2 Wheel Vagabond

2 Wheel Vagabond


Monday 5 December 2016

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

2 weeks trekking the Annapurna circuit was an amazing experience, my original plan was to do it in 9 days which would have been possible but would have meant missing some great side trips and to be honest I enjoyed myself so much I could have spent double the time exploring the villages on this amazing walk. When I was trying to organise the trek it was quite hard to get information on the details of the hike, I wanted to do it without a guide and porter but most tourist agencies told me I needed take one, advice on what gear to bring was varied and so was info on a realistic daily hiking schedule. Here’s the lowdown from my 15 day hike, we did it as a pair without a guide and carrying our own gear, this was my hiking partner Charlottes first multiday hike so I’d say the daily distances are achievable for most hikers. Hopefully the information here is helpful for anybody planning this trek, another link that  is definitely useful and full of relevant route information is the  Annapurna Track Notes
Throng La Pass
Permits: The Annapurna hiking permits were relatively easy to obtain, I applied for mine at the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu, in total it took just over an hour from arriving to walking out with the permit. You need a TIMMS and ACAP permit to enter the Annapurna Conservation Area, the cost is 2000 Nepalese Rupees for each permit, you will also need 2 passport photos, your passport (I wasn’t asked for a photocopy but it’s worth bringing a few copies just in case) and your insurance information. Application forms are available at the office and they also have free WIFI to access any info online while you’re there. There was quite a line at the tourism board so it may pay to arrive early, having said this processing was quite quick so I didn’t have to wait too long. You MUST have these permits to enter the Annapurna Conservation Area, there are check points along the way and we passed one hiker that couldn’t proceed because she didn’t have the correct permits. The link for the Nepal Tourism Board is  NTB  and the National Trust for Nature Conservation is  NTNC  click on the Entry Permit Form tab at the top left of the screen for permit info. 
Trail to Tilcho Lake
Guides and porters: As far as a guide and porter goes, if you prefer not to have one you definitely don’t need one, the trail is marked so well it’s almost impossible to get lost and every village you pass through has guesthouses, usually with friendly owners that speak quite good English. If you choose to use a guide or porter I think it pays to be picky with who you employ, you are going to be with these guys every day for the next few weeks. I met some really great guides and porters on the trail, they were friendly, helpful and full of information however I also met some that weren’t so good, employing the right person will make a real difference to the enjoyment of your hike. I understand the principle of employing a guide/porter and giving someone a job but when I hike I get enjoyment from the challenge along with enjoying my surroundings so carrying my own gear and finding my own way with the flexibility to stop where and when I want is something I prefer, also I just can’t bear to let somebody else carry my gear while I stroll along carrying nothing, not judging those that use a porter but it’s just not my thing. There is a company that operates out of Kathmandu and also Pokhara called “Sherpa Land”, their guides seemed very good especially Kami who I met at several guesthouses and was always friendly and helpful.

NATT trail marker
Guest houses: Finding guest houses along the way was never a problem, I did my hike between the 9th and 24th November which is near the end of the peak season and there was always plenty of rooms available. For most of the trek we were able to get the room for free as long as we ate dinner and breakfast at the guesthouse, on a few occasions we paid for the room, especially near Throng La Pass, however it was never more then 200-300 Nepalese Rupees for 2 people to share the room. Most guesthouses have fixed price menus to ensure fair prices for hikers therefore regardless of where you stay in a village food will generally cost the same and for that reason although you can negotiate the room price they ask that you don’t try to negotiate the price for food, which to be honest is already quite cheap. As we gained altitude and the temperature started dropping the 3 things we asked when choosing a guesthouse was if they had a communal fireplace, hot water and extra blankets, these 3 luxuries made the stay a lot more comfortable. The fireplace would make the stay a lot friendlier, hikers would sit around the wood fire talking or playing cards which was a lot better than sitting in a cold room, almost everybody would be asleep by 8pm so it was usually early to bed, early to rise.

Guesthouse at Tal
Water: Bottled water along the circuit becomes more expensive the further you get into the trek, we generally waited until we reached the safe drinking water stations situated along the route, the water there ranged in price from between 40 – 60 Rupees per liter which is much cheaper than the bottled water prices. The other benefit of using the safe drinking water stations is that you are supporting the local community as the water stations are run by the village women’s groups and also they help to curb the amount of rubbish on the circuit that is caused by discarded plastic bottles. I carried a Lifestraw bottle with me along the hike and I would also fill up water from the many streams that we passed, my hiking partner Charlotte did the same but used water purification tablets, they give the water a slight chlorine taste but neither of us were sick during the 2 weeks we spent hiking. If you are planning on doing Thong La Pass or some of the higher side treks it can get very cold and the water in our bottles would freeze, A thermos bottle is handy to take along to stop this problem occurring and filling it with hot tea on the really cold days will encourage you to keep hydrated much more than sipping defrosted water.
Safe drinking water station at Tal
Food: Finding a meal was definitely not a problem during our time on the circuit, you never travel far without passing a guest house/restaurant. Most places offer similar menus and as mentioned earlier prices are generally the same throughout any village. On most days during the hike I would order Dal Baht, the local Nepalese dish usually includes free refills of dal and rice so it’s a great meal to fill you up after a day of hiking, we would also order large pots of tea, it’s a great way to keep hydrated in the cold and is also much cheaper than ordering by the cup.  I had no idea that restaurants were so common along the hike so I brought along quite a few snacks such as muesli bars and biscuits thinking that food would be relatively scarce, this was totally unnecessary, you can order scrumptious food at one of the many restaurants you pass and if you want snacks you can buy them along the way, however they are a little more costly than stocking up at a larger town before you begin. We would eat breakfast at the guest house before we set off for the day, order the night before and tell them what time you’d like to eat and the owners will have it ready for you, my favorite was the Tsampa porridge with apple but the omelets were also delicious. As a snack along the way we would also order some Tibetan bread or chapatti in the morning to take with us, we would find a nice spot during the day to sit and have a break, I brought along a large jar of peanut butter which went very well with the local bread as we enjoyed the views. If you decide to stop at a guesthouse for a meal during the day it pays to order the same dish as your hiking partner especially if you’re in a large group, this saves a lot of time, quite often we would just want a quick break and bite to eat but we would end up stopping for over an hour waiting for the food to be prepared, larger groups sometimes would wait for twice that long.

Yak on the way to Throng Phedi

Gear/Equipment: There was no shortage of advice in regard to what gear to bring, the problem was that it was all different. I’ve never done a tea house trek before, the usual hikes I do require me to be self sufficient and bring everything I need for the duration of the hike so my greatest challenge with gear was not over packing. It is possible to be quite minimalist when packing for the Annapurna circuit, the accommodation and food is quite luxurious compared to what I’m used to so unless your planning on doing an expedition style side trek you can cut a lot of weight from your pack. Taking a sleeping bag or not was the biggest question, I’d heard arguments from both corners, I decided not to take one, I hiked the circuit during winter and I was never that cold at night in a guesthouse that I missed it, at worst I slept in my thermals and asked for a second blanket but I was always warm enough and happy to save the weight and space in my pack. Warm clothing is essential, I had a good down jacket, windproof jacket, beanie, neck/face warmer and 2 pairs of gloves along with a pair of icebreaker thermals, I generally only wore the thermals in the evening at the guesthouses however at Throng La Pass and Tilicho Lake I wore them for the day of hiking. General clothing is personal choice but I brought along 2 pairs of pants and t-shirts, one pair that I would wear hiking every day and a pair that I kept clean and wore in the evenings. I also brought a rain jacket with me, it didn’t rain once as winter is the dry season but it’s always handy just in case, the minute you leave a rain jacket behind it’s almost guaranteed to pour.                                                                                                 This was my first hike using trekking poles and I am definitely converted, those bad boys made life so much easier climbing the hills and provided much needed stability as I headed down. I purchased a pair of genuine Black Diamond carbon fibre poles, they are awesome but expensive, I didn’t mind paying for the quality however as I’ll be using them for other hikes in the future. If you are looking for cheap poles there are plenty to choose from, Charlotte bought a pair of Leki brand poles at a 10th of the price of mine and they got her through the hike without any problems.  There is also all the other usual hiking gear that is handy to bring with you…. Head torch with spare batteries, basic first aid kit with tape to stop blisters, anti chafe cream and gastro stop tablets, washing powder to clean your clothes on a rest day… etc etc etc, the list goes on.                                                                     I brought along a map of the circuit, which was perhaps a little unnecessary but I like bringing one along for peace of mind, make sure you purchase the Annapurna Area map not the Annapurna Base Camp map though. There were often several track options and the map was handy for ensuring we didn’t take a wrong turn, every now and then we would find ourselves helping confused trekkers without a map find the trail they wanted, we also used it in the evenings to plan our next day of hiking. I met some hikers that weren’t using a map at all, some that were using basic mapping apps like maps.me and a couple that had just taken photos of sections of the map with their phone, there are plenty of options and we all finished the circuit eventually, I still prefer the old school map though. I downloaded the Annapurna track notes, they were really helpful for planning our route and they had plenty of useful information regarding the circuit, the link is  Annapurna Track Notes I wasn't able to print a copy before I left so I took a screen shot of every page with my phone for reference on the hike. Bring along some good quality sunscreen, the combination of the wind and the strength of the sun at higher altitude means you get burnt a lot quicker than usual, the sun was shining most days and on many parts of the trek there isn’t any shade. You can purchase tubes of Banana Boat 50+ (my personal favorite sunscreen) at some stores along the trail but it can be expensive so it’s probably better to be prepared and purchase it at Pokhara or Kathmandu.

The trail leading out of Ghyaru

Daily Costs: Once we were on the trail the daily costs were quite low, we had a rough allowance of  2000 Nepalese Rupee a day and were always well under budget, the cost of food gets progressively more expensive as you climb in Altitude but we would generally spend between 1000 and 1500 NR each per day on food and accommodation. I didn’t drink many beers on the circuit but when I did indulge in a brew each bottle would add approximately another 500 NR to the daily expenditure, we also took a liking to the local apple brandy, cider and juice in Martha which added a little to our daily expenditure while we stayed in that village, well worth it though. There are plenty of ATM’s available in Jomsom if you start running low on cash.
Altitude Sickness: As you ascend altitude sickness is something to be very aware of, in a worst case scenario symptoms of altitude sickness can develop into Cerebral Oedema or Pulmonary Oedema, both potentially life threatening conditions. Early symptoms can include headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping. More severe signs can include persistent and irritating cough, bubbling sound in the chest, coughing up pink or white frothy liquid, irrational behaviour, fits, drowsiness and confusion. The best way to combat altitude sickness is to take your time acclimatising, I did 2 side treks for acclimatisation (the Ice Lake 4600m and Tilicho Lake 4949m) we also spent 1 night at Ghyaru (3650 m), 1 night at Braga (3470 m), 2 nights at Shree Kharka (3900m) and 1 night at Throng Phedi (4420m). Once you reach 3000 meters it is advised that you don’t ascend more than 500 – 600 meters of altitude gain in a day (depending on what source you read), better to plan an extra day than push too far at these heights.  It is also important to keep well hydrated, this means drinking plenty of water and tea at least 3-4 days before the pass, I saw guys sculling water at Throng Phedi because they were dehydrated the day before the pass, pure madness and piss poor preparation, if you’re not stopping to pee a lot during a day of hiking you’re not hydrated enough. Last but not least stay warm, altitude sickness is related to a drop in body temperature so cover up with blankets at night and rug up if it’s cold when your hiking, it’s easier to take off a layer or two of clothing than it is to warm up someone suffering from Hypothermia. Monitor yourself and your hiking buddies for any of the signs of altitude sickness as you ascend, pay close attention for signs of confusion, dizziness and pink liquid that is coughed up. Neither of us had any signs of altitude sickness, I think our acclimatisation was well planned and we kept very well hydrated throughout the trek, Charlotte took a course of altitude sickness tablets before the pass but I didn’t, it can’t hurt to take them so it’s worth bringing them along. As you ascend you will find it harder to get a good night sleep and you may have a slight cough, everything gets a little harder when you reach over 4000 meters so you will also feel more fatigued as you climb, these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you are going to drop dead from altitude sickness and don’t mean you need to rush straight back down, keep an eye on early symptoms, be safe but be realistic when monitoring your symptoms.
View from the Guesthouse at Ghyaru

Hiking Route/Daily Hiking Schedule

Day 1: Pokhara/Besisahar to Bahundanda
 We were hoping to get the bus from Pokhara to Besisahar in the evening and begin our hike early the next morning however we were only able to get a morning bus to Besisahar. The Bus left Pokhara at 6:30 am and after a cramped and bumpy 5 hour bus trip we arrived, the bus stops right in front of the ACAP check post so you can get your permits stamped as soon as you get off the bus. We had lost half a day of hiking so we decided to get the local bus to the village of Ngadi and begin walking from there, this was a pretty good option as the hiking trail followed the road for much of the way and there was a lot of buses and jeeps on this section of road causing it to be quite dusty. We had lunch at one of the guesthouses at Ngadi and eased into the first day of hiking with a few hours of walking to the village of Bahundanda. The village is located on top of a sizable hill that requires working up a sweat to get to the top but once you are there the view is amazing and it’s a great place to spend your first night on the circuit. There are a few guesthouses to choose from when you reach the top, most of which have wonderful views of the valleys to either side of the village, we were told that many hikers bypass Bahundanda now that the road is in place but personally I think this is a village that is well worth visiting.
Prayer wheels welcome you to most villages

Day 2: Bahundanda to Tal
 The trekking trail notes and the map itineraries both had this as a two day hike, we left Bahundanda at about 7:30am and arrived in Tal at around 4:00 pm, we weren’t rushing our pace and we had a few rest stops along the way. This was a really enjoyable day of hiking, there was an option to do a steep 130 meter climb between the villages of Jagat and Chamje that took you to the rainbow waterfall hotel, the view of the waterfall is spectacular and yes it has rainbow, this is where we stopped for lunch and with a view like this we weren’t in a hurry to leave. The trail leading into Tal turned into steps that ascend quite steeply and it was a bit of a challenge at the end of the day but arriving at the village was a wonderful feeling. Tal sits right on the river and the track that passes through the village is lined with quaint guesthouses, it is a village that is full of character and is a popular stop for trekkers, Tal also has a safe drinking water station.
The entry gate to Tal

Day 3: Tal to Koto
The track left Tal and followed its way along the river, there was once again some beautiful scenery on this day of hiking and our anticipation grew with every step closer to the large snow capped mountains that we could see in the distance. There was quite a bit of elevation in this day of hiking, Tal (1675 meters) to Koto (2630 meters), the hardest section being the climb to Temang/Thanchouk which was a solid 1.5 hours climbing 350 meters, the good news was that from there it was relatively flat until the village of Koto. We made the decision to stay in Koto to avoid the “larger” village of Chame which was a more popular place for hikers to stay, there were only a handful of guesthouses in Koto and we discovered our first guest house with a communal fireplace, from then on it was a must have for anywhere we stayed.
Charlotte crossing the suspension bridge leaving Tal

Day 4: Koto to Ghyaru
The first half of this day was very enjoyable and the village of Upper Pisang was very picturesque but be warned the climb from Upper Pisang up to Ghyaru, although worth every drop of sweat, was an absolute killer. There are a few options you can take from here… 1. The low road via Lower Pisang, a walk along a dusty road devoid of any stunning scenery… 2. The low road via Upper Pisang, the same road that was just mentioned but you get to visit the beautiful village of Upper Pisang… 3. The high road via Ghyaru, a very steep climb but by far the most stunning views of the 3 options and worth evry step. It was a long day of walking and a tough way to finish the day but we decided to do the long climb to Ghyaru in the afternoon, many people choose to stay in Upper Pisang but I was happier to tackle the climb at the end of the day and then resting rather than having to deal with it first thing in the morning. We stayed at the Annapurna guesthouse, this place is as genuine as it gets, to keep warm we were invited to sit around the cooking stove as dinner was being prepared, the cook had spent 5 years living in a monastery and was generous in handing out samples of homemade Raksi (a local spirit that will put hairs on your chest but warms you up), the ceiling of the kitchen was also full of hanging dried buffalo meat, this was extra funny as Charlotte is a vegetarian.  In the morning I sat on the roof of our guest house, wrapped in a blanket watching the sun rays hit Annapurna II, III and IV as it made its way over the horizon, truly spectacular!!! Another benefit of spending the night in Ghyaru is that at 3650 meters it gets you an extra day of acclimatisation at a decent elevation.              
The Gate to Ghyaru
Viewpoint at Ghyaru

Day 5: Ghyaru to Braga                                                                                                                     
 Many people will choose to stay in the town of Manang for up to 3 days to acclimatise, we chose to spend a night in the village of Braga to avoid the “crowds” of the larger town. I had planned this to be an easy day for us, Ghyaru was actually higher than Braga so in theory it was all downhill and was only half a day of hiking. The day started out great, the scenery was once again amazing with views of the Annapurna range and valley below, the trail took us past some old Gompas and a monastery and then wound its way quite steeply down through a beautiful pine forest. At this point we could have taken a low road to Braga which in hindsight would have been far easier, however we decided to take the scenic high road which meant climbing up the other side of the pine tree valley, after the climb to Ghyaru the day before this really took it out of us. The good news was that from the top of the valley it really was all downhill to Braga and we arrived in the early afternoon, about 1:30 pm after a late start of 8:30 am. We stayed at the New Yak hotel, it was a nice place to stay, they had a fireplace, hot shower and they also had a bakery that made delicious cinnamon scrolls…… yummm!!!

On the trail from Ghyaru

Day 6: Ice Lake/ Braga to Shree Kharka
I decided to do the side trip to the ice lake from Braga while Charlotte chilled out at the hotel and had a recovery morning, the ice lake is situated at 4600 meters elevation and is a perfect place to visit for acclimatisation. I left at 6:30 am, I was hiking light today, just my Camelbak and camera, I was feeling great and was on a mission to reach the lake as soon as I could, I definitely noticed the change in elevation, everything gets harder as the air gets thinner however I managed to reach the lake in just under 2 hours. There are actually 2 lakes at the top, a small one and a large one that are only 10 minutes apart. It was cold at the top, my water froze in my Camelbak and my fingers were hurting while I used my camera, I stuck around long enough to get some photos and then I headed back down. I was still feeling surprisingly good so I decided to let gravity do the work and ran down, there was a restaurant ¾ of the way up (1/4 of the way down) so I stopped for a pot of tea, I was happy to support this place as it was run by the village women’s group and the manager was the only person that had made the trek up the mountain earlier than me that morning. The trip down took an hour to run and with photo stops and tea breaks included the return trip took about 3 ½ hours, if you’re not rushing the guide books say to allow 6 hours return. I arrived back at the guesthouse in Braga in great spirits, I ate 2 cinnamon scrolls for lunch and we were soon making our way to Manang. We stopped at Manang long enough to buy a second pair of gloves and fleece pants for the Throng La Pass crossing, get our permits stamped and fill up at the safe drinking water station. Although Manang was a little larger than the other villages in the area it still seemed very nice and even had a cinema that played cool English movies like 7 years in Tibet, Into thin air and Blood diamond. From Manang we followed the trail to Tilcho Lake, we took the advice of a well meaning Australian expat which lead us the wrong way, after half an hour of going in the wrong direction we consulted the map and found our way to the correct trail heading to Khangsar. This had been a pretty long day for me and when we reached Khangsar I was quite tired, however we pushed on to Shree Kharka in the hope of doing Tilcho Lake as a 1 day return trip and saving an extra day. Shree Karka is situated at 3900 meters elevation so 2 nights here was also much better acclimatisation than spending a few extra nights at Manang (3530 meters)
Ice Lake

View looking back over the small lake

Day 7: Shree Kharka to Tilicho Lake/ return
 Shree Karka to Tilicho Lake and return with just a small day bag and camera was definitely doable, in total it took around 7 hours and it saved us a day on the circuit by not staying at Tilicho base camp. We weren’t carrying our heavier packs so our shoulders had a nice rest and we were able to keep up a faster pace while being more relaxed. Once again I was expecting an easy day, at least to Tilcho base camp and then start the hard climb, however once again the trail took me by surprise. The trail was quite pleasant until we reached the landslide area, from there it was a stressful walk along a narrow path cut into a very steep wall of loose rocks. In some places the tack was covered in ice, which made it very precarious to negotiate and at other times we had to jump sections of stones that had covered the track from an earlier landslide. This section of track was slow going, both Charlotte and I aren’t the biggest fans of heights so we were very relieved to eventually round the corner and be greeted by Tilicho base camp. The climb to the lake was exhausting, between the altitude and the fatigue from doing the ice lake the day before I have to admit I was suffering. I was trying to make the lake reasonably quickly as the winds tended to pick up in the afternoon and they warn against crossing the landslide area in high winds, if I wanted to make it back to Shree Kharka that day I couldn’t afford to dawdle. Tilicho Lake was definitely worth the effort, depending on what source you read it’s the world’s highest lake but regardless of that it was an amazing sight and at 4949 meters it was a nice achievement as well as being great acclimatisation for Throng La Pass. I rushed down from the lake in the hope of catching one of the groups that were heading back to Shree Kharka from Tilcho base camp, we managed to tag along with some other trekkers and the wind hadn’t yet picked up so the return trip across the landslide area seemed a lot easier than the way here. We arrived back at Shree Kharka at 2:30 pm after leaving at 7:00 am that morning.
Tilicho Lake
View from Tilicho Lake

 Landslide area on the way to Tilicho Base Camp
Day 8: Shree Kharka to Throng Phedi
 leaving for Throng la Pass from Shree Kharka was great, there was an alternate trail that went directly to Yak Kharka, it was a beautiful trail with some amazing scenery and the elevation increase was much less than starting from Manang. We were in no rush today and took our time, stopping for some photo opportunities and taking the odd break for Tibeten bread and the last of my jar of peanut butter. Our plan was to stop at Ledar, spend the night and then spend the next night in Throng La high camp, this would have shaved an hour off our Thong La Pass day. We reached Ledar at lunch time, much earlier than expected, we had been taking it easy and were feeling good so we had the option of pushing on to Throng Phedi, this would save us a day but add an hour to the Throng La Pass crossing. There were a few things to consider here… 1. Had we had enough acclimatisation? The answer there was yes, we had spent much more time at height than the trekkers who opted for a prolonged Manang stay… 2. Are we exceeding our daily elevation gain? Advice varies slightly but they say you shouldn’t ascend more than 500 -600 meters a day when you’re above 3000 meters, reaching Throng Phedi put us at 520 meters that day which is at the higher end but still within a safe limit. We decided to push on to Throng Phedi, we kept an eye on each other to ensure there were no symptoms of altitude sickness and we made it without any worries. Throng Phedi guest house is very large and has been around since 1984, there was a smaller guesthouse 10 minutes further up the hill, we decided to stay there as it felt a little more quaint, the owners were very nice and chatted with us around the fire in the evening, plus it was 10 minutes less climbing the next morning. It was definitely cold at Throng Phedi and I struggled to sleep quite a bit which is generally related to the altitude, it turns out staying here was a winning idea though, I talked to the trekkers who stayed at high camp and they said it was extremely cold up there, actually you couldn’t even use the toilets as they were frozen and because there were quite a few hikers staying in the guesthouse the area surrounding the outside toilet was littered with frozen turds….lovely! Everyone has their own opinion in regard to whether staying at high camp is a good idea or not, I actually think it makes sense however we weren’t able to make it there due to our daily altitude gain, having said that we passed quite a few hikers from high camp the next morning and many of them really seemed to be struggling with the cold.
Viewpoint overlooking Manang on the trail from Shree Kharka
Day 9: Throng Phedi to Muktinath
 I was expecting a tough day today and I wasn’t disappointed, the climb to Throng la Pass was definitely challenging but at 5416 meters it was a great feeling of achievement to reach the top. Charlotte and myself decided to make our way up very slowly, take small steps and conserve as much energy as possible, this actually worked really well as we passed many people on the ascent. We left the guesthouse at 6am and reached the pass around 10am, it was a very cold climb although I was quite comfortable with a few layers of warm clothes on. The water we had with us froze but luckily I had a small thermos with hot tea, there was a tea house half way to the pass where we were able to order a pot of tea and refill the thermos. The Pass offered some great photo opportunities and after spending 30 minutes at the top taking some happy snaps we set off down the hill. The track notes mentioned that it was a steep path down however it started of quite nicely, it was a reasonably steep but steady downhill until we reached a grassy camping spot, we stopped here to change out of our warm clothes and take in the view. The trail got a lot steeper from here and we came close to slipping on our butts a few times, it took a lot longer to reach Muktinath than we expected, we could see the town from a long way away so we know we still had a long way to go, luckily there were some teahouses along the way and we were able to stop for a lunch break. Our enthusiasm from the pass had well and truly left us when we finally reached Muktinath, the temples on the outskirts gave the impression that it was a beautiful little town but as we entered the town centre it was dirty, dusty, filled with half built guesthouses and for the first time on the circuit the locals seemed a little rude. I really didn’t want to stay here and all the other hikers we met felt the same way, luckily we found the Bob Marley guesthouse, I was tentative about staying here at first thinking it was just another Rasta bar but it turned out to be an oasis of awesomeness in this otherwise depressing town. The shower was hot, they had a huge open fire, the staff were friendly and the cook was amazing, the yak steak was to die for and the apple pie was mouth watering.
Throng La Pass

Day 10: Muktinath to Marpha                                                                                                                 
We chose to take the marked hiking trail to Jomsom, this meant doing some more climbing and another steep decent but it gave us some great views of the harsh countryside in this pocket of the circuit, it also meant we would avoid much of the dusty road to Jomsom. After walking along some very dry countryside, the trail took us through the little village of Lubra, this was the nicest village we had seen so far, the stone buildings were surrounded by fruit orchids and vegetable gardens, if I had the time I would have stayed here for a night. Soon after Lubra the trail met up with the main road to Jomsom, we walked out of a sheltered canyon and walked into a wind tunnel of dust. The hour we spent on the main road to Jomsom was the most unpleasant hour on the journey, we had a very strong head wind and a storm of dust was being blown into our faces, I was glad we took the high road and hadn’t had to put up with this all day. I had high expectations for Jomsom, we were planning on spending 2 nights here to recover but when we arrived we were very disappointed, the town was windy, dusty and seemed to have no character, once again the people didn’t seem very pleasant and we decided to move on to the smaller village of Marpha. It took another hour of walking into the wind on the dusty main road but when we arrived in Marpha we realised it was a great decision, this was a really lovely town, and we liked it so much we stayed for an extra recovery day.

Day 11: Marpha
 Marpha is well known for its apples, it is also well known for its apple brandy, apple cider, apple juice and dried fruit, we sampled plenty of all previously mentioned as we explored the streets of the village. The white washed stone buildings create alleyways that just beg to be explored and a short climb up the hill provides an excellent view of the village. With our apple brandy in hand we found a rock that overlooked the village and surrounding valley and hung out here long enough for it to turn into an excellent view of the stars in the night sky before we headed back to the warm fire place at our guesthouse. Marpha really was a sensational place to stay, anybody thinking of catching a bus or flying out from Jomsom should definitely think twice as the hike from here to Tatopani is absolutely magical.

Overlooking Marpha

Day 12: Marpha to Ghasa
  This was one of the most beautiful days of hiking yet, I had been told that the trail here isn’t worth doing because it follows the dusty road, that just isn’t true. Once you cross the suspension bridge just outside of Marpha the trail turns into single track and winds its way through some breathtaking forest, it’s also generally downhill so it’s pretty easy going. We were thinking of stopping in Kalopani overnight but after having lunch here we decided the town didn’t have the right feel for us and we decided to push on to Ghasa. We followed the road from Kalopani to Ghasa which was the only dampener on an amazing day of hiking, when we arrived we were shocked to find only a few guesthouses in very poor condition. Ghasa is actually split up into 3 sections upper, middle and lower, we were currently in upper and after consulting the track notes we moved on, middle Ghasa had a few new guesthouses but they lacked character and the prices were ridiculously high. We’d wasted an hour trying to find a place to stay, it was starting to get dark but we walked on down the road to lower Ghasa, luckily for us it was here that we found the Eagles Nest guest house, by far the nicest place in the town and a very good place to stay.

Day 13: Ghasa to Tatopani         
  The hike today matched yesterday for sheer beauty, the pine forest gave way to rain forest and we passed through some very beautiful villages. Once again it was mostly downhill and because we pushed that little bit further to Ghasa the day before it was a short day of hiking, we arrived in Tatopani around lunchtime. Tatopani is a nice little town, it has some hot springs but they were pretty much just a concrete pool packed with hikers, not the natural setting I was expecting, we chose to relax on a rock next to the river with a bottle of Marpha apple brandy instead. We stayed at the Dhaulagiri guesthouse, it was extremely popular with hikers and was a great place to catch up with many of the people we had met along the circuit. The food here was quite good but a little expensive, they expect you to order dinner and breakfast if you stay here but if you’re on a budget you can get a dal baht for lunch from one of the tea houses down the road for a quarter of the price.

Day 14: Tatopani to Ghorapani                                                                                              
Just when I thought the climbing was over we decided to pay a visit to Poon Hill, this meant having to ascend another 2000 meters. The climb from Tatopani to Ghorapani was very hard indeed, we passed through some stunning little villages but by the second half of the day my only interest was getting to our endpoint. Much of the trail had stone steps, which were actually more exhausting to climb than the dirt tracks, we finally made it to the village at the top of the hill, found a nice guest house and relaxed for the afternoon.

Poon Hill sunrise

Poon Hill Sunrise
Day 15: Ghorapani/Poon Hill to Nayapul/Pokhara           
 This was our last day on the circuit and what a way to finish it, sunrise over the Annapurna range from the viewpoint at Poon Hill. We left the guesthouse at 5:00am with just a camera and head torch, it didn’t take long to reach the lookout, about 45 mins, along the way you have to pay an entrance fee of 25 NR so it pays to bring a few Rupees along with you. There is a small shop where you can buy a cup of tea to warm you up at the top, if you’re there early enough you can get a good position on the tower at the top of the hill, it’s a great place to get photos of the sun coming over the horizon. It’s worth being at the viewpoint by at least 6:00 am, you can then see the sun coming over the horizon and then if you wait 20 minutes longer you will see the sun rays lighting up the Annapurna range….. A spectacular sight. After heading down from poon hill we took our time having breakfast, the trail from here was all downhill but not necessarily easy, it was a long day of descending to Nayapul and the steps were very steep at some points, this really takes it out of your quads and I also saw a few people slip, luckily with no injuries. There were some really nice villages along the way, it wasn’t difficult to find a nice guesthouse for a lunch break. The last few km’s to the village of Birethanti was relatively flat and quite enjoyable to walk, once we arrived there we got our permits stamped for the last time and then walked along the road to the town of Nayapul. From Nayapul we took the local bus back to Pokhara, the cost was 100 NR each and was a 4 hour trip, although it was a bit bumpy it wasn’t much slower than taking a taxi. There were plenty of jeeps and taxis looking for business in Nayapul, we arrived alone but if you had a group you could probably get back to Pokhara in a car quite cheaply, the drivers were happy to negotiate their prices. That was it, now we were done, back in Pokhara and time for a beer, steak and shisha with some of the awesome hikers we met along the way, this was an unforgettable 2 week adventure.

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