Friday, November 26, 2010

Annapurna Circuit: Week 1

I should preface all of these trekking entries by stating that I had fully expected the trek to be physical carnage, for my feet in particular. I had pretty much assumed it would be a new blister every two days at least and so I was armed with enough Compeeds for twenty feet. Day 1 took us from Besi Sahar to the village of Ngadi, about 2 and a half hours away. From the outset the views were immaculate. The trek entered a valley which followed the route of the Marsyagandi river almost all the way to the pass at Thorung La and on our first days we trekked with views of rolling hills and innumerable stunning rice terraces.
October and November are the peak trekking months and it's easy to see why - the weather, in trekking terms, is immaculate. Temperatures peak at around 20 degrees so that it's warm but never hot and there's almost no chance of rain. Perfect. Nepal certainly knows how to have a winter. Bhuwan has fixed the itinerary so that we have a mixture of short days and longer days but on no occasion are we trekking for more than 6 hours. Very quickly it becomes apparent why this trek is so widely regarded. There's the views to start with which change ever so slightly over the first week. The rice terraces and rolling hills gradually give way to a slightly more barren yet no less spectacular mountain views.
The lodges we stay in are pretty standard traditional homes which have been altered to cater to the hordes of trekkers in peak season and there are a lot of trekkers on the trail in late October. The standard of the rooms varies little from lodge to lodge so as a solo trekker your room will be a rudimentary wooden space containing a bed, a light switch and you. Blankets you’ll have to ask for and you will definitely need them as night-time temperatures plummet this high in the hills. Many of the lodges have solar powered showers and so you need to get to your lodge early or pong the joint out for the rest of the evening. The closer you get to the Pass, instead of a shower you can buy a bucket of hot water to do the needful.
What’s most surprising about the first week of the trek is the average age of the trekkers. I’d imagined, given the nature of the trek, that it’d be filled with folk around my own age but the average age is easily over 50 and this is mostly down to the fact that many of the over 50’s trek in groups which can be a complete pain in the arse on the trail especially, for example, if you get stuck on a narrow stretch behind a group of French trekkers, none of whom will move out of your way. This was a common occurrence and as you eventually passed them by, you’d be greeted with a series of haughty comments, all en Francais of course. French trekkers do not understand the concept of giving way.
As the first week passed, an element of frustration began to creep in that our days were that bit shorter than I’d anticipated. Each morning we’d begin between 7 and 8am, trek for 3 or 4 hours so that by the time it came to lunch, we were done for the day. This meant arriving in a village around noon leaving a long, generally cold evening ahead. That’s said many of the villages were quite stunning and rewarded further exploration whether that meant a chat with some of the locals or a visit to the village monastery.
As the week progressed a trekking routine was established which involved an early breakfast, 4 or 5 hours of trekking, lunch and hot shower (or bucket) at the lodge, hang out the day’s saturated trekking gear and change into something dry and warm and while away the evening until dinner reading a book, exploring the village or chatting to fellow trekkers. And it is a very sociable trek - by the second or third day you see the same faces arrive at the lodges and the evening is spent bitching and moaning about the French trekking groups. Or perhaps that was just me.
My trek coincides with the celebration of the Dashain festival - a 15 day orgy of indolence, to my eyes at least. Not meaning to be cynical at all but there’s little doubt that this festival was first conceived of by a man. The celebrations drag on arbitrarily over several days and seemingly involve little more than the men of the villages gathering together to drink, gamble and, as a bonus, each sister is obliged to give her brother(s) a gift. Now that’s a proper festival and, as you could imagine, it’s celebrated with real gusto. It also seems to last indefinitely which is no bad thing if you’re a Nepali male.
Finally by Day 4 there are views of the Annapurnan peaks which reveal themselves finally on our trek to the beautiful village of Chame as we see both Lamjung Himal (6,986m) and Annapurna II (7,937M) in the distance. Best village of the first week though is Upper Pisang - a stunning collection of Tibetan flat roofed brick houses perched precariously atop a hill which towers over Lower Pisang. And if the village itself wasn’t beautiful enough then the view it offers of the mountains is pretty remarkable. There’s also a monastery above Upper Pisang at which we witness some monks play their wonderfully tuneless music whilst chanting their unintelligible prayers. Upper Pisang also stands out in my memory because of the 7 year old who ran riot through our lodge on the day we were there. A definite ADD candidate, his antics reached their peak when he entered the dining room in the evening, carrying in his hand a huge bag of weed (which thrives at this altitude) and which he offered to everyone in the room shouting (this kid had one tone only) one of his few coherent English words ‘GANJ?’ Upper Pisang’s future Al Capone for sure.
The only difficult day of the first week comes as we trek from Upper Pisang to Manang - we head off on a long, winding trail with switchback after switchback but the pain of the first two hours is eased by the fact that by the time we reach Manang in the afternoon we are right in the heart of Annapurna country and the full beauty of the mountain range is laid before us. And it really is an astonishing collection of peaks. The weather remained perfect each day - cold mornings followed by cloudless, sunny skies and warm mid-morning temperatures - which afforded us unbeatable views. Manang is 3,500m up and it’s commonly accepted that you’ll need to spend an extra day at Manang in order to acclimatise and avoid any trouble with AMS as you ascend further. Which brings me neatly to my next post…….

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