Annapurna Circuit Part 1 – Freedom Tastes of Reality – Besisahar to Tal

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July 1st 2013
Published: July 1st 2013
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Right at the outset, I’d like to say that I ripped off a line from The Who for the title of this blog not because I was without my wife for the Annapurna Circuit. The fact is I thought about her the entire way and wished she’d been able to see what I was seeing; I was also immensely grateful to her for allowing me to indulge myself while she waited around for me for about 10 days in Pokhara because she was having some knee issues after our trek to EBC. But the fact is that I was all by my lonesome, free to move as I wished - just me, the mountains, the yaks and the donkeys. Only that as I left Besisahar, where the bus from Pokhara dropped me off, I soon realized that there were no yaks and there were no donkeys, but there were a whole lot of jeeps and buses.

Like the EBC trek, the Annapurna Circuit was once without a road and would take over 20 days to traverse from Dhumre to Pokhara, usually completed in a counterclockwise fashion because of the more gradual elevation gain in that direction. With the road - construction of which began in the 80s, simultaneously from Dhumre and Pokhara in opposite directions - the trek can be as short as 8 days. As of today, the road from Dhumre technically goes as far as Manang, although it is still not open to buses at that point, but jeeps do travel that far. Buses currently travel as far as Chame; from the other end, the road continues to Muktinath, through Jomsom, which also has an airport. Thus, there is a relatively short stretch of the trek with no road over Thorung La pass, providing a small glimpse of what the trek used to be. However, everyone I talked to, including locals, drivers, and a representative of the Annapurna Conservation Office, agreed that the road at some point will go over Thorung La pass to connect Muktinath and Manang, more than likely prompting trekkers to nostalgically lament “the way things used to be”.

Although I never trekked the Annapurna Circuit in all its glory before the road, when seemingly it was agreed by everyone that it was the greatest trek on the planet, it is evident that the road has dramatically changed the dynamics and overall experience of the trek, giving rise to debate as to whether it’s still the best trek on the planet. Personally, I enjoyed the EBC trek more as it’s a thoroughly different cultural experience sans motorized vehicles, where I shared the trail with Sherpas, donkeys and yaks, rather than with motorcycles, jeeps and buses that left me choking on dust as they metallically clanked passed. And where have all they yaks and donkeys gone? Well, they’ve gone the way of involuntary unemployment, muscled out by the horse power of motorized vehicles. One local in Bahun Danda told me that the “jeep cartel” colluded on the price of transportation of corn and other food products over many years during every expansion of the road, transporting those products much lower than their market value. The local, who once worked as a porter, was forced to sell all his now noncompetitive yaks and donkeys and opened a guesthouse with his family. Unfortunately, this ended up being an error in judgment as well because, in spite of the road, he’d believed that trekkers would remain true to the Annapurna Circuit spirit and traverse the whole trail on foot. In reality – despite the signs all over the trail urging tourists to walk the trail and experience its culture, instead of driving on by - the road now transports the vast majority of tourists in jeeps and buses right passed his town; they don’t stop for lunch there, as initially hoped, and people like me, who did stop for lunch there, are very few between.

“But the road must be good for the economy,” I remarked contritely.

“Good for Chame, where everyone now go,” he replied. Yes, but I deliberated for how long because the road, as I mentioned, went as far as Manang, and it was only a matter of time before buses would travel that far, potentially rendering Chame just another drive-thru town as well. Unable to come to terms with the affects of technological unemployment on the donkeys and yaks just yet, I asked the man “Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“What can I do? I not know. I must survive somehow.”

A road changes everything. As I made my way to Ngadi (890m/2919ft), I marveled at the amount of construction occurring all around the trail, and even happened upon a sign posted to a metal light post announcing dynamite blasts occurring the next day for a bridge being built. There were yellow tractors, bulldozers and trucks everywhere; this was earnest development and I had no doubts in a road running along the entire circuit. If the Annapurna Circuit is something that you want to do, and if you’d like to have even the remotest experience of what the circuit used to be, then my recommendation would be to do this as soon as possible: technological advancement is exponential and who knows how these towns will be altered by a completed road.

It was about four hours from Besisahar to Ngadi, where I decided to stop for the day, making my first day an easy one. The scenery, beyond the apparent development in certain places, was green, lush and tropical; I was drenched in sweat due to the humidity, but couldn’t wait to see the rest of the circuit as this was an aspect of the key component in the trek’s beauty: the Annapurna Circuit passes through several varying climate zones, from the tropical to the arctic (yes, literally) at Thorung La, and the differences in mountain views are as beautiful as they are dramatic. As I walked the trail, I was reminded of Brazil, Switzerland, California, and Morocco within the span of a few days, following a trail that led through jungle, pine forests, the snow, and then dropping straight down into desert. It was wonderful, and the views are so much closer – making them grander - than they are on EBC. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I headed to Tal (1700m/5577ft) the next day, a strenuous 9-hour day. The road in these parts had been mostly diverted from the trail, making it a peaceful walk, though I was till suffering from tropical humidity. In the morning, I shared the trail with smartly dressed school children, all of whom seemed eager to stop and chat with me; in the afternoon, as I neared Chamje, I noticed how there was no one around: I knew it was the offseason, but I hadn’t seen a single fellow hiker or local for hours. It was great, but eerie at the same time as I wondered if I hadn’t gone off trail by accident. I’d also promised Klaudia that I’d find someone to walk with to be on the safer side, but there wasn’t really anyone present. I passed a hippie that seemed like a nice guy, but he was really slow; then a German passed me and I thought he might be a good walking buddy, but he was a tad faster than I and wearing overly tight pants: I didn’t feel like staring at his shapely buttocks the whole way there.

I was tired when I arrived in Chamje and considered perhaps staying the night there, but, being trail-hardened at this point, I decided to push it on to Tal with a few hours of daylight left. I knew it would be a steep climb late in the day, but I considerably underestimated it and began to feel more and more wearied as I hiked up every ridge with still no Tal in site. I sat down to rest at a certain point, noticing that the tropics - and expansive fields of marijuana plants outside of Chamje - had begun giving way to brush; I also began to detect the scent of pine trees as I sat down to rest. A porter finally happened to pass and, after exclaiming my “Namaste” with enthusiasm, I asked him how far to Tal.

“One hour,” he answered smiling. Ugh…

“From where you walk?” he asked.


“Oh, that far,” he laughed. I stood up abruptly, said farewell, and continued on, once again over ridge after tiring ridge. I finally spied a ridge high above me and instinctively knew (or was it hope?) that it had to be the last one – thankfully, it was and I praised the heavens when I saw Tal in the distance. Worn out, I stopped at the second guesthouse I saw (I still had sufficient energy to pass the first one I’d seen since it didn’t look that great) and was escorted to a room with an attached bathroom and hot shower. One thing about the AC vs EBC debate is that the accommodation on the AC is fantastic: it’s more comfortable, refined, and provides the incredible amenity of a hot shower throughout the circuit, with just one exception being the village of Thorung Phedi. The food’s better too. I had a hearty dinner of garlic soup - now knowing that it does wonders for acclimatization - and fried vegetable momoes. The woman at this guesthouse was a great cook and her home-made chhaang was deliciously potent. I went to bed with the satisfaction of a good day.

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