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Trekking to Annapurna Circuit

The Annapurna Circuit! What just might have been the highlight of the last year. I don't use those words lightly. I'm often asked "What is your favorite place?", usually I tend to be very non-committal in my response, choosing instead to give my top five to ten places I've visited rather than my one favorite place. So many things struck me during the trek, obviously the shear size of the mountains, more amazing to me were the people. I had countless unforgettable experiences along the trail. Sat in kitchens more than a dozen times chatting with the locals, seeing how they spent everyday. Watched as they prepared local food. I just sat there soaking it all in. The types of people who inhabit this region are quite diverse, from the dark skinned Indian looking Nepalese to the people who with there round faces, Central-Asian like features could not be mistaken for anything other than Tibetan to a cross between the two. Not forgetting the endless other tribes that I can't remember the names of, one even has ties to a monk from Japan who settled here 800 years ago. Their language is still similar to Japanese, amazing!

I was blown away by the life's people lead up in the mountains, what a hard life! But it some ways much simpler than the lives most people I know lead. People here are not consumed they look, what restaurant they're going to for dinner, which of the two hundred plus channels on cable they are going to watch tonight, when are they going to be able to afford a BMW, telling everyone that visits their house how expensive their surround sound system was. Instead they have real worries...will there be enough rain for the crops to grow, will they have enough food for the winter, do they have enough money for their children to attend school, can they afford clothes, is there shack of a house going to keep out the weather, can their ten year old Bull live another year or will they have to figure out another way to plow the fields, will the side of the mountain crumble in a landslide during the next monsoon taking them and all their few, meager possessions in life plummeting to the bottom of the valley below. These are the types problems I imagine an average Nepalese villager faces on an everyday basis. Instead of focusing on things we call problems they focus on one thing...survival!!! And for this it's almost a simpler life.

Life in the mountains is a throw back in time. Had we not had electricity some of the time, I'd have believed we were back in the 19th century. The villagers plow the fields using Bulls or Water Buffalo. They still use sickles to harvest crops. They carry most of the loads in baskets on their backs. They live almost a completely agrarian existence, rising with the sun to work in the fields, school doesn't start until 10am to give children time to work in the fields. Different crops are grown all over the circuit, from rice, wheat, corn, millet to potatoes, radishes, cabbage to my favorite cash crop...pot. The fields are mainly terraces carved out of the mountain, they look as if they've been there for five hundred years, if not more. Old ladies sit around beating piles of millet with sticks trying to separate the grain. Everywhere we went there were beans, radishes, corn, chilies drying in the sun. People keep horses, goats, yaks, water buffalo, cows, donkeys, chickens and more. Can't recall the amount of times I watched ladies spinning yarn on a loom. Roadwork is completed through brute force, I saw two heavy machines in three weeks, must have passed a dozen road crews in that time, all moving tons of rock by hand. Donkeys, horses and yaks are used to transport loads up and down the mountain. Most of the cooking is done on wood burning stoves, meat being smoked hanging above, dark smoke stains throughout the buildings. I don't want people to think Nepal is backwards in some way. It just seems that the people who inhabit the areas I visited, have mastered their way of doing things and their is no reason for them to change and adopt new tools or new techniques. You should see how impressive the villages are.

I imagine the villages might have looked the same a hundred years ago. Buildings ranged from bamboo houses with thatch roofs at the lower elevations to stone (granite, I think?) houses with gray slate roofs from the middle elevations all the way up to the pass. In some places buildings had an adobo finish, giving them a Mexican feel to them. The locals are master masons, years of practice seems to have paid off. Most of the buildings looked solid. Carpenters still used hand tools. I noticed the wood buildings were built without the use of nails, large beams being held in place by wood pegs instead. Men carry huge beams used in construction, two sometimes three at a time strapped right to their backs. Two things stand out when you look around, the people make use of the local materials available to them and everything is hand-made. I can't say there weren't modern inventions along the trail, there where, it was good to see small hydro-electric generators. But I've never spent so much time in a place that made me feel disconnected from modern life. I had the feeling many times that I was getting a glimpse of what my family's life might have been like a hundred years ago in Poland and Russia. It blew my mind at some points. Remember we spent most days walking between four to six hours, so there was plenty of time to think!

Well I've already written a ton, and still have yet to touch on the main reason people visit
this part of the world...the Himalayas! These gigantic mountains loom as a backdrop for the first few days of the trek as we passed through lush green mountains, covered with rice patties. Climbing, the forest began to show signs of fall, we began seeing trees with bright red, yellow and orange leaves. The forests changed and we walked through pine forests, the sweet smell, the dark green color as far as the eye could see. We kept climbing, the mountains began to get barer and barer. Crossing into a desert plateau every bush shrank and clung to the ground, every variety covered in thorns. There was dry grass through the entire valley. The color of the soil changed to a red/brown color and then in every direction...7000m plus peaks. All this time we walked beside, above, crossed teal colored, glacial rivers, the sound of running water almost constant throughout the trek. We continued to climb, getting up close and personal with the mountains. Everywhere I looked, snow capped mountains, one after another. We kept climbing and found ourselves in a pass, directly between two massive peaks. Crossing onto the other side of the pass opened the second chapter, from the top of the pass we caught a glimpse of an entirely new range of mountains from the ones already seen. Plus the entire landscape was barren, brown and mountainous. As we started down the entire landscape reminded me of Arizona. Next was the start of the "Worlds Deepest Valley" (I have issues with this claim), and entire mountainsides were covered in gravel and loose slate. As we continued lower, the landscapes started to resemble the other side, we followed a river the entire time, switching rivers a couple of times, actually spent days walking along the riverbed itself. After endless days of heading down we started heading up. Climbing again you could see mountains covered from top to bottom with terraced fields, houses scattered everywhere and every so often a village perched on the side of the hills.

Our Route:
Kathmandu... Besi Sahar... Ngadi... Jagat... Tal... Danagyu... Chame... Lower Pisang... Manang... Yak Kharka... Thorung Phedi... Muktinath... Jomosom... Larjung... Ghasa... Tatopani... Sikha... Ghorepani... Hille... Pokara

I have to say I'm happy to back from the trek though, twenty-one days walking is a lot! I was tired of walking, I was told we walked around 300km. We crossed a mountain
pass, 5416m that's 17764ft, what a moment! The hardest thing I've ever accomplished in life. The day we crossed the pass was the most physically demanding day of my life. We climbed from 4400m to 5400m then we descended to 3800m. The day started at 4am and we finally stopped walking at 3pm. During the climb each step was a chore, stopping sometimes after only twenty or so steps to catch my breath, it felt like I was breathing through a plastic bag with a pencil sized hole punched in it covering my mouth. There is so little oxygen it hurts to think. I had problems with the altitude sickness during the night in Yak Kharka, never knew you could get such a bad headache, I have a new found sympathy for people who suffer from migraines. It was awful, even had me worried I wouldn't be able to cross the pass, but I started taking diamox and the problem subsided. So the entire day climbing to Thorung La I was waiting for the altitude sickness to kick in again, fortunately it didn't, although my kidneys hurt for hours that day. What a feeling at the top, it was amazing, when I saw the sign marking the top, prayer flags flapping everywhere, it's a moment I'll never forget!

A close second to crossing the pass, has to be the interactions I got to have with all the locals. I can't even count how many funny moments I had with kids. Children run up to you screaming, "Hello", "Sweet", "School Pen?", "Photo?” it's great! I sat in the kitchens at the tea houses learning how to cook the local dishes, drinking "Ruckshe" (home-made wine) and having great conversations with all the people working. We spent many nights in small family run guesthouses; it was closer to being in a home than in a hotel. Some mornings I would get up, sit in the kitchen right next to the fire, drinking my coffee and warming up. Had countless amazing moments with the people.

Spent my 30th birthday in Manang. It happened to be a rest day and I got a chance to walk into a valley, cross a river on a wobbly bridge that really got my heart racing when I had to go back across it. Found a spot in the long yellow grass to sit down, take pictures and read, while horses grazed in the background and Annapurna II, Annapurna III, Annapurna IV, Glacier Dome, Pisang Peak and Chule provided 360 degree views of 6000m-8000m snow-capped mountains. And the river provided the soothing sound of fast flowing water. Only one Tibetan man walked by, that was the only person who passed the entire day it was an unforgettable birthday.

Another thing I need to mention was... the food! Nepali food is amazing, very similar to Indian. But the most famous dish is Dal Baht. When your order this dish you are treated to a feast, served on a large metal plate containing multiple sections. A huge pile of rice (Baht), with a soup made from lentils (Dal), usually some type of curry (chicken, mutton, potato, etc), sometimes sautéed spinach, and relish (different types of pickled vegetables, mainly radishes or beans). Most of the time you get some of everything. You begin by pouring the lentils on top of the rice then you scoop the curry and mix everything together, sounds good huh? But that's not the best part, the best part is they continue to refill all the items until you are practically begging them to stop. And did I mention that everything is delicious. The other great thing is that no two Dal Bahts are alike, each Nepali makes their own version, so we got treated to many different tastes, the best being in Larjung, unbelievable, can almost still taste it, an epic Thali experience. The other amazing cuisine that needs mentioning is Momo. These dumplings are to die for, filled with meat, potato, cheese, veg, or a combination of fillings, they are prepared either steamed or fried (mostly steamed) and served with amazing dipping sauces. Never could get enough momo. Plus each village has small spots the locals eat in, nothing better than finishing a day hiking and having a dozen momo, washed down by Ruckshe or Apple Brandy, while sitting around with a bunch of Nepalese who just finished work. The memory of those moments will last my entire life. You really get a chance to see how the locals live. So many people on the trail never take the chance to experience the local flavor, ordering pizza, pasta or other western dishes. They never take the time to sit and eat a meal with the Local people. My trek was filled to the brim with Nepal culture, and I'll never forget it.

Haven't mentioned yet how great Rishi (our guide) or Sumbo (our porter) were. Both of them helped make a memorable experience that will last a lifetime. Without them it would have been completely different. Without Rishi their would have been no one to translate for us, no one to show us all the local spots, no one showing us the secluded swimming hole, no one showing us the best tea houses, no one bringing us to stay with families he's known for years. And without Sumbo we simply wouldn't have made it, no way I would have been able to climb the pass carrying my own pack. Each was always smiling; doing his best to make sure Simon and I were happy. It was almost too much at times, but hey I'm not used to being on tours, the entire trek was amazing.

Written by Curt Mason, Orlando, Florida


Annapurna Circuit

Curt Mason





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