As we near an end to our time in Nepal, I had the opportunity for a solo journey around much of the Annapurna Circuit trek. As a dad I have learned to pack a lot into a little amount of time and so I had a fairly sped-up itinerary, trying to see as much of this world-famous trail in the time I had. A four hour bus from Pokhara brought me to Besisahar. Then, a two hour jeep from there to Chamche cut off the first day or two of the traditional circuit (and some of the least intriguing, with big hydro-projects and quite a bit of environmental degradation). The road building along the Marsayangdi River is a bit of a mixed blessing, as trekkers and villagers will attest to. Time will tell how it really affects this region, both for the villages along the way as well as the dozens of thousands of tourists the area draws. What is certain is that it allows trekkers to sort of choose their own adventure these days, with some opting to take jeeps all the way up the eastern side of the range to Manang, while other still opting for the historical start of the circuit in Besisahar. I initially planned to take a jeep to Chame, but after two hours of driving through this spectacular scenery I decided it was time to start putting my feet on the earth. So, day one I hiked a short afternoon from Chamche to Dharapani.
Day two I left early from Dharapani and took a side excursion through the jungle and then pine forests to Nache Village, a lovely Buddhist settlement high on a cliff overlooking the Marsayangi Valley. From there a wild hanging bridge crosses a side canyon and the trail continues through thick pine forests to the western end of the Manaslu trek. Circling back to Dharapani, this early morning two-hour detour started the day just right. From there I bounced between trail and jeep road, through pine forests, narrow canyons, endless grain fields, past the exit for the NarFu trek, the fruit plantations of Bhratang to make my way up a final climb to Upper Pisang. Here the terrain really opens up into the high barren valleys that define the north side of the Annapurnas. You’ve entered the start of the rain shadow. Upper Pisang affords stunning views of Annapurnas II, IV and III, all over 7000 meters. The stone village was probably my favorite stay of the three nights I had on the circuit.
On day three, I decided to make the loop up to the villages of Ghyaru and Ngawal, each with its unique charm, stupas, rows of prayer wheels, and increasingly, er, Himalayan scenery. The trail stays high on the north side of the Marsayangdi through here, allowing you to watch the various dimensions and nuances of the Annapurnas unfold to the south. My day ended with an afternoon excursion up to Ice Lake, at 4600 meters and a necessary acclimatization hike for me, before descending back to the famous village of Manang.
Day four I decided to make the last dash over the Thorong La Pass and down to Muktinath. One day? Why not? It was a bit ambitious, considering I hadn’t properly acclimatized, and had to climb from around 3500 meters in Manang to just over 5400 meters at the pass. Most folks break it up into 3 days or more. But I am of the opinion that with altitude you can sometimes move fast enough through it to sort of “trick it” and get back down before symptoms set in. This works first if you can move hike fast enough in general, but then especially only if you can descend rapidly, which you can on this section of the trail – dropping quickly to 3800 meter on the west side of the pass – putting you largely out of risk for serious high altitude illness. So, one step at a time and with increasing fatigue, I made my way over the famous Thorong La Pass, passing Blue Sheep, more stone villages in Letdar and then the amazing “backpacker” scene of Thorung Phedi and up to the pass, which was beautifully snowy this time of year. Crossing the pass later than most allowed me to have an immense amount of solitude as I stomped through the snow, watching the snowy peaks to the east give way to the high desert of the Khali Gandaki River valley below me and to the west – to the north, the dry valleys of the mystical Mustang region. Below, the sacred pilgrimage site of Muktinath.