GO NEPAL:A 300km trek which wraps around the Annapurna Range in western Nepal is considered by many to be one of the finest hikes in the world, writes RÓISÍN SORAHAN
RIVERS CAN’T keep secrets. Over time they spill onto their banks. Even the old dark ones that have remained hidden for centuries.
There’s a river that flows from the upper Mustang region in the Himalayas, known as the Forbidden Kingdom. Having spent almost two weeks hiking in the legendary mountains of Nepal, we stumbled upon its banks and spent a day following its course, scouring its cache for secrets. Coiled ammonites, which had been buried from sight for aeons, lay scattered among the shingle. I found the first fossil, my friend found the most beautiful.
Surrounded by such scenery we took what we could, filling our lungs and stuffing our senses. Scarce believing that we were teetering on the edge of the fabled Tibetan plateau, having scaled the great heights of the Himalayas.
The Himalayas stir every hiker’s dreams. They sing to us like a siren. There is no other range that can compete in terms of peaks and promises. Even in monsoon season.
I was warned that it wasn’t the best time to tackle the mountains, but I had the chance to try. Like many hikers who know they will never conquer Everest, I was drawn to the peaks in the Annapurna region like a junkie to a methadone clinic.
The Annapurna circuit, a 300km trek which wraps around the Annapurna Range in western Nepal, is considered by many to be one of the finest hikes in the world. It crosses north of the main Himalayan range to the trans-Himalaya on a well developed route that reaches an altitude of 5,416m at the Thorung La pass. The average trekking duration is between 17 and 21 days. My adventure stretched two weeks as I waived-off the final leg in the lower regions, in deference to monsoon and mosquitoes.
My route followed an ancient trading path between Nepal and Tibet which encompasses Annapurna 1 (8,091m), the world’s 10th tallest mountain; the Dhaulagiri massif, another magnificent monster ranking seventh (8,167m); and the boots-on-the-break beautiful Machhapuchchhre peak (6,993m). In terms of mountain lore and legends the circuit surpasses even the most hardened hiker’s expectations.
It was first opened to foreigners in 1977 and has become one of the most popular routes in Nepal. Ascending from 820m it traverses a range of climactic zones from greenhouse humidity to glacial bitterness. The bewildering variety of flora reflects the diversity; while the span of cultures, religions and traditions is almost as diverse.
The path, which is ideally followed anti-clockwise to facilitate the summit ascent, passes through numerous cobbled villages that embrace Hinduism on the lower plains and practice Tibetan Buddhism in the upper reaches. It’s laden with gompas and pilgrimage sites, ancient scrolls and gleaming stupas.
It’s an insight into a world that’s only been open to peeping eyes for 34 years; and a lesson in the power of commerce to accelerate change.
We set out from Besisahar, 140km from Kathmandu, at the end of June with reliable rain-jackets and the necessary hiking permits to gain access to the 7,629sq km Annapurna Conservation Area that’s home to the circuit and numerous other routes.
It’s a well worn path, so we decided against a guide and porters, preferring to take our chances and confident that directions and accommodation could be easily found in the villages along the way.
The first few days were spent in a haze of humidity, marvelling over tropical plants, overlooking cultivated plots, resting in the shade of Hindu temples and pausing by secreted, forest alters. Nights were passed in basic, wooden rooms with clean beds and communal solar showers. It rained, the clouds gathered and the peaks teased and hid like peep-show strippers. But we had the trail to ourselves and when the mountains put on their show it was for our pleasure only.
The only other souls on the path were loaded mules clattering across steel suspension bridges that span the Marsyangdi river; road labourers manually carving a new route around the mountains; and local people bent double under impossibly heavy burdens, muscles straining and sinews screaming. I followed slowly in the wake of steel pipes, glass windows, cages of fowl and crates of beer destined for villages many miles along the trail.
The road, which it’s claimed will be completed in 2012, is an issue of great local debate. It will change the lives of the inhabitants immeasurably and hack the face off the scenery indelibly. The tourism industry will respond with day excursions and stylised trips, but the mountain trekker, lured by the Himalayas, will not be seen for the dust of the trucks.
As we travelled higher the Tibetan Buddhist culture became increasingly apparent. Age-worn prayer wheels lined every village, white-washed stupas leaned over every outcrop and colourful prayer flags fluttered off every peak and bridge. The trail became much drier as the full effect of the monsoon was cut off by the Annapurna range. Blue skies and glaciers formed backdrops to crimson-clad monks who spilled down the mountain like drops of blood.
THE AIR ALSOgot much thinner. As we reached the village of Manang at 3,570m altitude headaches were starting to slow me down so we decided to re-charge over a couple of days to acclimatise sufficiently before pushing on to the Thorang La pass. We took a room which stepped onto the first floor of the neighbouring building, a perfect deck to watch the shifting light on the magnificent Gangapurna glacier which towers over the town.
It was also an opportunity to observe the changes that tourism has brought to these traditional communities. It wasn’t positive. Accommodation providers, store keepers and restaurant owners all approached the visitor with the opportunism of a swindler with a stolen credit card. Even Buddhist gompas were beginning to extract fees from hikers for crossing their thresholds. Disappointing, certainly. And depressingly predictable. But in the face of such scenery, they were mere irritants. Flies on a summer’s day.
Leaving Manang we trekked steadily upwards, gaining ground and testing stamina before tackling Thorung La in a bitterly cold dawn three days later. Barren scree gave way to a soft covering of snow and a blasting wind. Clouds swirled, but the path was clear and we reached the pinnacle marked by a cairn and bedecked with prayer flags.
A glacier lake dangled like a jewel on a white throat beneath us. Mountains encircled us. For all the temples we had visited in the past days, no deity could have inspired more wonder.
The achievement was gratifying, but the moment was brief. We lingered as long as we could in the frost-bitten world, before setting out on the knee-jerking 1,600m descent to the town of Muktinath, a place held sacred by Tibbetan Buddhists as well as Hindus as it’s home to a holy site revered by both.
It deserves to be worshipped for its location alone as it overlooks the Annapurna range to its south and the Tibetan Plateau to the north. The Buddhists call it Chumig Gyatsa (Hundred Waters); the Hindus have named it Muktichhetra (Place of Salvation). A Buddhist gompa exalts Dakinis, sky dancing goddesses; while a Hindu temple venerates the god Vishnu who, stories tell us, transformed into stones and can now be found as ammonites in the Kali Kandaki river.
Over the next few days as we followed the river’s downward course we passed Sadhus, holy men, who had made the long pilgrimage on foot from India. My two-week sojourn in the mountains withered in the face of their faith.
The landscape also significantly changed. Yak herders gave way to blossoming wheat fields, golden against the white mountains and clear blue skies. We passed through neat villages, some frozen in time, others emerging like islands in the midst of marijuana fields.
My favourite was Kagbani, with its warrens and whispers, perched on the edge of the Kali Kandaki river. The village is the gatekeeper to the Forbidden Kingdom, which was annexed by Nepal in the 18th century; its monarchy dissolved in 2008. This land, which was kept veiled for decades, was finally opened to visitors in 1992. However, travel remains strictly regulated and a special permit is required to pass the threshold.
But rivers don’t heed boundaries. Any more than they keep secrets. Old, twisted ammonites that have been hidden for centuries drift past the gatekeeper and are dropped onto the banks. In the Himalayas, it seems nothing is sacred. Even gods lie scattered amongst the smooth black stones.
Annapurna circuit how to . . .
A number of airlines fly Dublin to Kathmandu, including: Gulfair.com; Etihadairways.com; Qatarairways.com; and Britishairways.com. From Kathmandu take a bus to Besisahar, changing at Dumre.
When to go
High season runs from October to November, before the winter snows. But I've heard tales of hundreds of trekkers swarming the trail and sleeping on tables in overcrowded accommodation. Monsoon season isn't ideal, but we practically had the route to ourselves and our pick of beds as most guesthouses were empty.
Where to stay
The Annapurna circuit is a tea-house trail, which means that food and lodging is available along the route. This significantly lightens the load as sleeping bags, tents and provisions can be left behind.
What to bring
Cash: there are no ATMs and no-one's taking cheques. A mix of clothing: it's hot, humid and muggy on the lower plains, but once you gain altitude it gets bitterly cold and fresh falls of snow are common in high season. Sunscreen, hat and shades: you're a helluva lot closer to the sun up there. Altitude medication: the negative effects of altitude should be taken seriously. If impacted severely it's critical to retreat to a lower elevation.
It's easy to navigate the trail. However, if you opt for a guide and porters, trekking companies are two-a-penny in the streets of Thamel in Kathmandu. Ensure in advance that there's no ambiguity about what's included in the package – particularly regarding those three square meals.
You will need an Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) permit as well as a Trekkers' Information Management System (TIMS) card. These can be purchased in Bhrikuti Mandap, a tourist centre a short taxi ride from Thamel. Buy in advance or you'll be charged double on arrival at the Annapurna Conservation Area.