Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Guide to the Annapurna Circuit Trek: Part Four

For previous installments of this Annapurna Circuit trekking guide, see Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Day 6: Lower Pisang to Manang

Day 6 offers a choice in trails from Lower Pisang to Manang: the flat Lower Route, which follows the river and gets you to Manang in about three hours, or the challenging Upper Route, which climbs up and down a mountainside and takes approximately twice as long.

Map of the Upper Route to <span class=

Every one of our friends who had trekked the Annapurna Circuit highly recommended the Upper Route because the views are much better. From the beginning we planned to take the Upper Route and figured that it would be the more popular trail because of the amazing reviews, but most people we talked to in Lower Pisang ended up taking the Lower Route. Thus, when we veered right at this signpost at 6am, we had the trail to ourselves.

We chose the more challenging (and more stunning) Upper Route to <span class=

We knew that it would take approximately two hours to reach Ghyaru, the first town you reach after departing Lower Pisang. Ghyaru is located at the top of a steep climb, and we had steeled ourselves for an unrelenting two-hour ascent. In reality, however, the trail was much more moderate. The first hour of the hike is on flat terrain, and it is only the second hour that takes you up a steep mountainside, with the trail following dozens of short switchbacks. While we definitely felt the effects of the gain in altitude -- from 3250 to 3730 meters -- the short duration of the climb made it very manageable. We reached Ghyaru in a little less than an hour from the start of the steep switchback portion of the ascent.

And the views -- they were definitely worth it.

Day 6: Lower <span class=

Day 6: Lower <span class=

From Ghyaru we continued walking on a mostly flat, winding trail that hugged the mountainside. So, too, did farmers and cows.

Farming on a steep hillside

Just as we were growing a bit tired and hungry, we rounded a bend and saw Ngawal, which we reached after about an hour and a half from Ghyaru. We were rewarded with this view and a welcome coffee and brunch break.

Day 6: Lower <span class=

From Ngawal the trail began to descend, and we hiked through a desert-like landscape with glacial mountains towering above.

Day 6: Lower <span class=

Under a beating sun with no tree cover, we sucked down our remaining water quickly, and I found myself extremely thirsty for a full hour until we reached a tiny village where we could fill up our bottles. I know from marathon training that you should never allow your body to actually feel very thirsty, so this was not a good sign. Therefore, we highly advise you to learn from our mistake and fill up your water in Ngawal before continuing on the second half of the long route to Manang -- better to be safe than sorry.

We spied the Lower Route below us, and eventually it intersected ours. After hiking for about two and a half hours from Ngawal, we reached the village of Bragha, where we stopped to share a slice of apple pie -- the best on the trail, according to our insistent friend ("Just do it."). We found our slice at the last establishment on the left before leaving town, and the pie, served warm, did not disappoint.

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Leaving Bragha, we passed this small stupa and walked the final and short 20-minute leg to Manang.

Day 6: Lower <span class=

Manang offers a few large, multi-story guesthouses, and we chose ours, the Yak Hotel, for its cozy dining room, superb views, and room with attached bath (the first and only of our trek). We settled in for the evening, looking forward to our one-day layover in Manang for the purpose of acclimatization.

Day 7: Acclimatization in Manang

All trekkers are advised to stay in Manang, located at 3540 meters, for two nights and one full day in order to safely acclimatize to the elevation. While you can and should spend much of the acclimatization day relaxing, you should do some short climbing trip in order to help with acclimatization (as the advice goes, climb high and sleep low).

There are multiple options for hikes from Manang, and they range considerably in amount of time and effort required. Because we had taken the challenging Upper Route to Manang, we opted for an easy hike: a short climb to a nearby lookout point. It took us only about 30 minutes to scramble up the mountainside, and the views of the mountains -- so close! -- were excellent.

Day 7: Acclimatization Day in Manang

Day 7: Acclimatization Day in <span class=

Other options include a half-day hike to Milarepa's cave and a near full-day hike to Kecho Lake, also known as the Ice Lake.

Aside from a day hike, people typically spend their time in Manang walking up and down the small main street, soaking in the views and sun, and enjoying Lavazza espresso drinks and chocolate danishes at the German bakery attached to Hotel Yeti.

We took time to hunt down seabuckthorn juice, another local favorite recommended by a different friend. Review: good, but not life changing. Maybe we're just not juice people?

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Entrepreneurs have recognized that people may grow a bit stir-crazy by early evening, and there are a couple movie houses that show films at 5pm and 7pm. Movie selections are advertised on chalkboards, but -- at least in the uncrowded low season -- it may be possible for you to negotiate your movie choice. For 200 rupees per person, you get a somewhat comfortable seat on a wooden bench covered in yak furs, a black tea, and a small bag of freshly popped popcorn. It sounded like a good deal to us, and we signed up for a showing of Into Thin Air, a horrifically bad film based on Jon Krakauer's account of the disastrous 1996 Everest expeditions. The movie is broadcast on a white screen by an A/V projector that reminded us a bit of academic lecture slideshows and corporate PowerPoint presentations. Certain bad memories not withstanding, the picture and sound quality were better than expected.

The film was good for a few laughs and a mountain vibe, and it kept us entertained until dinner, which we ate at the fresh and new-looking Instant Karma Cafe. Trekkers are generally expected to eat meals in their teahouses because paying for meals compensates for the very cheap (or sometimes even free) lodging, but knowing we had a few meals in Manang, we decided to branch out from our teahouse. Instant Karma Cafe's dal bhat was one of the best meals of our trek, and the prices were at least 25% cheaper than teahouse offerings. We highly recommend it.

Day 8: Manang to Letdar

We left Manang by 7am to begin the first of two very short trekking days. At higher altitudes trekkers are advised to ascend approximately 500 meters per day, so that means you cover shorter distances.

Although many people go from Manang to Yak Kharka on Day 8, we decided to go one town further, to Letdar. We wanted to end in Letdar because the following day we would also go one town further than the standard stopping point.

Setting out from Manang, we passed through this stone gate.

Day 8: Manang to Letdar

We hiked on a moderately difficult trail with stunning views.

Day 8: Manang to Letdar

The hills were alive, don't you think?

Day 8: Manang to Letdar

When we reached Yak Kharka two hours later, we spotted, for the first time on our trek, the town's namesake.


We stopped for a brief tea break with these two.

Cute kids on the way to Letdar

And then we continued on, walking less than an hour to reach Letdar. We arrived just in time, as clouds soon brought light hail and then everyone's favorite, wintry mix of snow and rain. Yes, snow in May.

Yaks in Letdar

There are only two teahouses in Letdar, and we stayed at the second, the Churi Letdar Hotel. It offered nice views in a sunny, though very drafty, dining room. We eventually spent the late afternoon and evening in the interior dining room, huddled around a stove that burned yak dung. We were so grateful for that yak dung.

At 4200 meters high in Letdar, we no longer had access to a real shower. A bucket bath -- a cold bucket bath, mind you -- would have been our only option, so we declined. Letdar was noticeably colder than previous towns (50 degrees Fahrenheit inside our room at bedtime, 45 degrees the following morning), and we bundled up for the night.

Claudine in her mummy sleeping bag and under a traditional Tibetan blanket (temperatures dipped to the low 40s in our room at night)

Although Letdar has fewer accommodation options than Yak Kharka, we think that Letdar is a better choice for Day 8. The setting is prettier, and you are that much closer to High Camp, if you think you might want to stay there the following day -- but more on that in our next post.

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