little strange situation for my understanding: I would really have prefer to pay more for the room, but then less for the food, and particularly not this extra in the place I did not slept!

Going downhill by bike was a lot of fun, but also some frustration with this too basic bike: I wish I had my own MTB (fully) or at least a good fork suspension. This one was so rigid so that I got pain in my arms and sometimes even headache driving over the stones: the way is too rocky for these cheap bikes! At one point, I had enough and choose to take the side trail for trekkers. A bad idea: the path was up and down with steps everywhere, so that I had to carry the bike most of the time! I could however appreciate the remote villages.

Tatopani if for many the last step in their tour around the Annapurna. It is a lovely place and its main attraction is its real hot spring with a quite big pool of hot water. It was really deliverance for me: I was probably the dirtiest one coming there in that day! I met again the same guys from the high base camp there, among them Zoltan who was continuing to the Annapurna Base Camp the days after!

I left the protected Annapurna area on the 9th of November, taking a bus to Beni and then another one to Pokhara.


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