My stomach has turned itself inside out.
“No one is immune here,” the doctor at the clinic back in Kathmandu had said. Having just come off a several-months-long hike in the Rocky Mountains during which I’d drunk water that had dead animals in it, I’d have thought my immune system was ready for anything. No such luck.
“People who end up here have already been everywhere,” the doctor told me. “It happens to everyone.”
In Your Bucket Because….
- You’ll see some of the highest peaks in the world, including Manaslu, Dhaulagiri, the Annapurna massif, and Machapuchare (if you hike into the Sanctuary).
- This is one of the world’s highest, most dramatic treks, but it can be handled by anyone in good shape who has common sense.
- Good for hardy adventure travelers, hikers, photo buffs. But if you’ve ever been heard to say “the Hilton is camping out,” stay away.
Which is why tonight, I am standing outside in the moonlight in the valley of the Marsyandi River. I am making my way — yet again — to a filthy latrine situated only a few meters from the river. The thought that everywhere is downstream from somewhere is not a pleasant one in Nepal. Above me looms the shining, incomprehensible bulk of mighty Manaslu, one of Nepal’s fabled 8,000 meter peaks. My stomach does another backflip, and I wonder if this hike — a month-long trek around the Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary — can possibly be worth it.
At times like these, it’s worth remembering that the world’s great places may not be in all respects as we would like them to be.
The Annapurna Circuit
The Annapurna Massif in central Nepal, just north of Pokhara, consists of the various Annapurna peaks (creatively named Annapurnas I through IV, and Annapurna South) and the sacred Machapuchare (the “fish tail” because of its shape). It is one of the biggest, highest landmasses in the world. The Annapurna Circuit does most of a circle around it, going counterclockwise up the Marsyandi River, across the very edge of the Tibetan Plateau to 17,800-foot Thorong La (“La” means pass), and then down to the Kali Gandaki River Valley, by some measures the deepest gorge in the world. On the valley floor, you might stumble upon a fossil that was once under the sea. Above you, the sky is blocked by fierce and massive Dhaulagiri, another of Nepal’s iconic mountains. I spent days staring at its precipitous north face, wondering how anyone could ever conceive of climbing it.
The Bad and the Beautiful
And that is the long and short of it. You may get sick, your porters (if you hire them) will undoubtedly go on strike, barking dogs will keep you up all night (and just as they stop, the roosters will start), and altitude sickness will literally take your breath away. Some of the tea houses you might consider sleeping in will be so filthy that a tent will seem like a five-star luxury by comparison. The water will be unsafe to drink, raw vegetables (if you can find any) will be unsafe to eat, and the food that is safe to eat will be monotonous enough to make you swear off lentils and rice forever. The poverty will grip you by the heart, but you will be able to buy a coke or a beer everywhere you go.
These are not complaints: They are simply the facts.
And yet. Imagine mountain so huge you need to open your camera lens all the way, but you still have to take two photos to fit it all in. Imagine a culture so insulated and remote that most people have never seen a car or a television or a computer. Imagine crossing rivers raging with snowmelt, walking under the edge of an avalanche that just fell, passing mysterious religious shrines with their stone walls, prayer wheels, and the battered prayer flags that send your supplications to the skies.
You could accidentally set off your camera’s shutter at any time here, pointing it in any direction, and what you’d bring home would be a picture of one of the most spectacular landscapes you’ve ever seen. I have muddled together memories of shining green terraced rice fields, lined and wizened faces with brilliant gap-toothed smiles, turquoise necklaces that would fetch a fortune in a tony American boutique around the necks of women who probably have never seen more than a few U.S. dollars. I see the impossible deep cobalt blue of the high-altitude morning sky above Annapurna, purple-pink rhododendron blooming against a backdrop of snowy peaks, a train of donkeys outfitted with jingling bells trotting down the path, yaks grazing in a field.
So is it worth it? You decide.
- The Annapurna circuit starts and ends near Pokhara, accessible by public bus or plane from Kathmandu. This is Nepal’s most popular trek, meaning it has the most sophisticated facilities (difficult as that sometimes is to imagine) including sufficient maps and guidebooks that you can trek independently if you like. It is more conveniently accessed than some more remote routes. It also has more crowds.
- Bringing a tent gives you the option of camping. Most hikers use porters, who can be hired in Pokhara. Make sure porters are suitably equipped to cross an 18,000 foot pass in the snow: This means boots, warm clothes, and sunglasses. The trek takes about three weeks, with another few days added on if you go to Annapurna Base Camp in the the Annapurna Sanctuary (highly recomemnded).
- The biggest challenge is Thorong La, a 17,800-foot pass. The Himalayan Rescue Association Station in Manang runs an altitude sickness clinic: Attend it before tackling the pass.
- If you’re looking for an “Annapurna light” version, try the so-celled “Apple Pie trek” which is the last third of the Annapurna Circuit: You fly to Jomson, then walk down the Kali Gandaki Valley in the shadow of Dhaulagiri back to the Pokhara roadhead. And yes, you can expect apple pie to be available at the tea houses along the way!