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In the Arms of Annapurna

Although accessible to everyone, even for those without any mountaineering experience, conquering the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas is still a tough endeavour that requires determination and preseverance. 

Words & Photography: Magda Biskup

210kms. That was how far I was supposed to walk. At first it sounded overwhelming but, after splitting the distance into 16 days, I realised that I’d need to trek for just about 15kms a day, which was absolutely doable. I packed my backpack really light, taking just what was essential, bought a map, arranged for all the required permits and boarded a bus from Pokhara to Besisahar, where Annapurna Circuit trek officially starts.

     Annapurna Circuit is considered one of world’s best and most classic treks. It passes through the four regions – Lamjung, Manang, Mustang and Myagdi – and its highest point is Thorong La Pass half way into the trek, taking hikers all the way to 5,416m above sea level. The route goes past many high mountains, including the Annapurna massif, Manaslu, Langtang Himal, Gangapurna and Dhaulagiri.

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The views closer to Thorong La are dominated by bare mountain peaks.

Local people lead a very simple life and are very friendly.

Hot walk up a cool mount

The first check point (there are a few along the route, their purpose to provide safety for trekkers) was located in Besisahar, at the official start of the trek. I got my permit verified and was officially on my way to conquer the Annapurna Circuit. The initial 20kms of the route passed along a dusty and rather uneventful road, so I decided to preserve my energy for later and caught a bus to Bhulbhule, the next village on the way to Thorong La Pass. It was hot. Very hot. End of March, when I decided to trek, is considered the second best time to do this walk, but the lower sections can be unbearably hot during that time of the year. So, after just a couple of hours of walking, I found a teahouse, checked into a room and decided to call it a day.

     A noisy rooster woke me up at around 6.00am the next morning and after a quick breakfast of eggs, I hit the road again. The plan was to cover as much distance as possible before the sun got high up in the sky. The sun was going to be the main hurdle for the following two days during which the route passed through the lower sections of the trek, full of greenness, dust and heat.

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A typical teahouse on the Annapurna Circuit route.

The trek all to myself

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most popular treks in Nepal, but the walking trail was surprisingly empty. The only time I met other trekkers was in the teahouses and at checkpoints. Occasionally, I would pass by groups of trekkers hiking the circuit from the opposite direction. Apart from that, I had all the amazing views to myself. I did, however, meet many porters, delivering goods to the villages and teahouses along the way to Thorong La. Their loads were shockingly huge and heavy and included anything from live chickens, eggs and soft drinks to rice, clothes and cosmetics. I couldn’t feel anything else but respect for these hardworking men.

Rising with each step

The fourth day of the trek offered the first glimpses of the snow covered Himalayan peaks and a decrease in temperature, which I welcomed gratefully. I continued walking towards Manang, which I reached a day later. It turned out to be absolutely stunning. Manang sits at the bottom of a valley at 3,519 metres above sea level and it felt like the most remote place on the planet. Lots of trekkers use it as a base for their rest day with the main purpose of taking a day off from trekking to acclimatise to the increasing weather and thinning air. Manang is perfectly suited for this with lots of trekkers resting and catching their breath. I felt fine and didn’t think I needed a full day to break my trek and continued my ascent. After reaching the village at noon and exploring the neighbourhoods, I set out towards Thorong La pass the next morning.

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Tharong La pass is clearly marked with prayer flags.

The scenery here was different from what I had observed a few days earlier. The forest disappeared completely and was replaced by rugged, bare and high mountains. The altitude was slowly getting to me as well, and it was becoming more and more difficult to walk as fast as I had a few days earlier. My breathing was faster but shallower. The villages that were visible around Manang completely disappeared, their absence adding to the harshness of the surroundings.

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Cargo porters deliver all kinds of goods to the villages along the Annapurna Circuit route.

High up in the skies

Thorong La was getting close. I spent the next night at Yak Kharka teahouse at 4,050m above sea level, where the night was so cold that the water in the tap froze solid. The most difficult and exhausting part of the trek started from here. The climb to High Camp, the last teahouse before the pass, was one of the hardest physical activities I’ve ever undertaken in my life. The path wound up a very steep slope. Every time I looked up to see how much further I had to climb, the slope seemed to go on eternally, almost disappearing into the sky. When High Camp teahouse finally appeared, I felt like I had conquered the highest mountain in the world.

     That night was tough. 4,850 meters above sea level made this place truly hard to bear for longer than need be. The air was thin, the wind strong and it was bitterly cold. The stunning views and the tranquillity were the only saving grace despite the inconveniences.

Stark beauty

I was up by 4.00am. The day ahead was going to be long and hard. It was dark and freezing cold. I wanted to get moving, hoping it would get my blood pumping and warm me up. Thorong La pass wasn’t far but every step was a struggle. 10 steps forward – a 15-second break – 10 steps forward – a 15-second break. This was the rhythm I followed for the next three hours. Day broke over the valley and the mysterious dark revealed a gorgeous scenery that I was secretly hoping for since that dawn. There was nobody in front or behind me. There was no wind and no noise. Nothing. Absolute stillness. Though it was beautiful, the place was desolate. If something were to happen to  me here, no one would know. Then, in the distance, the reassuring flapping of prayer flags in the strong wind washed me over with a sense of relief. I knew that Thorong La was really close. It took me a week of hard work, but I had finally gotten there all by myself.

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Prayer wheels are a common sight at the villages along the trek.

Top of the World

Standing atop Thorong La pass was an exhilarating experience, but the day was far from over. I had to get to Muktinath that was located 1,600m below the pass. It was a very long and steep descent. I quickly forgot about the difficulties of climbing Thorong La, and all my efforts were now focused on getting down safely. The path felt endless and I couldn’t see my destination. It wasn’t until another four hours of slow walking down the steep hill that I saw my first glimpse of Muktinath.

     The next couple of days were relatively easy, as the terrain was rather flat and the temperature pleasant. I imagined if this were to continue, my trekking adventure would end on a rather anti-climactic note. However, I was heading towards Poon Hills, another incredibly exciting highlight along the trek.

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Paddy fields can be seen in the lower sections of the trek.

After another day of walking, I reached Ghorepani, a busy village at the bottom of Poon Hill. I got myself a room on the top floor of one of the teahouses with three out of its four walls covered with windows. The peaks of Annapurna, Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri were right there in front of me to enjoy from the comfort of my room. But I simply couldn’t be cooped up in my room and had to run out to the viewing deck to witness the scenery. The view took my breath away. It was simply magnificent. There were a few people there, admiring the snow covered peaks of some of the highest mountains on earth, but most of them left as soon as the sun rose, leaving the place all to myself. All four Annapurna peaks, Machhapuchre, Nilgiri South and Dhaulagiri were right there in front of me. I stood there transfixed.

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Carved boulders carved in the village of Manang.

I didn’t want to leave but had to, as there was just one more day of walking ahead of me before I reached Birethani that lay at the end of the trek. I got there the same day in the afternoon, bringing me to the end of my trekking adventure along the Annapurna Circuit, perhaps the best adventure I had ever embarked on.

GETTING THERE AirAsia X flies three times a week to Kathmandu from Kuala Lumpur. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

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Some of the highest mountains in the Himalayas can be seen from Poon Hill.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

  • The full length of Annapurna Circuit is 230kms, but some parts of the trek can be traversed by bus or car. There is a controversial road (still under construction) that goes all the way to Chame and is planned to extend to Manang. 
  • Annapurna Circuit is a ‘teahouse trek’, meaning there are teahouses along the way, located every two or three hours’ walk. Here, it’s possible to find accommodation and warm food. No bookings are required as there are more rooms available than trekkers. Accommodation is very cheap and sometimes offered for free in exchange for the promise of ordering food from the teahouse owner. 
  • Main trekking season falls in October/ November. Second best time to trek is between March and May. 
  • Permits are required to trek around Annapurna and they can be arranged in Pokhara and Kathmandu through any travel agency or directly in Annapurna’s Conservation Areas Offices. 
  • Guides are not necessary as the route is very easy to follow. A good map will suffice. 
  •  Guides and porters (optional) can be arranged in Pokhara and Kathmandu. 
  • Trekking the Annapurna Circuit does not require any special equipment or training. Anyone who’s moderately fit will be able to fi nish the trek in 16-20 days. It’s recommended to carry warm clothing, even in the warmer months. Altitude sickness can affect some people. To prevent it, it is often recommended to do a rest day in Manang before climbing Thorong La pass.

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GOING THE X-TREME

Azran Osman-Rani, CEO of AirAsia X, recently went on a trekking trip on the Annapurna circuit and shares his experience with Travel 3Sixty°.

     “I followed the trail form the outskirts of Pokhara making my way up to Poon Hill lookout point. This spot is at an elevation of about 3,210 metres and should not pose any problems by way of altitude sickness. As it is quite a gentle ascent, it is perfect for newbies. The gradient is not too steep and trails well marked with several villages along the way. Additionally, you don’t need any special equipment; a good pair of hiking boots or trail running shoes, a healthy pair of lungs and a cheerful attitude are all that’s needed.

      I made the trek in November and found the weather to be very pleasant – cool yet sunny with clear blue skies. At other times, clouds conspire to hide the majestic mountains, depriving hikers a chance to marvel at the sight of the peaks.

     Although less challenging than some of the hikes I had undertaken, the experience was nothing short of spiritual. To stand so close to the awe-inspiring peaks envelops you with a sense of peace, serenity and humility. The crisp, fresh mountain air awakens every sensory nerve and makes you feel alive. Add to that the graceful welcoming Nepalese in the villages along the way, and you take back with you an enriching experience that will stay etched in your heart for a very long time.

     The Annapurna region is a great alternative to Everest Base Camp. It’s closer to Kathmandu, and you can use Pokhara as a base, a town famous for its culture, food and beautiful sights. My advice to anyone toying with the idea is to simply do it! Don’t hesitate. Sign up with a registered and experienced tour agency (we recommend Sansui Treks & Expedition Pvt. Ltd.) and get proper hiking permits for it. There is plenty of advice on equipment, time-of-year to travel etc. available online. You can go for a one-day easy hike, or a 21-day expedition – it’s all up to you.”

SANSUI TREKS & EXPEDITION PVT. LTD.

One of the most experienced trekking and expedition organisers in Nepal, Sansui Treks & Expedition Pvt. Ltd. offers various packages for both novices and experienced trekkers to the Annapurna circuit and other trekking expeditions in the country. The agency offers the classic Annapurna Circuit route that can range from 17 to 21 days, along the Marshyangdi, over the Thorong La (5,416m) and a final descent to the Kali Gandaki Valley. On this circuit, the peaks visible from close quarters include the Annapurna (8,091m), Dhaulagiri (8,167m), Machhapuchhre (6,993m), Manaslu (8,156m), Gangapurna (7,455m) and Tilicho Peak (7,134m). The trek begins with a seven-hour drive from Kathmandu to the starting point at Besi Sahar in the Marshyangdi river valley. The trek concludes at Kali Gandaki river valley. En route, travellers pass paddy fields and subtropical forests, with amazing views of beautiful mountain scenery, waterfalls and gigantic cliffs. Apart from the Annapurna Circuit, travellers can also do the Annapurna Base Camp trek or the shorter Ghorepani Poon Hill Trek and Royal Trek, amongst others.

Sansui Treks & Expedition Pvt. Ltd.

Adventure Trek Operation Department

Lazimpat Kathmandu, Nepal

E-MAIL: info@sansuitrek.com; www.sansuitrek.com 

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