The Annapurna Circuit

This is a complete guide to trekking the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal. I did this with my partner in July of 2018 during one of two off-seasons. Summer (May-September) is the rainy season and the trek doesn’t see much traffic during this time. Winter (December-February) is the other off-season for obvious reasons. I’ve divided this trip report into two main sections.

The first part talks about the general logistics such as how to get to the circuit and what you should bring. I will try to include as much exact information about what I actually brought as I can and then provide some commentary on what I’d change when I go back.

The second part will focus on a timeline of the trek. What towns did we stay in and what were they like? What were some of the things we saw along the way and what were the trail conditions? This part will basically be a long blog post about our trek divided by the villages we stayed at or passed through along the way.

I've also created some spreadsheets and charts which may be helpful and are linked below.

1). Day by day list of costs on the way up and notes on prices in general 

2). Gear list with weights and comparison of what I actually brought and what I would bring today instead

3). Distance and Elevation data and graphs


BACKGROUND

Why the Annapurna Circuit and why July (arguably the worst time of year to go). I am not a mountaineer, rock climber, athlete, or otherwise elite outdoorsman. In fact, the Annapurna Circuit was really my first backpacking trip and still my longest one to date. I did, however, grow up camping and loving the outdoors and am an experienced day hiker. Travel is also something I have some experience in, having been through much of North America and over 30 other countries.

Over the past few years I’ve grown a love for photography and a desire to capture natural landscapes as I see and feel them. Combined with my passion for the outdoors and a mild case of wanderlust, I began creating an unofficial list of places I definitely want to visit in my lifetime. This list includes Patagonia, New Zealand’s Southern Alps, the Andes Mountains in Northern Peru, and the Himalayas.

In May of 2018, my partner and I quit our jobs and bought one way tickets to Singapore to start our first visit to the continent of Asia. I had researched the Himalayas enough to know that Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit, Annapurna Base Camp, and Everest Base Camp were probably the best options for first time trekkers with epic mountain scenery. However, we made no specific plans on when we would arrive in Nepal if at all on this trip.

Fast forward through our first month in the hot and humid SouthEast part of Asia, and I soon realized that the climate differences for a resident of dry temperate Northern California were more than I anticipated. Added to that were the vast cultural differences between western countries where most of my previous travel had been and that of many SouthEast Asian countries. I found myself longing for the cool familiarity of the mountains and Nepal seemed the right choice.

So one day we bought a ticket from Malaysia to Kathmandu, knowing we would arrive during the rainy season but figuring we should give it a shot. We landed on a hot July day in the rain and were soon greeted by the chaos of Kathmandu. Here we opted to spend five days exploring the city, eating good food, researching all the ins and outs of the treks, buying supplies, and determining the best trek for this time of year. We talked to local guides and foreign adventurers alike trying to gage whether we should attempt trekking at all this time of year.

Eventually, after receiving some mixed accounts, we decided to risk it and head out the next morning for the Annapurna Circuit. We heard from both ends of the spectrum including some vehement statements that we shouldn’t trek this time of year and other trekkers who had just finished and had a wonderful time. We knew that we could always turn around and come back if it felt too dangerous.


MORE ON MONSOON SEASON

July is the middle of the monsoon season in Nepal. It’s also summer which means the lowlands are a steaming jungle and the mountains are often hidden in clouds. Due to the steep terrain, the land is prone to mudslides which can block roads and send vehicles down ravines. Leeches are also a problem at lower elevation which we soon found to be especially true when walking through dense foliage.

However, there are several benefits to trekking this time of year. Being the off -season there are far fewer tourists both in Kathmandu and on the trails. This means lower prices, easier to obtain rooms, and less crowding on the streets and trails. Along with the rain comes greenery. The flowers are in bloom and the trees are their greenest. The alpine hillsides are green as well, turning brown later in the year when trekking peaks. The nights don’t get as cold even at high altitude where guest houses are without heat, so fewer warm layers are required.

Of course, the dangers are real. Nepali people die every year in monsoon related road accidents and it's not uncommon for a few tourists to die as well. Delays are inevitable due to poor road conditions made worse by the rain. On the trail, many of the guest houses are not operating during the off season or may be more hesitant to welcome guests or have many food options. While crowds can create hassle, some comradery on the trail is welcome but much harder to find during the off-season.

NEXT TIME: Based on our experience, I wouldn’t change what we did. However, I would probably not go during this season again or necessarily recommend others to go during July. Instead I would opt for the end of the rainy season right before peak season (late September) or the end of the second trekking season right before the rainy season (late May).

A jeep crosses a river on the circuit

PART I: LOGISTICS OF THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT

Almost everything you need for your trek can be bought in Kathmandu. Prices are cheaper than in the west but the quality is lower and most stores sell knock-offs of the brands they claim to sell. The neighborhood of Thamel is the primary trekkers hub in Nepal’s capital city. Here you will find more shops than you can count offering new and used gear, from real name-brand stuff to cheap knock offs. If you are coming to Nepal as part of a longer trip that includes travel to much warmer countries (as we did), you might consider buying some of your gear in Kathmandu.

We bought two synthetic sleeping bags (rated -10C but probably only good down to freezing) for $25/each. We were offered supposedly 100% down rated -20C “waterproof” sleeping bags for $50/each but were glad we didn’t get them. I purchased a decent quality “North Face” jacket with synthetic down filling for $15 and “waterproof” shell for $15. Diamox (a medication for altitude sickness) and many other meds (Decadron, a steroid, and various antibiotics) can be purchased for about $1 for a week's supply and without a prescription. The quality and purity of these drugs is unknown. I would definitely bring my own backpack as you will want something better quality than what I saw available. Same with shoes (or boots, it doesn’t matter really but trail runners are more comfortable and do the job perfectly) as you want them broken in. Everything else could be bought in Kathmandu but you won’t find anything ultralight or top quality.

NEXT TIME: Since trekking I’ve learned a lot about the value of a light backpack and minimal (but sufficient) gear. If trekking in Nepal was the only aspect of my trip from the US, I would bring nearly all my own gear. Everything would be quality and as light as possible for the task. An ultralight down quilt, wool underclothes, a down puffy, a waterproof rain shell, and a quality lightweight backpack 50 liters or less. I think a sub 10 pound base weight is reasonable even with a heavy camera.


PASSES AND PERMITS

You are required to have a TIMS card and the Annapurna Conservation Area Permit to trek. There are plenty of good blogs online describing these so I won’t go into great detail. They can both be purchased at the Nepal Tourism Board about a 20 minute walk from Thamel. Each costs about 2000 rupee ($17) and during the off season there was very little wait. I was told that you can get them in Pokhara and Besi Sahar as well but can't confirm. Bring passport photos (they wanted 4 each from us) and your passport as well as travel insurance information (required, we used World Nomads). Keep your permits handy as there are frequent checkpoints on the trek.


MONEY MATTERS

Everything is cash in Nepal. Many places that have MasterCard and Visa plastered all over their storefront window or list online that they take credit cards. This is almost always inaccurate. I’m not sure why. Mobile data and wifi are generally available and it would be helpful for tourists even if it meant slightly higher prices. Also there is a feeling of dishonesty when a business clearly advertises one thing but practices another.

For the trek you should bring all the cash you need with you. There are no ATM’s from Besisahar to Jomsom. The ATM’s in Thamel, Kathmandu usually only allow 15-30k rupees per transaction (many banks have limitations as well). You will also likely pay a fee every time you withdraw money and probably not always get the best exchange rates. I estimate that I lost about 10% on every withdrawal between fees and bad exchange rates.

How much money you need on the trek depends a lot on how much time you plan to take and what “luxuries” you want. I read blogs before my own experience suggesting $25-35/day per person. By watching our budget and going in the off-season we spent closer to $15/person and could have been quite comfortable on $20. Beer ($2-5), hot showers ($2 when available), and western food (always more expensive than Nepali food) can quickly double that. Most snacks are cheaper in Kathmandu (with the exception of Manang) but then you have to carry them all that way. If you purify your own water you save a lot.

NEXT TIME: I would probably plan to spend a little bit more to make the journey more enjoyable. An occasional beer or more variety in food choices can really improve your day. Hot showers are definitely worth it if they are gas powered but probably not if solar (they don’t actually get hot). I would also take more time on the trek, thus increasing the amount of cash I needed. That being said: the 50,000 rupee I brought on this trek would still probably suffice. If you are going without a guide or a porter the trek is automatically going to be significantly cheaper than those with planned tours.


GUIDES AND PORTERS

There are numerous options to do a guided trek including booking months in advance through large North American companies like G-Adventures or REI. For a more hassle free experience, this could be a good option. However, you definitely do not need a guide for the Annapurna Circuit. And I’ve read many stories of the guides being more trouble than they are worth. The trek is super easy to follow with a map. Often because of the rain, we just followed the rough gravel and dirt road that nearly makes the entire circuit. During peak seasons, the trail looks very well marked and easy to follow. There are quite a few side trails, but these are easily avoided by referring to your map.

Porters are also unnecessary for nearly all trekkers, even those with guides. You need such minimal gear compared to backpacking in the wilderness or mountaineering, that your pack shouldn’t be an issue. I couldn’t believe how much stuff some people brought with them. My pack weight was over 30 pounds and 55 liters and I definitely saw a large number of much bulkier packs on the trail. Some people had a porter carrying a huge load for them on top of the oversized day pack on their own back.

Cost-wise hiring guides and porters would at least double your cost. Sure it helps provide jobs, but also may keep you from staying in that little unique guest house on the edge of town or spending an extra day somewhere that intrigues you. Guides will often direct you to stay at a specific guest house for which they get a commission even though there may be better options available. Some friends did Everest Base camp with a tour company later in 2018 and spend nearly 7 times what we did on our trek (there are no luxury hotel options on the trek and flights are not included in most tours). Having the independence to travel at your own pace and stay where you want, when you want is all something that money can’t buy.

NEXT TIME: I would definitely do this trek (also Annapurna and Everest Base Camps) on my own again. While there are some incredible guides with much knowledge and enjoyable personalities, the Annapurna Circuit is just too straight forward for me to justify needing one.

The road out of Chame

FOLLOWING THE TRAIL

There are several options for trails maps. Maps are easily available in Kathmandu for about 400 rupee. These are fairly accurate and up to date. Look for one made the same year (or at least previous) as your trek date. If you buy a map in the US before traveling, it may be slightly less up to date. For example, we ended up with the September 2017 edition of Nepa Maps NA504 Around Annapurna. Now, over a year later, the latest edition I can find online is the 2014 edition.

A road that parallels the Circuit is rapidly being constructed and the trail is constantly being rerouted when its path is more desirable for the course of the road.

Free offline apps such as Maps.Me offer downloadable trail routes for the Annapurna Circuit. Other options such as Gaia can assist with terrain but I never used it. Another invaluable source that I used for information about stops along the way, distances between villages, and what to expect, was the Wikitravel Document on the Annapurna Circuit.

The main trail is marked with red and white trail markers that are fairly visible. Some of the trail simply follows the road which isn’t a bad walk during the off season. However, in high season the dust and frequent jeep traffic would make this option uninviting. Luckily, most of the way up the path there are alternative trail options which are often on the opposite side of the valley as the road. Since leeches love foliage, we opted for the foliage free road most of the way up but outside of the rainy season this shouldn’t be a problem.


ELECTRONICS

Chargers: I would recommend bringing one universal adapter, preferably with multiple usb outlets in it. Outlets are hard to find and while some are universal, not all are. Some places charge you to use an outlet so being able to plug multiple devices into a single outlet saves you money. With my adapter I could charge my back up battery, phone, and camera all at once from one outlet.

Photo and Video: If you are a casual photographer just looking for some nice photos to show friends and family, I would recommend investing in a flagship smartphone or a Gopro rather than carrying the weight of even a small interchangeable lens camera. You just don't need all that extra weight unless you want significant zoom or professional quality large prints. The Go-pro is super light, takes decent 4k video, has image stabilization built in (much better video quality), is waterproof, and is tiny. Bring multiple batteries if you plan on a lot of videos. Also bring one SD card per day to reduce the risk of losing data.

I consider myself an advanced hobbyist when it comes to photography. Currently I use a Sony a7r II. I only brought one lens, the versatile Sony 24-240mm FE f3.5-6.5. If you are really serious I'd recommend a wide angle as well (16-35mm f2.8). This would especially be nice during drier weather when you can actually see the night sky for stargazing. The mountains are so vast and towering that a wide angle is really the only way to properly capture them without doing a panorama. I chose not to bring a tripod. If you are carrying your own gear it's a lot of extra weight to carry.

NEXT TIME: I’d bring the same camera set up and add a wide angle lens and an ultralight fold-up tripod. I would bring four batteries and probably an SD card for every other day. It’s a lot of weight but the photos are so worth it.

Backup Power: I used a generic large backup battery charger with two usb ports. It was rated for 20k mAh but I don’t think that was accurate. My 10k mAh Anker is lighter and holds a similar charge . Whenever there wasn't charging available, I'd plug into this and when there was charging available I'd make sure it stayed charged. Even so I bought 4 batteries for my camera. One alternative, if going when the sun's out, is to rely on solar energy for charging.

Memory Cards: I brought 8 memory cards including 4 micro SD and 4 regular. If I had to do it over I’d bring more. I had one scare where the camera said it wasn't writing the files correctly and when I went to flip back through them, I got error messages. I switched cards at that time and more frequently afterward. Turns out nothing was wrong but if you are a serious photographer you want to minimize risk of loss.

Drones: This is a subject that has not been addressed in any other blogs I've read at all. Before going I watched numerous videos of people flying drones in the Himalayas. YouTube has several vloggers who have droned their treks and filmmakers who have made beautiful drone documentaries of these great mountains.

Unfortunately none of them address one serious problem, the Annapurna Conservatory at least (and possibly all of Nepal) has banned the use of drones without a permit (some say it's easy to get one, some say it's not). In some instances police have simply confiscated people's drones on the spot. In a country where one can hardly breathe in major cities due to dust and pollution, you'd think there would be greater issues than a couple of drones flying around. After consulting with some locals who saw my drone, I concluded that there is a significant risk that the police will take your device if they catch you. Many will find this a risk well worth taking and in some places there is limited police presence. The Annapurna Circuit has a surprisingly strong police presence in several towns (Chame for example) but not everywhere.

A drone is a lot of weight to carry if you don't feel comfortable using it for risk of having it taken. If you do plan to use it, either get a permit or exercise extreme caution and don't use it around villages or locals who might feel led to alert authorities. If you are a professional, just get the permit since your gear is likely worth a lot. If you are an amateur and want to risk it, bring a small, light drone that you can hide well if need be. I don't have specific information about getting permits, but it seems like the process isn't easy or quick.

Other: I brought a headlamp but never used it. For outhouse runs and power outages my phone served just fine though the headlamp would be much more convenient for longer periods of darkness. I would still recommend one.


CELL SERVICE

If you want to pack super light, aren't serious about photography or filming, but want some nice shots to bring home, I'd bring a high-end Samsung Galaxy, iPhone or similar. Since I had camera gear, I ended up using a cheap Samsung J2 pro (picked up brand new in Malaysia for $125). It takes relatively bad photos and video but was really just used to post updates to my Instagram story during those rare WiFi moments.

It is easy to get a SIM card for your global compatible phone in Kathmandu and even at some locations on the trek. There are two main providers Nepal Telecom and NCELL. We went with the private company Ncell because we heard that they were faster. Unfortunately, we soon found they didn’t currently offer much coverage on the circuit. However, judging by the number of locals using their cell-phones I’m guessing Nepal Telecom offers better service up there. Data is inexpensive and definitely worth it for navigating Kathmandu.

NEXT TIME: I would go with Telecom as having some coverage is better than none at all. I would also bring a better phone with a better battery life. One less thing to worry about charging all the time if the battery lasts longer.


WATER

Drinking water can be purchased at quite regular intervals along the trail in 1 liter bottles of filtered safe water for 30-150 rupee/liter. However, this adds up quickly (2-4 liters/day) and is quite bad for the environment. Safe water filling stations are available in many towns during trekking season for 30-60 rupee/liter. These were all closed except Thorung Phedi when I trekked this July. Bringing a 1 liter bottle to refill should be plenty when the clean filling stations are all open.

Another method is to fill up from the numerous running water stations in towns and villages along the way. Some of these are running constantly and are quite clean (coming from the mountains upstream from the village). However a village further up the mountain, animal waste, or other contaminants could still get you sick. I met trekkers who drank this water without problems but I would not risk it. While it usually didn’t appear to need filtering, I would absolutely purify it first. I brought chlorine tablets (over iodine because chlorine also kills a virus that is a common cause of water related stomach illnesses) and a Steripen. The Steripen uses ultraviolet rays to kill pathogens. It required a wide mouthed water bottle to use (won’t work with a Smart water bottle). Also any curves or hidden areas where the light might not reach the water can leave it unclean. Mine required two ca123 batteries (not common) and can only do about 50 liters/two batteries. I carried several extra batteries.

Some sort of water purification tablets were available in many stores along the way. With a method to purify water, you save money and plastic and can even get your water from a stream if needed. We found the chlorine tablets did make the water taste somewhat undesirable so you may want to bring some sort of water flavoring. Another option is the two step water treatment drops that take more time but are arguably the most effective against the most possible illnesses with the least negative effect on the flavor.

NEXT TIME: I would bring my Sawyer Mini and add chlorine tabs if the water seemed exceptionally sketchy which is rarely if ever did. The Sawyer Mini works with any lightweight water bottle or 1 liter filter bags which are light and easy to store.

Gangapurna glacier run off

FOOD

You don’t need to bring any food from your home country (and probably shouldn’t). Snacks are available at steadily increasing prices and regular intervals as you head up the trail. Snickers, potato chips, sodas, cookies, nuts and granola bars were easy to find even in the off season. If you are on a strict budget you may want to find an inexpensive supply of snacks in Kathmandu before heading up. If you want fresh produce, you will likely have to purchase from Kathmandu or along the way as there is very little on the trek.

A helpful tip: snack prices in Manang oddly aren't much more than Kathmandu (Snickers only increased from 85 to 100 rupee despite bringing more than 150 rupees in earlier towns).

Healthy options are harder to come by. Certain times of the year you can get apples but not during the summer. Most meals included cooked vegetables grown fresh in the village. Every open lodge had food available. We generally avoided the meat due to limited safe storage options. We only had minor trouble with the food. Dal Bat is the traditional meal on the trek. Garlic soup is another popular one. We really enjoyed the Tibetan Bread with Honey for breakfast. If you are trying to eat low carb, good luck. Every meal is very high in carbs. Eating vegetarian is fairly easy to do.

NEXT TIME: We tried to eat a lot of Dal Bat as it was the least expensive way to get a lot of food. Often when you are very hungry, it just makes sense as they keep refilling your plate. However, I think it's worth spending a little more to eat more variety and change things up. With so many long days of trekking, it's a good way to keep up your morale.


LODGING

We did not book a single place on the trek in advance. I had heard that during peak season places fill up and guest houses end up packing extra people in the common areas. This was not a problem during such a slow time of year. We had more of a problem finding that places were closed due to the lack of traffic. I would not recommend booking anything in advance. If you go during peak season just try to arrive early enough to find a good spot before they are all taken.

As numerous other blogs describe, the lodges are typically referred to as tea houses although to me this implies more of a small home stay. A few of the locations we stayed in were someone’s home with extra rooms for guests. Others were more like mini hotels in which a room or two was saved for the employees. They all had kitchens and dining rooms which appeared like great places to gather if we had had other guests to gather with. Most had wood burning stoves in the middle which would have been wonderful as we increased in altitude. However, it was not cold enough for them to justify burning precious wood for just a couple of trekkers. In every village, we first walked through the entire village (most take 10 minutes to walk through) to see where we felt the most welcome. In some places like Chame, it was easy. A kind lady called out to us upon passing by and after seeing her rooms we realized they would be perfect. Other places, like Manang were larger and had more options to choose from. Here we actually looked at a couple of rooms that we just didn’t love before settling on one. A few villages had vastly differing prices (ranging from free to 700 rupees) so if you are on a budget it pays to shop around. During peak season you may not have this luxury and may just have to take what's available.

NEXT TIME: I would still not book anything ahead. I would look for places that were clean and comfortable. A shower isn’t necessary every night. And sometimes the best places are away from the main lodges. I would also try to stay in a few of the smaller villages that aren’t necessarily on the main trek. Most likely I would do this trek slower (and in better weather) so as to experience more of the culture and hopefully meet more trekkers to swap stories with along the way.


GETTING THERE FROM KATHMANDU

We went to BG Mall (400 rupee taxi ride north of Thamel) to get our bus directly to Besisahar where the trek begins. The taxi actually dropped us off at the Gongabu New Bus Station. However, upon asking around we were directed to the BG Mall around the corner.

There are mini buses (think minivans with way too many seats packed in them) going to Besisahar directly. While popular with tourists, these appeared cramped and uncomfortable to me. They also tie all the luggage outside on the top of the van so it ends up covered in exhaust and dust. One benefit is that these minibuses go direct and don't stop to pick up more passengers along the way. I've heard they run about 700 rupee.

We chose what we were told was a tourist bus. In reality it ran more like a local bus to Besisahar from BG Mall. We didn't buy tickets ahead but simply paid the driver 450 rupees each. We had our backpacks stored underneath, had our own seats, and the bus was never full. However, I think during peak season it would have been much more crowded. Even though we stopped to pick up passengers whenever we saw them, most of the delays were the terrible traffic jam coming out of Kathmandu (3-4 hour traffic jam. Even so, we made it to Besisahar by about 3pm (9 hours) without switching buses. There are supposedly non-stop “luxury” tourist buses available for a bit more. However, you won’t find anything that approaches the quality of buses available in South America or Europe.

As with all transportation in Nepal, be prepared for longer than expected journeys and over packed vehicles that wouldn’t be up to safety standards in the US. There probably won’t be air conditioning in the summer either. And the passengers tend to be quite loud the entire trip.

NEXT TIME: I would probably still risk buying a last minute ticket. That way I can assess the condition of the bus before purchasing. The mini-buses, while perhaps slightly faster, look way less enjoyable unless perhaps you have a large enough group to book the entire bus.


SOME MORE ON GEAR

You don’t need as much gear as a normal backpacking trip. While some people do choose to wild camp, most stay at the tea houses. Even if you do camp, food is so readily available, there is no need to carry large amounts with you. Bringing a tent would allow you to wake up in some truly wild, remote locations without any other humans around. It would also require you bring a sleeping pad and a warmer sleeping bag.

All the tea houses had blankets. Extras were available if we were cold though this is not the case during peak season. I would at least bring a liner if not your own bag for cleanliness and extra warmth. I think a light 30 degree quilt would be fine unless you went in the winter. There’s no heat in the rooms, but I imagine they keep more warmth in than a tent would. The coldest mornings during the summer were below freezing, but not by much in our experience. Peak season is in the fall so it will be colder for sure.

I’d probably go with my SWD long haul 50 out of my current gear. Although it would be bigger than needed, it carries really well and rolls down when not filled. You probably don’t need a backpack with a frame. Honestly, a Zimmerbuilt style QuickStep or similar would probably do just fine if you are not camping or bringing a lot of camera gear.

Any cooking supplies are superfluous unless you really want to eat freeze-dried meals or have a cup of hot tea on a random remote hilltop. There are actually small huts which serve hot tea at some of the more popular day hikes along the trek. These are only open during peak season. I primarily hiked in shorts but if it had been much colder leggings or pants would have been nice. There’s a lot of exposure and sun during peak season (even in the summer the clouds cleared enough to get us burnt), so long sleeve shirts and maybe a hat would be nice.

Camp shoes and night clothes aren’t necessary but sure were nice to have. A change or two of underwear and socks would suffice. I brought some running shorts that double as swim trunks. There are several hot springs on the trek which are near town and close to the river. These were mostly flooded over with river water due to the monsoon.

We brought way too many toiletries and a large first aid kit. If I recall correctly some places had toilet paper in their bathrooms and it was also available at some of the shops.

The Yeti Hotel where we stayed in Manang

BRIEF GUIDE TO KATHMANDU

We arrived in Kathmandu near the end of June to pouring rain. The airport is a mess of chaos. One had to take a bus from the plane to get to the terminal. Visas are available on arrival for US citizens and those of many other countries. We chose a 30 day visa for about $50 but there are longer options available. We took a taxi from the airport to Thamel for about $5 and settled into a hostel for the night.

Our first few nights in the hostel were nice (community atmosphere and cheap price) but we soon realized we wanted to be in a hotel and moved locations for our next three nights before the trek. You can walk Thamel in a day or less. There are plenty of decent restaurants and lots of trekkers and tourists. A few of the streets don’t allow cars which is refreshing as the dirt, dust, and exhaust they produce is overwhelming. The shops in Thamel offer everything you could imagine related to trekking but not all of it is quality. You are under constant pressure to buy something or some service you don’t want nearly everywhere you go in Thamel.

Five days in Kathmandu was too long. I’d recommend three to get accustomed to the place, buy any last minutes good for the trek, and get some cash. We left everything we had with us at the hotel including extra camera gear and a laptop. We locked it in a bag and they put it in a second floor storage room. The agreement is that you will stay with them when you return but since they didn’t have rooms we weren’t held to that. Nothing was lost, stolen, or damaged in our experience.


Lodging:

Alobar 1000 Hostel: We stayed two nights here. It was a friendly enough place with cheap water refills available and an inexpensive rooftop bar. There were all sorts of friendly travelers here from yogis and hippies to trekkers and climbers. Our private room was ok but the bathroom was shared and not always so clean. Price was approximately $10-15 per night.

Hotel Family Home: We stayed three nights here and stored our luggage here during our trek. Cost was approximately $20 per night. The rooms were ok. Not quite up to western standards. There was a free breakfast you could pick from (pancakes, smoothies, toast and eggs). The bathroom had an open window instead of a fan and was filled with bugs.

Trekkers Home: We stayed one night here after returning from our trek. It was a great price and the owners were friendly but the air conditioning didn’t work. With the pollution and the summer heat and humidity, having air conditioning is nearly essential in July. Cost was only $12 per night but didn’t include breakfast.

OYO 120 Hotel Tayoma: We stayed here three nights after the trek. It has a Pho restaurant with good food below it. The rooms are large and clean with cold air conditioning. This was probably our favorite spot in Thamel. Price included breakfast for about $20 per night.


Dining:

Himalayan Java Coffee - Thamel Chowk: This is a popular spot with trekkers and expats alike. Great coffee for the area and many baked goods as well as specialty drinks.

Western Tandoori & Naan House: We probably ate here half a dozen times. Excellent prices and amazing authentic Indian food better than anywhere I’ve had in North America and rivaling London. Local spot with nothing fancy that can get quite hot during the day. Looks a little dirty but we never got sick and enjoyed every meal here.

Northfield Cafe: Nice outdoor cafe with baked goods and a decent breakfast.

Weizen Bakery: Probably our favorite bakery in Thamel. Great chocolate cake and pastries. Half off after 8 pm!

The Cafe With No Name: Great little bar serving local micro-brewed beer and donating proceeds to charity. We went here several times and always loved the food. Definitely geared toward tourists.


Medical:

Pharmacies: There are numerous pharmacies in Thamel which don’t require a prescription to get things like Diamox, antibiotics, pain relief, or decadron. Quality is unknown of course so use with care.

CIWEC Hospital Pvt. Ltd.: This is a private hospital especially for tourists that’s right outside Thamel. Due to an accident which required suturing we actually used this location and got excellent professional service. Our doctor spoke perfect English. She and her nurses all used sterile technique, practiced hand washing, and were very skilled and thorough in their care. I don’t think we would have received better care anywhere in the US. Cost was $330 USD which is a lot for Nepal but was completely covered by our travel insurance.


Transport:

Walking. This is the best way to get about Thamel and really much of Kathmandu. It's fun just to wander. There are hidden shops, alleyways, and restaurants everywhere. End to end, Thamel is only about a 15 minute walk one way.

Taxis. I don’t think we paid more than $5 for a taxi anywhere including going to the famous stupa or the airport. We paid about $4 for our taxi to the bus station which would have been a 45 minute walk. We usually negotiated the price down a dollar or two from their initial offer.

Buses. We did not ride any city buses. The main bus station for travel around the country is the Gongabu New Bus Station. The bus to Besi Sahar actually picked up about a five minute walk from here at the BG Mall which we found out on the fly the morning of our trip after our taxi dropped us off at the bus station.

Looking back toward Besi Sahar from Syang

PART II: A TIMELINE OF OUR ANNAPURNA TREK

BESI SAHAR: 760m (2490 ft)

We arrived in the small town of Besi Sahar around 3 in the afternoon and were eager to be on our way. There did not appear to be any other trekkers or tourists up to this point. We got our first permit stamp at the first checkpoint near the edge of town. We then overpaid for an overcrowded jeep to take us further up the road. Be sure to agree on what you are paying for when you catch a ride on the circuit. We had no idea we were agreeing to ride with eleven other people and ultimately paying for the entire jeep ride with our “tourist price” (the owner admitted as much when we questioned him). This may sound cheap or priviledged, but this jeep was going up the road with or without us. Any money they made off of us was just extra. In the future I would request the jeep be less crowded, or that we pay the same as everyone else in it.

Since the rainy season was just beginning to kick into high gear, we decided that skipping some of the lower elevated parts of the trek would be in our benefit. We had been told of the possibility of a rain shadow farther up that would potentially provide us with more fair weather.

The town itself seems to have a reasonable amount to offer including some shops and decent hotels (some of which you can even book online). I’m sure it gets quite busy during peak season. Our cramped jeep soon had us bouncing and wincing our way up the rough road. Two hours later we had covered 22km and climbed 340 meters in elevation. Rain clouds hid our views but we did make out occasional quiet villages. There was one check point along the way where we had to show our passports and permits. I imagine walking this section could be quite beautiful when the weather isn’t so dreary.


SYANGE: 1100m (3610 ft)

This was our first village on the Annapurna Circuit. Our jeep driver offered us to stay in the guest house of someone he knew. Not being yet “seasoned trekkers” we took his advice before checking out the rest of the options. Ultimately, it was a perfect spot with beautiful views looking down the river. One small mishap occurred when the owners locked the place at night which resulted in guests being locked inside until the owners woke up. I would imagine during the busy season, with so many people wanting an early start, this would not be a problem. However, we were up well before they were and found ourselves wandering the quiet halls trying to find a way out and then knocking on several closed doors before finally finding our hosts.

Many people stop in Ghermu instead of Syange, across the river and up the hill. Since we’d have to backtrack to reach this town, we skipped it. Breakfast included what soon became one of our favorites, Tibetan bread with honey.

The weather at this point was warm and humid, around 80 during the day. The clouds hid the heat of the direct sun but also covered up the mountains and hillsides in moody swirls. Fresh rain drizzled down on us as we started our hike that first morning in the Himalayas. A few kilometers up the trail we came across some monkeys calling out in the rainforest. The foliage was thick and dense. Trees that appeared like palms dotted the steep slopes. A raging milky brown river tore into its banks often hundreds of feet below us.

At the village of Chamje we came across a sign indicating the Annapurna Circuit continued down a trail to the right of the road. Within ten minutes we were in thick foliage and picking multiple leeches off our legs so opted to turn around. If you go trekking during the rainy season, I would recommend using the road till at least Tal where the leeches begin to dissipate.

Much of the road is under construction or washed out due to the frequent mudslides. However, the limited summer traffic made it pleasant to walk on. Due to its higher elevation, it had better views than the actual trail had. Occasionally we ran into horses grazing on the grassy sides of the road. Waterfalls frequently fell cascading across the roadway. A surprising number of motor bikes were making their way up the challenging terrain.

A remote homestead down the steep banks

TAL: 1700 m (5580 ft)

This is a small town in a valley with over ten guest houses. The town is off the main road, although not off the main trekking route. Some of the tea houses appeared quite nice and a few welcomed us to stay and eat. Cleanliness seemed lacking. We saw more flies here than anywhere else on the trek. However we were able to eat a good lunch at an outdoor cafe before continuing on our way.

From here, we stuck to the trail for a while rather than the road. It was wide open and mostly leech free. After noting a steep climb ahead, we took a suspension bridge across the flooded river to the main road again and continued winding our way up. Not once during this first day did any mountains peak out of the clouds, but the rain was not enough to be bothersome.

These trees looked much like palms

DHARAPANI: 1860 m (6100 ft)

Dharapani was quiet and didn’t feel welcoming when we showed up at about four in the afternoon. It actually has many nice looking guest houses but most appeared closed. One reason to perhaps stay here during peak season, is the possibility of day hikes and optional side treks. There is a police station and a check point where you must show your permits. By the time we arrived, we were done hiking in heat and humidity and so took a jeep from Dharapani to Chame where we hoped for better weather.

This jeep ride was about as exciting as it gets. Three people were in the front and four of us packed into the back row. A bed containing all sorts of goods in the back also had five adventurous Nepali trekkers riding on top of the luggage. This part of the road is perhaps the worst with frequent sheer drop-offs and slick deep mud. We crossed more than one cascade which stopped dropping just wide enough for a jeep to cross. During one river crossing nearly covering the jeep’s tires, I thought we might actually get stuck or be swept downstream over the cliffs. Luckily, our calm young driver was excellent at managing the vehicles and got us safely to Chame in about an hour and a half.

Occasionally the road was quite nicely done

CHAME: 2670 m (8760 ft)

Chame was the first village that actually felt alive during the off season. Further up, Manang would feel similar but larger. Many people start trekking in Chame. With ten or more lodges to choose from, we wandered the entire village before picking Potala Lodge (we had eaten lunch in Tal at a lodge by the same name, incidentally owned by the kind host’s sister). This place was free with purchase of dinner and breakfast and even included a free gas shower, free wifi, charging outlets available in the room. The bathroom was shared but I think we were the only ones using it. The rooms had a rustic wooden cabin feel. Our host served the best tea on the trek and excellent food.

Here we met some other trekkers, though none at our lodge. There is a large well staffed police station in the middle of town which seems odd for a mountain village. There is also a local hot spring. During the afternoon the men use it for bathing. Our host told us that the women use it in the morning but that tourists could go any time.

I would recommend staying here at least one night and possibly two if you ride a jeep up from Besisahar. This was the first village that really gave me that feeling trekking through a mountain village in the Himalaya. While many people had great things to say about previous villages, it seemed they didn’t offer that warm mountain welcome that I was expecting or hoping to find. Here we were greeted by a smiling woman at the gate to her lodge who invited us to stay, which we gladly did after making a round through the entire town. This habit, which we cultivated after our first night, may seem a bit tiring after a long day's trek, but it really helps you get a feel for the village and what places and people are the most welcoming to you. Like so many other travelers suggest, don’t stay at the first tea house you come to. Check out a few and find one that you can really enjoy and relax in. This also helps spread the business especially during the off season when there are so few trekkers.

The next morning, upon leaving Chame, the road was noticeably quieter. Many jeeps and bikes continue up farther, but the volume is much less at this point. We eventually came to Brahtang which contains apple orchards and cider (when in season) and a beautiful but closed lodge called Farmhouse. Apparently it is quite expensive during trekking season, but looked absolutely lovely with exposed wood beams and a large gathering area. The lodge looked like something from a mountain resort town.

A jeep makes its way along the cliffs edge

LOWER PISANG: 3200m (10,500 ft)

This is a quiet little town along the river with quite a few guest houses some of which were quite nice and modern with attached bathrooms. There are at least ten options here but many were closed for the season. We ended up staying at Eco Lodge and would definitely recommend it. Our clean room with a private bath was free with food purchases and included internet and charging. We paid for a much needed hot shower. The food was excellent and filling. We ran into a couple of other trekkers but otherwise the town was quiet.

Walking into Lower Pisang

UPPER PISANG: 3300m (10,830 ft)

Set about 100 meters in elevation uphill and across the river from Lower Pisang, this town appears to have three or four modern looking tea houses and several more traditional looking ones. We only found one that was open. They were charging 400 rupee per night plus dinner and additional charges for everything else (showers, power, wifi). We initially walked through Lower Pisang before coming up the hill to check out the Upper village. While Upper Pisang certainly has better views, during the off season we felt the Lower village offered more value and a warmer welcome. Most trekkers prefer the upper village for the mountain views which were still hidden for us.

Speaking of mountain views the next morning we awoke to parting clouds. I ran outside with my camera to capture the top of Pisang Peak coming out from behind the clouds. Turning around I could make out Annapurna II and possibly IV as well. This was the first view we had of the snowy glaciated peaks towering above us. It was incredible just how high they were. Hills that had previously appeared like small mountains disappearing in the clouds, now seem like minor foothills compared to what towered above them.

As we started trekking the clouds rolled back in and we didn’t manage too many more views that day. However, seeing the mountains so moody and the hills still so green was an unusual gift that most trekkers don’t get to enjoy. Since leaving Chame, the terrain had become more rugged and less like a jungle. By the time we left Pisang, the trees were shorter and appeared alpine in nature. Pines were more common and open meadows spread out in the valley.

During trekking season I would highly recommend taking the high route from Upper Pisang through Ghyaru and Ngawal and then either dropping down to Humde or continuing on the high route to Braka. At a guide’s recommendation and since there were still many clouds, we followed the road. Later we met another trekker who extolled the experience of visiting these remote areas as one of his favorites on the entire trek.

Lower Pisang from Upper Pisang

HUMDE: 3280 m (10760 ft)

This village appears to have multiple guest houses some of which appear quite nice. We did not stop here but did notice that it has an airport. There was a wedding celebration happening and the town was filled with joyful wedding guests rather than trekkers. I could see this being a charming stop on the way up during a busier season when everything is open.

A note about the distances. What I’ve found online indicates that from Upper Pisang to Humde going the upper route is about 12 km. From Lower Pisang to Humde by road is about 7 km. Thus depending on which route is taken, your total distance for the trek may vary.

Just outside of Humde we came across an alternative trail that left the road and wandered along an arid cliff side above a river. It crossed a long beautiful suspension bridge and passed a picturesque Tibetan school. Eventually the trail crossed back to the road near a town called Munchi that had a few closed guest houses. We continued on to the Tibetan town of Braka.

The Annapurna peak out for the first time

BRAKA: 3440 m (11280 ft)

This is another small village with a beautiful Tibetan Monastery on a hill overlooking the valley where a few tea houses stood, closed for the season. The town was interesting to explore and marks the trailhead to the Ice Lake day hike. The few stores advertising yak cheese and apple pie, were closed. The three or four tea houses looked relatively nice from the outside. Like Gunsang, Braka would probably be a great place to stay close to Manang while escaping the crowds during peak season.

We continued on to Manang knowing we could easily come back for a day trip since the two villages are barely 2 km apart. We ended up coming back twice, once to visit the Monastery and once on our way up to Ice Lake.

The journey from Braka to Manang

MANANG: 3540 m (11610 ft)

This important village is the most developed and largest on the Eastern side of the trek after leaving Besi Sahar. In fact, some people use this as their starting place for the trek. This was the first place we started seeing a fair number of other trekkers.

The town has many lodges (maybe 20, though not all were open) and quite a few had attached bathrooms with flushing toilets. Off season prices ranged from free to 300 rupee per night all with the assumption of meal purchases. Peak season prices were advertised as high as 600 per night. I would recommend eating your lunches in the town instead of the tea house. Local restaurants sold food at less than half the price of hotels and often had more character and personality to them.

Manang has many stores with packaged snacks. Outdoor stores offered trekking poles, warm coats, and other winter gear as well. There are a couple of “movie theaters” showing old climbing movies though all were closed this time of year. The town residents were busy building new lodges and cultivating crops. Lots of construction was going on.

The first part of Manang is full of tourist hotels, tea houses, and shops. In contrast the second part appears more like a Tibetan Village. The construction of this section appears like a medieval village or wood and stone. Stretching up the hills behind the village were terraced layers of cultivated land.

We spent much of our time at a local restaurant called Gyalzen Lodge & Restaurant . The food was incredibly delicious and there were nearly always other trekkers here. The prices were incredibly cheap, similar to those in Kathmandu. The people who owned the place were very friendly and hospitable. They have a couple of guest rooms up above for visitors. This seemed to be a true tea house in the way I imagine they were before these larger guest houses began popping up. One night we even joined in watching their favorite local tv show. We couldn’t understand the words, but the expressions on the actors' faces and everyone’s reactions told us enough to laugh along.

One of the nice things about Manang is that there are numerous day hikes nearby and even some mini side treks. Manang is the perfect village to spend a few days acclimatizing and resting. The altitude is high enough to help prepare for the summit, but not too high to significantly impair sleep.

Unfortunately for us during the off season it can be hard to meet other trekkers even here. We never had more than four other trekkers in our hotel at once. Many appeared to wish to be alone and some were quite busy with scheduled day hikes. We stayed at the Yeti Hotel which has nice private rooms with private flushing toilets. They had hot solar powered showers but without much sun the water was cold. Electric and internet were spotty at best. We found our hotel to be without either more often than not. Some other hotels did appear to use battery or generator backup in the evenings.

Manang from above

GANGAPURNA TAL, BRAKA MONASTERY 3800m (12470 ft)

Our first full day in Manang we decided to take a day hike to the Gangapurna Tal at the base of the Gangapurna Glacier. We descended from the hill on which Manang sits, across a glacial stream and up the moraine. The water braided its way down the slopes from the huge glacier into a milky blue lake which overflowed into the main river.

From here the trail continued up to a Stupa (Buddhist holy site) surrounded by prayer flags and a sweeping view of Manang village. One can purchase tea up here during peak season. Beyond there are more trails leading up the mountain slopes. Grazing high above us we could see yaks peppering the vibrant green hills. Below us were hoodoos eroded out of the soft dirt and below them the lush valley surrounding Manang.

After returning to Manang for a delicious lunch at Gyalzen, we decided to trek back to the traditional Tibetan monastery near Braka. There was significant construction going on here as the place appeared to be expanding. We also had one of our only run ins with an unfriendly dog expecting tourists to feed him.

Melted glacial water on our first day hike from Manang

KICHO TAL or ICE LAKE 4620m (15160 ft)

Our second day in Manang we decided to try a more ambitious acclimatization hike. Kicho Tal is a sacred lake surrounded by stupas and mountains. It rests over 1000m above Manang and would be our first time climbing above our previous highest hike, Mt. Whitney at 14,505 ft.

The trail starts at Braka, behind the monastery and quickly begins its steep ascent up the mountain. As we climbed, mountains peaked in and out of the clouds all around us. Finally exhausted and drenched with sweat we reached a grassy plateau with three yaks grazing and two men who appeared to be churning butter. Beyond them was the lake.

We walked around the entire green blue body of water which was ice free this time of year. If the clouds weren’t quite so heavy we would have climbed one of the surrounding hills for an even better view. Nearly a dozen different types of wild flowers were blooming in the high alpine grassland. This was probably one of the most exhausting days of the trek but much needed for acclimatization. We slept well on our last night in Manang.

The next day we were ready to resume our trek and push for the finish. Leaving Manang early that morning, the mountains were trying their best to peak out of the clouds. A bit of sun warmed our backs. This high up there is less atmosphere to protect from sunburn. Even though the outside temperature wasn’t incredibly hot, the sun felt intense. Climbing was slow. We were well above any trees and were now making our way through a long valley that spurred off the side of the main one in which Manang and most of the other villages sit.

Ice Lake

GUNSANG: 3950 m (12960 ft)

Gunsang, the first significant sign of civilization since Manang, has a few guest houses perched on a cliff. While they were definitely not open in July, they did appear nicely kept. This wayside is used as an overflow for Manang and appears would be a good place to escape crowds during peak season. The views from here were lovely.

Beyond that we passed by several small huts and a few small herds of cows. The valley was getting narrower and towering above us were moody green peaks. Behind us the Annapurna Himal was increasingly showing its face above the clouds as we walked away from it.

Ice Lake looking the opposite direction

YAK KHARKA: 4050 m (13290 ft)

Yak Kharka was the next village we came to and probably has the most lodging in any one place between Manang and Muktinath. This village is small and spread out in three distinct clusters. The landscape makes it feel quite charming, almost like the Alps, with incredible views.

Many of the lodges have beautiful blue roofs and white trim that stand out in the rocky landscape. In my opinion the second collection of lodges seemed the most appealing. This is the last place before crossing the pass that appears to have any new construction. We noted several trekkers stopping for lunch. Because we had such an early start, we opted not to stay here and continued to Ledar only a kilometer away. The terrain was quickly becoming more barren as we continued upward.

The main valley from high above

LEDAR: 4200 m (13780 ft)

Ledar made us wish we had listened to reviews we had read stating the Yak Kharka was nicer. We looked at all four open guest houses and none seemed to have much charm. Most of the rooms were dark and dirty with few amenities. The staff who greeted us did not appear as if they wanted guests. The views are not as good as the previous village either. I’m sure this place can be quite nice when it's busy. Perhaps the hosts were hoping for some time off to take care of other needs and prepare for the busy season.

At this point we could either turn around and lose the one kilometer back to Yak Kharka. Or we could just stay here and spend most of the afternoon in Ledar. Or since it was still early, we could hike the remaining 5 km up to Thorong Phedi. We opted for the latter and continued on our way up the hill after a good lunch by the side of the trail.

In retrospect we probably shouldn’t have continued as the total altitude gain for the day ended up being about 1000 meters (3200 feet). The rest of the climb crosses fairly sketchy boulder fields that look like it could start sliding down on top of you at any time. We weren’t feeling the most energetic at this moment and running didn’t seem like a good option to us here. Luckily we made it through the last five torturous kilometers.

One of many suspension bridges

THORONG PHEDI: 4530 m (14860 ft)

The Thorong Base Camp Lodge is rustic but friendly and welcoming. The staff were quite sociable, hanging out and playing guitar in the common area. This was one of three lodges in the village of Thorong Phedi, two of which were open. We ran into twelve other trekkers here which wasn’t as high as Manang but not bad for the off season. Most people seemed to be on a mission, ready to conquer the summit the next morning. Room prices of 200 with food purchase were not bad considering the altitude. They also offered clean water refills which we hadn’t seen elsewhere (we had seen signs but most stations are closed in the summer). Not quite the happening "village" that people make it out to be in reports that I’ve read but I could see it quickly becoming quite crowded during the fall. They do have the apple pie (only in season) and bakery people rave about, but the village itself lacks many of the comforts of lower villages.

After good food but restless sleep due to the altitude, we decided to stay in camp for the day and possibly stay another night. We didn’t feel like we had acclimatized to this altitude properly yet and wanted to wait it out. However, there really isn't much to do at Thorong Phedi during the slow season. The few people who ran the place were busy working all morning and we tried exploring side trails but eventually lost interest.

There is this strange feeling when you get to Thorong Phedi, especially during the slow season. Gone are the lively streets of Manang and what few trekkers are left are only focused on crossing the pass and leaving early. It's almost eerily quiet and still. You don’t want the trek to be coming to a close so soon and yet you feel it coming.

Half way through the day we decided to continue to the final camp. It's a big climb in just 1 km but would cut the altitude we had to gain during summit day. The trail switchbacked straight up the mountain side with long strands of Buddhist prayer flags stretched between rocks high above.

Sunrise in the Himalayas

HIGH CAMP: 4925 m (16160 ft)

High Camp is aptly named. It is the highest place I have ever slept so far in my life. Much higher than the highest mountain in the lower 48 states in the US. The place is a camp, not a village. I doubt anyone would live here full time if not for trekkers. Many people skip high camp from Thorong Phedi and head straight over in one long day.

The camp itself has many rooms with thick blankets and comfortable cots. There is a shared outhouse outside which I can see being quite busy during peak seasons. I’ve read other blogs that complained of long lines. We were happy to meet about a dozen other trekkers here and settled in the common room for warm drinks and hot food. While more expensive than below, the food was surprisingly good tasting and they even had a generator to power the lights and a television for us to watch the World Cup. The building was old and sloped with the slope of the earth but overall cozy.

We met a trekking family that had formed along the way and ended up spending an enjoyable evening with them swapping tails of adventures and travels. This was truly what I had hoped to find along the trek, and while it had happened sporadically, it was not as frequent as one might hope. The comradery that you get from fellow travelers is a great boost to the moral.

The next morning, before the sun peaked its way through the intermittent clouds, we set out after a hearty breakfast in the last manned outpost before the crest. If it hadn’t been painfully clear the whole way up, this final push really hammered home how much we regretted our heavy packs. Our trekking partner for the day was the guy with only 7kg and we envied him.

The trail up to the top of the pass is well marked and easy to follow, but not easy. The terrain is a lot of moraine left over from ancient glaciers. The foreground is not that beautiful. The grassy slopes soon disappear and all that's left are occasional wild flowers appearing between rocks and a few hardy birds flying about. The backdrop is amazing. Huge mountains as high as the sky, glaciers pouring down their slopes, more peaks than you can count. Looking down you can see the grassy slopes that yak feed on far below.

High Camp at sunset

One of the many glaciers surrounding us

Distant peaks still towered above the pass

THORONG LA PASS: 5416m (17769 ft)

Reaching the pass is exhilarating to say the least. After working so hard for the previous eight days, sweating and toiling our way up, it was such a relief to finally be on the top. We dropped our packs by a little cafe shelter that serves tea during peak season, and feeling light and free, explored this high alpine landscape. Many people probably miss the beautiful blue glacial lake just to the left of the main trail. Its deep blue waters glisten in the sun about 100 meters away. A trail leads to an overlook where you can see the valley that you just climbed up and the new valley you are about to jarringly stumble down. Manang to the East and Mustang to the West.

The glacier pouring off a nearby peak into the deep blue waters of this small lake was one of the most beautiful sites. I had never seen a photo of it before, so I wonder how many people explore the area after summiting. I wanted to climb around some more but we knew we had a long hike down so after about a half hour we picked up our packs and began the descent.

The trail drops into a much dryer and strikingly different world. The mountains have less snow and fewer glaciers, the rocks transition from grey to brown, distant valleys no longer beckon with greenery. And it's a long rough descent. Your joints, so used to the strain of ascending, are now suddenly carrying your weight downward over a mile in elevation loss. It's a long hike and in many ways harder than the climb up. The sun came out and the temperature increased. Along the way a small village tantalized with the promise of a tea house and a break, but nothing was open.

Small blue lakes at the top of Thorong La

Thorong La Pass saddled between towering mountains

MUKTINATH: 3760 m (12340 ft)

Muktinath is the first real town after crossing the pass. It's a grueling mile of vertical descent down rocky rough terrain to get here. Here is where we began to wish we had trailrunners and trekking poles for better grip and support on the way down. Being sheltered from much of the rain and clouds due to the rain shadow, this area is much drier and sunnier. The landscape and atmosphere feels like a totally different world. Gone are the feelings of an idyllic alpine world of yaks and hidden villages.

Muktinath feels strangely commercial and developed. Muktinath is a holy site for both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions attracting many visitors who are not trekkers. Peddlers attempt to sell tourist trinkets and horse rides and “high rise” hotels at least five stories tall are popping up all around town.

Despite the commercialism, we found a wonderful hotel called Hotel the Paths of Dream which included hot showers and was free with purchases from the restaurant. We sat in their dining area most of the afternoon resting, drinking Everest beer and watching the World Cup. Our large private room was one of the nicest on the trek. After resting up we were eager to be on our way and left early the next morning. One of the trekkers we had met at High Camp opted to join us and our party grew to three for the next several days.

The journey presented us with two options. One was the slightly longer route following the new Annapurna Circuit Trail just to the north of town. The other followed a surprisingly well paved road down to Kagbeni. In retrospect we should have taken the trail. However, the road seemed more direct and we were beginning to tire of walking. One thing that stands out to me is the reduced sense of grandeur on this side. I think if one were to take it at face value, the western side of the trek has a lot of beauty. However, having just come over the pass and through some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes, this side just seemed ok in comparison. This odd paved road was just being finished and ended abruptly at Kagbeni about 10 km away. From there the road turns back to dirt for many km to come. It's hard to grasp the logic of paving this one section so far out. We turned right and headed down a steep hill to the quiet town of Kagbeni for the night.

Hanging glaciers on the way to Muktinath

Kagbeni: 2810 m (9220 ft)

Kagbeni is generally highly rated. Trekkers liken it to a medieval town and talk about its charm. We found it to indeed have narrow stone walled streets and multi layered homes with animals running freely about (several goat herds passed us) that may be reminiscent of what we picture a medieval village to be like. However, not much about the town was actually charming. There was one picturesque scene of a woman drying fruit in her loft which comes to mind.

For some reason many of the hotels were completely full despite the town seeming quiet. Others were dark and uninviting. We ended up staying at the comically named Yak Donalds Hotel with signs that mimicked those of McDonalds, offering Yak burgers and comfy accommodations. This was the first lodge that did not bundle food with room prices. The room prices were set as was the food and independent of one another. The rooms were clean and the beds comfortable with hot solar powered showers that in this sunny climate were warm. What we loved about this place was all the public space for guests to mingle. There was a garden library, a cushioned sitting room, a large dining area, and a sunny rooftop terrace. All in all I think this would be a wonderful place to stay if there were more trekkers to mingle with.

We wandered about town and found a cheap little hole in the wall called Show Boat. It had great local food at local prices and also offers lodging. Several other restaurants in town looked appealing including a bakery but were closed. Very few trekkers came through this town other than a couple in our hotel preparing for the Upper Mustang trek.

The next morning we climbed out of the valley the village sits in and headed back to the gravel road to continue to the next town, Jomsom. The walk was uninspiring and dusty with increasing bus and jeep traffic. Eventually we hailed a jeep and finished the journey quite quickly, arriving well before noon.

The view toward Muktinath and Kagbeni from above

Jomsom: 2720 m (8920 ft)

Jomsom is a very touristy town with shops, bakeries, cheese, dried fruit, and real hotels. There are flights from this town to Pokhara for $100-150 (some say they are dangerous). Buses leave from here to Pokhara and towns in between for $5-10. After milling about and eating some delicious dried apples and some stale baked goods, we opted for a bus. The town was not appealing to us and the road wasn’t desirable for walking on.

We passed through the apple town of Marpha a few km down in our rattling bouncing bus. Many people love stopping here due to the orchards that line the river in this area. As you head south from Jomsom the landscape becomes increasingly green again and slowly trees begin appearing around the road and the steep mountain foothills. During apple season, if there is a trail to avoid road walking, I would stay a day in Marpha.

Eventually, after the bus blew a tire and kept going as if nothing happened, we grew wary of this dangerous bus ride. Some of the seats were not even bolted down and our knees were pressed tight against the seats in front of us. The landscape was becoming more appealing and we asked the driver to let us out to walk. We had noticed a few trekkers making their way along the river and figured it was a good time to get back to what we had come here for.

We crossed a hanging suspension bridge and were soon leaving the dirty road behind and walking on a quiet green woodsy trail. Marijuana plants grew in abundance on the slopes around peoples homes. Beautiful trees stood tall above us. Towering waterfalls thundered from distance cliffs fed by glaciers hidden in the clouds. It was a quick change from the arid landscape we had woken up in that morning. The trek led us along the East side of the river while the road followed the West side. We left the river following signs for a lake called Titi Tal. This lake sits next to a tiny village that didn’t appear to see many visitors. It's green water was surrounded by a rain forest of trees.

From here we continued deeper into the forest, eventually taking a “shortcut” which got us lost on cow trails along steep banks before dropping down to a riverbed with a dirt road next to it. A few km farther and we were back to the New Annapurna Circuit again. We decided to stop in a small town called Ghasa which had quite a few guest houses and a checkpoint to show our passes. However, it didn’t appear that many people actually stopped in this town during the rainy season.

Looking back toward Upper Mustang

Ghasa: 2010 m (6590 ft)

The guest house we settled on ended up being quite dirty, mostly because it probably hadn’t been used (or cleaned) for quite some time. Our kind host made us apples pies which appeared much like an apple turn over and were so delicious we ordered more to go the next morning. We were excited to finally get something with apples in it. All along the trek, guest houses and restaurants advertised apple products. Other than the dried apples in Jomsom none of these places actually had any.

From here we followed the New Annapurna Circuit on the East side of the river for most of the next day only crossing back to the road when we grew tired of the many ups and downs that this trail seemed to have. Our next destination was Tatopani which we were hoping would have a hot spring. Here we would decide whether to head to Pokhara or back into the mountains to the popular view point Poon Hill.

Buffalo on the trail

Tatopani: 1190 m (3900 ft)

Tatopani was a nice little village but the hot springs were closed due to the high waters of flood season. We could see the pools which appeared man made but would have still been welcome for sore muscles. We found the hotels here to be a bit more expensive but not necessarily more inviting or luxurious. However, a great little restaurant called Bob Marley's was the perfect spot for some delicious afternoon lunch. The town is terraced as it climbs the steep hills alongside the river. We ended up meeting several other trekkers here and shared stories over hot meals.

Our trekking buddy parted ways with us the next morning for Poon Hill. Feeling tired and noting cloudy skies, we opted to keep heading out, ready to not be trekking anymore. After being promised a tourist bus, we were told that the bus couldn’t make it and crammed into a dinky little accident waiting to happen with everyone else in town. No designated seats here, as some people were literally laying on the floor. When we met a large landslide needing to be cleared, we opted once again to walk. Eventually the landslide was cleared and many kilometers down the road the bus finally caught back up to us, but we kept walking, arriving at the next major town of Beni that evening.


Beni: 830 m (2720 ft)

Beni is by far the largest town we had seen since leaving Kathmandu. Bustling with buses and shops and local life with several decent sized hotels and nicer restaurants to choose from. We inquired of the best way to head back from here and after assessing our mental state, decided on an overnight bus all the way back to Kathmandu. It was promised to have air conditioning and after seeing it we felt it would be nicer than our previous options.

While we waited for it to leave we explored the town. It's bustling market was a great place to stock up on snacks for the overnight journey. A restaurant high up on the hill was the perfect place to wind down and enjoy some delicious food. Our bus left on time, we had our own seats, and our luggage was safely stowed underneath.

At first this overnight bus journey seemed perfect. However, things begin spiraling down rather quickly. First of all, the bus driver stopped frequently to pick up more passengers despite it being a “nonstop” tourist bus. The driver's assistant insisted on playing on repeat the most awful music videos over a terrible sound system on a small TV cranked to maximum volume. Even as the sun set and we felt ready for some sleep, the bus did not show any signs of quieting down. Perhaps this was to keep the driver awake, or perhaps this is just how people travel in Nepal. For weary western travelers there is nothing welcoming about this on an overnight bus.

The rain came down hard on the winding road from Beni to Pokhara. Eventually we hit a landslide blocking the entire road. Unsure if it could be cleared the buses backed down the winding hillside in the torrential rain and waited out the night at a roadside rest stop. This “rest stop” was no more than a three walled metal lean-to with candles for light. Not once during the entire night did the occupants of the bus quiet completely down. Heated conversations and loud music continued throughout the night and the air conditioning was cut periodically to save fuel since we weren’t moving. Thus the temperature alternated from frigid to tropical over and over throughout the night. The next morning a couple of young guys with backhoes and bulldozers showed up to clear the rock slide while everyone looked on.

The journey was finally on it's way again and the bus made it to Pokhara by sometime around noon, stopping to drop off a few passengers before continuing to Kathmandu. The same bus driver drove the entire way amazingly getting us safely but exhausted to the city at about 6 pm.

This overnight bus ride ended up being nearly 24 hours long. We couldn’t wait to settle into our air conditioned hotel with a comfy bed for some peace to unwind, recuperate, and plot our next adventure.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Many people say they went to Nepal for the mountains but stayed for the people and culture. We did not find this to be true for us. We stayed for the mountains but left looking forward to being back in our culture. Or perhaps just being somewhere with more order. Landing in Malaysia five days after the trek, we found much of that need satisfied in the modern metropolitan of Kuala Lumpur.

There are many things which are wonderful about the people of Nepal. We were hosted by many kind and gracious hosts. We had some wonderful discussions over beer with a man born in Nepal who now lived in Canada and was back visiting. We had an enjoyable cooking class at Socialtours pvt. Ltd. with the business owners joining us to eat the food we cooked and talk about their country. The historical Tibetan Buddhist monasteries high in the Himalayas were fascinating. The combination of both Hindu and Buddhist cultural influences were obvious everywhere.

However, the lack of personal space or privacy can wear on someone from a more individualistic society. As in much of the world, the men tend to be the problem more than the women. Unwelcome touches and stares were not uncommon, not to the point of feeling unsafe, but certainly uncomfortable especially for my female partner.

The trek did not consistently provide those personal connections that so many people seem to get out of their treks in Nepal (with the notable exception of some fellow trekkers). I think most blog reports, Instagram photos, and YouTube documentaries tend to paint an overly rosy picture of the cultural aspect of trekking here and gloss over the many challenges that come with it. The greatest challenges for us were not the physical challenges of trekking so high up. Instead they included the loud, crowded, dangerous bus rides; the constant pressure to buy something we didn’t want or ask for; the incredible pollution at lower altitude; the unwelcome attention from uncomfortably curious men; and the strange logic such as that beautifully paved 12 km road between Kagbeni and Muktinath which could only be reached by a dangerous 50+km dirt road.

We would both go back again and are actively discussing when and where our next trip will be (probably the three passes trek). Next time we plan to trek in late September just before peak trekking season kicks off. This way we hope to encounter more fellow trekkers but not face overcrowding in the guest houses or on the trail. Alternatively we may go in the spring which is also a popular time but less so than October and November. Some of our best memories and connections were made with fellow travelers like ourselves, and we would love to make more of these next time.

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