19 Days through the Annapurna Circuit: Part 3

This is the third part of our combined journal from our time in Nepal. All posts from Lex will be titled in blue, and all posts from Mari will be titled in orange.

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Mari captures the scene outside of our hostel window in Menang.

Day 11

Drawing a scene like this can be difficult. There are so many details to approximate. In just a few lines I must try and capture scattered pines on hill tops or all the plants in a garden.

While I do my best to represent a scene, what I’ll never be able capture is all the life that passes through. In the span of a drawing, a whole load of laundry was washed and hung to dry. Children lay on the ground playing in the shade of the basket. Women sorted garden crops on large mats and stored them away once more.

It’s the life you witness out such a window that reminds you where you are isn’t just a backpacker’s fantasy, but a thriving community.

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Looking back in the direction of Braga from a view point above Manang.

Day 12

After spending the night in Braga we pushed on to Manang early the next morning. Manang is the end of the jeep road which we have intersected and followed at various points on our trek. Most signposts we encounter have pointed to Manang and reaching here feels like a milestone.

Manang is where most people take time to acclimatise, spending a day or two relaxing or trekking the numerous side trails which lead up into the surrounding mountains.

Today we opted for a small morning trek to one of the view points. The longer side treks are tempting but with Thorong La pass only a few days ahead, we’ve instead spent the last two days drinking tea, reading and resting our legs.

Here the prayer flags of the view point ripple in the icy winds and give a small taste of what’s to come on the way to the pass and the final stage of our journey.

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The path unwinds through a stone doorway on the road to Yak Kharka

Day 13

Twice we’d heard ‘there are no trees after Manang’ whispered as if it meant something foreboding. So as we said goodbye to Manang, jeep roads, electricity lines and hot showers, there was an air of hesitant anticipation of what was to come.

We left the town on the back of a rest day and felt confident about the climb ahead. Immediately we gained altitude with a steady winding climb up and over a hill. Manang had served as a bottle neck for trekkers of all sorts and for the first time we found ourselves mashed in between large groups of people.

After a good couple of hours of steady trekking round the contours of the mountain, we stopped to drink tea on the rooftop of a ‘tea house’. We took our time to let the trekking parties space out in front of us, watching as their guides and porters hurried them through their morning break.

As the trees did indeed begin to fade and the landscape lost some of its green to the cold of the higher altitude. The trail began to rise and fall and what used to be an easy climb was beginning to sap our strength. Two more long hours of ups and downs and the village of Yak Kharka came into sight.

Arriving at the village we unclipped our bags and plonked ourselves down on the first bench we could find. In front of us big painted letters advertised WiFi and solar heated showers. We looked at eachother and realised that the real challenges to come wouldn’t be electricity or a lack of tree shade, but rather the quickly thinning air of these high mountain altitudes.

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Porters carry bags strapped to their backs on over their heads, towards the village of Yak Kharka.

Day 13

Leaving Manang, we hit our first real traffic jam on the circuit. Just as we were leaving the village, a group of 30 plus hikers, their guides, and porters also departed. It was the first time I had seen how a big group interacts- whistles to signify stopping and starting in the trail, groups of men each trying to find their own bush during pee breaks, and team raffles for who would get the hotel rooms with attached bathrooms or double beds.

The porters outpaced the hikers forming long lines of giant red and black bags in front of us. When I look at a porter, my first instinct is to feel bad for the man with an almost unbelievable amount of weight on his back. My second instinct is to think how lazy these people are that prefer having someone else carry their overloaded bags. Then I must take the time to correct my own misperceptions.

In Nepal, being a porter is considered a good profession in which you can earn a good pay. These men elect to perform this service and many who start as porters later become guides themselves. These men train to be able to support this weight on their heads and necks and have the genetic advantage of being suited to the high altitudes on these trails.

As I pass by these guided hikers and trekking porters I need to acknowledge my own biased interpretations and recognize the good that these jobs and income can bring to the people of Nepal.

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Looking back through the valley behind us where the path dips into a landslide and then steeply rises again.

Day 14

After a restless night in Yak Kharka bundled in all our clothes, sleeping bags and blankets, we woke up to our coldest morning yet. Wooly hats, gloves and jackets all made first appearances after we finished with the morning tea and breakfast. We only had three hours ahead of us, but with a taste of what altitude could do and two spots marked ‘landslide’ on the map, we had no illusions of an easy day.

The goal for the day was Thorong Pedi, basecamp for Thorong La Pass and our final stop on this side of the mountain. It sits 400 meters higher than Yak Kharka, 200 of which we climbed in our first hour walking. Altitude was really gripping us, our lungs working overtime to make up for the thin air. We decided to take our morning break early, thinking an early rest and two oversized pots of lemon tea might be the boost we needed.

The rest of the ascent was gradual, sloping ever upwards towards the towering white peaks ahead of us. Flat path steeped down abruptly and snaked through ground which was clearly our first landslide area. Our eyes jumped between the precarious rocks above and the gravel path beneath our feet. We slipped and slid down the path to a rickety wooden bridge below. We gathered ourselves and took a moment to stare up at the landslide behind us. The path had cut through what seemed a jumbled mess of rock and sand, only common in the last direction it had slid.

We climbed steeply up the opposite cliff, regaining the altitude we had lost in the landslide. In this photo we had unstrapped our packs, and were looking back at the trail behind us. We took some time to recover our strength before pushing on to the final section of landslide ahead of us.

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The trail gets treacherous as it cuts along an area of landslides before the Annapurna Thotung Phedi base camp.

We turned to our maps again, first to make sure we had actually passed a landslide and then to get an estimate of how far still to go. All that sat between us and the base camp of Thorung Phedi was 40 minutes and another path through a landslide.

The trail continued along the side of the mountain, rising and falling with each fold of the path. We could see our final turn but not all of what lay between. Each climb was met with laboured breathing as our bodies battled with the air pressure.

As we rounded our first corner we didn’t need a map to tell us where we were. We stood facing a sign with bright yellow letters saying “LANDSLIDE AREA STEP GENTLY” and a completely redundant picture depicting a landslide. Behind the sign the cliffside seemed to lose its form, rocks above poised to fall upon you and crumbling stone below ready to give way to a misplaced step.

Our pace quickened, faced with what seemed like imminent danger. One foot in front of another, carefully but with haste. Black winged birds swooped along the cliffside, our eyes willing them away from the treacherous mountainside above us. At times the path would narrow as we seemed to step upon piles of loose rock. Always up, the altitude made the incline more of a problem than ever.

Adrenaline, and the stamina only possible after 12 days of walking dragged us along the path. Soon the sharp rocks above turned to thousands of small stones, and the gates of Thorung Phedi sat before us. Despite our heavy packs we scampered the rest of the path, elated to put the rocky slide behind us.

Mules lazily grazed alongside the entrance to base camp, probably amused at the frantic energy of a few unshowered backpackers. We bunked down in a dorm for another restless night, in part because of the proximity to other unshowered trekkers and another part in anticipation for the next days push over the world’s biggest pass, Thorang La.

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Snow covered peaks dominate the landscape behind us at Thorung La high camp.

Day 15

The night before we made the trek to Thorang La Pass was a fitful one. Altitude makes sleeping difficult at best, and with a dorm full of trekkers set for a 3am departure it was almost impossible. We scraped together the hours we could, sleeping in the clothes we’d trek with the following morning.

The combination of nerves, excitement and fatigue made a breakfast of apple porridge a chore. Plates left unfinished we pushed out into the icy morning and stared up at the sheer 400 meter climb to high camp. Hesitantly we started the ascent, immediately feeling the affects of being 4500 meters above sea level.

Even through double layered woolen socks, our toes ached inside our shoes. Every short climb was a pain, our lungs burning and nausea building in the background. We paused frequently, stretching our fingers and taking small sips of soda to settle our stomachs.

For every 10 minutes we’d climb, we’d rest for at least five to allow our bodies to recover. The sun was beginning to light up the higher edges of the mountain and with every rest we’d will its warmth a little closer. Section by section we moved ever upwards, each meter further from the option of turning back.

Finally the sun reached down to us and invigorated our stiff muscles. We turned the corner and high camp seemed to wave us up with its brightly coloured prayer flags fluttering in welcome. The final sloped section seemed less foreboding because of it, but no less steep.

After an hour and a half of hiking we had reached the top of the most severe climb of the day, each feeling confident about the next three hours to come. Day had properly broken now and the snowy cliffs and peaks around us shone spectacularly. We’d accomplished a lot, but the day was far from done.

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Success! Thorang-La Pass with the team! 

We took our time at high camp, resting our legs and lungs, and taking time to appreciate our surroundings. The mountain seemed to form a ring around us, white capped with streams flowing down to the beginnings of a river below.

The trail leveled out and curved upwardly round the next mountainside. The vegetation had turned to scrub and the higher we went the smaller the plants became, starting to look like succulents instead. For the first time we encountered snow, tucked away in the folds of the land where the sun didn’t hit. Ice clung to the shadows, crunching under our feet as we made our way up.

For three hours we moved ever upwards, breaking every 100 meters, to suck in as much air as we could. We’d find a rock or patch of stone to sit down and rest until each of us felt strong enough to move on again. Each hill promised to be the pass, prayer flags would flap above us in blue sky and we’d be sure that we’d reached the top. Yet over and over again, frustratingly, we’d see more hills beyond.

Suddenly one of the hills gave way to a cluster of flags, giving us hope that we’d finally done it. We rounded the hill and there it was, a sign with ‘THORANG LA PASS 5416m’. We’d beaten the altitude, the cold and the aches of our legs. We took our photos, gave our high fives and looked back over the long trail below to take in our victory. As we ate frozen kit-kats from the shop at the top of the pass, we were all in agreement we’d just completed one of the hardest things we’d ever done.

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The long barren climb back down toward Muktinath.

While we wanted to take in as much as we could at the top, the low pressure was making us all a little anxious. We took the last of our photos, looked back where we’d come from and set off on the trail towards Muktinath, our final destination for the day.

The trail started easy enough, the steady descent a welcome respite from the relentless hills before the pass. The landscape was barren with only the snowy peaks breaking the greys and blacks of the stony landscape. We’d been told there was a place to eat not far from the pass and so we pressed on expectantly.

An hour later and now with our knees starting to grate against the unfamiliar descent, there was still no sign of civilization. Eventually we reached the end of a cliff and gazed down at the valley below. What seemed like an uncalcuable distance away we saw what we assumed must be the village of Muktinath. Now into our sixth hour of walking, we suddenly felt very weary.

The path steepened and narrowed, what had been to this point an easy saunter became a slippery narrow path. Altitude headaches and nausea began to grip Mari, and we suddenly felt very alone on those paths. Another hour and a half we wound our way down, our toes beginning to hurt against the front of our boots.

With reserves of energy we didn’t know we had, we eventually came down from the wasteland of rock and sand to a cluster of restaurants ready to catch the days batch of trekkers from Thorong La. Mari’s sickness intensified and after a short lunch of soda and soup, we agreed it would be best to get lower as soon as possible.

Finally the land regained some vegetation and we sped across the wide paths of rock down towards Muktinath. The village seemed an oasis after such a barren landscape and in under an hour, with Mari’s symptoms abating slightly, we put our bags down for the final time in a very long day.

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