The Annapurna Circuit Trek — Skylight to Another Dimension
Updated: May 5, 2019
I want to go ahead and acknowledge something right from the get-go: these were the most magnificent mountains I have ever seen. Now I wouldn't call myself a mountain expert, but I´ve seen my fair share of impressive ranges — The Rockies, Cascades, Sierra Nevada, Greens, Smokies, Blue Ridge, Andes, Pyrenees, Rifs… They all dim in comparison to the mighty Himalaya. The Himalaya are known to many as the roof of the world, but I prefer to think of them as a skylight to another dimension.
The Annapurna Circuit Trek is one of the most iconic hikes on the planet, circumventing the giant Annapurna peaks that loom on guard at 8000+ meters. Throughout the walk—which took me 13 days — they periodically come in and out of view, like silent watchers. Their immensity and gravitation pull compels you to circle them like the planets circle the sun.
Thanks to a friend´s recommendation and connection, I hired a guide for this trip at $25 a day. Although this goes against my usual preferences as a budget traveler, I can easily say it was worth the cost. Bikram gave me a glimpse into a Nepali world that I otherwise would have been shut off from, and made the trek logistics as seamless as possible. Plus, he carried my backpack, which I was not expecting, but which also proved to be an incredible luxury (although my ego felt a bit bruised at the beginning of the trek when we swiftly passed other groups of travelers struggling with their loads).
Bikram met me in Kathmandu, and took me to a guest house minutes from one of the central attractions in town, the giant Bodhanath stupa. As we joined the crowds circling the stupa, we got to know each other, and I started to become excited for the trek. He helped me buy some knockoff supplies— gloves, waterproof ‘NorthFace’ jacket, socks — and I ended the night with a plate of momos (Nepal’s national dumpling) dreaming of yetis, snow and altitude.
Bright and early at 6am the next morning we started in a minibus for Besishahar, the main launching point for the Circuit Trek. While the 5 hour bus ride from Kathmandu was a picturesque meander through the Himalayan foothills, it ended abruptly when we were unceremoniously dumped into the middle of Besishahar town, full of Goretex-clad tourists sporting giant backpacks and new hiking shoes. Bikram got some documents stamped, wrangled a jeep in town, and we found ourselves once-again climbing up and up and up, to where we would start the trek, the town of Syange.
Here we began the ascent into another world, leaving the worries and connection with modernization behind. All we had to do was walk and eat and sleep. For someone like me who loves simplicity and calm and one-pointedness, this was paradise. After a couple of days on the trail, the trip started to turn into a time warp. I couldn’t differentiate one day from another, because they were all so similar in terms of schedule.
The days went something like this — I would wake around 6:30, meditate for 45 minutes, and then pack my bag. I would have breakfast in the dining room of the tea house at 7:30, usually a local porridge with fruit, plus a black tea. We would then start walking at 8:00, the trail a continuous gradual climb at most points, only turning very steep when we needed to cross over a peak or ridge line. For the first 4 or 5 days, the trail would sometimes be on a small road that connected the villages, so when we walked on it we would be passed by white jeeps carrying villagers or people jostling around on motorbikes. Sometimes we would also encounter people riding up the way on horses, or shepherds or goatherds tending their flocks. Walking on the road wasn’t that bad (although when a fast jeep passes you by, you do get a mouthful of dust), but when we managed to walk only on footpath, this was when the real isolation and peace began.
After hiking for about an hour, we would take a rest break, sitting in silence on the trail while other trekkers and guides passed us by. Then we would start again, taking rest every hour or so. Around noon or 1pm we would reach our destination for the day, usually a village with a small cluster of guest houses built by the locals to serve tourists. We would stroll around the village until finding accommodation that looked acceptable (although they all pretty much look the same).
These guest houses have a unique economic model. They only charge 3$ or 4$ (or sometimes nothing at all) for a private room that is usually in great condition, with incredible mountain views directly out your window. But built into this low cost is the assumption that you’ll eat at least 2 meals at their restaurant. And the price for food and drink at these restaurants is highly inflated, at least double the price of what a similar item would cost in a larger city. The justification for this is the fact that it takes a lot of resources to bring all these supplies high up into the mountains. This makes sense to me, but I also think they’re jacking up the prices just because they can, and they know that the trekkers will have no choice but to pay.
After settling into the guesthouse, I would go have lunch at their restaurant. Lunch would be veg chow mein or veg fried rice, served in a heaping plate and gladly scarfed down after the day of strenuous climbing. Also with lunch, a cup of sugary black tea. After lunch, Bikram and I would part ways, going to our rooms for an hour or two for an afternoon nap. We would then reconvene in the plastic tables outside the guesthouse and play guitar for a couple of hours. And yes, I brought a guitar for 4000+ meters of altitude gain and 100 + kms of walking (it was so worth it). It happens that Bikram is a really talented guitar player, the kind that forsook all of his school studies in favor of playing in his room for hours on end. And as I am just a beginner, learning simple technique, this worked out perfectly. The guitar is also a miracle at attracting other interesting travelers, and throughout the trek we had an international host of people play with us — Russian, Israeli, Canadian, Austrian, Nepali.
Of course, these days weren’t all completely the same. Each one had unique memorable moments to differentiate it from the others. During one afternoon while wandering around town, we stumbled onto a once-a-year archery competition in celebration of Nepali New Year. Men of all ages from the surrounding villages had convened on a 20 meter swatch of grass with targets at each end to compete, amidst plenty of hooting and hollering and catcalling. Some of these guys were wearing full traditional garb and had their bows ceremoniously adorned. The competition grounds were right next to a Buddhist stupa and a whole row of prayer wheels.
During other mornings while hiking we would pass huge waterfall after waterfall after waterfall, and all I could do was breathlessly say: ‘Bikram you have a beautiful country’. We would cross really lengthy suspension bridges over massive gorges, adorned with countless prayer flags. Amongst other reasons, apparently the prayer flags are placed there to protect travelers on their crossing over the bridge.
Some other unique experiences that are hard to fit into the overall narrative: Bikram’s Nepali music concert at a rest point on the top of a beautiful peak, with other trekkers snapping pictures and a giant eagle circling overhead. Walking into a full-on Nepali dance party, where a dozen porters were getting down in the middle of the trail and blasting music from their Bluetooth speaker. Wild growing cannabis plants. Wild blue sheep grazing on hills above us and perilously kicking rocks down. Stumbling into a town at the end of our trek with natural hot springs. Nepali language lessons on the trail. Naturally harvested cordyceps mushrooms preserved in bottles of vodka (I’ll have another post about this later).
Find Part II here.