Monday, June 6, 2011

Guide to the Annapurna Circuit Trek: Part Seven

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

Day 11: Kagbeni to Pokhara

At 9 AM, we left Kagbeni in the first jeep departing for Jomsom that morning. We would have liked to leave earlier since flights out of Jomsom depart (if at all) early in the morning, typically between 7 and 9 AM, to avoid dangerous high winds which close the Jomsom airport for all inbound and outbound flights. We were warned that we might not reach Jomsom in time to catch a flight out that day, but knowing that a bus ride to Pokhara was a backup option, we were content to at least give it a shot.

Because of these timing issues, we suggest that trekkers wishing to end at Jomsom consider the following trekking schedule:
Day 10 - Thorung Pedi/High Camp to Muktinath
Day 11 - Muktinath to Jomsom with a tea or lunch stop in Kagbeni on the way (it's worth seeing)
By ending Day 11 in Jomsom, you will have the chance to purchase an airplane ticket (if you have not already) and wake up early the next morning to catch a flight. If you are instead departing Jomsom by bus, you will be able to catch the earliest bus possible, setting yourself up for an earlier arrival in Pokhara and getting you off Nepal's winding mountain roads before nightfall.

The road between Kagbeni and Jomsom appeared even busier with jeeps and vehicles than the previous stretch we endured between Muktinath and Kagbeni. After about 45 minutes of driving, we arrived in Jomsom, which is a larger city than any we had encountered on the trail but still felt like a town to us. In fact, no jeeps from the north are able to pass through Jomsom's narrow, antiquated streets and bridges. Visitors arriving from Muktinath or, like us, from Kagbeni, are dropped at the entrance of town and have to walk (about 25 minutes) to a separate bus/jeep stand by the airport to continue south by vehicle toward Pokhara.

We hustled our way through town to arrive at the Jomsom airport around 10:15 AM, hoping to catch a flight to Pokhara. Seeing a couple of dozen passengers waiting in the terminal, we approached a ticket counter and learned that there were seats still available on a flight to Pokhara ($100 per person)...that is, if the flight was indeed flying out that day. Informed that the flight's fate would be decided by 10:30 AM, we stepped aside and waited. At 10:25 a collective groan greeted the announcement that the flight would not be departing for Pokhara and no other flights would be leaving Jomsom that day. We checked with a fellow trekker to confirm that we heard the news correctly. Looking dejected, she confirmed, noting that all flights out of Jomsom had been cancelled the day before due to wind and that she and her husband had been waiting at the airport since six that morning with hopes (now dashed) that a flight would be leaving that day.

We, too, were disappointed to hear that our day would not end with a quick zip (about 20 minutes in duration) to Pokhara in the comfort of a plane. If there was one bright side, it was that we had not spent two nights in Jomsom waiting on the winds to allow a flight out. We ran into our fellow trekkers the next day in Pokhara where they happily reported that they made it out of Jomsom on the third (turbulent and slightly frightening) flight that morning. So, flights do in fact run between the two cities --just know that if you book a flight, your trip schedule is somewhat at the mercy of the weather. The bus is always a (lengthy, uncomfortable) backup option, but this is not the time to be fretting about making a tight connection to your return flight out of Kathmandu. Allow some time in your trip schedule for small hiccups, delays, and changes of plan. You're bound to have some during a two-week adventure in the Himalayas -- otherwise it wouldn't be much of an adventure, now would it?

Not wanting to stay a day and night in Jomsom to see about a flight the next day, we decided to head to Pokhara by bus. Buses heading south out of Jomsom leave from a stand just across the street from the airport -- do not make the mistake we did and accidentally try to depart from the jeep stand on the other side of town that sends vehicles only in the direction of Muktinath.

There is no direct bus from Jomsom to Pokhara. You must first take a bus to Ghasa (about 2.5 hours, 700 rupees/~10 USD) then from Ghasa to Beni (about 3 hours, 600 rupees) and finally from Beni to Pokhara. We left Jomsom around noon and arrived in Beni a bit before 6 PM, riding in what can best be described as "local buses." The ride is completely manageable, but it might be a bit intense for the uninitiated: blaring Hindi music, hot and dusty air, bum-bruising bumpiness, and very cramped conditions (including, perhaps, people hanging out the door and riding on top). When transferring between buses, we found little in terms of time or establishments for meals, so consider bringing along snacks for the trip. Also, bus seats are first-come, first-served, so board your bus early to get a more comfortable seat (the back row has less leg room, something I unfortunately discovered from experience) and to be sure to get a seat at all -- "standing room only" applies on these buses.

By the time we arrived in Beni, it was too late to catch a regular bus to Pokhara (one more reason to stay in Jomsom the night before and get an early start on the day). After much haggling, we paid 700 rupees each to split a cab with two other travelers. It took us almost three hours to drive to Pokhara. The twisting mountain roads were no comfort after dark, but I hardly noticed as I luxuriated in the relatively cushioned, smooth ride.

Our bus route took us largely along the trekking route for the stretch from Jomsom to Tatopani. From what I saw and experienced, one of the worst stretches of this trail has to be from Muktinath to Marpha: the road is dry, dusty, and crowded with vehicles. South of Marpha, the trail gets greener, the views are more attractive (especially in the area around Kalopani), and the road appears to be a bit less trafficked. At this point, the trail seemed appealing as viewed from my bus window, but I do not feel that we missed anything earth shattering by ending our trek at Jomsom, and the exactly two trekkers we saw along this entire stretch seemed to confirm this. When we returned to Kathmandu, I looked up a March 2010 article from the New York Times travel section discussing the trek, the impact of the road, and whether the entire Circuit is still worth walking. It is a thorough and enlightening article, and we felt vindicated reading the author's thoughts as he pushed through the final stretch:

"Walking down through the Kali Gandaki [after the Pass] was a very different experience from the one we had on the way up. Then, we could barely go a hundred yards without bumping into another group of trekkers. Now the only human companions our group found on the road were Nepalis hauling goods too bulky and cheap to be worth transporting by vehicle, usually in giant wire-frame cargo containers cantilevered on their foreheads. The days were long and dusty in a dry landscape of mountainsides and fields rendered in a monochromatic palette of tan, beige and taupe. The towns were more developed and less charming. The eight of us clung together as the last stalwarts of the bygone Annapurna Circuit bonhomie.
[I tried to appreciate the beauty] But I would be lying if I said that every time I saw a jeep or a bus picking up passengers, I wasn’t tempted to jump on and end what, as we coughed in the dust of motor vehicles, was beginning to feel like a pointless exercise."

Day 12: Pokhara

We arrived in Pokhara around 9 PM on Day 11. We intended to stay at the very affordable yet comfortable and clean Hotel Peace Plaza, where I had stayed a couple of weeks prior in an average room with no lake view or air conditioning for 700 rupees per night plus 10% service fee (a bit over 10 USD). This plan, however, was foiled. As the deadline for a new Nepali constitution ticked closer and political passions reached new heights, of course certain groups enforced a bandh strike, and upon our arrival traffic was blocked through Pokhara's tourist section. Exhausted and wanting a closer, nicer, and air conditioned room for the night, we skipped the 25-minute walk to Hotel Peace Plaza and landed at Trek-O-Tel, based on a recommendation from a friend. After some haggling at the front desk, we received a room for 3,800 rupees, about 53 USD, which included breakfast. Just as we were settling into our room, the city's electrical power cut out in standard Nepali load-shedding fashion. After the hotel cranked up their generator, the lights worked but the air conditioning did not. I called the front desk, and the staff explained that the air was out for everyone and, other than bringing us a fan, there was nothing they could do to make things better or revive the A/C system during load-shedding. Had I not made a stink and gotten us moved to a room that, miraculously, ran A/C during load-shedding, I would have been very soured on this hotel. Trek-O-Tel, I'm on to you. That said, after much fuss on my part, we were in fact provided A/C and otherwise our stay there was excellent and, compared to the tea houses we had become accustomed to during the trek, offered pure luxury.

Day 12 had us reveling in the comforts of a resort town, downing genuine non-Nescafe coffee and relaxing in the many restaurants and cafes along Lake Fewa.

Day 13: Relaxing lakeside in Pokhara
Boomerang Restaurant, a great choice

As had I experienced on previous visits to Pokhara, the white-faced mountains that reportedly tower over the city and lake were obscured behind haze and passing monsoon showers.

Day 13: Relaxing lakeside in Pokhara

Day 13: Relaxing lakeside in Pokhara

But early the next morning as we departed Pokhara by Greenline charter bus (worth the 18 USD one-way price for their service, reliability, and air-conditioned comfort) we were stunned to see the mountains lurking over us.

Day 14: Departing Pokhara for Kathmandu -- the Himalayas were in plain sight

We may not have gotten to linger lakeside to admire the mountains, but we did enjoy their flirtation with us during the first hour or so of our bus ride.

Day 14: Departing Pokhara for Kathmandu -- the Himalayas were in plain sight

Looking out the window as the mountainous skyline faded behind us, we knew we were leaving not only Pokhara, but the trek itself. We were sad to be ending such a great trip, but off we were to Kathmandu filled with excitement and hope for other mountains to climb, both on and off the trail.

Continue Reading: Tips of the Trail.

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