Trekker's Journal

Trekker’s Journal: Annapurna Circuit – Best 10 days of my life

By: Rishav Adhikari September 9, 2016

Remember Rishav Adhikari? He explored the Mardi Himal Trek a few months ago and shared his adventure with us on Trekker’s Journal. Not being one to turn down a visit to the mountains, Rishav hit the Great Himalaya Trails again. This time exploring the classic Annapurna Circuit.  

It had only been a few weeks since I got back from the Mardi Himal Base Camp trek. The phone rang and a voice from the other side said, “Bhai, Annapurna round circuit handim nata dajubhai”.

When one Ghumante (Nepali term for someone who likes to travel and does so frequently) says to another, “Let’s hit the Annapurna Circuit trail”, you just don’t say NO. The appeal of the challenging Thorong la pass (5,416m), the beautiful Tilicho Lake, walking side by side with the whole Annapurna Range and my soul craving for adventure, my heart was already up there in the mountains.

Bags packed. Our hearts were aching to roam amongst the mountains, and we were ready to roll. The first stop of the trail was at Besisahar, Lamjung. We celebrated our reunion and 16 years of friendship with some local spirit. It was a great way to start what was to become an amazing 10 days.

OFF-ROAD ADVENTURES

We didn’t have time to explore Besisahar, “the gateway to heaven”, as much as we wanted as we were due to set off on the nerve-racking off-road drive toward the mountains. Riding out of town through the road tunnel for the first time in my life, we left Besisahar for Chame.

You need guts to drive along these jeep track roads. Maybe that’s the reason most of the drivers are young and carefree. Ours was 19.
With Marsyangdi River flowing by our side, or sometimes thousands of meters below, passengers were overcome with hysteria.

Precarious roads from Chame to Pisang. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

Precarious roads from Chame to Pisang. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

For me, the sudden encounter of some alluring waterfalls, chanting blue-ish rivers and mountains playing “peek-a-boo” with you, the common blues of the off-road ride soon turned into warm fuzzies.

Chatting with locals, exchanging laughs, watching the mountains, I don’t know how time flew during that jeep ride. The mountains were already shining in the moonlight when we reached Chame, the district headquarter of Manang.
The drive, which started at 10am from the humid Besisahar, ended at 6pm.
As we drove in with the breeze from the mountains faintly brushing our cheeks, we began to notice the exhaustion our bodies felt due to the bumpy ride. After storing some warm food in our bellies we finally were off to sleep.

HITTING THE TRAIL

Waking up to the bustling noise from the city far behind us and the gushing waves from Marsyangdi River, tiredness from yesterday’s ride was long gone. We explored Chame for a while, and even had Jeri Puri (a Nepali treat), which was unexpected. Finally on our way, we noticed that the landscapes, lifestyle, and culture were gradually changing as we progressed along the journey. With every new face I was confronted with, I could feel the vibes. Sometimes travel is not only about the landscape or trails, it is much more about the people you meet along the way who touch your heart with just simple eye contact.

With the presence of cool breezes and the sparkling sunshine, we were ready to take on the Annapurna Circuit.

With Marsyangdi frolicking around in front of us, we were having the time of our lives walking through the evergreen pine forest, passing apple orchards (the first I’ve ever seen) and unexpectedly coming across Samosas in the teahouses along the way. As the sun was about to set, we arrived in Pisang.

The  next morning leaving our warm blankets, we raced to have our cup of tea, and then departed from Pisang. After only a few hours of walking under our belt, we had reached Humde.

Passing through Humde. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

Passing through Humde. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

Humde, which not only offers a gorgeous landscape, apparently has a seasonal airport too. As we left the green forest behind us, the altitude rose gradually. As we trekked up further north, the people, we found, were more Tibetan in ancestry, and Buddhism the main religion. Tibetan monasteries, spinning wheels and prayer flags were seen more frequently. Local kids and their smiles became a sigh of relief to our tired bodies. With the presence of mountains high and low, yaks grazing in the grassy pastures by the trail, the atmosphere was pure bliss.

DETOURS TO GANGAPURNA AND ICE LAKES

Continuing along the river we reached Brakha (or Braga). Following a fellow trekker’s suggestion, we decided to do two detour trips to see some Himalayan lakes, Gangapurna and Ice Lakes, which are off the main trail and a good acclimatization walk to prepare for Thorong la pass coming up.

Early the next morning we left our backpacks, got out our cameras and left for Gangapurna Lake. Within 30 minutes of our walk we reached Gangapurna Lake lying in the laps of Gangapurna peak. Breathtaking blue waters, whistling rivers, winds flirting with prayer flags, the setting sun, it was peace like you had never felt before. It was a moment of pure “Nirvana”.
By the time we finished exploring Gangapurna, the sun had gone down and the moon was rising. We went back to our hotel in Brakha. With warm hands, warm food and hearts full of excitement for the future adventures to come; it was time to call it a night.

Gangapurna Lake by Rishav Adhikari

Gangapurna Lake by Rishav Adhikari

It’s recommended that after reaching 3000 meters in elevation, you should ascend no more than 350 meters a day to prevent AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). The next day we were heading towards Ice Lake which was located more than 1000m above us. With our stomachs full from three cinnamon rolls, a few chocolate bars and 3 bottles of water; we gathered our cameras and hit the trail. Our journey up without a backpack was easy at first as we left them at our hotel. As we gained elevation the mountains were so close and a few hours into our hike we heard a loud crashing sound. It was an avalanche on one of the Annapurna peaks. In fact, we witnessed three avalanches that day, giving us the opportunity to re-tell interesting stories after our trip.

As we gained altitude, we slowly paced ourselves. With the lack of tea-houses in between, we stopped for a moment, caught our breath and grabbed a bite of chocolate before we proceeded to move up. Every time we thought we had reached a mountain top and we were expecting a lake to show up, we ended up being wrong. There was always another peak beyond the first one. Every once in a while we’d get the feeling of backing out. But we finally made it to the Ice Lakes. All I can say is, it was all worth it. Two lakes; frozen, on the altitude of 4600 m, monuments and mountains guarding the lakes far away from every thing you know. It was a moment of sheer joy. Every single pain and thought of going back was no more felt as we replaced it with a smile in our hearts. Every trekker was having one of the best moments they have ever had, and we finally ate a cinnamon roll to celebrate (which is now my favorite piece of bread).

Returning from Ice Lakes. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

Returning from Ice Lakes. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

After spending half an hour around the lake, it was time to go back to Brakha. Unfortunately, there were no tea-houses to stop by near the lake. The trail which took 5 hours to trek up, only took 2 hours on the return trip.
Upon reaching our hotel, our plans changed. Due to a bad weather forecast we decided to save our visit to Tilicho Lake for some other time. With hopes of keeping that promise we bid farewell to Manang.

Moving along the trail, we had very few interactions with fellow trekkers. It was a slow paced walk to Yak Kharka. We tried some new mountain delicacies along the way like sea buckthorn juice and yak Mo:Mos. We paid an astounding Rs 800 for one plate, but it was totally worth it. The night was colder than in Manang, but we slept well.

ON TO THORONG LA PASS

Awakened by the warm sun rays coming through the window, it was time to leave for Thorong La High Camp. Continuing along the trail, we did not have to ascend much to reach Thorong Phedi and we reached it with ease. After a quick rest and food we were on our way to Thorong La High Camp. It wasn’t a long distance from Phedi to High Camp, however it took approximately 45 minutes to an hour due to the steepness of the path.

As we ascended we came across wild blue sheep grazing just beside the trail. While traveling, there are moments when you get the feeling that all your problems simply don’t matter because of the atmosphere and the surroundings.

This moment was one of them.

On the way to Thorong La High Camp. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

On the way to Thorong La High Camp. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

The camp viewpoint was incredible. With the mountains all around you, and Thorong Phedi way below, our faces were all smiles. We had dal bhat with a large group of fellow travelers – who were just as excited as we were for tomorrow’s adventure towards the almighty Thorong La pass.

We crawled into our warm beds in the chilly nights of High Camp. Most people find it difficult to sleep at high altitudes, unless they’re accustomed to it. We were no different. We became extremely restless after a couple of hours of sleep. I plugged in my earphones, cranked up the volume. The iPod played “Born to be Wild” as I tried to sleep during the odd hours of the night.

Thorong la High Camp lodge. Photo by Rishav Adhihari

Thorong la High Camp lodge. Photo by Rishav Adhihari

The alarm went off at 4:30 am. We arose feeling groggy and tired but felt better after many sips of tea. By 5am we were already on the roll. For hours, the trail consisted of a bunch of travelers in single file, snow filled trails, and a dark sky. We slipped around every so often, our hearts racing and hands feeling numb. We stopped to catch our breath. When we looked back, it was really beautiful. People shared a similar amount of enthusiasm while trekking, as torch lights flashed in a line in those dark hours. I don’t think I will ever forget that moment – I felt infinite.

The dark sky faded away as sun began to show its face. We could barely breathe with the rise in altitude. I felt like my head was about to explode and each step I took felt as though I was walking on air. As we pushed on, each turn brought us with a new expectation of being at the top. The final few hours were damn hard but when we finally reached the pass, an adrenaline rush took over and we were on cloud nine. As soon as our eyes were set on the Tibetan flags fluttering around the pass, it was all about celebration. Smiling faces, eye-gasmic views, group photos, and an aura of happiness surrounded the area as everyone was proud of this achievement.

Happy moment having reached Thorong La pass (5,416m). Photo contributed by Rishav Adhikari.

Happy moment having reached Thorong La pass (5,416m). Photo contributed by Rishav Adhikari.

Standing there, I wondered, looked around, not below, but above, at all the other peaks that were around us. Questions came flooding in my mind, why do climbers, mountaineers and trekkers return again and again to the Himalayas and maybe, maybe I understood a little….

MYTHICAL MUKTINATH

We commenced our downhill journey from Thorong La pass to Mustang Valley. Our knees were starting to fail as we slid down the gravel slopes. The views of the arid mountains in the distance were stunning, as was the feeling of finally walking on flat ground as we approached Muktinath.

It was my first visit to this sacred place so I decided to shower in the holy waters of Muktinath. With the Go-Pro in one hand taking a video I ran through all those water taps as fast as I could. I took dips in two freezing ponds.

After spending some holy moments, it was time to leave for tonight’s stop at old Kagbeni “Ekley Bhatti”. On the evening we strolled along the gorge of the Kali Gandaki river.

Descending from Thorong La pass and heading down to Muktinath. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

Descending from Thorong La pass and heading down to Muktinath. Photo by Rishav Adhikari

Early next morning, we woke up to the sound of a rooster. It was time for a walk. As we strolled through the valleys and white-walled villages, listening to Tibetan prayer songs in the fields of Kagbeni, it felt heavenly. Hidden doors, Tibetan monasteries, it was gorgeous. I was in awe of how the landscape of Mustang was unlike anything I had seen in the Himalayas. After one fine lunch in EkleyBhatti, we left for Jomsom.

Walking by the side of Kali Gandaki river, the only song – as you can imagine playing in our head– was “Jomsomai bazar ma baraabajeyhawasarararaa….. “. Maybe being in the mountains for all these days, witnessing such heavenly mountains, Jomsom didn’t bring about the same feeling inside me. It didn’t capture me. We went for a walk in the evening. It felt different seeing so many people after so many days of being away. We bought souvenirs for Mom. And with a sip of Marpha Brandy and tired legs we went to sleep in the laps of sleeping gods.

With a new day in civilization it was time to go back to reality. We caught a bus home from Jomsom. Now, as the scenes through the dusty bus window kept changing, my body was at peace. Several thoughts began to seep through my head. Flashbacks of the mountain trails, eyes full of stories, heart full of mountain love, living the best moments of our lives; we bid farewell to the Annapurna Circuit.

For more of Rishav’s stories from his journeys on the Great Himalaya Trails head over to his blog or check out more of his amazing photos on Instagram: @shutter_psycho

Do you have a story to share from your adventures on the Great Himalaya Trails? Find out how to become a GHT contributing blogger here.

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