Annapurna Circuit Part 2 – Freedom Tastes of Reality – Tal to Chame to Upper Pisang to Manang

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July 3rd 2013
Published: July 3rd 2013
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As I headed out of Tal on my way to Chame (not to be confused with Chamje) at 2650m/8690ft, I asked the proprietor of the guesthouse how far I had.

“9-and-half hours,” he replied.

“Ok, another long day. How about ‘Nepali time?’”

“Nepali time?” He smiled, then replied, “8 hours.”

Following the EBC trek, I’ve come to trust the precision of the Nepali people’s time estimates in the mountains like I trust that the sun will rise tomorrow: they are spot on and I’m usually within 15 minutes of what they quote me. On good days, I’m within 15 minutes of “Nepali time”, ie, the time one would expect a regular Nepalese to arrive at a destination. Either way, I had another 8 to 10-hour walk ahead of me, so I hastened out on the trail as the proprietor handed me a business card of his sister’s guesthouse in Chame, explaining that she’d give me a good deal on a room if I told her that her brother sent me.

As I neared Chame, both the landscape and temperature were now radically different: snowy summits revealed themselves behind smaller mountain tops while I began to layer against the wind and chill. Much of the trail to Chame is back on the road again, though there are some alternative routes here and there that diverted me off of it; but, the number and length of these trail routes is still moderate. The representative from the Annapurna Circuit Conservation Office mentioned to me that there was a plan to expand and build trails away from the road in the future – I am hopeful that is the case, but please note that taking these side trails does add time to your trek: there were several times I’d walk passed someone who then ended up in front of me again as I entered the road after taking a side trail. But time shouldn’t matter when you’re on the trail; and being off the road is so much better.

I arrived in Chame in 8 hours 14 minutes on the dot. I was tired and began to annoyingly detect the onset of blisters under both my big toes, but was nonetheless impressed with myself as I’d taken two days off the typically followed itinerary. I also happened upon a Canadian I’d met on the EBC who was now joined on the circuit with his girlfriend.

“The beer here is 200 rupees,” he cheerfully informed me. A beer on EBC was upwards of 500 rupees at higher altitudes – the road was indeed good for some things. I didn’t want to be pushy and invite myself, but did ask them if, at the very least, I could walk Thorung La pass with them since the weather there is unpredictable and cold. They agreed; I checked off that action item.

I proceeded on and located the guesthouse of the proprietor’s sister after a brief, but frustrating search - it was off the beaten path – and regrettably didn’t receive the deal I’d expected, but the room was still only a couple bucks if I ate there. After a scorching hot shower, I headed down to the dining room. I tasted the sister’s Chhaang and told her that it was better than that of her sister-in-law; she gave me another one on the house, two large bowls of garlic soup and a heaping plate of spaghetti.

I deliberated heading all the way to Manang the next day after I was informed that it would take 9 hours Nepali time along the road, and maybe another 3 or 4 if I took the Upper Pisang route. I’d heard that the Upper Pisang route, though, was incredibly beautiful and worth hiking; and it got one off the road.

“Why you walk so fast?” the sister asked me.

“Oh, I’ve got a wife waiting for me in Pokhara.” Although Klaudia doesn’t believe I said this, the sister smiled understandingly. Beyond attempting to make it back to my wife as quickly as possible, however, I was also reveling in the challenge. Moreover, I was still acclimatized from EBC: 9,000ft felt like sea level.

The trail was all through pine forest now, with brisk temperatures. It took about 4.5 hours to reach the Tibetan style village of Upper Pisang, which was considerably different than the style of homebuilding I’d seen thus far, constructed with stacked stone rather than with wood. Interesting architecture aside, I now witnessed, in all my ecstatic awe, the views about which everyone glowingly raved: the snowy-peaked Annapurna II towered directly in front of me, altering the flight paths of the clouds as they collided with the peak, dissipating into formless shapes, while, following the ridge of the massif, Annapurna IV stirred within me the magical sentiment of smallness one at times feels when staring at nature in all its grandeur. And then I felt thirsty.

I walked over to a water tap and filled up my water bottle. After treating the water, I threw in an electrolyte tab and stared at the trail in front of me, then at the stupendous Annapurna Massif behind me. It wasn’t time to leave yet; and I was tired. I entered the nearest guesthouse, procured a room and had a lunch of garlic soup yet again. In the evening, I took a walk around the village of less than 700 people and took in the views of the massif some more. The most affecting attribute of the views on the Annapurna Circuit are that they’re not viewed from a distance – they’re right there… And I soaked in the magnificence.

I realized I’d made the right decision in staying the night the next morning as I set out for Manang along the upper route. The grueling incline of the first hill I hit was more malicious than fun; and an older Spaniard was getting on my nerves.

The fact is that there are plenty of overly competitive people out there; another fact is, as an American, I’m one of those people even if I make an effort not to be. I’d passed the Spaniard, who was trekking with an older couple and someone who seemed to be his wife, just as we were nearing the incline, and I could tell he was irritated by this. As I began my ascent, I noticed him increase the speed of his gait as he left the older couple and his wife behind. “Alright then,” I thought to myself, “I’m acclimatized and in tip-top trail shape. Bring it on.”

I was smoking him as I huffed along the left bank of a switchback and he disappeared from sight. Content that he’d never catch up, I slowed my pace and continued up the hill a while when, suddenly, I noticed the Spaniard entering the trail in front of me from a smaller side trail I hadn’t noticed. He glanced back at me and deviously smirked. I wanted to yell “cheater!”, but I realized that there were no agreed upon rules of engagement, so I accelerated my pace instead; plus, this entire situation was effectuated with non-verbal communication in the first place. Unfortunately for me, that side trail had gained him so much distance ahead of me that I could never fully recompense for it. I gave it my best shot, and closed in on him, but fell short as he entered the gompa at the top of Ghyaru a good two minutes before I did. I could see him smiling as he stretched and took pictures; I shook my head as I took a swig of water. Then I chuckled to myself at the beautiful little idiosyncrasies of the Annapurna Circuit. “Here’s to you cheater,” I thought with another gulp of water, also wondering how long he’d be waiting at the gompa for his wife and the older couple. Satisfied that it would be a long time, I headed off for Manang. I loved this place.

The upper trail took me to better and bigger views with every step. I passed a monastery where young monks were playing a game of dice and through charming little villages in the midst of green meadows. As I walked through one of these smaller villages, I took notice of how empty it seemed to be, with not a person in sight. I began to think that it was perhaps a ghost town when, without warning, I accidentally happened upon three topless (young) women bathing. They shrieked; I covered my eyes and nonchalantly pretended nothing was amiss as I continued along the trail. They shrieked again; this time I ran. The AC is full of views of all kinds.

I slowly made my way above tree line as I neared Bhraga, now also on the road again. Westerners on motorcycles whizzed passed me, scuffling a dust storm in my face. I stopped to talk with one of the motorcyclists, learning that he’d built his bike from scratch in his garage in London and rode it all the way from there. I remarked sincerely that it was a nice bike.

I reached Manang in the late afternoon and found a guesthouse that had Mexican – or, as they called it, “Maksican” – on the menu, including yak tacos, tostadas, and a chili and cheese burrito. The place “had me at ‘tacos’”, so I decided to stay the night there.

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