Monday, May 28, 2012

Its All Up From Here- Annapurna Circuit

From Ice Lake

The Annapurna circuit is a grueling 12-21 day, 220 Km (130 mile) hike around the Annapurna Mountain Range. Along the way you stay in small villages sleeping in tea houses that can cost anywhere from zero to $7 a night depending on the season and the location. The food is very eclectic and range from pizza to the Nepali staple of Dal Baat.

Spring time means lots of baby animals
The rule of thumb is as you go higher and escape to more remote villages, the higher the prices are for both food and lodging. The following is a description of my Annapurna Circuit experiences during low season (May 2012).

On the circuit expect squat toilets, cold bucket showers and both hot and cold weather. Key items to take are sunglasses, warm hat, sunscreen, headlamp, sleeping bag, water purification system, gloves, good boots and a camera.

Day 1 Pokarah to Jagat

We started off the day taking an early morning (6:30am) bus from the city of Pokarah to Besisahar. This costs 400 NPR ($4.70) and took about 4 hours. From Besisahar we took a jeep to the city of Syange. This costs 500NPR ($6) and took about 2.5 hours. This saved us a whole day of walking.

One of many waterfalls
We arrived at Syange at around 3pm. We decided to walk 1 hour to Jagat since it was still early. It began to rain as we trekked but we had rain jackets and rain covers for our backpacks. We arrived in Jagat at 4pm.

Since its low season we stayed in a guest house in Jagat for free as long as we ate dinner and breakfast.

The weather in Jagat is very warm and humid during the day and stormy in the evening and night. Jagat is situated by the river surrounded by lush tropical forest. The village is at an elevation of 1300 meters (4,400 ft).

Bottle of Water = 80 NPR (vs normal Pokara price 20 NPR)
Milk Tea= 40 NPR

Day 2 Jagat to Dharapani

The total time for this hike was 6.5 hours including an hour break its 15 Km.
We started out the door at 7:20am. Its a steep and exposed climb up to Tal where we took a break to visit the waterfall. In this area there is a small bush that if touches will leave you a burning sensation for a couple hours on the skin. This is a short green bush with bumpy/spiky leaves.

From Tal to Dharapani we took side trails that led us up steep stairs through ghost towns. At one point we had to walk through a waterfall that fell right into the trail. The water was very cold.
In Dharapani we received free lodging with dinner and breakfast.

Dharapani is situated along a strong river. Its separated into two parts one on the left and the other on the right side of the rushing river. Watch out for fist sized spiders. They are everywhere. I found one on the curtain in the dinning room and one on the bathroom door (I decided to trek an extra 30 meters to another toilet). They are black and hairy. They have bottle cap sized bodies and long hairy legs. Not a fan of spiders.

Dharapani is at an elevation of 1860 meters (6,100 ft).
Pancake with Jam= 180 NPR
Black Tea = 35NPR

Day 3 Dharapani to Chame

This day took approximately 5 1/2 hours over 16 km. We stared out in the early morning. Its a steep climb up to Thanchok where we stopped for lunch. From Thanchok its flat and down to Chame. Again we received free accommodation with food.


Chame has internet serviced which you can haggle for. The temperature drops significantly in Chame. The village is located at 2670 meters (8,760 ft) and often the power is shut off at 7pm.

In Chame you can find internet, during low season they are willing to negotiate over the price.

Veg momo's = 200NPR
Black tea = 35NPR
Porridge with apples = 225 NPR

Day 4 Chame to Upper Pisang
This day was approximately 14.5 Km hike. Its all uphill to Upper Pisang, with many wood and metal bridge crossings, nice walk through pine forest and excellent views of the Annapurna Mountain Range.

Sitting at the monistary in Upper Pisang
Upper Pisang is 3300 meters (10,830 ft) in elevation. It has beautiful views of the Annapurnas. Its the starting point for the upper route to Manang. Its situated on the side of a mountain and is all stairs.

At the top of the village is a cute monastery looking over the mountains. Here you can sign in. If you hike the circuit and visit the monastery look for my entry on the 16th of May 2012.

Again we stayed free with dinner and breakfast. The lodge has amazing views of the snow covered mountains from every room.

Bottle of water = 180NPR
Black tea = 45 NPR
Porridge = 250 NPR

Suspension bridge
Day 5 Upper Pisang to Manang
This was one of the hardest days. Usually this part of the hike is done in two days but we were feeling exhilarated by the beautiful views. Its over 20 km and took about 8 hours including a one hour lunch break. This route is said to help with acclimatization since you climb high and sleep low.

View from the tea house in Upper Pisang
It starts with an intense switchback climb of 370 meters (1200 ft) in less than an hour to Ghyaru with an elevation of 3730 meters (12,240 ft). Before the climb you can see the monastery village perched up on the mountain side, which is very intimidating, but as you climb the views just keep getting better which helps fuel the climb to the top.

On the elevation map we recieved before trekking it looks like its all downhill or flat to Ngawal. This is very misleading. From Ghyaru to Ngawal its uphill for the first half then begins to descend to Ngawal.

At Ngawal which is at 3680 meters (12,070ft) we took a lunch break and relaxed in the sun.
The hike from Ngawal to Bhaga is all downhill, its then another 100 meter climb to Manang. The hike seemed like it was never going to end.

On the way to Ngawal
Manang is a huge village and has many facilities for trekkers. Its one of the cheapest towns to buy snacks and gear. It has medical services and free information session about mountain sickness at 3pm everyday. It has many bakery where you can purchase chocolate croissants and apple crumbles for reasonable prices.

Manang has an elevation of 3540 meters (11,600 ft) and is situated in a wide valley. Its surrounded by terraces for farming and green hills. Again we received free accommodation as long as we ate dinner and breakfast.

Popcorn = 120 NPR

Day 6 Rest Day

Rest Day... yeah right. Its recommended to take a rest day in Manang to acclimate to the altitude. They have a list of recommended hikes in the area to help with acclimatization. We decided to pick the hardest and longest one : Ice Lake.

Views from Ice Lake
The hike was 1200 meter climb from Bhraka (30min walk from Manang). Its all steep switchbacks. There are many false tops as you increase in elevation. It took about 3.5 hours to reach the lake which is at 4600 meters (15,090 ft) in elevation. Its a small lake between mountains. The lake itself was nothing amazing but the views from the lake toward the Annapurna Mountains triggered impromp to singing of "The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music". It was also the first day that we saw yaks.

I began to feel some symptoms of the elevation. It was just a minor headache that went away as soon as I descended back to Manang. Just to be safe I started taking 1/2 a pill of Diamox twice a day.

Soccer (football) field in Manang
If you have knee problems, like me, I would recommend wearing a knee brace since the descent is very steep and gravelly.

We spent one more night in Manang.

Knee Brace = 250NPR
Snickers = 80 NPR
Bottle of Water = 90 NPR
Apple Crumble = 90 NPR
Veg noodle soup = 250 NPR

Day 7 Manang to Tilicho Base Camp

This is a dangerous and grueling hike from Manang to TBC. It starts out with a climb to Khangsar. You then climb again to Shree Karka which is about half way to TBC, which is where we took lunch. From Shree Karka you cross a metal suspension bridge to one of the steepest climbs of the whole trip where you have to crawl and hold onto the rocks not to fall off the cliff. From there its a short hike to one of the most dangerous trails I have ever hiked.

Before you set off through the landslide area, there is a wonderful sign warning you about the next two hour section of trail with a small drawing of falling rocks.

You follow a narrow trail along the landslide area. Its a 60 degree angle straight to the river below. Perched above you are lose rocks some the size of cars waiting for a trekker to come by and disturb them. Many parts of the trail are only wide enough for one foot and on a couple parts the pebbles under foot are as soft as fresh snow. Its a long slide to the bottom if you lose your footing. Poles can help a bunch in this part just to give you a little confidence.

One girl we met along the way told us that she was glad to find a group to trek to TBC with just in case she fell she would have someone to report her to the officials. It was very nerve racking to both look out for falling rocks and be cautious not to fall. After passing through the landslide area there is a sign saying "Thanks." Thanks for what? Not dying?

Landslide area
TBC is a shabby two guest houses owned by friends. This was the first night I had to pay for lodging. It was 50 NPR per person. Also the food was very expensive.

TBC is at an elevation of 4150 meters(13,600 ft). Its freezing cold at night so if you don't have a warm sleeping bag ask for a blanket. It drops below freezing at night and often snows at this elevation.

Potato steamed momo's = 305 NPR
Black tea = 50 NPR

Day 8 Tilicho Lake

Its a 800 meter (2625 ft) climb to the lake from TBC, through landslide area, switchbacks and snow. We started off at 6:45am.

It starts out as a gradual climb, but halfway you run into a 300 meter climb with switch backs. You then begin to trek through ankle deep snow to Tilicho Lake. Sunglasses are necessary and poles help you keep your balance in the soft snow.

On the way to Tilicho
Tilicho Tal (tal is lake in Nepali) is said to be te highest lake in the world at an elevation of 4919 meters (16,138 ft). The lake in this season is frozen and covered with snow. Only the outline of the lake is visible. We had a snack and photo shoot at the lake, which is surrounded  by majestic mountains covered in new snow.

It took 3 hours to reach the lake and took 1.5 hours to descended back to base camp. We had lunch at base camp before setting off back through the landslide area to Shree Kharka.

The second time through the landslide area was much easier. We were more confidant and sure footed which made it go by faster. We arrived in Shree Kharka (4050 meters/13,300 ft) at 4:30.
It was free lodging with food. I would recommend the pizza, its especially good in Shree Kharka, and fairly cheap compared to the price of other dishes.

Tilicho Lake- highest lake in the world
Day 9 Shree Kharka to Letdar

We started off to Letdar at 7:20am. There is a shortcut to Yak Kharka from Shree Kharka. This saves you 2 hours with trekking, but it can get a bit confusing.

There is a clear sign for the trail near the monastery in Shree Kharka. The sign says "Yak Kharka Seasonal Trail". You ascend to a small hilltop village that seems desolate other than a few grazing cows. Here the trail forks, there are no clear signs for the shortcut to Yak Kharka. Take the right trail that circles around the fields along the rock wall heading East.

After passing the fields you begin to ascend to a peak where you have a great view of Manang and Yak Kharka. You then begin to descended to the river, across you can see the main trail heading from Manang to Yak Kharka.

Ghost town on the way to Yak Kharka
After descending to the river you cross a bridge to encounter another fork. Take the right trail to meet up with the main road. We took the left trail thinking it would save us time. It had us cross country trekking up a steep hill (200 meters) back to the main trail through brush and goat trails.

Its an hour to Yak Kharka, from when you hit the main trail, where we stopped for lunch. When we arrived it seemed to be some kind of gambling festival. Everyone was huddles into circles betting on some weird board game. They were so enthralled with the game that it was hard to find people to serve us lunch or sell us candy.

We walked another 30 mins to Letdar which has an elevation of 4200 meters 13,780ft. It was 50 NPR for the room as long as we ate dinner and breakfast. That evening it began to snow. It was one of our coldest nights of the trip.

Day 10 Letdar to High Camp
Its a gradual climb from Letdar to Throng Phedi where most people stop before crossing Throng La Pass). Along the way you reach a fork in the road, one leading to a metal suspension bridge the other up a mountain. Make sure to go left and cross the bridge.

This is an amazing place to see eagles with 2 meter (6ft) wing-spans soar right over your head.
From Throng Phedi its a steep grueling climb to High Camp, but its totally worth it. You will be gratefull the next day not to have an extra hour of climbing to the pass.

My rock pyramid
High Camp has only one lodge so theres no negotiating. Its at an elevation of 4900 meters, so if you are concerned about altitude sickness then its better to stay in Throng Phedi, but be ready for an extra 400 meters (1300 ft) of climbing in the morning. A room costs 350 NPR in low season, but the food is amazing and the views are spectacular. There is a short 10 min climb to a vista point above the lodge. Here you can build yourself a little rock pyramid, its bad luck to break them so if your lucky the next time you trek the AC you might find yours still standing.

Noodle soup = 210 NPR

Day 11 High Camp to Jharkot - Throng La Pass

Its recommend to wake up early so that you can reach the pass when its still clear out. The climb up to the pass is fairly gradual but it feels like you are trekking for ages. It is said that it takes 3-4 hours to get to the pass from High Camp. It took me 2 hours and 15 mins, which surprised me.

My toes and nose were freezing. It is recommended to take a scarf and wear two socks. There is not much snow but be careful with the ice that is on the path. Its very slippery and on many occasions people would slip and fall on the ice so watch your step.

We did it!!!

It was so exhilerating to see the pass. The stone mounds with hundreds of pray flags twisting around and between them. We spent an hour at the pass taking photos and enjoying our accomplishment. The pass is 5416 meters (17,769 ft)

Its another 3 hours downhill to Muktina. We decided to take an hour break for lunch in Charbaru a small town before Muktina, and much more peaceful. We then headed through Muktina, onto Jharkot. Muktina is a huge town in the middle of the dessert. It is very dry and smoggy and not pleasant to stay in. The only thing worth checking out is the Bob Marley Hotel, where supposedly Bob Marley stayed.

Jharkot is a small village perched above a river at 3550 meters (11,650ft) in elevation. It has an old ruined fort which, as I found after walking around, is not accessible. On this side of the pass lodging is not free. This could be due to the fact that these villages are accessible by plane and jeep, so there are many more tourists in this region, even during off season.

It was 200 NPR for a double room in Jharkot looking over the wheat fields and the fort. It was an excellent place to relax and enjoy your accomplishments. I ordered the vegetable burrito at the lodge, 350 NPR, it was huge and served on a sizzling plater. It was more Nepali style than Mexican, but it was still excellent.
Kids in Jharkot helping me wash laundry

Day 12 Jharkot to Tukuche

This day was by far the longest. It was a long 30 km hike both on trail and jeep road. It was almost all flat and down but it seemed to never end.

Its recommended for this part of the trek to have a dusk mask or scarf to protect from the dust kicked up by the jeeps and buses. Its very dry in this area but glimpses of the snow covered mountains can be seen over the dry dusty dessert hills.

Heating water for tea
We decided to have lunch in Johmson which was a 3 1/2 hour walk from Jharkot. Johmsom is the biggest city on the route. It has internet access, and airport, bus station and much more amenities that are not available on the rest of the trek.

We continued on until Tukuche, which was another four hours. Tukuche, at 2590 meters (8,500 ft), was a cute and inviting village. Everyone is very nice and inviting. We stayed at Tukche Guesthouse and Bakery. It was a beautiful little guesthouse with hot showers and rooms on the roof looking over the mountains. It was 200 NPR a night for a cozy room with an excellent view.

Egg chowmein = 370NPR
Apple pie with custard 250NPR

Day 13 Tukuche to Datopani

From here you can walk almost the whole way to Ghasa on side trails, avoiding the dusty jeep roads. We walked to Lete for lunch. It was 7 hour 18 km hike to Ghasa from Tukuche.

Ghasa is a small town with a couple guest houses. You can get as low as 100 NPR for a nice room.
Here is where I began to feel a little sick, so I took a jeep (500NPR) to Datopani. Datopani is known for its hot springs (50NPR) which are nice after a long trek. We negociated 50 NPR for a room.

There were spiders everywhere in my room. They were huge with a leg span the size of a baseball. They were huge hairy and black. It was the worst sleep I had all trip. I zipped myself into my sleeping bag covering every inch of my body except for my nose. I kept waking up thinking about how many spiders where in my room.

I had two guys in my group kill two huge spiders in my room. Another one got away when a friend tried to kill it.

Day 14 Datopani to Pokhara

The next day we hopped on another jeep from Datopani to Beni which costed 500 NPR. Its a three hour journey on some very narrow and scary dirt and rock roads. In Beni we caught a bus to Pokarah for 550 NPR. Its a four to five hour drive from Beni to Pokarah but the roads are much smoother.

Accommodation in Shree Kharka
  • Always ask for directions and time estimates. The locals are very knowledgeable about locations. On the other hand take their estimates and descriptions with a grain of salt. If a Nepali tells you its flat (Nepali Flat) then expect many ups and downs but very low net elevation gain. Many of the locals speak little English, so always get second opinions. At one moment we were hiking and asked two locals pulling a water buffalo how long to the next city. One said 5 mins the other at the same time said 30 mins. 
  • Bring snacks to last you to Manang where you can buy cheap snacks for the rest of your trip.
  • Never go with a tour agency during low season. Its easy to get free lodging and travel cheap on your own, even though many travel agents will try to tell you otherwise. The trails are easy to follow and even in low season you are never trekking alone. 
  • Put on sunscreen. At high elevations and snow, even on cloudy days, its very easy to get sunburned. 
  • Always ask if you are going to take a pictures of local people.
  • Have fun.

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