Monday, May 30, 2011

Guide to the Annapurna Circuit Trek: Part Two

For the previous installment of this Annapurna Circuit trekking guide, see Part One.

A Note on Porters and Guides

Although Brian's ill-fitting backpack straps had him wishing for a porter the first day of our trek, by the second day he had corrected his straps, and the pack, weighing in at about 30 pounds, seemed barely noticeable for the remainder of the trek. We both had no difficulty carrying our own gear even on the most challenging days, but that said, there are valid reasons to consider hiring a porter and/or guide.

First, hiring a porter to carry your large backpack literally removes a large burden of trekking, leaving you to carry a small daypack with a Camelbak, camera, and little else. This system provides the obvious benefit of making your walk a little easier, but it also allows you to bring things that you might otherwise not be able to fit or carry if you carry all of your gear yourself. If, for example, you want to haul your digital SLR camera on the trek, you might find this system to be very helpful. We did not have room in our packs for our digital SLR camera and relied on our small point-and-shoot instead.

Second, porters and guides can also make the trek a little easier psychologically, removing any guesswork on your part. They will plan your day for you, lead you to good guesthouses, and suggest the best menu options. We have heard that at the peak high season beds at guesthouses can be at a premium, and while everyone seems to settle into some kind of lodging for the night, a guide may have the ability to pre-reserve your room and save you from the hassle of having to worry about this. Of course, guides will also ensure that you stick to the correct trail.

Third, by hiring porters and guides you are injecting money in Nepal's economy, and we cannot quibble with that.

All of these benefits mean that hiring porters and guides is probably never a bad idea, both for you and the people you employ. That said, we do not think porters and guides are at all necessary for this particular trek. If you are reasonably fit, you can carry your own gear with no problem. If you like to keep your schedule somewhat flexible and choose where you want to stay each night, then set out on your own. We found that we appreciated the ability to control our itinerary, choosing not only our teahouses but also the towns where we stayed. And the trail was mostly so well marked that we never found ourselves wishing for a guide to show us the way.

So, give some thought to the porter and guide issue, but know that you likely cannot go wrong with whatever option you choose. If you end up desperate for a porter by Day 4, you can surely hire someone mid-trek.

Day 2: Bhulbhule to Ghermu

As I mentioned above, we relished in the ability to design our own itinerary for the first several days of the trek, and it is important to note here that you should not worry about sticking to a rigid schedule for Days 1-6, before acclimatization at higher altitudes necessitates a more specific ascension plan. For the first several days, however, you can adjust the standard itineraries published in Lonely Plant and other guides as much as you like. Your own schedule will depend largely on when you arrive in Besi Sahar or Bhulbhule. We will share with you our own itinerary, which sometimes departed from the standard schedule popularized in guide books, and we will also offer tips on how we would improve our itinerary.

We woke up early to clear skies in Bhulbhule and had our first trail breakfast that became our standard. Breakfast included:

Boiled eggs to share:

Our daily trekkers' breakfast: boiled eggs to share,

Porridge for me (though we quickly lost bananas as we gained altitude):

Porridge for Claudine,

Muesli with hot milk for Brian:

Muesli with hot milk for Brian,

And a strong cup of instant black Nescafe coffee for us both:

And strong Nescafe coffee for us both!

Riding our Nescafe caffeine highs, we set out for our first full day of trekking on a beautiful, grassy trail that gave us views of a snowy mountain previously shrouded by rain clouds the day before.

Day 2: Bhulbhule to Ghermu

The trail led us through lush, terraced hillsides along a rushing river below, which we would follow (and crisscross) for much of the trek.

Day 2: Bhulbhule to Ghermu

And it was mostly flat until a steep but short climb to Bahundanda, the lunch destination we reached after about three hours of hiking. We ate dal bhat, the traditional Nepali meal of lentils, rice, and curried vegetables, and thus began a daily tradition of eating dal bhat for both lunch and dinner every day.

We ate the Nepali traditional meal of dal bhat (lentils, rice, and curried vegetable) twice a day, every day

We already eat dal bhat regularly at home in Kathmandu, and we happen to really like it. We also think that it is perhaps the most nutritious meal on the trail menus, offering a combination of protein and fiber from the lentils and vegetables. For people who say they tire of the trail's repetitive menus, we also recommend dal bhat for its variety -- at each teahouse you will always get a different type of dal and a different mix of fresh vegetables (we sometimes saw cooks pausing preparation to run to their gardens and pick extra provisions for us). And for any voracious eaters out there, you will be happy to know that you will be offered seconds on dal bhat. What's not to love?

From Bahundanda the trail descended again, and we walked for just under two hours to eventually reach Ghermu, our stopping point for the day. We stayed here according to the Lonely Planet schedule, and although we enjoyed the Alpine Hotel, which had the cleanest bathroom and shower of our trip, we suggest continuing past Ghermu. If you walk just fifteen more minutes, you will reach Syange, which has better views of this stunning waterfall.

Day 2: Bhulbhule to Ghermu

Even better, we think, would be to push past Syange and walk an additional 1.5 hours to reach Jagat, which has plenty of accommodations and sets you up for a good schedule the following day.

Day 3: Ghermu to Karte

Day 3 brought arguably the least inspiring views of the trip. That said, when this view counts as "uninspiring," life is pretty good.

Day 3: Ghermu to Kharte

For the first part of the day we walked a little under five hours from Ghermu to Tal, and this hike involved a lot of scrambling up and down a steep trail that hugged the river. There were some moments when the trail became confusing, and at one point we started following a donkey caravan down the wrong path.

Fashionable donkey

(Side note: when encountering donkeys, stick to the mountain side of the trail in case a wayward kick knocks you off balance! Also, while you should keep your eyes on the trail to avoid stepping in fresh donkey dung, know that it is going to happen at some point since it is everywhere).

Just before we reached Tal, a relatively large town and a standard stopping point, it started to rain. We quickly put on our pack covers and rain jackets, but we fortunately made it inside a teahouse for lunch before it started pouring. It rained hard for about an hour but cleared up soon after we finished our dal bhat. We had already planned to continue past Tal, so we were grateful that the weather cleared up again.

We hiked for an additional 1.5 hours until we reached Kharte, which is a small town with very few accommodations. Instead of staying in Kharte, we recommend continuing another 40 minutes and staying the night in Dharapani, which is bigger and nicer than Kharte. If you start out in the morning from Jagat, as we advise, you will be well positioned to reach Dharapani in good time. There are also some Tibetan teahouses along the route to Dharapani not too far beyond Karte that looked nice in case you aren't feeling Karte yet don't want to truck all the way to Dharapani that night.

It was a long day, but we were glad to have pushed beyond the standard stopping point of Tal because it set us up for a more reasonable distance the following day.

Day 4: Kharte to Chame

When planning our schedule each day, we heeded the advice of a friend who recently hiked the Circuit: walk more than 50% of your route before lunch, because once you sit down for an hour to enjoy a lunch break, tiredness is apt to set in. This advice was excellent, but it was also easy to follow because we always woke early and began hiking sometime between 6 and 7 am. Therefore, we sometimes waited for lunch until we had reached our stopping point for the day. In general, we only took real breaks after we had walked for a three hour stretch or so, at which point we might stop to drink a tea or eat an energy bar. Because our Camelbaks allowed us to drink water on the move, we found that we did not need to stop frequently on the trail.

On Day 4 we started our morning by walking about two hours from Kharte to Danaque. From Danaque we prepared ourselves for a rigorous one-hour climb up to Timang, where we stopped to have a cup of tea and take in the stunning view.

Day 4: Kharte to Chame

Sights on the trail were amazing in their own right. We continually encountered porters who haul heavy loads up and down the mountain trails. Even with their bare feet and cumbersome loads, though, they usually kept a faster pace than we did.

Porters carried heavy and unwieldy loads up and down the mountains -- and usually kept up a faster pace than we

From Timang we continued hiking for about two more hours until we reached Koto, where we stopped for lunch. After lunch in Koto, we walked for only about thirty minutes until we arrived in Chame, our destination for the night.

Chame is one of the most developed towns along the Annapurna Circuit. It was the first place along the trek to advertise internet, although it was not working when we were there because there was no electricity anywhere in the town -- for a week and counting.

We stayed at the Marsyandi Mandala Hotel, which is clearly a reputable spot because it was booked full that night with trekkers. We would definitely recommend it -- the rooms are simple as always but a bit more spacious, as many occupy separate bungalows. The hotel is located next to the rushing river, and it offers excellent views of Annapurna II.

In Chame we tested our luck again with a menu item that we tried and loved in Kharte -- cornbread. In Kharte the cornbread was reminiscent of a skillet-style cornbread, just very flat. In Chame, and elsewhere on the trail, the cornbread had a soft, pancake-like texture. It's not your typical American-style cornbread, but it is good. So is the buckwheat bread. We suggest you try both!

We attempted to visit the hot springs in Chame (Brian was quite excited) but were disappointed to find that 1) they consisted of a concrete tub of sorts and 2) at least at this point in the season, mid-May, the tub was filled with about 6 inches of fetid water. A friend had warned that the springs were disappointing. Indeed.

But that didn't get us down. We cozied into our cabin in the only double bed we had along the trail for Brian's first chilly "two-blanket" night (I had a lightweight sleeping bag) and rested for the day ahead.

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