Niki and I arrived in Kathmandu and were on the go pretty much non-stop from the moment our bus dropped us off. We ate a delicious dinner of pizza and wine for me and beer for Niki. The next day, we woke up and had a really great breakfast then met up with Dean, my former co-worker from Cushman and Wakefield. The 3 of us set off to get our permits for hiking the Annapurna Circuit before rushing back to meet my sister, Erica. We also met up with two of my high school friend Claudine’s friends, Heather and Maika. They were awesome and took us around shopping. Kathmandu is like heaven to me – it’s like REI on steroids – I literally want to shop in every single store. There are knock-off Patagonia, North Face, Mountain Hardware, etc, etc, etc clothing everywhere. Heather’s been living in Kathmandu for 7 years and took us to a good shop where we got some really good discounts. I spent about $150 USD and got hiking poles, a down sleeping bag, a down jacket, zip-off hiking pants, sunglasses, thermals, a couple of shirts, a fleece, hat and gloves. It was a very exciting shopping expedition!
We ran some more errands – like my camera lens wouldn’t retract, so I had to have that repaired and bought toiletries and other sundries for our hike. We had dinner, stopped by a bar briefly and then rearranged our packs for our hike. The next day, after a somewhat of a slow start, we took at 6-ish hour bus ride to Besi Sahar, the start of the Annapurna Circuit. The bus ride went through some amazing scenery – the white-capped Himalyas with the rice terracing in the foreground is just absolutely breath-taking and most definitely awe-inspiring. We made it to Besi Sahar, showered, ate and went to bed. The next day, we were up early to start our hike!
The Annapurna Circuit is famed for being one of the world’s hiking crown jewels – if you google world’s best hikes, it’s always high on the list, if not at the top. Doing this hike was what I built my entire trip around, so naturally, I was very excited for this portion of my trip. It’s about 250km (roughly 130-150 miles) and starts off at 790m above sea level to the highest point, Throng-La at 5416m (17,769 ft), which is one of the world’s highest walkable passes. Each day promises to get better and better.
Day 1: We hiked from Besi Sahar (820m) to Ngadi where we had lunch by the riverside. In the afternoon, we made it to Ghermu (1130m), where we had our first meal of dal bhat – traditional Nepali food (rice, lentils, potatoes and chard or collard greens – I’m not really sure… some green vegetable). The day was long, but the hike not too difficult and the views pretty impressive as you could see the white mountains far in the background. At one point along the way, a little boy in a village that I was passing came out and ran next to me, clinging to my legs. Then, his half-naked brother came and we held both boys – just adorable!
Day 2: We hiked from Ghermu (1130m) to Chamche where we had lunch overlooking a stunning waterfall. The views today were slightly less-impressive in my opinion, if only because the white-capped mountains were hidden. We then stopped in the town of Tal for the night.
Day 3: We hiked from Tal (1600m) to Dharpani for lunch and then to Timang (2350m) for the night. The last hour and a half was a really steep ascent, and the altitude of Timang is 2350m, so we can start to feel the altitude ever so slightly. Basically, walking uphill is slightly more of struggle as our bodies require the same amount of oxygen from the oxygen-deprived air. It’s hard to believe that we’re at roughly 7,000 ft and that we have over 10,000 ft more of elevation to gain! The locals here are noticeably more Tibetan in their facial features.
Day 4: We had a short day – basically a rest day. We hiked for about 2.5 hours to Chame, which is quite developed! There are even a few internet cafes (which we’re not using). Shops sell all the clothing a hiker could need. We arrived before lunch, did a bunch of laundry, went to check out some disappointing hot springs and spent the rest of the afternoon reading and napping.
Day 5: We hiked from Chame (2670m) to Lower Pisang (3250m) and it started raining, which was unfortunate on the one hand as our views weren’t as spectacular as they might have otherwise been, but there was this one point where the low-hanging clouds formed a line against a beautiful huge, nearly vertical, slab of rock, and by huge, I mean a couple hundred meters long and tall. We met a guy named Mat from Brooklyn who ended up hiking with our group for the rest of the hike. We also hiked a bit with a feisty British couple, Tana and Graham, who had been traveling for the past 13 years! Tana was even egging her husband on to get it on on the trail! Apparently when she was 16, she first saw Graham and before even talking to him, told her mother that she had met the man she would marry. Shortly thereafter, they went on their first date, got engaged on that same date and also on that date planned to marry 2 years later, have a boy 2 years after that and then a girl 2 years after that and after a life of raising children they would travel the world. They had quite the prophetic first date. We enjoyed an evening around the fire with them.
Day 6: We hiked from Lower Pisang (3250m) to Manang via the Upper Pisang route. This took nearly twice as long as if we had just walked along the lower route, which closely followed the river. I am SO glad that we made this decision as it turned out to be the most amazing views of the entire hike in my opinion. I literally have never seen anything more spectacular in my life. Every vista was more amazing than the first and as the sun shifted in the sky, the views seemed even more stunning than a minute before. When we finally rested for lunch, the five of us couldn’t talk about much else other than how stunning the sight before us was. After a few more hours of hiking, we finally made it to Manang (3540m), which was so exciting as Manang is the town where everyone takes a rest day to help with acclimatization.
Day 7: We took a welcomed rest day in Manang. It was nice to sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast since my sister, Niki and I weren’t exactly notorious for our timeliness in the morning, much to the chagrin (I’m sure) of Dean and Mat. We did a practice hike, as the advice with altitude is to climb high and sleep low, so we hiked to a nearby glacier. Then we went to an informative talk about altitude and then we went to the “movie theater”! We saw Into Thin Air, the movie based upon the Jon Krakauer book. Halfway through the movie, they brought out tea and popcorn. It was cozy and really fun to watch a movie (even though it’s a horrible movie and you should read the book in lieu of watching the movie) so high up in the mountains. The greatest thing about Manang is that we discovered a drink that is AMAZING – seabuckthorn juice. Seabuckthorn grows in the high Himalayas and some other parts of the world and is one of the highest anti-oxidant berry in the world. The juice from this thing is perhaps some of the best juice I’ve ever had in my life – it’s absolutely delicious.
Day 8: Today was a short day as we hiked just a few hours from Manang to Yak Kharka (4000m). I was super excited as I saw my first yaks today. I know these are the Himalayan beasts of burden and I’ve seen them plenty on the Discovery Channel and Planet Earth, but it was nice to see them in person. They sometimes look like a combination of buffalo, cattle and a bear to me. We got to Yak Kharka around noon and had lunch. The rest of the afternoon was spent either napping, reading, or hanging out around the fireplace (the place is heated with a yak dung fire). We met a great couple from NYC, Allan and Nicole, a pair of friends from Colorado, Keith and Diane, and Sean, an Australian. The environment was communal and warm and I think we all enjoyed our various conversations that night.
Day 9: We had another short day as we hiked from Yak Kharka to Thorong Phedi (4450m). The past two days were so short as it’s advised that you only climb a few hundred meters (for sleeping) once you get above a certain elevation. We hiked the entire day in snow, are well above the tree line, and at about 14,600 feet, this is the highest I’ve ever been in my life to date and definitely the highest elevation I’ve ever slept at. Our day was spent indoors once again. A large group of us huddled around a table, had various conversations, played cards, ate a lot and drank a lot of water as we tried to stay hydrated. It was utterly freezing outside though and actually snowed most of the late afternoon/evening. As a result, we were worried about what the conditions would be like for our climb over Throng-La the next day. I think our night at Thorong Phedi was the coldest night of my life – thank God for down!
Day 10: We woke up at 4am for our summit bid, err, our climb over the pass. We started hiking a bit after 5 and seeing the stars (yes, we had clear weather – phew!) disappear as the early morning light started to crest over the mountain tops was stunning. The first hour was dominated by silence and the slow steady pace of putting one cold foot in front of the other. We stopped for tea and the continued on our way. After about 2 or so more hours of hiking, we finally made it to the pass! It’s amazing how hard breathing is up this high. At one point, there were 4 men walking excruciatingly slowly in front of me – now, I was walking slowly too, don’t get me wrong, but they were just unbearably slow. Erica, Niki and I all made a move to pass them, but had to walk off the trodden snow and picked up the pace to pass them. Doing this literally took all my energy, because as soon as we passed them, we had to stop to put our hands on our knees and catch our breath – the tiniest act takes much more effort. At this height (5416m, or 17,769 feet), the amount of oxygen in the air is 50% of what it is at sea level.
Dean, Niki, Erica, Mat and I all celebrated our arrival at the pass with hugs and high-5s and plenty of photos. It might sound silly, but reaching the top is a pretty emotional ordeal. I mean, we’d been so focused on getting there for the past 10 days and to finally reach it – carrying all of our own stuff and with our own two legs is a really satisfying feeling. I had thought I might have to get a porter to help me for the last few days near the pass, but I’m really happy that I was able to do it without one. After spending some time at the top, we began the LONG ascent down to Muktinath (3800m). On the descent, I started getting a pounding headache – one of the symptoms of altitude, no doubt. The landscape pretty quickly changed from a snow-covered mountain top terrain to high-altitude dessert. It’s amazing how you can wake up in the morning and trudge through snow and end the day after hours of walking through a desert.
I’ll write about the next half of the Circuit in my next blog entry.