The Annapurna Circuit (Part 1)

Day 1: Kathmandu to Timang

September 21st

Woke at 05:00 to take my last hot shower for at least a week and a half. Tried to savour it but the shower head is mounted at neck height, so Quasimodo’d for a few minutes until I realised it’s probably best not to invite a spinal injury before 12 days trekking.

Quickly wedged my sleeping bag into my rucksack (having already chucked away about half the weight of my pack in trinkets and souvenirs) and left the room to check out. Hotel staff here apparently sleep on the sofas in the lobby, as I had to wake a bleary-eyed man who initially though I was checking in, to mutual confusion. As I sat waiting for my guide, I was handed a packed breakfast bag that contained two cold slices of bread, an apple, and two plantains. It means I’m already three-quarters of the way through the BRAT diet which my Lonely Planet guide euphemistically says is an effective cure for ‘stomach issues’.

Himalayan foothills from a bus window

My guide – Sujan – arrived, and we hurriedly took a taxi to the main bus stop, where we boarded a vehicle about the size of a skip with about 17 other people. Tried to get my head down for a few hours but was stymied by a combination of some beautiful views down the valley, the jolting of the ride, and the driver playing interminable songs that each lasted about 20 minutes. A man with a fiddle-like instrument – with the hair of the bow trapped underneath the strings – boarded about three hours into the journey and busked until we arrived at Beshishar (820m above sea level).

Referred back to this picture a lot in the evenings, trying to figure out how exhausted I was likely to be the by the following day’s climb

Had a quick lunch in a little restaurant. There’s a few other trekkers around, though they all seem to be in groups with porters rather than solo with a guide as I am. Studied the map of the route up on the wall, and realised I have no idea of how badly the altitude is going to affect me, especially later on. In a minute, we’re heading to grab a shared jeep with some strangers up to Chame (2670m), which should take about 4 hours. Am hoping the jeep has more legroom than the bus, otherwise my spine might genuinely never recover.

That was the plan, anyway. After a few hours (including a stop at Boong Waterfall) we abruptly pulled over behind a long line of other jeeps. A landslide a few days ago has destroyed a bridge we needed to cross, so we grabbed our bags and crossed its makeshift replacement. We wandered up and around the valley, the boulders and scree from the landslide still visible in the river below, and climbed to the point where we should (in theory) be able to pick up another jeep to take us the rest of the way. At the time of writing, Sujan has disappeared to go see what’s happening and hasn’t returned for 40 minutes, which seems… ominous.

After an hour or so sat waiting, eventually a new jeep turned up. Jumped into the front with Sujan while a new group of travelling companions crammed into the back seat. They’re an old Buddhist monk who’s never off his mobile, a man in a white vest and shorts despite the rain, an old woman who never speaks, and a younger woman with a pleasant – and non-stop – laugh.

Work to repair the destroyed bridge

Presently it got dark, and my overriding impression is one of sudden sharp drops appearing through the window to scare the shit out of me, the pale streaks of waterfalls on the other side of the valley, and odd and inexplicable pulses of light in the sky.

My superstition about not writing the name of our destination until we arrive proved well-founded. Around 40 minutes before we were supposed to reach Chame, our jeep crawled up a slope of loose stones, slipping ever closer to the edge, before the driver let out an exclamation and, I think, swore a lot. A lorry had broken down and been abandoned for the night, right in the middle of the road. It was impassable, and there were a fair few jeeps crawling up the trail behind us who would eventually have to wait here too.

We disembarked, leaving the driver to sleep in the jeep for the night. I don’t envy him – it’s already freezing. We headed off up a slope, away from the road. I was the only one with a headlamp, so Sujan took the lead with his mobile’s torch dimly illuminating the path ahead while I brought up the rear. We trekked uphill in search of a village with a teahouse in which we could spend the night, passing little huts and teahouses, the lights from which would suddenly shine through the dense forest, and in each found that the rooms were either closed or were taken.

After an hour or so we finally reached Timang (2350m), of which I could see nothing but the lights behind shuttered windows. Sujan directed us to a little teahouse, where I gratefully sank my pack onto the bed in my room. It’s cold and a little moth-eaten, and there are no interior locks on the doors. The walls are made of thin wood, and there’s little insulation against the cold night outside. Glad I bought a good sleeping bag. After a look at the grey and mildewy pillows, decided to use my fleece instead.

Today was supposed to be a day of motorised travel. My main worry last night was that I’d get cramped in the bus. Now, having walked for a few hours on an impromptu first day of trekking, my fear is that I’m not going to be fit enough to complete the circuit. Am feeling the strain already. Despite that, I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when I should get my first real taste of Annapurna.

Over supper in the teahouse common room, heated by a welcome open fire, finished my BRAT diet for the day with a filling if flavourless veg curry and a mountain of rice. Will still take one of the Nepalese Immodium equivalents I picked up in Kathmandu before we set off tomorrow. At least I hope it’s Immodium, and that the pharmacist didn’t misunderstand my gestures and sell me a laxative.

Day 2: Timang to Lower Pisang

September 22nd

Slept insanely well, despite the cold creeping in. Feel rested and truly refreshed for the first time since landing in Nepal. Overslept, even; had to pack manically to be ready to leave straight after breakfast of a stodgy muesli and hot milk, washed down by Immodium(?).

Snow-capped peaks from my teahouse window

The jeep had evidently cleared the roadblock in the night, as it was waiting for us 5 minutes up the trail with our companions. Man With Vest had wisely changed into a tshirt – snow is visible on the peaks around us this morning. After a few false starts from the engine, and some good-natured ribbing of the increasingly-hassled driver from the back seat, we arrived in Chame about 9am. My guide called me a term I didn’t understand as we got out, to chuckles from the rest and an immediate fall in morale from me. Immediately assumed it’s about my baldness, though Sujan said it means ‘sir’. If I came travelling to find more confidence, I haven’t discovered it yet.

Villages like this are scattered across the Annapurna Conservation Area

Chame is arranged along the trail, with colourful teahouses lining the path. Some had their bricks painted in a chessboard fashion of alterating hues, and the effect is striking and welcoming. Sujan mentioned this was the last place we can really trust the meat to be fresh, and it has the air of a final comfort stop, with shops selling climbing equipment next to shelves of Gorkha beer (which is thick and a little sickly).

Set off uphill, through a neat little valley along the Marsadi river. It almost immediately became too hot for my fleece, so we stopped so I could undress. I’ve noticed most travellers wear plain tops, so I’m suddenly very aware of my patterned tshirts and Laika print tshirt that, combined with my rucksack, make me look like a kid on his way to nursery. More worryingly, though, last night the temperature dipped very low, and I’m concerned about how well the ‘cold weather gear’ I bought in London will fare, especially as I bought it on discount from a mountaineering shop that was going under.

These landscapes are a dream come true. Periodically I get bursts of joy at the view and feel incredibly glad to have come. Like in Mussoorie [a hill station I visited in India] vertiginous, sheer drops threaten a clumsy traveller at the edge of the trail, while soaring cliff faces rise on the other side. We passed through a sort of open cave, where the mountain had been blasted away to make the road. Between that and a narrow cable bridge that hung over white water below, this feels like the trip is all worth it already.

We passed through some beautiful orchards – this area being well known for its apple products, including an apple brandy Sujan raves about while simultaneously denying me until after the Pass – before I insisted we stop to try some fresh juice. Had a chat with a South African woman with a shaved head, who’s been travelling for 3 months and decided to do this route almost on a whim. She mentioned that she had to prove she had travel insurance to get the Annapurna Pass pass, and that her hotel back in Kathmandu was storing some belongings for cheap until she returned – which both came as a surprise to me, with my dodgy pass and 16kg bag.

A much harder second part of the trek, though I never felt like it was unmanageable. Sujan seems pleased with progress and – blood and weather permitting – we might skip a few rest days to reach Pokhara early.

A family of teahouse cats in Dhukar Pokhari

Lunch of veg momos – a sort of soft filled dumpling – in Dhukar Pokhari. Delicious food and a nice view down the valley behind us, only slightly ruined by a performative American trekker loudly and obnoxiously counting press-ups and talking bollocks right next to our table. Sujan has eaten the same thing for every meal so far, and when I asked about it he sang a jingle – ‘dal bhat power, 24 hour’. Which doesn’t answer anything, really.

Arrived in Lower Pisang (3250m) around 15:00. Dropped my gear at the tearoom – much nicer than last night – then we headed up to see the monastery in Upper Pisang. Nightmarish interlude of endless concrete steps aside, it was a fun sojourn, and should hopefully help acclimatise me to the altitude.

The monastery is incredible. It’s a replacement for a previous structure that had degraded beyond repair. Work started on the building in 1999, and residents were asked to provide monetary aid or 54 days of labour, which is more effort than I have ever put into anything. 

What it lacks in size it makes up for in colour and genial clutter, a mish-mash of items that appeals to someone raised in a C of E school with a relatively austere church. Prayer flags in the Buddhist colours of blue, white, red, green, and yellow – each representing an element (more or less) adorn the walls and pillars, while at the far end a seated golden figure regards the visitor with what could be beneficence or boredom. Carvings – tiny painted blocks, prayer wheels, and bold geometric shapes – hang from the ceiling and balcony like stalactites. At the front, incense sticks and curled-up bank notes sit in a platter like some odd plate of hors d’oeuvres.

There’s a camaraderie between travellers you encounter in villages in the evenings. Exchanged greetings and pleasantries with people of many nationalities as I walked back down, including with a French girl whose boyfriend decided to circle protectively, who I was gratified to see slip on a broken paving tile seconds later. That aside, a sense of friendly if fleeting community has been my experience the past two nights. I feel safe in these little hamlets as I rarely did anywhere in India.

The riot of teahouse colours, fuelled by the competition for custom during trekking season

Back to the cute little Tilicho Hotel teahouse. Sat in my room for a while writing up notes, reading, and relishing the opportunity to be pantsless for a while. Despite this room having some insulation it eventually got chilly, and I clambered down the steep, scary steps down to the communal dining room. Drank some black teas – without milk, as seems to be the style here – and watched the owner light the fire in the centre of the room, a huge black boiler-looking thing with a pipe that extends into the ceiling. Having lit the kindling, she helped the fire along (or possibly intimidated it into existence) by blowing loudly into a thick black reed onto the flames. I hunched over near it and read, finishing Palin’s Pole to Pole. He argues that travel is “… at its best, a process of continually conquering disbelief”, which I like. So far I’ve felt disbelief at the views, the soundscape of the valleys, and the squatter bathrooms.

Eventually warmed up with a chicken curry, which Sujan said was fine as we’d seen a flock milling around beforehand. I’d chatted earlier in the day with him about Everest (the mountain and the Keira Knightley movie) and he’d expressed a desire to climb beyond Base Camp one day. He’s taken many groups there, but he keeps getting a look in his eye that I think matches the mountain madness described in Into Thin Air and Left For Dead, where the summit exerts some inescapable pull on the people who’ve glimpsed it. We spoke about the ‘96 Disaster, and he shared his admiration for Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. Over supper I showed him the 5 dollar note from New Zealand with Hillary’s portrait, and he seemed fascinated by it, asking to see it again after he’d handed it back.

Took a walk around the village before turning in. Earlier, motionless clouds had sat, trapped, in the lee of the valley, utterly unmoving even to the ends of their curls. Now there’s nothing out there beyond the lights of Upper Pisang. As soon as night falls, everything beyond the boundary of the village disappears into ink, and you feel the distance between the settlements keenly. Some shops are still open, and I watched a trio of another group’s porters play a game that looks like Ludo through an open window for a while and drank a little of the whisky from my hip flask to stay warm. The village feels quite empty, with many unoccupied rooms in each teahouse, as the trekking season doesn’t start in earnest until the 10th of October.

Feeling positive and healthy. Sujan is now in favour of skipping the rest days at Manang and Tilicho, as he thinks I’m in good enough condition. This would put me in Tatopani (and its hot springs) in 5 or 6 days, and Pokhara on the 30th. Not 100% sure I’ll measure up, but feeling game to try.

One thing I’ve absolutely learned – both from experience and the travel journals I’ve read – is that homesickness doesn’t go away. It’s always lurking, ready to claw away at a good mood or worsen a bad one. But it’s manageable. Sometimes the sheer wonder of the scenery will chase it away, other times it’s as simple as remembering that each step is one closer to home. That whisky might have been stronger than I thought. Blame the altitude.

A few hours later I’m woken by a dog barking outside my room. It starts a spirited conversation with a friend in Upper Pisang. Evidently it’s so interesting that all the other dogs join in too. Am dreading another night like my first in Mussoorie [where I was kept up all night by a dog directly outside my room], especially before a 6 hour trek tomorrow.

Day 3: Lower Pisang to Manang

September 23rd

The dogs reached a consensus and adjourned about 1am. Still couldn’t sleep, and feel sluggish and weak this morning. Michael Palin had similar insomnia at about this altitude, which makes me feel a little better – though he was 60 at the time. Think I managed 4 hours before Sujan called me down for a rubbery cheese omelette and to brief me on the day.

The view down the valley we’d been traversing for the past two days

Despite the lack of rest, I walked well for the first two hours, although some trouble on steep slopes eventually convinced me to chuck away more of the egregiously unnecessary items in my rucksack. So, farewell to Agra’s ‘marble’ elephant and the ‘silver’ feather I bought on the second day in India to escape an aggressive salesman, both left on a windowsill in a teahouse in Humde. Later, goodbye also to two books, including Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit and my Rough Guide to India, which I gave to a bookshop in Manang. I also parted ways with my waterproof jacket that proved wholly inadequate in the face of Himalayan downpours. All those possessions, scattered across Annapurna like the bonus items in a Where’s Wally? book.

It should, hopefully, make life a lot easier. Sujan tells me that porters and sherpas are now in a union, and forbidden from carrying more than 20kg each. Looking at some of the porters in other groups, often bent couple and using a strap around the forehead for support, I cannot see how it’s humanly possible to have carried any more anyway.

We stop for lunch in Bhraka. To my delight the local delicacy of canned tuna fried in a pan with noodles tastes exactly the same as the 30p a pack ‘meals’ I lived off while doing the MA and which I’d still eat if it were socially acceptable.

Bhraka, where tearooms dwarf the tiny airport buildings

A Kiwi, probably about my age, comes over to chat. Her name’s Lisa, she’s a graphic designer and illustrator based on the South Island, and she’s trekking almost arbitrarily after a visit to South Korea. Conversation is easy, flowing from comparisons of freelance culture in different countries, the friendly atmosphere of Thamel in Kathmandu, and our pleasant surprise at the quality of the teahouse rooms. After lunch I said goodbye and that I hoped to see her again down the path. She’s having a rest day in Manang. Am envious.

Brief stop to visit a (closed) temple. Pack ponies pass us frequently on the trail, but here on a plateau there are horses that look bred for speed. One regards me impassively as I trudge past to clamber onto the temple roof for the view. On the way back down a dog bounces over to me as I sit next to a stupa, and I delay my return to Sujan to play for a while.

This was – easily – the best closed temple in the Himalaya with a friendly dog and four horses I’ll visit this year

Despite the detour we reach Manang (3540m) ahead of schedule. Sujan’s first choice of teahouse is full, but the Hotel Gangapurna has warm, dry rooms, and – crucially – a gas shower. I don’t mind using Wet Wipes as a shower alternative every morning, but I’m not going to pass this up.

While I wait for supper I wander round, and ultimately end in the hotel’s open courtyard looking out towards Annapurna II and IV. There are many more travellers taking rest days here than at any of the previous stops, and they all seem to be in groups and much younger than me.

Two English girls walk past and, as I start to introduce myself, find myself on the verge of an anxiety attack, the first of the trip, which comes out of nowhere. Luckily there are no shortages of cold objects here, so I press my wrists against the side of the building and concentrate on the sensation until it passes. I think it was triggered again by a lack of self-esteem and a sudden and insistent idea – wrong as it seems afterwards – that just by being there, lumpen and bald, that I’m ruining the day for everyone else. I didn’t think this trip would fix it, but it’s dispiriting and a little bit upsetting to realise that despite having come a quarter of the way around the world and almost 3500m into the Himalaya, these feelings arrived here before me.

The view West towards Tilicho Lake, the climb to which was the first big challenge of the trek

Pay 150 rupees for use of the shower. Absolute despair as it resolutely refuses to spit out hot water and I eventually give in and shiver under the spray. Finally, as the tearoom staff flip a switch somewhere, it begins to warm up. At its hottest it is somewhere between cool and lukewarm, but it feels like a benediction. I could be imagining it, but my left shoulder feels looser and less painful. I come out clean and warm, and as in Jaipur can’t decide which feels nicer. Between that and a head shave I feel much better.

Little concerned by conversations overheard during supper of veg curry. Some guides were explaining why trying to do the pass with anything less than 2 rest days along the way is asking for injury. We have none scheduled. Am resolute that, if I don’t feel up to it at any point, I’ll demand we stop for a day.

Am now confident that the tablets I got in Kathmandu are Immodium, which is a relief. Or at least, hasn’t led to anything being relieved without my permission.

Day 4: Manang to Tilicho Base Camp

September 24th

Nearly managed a full 6 hours sleep, before my bowels took it upon themselves to act as a drill sergeant and had me outside my room before 6. Glad they did. The dawn light glinted off Gangapurna, golden in hue and incredible against the blue of the sky. It was a truly unforgettable view and an experience I’ll always remember. Unfortunately the same’s true of my subsequent visit to the squatter toilet.

Gangapurna at dawn

Manang is probably the last ‘luxury’ stop of the trek this side of Thorong-La Pass. It has pizza and pasta on the menus, rooftop bars, and a few of the hotels have their own miniature cinemas. Disconcertingly, they all seem to mostly be showing films about the ‘96 Everest disaster.

The You’re Going To Die Film Festival in Manang

Looking back on my notes over breakfast, am surprised to discover it was only a week ago today that I was in the Van Gujja hut breaking the terms of my visa by accidentally doing some journalism. It feels like an age ago.

As of the fourth day of trekking, a rhythm has emerged. Up for breakfast at 6:00, then set off around 7:00. After a few hours we’ll slowly ascend an insanely steep slope to a village for lunch at 11:00ish, which I’m convinced has been designed this way to make you hungry, then off to reach our stop for the night about 15:00 or 16:00. Those hours-long trekking sessions will be broken up by a stop for a black tea and to top off a water bottle at one of the designated safe drinking water pumps (though we still drop in a purification tablet). After supper at about 18:30 I’ve been very happy to wander the village, write this diary, and read until I turn in at 22:00. Then up to use the bathroom at 23:00, 00:00, 02:00 etc. etc.

Sujan is a good walking companion, although the way he slurps tea and eats his 3-times-a-day dal bhat with his mouth wide open plays hell with my misophonia. Earlier he took my blood oxygen level, which hovered between 85% and 87%, and said it looked good. It was within striking distance of his 87-89%, which made me confident until I remembered how much DNA we share with a banana. That 2% difference might be the difference between a mammal and a trifle ingredient or me succeeding or failing the trek.

Sujan crosses one of many sturdy bridges across the Marsadi

I’ve written (inadequately) about the look of the landscapes we’ve walked through, but the Himalaya appeal to the other senses too. There’s a sweet smell of mint and wet grass in the air, which can transition without warning into the stink of wet yak droppings. The sun’s heat is sharp and powerful, verging on painful at times, though standing still for any period of time makes you aware of the chill of the altitude too. The quiet is occasionally subsumed by wind through the valleys, though each day has had different accompaniment. On day 1, waterfalls roared away to either side, while today birdsong disrupts the silence. The rare jeep or tractor announces itself with music and horns, while locals hocking up spit round the bend ahead is often the first sign they’re there.

Over lunch in Sekulka, Sujan announces we can leave most of our bags here and collect them when we stay tomorrow night. I decant everything absolutely necessary into my little day bag, and add this notebook, my Kindle, my moneybelt, and the bracelet from Noll. I sit for a while in the sun and fall asleep for a while listening to Shelby Merry.

Writing this with numb fingers in Tilicho Base Camp, which nobody seems to know the exact altitude of but must be at least 4000m, at the end of a long and at times difficult walk. Above 3800m the temperature dropped like a stone, and the weather turned on us.

Annapurna III peak (7575m) during a break in the weather

Before our trial by ice, our route abandoned the road completely for the first time. Before this we’d run adjacent to the main road, only deviating for quick shortcuts. Now the path narrowed to around 6 feet across, just wide enough to make you feel vertigo at the sheer drop on the left, but not wide enough to pass trekkers holding their poles out at arms’ length like they’re mimicking a plane. Periodically pack mules and horses canter past, prompting a scramble up the slope. The mules seem tiny compared to the size of their loads, and the way they navigate the sharp drops and narrow corners is astonishingly nimble for an animal that’s basically just a barrel on sticks.

At about the halfway point of the journey in terms of time, a recent landslide had buried the path in scree. We began to descend sharply, though my enthusiasm for this downhill section was tempered by the knowledge we have to return this way tomorrow. As we scrambled down the slope, we’re hit by a fierce but brief downpour, the drops of which hurt not because of their velocity but because they’re freezing. Slipping down the loose rocks in the hail reminds me that sometimes the best part of a journey like this is in the recounting, not the experiencing.

Landslide country on the way to Tilicho Base Camp

We don’t stop and, mercifully, the rain eases. We pass a German trio whose actions leave Sujan in disbelief, as they stand on landslide detritus in the middle of a rockfall zone, playing European techno at a volume that implies they have a very specific deathwish. Eventually we round a cliff, and I get my first look at the trail up to Tilicho Lake. Here the land changes completely, from a verdant Himalayan valley to an arid and barren moonscape. You can taste the river on the roof of your mouth, a stony, mineral tang.

The view from Tilicho Base Camp

There’s something of Scotland in the muted purple and brown flora and dark rocks, and yet the topography is completely alien. Boulders like blades stick from the scars left by landslides. Only 5 minutes ago we were staring back down the valley we’ve spent 2 days traversing, now we’re in another country.

Tilicho Base Camp squats, drab and basic, only a few metres from the river. And it properly squats, too, none of that Carol Ann Duffy talking about a shopping centre nonsense. A volleyball net is raised optimistically at the entrance to the camp, which for once we descended to rather than staggered up to. An oversight, perhaps.

The freezing rain returns just as we arrive, and I think worriedly about the groups we passed on the way (except for the Techno Trio who should probably get done for attempted murder) out there in the gathering darkness.

Sujan has threatened to share my room tonight. This will be the first test of our friendship, as while I can ignore his tea slurping I’m not sure he’ll be able to do the same with my snoring.

There’s little to do at Base Camp beyond drink, which I don’t feel like doing, though I notice some intrepid porters using the volleyball net. At the far end of the teahouse dining room, a large group of trekkers are having a conversation. I feel like joining until I hear that it’s actually a sermon about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Sit and read instead and drink 2 litres of black tea, which I’m sure won’t come back to haunt me.

We’re not going to attempt to climb Tilicho Peak, at 7134m, instead going to visit the nearby lake at 5000m. The warnings about altitude sickness and information about getting a rescue helicopter all over the walls convince me this is a Good Idea.

Sunset over Tilicho Peak (7134)

People stagger in and the crowd at the far end of the room grows more convivial. I sit sullenly on my own, unable to work out why I don’t want to join in. By the time I realise it’s because I’m freezing cold, the fire has roared into life and so I join 20 or so other trekkers and porters in congenial community to watch the sunset. Me, a Frenchman, and a German girl sit in Reader’s Corner in comfy silence. I half-watch four other trekkers play a card game that seems insanely complex: an hour in, fundamental rules are still having to be explained.

In addition to momos for supper, I try garlic soup, which Sujan swears is the only preventative measure you can take for altitude sickness. It turns out there is such a thing as too much garlic.

As I settle in to my sleeping bag, I hear noise from the room above me. It’s European techno.

Part 2 can be found here.