Friday, June 3, 2011

Guide to the Annapurna Circuit Trek: Part Six

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

Day 10, continued: High Camp to Kagbeni

Part Five of this guide left off with our exhilarating early-morning climb to the Thorung La Pass. We were the second pair of hikers to arrive at the pass that morning, and we shared some hugs and high-fives with our new Aussie friends who were already celebrating at the top. We also shared the panoramic view of what awaited us on the other side of the pass.

At the top of the Thorung Pass (5416 meters)!

At the top of the Thorung Pass (5416 meters)!

After drinking in the panoramic views for several minutes, we started to grow cold in the snowy landscape.

It was snowy, windy, and cold at the pass

What goes up must come down, so with the wind whipping at our backs, we began our descent. Between the Pass and the next village, Charabu, we descended approximately 1200 meters over the course of almost three hours. In other words, the descent was steep. Very steep.

Day 10: Descending from the Thorung Pass

The stretch between the Pass and Charabu was one of the most difficult of the entire trek. We both agreed that we would gladly choose a long, steep ascent (even huffing and puffing at an altitude above 5000 meters) over a long, steep descent. The descent is not only physically taxing on the knees and feet, but it is also mentally taxing, requiring more concentration.

Eventually we made it to Charabu, a tiny hamlet with just a couple teahouses, and stopped to share a small pot of coffee and down energy bars. It was early still -- not yet 10am -- but we had a long day of hiking ahead of us and needed a caffeine boost after that tiring climb up and down the Pass.

We then set off for Muktinath, which we reached in a little less than an hour, continuing through a landscape that had dramatically changed from snow to dessert-like shrubs.

Day 10: Descending from the Thorung Pass

This landscape reminded me somewhat of the scenery that we encountered on the stretch from Lower Pisang to Manang, but even more, it reminded me of the Tibetan plateau.

Day 10: Descending from the Thorung Pass

Muktinath, with its monasteries snuggled in an arid valley set below white mountain peaks, is a pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus. It is also the standard stopping point for the day, welcoming weary trekkers after 6-7 hours of difficult hiking. Its setting is lovely -- the Himalayan peaks in the backdrop seem almost unreal.

Day 10: View of Muktinath

We wanted to hike further, however, so we passed through Muktinath, traipsing through a jeep park on our way out of town. These jeeps heralded a very different scene on this side of the trail, where road construction is complete and the trail, for much of the way, is the road. From friends who hiked the Circuit sometime between 2009 and 2010, we had heard that traffic on the road was not yet bad enough to negatively impact a trekker's experience. We trust that they were right then, but it appears to be a different story now.

When the first few jeeps blew past us in a cloud of dust and exhaust, we expected that they would still be few and far between for much of our walk. Instead, they came fast and frequently; over the course of 30 minutes, we counted 16 vehicles. Whenever a vehicle passed us, we would have to stop, turn our backs to the road to make room, and cover our faces to avoid inhaling dirt and fumes. It was, in a word, awful.

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Even worse, it turned out that the time between Muktinath and our final destination for the day, Kagbeni, was misrepresented in Lonely Planet, and we walked for an additional hour than we had expected. Given that Lonely Planet dedicated an entire day to the walk between Muktinath and Kagbeni, we probably should have questioned the total 2 hours and 15 minutes quoted in the guidebook. So you know, Lonely Planet quotes just a one hour walk between Kingar (an intermittent stop) and Kagbeni, but that distance took us about two hours. This error does not matter greatly if you are indeed taking a day to hike between Muktinath and Kagbeni, but that hour turned our marathon 8-hour day into a 9-hour day -- by far the hardest and longest of the trek.

We also want to note here that the route to Kagbeni is confusing. Our map of the Annapurna region showed a foot trail that diverged from the road to reach Kagbeni, but we never noticed a turn-off for this trail. Assuming that a foot trail exists at all, we can safely say that it is poorly marked, if at all. So we walked for a couple hours on the main road, uncertain for a long while about whether we were heading in the right direction. Finally, as the road began to descend and wind its way down into a valley, we spied Kagbeni in the distance. A friend had described Kagbeni as mystical, and this photograph certainly seems to justify that adjective.

Day 10: View of Kagbeni

Kagbeni is the closest that you can get to Nepal's Mustang region without paying the high price to enter this remote area ($50 per day in permits alone). Unlike many of the villages that we stayed in on the eastern side of the Pass, Kagbeni appears to have a deep history and life that extend well beyond serving trekkers. It is an exceedingly charming town with a river snaking through narrow streets and a monastery perched against the hillside.

Day 11: View from Kagbeni

We stayed at the Hotel Yeti, which looked slightly fancy from the outside and indeed served Lavazza espresso. If you're craving real coffee, though, we suggest stopping at the Hotel Yeti for a single cup and staying elsewhere, because the restaurant service was extremely slow and the food somewhat disappointing.

Although we were thrilled to conclude our long Pass day in lovely Kagbeni, we were less thrilled with the last three hours of our journey on a dusty road with jeep traffic. After much discussion and deliberation, we eventually arrived at the same decision that most trekkers make these days due to the new road: to end our trek in the next town of Jomsom and travel back by bus or plane from there.

We did not make this decision lightly. For one, we had so enjoyed the first ten days of our trek that we did not want to miss out on anything that lay ahead of us. In addition, our hardwired need to achieve and complete made ending the trek at Jomsom feel like quitting or failing. On the other hand, after coming off of the high that was the eastern side of the trek, it felt a bit foolish to continue eating dust and fumes for days just for the sake of "completing" a line item on our to-do list and giving the anal-retentive voice within us an ounce of joy. Isn't letting go of that kind of attitude what this trek and indeed this whole move to Nepal was all about?

After some debate (and those who know Brian know this lawyer can debate multiple sides of a point with himself for agonizing hours), we made our decision to end the trek at Jomsom, and if you return to read Part Seven of this guide you will see why we felt completely justified and satisfied with our choice.

Continue Reading: Part Seven and Tips of the Trail.

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