Annapurna Circuit 1 – first few days

Friday 6 October

Nigel and I landed in Kathmandu after midnight from Dubai. I’d been here before and smiled inwardly at the memory of Nepalese paperwork. First queue was to pay for a visa. They only accepted cash, in any currency. Then the queue to get through immigration and show the visa. It wasn’t too bad really and the smiling faces of all the officials made it an amusing experience. This is certainly not immigration, New York style, where you feel intimidated by suspicious officials. And then the baggage area, and time to take in the randomness of the place, the sweet smells and slow bustle as if everything is on the wrong shelf. I don’t know why but it made me smile. I was back.

Dashrath Rai (known affectionately as DR)
Mani, DR’s brother, was secondary guide
Our four delightful porters being very silly!

Our guide, Dashrath Rai (everyone calls him DR) met us outside customs with a warm welcome. We’d been texting DR on and off for months on WhatsApp. Now we had a presence as he put faces to names.

Simon and his mother, Alison, Maurice (author), Nigel, Stuart Tall, Jane and Stuart Small

Our group had arrived by three routes. To avoid complications with the two Stuarts, I called them Stuart Small and Stuart Tall for the diary. Stuart Small and his wife, Jane, had come through Dubai as well, but several hours before Nigel and me. Stuart Tall, his wife Alison and son, Simon, had travelled through India. Ignoring young Simon, our ages ranged from 62 to 74. We were fit and ready!

Jane’s bag did not arrive. We’d agreed to wear walking boots and anoraks in case our bags got lost so Jane was somewhat prepared. A trip around the shops during the day got a sleeping blanket and under-cloths. But it’s the personal stuff that counts and I’ll say right here that Jane never complained at any stage of the trek on being discommoded. A real trooper. She did get her bag back when we finished the trip and let’s face it, had less washing than the rest of us when she arrived home.

Saturday 7 October

The breakfast buffet in the hotel was good. I chose local, even though it was strange for breakfast: fried rice, pakora, spiced omelette and sweet tea. The time difference was probably playing with my taste.  DR gave us a detailed briefing on the trek and what to expect. He also gave us an excellent 1:70,000 map of the route. We broke up and did our own thing in Kathmandu.

I didn’t have a good memory of Kathmandu from my last visit. That time, it was smoggy, smelly, with broken roads and paths, people arm-wrestling, courteously, along streets and hopping on and off pavements to the horns of cars and motor bikes. This time there was a clear blue sky, and none of the other hassle irritated me. I knew what to expect so dodging between cars and bikes was fun.

I went to see the temples in Durbar Square. A young Nepali man approached me and asked if I would like a tour to which I politely declined. He said there was no cost, he just wanted to improve his English. I was sceptical, but went along with it. He took me to see temples in back streets, spoke about the history of Nepal and I helped his English as we went. It turned out he was a student of Buddhism, in year six of ten years study in philosophy, meditation and art. We went down those conversational pathways and it was enlightening. We visited the temple of the goddess, Annapurna, which was auspicious and lit a candle. I got a red mark on my forehead and a flower blessing.

He gave me directions to get back to Durbar Square when we parted but I got totally lost. I engaged a cyclist to take me back to the hotel. It certainly beat a taxi. DR asked us not to drink alcohol on the trek itself because of the altitude. I decided to start straight away so lunch was a drink of warm ginger tea and a crepe with ice cream – a good mix of east and west on the plate.

DR took us for supper that evening in a good restaurant and paid for everything. Our package was fully inclusive, except for alcohol and bottled water, from the moment we landed until we left, and DR honoured that without question.

Sunday 8 October

We started out after breakfast at 7:30am. A small coach took us 200 Kms from Kathmandu to Jagat in the Annapurna valley. The original plan was to start at Ngadi but we’d lost a day in travel because of a screw-up at Heathrow. We’d booked from London to Kathmandu through New Delhi with a travel agent. BA wouldn’t let us on the flight because we didn’t have a visa for India. The visa was required to exit, get our bags and get on the next flight without leaving the airport. Lesson learned: don’t use a travel agent and avoid changing flights in India. The drive to Jagat got us back on track.

The main road from the city to the mountains isn’t good. There’s construction everywhere. I’m sure it’ll be great when it’s finished. In the meantime, it felt like being back in the 1800s when men dug roads and canals with pickaxes and shovels.

After we left the road at Ngadi, we needed two four-wheel cars to take us to Jagat. The rough main road gave way to a very rough track. The last two hours were in the dark, a steep drop to the side and ruts so huge it felt as if we were on a bouncy castle. The driver was great but there was a lot of silence in the back.

We had supper and an early bed in Jagat, exhausted. I expected the rooms to be primitive, but they were en-suite, basic and clean. We used our own sleeping bags.

Monday 9 October

We started out early next morning, along the road passing the Shopping Centre!

Breakfast was perfect – porridge with bananas for me. In every stop there was a decent menu, and the cooking was very good. A government commission overlooks the quality of the food, the prices and certifying the cooks. In the olden days, these were tea-houses and trekkers camped but all that has changed. Tea-houses still exist for refreshments and lunch, but we didn’t see anyone camping.

This was also our first opportunity to see the porters at work. DR said they are the core of the trek and as the days went by we could only agree. We could have carried our own gear but with altitude we would have been tested. The porters’ process was perfect. They evaluated each bag for weight, then added two together with ropes and covers in case of rain, and off they went. They got to the next stop hours before us every time. Respect. They also carried supplies of chocolate, fruit and toilet rolls.

A long hike today, 17Km, with lots of ascents and descents into a most beautiful valley. We crossed the first of many metal bridges over the Marsyangdi River. Stuart Small tried to be funny by making it swing and got a tongue-lashing from Jane. It was perfectly safe but goodness, the river below was angry, the flow fierce and deafening, grey from erosion further up the valley. DR said it would subside to a trickle later in the season but now it was carrying the monsoon rains. This was steep trekking, our eye on the cliffs beyond the river on the other side. Hats off to the workers who constructed the road on that side. On our side we had bamboo and small farms under trees where a mere existence was eked out. The path was narrow and wonderful, though we had to make way for pack horses and mules from time to time, and ensure we stayed on the inside.

We had lunch at a tea-house, vegetable soup for most of us and plenty of water. We carried bottled water. We had the option of treated water using purification tablets but we felt safer with bottled water.

We changed our route to avoid Thoche. A couple of months ago a monsoon storm took out the bridge and path to Thoche. Several people were swept away. You can see the remains of the path and the bridge on the video.

We arrived at Dharapani at 4pm, at 1,860m. We’d walked in shorts and tee shirts but at 6pm it got very cold, a reminder that we were in the mountains and at height.

The group pulled together. The others had known each other for years. I met them a couple of months before we travelled, replacing a friend who couldn’t make it. I’d hiked near Shrewsbury with Stuart Small, Jane and Nigel before committing to ensure we would get on well together. Obviously, we did. I hadn’t met Stuart Tall, Alison and Simon before the trip, but we broke ice quickly. Stuart Small had the Ironman tattoo on his ankle and Stuart Tall had published several books on rock climbing in Wales. I had notched up fifteen marathons and Jane and Alison had a lifetime of hiking. We were all fit and regular trekkers.

Jane is a whole other world though. She could talk for Asia and not take a breath. Every sentence I began gave her an opener for an incident about Morris dancing (her passion) or about her Jewish grandmother, or about incidents with her daughters, neighbours, friends, aunts, uncles, living and dead. Get the idea? Initially I listened in amazement. Jane would be a perfect study for a PhD.

Tuesday 10 October

We stopped at one tea-house during the day. DR knew the guide of another group, and we got chatting. I met a young woman, Esther, from Stafford-upon-Avon who was very knowledgeable on Shakespeare as you’d expect. I told her the story of giving CPR to an old man who collapsed outside the church where Shakespeare is buried. I was with my three grandchildren at the time. The man recovered but I never found out what happened next. We called it the “story with no ending.” I texted my grandchildren on WhatsApp. Do I ask Esther to follow-up with the vicar? Did the old man live or die? Or should we leave it alone and not ruin a story with no ending. They decided on the latter.

We reached Chame at 2,670m, after seven hours, including lunch. The evening red sunset was magnificent on the high mountains. DR pointed out Manaslu Norh, Manaslu itself and Phungi Himal.

Lodgings were still fine, hostel-style, and hot water for a shower. In some places the toilet was in the old French style which required a bit of balancing on aching glutes and quads. There was a basket for toilet paper, as anyone who travelled in China would recognise. You get used to it, like all things.

Annapurna Circuit 2 – From Chame to the Summit

 

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