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Trekking The Annapurna Circuit
I visited the ‘Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal’ back in October 2012. I was headed there to trek the Annapurna Circuit: a 150km trek – from Besi Sahar to Nayapul – that would take me deep into the heart of the Himalayas. Nepal is a small country – sandwiched between India to the south, and China (Tibet) to the North. It is home to 8 of the 10 highest peaks in the world (including the highest – Mount Everest at ’29, 029 ft’). The Annapurna circuit takes on average 15 to 17 days to complete and rises to an elevation of 5416m (17,769 ft) at its highest point – the ‘Thorong La Pass’.
I am a Scotsman. I am also a keen hill-walker/hiker and love the West Highlands of Scotland, especially. Scotland – like Nepal – is also a small mountainous country. But our mountains – the highest being Ben Nevis, standing at 4416 feet, are mere molehills in comparison to the Himalayas.
I had gone to Nepal with my life-long friend and cousin, Stephen – Big Mac, from the Wine Alley- a quaint fishing community on the banks of the Clyde, in Govan, Glasgow. I was an East Kilbride boy. East Kilbride is a large, post 2nd World War New Town 8 miles from Glasgow City Centre. Stephen and I had had numerous adventures (and misadventures) over the years – in several locations – with stints in London, Jersey, Bournemouth, Fort William, and of course – Glasgow; this trip was for Stephen’s 50th birthday – I was the younger cousin at 42.
Nepal was a complete culture shock to Stephen. He had only ever been to European and American destinations prior to this trip. I was familiar with Asia though – I was married to a Thai national and had lived in Thailand for two years. I had also been to Nepal about 12 years prior to this visit and so knew what to expect on arrival.
The poverty and pollution in Kathmandu can be a bit overwhelming for a first-time visitor to Asia and Stephen was a classic example of this. I sat watching him in the taxi from the airport as he stared incredulously at the crumbling city through a smoggy haze of unregulated exhaust fumes.
We were headed for Thamel – the trekker/traveler section of Kathmandu, where we had booked a room at the Hotel Buddha. The Hotel Buddha is smack-bang in the middle of Thamel – our taxi driver crawled through a colourful labyrinth of busy, cobbled backstreets and dropped us at the front door of the hotel.
We spent two days in Kathmandu exploring the sights: ‘Durbar Square’ (Hindu), ‘Pashupatinath’ (Hindu), and ‘Swayambhunath’ – the Monkey temple (Buddhist), and then we were off to Pokhara – a mere 200km away, but a journey that would take 6 to 8 hours on a Tourist Bus – one of the many coaches that thunder along the hair-raising, Kathmandu/Pokhara road every day in the tourist season.
Pokhara was a welcome retreat from the chaos and pollution of Kathmandu. The city of 300,000 souls stands on the banks of Phewa Tal (Lake Phewa), the second largest lake in Nepal. ‘The lakeside’ is a tranquil tourist area with an abundance of value for money guesthouses and hotels. We had a booking in the Kailash Resort – a bit more upmarket than we were used to but at Nepali prices the Kailash was a great value hotel with nice rooms and a swimming pool/spa.
We organised our Annapurna trekking permits in Pokhara , and then booked a taxi for the following morning to take us to Besi Sahar – the start of the trek, two and a half hours away.
For the first few days of the trek we hiked through sub-tropical, jungle foothills. We had decided to trek the Circuit independently – no porters or guides, so it was pretty heavy going with our 65L backpacks (especially in the thinner air at higher altitudes). With no accommodation booked in advance, we were able to stay in whichever local teahouse/lodge appealed to us, and if a day of trekking didn’t go as planned (if we missed our trekking goal for instance) then it didn’t really matter, as we had no obligation to hit any particular village on any particular day.
The environment changed roughly every 1000 metres that we ascended- lush, green jungle turned into fresh, Alpine forests; trekking through Upper Pisang was like hiking through a Swiss mountain meadow; the Manang Valley became a windswept desert-scape, and from Manang to the Thorong La Pass, heather blanketed the hills like a barren, Scottish highland glen – the snow-capped peaks of the Annapurna Massif glistening majestically in the background like paintings.
We spent three days in Manang, partly to acclimatise to the altitude, and partly to give Stephen some respite from heavily blistered feet.
It snowed as we crossed the Thorong La Pass at 5416m (17,769 feet), where, only the next year (October 2013), thirty-nine trekkers, porters and guides perished in a freak blizzard that blew in from the tail end of a dying cyclone (Hudhud) that had wreaked havoc along India’s eastern coast.
It took 17 days to complete the circuit. We had traversed many dangerous sections during our trip: single-track roads and pathways cut into the side of mountains with sheer drops and certain death only a clumsy trip away, rickety, worn-out bridges that spanned freezing white-water rivers, altitudes so high that some trekkers were getting evacuated in helicopters with suspected altitude sickness, others with high altitude headaches, turning around and backtracking – heading for lower altitudes.
High Altitude Travel Insurance
The Annapurna Circuit was a challenge for sure but it was beyond doubt well worth the effort. Nepal is such a stunning location and the people are amazing. Most of the locals have nothing – materially, but they are happy and alive and smile with their eyes.
All in all we were in Nepal for a month. When I got back home, my eight-year-old son wanted to climb Ben Lomond because I had brought him a load of hill-climbing gear back from Nepal (a North Face goose-down jacket, hat, gloves, and daypack). Ben Lomond is the most southerly Munro in Scotland- standing at 3,110 feet, and only about 40 miles north of my home.
Note: a ‘Munro’ is a Scottish mountain over 3000 feet, named after the Scottish Aristocrat Sir Hugh Munro, who compiled the first list of 3000+ feet peaks in Scotland
We arrived at the foot of Ben Lomond at about 8.00am on a damp and dreary morning. It was the 3rd of November and the last 500 feet on Ben Lomond was covered in snow. The hike up Ben Lomond usually takes about three and a half to four hours to reach the summit. As we ascended the last 500 feet in the hard snow a fierce blizzard blew in and reduced visibility to only a few metres. We pushed on through the snow and managed to reach the summit but I learned a valuable lesson that day: that although Scotland’s mountains may be small in comparison to the mighty Himalayas, Scotland’s mountains rise to altitudes up to 4000+ feet from more or less sea level and in winter time – oftentimes, they are deadly. Ironically, I felt more at risk on Ben Lomond that day than I had on any day trekking the Annapurna Circuit.
This October – 2017 – Stephen and I are heading back to Nepal to trek to the Everest Base Camp (EBC). 5 years have come and gone since we were last there. Stephen – 55 on October 5th, intends on hiring a porter; I – a mere pup, will be 47, and intend on carrying my own bag.
Trekking in Nepal may sound like an exclusive and costly adventure holiday but in reality, it is a relatively cheap holiday in comparison to many other destinations around the world. The total cost for our upcoming EBC trek (1st of Oct – 25th of Oct) is roughly £1500 (£500 for a return flight from Glasgow to Kathmandu and £1000 spending money). Skyscanner
If you enjoy hiking and trekking, then why not head over to Nepal to experience this exceptionally beautiful country and the amazing people who live there.
Trekking The Annapurna Circuit
‘In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.’
Copyright © 2017 Raymond Carroll