Adventures on the Annapurna Circuit
13.03.2008 - 01.04.2008
"Hello. We are Maoist. We want peace and sustainable development for Nepal. We are on campaign for election. We dont want to fight."
And thus I was introduced to my first Maoist. Contrary to popular opinion he didnt try to extort money from me. We even shook hands twice and I bid him the best of luck on his blazing campaign trail as he wandered down the path on his pony, teenage flag-bearer/hero-worshipper by his side. The conflict between the government and the Maoist's is currently on standstill, at least until the April election is over, and that means that the Maoist party is trying to gain favour with the Nepali population to get as many seats as possible in the upcoming elections. They're communist, so the red hammer and sickle flag is displayed all over the country. Nepali's take an interesting view on politics here. Communism seems to be popular here - partly because so much money is squandered by politicians, leading the population to want equal wealth distribution, and therefore a rise in communist sentiment. And strangely enough, people dont seem to harbour much of a grudge against the Maoist's despite the fact that many civilans have died over the years. Many Nepali's seem to understand their issues. Anyway, I never felt at risk of any danger, and neither do other tourists.
The Annapurna circuit is beautiful beyond comparison. There is a lot to it. Typically the hike takes 16-21 days. I organised a guide in Kathmandu and a day later was taking the bus to Besisahar - the first town on the trail. I know I've have had my fair share of ranting and raving about bus drivers in previous blog entries, but now I think I've seen it all. My guide, Bhuben, organised a trip on a public bus - a seven hour trip from hell! The bus was a classic - straight from the 60's - so you'd think the bus driver would take it easy. But no, this only increases his desire to push the limits. The most useful tool in a Nepali bus driver's arsenal is the horn/hooter. Every horn has an annoying, repetitive tune...! When you arrive at the bus station in Kathmandu you feel as if you're in the middle of a parade band! It is used almost without stopping for the entire journey. There is no need for braking as long as this tool still works. A gap always seems to appear as the vehicle/motorcyclist in front of the bus (usually) pulls over and lets the bus go forth. When the bus enters a mountainous region, you really start to worry. Suddenly you're driving alongside massive cliffs and the bus is showing no signs of slowing down. Overtaking on hairpin corners or blind rises is par for the course. I plugged in my mp3 player, this was just too much for me...
I'll never curse a Sowetan taxi driver again.
So the trek was incredible. To get an idea of the terrain, the Annapurna area has three of the world's ten highest peaks. You are almost always looking at a snowcapped mountain somewhere in the distance, and as you get closer to the pass, you are surrounded by enormous, snowy peaks. For much of the trek you are at what mountaineers call 'high altitude,' meaning you need to let your body adjust to the rate at which ascend. So you take it easier the higher you go.
I generally tried to hike for the morning and a couple of hours after lunch before settling at a guest house for the night, then departing again after breakfast the next morning. My days varied between 11km per day and a maximum of 22.5km. In total the trip is about 205km of hiking.
The teahouses and guesthouses are owned by Nepali's and are rustic, but this all adds to the trekking experience. The villages where you stay are usually in a scenic part of the trek alongside the Marsyagandi or Kali Kandaki rivers, and often include a temple or Tibetan Buddhist monestry. Many of the villages are completely mind-blowing... they resemble medievil towns complete with ancient stone walls and cobblestone streets. The environments change constantly as you scale up to higher and higher altitudes, going from sub-tropical bush, to pine forests, to arid and rocky desert landscapes, and finally to the snowy peaks of the Himalaya's. My backpack initially weighed a ton - so I left some old shirts behind after three days, meaning that by the time I got on the bus 16 days later (no chance to wash clothes before this) my few clothes and I must have smelt like a vast herd of unwashed desert camels.
The pass, Thorung La, was the toughest part. It took a solid 10 hours of heavy trekking to get through the day. The pass is one of the world's highest - 5416 meters - I think that's higher than some continents! I felt the effects of altitude mountain sickness (AMS) through a pretty severe headache, so couldn't hang around the peak for too long, and headed down the other side into the world's deepest valley. The effect in terms of your breathing is unbelievable - sometimes you are gasping for air just from walking a few meters. Hats off to Tenzing and ol' Ed Hillary!! The west side of Annapurna presented some amazing desert scenery, gale force winds, the best hot springs in the world (surely??!), and beautiful viewpoints. What a trek - and there are plenty of other options that I hope to do in Nepal again one day.
Met some classic fellow trekkers on the route as well, by the time I finished the trek, our party had extended to six: Bhuben my local guide, Wolf the German, Ed the Englishman, Kiwi's Jason and Pipp, and me. Good laughs, and what steaks we had upon getting to Pokhara! (16 days of Dal Bhat can kill you! - ie. lots of rice and potatoe). Apple pies, croissants and hot showers were a pleasure on that first day back!
Pokhara is something of an adventure capital, it offers paragliding, kayaking, white water rafting, all that sort of stuff. Its situated on a lake, and its beatiful. I've just completed rafting and paragliding. Awesome fun! See pics below.
The rafting was a bit of a letdown - I had hoped to do some big rapids, but there were only level 2 and 3's. Obviously, the water was freezing but that didn't stop inter-raft water battles. I found myself flung into the river on a few occasions, but got my own back! Was also a great experience camping under the stars on deserted river banks at night.
Nepali's are also amazing people. You can't compliment them enough. They are genuine and kind, and always willing to help a stranger out - no reward is expected. To be honest, it was refreshing meeting Nepali's after dealing with what I call 'The Land of Fake Smiles'... ie. Thailand - I always felt as if someone was trying to rip me off.
Kathmandu was amazing as well. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but I loved it. Without going into too much detail, you can see some pics below of the famous sites I got to see. There are incredible places in the city: Boudnanath Stupa and Pashupatinath Temple top the list. Seeing burning funeral pires (with the occasional limb sticking out) on the riverside was a very strange experience indeed.
Anyway, off to the World Peace Pagoda here in Pokhara now... must go.