Before I begin, let me share a little background on the Annapurna Circuit to provide some context to readers who are unfamiliar with it. The Annapurna Circuit is a trek that circles the Annapurna Conservation Area (part of the Himalayas) in Nepal. The original classic route is a 21-day trek beginning in Besisahar and ending in the Kali Gandaki Gorge, but the building of roads that overlap the original trail has forced many travelers to opt for a shorter version of the original trek to avoid the roads. At one time (pre-road), it was considered the “greatest trek in the world.”
Regardless of the roads, the Annapurna Circuit is still well-known as a truly stunning and majestic trek that offers ample mountain views, amazing waterfalls, a peek at mountain life in charming rustic towns, and the only trek that culminates in one of the highest mountain passes in the world: Thorung La. No road can take away the spirit of this truly special trek.
Now, without further ado…
Day 1: Jagat to Chyamche
Time: A blissfully short 2.5 hours, but I won’t get used to it.
Altitude at destination: 1440 m (4723 ft)
The trek begins and in true Colleen fashion, I kick the first day off with a bout of food or water-borne poisoning—a particularly ugly variety that includes full-body ache and fever. I had mild symptoms for a few days while I was waiting for David to arrive and thought it was getting better, but instead it got worse at just the wrong time. If you’ve been with me for awhile, you may remember my trip to Peru, during which I had severe salmonella poisoning, a parasite, and an ear and respiratory infection—and I had to trek the Inca trail with the last two. So I feel this little episode is ‘par for the course’ in the annals of Colleen’s travels.
The day started with a jeep transport, which may be intended to get past some ugly construction from a hydropower project with the Chinese government. I mentioned a bit about the roads earlier…there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the building of roads in the Annapurna Conservation Area, and I can see why. The roads—while they help the remote mountain villages by a) providing them with better access and b) providing employment for Nepalis who use them to transport goods and people—they are still a dusty, pitted eyesore cut into a magnificent wilderness (Edward Abbey would be appalled). They also negatively impact tourism, which is something that the remote villages need to help them survive.
But I digress…I was talking about the jeep. Going by jeep doesn’t exactly mean our progression was easier. In a vehicle that only comfortably seats five, we had seven crammed in there, plus one guy hanging off the side whose job it was to navigate the rough terrain. He would periodically hop off and on to add or remove rocks to create easier passage and help the driver negotiate tight spaces when a vehicle came the opposite direction on the single-lane road (by now, you’ve probably ascertained that “road” is a term I use loosely). The ride was grueling because the driver couldn’t go more than 3-4 mph (I know this because I couldn’t help but watch his speed, so uncomfortably pressed against his shoulder was I. If time and pressure could fuse humans, he and I would be Siamese twins). Sandwiched uncomfortably between David and the driver, I focused all of my energy on not complaining about the jostling and bumpiness that was making my sore joints and upset bowels even worse.
When the jeep ride finally ended a few hours later, I felt immense relief and was actually excited to start the trek just so I could be out of the jeep and stretch my sore body. I felt physically weak from a difficult night, but it felt good to be in the fresh air. Thankfully, our first stop was only a few hours’ trek, so it was an easy day just when I needed it most. We also arrived in time to miss a massive downpour…so even though I felt sick, we also felt lucky that this day came and ended just as it needed (thank you Ganesha). What’s more, our humble, unheated plywood guesthouse—with straw mattresses and a light switch attached to the wall with band-aids—was perched on the edge of a hill overlooking a gorgeous waterfall. With the waterfall crashing nearby, mingled with the sound of rainfall, we blissfully napped the afternoon away (David isn’t sick, but he really likes naps). We may as well have been at the Hilton.
Day 2: Chyamche to Bagarchap
Time: 7.5 hours (includes 1.5 hrs for lunch/tea breaks)
Altitude at destination: 2160 m (7084 ft)
Still sick. It’s getting worse, despite the fact that I’m pulling every possible pharmaceutical stop that is available to me. I feel compelled to confess that I actually had to let the guide take my pack for a third of the hike when I was feeling my weakest. I felt like such a failure when I handed the pack over, but it helped me get past the most difficult part of the day’s trek. With me being sick, combined with a steady rain all day (with lots of shoe-sucking mud), today was a very. slow. day. David, for his part, is very encouraging and makes sure I take care of myself properly when I don’t have the energy to care (which at the moment is most of the time). I’m constantly reminded of how useful it is to date a nurse. Today my nurse discovered stinging nettles when one reached out and attacked him. Hopefully that doesn’t happen again as it appears to be very annoying.
Day 3: Bagarchap to Chame
Time: 7 hours (includes 1.5 hours for lunch/tea breaks)
Altitude: 2630 m (8626 ft)
I hate to make this post all about my illness, but it’s playing a fairly major role in our trek—it’s like an uninvited guest who has locked herself in my only bathroom and won’t leave. I’m still getting worse, despite completing a full course of antibiotics and nearly a full box of Imodium. During the night, it became clear that whatever bacteria I have is becoming invasive, so I’m feeling desperate and David and I are both wondering whether it’s best to abandon the trek. He spent much of the evening researching my symptoms and we both decided that before we take that step, I would start a different antibiotic to see if it will work where the other failed (I’ve been through lots of illness in my travels, so I always carry several medical options). Meanwhile, David is making sure I’m properly rehydrated and taking probiotics to counter the antibiotics. I have no doubt it’s his care that is largely the reason that I still have the strength to continue. It probably didn’t hurt that I was physically strong before I got sick, but dehydration doesn’t care how strong you are, does it?
Now back to the trek: today’s trek—while still slow due to my weakness/frequent stops—seemed more glorious than the last (thankfully, though I am sick and miserable, I still notice where I am—though probably not as intently as I might if I were healthy). We are getting nearer to the mountains, so the views are getting more extraordinary and there are still many breathtaking waterfalls to be seen. Interestingly, we’re seeing a lot of trekkers going in the opposite direction on the trail. At first I assumed they did the Annapurna Circuit in reverse, but our guide-extraordinaire Binod talked to some of their guides and it turns out that the bad weather that nearly derailed our trek has continued at the high altitudes, so Thorung La pass is closed. Naturally, this is forcing many trekkers to reverse their course. Binod tells us that the weather can change quickly this time of year—and especially at the pass—so we really won’t know if it will still be closed until we get closer to it. All we can do is hope for the best;which, considering my health, is basically all we’ve done since the trek began.
Day 4: Chame to Lower Pisang
Time: 6 hours (includes 1 hour for lunch/tea break)
Altitude: 3190 m (10,463 ft)
Oh thank Ganesha, the illness has finally taken a turn in the right direction. The new antibiotic must be the right one for whatever bacteria has invaded my body for I finally see improvement—I feel stronger and even had a full day of trekking without emergency “nature” stops. I’m not back to normal by a long shot, but I hardly care and will gladly take “just getting by.”
With that introduction, you will not be surprised when I say that everything on today’s trek felt entirely different. I thought I was doing a good job of appreciating my surroundings before, but I can see now that I wasn’t. Today, I felt as though I had been trekking in black and white and someone finally turned on the color—everything was brighter, more vibrant, and seemed to fill my senses more than on previous days. I noticed the songs the birds were singing, appreciated the loveliness of the butterflies that flitted along the trail, smelled the fresh pine-scented air from the blue pines that were growing all around us. It was a sublime change of events and thankfully just in time. Soon we will reach the higher elevations—where being healthy and strong will be vital.
Today’s trek was particularly interesting because we encountered a few recent avalanches, one of which had melted off and uncovered a massive tangle of debris that completely blocked the road and required us to climb over it with great care. The other was still in snow form, with the locals having ‘plowed’ through it so the road could still be used. The landscape is slowly beginning to change from a lush pine forest to more rock and visible treeline. At the same time, we’re starting to notice the altitude physically (mild headaches, panting breaths). It’s getting steadily colder each day and the nights are absolutely frigid. I’ve yet to encounter a heated guesthouse, so the cold requires us to bundle up and I’ve taken to sleeping in my down jacket along with two layers beneath (think Ralphie’s brother in “A Christmas Story.”)
When we reached our stop in Lower Pisang, we had extra time so went on a little side trip to Upper Pisang to visit a Buddhist monastery. On our way, we came across a local archery competition, which seemed like a lively affair with men dressed in traditional clothing, a drummer beating his leather-skinned drum, and much of the town watching and cheering. We hung around to watch for awhile, then eventually made our way to the little, old monastery on the hill where a monk greeted us and served us a hot lemon drink from a large thermos. I’m starting to feel better, the trek today was colorful and immensely gorgeous, we saw an archery competition, and a monk served us hot lemon in a tin cup. What a beautiful day.
Still no news on whether the pass is open. To be continued…