The Annapurna Circuit (Part 2)

Day 5: Tilicho Base Camp to Sekulka

September 25th

Woken at 05:00 by clomping on the thin floor above me. This goes on for so long that all reasonable explanations evaporate and I make a note to google ‘German pacing fetish’ when I get home. After more garlic soup we leave the teahouse at 06:00 with the goal of teaching Tilicho Lake by 09:30ish. Today is to be the first properly long day’s trekking, almost 9 hours all told.

The first hour is much the same as yesterday, though periodically the clouds peel back to reveal a mountain range. I’m unused to landscapes of this scale and it messes with my sense of distance. Ridges that seem just round the corner take hours to approach, while colourful flecks in the distance behind us turn out to be groups we only passed 15 minutes ago.

That peak could be 5 minutes or 5 days away

We reach a section of the trail that has demanded some creative engineering to be passable. Geometric shapes climb the mountain almost like a ladder, as though the lines have been scored by a huge knife. It looks as though someone has laid slices of toast end-to-end, then cut each slice into triangles; the diagonal cut is the sharp incline you stagger up, while the ends of each slice are horizontal to allow you to catch your breath.

Here me and Sujan have a confrontation. At the bottom of the traversal toast he stopped to make a 15 minute call. I’d just got into my stride and, despite moving around, felt the cold sharply. This exacerbated an issue with my right knee, which has been hurting. Between that and my left shoulder, every other step was suddenly twice as difficult. Once the call was over, we resumed our journey a little sourly.

As we passed a group of four – one in double denim – they asked Sujan something. Without asking me he took my water bottle and handed it across, and they each took a turn draining it. As I’d just told Sujan I was feeling dehydrated, this felt like a slap to the face. All the knee pain and thirst combined, and as I took the empty bottle back I called Double Denim a prick and stormed off. He just grinned at me.

I was terse with Sujan for the rest of the climb, answering questions monosyllabically and glaring back down the trail at the group, who’d barely moved and were presumably shaking other people down for their canteens.

Above the snowline the temperature dropped noticeably, and my fingers went numb to the first joint. I just wanted to reach the lake. Every corner and crest was another false dawn, and I began to feel like Homer climbing the Murderhorn.

Eventually, with a brief fanfare of gusts of winds and streams of prayer flags, Tilicho Lake (5000m) spread out in front of us. It immediately felt worth it. It’s 4km long and 85m deep, containing 155 million litres of fresh water. It almost glows, even under the overcast sky, a blue-green that’s almost turquoise. The shore slopes gently down to its edge, save for on one side where ice cliffs plunge into the water. It’s beautiful and wild and, as my first glacial lake, doesn’t disappoint. The little café on the bluff above the lake doesn’t disappoint either, with hot chocolate and – thankfully – bottles of water that I chug until I feel sick.

On our way back down, apparently eager to make amends, Sujan pats me on the shoulder and says we were 45 minutes faster up here than the average. “You’re my Superman”, he says. I immediately relent and tell him about all my aches and maladies, explaining I feel very weak.

“Weak, yes”, he replies, which stings a bit. “Of course weak. But my Superman”. I don’t recall a storyline where Superman threw a tantrum halfway up a mountain, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen.

On the return journey to Sekulka there was – unexpectedly – a queue. It turns out a trekker had had a severe attack of vertigo, laid flat on the track and refused to move. This had created a bottleneck of pack ponies and trekkers, but she’d been hauled to her feet so people could pass. As we walked past it turned out to be my South African friend from the orchard juice bar, but I could only muster a head nod and a breezy Northern ‘Alright?’, to which she didn’t respond. Fair.

We eventually reached Sekulka after after close to 9 hours walking, with an hour or so break at Base Camp for lunch. A splitting headache and lack of appetite – both symptoms of altitude sickness – forced me to bed as soon as we arrived. Feeling very shaky and haven’t left this room since.

Day 6: Sekulka to Thorung Phedi

September 26th

Slept for about 9 hours and woke headache- and pain-free (mostly). Have come to love and treasure my sleeping bag. Practically whisper dirty talk at it as I roll it up in the mornings, promising to be back inside it later.

My appetite has returned with a vengeance, and I devoured the veg omelette I had in place of Sujan’s recommended garlic and onion noodle soup. We set off back towards Manang, as there is no direct route over from Sekulka to Thorong Phedi (4450m), where we’re spending the night. Halfway round the valley a new path presented itself, and we followed it until we were some 300m above Manang, which would have put us within striking distance of Letdar (4200m), where we’re stopping for lunch.

Nothing is that simple, though, and the terrain doesn’t suddenly help out just because you’re knackered. We had to descend those 300m again to cross a gorge. It’s weirdly dispiriting having to climb down to climb up; it feels like your progress is being wiped out. It also seemed to remind my knee that it was meant to be hurting me, so to make up for the lapse it started hurting twice as much. Very worried about it.

A tiny pond along the trail

One especially bright spot of the morning’s trek – a little round thing a little like a chinchilla scampered out in front of me, which my guide book tells me is a Himalayan Pika. That’s another animal to add to the list of yaks, dzos and steppe eagles that I’ve seen so far.

Writing this in the dinner hall at Thorong Phedi, 4450m above sea level. It’s almost certainly the highest I’ll ever have gone to sleep and not had to clear customs the next day. After a few hours’ more trekking, with each teashop and village tricking me into thinking we’d arrived at Letdar for lunch, Sujan took notice that I was favouring my left leg. For the first time, we exchanged bags, his 9kg one for my 16kg monstrosity.

Immediate difference, to the point that I began running up little inclines and began appreciating the incredible views again. Embarrassingly spread my arms wide and sang a bit as I walked, counting my lucky stars I’m here in the Himalaya achieving a long-held ambition. Looking back, I may have been slightly oxygen deprived.

Yak and dzo skulls decorate the entrances to villages

As we passed through Yak Kharka a beautiful dog bounded up to play, and I laughed and tussled with it (and held Sujan and the girls up). Had another laugh after lunch as Sujan went to put his backpack on again rather than mine, and I made a suspicious face at one of the two Nepalese girls we’ve fallen into climbing with, who laughed as well. A nice stress reliever.

On the final approach to Phedi, a rescue helicopter flew up past us, then back down the valley after a few short minutes. The cause became clear as we arrived in the village (more a collection of shacks): A trekker has been struck with acute mountain sickness and the weather is deteriorating to the point where the pilot had to take off again almost immediately, the bad weather at their heels as they flew back down to the hospital in Manang.

From what Sujan later tells me the man was practically delirious when he was loaded on board, and his group now seem undecided about their next move. All a bit nerve-wracking, and I’m thankful I don’t have any of the symptoms now the headache has receded.

The last leg of the trail to Thorung Phedi, our final stop before attempting the pass and site of a medical emergency

Down at the far end of the dining hall a man from Liverpool is loudly patronising a couple from the Shetland Islands. “Isn’t is annoying that you can only get on and off by helicopter?” he asks. They shake their heads; there’s a ferry, and they take it all the time. “Hmm,” he says, knowingly. “You might wanna fact-check that.”

Later I hear him asking a Danish girl if there are any Danish celebrities. She says the actor who plays Jaime on Game of Thrones, to the Scouser’s utter incredulity, because “the dwarf’s not Danish”. She offers up Hans Christian Andersen, who he hasn’t heard of, because “I only read textbooks”.

Met up with Lara from 3 days ago: Having skipped Tilicho and Sekulka, she’s come down with a bad cold the night before we all attempt the Pass. A fun re-introduction to one of the friendlier people I’ve met on the trek.

The evening wears on, the evacuated man never far from the conversation. As at Tilicho Base Camp the fireplace provides a focal point for the group, and a crowd of 20 or so gathers to chat, compare blood oxygen levels, and wait for our meals.

The Scouser announces, apropos of nothing, that he’s a pilot, and threatens to throw a porter’s hat into the fire if he doesn’t keep it going. People wisely start ignoring him, and I have a good chat with an American pair, Lisa, and some other trekkers about our thoughts on the experience so far. Lisa gets out a camera, and a girl on her own looks around and writes in her notebook. For the first time this trip I feel documented and wonder if other people feel awkward when I write in this notebook.

The rain hammers on the corrugated iron that makes up much of Thorung Phedi as I walk up to my room in the pitch black, with my headlamp picking out the rough cobbles and steps ahead of me.

It’s only 21:00, but we have a 03:30 start and I want an early night. No time to feel homesick as all my thoughts are about aches, pains, and my pack. I feel sore but capable. No dogs tonight to keep me up, either.

Day 7: Thorung Phedi to Jomsom

September 27th

This is the first entry in this diary that hasn’t been written on the day it describes. If the memories are less sharp then so is the pain that would have coloured them unfairly. It was a series of incredible moments punctuating one of the hardest days of my life like knots on a string. It presented challenges like unlike any I’d ever come up against, but it was also rewarding in equal measure.

I was awoken in the cabin in which my breath was visible in the light of Sujan’s headlamp, and shivered my way through dressing and repacking my equipment, before heading out into the night. Even at 03:30 in the morning the village was full of people – trekkers, guides, and teahouse staff – at peak activity. After a very brief breakfast of garlic and onion soup and a watery black coffee, me and Sujan exchanged packs, wished fellow trekkers good luck, and set off.

Around 05:00, on the trail up past High Camp

Outside the lights of the village it was impossible to see anything. Even with my headlamp on, everything was colourless and washed out. I struggled to find footing in the winding path up to High Camp. After a while a row of lights snaked out of Phedi, already small below us, following our path. A handful of lights above us showed that the groups who’d left even earlier were making good time.

Even with the lighter pack I couldn’t make consistent progress up the slope, steeper than any we’d tackled before, and I was really struggling as we reached High Camp, some 400m and around 45 minutes later. At High Camp, despite having developed a cough and a cold in the night that further limited the breaths I could take, I rallied slightly and, as the sun rose, we set off at a good pace towards the Pass. The steep slope up to High Camp, which looked to be the hardest section in terms of actually climbing, was behind us.

The next hour and a half was easier. I kept pace with Sujan as we rounded into new valleys, crossed metal bridges, and reached the first of three teerooms on the way up. I took some pictures of the bleak, snow-blasted peaks around us, and was feeling very confident.

That was severely shaken as we passed 5,100m, with about an hour still to go before we reached the highest point. A combination of – I think – my lack of acclimatisation time, the cough, and general lack of fitness meant that I was suddenly struggling to breathe. No matter how much I gasped I couldn’t fill my lungs to the extent I needed to keep moving; I could only breathe normally when I stood still. I vividly remember being bent double on the wider, white, open slopes, panicking that I couldn’t get enough air. I managed to calm down, but the worry never really left, and I struggled to carry on for more than a few steps at a time.

We passed and were passed in turn by other trekkers. The harsh glare from the snow began to hurt my eyes, and the gloves I’d bought in Kathmandu were incapable of keeping my hands warm.

On the other trekking days, despite my trying to concentrate on the scenery, my thoughts had wandered to topics like Pitbull having the gall to sample Africa by Toto, or how quickly Sherlock became terrible schlock. Now, though, I couldn’t concentrate on the view for the simple reason that I had to force myself to breathe steadily and concentrate on putting on foot in front of the other. Should definitely have taken an acclimatisation day. I was unfit, unprepared, and unable to breathe.

Gradually the climb began to taper off, and before I could even really register it I was among a crowd hovering around the marker that proclaimed we’d reached the head of the Pass, at just over 5,400m above sea level (lower than Kilimanjaro). Sipped some whisky that I’d been saving for this moment, took some photos, and failed to feel much more than abject, pathetic relief.

Acting tough at the top of the Pass

Prayer flags wrapped the sign like a spiderweb, and there were visible paths up to the peaks on either side of us. I recovered gradually, and joked to Sujan that I was going to quickly climb one for a photo, to his bemused horror. It wasn’t until we’d set off down the other side of the Pass that I felt any elation.

Sujan and me awkwardly celebrate at 5,416m

Only a few minutes after that, my premature celebrations came back to bite. I’d reclaimed my pack from Sujan and, combined with the strain on my back and knee, I was in pain again less than an hour into a 5 hour descent. With each step down my right leg shrieked at me, forcing me to take slow, tottering steps.

The steep descent towards Muktinath (3800m) became as much of a challenge as the way up. Sujan – I think unwilling to take my backpack back – stayed at least 5 minutes ahead of me, and the burning in my shoulders gradually grew until I could barely turn my head. But there was only one way down, and I inched painfully slowly towards Muktinath (imagine how much whinier this would have been if I’d written it the other day).

The path down from the Pass to Muktinath wasn’t the victory lap I’d hoped for

Sujan seems to have a habit of picking the very furthest possible destination within towns, and so while it was technically true that Muktinath was “40 minutes away at the maximum”, it was closer to 80 mins before we reached the bus and jeep stand at the far end of town. Here I was folded into the back of a shared jeep, sharing a space about the size of the inside of a portaloo with two other men, and we departed from Jomsom.

I tried to distract myself from the dangers of shoulder dislocation and accidental headbutts by watching the in-jeep entertainment system – a screen at the driver’s end which plays ads and music videos. These ranged from endearingly cheesy – a man and woman in pastel colours hijack a bus to attack their love rivals – to unbearably shite, and were all played at a volume just a little higher than a police siren right by your ear. Eventually enough people left the jeep that I had a seat to myself, where I slumped exhausted. It had now been 12 hours since we’d set off, and we’d climbed or trekked for 10 of them. Began to suspect this too would be a day better recalled than experienced.

We finally climbed out in Jomsom, along with my pack that had been so lackadaisically lashed to the roof it had come loose and thankfully become pinioned under one of the metal bars. Very hard to haul it back onto my shoulders; I was running on fumes.

Jomsom is a grey and windy little town with an airstrip that seems to only work about 2 hours a day, some days. As we passed it an immaculate woman who looked dressed for the Algarve left the tiny terminal and headed straight for a nearby hotel, visibly fuming, so presumably her flight the following morning had been cancelled.

With unerring consistency Sujan led me all the way through to the far side of the town to a little hostel he evidently knows, the rooms in which have to be climbed to up a ridiculous ladder. Settled down for a pre-dinner nap but, overstimulated and unable to lie on my side without it hurting, couldn’t sleep.

Over a celebratory dinner of bland chicken pizza, decided the best option was to dose up on locally-produced apple brandy. The two huge glasses turned out to be delicious and very alcoholic, and I barely remember going to bed except for very ostentatiously wishing goodnight to a group of German girls who I hadn’t been speaking to at all and who looked bemused, which is sticking with me in the way all embarrassing moments tend to.

Physically and mentally, it was one of the toughest days of my life. I wish I could honestly say it was one of the best. It was too painful and full of panic and inconveniences to count.

However, it was immediately and will remain a day I’m proud of having pushed through. I don’t doubt that most people could climb the Pass – but I’d doubted if I could, and am very glad to have proven that scrabbling little doubting voice wrong. It hurt, I hated it at times, and I’m very glad to have done it. Next time will probably drink less brandy – or at least drink more but sooner.

Day 8: Jomsom to Tatopani

September 28th

A pretty fantastic end to the most frustrating day of the trip by a long distance (and because of long distance).

Woke with a timorous hangover, easily scared away by the litre of water I drank at breakfast, or at least just overshadowed by my aching shoulders. Out for breakfast at 7:00. Briefly chatted with an American girl on the next table over about the trek and her future plans. I asked if she’d been keeping a diary too, and she enthused about how doing so had helped her keep track of her changing thought processes and personal growth. Suddenly felt bad that most of my diary has been keeping track of my dwindling supply of Immodium.

Sujan hurried me out of the hostel at 07:30, explaining our bus departed at 07:40 sharp. At 08:20 I watched an old, old decrepit wreck of a vehicle pull into the street which, of course, turned out to be ours. The colourful livery couldn’t disguise that the bus was probably the first vehicle built after the invention of the wheel, and as I climbed on board my trepidation rose even further.

Our bus, prior to being disassembled

The – for lack of a better word – conductor send me down to sit in the centre of the back row by screaming at me. In a country in which I’ve never heard anybody raise their voices, this furious man in a woolen cap and coat never spoke in less than a yell. He sounded like Omid Djalili in The Mummy.

What followed would have been the most painful few hours of my life were it not for yesterday, as the bus jolted across every crevice and crater with violence that felt like I was being kicked by a horse.

As I was the third of 6 people wedged into the back row, my legs in the aisle, I bounced around for about 2 hours desperately trying to find any purchase on the floor or filthy seats to prevent myself being pitched onto the floor. Absolute pandemonium, and only temporary reprieves when the bus stopped to let even more people on board.

In the distance, the odd goat falls from a landslide

Eventually the coach halted, in the middle of a long tail of vehicles delayed by another landslide. I thought this might be a neat way to bookend the trek, but as close to four hours slowly ticked by my annoyance turned to anger. Herds of goats streamed past, and while I sat on a rock outside reading I watched their herders beat them viciously to keep them on track. Wished I could do the same to the bus – at least the goats were moving. They evidently weren’t fainting goats, either, given the noise from all the horns.

Even with the landslide mostly cleared, our bus couldn’t clear the lip of the impromptu road. They unloaded first us, then all the luggage, then stripped the seats out and removed most of the panelling except the front grille. Then, deciding they needed weight on the back wheels, we were told to reboard and stand at the back. Every time the driver accelerated and ground to a halt, the wheels skidded closer to the edge of the road overlooking the booming, white-water river, until even the screaming conductor decided this was too risky and the driver reversed the ruins of the bus into a side road.

Sujan finally agreed to my demand that we walk to Tatopani, even though we were now 4 hours behind schedule and unlikely to reach the hot springs before they closed – though happily a brand new jeep slowed to offer us a lift.

My only view of Annapurna I (8091), from outside my room in Tatopani

Once calmed down and checked into a (dirty) hotel, Sujan gave me directions to the hot springs. Something was definitely going on with him, as he sat clawing his face and mumbling in the hotel restaurant while I grabbed a towel and headed off.

The hot springs were more like a Butlins than the natural pools that I’d imagined, but they were the perfect temperature – just hot enough to soothe the aches away, not quite hot enough to leave you a bleached skeleton when you get out. I sat and relaxed, watching the mountains that framed it disappear into the darkness of the evening, and bought a celebratory Namaste beer I didn’t really want but felt necessary to complete the moment.

I was only there for an hour, but it was enough to sand away all the irritation of a day that was mostly spent watching goats fall off the edge of a landslide and learning to hate buses in general and one bus in particular.

Wandered back to the hotel and sat opposite Sujan, who’d calmed down. Honestly, the weirdest part of the whole day for me was that, while no money had been spent on cleaning the interior of the bus, reinforcing the suspension, or tuning up the engine, the bus had a pimped-out horn that played multiple tunes. Very odd priorities.

Day 9: Tatopani to Pokhara

September 29th

Despite me putting my foot down at the height of my anger yesterday and telling Sujan I wasn’t taking another bus today (my tour package had promised jeeps) conveniently the jeep he’d ‘arranged’ for today has developed a fault, and also could not be pointed out when I asked.

Dejected and dispirited at the prospect of another experience like yesterday’s ordeal, climbed onto another bus where I wasn’t immediately screamed at. Good sign. Happily this vehicle was also much cleaner, less full, and better equipped to deal with roads that weren’t as smooth as a bowling green. All the better as this journey was set to last 6 hours.

Phewa Lake, to the West of Pokhara

Despite my obvious discomfort with shoulder massages and touching in general, Sujan seems constantly poised to launch another assault on my aching muscles and will often strike when I’m not looking. Decided not to risk it today and, when he motioned to the seat next to him, ignored it and pretended to sleep on one a few rows behind.

Felt a little bad later, as our farewell was very abrupt. Once in Pokhara, which at first blush seemed less magical than had been described by Lonely Planet, he delivered me to the Himalayan Inn Hotel, which is nice once I’d insisted they put clean sheets on my bed.

We shook hands, promised to stay in touch, and he left to get another bus back to Kathmandu. It’s been an odd experience – almost constant proximity to a man who I know hurried me along without rest days so he could pick up another group of trekkers sooner than we’d agreed, but who I got along with well for the most part – and I’m glad I met him.

View from the jazz bar out over Phewa Lake

Wandered around the Lakeside area of Pokhara in search of food. Can immediately see why this place is so highly recommended, with its varied restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops. It’s very touristy, though after the last few days I’m not complaining.

Found the jazz bar overlooking Phewa Lake that I’d read about almost a year ago, the description of which was the clincher for me booking this trip. Sat, had a whisky, and decided I’m not smart enough to understand jazz but am very enthusiastic to learn more about Scotch.

A very uneventful day, all told, but I can now relax in Pokhara almost until I fly home. Today was the day we passed out of the Annapurna Conservation Area and, while yesterday was the final day of the trek proper, this marks the end of the hardest leg of the entire journey. My shoulders still grumble a lot, but overall I feel so much better for having done it. For one thing I’m down two belt loops which means I can recoup that loss through a lot of pasta over the next three days.

I’m also a little gutted it’s over, and learned that achieving a life goal – to trek in Nepal – only makes me want to see more of the country and do more treks elsewhere. Ticking one goal off only grows more in its place.

And, though I didn’t do it well, I did it. It wasn’t exactly Around the World in Eighty Days, but around Annapurna in eight is good enough for now.

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