Annapurna Adventure - Part 1

On the morning of our first day we met our guide Ganesh and our porter in Kathmandu at 8. We immediately felt bad for the tiny porter who would have to carry our overfilled hiking pack. Soon after, our bus left Kathmandu carrying several groups of trekkers and guides for Besi Sahar, the starting point of the circuit. Some travelers took the interesting option of riding on the top of the bus, but it was far too hot and sunny for us to consider doing so.

The roads in Nepal are even more crazy than in China, although we had thought this would be impossible. There are a great deal more rickshaws, carts, people and animals on the roads here and the concept of "right of way" is completely alien. Bullying your way through an intersection is the only way through, and it is truly amazing that there are not more accidents. On our bus there were two men whose jobs involved jumping off the bus and standing in the path of oncoming traffic to ensure that the bus could get through. Soon we managed to get out of the city and into the hills, which was a beautiful and very welcome transition.

We stopped for lunch and had our first taste of the Nepalese national dish, dhal bhat. This is a combination of foods, usually served in a "prison tray", with vegetable curry, lentil stew, rice, a papad (a.k.a. papadum) and pickles. The best part of this meal is that it is always followed up by a generous helping of seconds so it is impossible to eat it and still be hungry. The locals usually eat this with their hands but we opted to go with cutlery. During the trek, the guides and porters all ate dhal bhat together twice or thrice each day, which led to a lot of jokes about their favourite food, which they never admitted to getting sick of.

Just after lunch we came up against a nasty traffic jam which turned out to be caused by a roadblock of several buses outside a police station, where a thousand or so locals had congregated in a loud mess. We couldn't get a straight answer about why the road had been blocked but the situation appeared to be political. Just the previous day the rebellious and powerful Maoists had declared that they would leave the country's interim government so the country was in a precarious position, having just ousted the royal family but not yet ratified a new constitution.

After two hours of waiting where the clock on the bus noted a temperature of 42 degrees, the road was finally cleared and we were able to make our way towards Besi Sahar. The 190 km trip should normally take 6 or 7 hours as the winding mountainous roads make for a low average speed. For us it was a glorious 10 hours. Marty was feeling rather ill for most of the journey (probably from ice in a Kathmandu drink ) and went straight to bed but woke up feeling much better the next day.

The next day we started our trekking adventure after signing in at the police check point, the first of many along the route. A nearby notice board gave some information about the trek - it's 210 kilometres long, starting at 800 metres elevation, going up to 5416 metres, and back down to 1200 metres. Most people take about 18 days to complete the circuit, which traces around the Annapurna mountain range. This range includes the tenth tallest peak in the word, Annapurna I, which measures 8091 metres.

The weather for the first few days was hot and sunny, with few clouds around. This meant that sight-seeing and photography conditions were really good. As we were walking around 7 hours each day, sunburn and overheating were on the cards. At the end of each day we were very keen to take our boots off and jump in a cool shower. We soon started the habit of beginning each day's trek early to avoid being outside during the hottest part of the day.

The terrain covered over the trek is incredibly beautiful and remarkably varied. The first couple of days had many rolling mountains (although by Nepalese standards they were only considered to be hills) covered in terraced rice paddies, and plant life in every shade of green. Around every corner was a new scene that made our jaws drop. We steadily climbed upwards each day as we followed a large river upstream into the mountains. As we climbed, the hills turned into steep cliffs and the greenery gradually turned into grey rockiness. We passed hundreds of waterfalls as the monsoon rains drained down the cliffs and gorges into the river. The snow capped Himalayan mountains peeked out occasionally from behind the nearby cliffs, providing breathtaking panoramic views.

The circuit is based on generations-old trails between a series of small villages around the Annapurna mountain range. Each day the trail passed through several villages which gave us an opportunity to see how the locals live. Everyone was extremely friendly and helpful, and it was very interesting watching activities we don't see at home like herding animals. The locals seem to live hard lives but they all seem very happy and relaxed.

Although we felt bad for our porter, we were amazed to see the number of porters who carried goods from village to village. After the first day of walking, vehicular access was impossible and everything had to be carried on foot. Some of the porters carried ridiculous loads, including lounge suites, steel cables, appliances, and anything and everything else needed by villagers or trekkers. Despite the exceedingly large loads slung over their foreheads, and walking around in flip-flops, the thin and nimble porters were able to get around at a surprisingly quick pace.

In addition, many goods are carried around by teams of donkeys. We quickly learned to get out of the way when they approached, which was not always easy on the narrow trails. They could always be heard before they were seen as they wore bells around their necks.

Although possession and use is illegal in Nepal, there is a surprising amount of marijuana growing wild around the trails. We even found several groups of children who were rubbing the plant between their hands to make black hashish.

Lined along the trail are an immense number of guest houses which are surprisingly similar. In particular, the menus were nearly identical from place to place, even down to the misspellings! Most of the guest houses advertised "solar hot showers", which usually amounted to cold showers. They often had very thin walls, so as soon as one person woke up in the morning and started to move around, everybody woke up. Occasionally the rooms didn't even have lights and even when they did, the electricity was not exactly reliable. Nevertheless, they were very cute, cosy and socialable places, and the guest house at the end of a day's walk was always a welcome sight.

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