While I have been writing a blog for this trip, WordPress has been playing up so I haven’t been able to post anything – despite the fact that there has been surprisingly ample (and free! and fast!) WiFi coverage at the teahouses throughout the trek. Who knew? Not what I was expecting, especially after the hassles of getting online in South America, which felt far less remote than this. But I have finally managed to get the post up – if not as picture heavy as it might be! If you’re interested in pictures, I suggest heading over to my Instagram, where I have been updating my “Instagram story” a lot more regularly with photos.
Day 1: Ngadi-Jagat
This was my first proper trekking day after a night in Kathmandu and two bumpy, seemingly interminable bus journeys to reach the start. After banana pancakes and coffee, we (my guide Gyan, porter Madi and I) set off on the trail at 8am. The sun was shining, the sky a perfect blue, and I was feeling good! The trail followed the banks of the Marsyangdi River, a roiling, rapids-riven turquoise tongue of water interrupted in this early stage of the trek by a big hydroelectric power station and dam. The trail cut through thick jungle vegetation and past terraced rice paddies, and, as the sun rose, so did the temperature. You sort of have to pack for all weather on this trek, but in my “lightest” gear of cutaway trousers and T-shirt, I was still sweltering. Thankfully it wasn’t too long before we finished a climb of a few hundred steps leading up to the gorgeous village of Bahundanda, with a tree in the centre draped in Buddhist prayer flags – a colourful maypole. Here, we took a short water break in the shade and watched as the square quickly filled up with other trekkers. Still, the trail isn’t nearly as busy as I had expected, and for the most part I am walking entirely on my own (Gyan and Madi aside).
After Bahundanda, the trail grew even more thick with jungle, and I crossed the first of many suspension bridges across the river. No big mountains were yet in view, but the valley walls loomed large all around us, and the occasional waterfall burst from the sides as if the gorge had sprung a leak. The sun continued to beat down, but surprisingly I felt lighter than air – maybe it was the realisation that I was finally here, in Nepal, after months of not travelling, or the proliferation of bright blue and orange butterflies that flit across the trail at my feet, or the fact that the very trail itself glittered with mica as if I was walking on stars, (or maybe just because eating too much dhal bat makes you a bit batty) – at any rate, the Annapurna Circuit was certainly proving itself to me to be worthy of its classification as the “world’s most beautiful trek”. And I hadn’t even seen a big mountain yet.
Day 2: Jagat-Danaque
When I was reading about this trek, I was prepared for a lot of natural beauty but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the little villages along the way. The tea houses are painted in bright pinks, blues and greens, mostly advertising the same style of accommodation – clean rooms, hot showers, good food and free WiFi (some of these claims truer than others). Some of the villages jut out of the valley walls, dangling precariously over the river, connected to the trail by dodgy-looking (but well maintained) suspension bridges – often with a stunning waterfall (or two) in the backdrop. Being the unabashed nerd that I am, one thought dominated this section of the trek: I felt like I was walking through a Nepalese Rivendell. With the glacial blue river below and high granite walls above, it seemed a place too ethereal for humans; it must instead be the realm of elves.
From the riverside village of Tal, we crossed over into the Manang District – a predominantly Buddhist region of Nepal, and the home of the big mountains I’d been searching for. It didn’t disappoint. Manaslu, the world’s 8th tallest mountain at 8,416m, dominated the view for most of the afternoon – and when we reached our stopping point for the night, Danaque, I caught my first glimpse of Annapurna II. Exciting. I also had my first hot shower of the trip – unfortunately “hot” in this case meant a scorching gas shower that climbed up past 65C before I had to turn it off in pain. Be careful what you wish for, and all that, but worth it to wash off the dust of the day. The evening rounded off with a Manaslu sunset, watching as the peak turned a burnished gold before disappearing into the dark, and a filling dinner of dhal bat (naturally) in the fire-warmed dining hall. Dhal bat is the local Nepalese dish consisting of rice, potato curry, vegetables, lentil soup and a sort of poppadom. I was informed by Gyan that not only was this the best fuel for a long trek but also was guaranteed to be fresh (unlike the pasta/pizza/momo dishes on offer), made with ingredients grown locally, provided the least opportunity for contracting stomach issues and – best of all – was totally unlimited. They will fill up the rice/curry/veg/lentils portion of your plate as needed until you are utterly stuffed. (Is four refills too many? Asking for a friend…)
Bed time was late by trekking standards – 9pm at least! – but every night so far I’d collapsed into bed utterly exhausted. I did creep out at 2am to look at the stars though, and I was met with an almost overwhelming sight: as vast a glittering sky as I’ve ever seen! And there, too, was the enormous Manaslu, blocking out a portion of the sky with its bulk and its peak wearing the stars like a crown.
Day 3: Danaque-Chame
Brrr… it’s so much colder now, a little higher in altitude (still only about 2200m or so – less than half as high as we will end up), and we have well and truly left the jungle behind for pine forests and groves of apple trees. Today was a rapid climb up to Timang and the best view I have seen so far – sipping tea from the roof of a hotel with the Manaslu range in the far distance, eagles soaring overhead, it was a jaw-droppingly beautiful sight.
But we had to keep moving! Thankfully after the climb and tea break, the rest of today’s walk was fairly flat, and I was lulled into a weird meditative state of one foot in front of the other – until we rounded the corner of the trail and straight ahead of us was Annapurna II. Even though it’s not as tall as Manaslu, it’s much closer to the trail and so looks way more impressive. Puffs of snow lifted off the top as if the peak were smoking – or, more likely, as a result of ferocious winds up there – and I definitely felt a shiver of awe travel down my spine.
Annapurna II stayed in view right the way to our stop in Chame for lunch, and our teahouse for the night. This was a shorter walking day (about 4 hours as opposed to 6/7 that we’d done previous), to give time to rest and acclimatise to the altitude. Chame is a much busier town, so I browsed the shops and bought a much needed cosy yak-wool hat and visited some of the Buddhist sites, including a long series of prayer bells and a huge prayer wheel taller than me. Now it’s time for more dhal bat, to read another book (I’ve read a book a day so far – this is what happens when I stop writing!) and to prepare for the higher altitude treks to come…