Well, that’s it. Ten weeks just sort of flew by, didn’t they? This is my last chapter of Solemn Globetrotter here at Shanghai Squared. I’d like to thank Stephen Wright for inviting me to contribute this column, and all of you that have enjoyed reading it. If you still haven’t had enough and would like to see more of my pictures, feel free to stop by my blog, which I will soon be updating somewhat frequently with photos and stories from your neighbor to the south, Vietnam.
I like to think that I’ve really saved the best for last here. The final segment of our broadcast brings us to the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, one of the world’s classic treks and the crowning achievement of my time in Asia. Not to mention one of the most challenging, memorable, invigorating experiences I’ve had in my life. To do it proper justice, and in lieu of the missing installment two weeks prior, I’ve decided to make this a double entry. I actually had a pretty hard time just narrowing it down to 18 photos.
To start off, it’s important to note that while firmly planted in the middle of the Greater Himalayan Range, this is not a remote wilderness trek. It’s what’s known as a teahouse trek, following a trail from village to village with food and lodging available at each stop. It covers a distance of over 200 kilometers, rising in elevation from 800 meters to a whopping 5,400 meters before going all the way back down again. The trek circles the Annapurna Massif, offering close-up views of some of the highest peaks in the world, including Annapurna I (#10, 8091m), Manaslu (#8, 8163 m), and Dhaulagiri (#7, 8167 m).
But to simply call the AC a mountain traverse is to do it injustice. It’s far more than that. It provides an amazing variety of both cultural and environmental experiences. The trek passes through four distinct regions (Lamjung, Manang, Mustang and Myagdi), ranging from primarily Hindu to Buddhist to the ancient Bon religion, and showcasing a dozen different ethnic groups with unique dialects and cultural practices. The landscape transitions from wide open green valleys to sub-alpine woodland, to stark rocky snow-capped mountain passes, before crossing over to dusty dry desert and finally ending with lush subtropical forests. Wildlife is abundant, with hills covered with mountain goats and yaks, and chances to see golden eagles, blue sheep, and even the elusive snow leopard (spoiler alert: we didn’t see one).
The first step in this whole process is getting from Besisahar (near Pokhara) to Bhulbhule, where the trail begins. While it is possible to walk there on the road, it’s an extra day of travel versus a couple hours on a bus. So without too much time to spare, the latter was the obvious choice. However, when the bus arrived in the center of town, we found it completely filled with people. Our guide Tagu explained to us that we would have to meet it at the bottom of the hill, at which point a couple people will have hopped off. So we headed down as fast as we could while the bus took the long way around the road, and we intercepted it as it was passing by some houses. But after all that fuss, no one had gotten on or off the bus, leaving us with the same predicament we faced at the top of the hill. What were we to do?
Simple answer: ride on top! We held on for dear life as the bus traversed precarious cliff edges, hitting pothole after pothole in the barely paved dirt road, tossing us back and forth on the metal rooftop while low-hanging power lines threatened to choke us to death. Funnily enough, once the bus picked up a load of additional passengers and we became wedged between them on the roof, the whole ride became a lot easier. Eventually we were dropped off at a small village, and from then on out it was all walking.
But the biggest challenge of the Annapurna Circuit isn’t the distance. In fact, each day feels relatively easy, starting out at sunrise, trekking until noon, taking a short break, and then continuing for a few hours until that day’s destination is reached in the early to mid-afternoon. Once there, it’s just rest and relaxation until bedtime just after sundown. Not exactly back breaking work.
No, the real struggle is with elevation. Anywhere between sea level and 7,000 feet, the amount of oxygen in the air hovers around 21%, which is totally great for us. Breathing feels good, powers our bodies, all that stuff. But at 10,000 feet, this amount has already dropped to around 14.5%. And the effect continues the higher you get. So at our highest altitude on the trek, we were effectively breathing twice as hard with each breath just to get half as much oxygen into our blood. There’s a whole bunch of scientific mumbo jumbo about hemoglobin and red blood cells that I’ll leave it to you to look up on Wikipedia, but here’s the gist of it: Your blood is thinning and your brain is swelling, and it’s totally dangerous. As in you could die from it fairly easily.
So what does it feel like, exactly? Some people compare it to having a flu, or the worst hangover in history. I would say that both of those are true, but add car sickness and an intense migrane into the mix. Every single movement you make drains your body of energy and leaves you out of breath. You take steps inches at a time, and focus entirely on your breathing, trying to ignore the onset of nausea and the pulsing headache as your brain swells against your skull. You find it hard to focus, your vision narrows, and all you can hear is your own breath pulsing through your head as if you were inside a diving bell.
Having never experienced any of this before, all your body knows is that something is wrong. It doesn’t really hurt anywhere in particular, but your body is in pain. And you have no way of gauging how bad it is, as high altitude affects your judgement, so you’re in a constant battle in your own head between making rationalizations to keep going and questioning those rationalizations, wondering if you need to give up and head back down.
But we didn’t quit, and managed to pull off the pass and cross over the other side. Obviously this was a big accomplishment, and it marked an important milestone in the trek. We had now crossed the regional border from Manang into Mustang. This area was closed to the world only until about thirty years ago, with Upper Mustang remaining a forbidden kingdom open to just a few visitors a year (and for a hefty $1000 fee). Formerly known as the Lo Kingdom, Mustang offers a fascinating look into traditional Tibetan culture. Though politically Nepali, it was originally part of Tibet, and as one of the only areas that survived the Chinese invasion in 1951, it maintains much of its original identity.
One of the highlights of the Mustang region involved a long detour by way of a small village called Lupra. I had two specific reasons for wanting to visit this particular village. First, it’s one of the few traditional Mustang villages that are open to foreigners, without needing to pay the exhorbient fee. Second, it’s one of the even fewer places in the area were the dominant religion is that of Bon, the ancient pre-Buddhist animist tradition.
So how do you sum up an experience like the Annapurna Circuit? You’ve seen the pictures, so you know it was visually spectacular. And if you’ve read the stories, you know that it was challenging, fascinating, and fun. So what’s the lasting impression then? What do we take from this? Well, there were a few surprising outcomes. For one, you find that the road (or should I say path) becomes your home. The daily routine, with its relentless forward progression, consistant goals, and recurring patterns, becomes extremely comfortable, and leaving that behind feels like losing a bit of yourself. You’ve spent three weeks waking up every morning and walking towards Manang, or Thorung La, or Ghorepani, and now that you’re finally here, it’s hard to know what to do with yourself.
The second thing you notice is everything you’ve taken for granted throughout the trek. The first time I heard a motorbike rev its engines, it suddenly hit me that I hadn’t had to look at or hear one in weeks. This was not a welcome addition back to our lives. On the other hand, that first slice of wood-fire Gorgonzola pizza in Kathmandu is simply divine, as is the realization that there are more tastes to savor in this world than the plain rice and soupy lentils of dal bhat.
Finally, the thing that really sticks with me is the sense of lasting peace. I often still think back to being out their on the trail; the silence, the space, the sense of freedom, and just picturing it in my head is enough to set my mind at ease. I plan on returning to Nepal later this year to do some photography work, volunteer, and also complete my second trekking goal of reaching Everest Base Camp. So who knows, come December or January there may just be a Solemn Globetrotter 2, with a whole new set of pictures and adventures. Until then, Nameste!