Into Thin Air – The Annapurna Circuit

So there we were…making our way over Throng La Pass on our tenth day of trekking. A string of prayer flags blowing in the wind greeted us at the highest point on the hike at 17,870 ft.

Most people come to Nepal to see the biggest mountains in the world and trek through them, we were no different. With so many trails to choose from, picking a trek was difficult. In the end we chose the Annapurna Circuit for the diversity of scenery and culture, not having to backtrack as it is a big loop, and because the trail will be going through some negative changes in the near future. Everest Base Camp will have to wait until our next visit! The Annapurna Circuit, also know as the apple pie trail because of the abundance of apples trees along the route, is understandably the most popular walk in Nepal, passing through picturesque Buddhist villages with magnificent mountain views. Hiking everyday, it takes three full weeks to walk the entire path. The trail snakes through valleys and over mountain passes into the heart of the Nepali countryside.

Most of the small villages in the mountains are inaccessible by road and the trail is full of men grazing or moving goats/yaks and porters carrying heavy loads of supplies to villages. We spent 17 days on the trail tea-house trekking, as it is called, hiking to a new village and guesthouse each night. We were always welcomed with lots of smiles and a warm cup of tea.

Hiking with no guide or porter, we both carried in all our own gear and bags. Being our first long distance trek, we both packed recklessly and learned our lesson within the first few hours of the hike. Bunking up at our first guesthouse, we immediately met some people also just beginning the trek without a guide. A small group quickly formed and many of us hiked almost the entire trail together. It was wonderful to meet such great people and share the experience together.

The first few days we walked through thick lowland jungle following a raging river with dozens of magnificent, tall waterfalls streaming down the hillsides. In the distance you could see the tips of the white capped peaks, but they seemed out of reach. Winding deep back into the valley, it took us almost five days to uncover the first of our mountain views. Taking the more challenging upper route on the trail instead of the lower, we climbed steep switchbacks up to a small village overlooking the most amazing mountains we have ever seen. Walking along the ridge was one of the best views we got on the entire trip. We continued on for several more days before reaching Throng La pass, the highest point on the trek. Lucky for us, the pass stayed dry and the snow held off for us to cross on our tenth day.

Unfortunately, this trek will be changing over the next few years with the construction of a new road which will knock out several parts of the trail. Of course, this is a good thing for the people in many ways, but it is a shame in many others. Part of this road is already built and we chose to chop off three days of our hike and took a bus to avoid breathing the dust from buses and motorbikes. The conservation area plans on building new trails to offset the road, which we hope succeeds so one of the world’s classic walks isn’t destroyed.

All in all we walked roughly 130 miles and gained around 35,000 feet in elevation with ups and downs, which was not as easy as apple pie. The trek was bitterly cold at times and really tested our endurance, but it was by far one of the most amazing things we have done so far on this trip. Words really can’t describe hiking deep into the Himalayas to experience the Nepali culture first hand. The scenery is obviously why travelers come to Nepal, but the people are the reason they return.

Highlights

  • The great group of friends we met along the hike: Derrick and Aubrey from Texas, Sophie and Duncan from England, Ilan from Australia and Helan from Belgium
  • Staying in all the small mountain villages where you really soak up the culture
  • Watching the sunrise from Poon Hill – an amazing panoramic vista that gives sweeping views of the Annapurna Range
  • Seeing three of the ten largest peaks in the world up close – Annapurna 1, Dhaulagiri and Manaslu
  • Feeling fit from drinking no coffee or alcohol (except for a celebratory night after completing the pass) and eating no meat (except Jason’s Yak steak)

Lowlights

  • Packing WAY to much stuff (almost 25 lbs each) that we had to carry on our backs – did Becky really need all those clothes and did Jason really think it was a good idea to bring War and Peace, the largest novel ever written?
  • All the never ending stairs on our final two days of hiking, thousands going up and then thousands going down – our calves hurt for days
  • The variety of food on the trek – the menu is nearly the same at each lodge (although the consistency never was, it was always interesting to see what would come out!) along the entire hike. We might have given up if we had to eat veg chowmein or dahl bat one more time
Waterfall and homemade swing
Gaining elevation
Walking the trail
Day trip to the Ghangapurna Icefall
We knocked the bastard off!
Beautiful Tibetan village
Mountains and prayer flags
Never ending vistas
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Rhinos, Tigers and Bears…Oh My!

So there we were…walking through the deep, green jungle in search of the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger when we heard something rustle in the bushes…
 
After leaving Africa and sterile Dubai we arrived in Kathmandu and soaked up every inch of its fascinating allure. Our time there started by exploring the small, narrow streets of Thamel, the tourist area of the city. Lined with hotels, western-style restaurants, trekking gear shops and tour companies, every street looks the same and it is easy to wander for hours getting lost in the maze. With many Hindu and Buddhist followers, the city is a melting pot of culture and spirituality. Around every corner is a temple or shrine where the local people come to make their offerings. One of our favorite temples was the Buddhist temple Swayambhunath, also known as the monkey temple. Mobbed by monkeys, the hill-top stupa shows the eyes of Buddha overlooking Kathmandu Valley. It was a spectacular place for people (and monkey) watching.
 
After nine days in and around Kathmandu, which was way more than we had planned, our missing luggage finally arrived and we were able to leave on our planned trek (see next blog for trekking story). After 17 days away in the mountains, we arrived back to civilization. Pokhara, a more chilled-out place than Kathmandu, sits at the foot of the Annapurna mountain range and was a wonderful place to relax for a few days and rest our weary legs.
 

After feeling good and relaxed, it was time to move on to Chitwan National Park in the southern part of the country. Elephants are a bit part of the culture in the small town outside the park, many of them roam the streets and plow the fields. It never gets old walking side by side with them down a busy road.
 
An elephant ride through the jungle is a must-do when visiting the area and we enjoyed getting up-close and personal with these gentle giants. Every day in town the locals bring their elephants down to the river for bathing time. Here the animals splash and soak while their owners scrub the dirt off from the previous days jungle ride. It was a lot of fun to watch and interact with them on the river bank and even get to feed them bananas.
 
 

Chitwan is known for its population of Asian Rhinos and the Royal Bengal Tiger and soon we found ourselves back on safari. Having done three safaris in Africa, we were looking for a different experience and were both very excited for a jungle walking safari. Exploring the park on foot, even with a guide, is definitely risky, but that was part of the excitement for us. A few minutes into the walk we began to realize why it is so difficult to spot tigers – 12 foot high elephant grass and thick jungle are a perfect hiding spot. Armed with a big bamboo stick (yes that is all our guide had to protect us) we walked through the daily morning fog to see what we could find. Unfortunately we did not see a tiger (just its massive footprints) but we were lucky enough to spot the one-horned Asian rhino, sloth bear, wild boar, huge crocodile and a few deer, which was plenty to keep us both safe and satisfied with our jungle walk.

Our time in Nepal wrapped up in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. Countries with strong Buddhist followers from around the world have built huge temples and monasteries here where worshipers come to pray and seek enlightenment. We spent a spiritual day riding bikes through the compound and ended our time at the exact spot Buddha was born. It was a wonderful way to end our magical journey through Nepal, we will definitely be back here to visit again one day.
 
Highlights
 

  • Visiting Kathmandu and Patan’s Durbar Square to view ancient temples
  • Relaxing by the lake in Pokhara, it was a wonderful way to unwind after our trek
  • Elephant back safari through the jungle, while it wasn’t the most comfortable ride, it was once in a lifetime experience
  • The anticipation that a tiger could jump out at any moment while walking through Chitwan National Park
  • Delicious dumplings called MoMos…quite addictive and dirt cheap

Lowlights 

 

  • Lost luggage when we arrived in Kathmandu, Jason’s surfaced after four days, Becky’s after seven
  • The horrible air quality in Kathmandu that gave Becky a wicked cough
  • Constantly hoping we wouldn’t get sick from the poor hygiene practices used in the restuarants

 

Monkey Temple, Kathmandu
Patan's Durbar Square

 

The closest we got to the Bengal Tiger - its footprint
Elephant bath time
Our elephant that took us on safari