Category Archives: 2009. Annapurna

Full postings for our Annapurna trip

As I promised in my interim postings, I have finally pulled all the text and pictures together to tell the story of our trek around Annapurna and our subsequent travels to Chitwan and Kathmandu. As with Dolpo, these postings cover many pages for those wishing to read them.

The notes go back to November 6, the day we returned from Dolpo to Kathmandu. Although they are all posted with today’s date, I have arranged them to display in chronological order. To see all the entries, you will have to click the “Older Posts” link when you reach the bottom of each page.

Overall, this was a much easier trip than Dolpo, as we could eat and stay in local guest houses, usually in private rooms. Marcia and I stayed healthy throughout except for one bout of intestinal trouble and a head cold I brought from Kathmandu. We both lost weight and now feel strong enough to climb Mt. Everest, which we actually did several times over in the course of our travels.

The Annapurna circuit is justly famous, as its spectacular scenery covers a huge variety of terrain from jungles to alpine passes. It is a well-inhabited area with plenty of services and local activity. It offers views of the many peaks of Daulighiri and Annapurna, the seventh and tenth highest mountains in the world.

Over 25,000 people follow the Annapurna trek each year, which means a lot of fellow travelers. We tended not to socialize much with the younger crowd, but it was instructive to encounter dozens of languages and cultures from around our very large globe. Most were European, especially French, who seem particularly fond of using their long vacations following in the footsteps of Maurice Herzog. But there were many other nationalities, from Russian to Australian to Chinese to Thai and Malaysian. Americans were a very small minority, I guess because the only people with enough money these days don’t have time to make such a long trip.

We hope you enjoy the pictures as much as we enjoyed taking them.

Nov 6 to 10 – Recovering in Kathmandu

The five days we spent in Kathmandu were mostly devoted to recovery. We slept long, ate lots of Italian and Indian food and did very little. Marcia went to the spa at the Hyatt Regency, a little bubble of the western world on the edge of town.

We did make a one-overnight outing to Bhaktipur, an old restored city about 12 kilometers from Kathmandu. Historically there were three cities that made up the Kathmandu Valley. Kathmandu and Patan are quite close and now almost merged into a single city. But Bhaktipur, at the other end of the valley and on the trade route to Tibet, was left relatively untouched until the 1980s, when a German group helped restore it and put in a modern sewage system. The result is a kind of working museum city with some of the best temples and monuments in Nepal.

On our very first night back, we had dinner with Sange Sherpa, the guide who had led us on an 18-day trek to the Everest region in 1999-2000. He is now running a pizza parlor in Barcelona and married to a Spanish woman named Merse. They were back to repeat their wedding celebration in his village in eastern Nepal. Sange is a really interesting fellow who now speaks four languages fluently. We were one of his first clients when we met him at the mountain airport ten years ago. His brother Ngima organized the Dolpo trek for us.

Before long, we had gathered enough strength to start talking about and planning our next trek to the Annapurna region. We considered proposals from both our Dolpo guide Kinna and our cook Sonam, who also does guide work. It was a difficult decision because we liked both of them, but we ultimately chose Sonam, who was more organized and had a really good bond with Marcia.

Just after we locked in our departure date as November 11, I came down with the worst allergy and asthma attack I’ve had in years. For two days I sneezed and coughed so badly that I feared I would be in no condition to hike. But we had set wheels in motion that were hard to stop, so we continued with our plan. Fortunately, I found the right combination of medicines and was able to get things under control just as I was packing.

Day 1 – Nov 11 – Buses, jeeps, and footpaths

We got up at 3:45 because we had to be on the road by 4:30 to avoid a political action by the Maoists, who had scheduled a one-day blockade of all roads in and out of the Kathmandu Valley. Negotiations to bring these former rebels into the political system are going badly, and the Maoists decided it was time to do a show of strength as a threat of worse if they did not get their way. We had to be well outside Kathmandu before 6am.

The roads, which are never good, were particularly congested as other trucks and buses tried to get through before the witching hour. But we finally made it out to central Nepal and began counting the kilometers towards Pokhara. With about 50 to go, we branched off and went up a side road to Besi Sahar, the traditional beginning of the Annapurna loop trek.

After an early lunch, we changed to a Jeep and continued up the new road that is under construction and already filled with ruts. This road is both a blessing and a curse. It will bring electricity, food and medicine to the people of the Manang valley. But it will also change and mostly eliminate one of the most popular remote treks in Nepal and all the business that comes with it. Trekking companies are already looking for alternatives that will be necessary in a few years.

For us, it allowed us to compress the first two days of lowland walking into a couple of hours. We got out at the first rockslide blocking the road and walked about two hours to a nice guest house, where we had dinner and spent the night.

Already Marcia and I are more comfortable than we’d ever been in Dolpo. No matter how many times the staff bring us cups of tea, a tent is still a tent. Annapurna guest houses (sometimes called teahouses) have had forty years to develop into the most advanced accommodations in the Himalaya. By staying and eating in these, we can travel with only light baggage and a minimal staff.

Our staff consists of only two people. Sonam is our guide, who keeps us on the right track and negotiates with the teahouses. 19-year-old Kichiri Sherpa is our porter, carrying both of our backpacks and his own minimal gear. Kichiri has not yet filled out to the broad dimensions of his fellow villagers, but he seems fine with carrying a load that weighs as much as he does.

One could argue that a guide is unnecessary in a well-known area like this, but at $10 per day, it’s nice to have a communicator and friend on the trip. Many of the young trekkers here carry their own packs, which strikes us as a hard way to save a little money. We only wish we could have a porter for our next trip to the Sierras.

My allergies and asthma have had a miracle cure now that we are on the road. I must have been reacting to one of the many substances in Kathmandu’s polluted air, so a change of scene has done me good. Although I’m still coughing a bit, it is not going to interfere with our trip.

Day 2 – Nov 12 – Waterfalls and road construction

Our first full day of hikng up the valley dawned cloudy. Fearing rain, I asked Sonam to by some plastic to cover the backpacks. He didn’t believe it would rain since Novembers are almost always good weather, but he did as I asked.

The trail followed a gradual course up the river that we will be following for the next week. There were many high waterfalls from streams entering the valley.

Road construction was also a constant presence, as the workers tried to push the jeep road up a seemingly impossible canyon. Their approach seems to be to brutally blast away any outcroppings in their way, which will leave an unsightly and unstable slope ready to slide across the road with every monsoon. We had to hold up for a few minutes while they set off a huge explosion across the valley. At other locations, they use a combination of power and hand tools, with an army of workers to throw rocks down the slope. Mules walk calmly past the jackhammers.

Sure enough, it began to rain a little after lunch, first on the mountaintops, then a few drops on the train, and then more steady rain. By the time we reached our stopping place in the middle of the afternoon, our jackets were soaked, more from sweat on the inside than from the rain.

We spent the night in a town called Tal, which took its name from the lake that used to fill the wide valley. The lake is gone but a wide, braided river remains on the broad gravel floor.

Day 3 – Nov 13 – Around to corner into the glacial valley

We were hoping for better weather, but it was still cloudy with drops of rain in the morning. We arranged plastic bags as pack covers so that our stuff would be better protected, and we set off.

The morning’s scenery was a continuation of the previous day’s deep canyon cutting northward through the mountains. More waterfalls fed the main river. More road construction created detours and blemishes on the landscape.

As usual, we had lunch in a teahouse along the trail. The menus and prices are fixed by the local tourism councils, who train the restaurants on how to cook for Western stomachs. Some dishes are more successful than others. We made the mistake of ordering lasagna today. The result was an overly salty pile of pasty noodles that resembled Chinese stir-fry more than pasta.

After lunch, the trail turned a corner and began following the east-west valley that will take us all the way to Manang and the pass beyond. This valley has the broader shape of glacial formation, and the wide trail is an easy uphill on what will eventually become the road. We stopped in the mid-afternoon in a town called Donaqyu – another easy day.

The weather was also improving. The rain stopped just after lunch, and by mid-afternoon there were rays of sun. Stars appeared in the evening, so we are hoping for a good day tomorrow.

Day 4 – Nov 14 – Continuing clouds

Today was a short day climbing about 500 meters to the district capital Chame. Aggressive hikers combine this with the previous day, but that makes for a very long day. We are slow hikers and we hope we left the really long days behind in Dolpo.

The weather was better but still cloudy. We could at last see most of the mountains overlooking the valley, but the highest peaks were still in the clouds. That was a shame because we are now getting to the place where we are getting our first good views of Annapurna II and other great mountains. We hope the weather continues to clear.

Along the way we passed a 32 kilowatt micro hydro generator. A number of towns in the Annapurna area have used tourist money to build such projects, which provide local power for lights and other appliances. This is a dramatic change from Dolpo, where the only electricity was from solar panels on top of a house.

Chame was relatively upscale in its accommodations. We had our own little cottage and quite a nice restaurant. There was internet access, although their advertisement of broadband speed was a little excessive. Hot showers, however, were not an option since the solar water heaters had gone for so many days without sun.

Day 5 – Nov 15 – The glacial valley

Today was another gradual climb uphill toward Manang. Sonam had us start early because it was to be a longer day, but we made faster progress than he expected. Although we are still walking slowly compared with the twenty-something trekkers, we have clearly developed some strength and endurance in our previous trip.

The gorge became quickly narrow just above Chame. At first it was steep cliffs with a gorge cut by rivers into the looser soil below. But after our early lunch, the next bend revealed a huge, glacier-polished slope more than 1500 meters (5000 feet) high. Formed from a single piece of granite, this was a testament to the power of the glaciers that must have once flowed down this east-west valley.

The weather was still not cooperating. Although we got some sun and fleeting glimpses of Annapurna II in the morning, the clouds soon lowered and spit a few drops of rain. The Annapurna range tends to get more weather because it has no front range to protect it from the moist air rising from the Indian plains, but it is not normal to have 5 straight days of clouds in November. We can only hope that it’s not dropping more snow on the pass, which already has a 30 centimeters from the previous storm.

We spent the night in Lower Pisang. The books suggest going across the river to the better views of the upper town, but the lodges there are more primitive and we will only take the high trail if it is good weather in the morning.

At dinnertime, the locals were watching a violent gangster movie on the satellite television, so I escaped to my equally horrifying book about the twists and turns of Nepalese politics and revolutions. It is sad to think that the people living in this beautiful place are subject to such a failed political system that lurches from crisis to crisis under people more interested in winning personal power, money or ideology than in helping their suffering country.

Day 6 – Nov 16 – Up to Manang

Weather was still cloudy when we woke up, so we decided to take the easier lower route. The upper route would have given better views, but clouds look the same from every perspective.

The walk followed the wide Manang valley, so a lot of it was as flat as any trail we’ve seen in Nepal. The forest was mostly pines, so we sometimes thought we were walking in the Sierras.

We had lunch next to the airport, which was humming with flights carrying out groups that had given up trying to cross the pass after the snowstorm. That had us a bit worried, but we soon got word that at least some groups had gotten through.

We arrived in Manang around 2pm after a few more hours’ easy walk uphill. Manang is quite a trekking center, since people normally spend two nights here for acclimatization. Our hotel is three stories high and has great food including yak steaks and oven-baked pizzas. It’s also one of the more expensive places in Nepal.

Most of the conversation at other tables centered around the dangers of altitude sickness and the 5400-meter pass we will be crossing. Most of the young Europeans on this circuit haven’t been much above 3000 meters. For us it’s old hat, though we are still acclimatizing as if this were our first trip, since medical authorities say we may have lost most of our previous acclimatization in the two weeks since we returned from Dolpo.

Day 7 – Nov 17 – Rest day in Manang

Our acclimatization day in Manang was to be devoted to one or two shorter hikes around the town. Being active helps acclimatization as long as one doesn’t push it to the point of exhaustion or illness.

We were also starting to get some better weather. At daybreak at least half of the sky was clear and we could get fleeting glimpses of the summits of Annapurna. On previous days it had clouded up by mid-morning, so we agreed to hike on the north side first to take advantage of the views while they were there.

First, however, I had to treat myself for diarrhea, which had been coming on for days and started in earnest in the night. I began taking Cipro immediately since more than 80% of such cases are e. coli infections, but even Cipro takes about half a day to really kill the cause. In the mean time, the only choice is to make multiple trips to the bathroom, which is not pleasant with Nepali toilets.

Despite all that, we got started uphill a little after 10:00. Our first destination was Praken Gompa, a small mountain monastery about 400 meters up the north side of the valley. It was a pretty steep climb and I was slowed by my illness, but we all finally made it up the hill. The monastery was inhabited only by Lama Tashi and his wife. Lama Tashi is 93 years old and he keeps himself busy giving blessings to travelers who came up the hill. We each went through the ceremony, which consisted of eating a few grains of blessed holy food and oil, and then having Lama Tashi touch our heads with an old book of sutras. Lama Tashi then dexterously tied a small ribbon around our necks, which we were to wear at least over the pass. In response to our questions, he explained that he was now the oldest person in the Manang Valley and he stopped going down the hill to town a few years ago when his legs got too weak. Marcia later spoke with a town health worker who had needed to climb up a few times to treat Lama Tashi – a long way for a house call.

We returned to the hotel for a late lunch, after which Marcia decided she had had enough walking for the day. My medicine was now working, so I went on a short walk across the valley to see the Ganggapurna glacier and the green lake at its toe. Most people go up to a viewpoint with a tea shop, but it was getting cold and I could get just as good a view by scrambling to the top of a moraine partway up. So I took some pictures and headed back to town, stopping at the small Manang Culture Museum to admire some festival masks on the way back to the hotel.

Day 8 – Nov 18 – Leaving the Manang valley

We left Manang this morning and began heading toward the pass.

The weather was sunny except for the banner clouds formed by the jet stream blowing across the highest summits at maybe 200 kilometers per hour. We felt fortunate that the storm had cleared just as we were beginning the most spectacular and difficult part of the trip. Earlier groups had crossed the pass in clouds or worse.

Today’s climb was a reasonable 400 meters, prolonged only by my constant stops to take pictures of Annapurna II, III, IV, Ganggapurna, the Great Barrier, and Tilicho Peak, which were all laid out in increasing grandeur as we climbed. The trail left the Manang Valley and headed north towards Thorong La pass, which we will cross in two or three days. By the end of the day we could see the pass and the two large mountains on either side.

Just before our stopping place, we saw the first yaks of this trek. They were no surprise to us but a big thrill for the first-time travelers. One woman told us she had been waiting all her life to see a yak.

We read books for the rest of the afternoon and listened to the talk of others in our hotel. One rather tiresome Canadian was telling everyone about how he had flown into Manang and was hoping to do the pass in another two days, his dream since an earlier trip when he had needed to turn back because of altitude sickness. Judging from his labored breathing and overly aggressive schedule, he was well on the way to the hospital again, and he was committing the big mistake of traveling alone. I hope he makes it to the top, but if he doesn’t, he will have endangered not just himself but also the other people who will need to help him get down.