We spent four weeks in Nepal, visiting several areas. Nepal is a beautiful, hospitable and interesting country- and also trashy, polluted, and maddeningly inefficient. But let’s talk about the good stuff first!
Chris and I arrived in Kathmandu during the Hindu festival of Dashain. We stayed in Thamel, the five-block tourist zone of the busy city, and I promptly got sick. I spent 12 hours throwing up, then felt much better and didn’t have any problems the rest of the time I was there. So at least I got that out of the way. We also got to meet up with our friend Ray, our most adventurous friend, who we met on the Appalachian Trail in 2014, so that was fun!
We got our trekking permits and got an eight hour bus to Besisahar. From there we started the Annapurna Circuit trek, a roughly 150 mile hike that goes up a river valley, over a Himalayan pass, and down another river valley, with views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountains each day. For six days we trekked steadily upwards (although with plenty of maddening downhills too) through small villages, farm fields, mountain paths, and goat trails. We ate meals and stayed in small teahouses, so we didn’t have to carry tents or food. Some people take a guide or porters, but we did not (for a day-by-day blog post of our Annapurna Circuit hike, click here).
The architecture, people, and religious customs in this area are more (Buddhist) Tibetan than (Hindu) Nepalese. For centuries, trade between India and Nepal, and China and Tibet, has centered on these passes through the Himalayas. The people greet us with ” Namaste”, and most are vegetarian. The locals along the route are poor by western standards, but feeding and housing tourists, as well as farming, makes these people more well-off than those in other parts of the country.
Happily, we had excellent weather, and after six days up the Marsygandi River Valley, an acclimatization day at 3500 meters, and another two days up, we were at the high pass. Painstakingly, with one foot in front of the other, we made it over the high pass at 5400 meters, and started down the other side, along the Kali Gandaki river valley. Going down proved pretty much as hard as going up but without the fear of Acute Mountain Sickness or HAPE/HACE. After three or four days down, I decided I was done hiking and we hopped on a bus (for what was literally the most terrifying bus ride I’ve ever been on) to a pretty lakeside town, Pokhara.
We spent a couple of days resting our aching feet in Pokhara, then decided to visit Chitwan National Park. We stayed at the lovely Chitwan Village Resort, and enjoyed various activities such as a canoe ride, a jungle walk, and a Jeep safari. We saw dozens of sub-tropical birds: herons, osprey, storks, and kingfishers, as well as crocodiles, monkeys, deer, rhinos, elephants, and boars. We even encountered a wild rhino foraging in the village, watching as an exasperated farmer chased it out of his farm field.
While we were in Chitwan, the Diwali festival began. Candles everywhere, and colored-sand or colored-rice rangolis in front of everyone’s front door made the area festive. We took a bus back to Kathmandu, and visited the UNESCO Durbar Square (largely destroyed by the 2015 earthquake, and with very few signs of being reconstructed anytime soon), and Swayambhunath Buddhist temple (the monkey temple) and enjoyed walking around the streets in and near Thamel. It’s a pleasant, fairly quiet area with lots of courtyard cafes, hotels of all budget levels, and shops selling trekking gear and Nepalese souvenirs. On our last day in town, we went to visit the Temple of Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world.
Unfortunately, Nepal has a serious trash and pollution problem. High on a hill in Kathmandu, one cannot see the other side of the city due to the smog. Nepalese think nothing of dropping trash on the ground when they are done with their candies, chips, or water bottles, even at their holiest sites. This trash accumulates in every stream and on every hillside leading in and out of Kathmandu- I watched as a dump truck full of trash pulled up next to a mountain side, reversed, and then emptied its load of brightly- bagged trash straight down the hillside. Trash is burned in the streets and the villages constantly, giving off an acrid smoke as the various plastics burn. It is no wonder that most Nepalese wear face-masks for their own respiratory protection. It is extremely common to see and hear the person walking or sitting next to you hawk up a huge loogie wherever they are- indoors or out- and spit it on the ground.
So. Nepal. Beautiful country- fabulous trekking- but not the highest on my list to visit. There’s plenty of other places to vacation in Asia that have at least gotten their trash problem under control. I’m glad we came, and I’m glad we’re going. I think Nepal would be a difficult place to work and live in.
Total costs for Nepal:
Flight: $0 (we used airline points to get from DC to here)
Here’s the run-down from our two weeks of trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal (if you want to read about our trip to Nepal as a whole then click here).
After securing our TIMS (Trekker Information Management System- in case you disappear and they need to go look for you -2000 rupees/ $17) and our ACAP permits (Annapurna Conservation Area Project- 3000 rupees / $25) in Kathmandu, we stocked up on a bit of gear in Thamel, the tourist zone in Kathmandu. On every street corner are stalls selling both real and counterfeit North Face, Jack Wolfskin, Quechua, and Columbia, all at a fraction of the cost in the US. It’s all too easy to pick up an extra puffy coat or a sleeping bag here for perhaps $15-20 USD.
After that, we took a bus to Besisahar (7 hours), the starting point of the trek (which can range anywhere from 100-200 miles, depending on how much actual trail one hikes and how much of the fairly-recently-built dirt road one walks). These are my daily updates from our hike:
Besisahar to Bathundanda. We saw water buffalos, bamboo stands, and rhododendron forests today. Warm weather- almost hot but not quite. The villagers all greet us with “namaste” as they scythe their rice crop or transport it on mule caravans up the steep mountain paths. The ladies all wear brightly colored headscarfs and gold earrings and nose rings. Most people still have a mark on their forehead from last weeks Dashain celebration. My Fitbit says 36,000 steps and 15 miles. A really tough day- hoping day two is a little easier. Many people actually take a Jeep for part of today’s walk now that there is a (unfinished) road but we walked the mountain paths. We stayed the night at the Mountain View Teahouse in Bathundanda for 300 rupees for our double room, plus we had breakfast and dinner there. We enjoyed a chat with the owner, whose family had owned the property for four generations. He had to rebuild after the 2015 earthquake. His place used to be full every night, but now with more people taking jeeps and skipping this section, he only has a handful each night in high season (October/November- no rain, no snow).
Terraced Rice Fields
A mule caravan of goods
Our first of many bridges
Another seven hour hiking day, but only 28,000 steps over 13 miles. We went steeply down 200 meters to a river, crossed it, and then spent the rest of the day ascending 200 meters plus another 75. The trail crossed the dirt road three times. Some trekkers just took the road, as the grade is more gentle, but then there’s road dust and less things to see like the troop of 20 monkeys we saw and the field of butterflies we walked through!! We stayed the night at Chyamche, at a mid-sized teahouse named Lhasa Hotel. They had propane-heated water so I got to take a shower!
Deah at a bridge with prayer flags
The village we’ll stay in tonight
Still in the warm part of the trek
Today was some ups and some downs, but definitely more ups, ending the day with an 800 meter elevation gain. The prettiest part of today was the village of Tal, set in a flat broad river valley. I was ready to set down my bags and stay there forever. They had a small school- I could teach there! Beautifully colored teahouses all with gardens and soft grass. Lovely. We spent the night between Bagarchap and Danaqyu at the Royal Mountain Cottage. Free room, and about $20 for dinner and $12 for breakfast (for two). Some hot water there, but the (common) toilet was across the street from the hotel- not so convenient at 3 am in the cold night!
At least the graffiti here is peace signs
Dry lake bed/ blessedly flat ground
The colorful village of Tal
Chris at a kani- a decorative arch at the edge of a village
Fifteen miles today, with a total elevation gain of 680 meters. We saw villagers cleaning intestines at the village well, a woman winnowing wheat from chaff, and a man husking corn. Imagine the work that goes into preparing every meal. The people up here are really more Tibetan than Nepalese, in dress, custom, and physical features. Every lunch and dinner spot advertises WiFi but no one actually has it during most of the day. Tonight we slept in a dorm at the brand new hotel in Bratang but no one else was here so we got double blankets, which is good because it’s COLD!! This dorm was 800 rupees for each of us, which is an absolute fortune ($7 each) on the Annapurna, but it was the only place in town and too far to go to the next town. Probably should have stopped back in Chame with the rest of our hiking bubble but we weren’t tired yet so we pressed on a few more miles.
Villagers washing out intestines
Looking further up the river valley
Buddhist texts on a rock outside of town
Chris at our dorm room in Bratang
Days Five and Six:
An elevation gain of 700 meters. As we hiked up to the village of Manang, we passed through a blue pine forest with prayer flags wrapped everywhere. We passed a huge monolithic slab called Paungda Danda which rises straight up 1500 meters, unbroken. Later we saw a 3 sided snow bowl, higher up in the Himalayas. It’s all very beautiful. But cold. Okay for a hoodie during the sunny day but at night we sleep with all our clothes on plus a puffy jacket and heavy yak-hair blankets in unheated rooms- last night it got down below 30 and our water froze.
Today we take a rest day to acclimatize to our elevation at 3450 meters. This village has a bakery and even a “cinema” (basically a TV with a DVD player) playing “Into Thin Air”, “Everest”, and “Seven Years in Tibet”. And we need to do some laundry once the water thaws! We stayed one night here at the Ghala Guest House, which was okay but a bit basic (we arrived into town rather late so Manang was largely full) and then the second night we switched to the Royal Manang Hotel (500 rupees for a double room, plus eating breakfast and dinner there). We also attended a Himalayan Rescue Association free talk on Acute Mountain Sickness, HAPE, and HACE (high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema) so we can be alert for signs of any illness as we finish our ascent the next few days.
Inside a teahouse common room. That stove keeps us warm!
The Paungda Dunda monolith- a huge, unbroken rock rising straight up 1500 m
Apple slices drying. Annapurna is often called the “Apple Pie” route
Inside a teahouse kitchen
Today we gained 700 meters up to Letdar. I had my blood-oxygen level checked yesterday and it was 89%, so I’ve started taking Diamox for altitude acclimatization. It makes you breathe faster, which increases your oxygen in your bloodstream, and it gets your kidneys going, separating your waste fluid out and making your blood more concentrated with red blood cells. And so now I have to pee every hour. Which is really fun when hiking or when the squat toilet is outside and it’s 15 degrees at night. Last night the bucket of water by the toilet froze over! Tomorrow we will hike the final 600 meters to high camp, sleep there till 5 am, and then head over the pass. Hopefully. All the places in Letdar were full so we wound up staying at a very small teahouse with a super nice family just outside of town. They prepared delicious dhal baht for us and we chatted with the nephew, Karma, who spoke some English. We had a yak-dung fire and the blankets smelled like yaks but we were cold so you do what you have to do!
Yak Cheese- delicious
That’s a yak.
Today we woke up at six am to ascend the extremely steep 650 meters to high camp. They only have 150 beds there and I am a slow hiker so we had to get moving to beat the crowd. Yesterday we were above the tree line, with juniper bushes and flocks of blue sheep. Today there’s not even scrub brush, just Himalayan griffins and lammergeyers circling in the air around us. It was a tough push to get here, but we have 18 hours to acclimate to our 4850 meters (15,852 feet) before we go over the high pass tomorrow and start back down. The daytime temp is 25 degrees, it will be 10 degrees when we start in the morning. My pack weighs next to nothing because I’m wearing all my clothes (yes we carried our own packs- no porters for us!). We’re staying at a dorm in high camp because all the private rooms were full (people with guides have them call up to reserve ahead of them). The dorm is 100 rupees each. There’s water all around the common toilet, which is frozen over, or else it’s frozen urine- I don’t want to know which. Mainly I’m just happy that I don’t have a headache or nausea like I did when I reached this height on Kilimanjaro.
Up and Over: we woke at 4 am to start the final ascent over the high pass, called Thorong La. We slept in all our clothes plus jackets (suuuuuuuper cold) so we just had to put on our shoes and packs. Most of the other people in our 16-bed dorm were getting ready too.
The first two hours were cold but not windy, just the light of the super brilliant stars and the moon to guide us up the steep path. An hour in we stopped for a hot sugary black tea at a cold and lonely teahouse, and at 6 am the stars winked out and the sun started to rise.
After dozens of false summits, suddenly at 7 am we rounded a hill and there was the high pass, covered with prayer flags. Packs were dropped, cameras retrieved, a few tears (from me), someone fainted (not me). It didn’t feel real that we had hiked 650 meters up in 3 hours and we were now standing at 5,416 meters (17,769 feet- over 3.3 miles above sea level).
It took another five hours to get down 1600 meters to the next town (with a lot of rest breaks and a lunch stop). Hopefully the rest of the way down won’t be so steep– it’s hell on the knees. We stopped for the day around noon in Muktinath at the Path of Dreams Hotel, which thankfully had hot water and I was abe to take a shower- my first in a week.
An amazing day- one I certainly wasn’t sure I’d be able to achieve, but together we did it!
Deah and Chris at Thorang La High Pass
5414 meters- the highest I’ve ever been
Chris working his way down the high pass
Still pretty muscle-sore from the high pass and descent yesterday, we got a late start. We started in Muktinath, a sacred pilgrimage sight to both Hindus and Buddhists. There is a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu with 108 waterspouts, from which holy water pours. There is also a fire gumpa, where a natural gas eternal flame is considered a sacred site.We decided to hike the trail from Muktinath to Jomsom, rather than take the road via Kagbeni. The trail took us up another 200 meters to a fantastic viewpoint, and a flock of blue sheep with their tinkling little bells. Then we descended over 1,000 meters down a very steep path, past some wild horses, to a small village named Lupra. We had lunch, then followed the river bed to Jomsom. We had to cross the river three times and in the third crossing, I fell in the water. That sucked- it was really cold.
But now we’re at Jomsom, trying some local apple brandy and apple pie for my birthday, and our elevation is only 2720 meters (8704 feet) so while it’s still cold at night, it’s not bitterly freezing. Yay!!
Great, we have to go up in order to go down today.
Blue Sheep. Yes, they’re a thing.
Buddhist statue in Muktinath
Jomsom to Kalopani. What I thought was going to be an easy downhill day turned into a 19.3 mile slog up and down various hills, trying to avoid the dusty road with its incessant honking of mopeds, jeeps, and busses.
We ate lunch at the old village of Marpha, famous for its apple brandy. Then we hiked through five out-of-the-way villages that are slowly dying, as the road has bypassed them and the Tibetan salt trade that was once their lifeblood has been replaced by cheaper salt from India (which adds iodine to their salt, solving several health problems of the people who have lived here for centuries). This area, the Kali Gandaki river valley, holds four of the 12 passes to Tibet, and was once the crossroads of goods coming from India and Nepal trading with goods from Tibet and China.
We stayed the night in Kalopani, at the nicest place we’ve stayed in so far- the Kalopani Guesthouse- a beautiful double room for 1000 rupees, ($8.50) with a private toilet, hot water and wonderfully comfortable beds, plus delicous food and coffee next door. I wanted to stay there forever.
Sun sets on the snow atop Annapurna
Snow atop the Dhaulagiri mountains
Watching the wind up the river valley we need to walk down
Landslides on the trail forced to take the road today. Which sucked. In the end, we said to hell with this and took the bus 15 miles down the road (which took two hours so you can imagine the state of the ‘road’) to the town of Tatopani, home of Nepalese hot springs and giant lemon trees. We stayed in the Old Kamala Hotel, again for 1000 rupees, but not as nice as last night. The hot springs had a dead, skinned goat lying next to it, which wasn’t so nice to look at- but I suppose that’s how we get our food! We are undecided on whether to hike tomorrow or take a bus (you can probably guess which one I want and which one Chris wants).
Tatopani Hot Springs
A decision to make today. Continue down the trail- which at this point goes back up to 3000 meters and climbs Poon Hill (which is supposed to be lovely views), or take the bus to the finishing point. My feet hurt and I feel like I’m done with this hike so I’m calling it done and Chris doesn’t argue. We take the bus. It is literally the scariest bus ride I’ve ever taken, as we careen down the steepest and narrowest part of the Kali Gandeki River valley in a microbus loaded to the gills. It’s only 100 kilometers to the lakeside village of Pokhara, but it takes a full 8 hours to travel. In the end, this one day of bus riding saves us three days of hiking and so our Annapurna Circuit trek is done. We arrive in Pokhara and look forward to relaxing a bit.
A few stats: my fitbit says we hiked 170 miles, the official Annapurna road map says we hiked 120 miles. We did some alternative treks on a few days so that figures in some of the difference (plus you get some mileage even on rest days, etc). We spent an average of $40 each day (rough approximate) for a place to stay and food for two people. The trail is well marked with red and white blazes- we didn’t feel like we needed a guide. We often hiked alone, but we also ran in to the same people again and again. On one day when we signed in at a TIMS/ACAP checkpoint, we were the 231st and 232nd people to check in that day. Now that there is a road that almost (not the top four days) reaches the whole Annapurna route, some people like the route more (as it is more accessible) while others like it less (because the road is yuck and it takes a lot of side trekking to avoid it). Villagers who live along the road like it, as it reduces costs for food and supplies for them, but they also lament the loss of trekkers who have gone in search of other hikes that are more rural.
Questions about the Annapurna Circuit? Drop them here and I’ll give you an answer as best as I can!