Friday, April 10, 2015

The Annapurna Circuit

The Annapurna Circuit trek has been a hikers dream for decades as it covers roughly 150 miles of varied terrain starting in tropical fruit growing canyons, passing through rice paddies, pine forests, high alpine trails winding beneath some of the highest peaks in the world, over suspension bridges straddling glacial rivers, and culminating in lower elevation Rhododendron forests. The Annapurna Circuit is known as a teahouse trek, or one in which a tent and food is totally unnecessary because the hiker is rarely more than 2 hours from either a village or a lone teahouse staffed by an enterprising local selling tea (obviously), Snickers, and sodas (even though sometimes you order a Coke and you get a re-branded version called Camp-Cola).

Within the old Himalayan villages, the teahouses are mostly integrated into small guesthouses with a few rooms or larger lodges that provide basic accommodations to hikers. The general understanding throughout the entire circuit is that if you choose to stay at a certain guesthouse you are also to take your meals there. Therefore, the price of a room is 0-3 dollars for two people and the food is the real money maker at 2-5 dollars per meal per person. And if you order beer, the price of the meal nearly doubles. Very quickly it becomes obvious that the menus at the teahouses are standardized, offering the same fare at every stop: Dal Baht set meal of rice, curry and lentils, Tibetan noodle soup (Thukpa), many varieties of pastas, pizzas, Chinese noodle dishes, spring rolls, and soups. However, just because a food is listed on the menu does not in any way guarantee it's availability. I witnessed many the hungry hiker asking for lasagna and being kindly but firmly redirected to the core staples. The prices are also consistent between menus and they rise as you head higher up in elevation. So, in general, guesthouses do not compete with each other for business as hikers have a selection of virtually equal accommodations no matter where they are on the circuit. I was not sorry to wave goodbye to those menus after 15 days!

Although it was highly convenient to have lodges waiting for us when we stopped hiking each day we did start judging each room on it's basic features. If there was a hook or even a protruding nail for hanging sweaty clothing or just washed socks, that was a plus. A table of any kind was practically luxury. And a bare lightbulb that actually lit up when the power was working was almost beyond expectation. The bathrooms were mostly shared and located outside and were often a hole in the ground with a bucket of water used for flushing. Heat in the form of a wood fire in the common dining room was provided only for a few hours at the higher elevations just to bring the temperature up above freezing. At the highest camp, Thorong Phedi,a snow storm blew in and we spent the day in a 45 degree dining room drinking enormous quantities of tea and trudging through the snow to use the outdoor toilet which we were unable to flush because the bucket of water was frozen solid.

Quirky lodges and set menus have been a staple of the Annapurna Circuit for years. The system allows many different types of people to experience the high mountains. We noticed many large, organized groups of hikers with guides and porters. There were also a fair number of solo men (and the occasional woman) doing the circuit. Some couples were doing the trek with a guide and porters and a few couples, Brad and me included, were tackling the distance using a map and carrying our own stuff. The incredible number of lodges allows for the flexibility to hike as many or as few miles as you want per day and always be guaranteed a place to lay your your sleeping bag. Once you get into the higher elevations, the daily ascent should be no greater than 1,600 feet to allow for proper acclimatization but even up to around 16,000 feet there are lodges and atop Thorong La pass itself there is a teashop selling the usual fare.

One relatively new aspect to the Annapurna Circuit trek is the construction of two rough jeep roads, one on each side of the pass. They have been in the works for the past decade and in many cases, especially at lower elevations, have completely obliterated the original trekking trail. A guidebook with instructions to a new network of trails that have been created to avoid these roads is available but in many cases these trails are difficult to find or no longer even exist because the area is changing so rapidly. Mostly there are trails and they are beautiful but there are sections of the hike done on dusty roads. And there are still areas where no roads can go and these pristine sections feel remote and they lead right into the heart of the vertical Annapurnas!

Besides the road avoidance we were practicing, we were also playing the snow avoidance game. This year Nepal has seen some of the most and latest snow in something like 30 years. Normally in March, the snows even at the pass are melted and hikers can cross on bare dirt. This year, the week before we left on the trek the pass was still closed to hikers and only opened as we were starting our hike. The beautiful weather early in the trek led to some clouds and light snow in the days leading up to our pass crossing. We continued to gain elevation and prepare for the pass because other groups with knowledgeable guides were doing the same. At the high camp, where we froze in the dining room waiting out the snow, we were fearful that we would need to endure another frigid day there but we awoke at 4:30 the next morning to shining stars and we headed for the pass as the sun rose over the mountains. We felt really lucky that our timing worked out so well even given the snow. Plus I think our photos are pretty bad ass!

After all that walking, Brad and I were excited to thaw out at the lakeside town of Pokhara for a few days before returning to Kathmandu yesterday. And we're ready for something different so we're flying to Bangkok tomorrow!

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