Explore's Head of Marketing Michelle Laverick recently induldged her passion for trekking on our Mini Annapurna Circuit tour in Nepal...
It was 11 years since I'd last visited Nepal and I couldn’t wait to see how it had changed over the years. On my last visit I met my husband, so it really did have a lot to live up to.
The excellent news it really did live up to my expectations – exceeding them once again. The difference this time was that I was going to be sleeping in a teahouse rather than in a tent and I was going to be walking in a much warmer climate for part of the trek than I had before, whilst still hoping to see some amazing scenery and after a week’s trek we would be passing over the Thorung La Pass at 5416m. This was higher than any other pass I had done, but was not quite as high as Kala Patthar (5550) or Everest Base Camp.
The Mini Annapurna Circuit trek, takes in the ‘best bits’ of the full Annapurna Circuit. In total you trek for 11 days, although one of these days in an Acclimatisation day, where you need to sleep low and climb high to assist with your body getting used to the lower levels of oxygen in the air. The scenery along the way is truly amazing.
The Explore Crew
Our Explore crew, consisting of our tour leader, Raj, 3 Sherpas who would set the pace for the group each day and make sure those at the back were looked after too, and the 5 porters, were all absolutely outstanding. They looked after us, kept us healthy, cooked for us, carried our kit bags and made us laugh. I can’t give anything but praise for them all.
Before you start trekking you spend a couple of days in Kathmandu. Kathmandu is a hive of activity and there aren’t many things that you won’t see during your stay here. The city has grown considerably over the last few years, although the charm of the locals, the sights and sounds of the traffic and permanent horns all day and all night, not forgetting the encapsulating smell of incense everywhere you go - indicate that it has not really changed that much.
The walking tour of Kathmandu gets you to the heart of the city and the local guide will take you through the streets and detail the countries intricate history and the fascinating local customs. A camera is essential for this city tour just to try and encapsulate some of the amazing sights. Durbar Square, the main focus of the morning walk, is surrounded by a host of temples, young and old, and is also home to the Kumari Ghar, which is home to the living goddess Kumari Devi - and we were privileged enough for her to come to the window to see us whilst we were there.
After lunch – on a rooftop overlooking Durbar square - we ended up sitting in a traffic jam on our way to the oldest and holiest temple in Nepal, the temple of Pashupathinath on the banks of the Bagmati River. Here the banks of the river were inundated with bodies waiting to be cremated, which were a morbid scene yet captivating. One of the most recognisable images of Kathmandu was our next port of call the Stupa of Bodnath. I just love this place and I could have spent all day here just watching the monks walking around the stupa on their pilgrimage, praying as they go.
The rest of the afternoon we had some free time to organise for any additional kit that we needed in the bustling tourist area of Kathmandu, Tamil before we had dinner in a traditional Nepalese restaurant, where we sat on the floor for dinner and enjoyed some amazing food.
Trekking Days 1-3
After a lovely breakfast in the hotel and our kit bags were packed for our trek we loaded up our mini bus for a 6 hour white knuckle ride out of Kathmandu towards the start of our trek. After lunch in Besi Sahar we started what we thought would be a 3 hour walk – although it only took us 1 3⁄4 hours, so we were really proud of ourselves. We arrived at our first teahouse and I was really impressed. I was not too sure what to expect, but , even though it was basic, there was a shower with hot water. We met some Austrian tourists who had just completed the around Manaslu trek so it was great listening to their stories. Dinner was great – soup (and popcorn) followed by vegetables and rice, and rice pudding – which really was my favourite. As with most nights on the trek everyone had made their way to bed by 8:30. A hot night – in a sleeping bag designed to take me to the top of Everest – but this would certainly be needed in a couple of nights time.
For the first few days of the trek you walk along the path to Manang following the Ngadi River. The route is fairly easy underfoot and with most trekking in Nepal, a traditional Nepali flat is ‘a little bit up and a little bit down’! You pass through a variety of different small villages along the route where you will see all types of everyday life going on, from doing the washing, seeing the kids on their way to school, feeding the animals, herding the animals, cooking and having a cup of tea. No matter what anyone was up to, you were always greeted with a huge smile and ‘NAMESTE’.
Most days of the trek (except the day for the Thorung La Pass) the days consist of setting off at 8:15am, stopping for short breaks along the way before having lunch at around 12 noon. The lunch break would be around 2 hours before we set off for our afternoon trek onto our final resting place for the evening. We would normally reach the teahouses by around 4 pm ready for a cup of tea and some biscuits.
From this point onwards we finally began to gain some altitude which was great - although it was still following the Nepali flat – a little bit up and a little bit down. Before we set off this morning I even washed my hair– with someone else’s shampoo as I had left all mine in Kathmandu! Today was the first day when we also had our first real views of the mountains. In clear view nearly all day long was Manaslu. It was awesome as we meandered through the pine forests with Manaslu peering down upon us. We arrived at lunch earlier than we expected and we enjoyed the most awesome views of the mountains. It was commented by the rest of the group that with Explore we do always seem to get the best spot for lunch and the best teahouse in the villages too! We were still walking along the road to Manang – which is not really a road it is a path – that one day will become a road – but not for some considerable time yet.
My first OMG moment came when we arrived into Chame and we were shown our accommodation for the evening. It was en-suite and as the sign explained – there was a flushing toilet. I was totally blown away. Once again there was a hot shower. This was really starting to raise my expectations. This evening was the first night when my down sleeping bag really came into its own. It was cold and it was great to finally snuggle down into it.
Everyone in the group still continues to be on a high. The walking is really enjoyable and the Raj (our tour leading) continually provides us with a wealth of information about the local area, the wildlife, the culture, the history… you name it he knew it which was fantastic. A couple of the colds which people had picked up before that came on the trip were starting to have a little effect on a couple of people and it goes to show how a cold can impact on your overall level of fitness. The scenery now is out of this world and we are already starting to take it for granted. We are walking in the shadows of the Annapurna range. My favourite at this point is Annapurna II. It is so impressive that I must have taken hundreds of photos of it. We also have some great photos now of Chulu.
Our trekking over these two days takes us through the villages of Lower Pisang ( where we slept and did an afternoon walk up to the Monastery at Upper Pisang) and then on and up the valley to Manang – at the end of the road and sitting at around 3,500m. Most of the group, by the time we arrived in Manang were feeling really good. We were now at altitude and this is where the body can then start to suffer from the lack of oxygen in the air.
Overnight a weather front moved in and it snowed all night.
Acclimatisation – Manang
Our acclimatisation day was not as it should have been. We woke up to a blanket of snow and it was still snowing. I was then worried about how much it had snowed over the pass that we would be going over in the next few days.
Normally, on an acclimatisation day, you sleep low and you climb high in the morning – whilst still having a rest in the afternoon.
The morning became a time for shopping and catching up on a little reading. You can buy anything you need to in Manang for your trek. From lip salve to down jackets, you could buy anything. Most just bought an extra pair of gloves and gaiters - if they did not already have them. In the afternoon the sun came out and the snow melted and you would never have known what happened overnight.
In the afternoon we did a short walk before we attended an acclimatisation talk at the local clinic – which just talked through the symptoms of altitude and what to do it you are experiencing any of them.
In the early evening we treated ourselves to a trip to the cinema – to see into thin air which was awesome – and we had a cup of tea and popcorn.
After Manang we were advised that teahouse facilities would not be as extensive and showers are not advisable due to the cold. In addition due to tea and coffee being diuretics’, we should not have any more. At altitude you need to drink plenty to overcome the impact of altitude on your body. This was all excellent advice, and there were no more showers. This was also the last point to charge mobile phones and camera batteries and phone reception would be no more until we went over the pass.
Two day build up to the Pass
Altitude really started to kick in on the next day and although I did not seem to be too affected during the day with the walking – I had the weirdest dreams at night and it felt like I’d hardly slept even though we’d been in bed each night for nearly 11 hours. The nights were now cold but the days were lovely and sunny with amazing blue skies behind the snow-capped mountains. Now we had Annapurna 111 behind us – once again – scenery which was outstanding which I never really expected to be as good as this on this tour.
We are now climbing about 500m per day which is just fine. The walks are still ok as the pace is really good and gentle. The paths are a little steeper than they were before and we have now finally climbed higher than the tree level.
Anticipation is now starting to build as we are doing the pass soon. None more so than when we all had a demonstration of the Portable Altitude Chamber the crew carry with them on all high altitude treks. This was awesome – so not only were we all trained about how it worked – so were all the crew.
The crew are really comfortable with the level of fitness of the whole group but we are going to split into 2 groups for the pass day – a faster group and a slower group. This is just to make sure that the faster group don’t get too cold waiting. Each group would have a Sherpa at the front and back to make sure we were all OK. By now we were now all excited and it was bed early (18:30)– as we would be up at 3am!
The Thorung La Pass
Finally, the day I had been looking forward to was here. Going to 5,416m. I was very excited. This quickly changed when we started walking just after 4am. It was cold and the climbing was steep. You could see the headlights of those in front of us and behind us which gave an indication of how far we had to go. We were advised the 1st hour was the hardest – so we all gave it our all. My hands and toes in particular were very cold. We never did find out how cold it was. At 4am it is dark but the stars were amazing – and every time we stopped to catch our breath we gazed at the sky.
After a hard slog – we made it to the top of the 1st section in an hour so I was thrilled – the hardest bit was over and we were at high camp. You could only stop for a couple of minutes as it really was very cold and my feet were tingling.
The next section to the top of the pass was due to be about another 3 hours. But the hardest bit was over – hmmmm. I am not too sure about that. As we continued to climb the skies got lighter and we could finally switch our head torches off. It continued to be hard and cold. We stopped frequently to take in the views and to talk to some of the many other groups on the trail.
3 hours - it seemed the longest 3 hours of our lives. The moraine seemed to go on forever and there appeared to be many false summits. We had to dig deep. But within the 4 hours from the bottom we saw a glimpse of the prayer flags at the top and the all of a sudden adrenaline took us to the top of the pass. It was still cold but the sun was out by now and it was warming up by the minute.
What a view. It was fantastic. The Thorung La Peak was towering over us on the left hand side. Everyone was elated. We had all made it to the top of the pass. We all seemed to go our separate ways at the top to take our own photos and videos of the top and to maybe just have a few minutes on our own to take in the achievement – let alone the scenery. It was awesome.
We then regrouped, had a cup of tea, took some group photos – just to prove we had made it before we made the descent (1,600) back down the other side! I love downhill – which was a good job as it was downhill all the way to lunch. Spirits were high and we were all talking about our achievements from the morning – whilst trying to eat some food which we had not managed to do on the way up.
It took us 2 1⁄2 hours to get down most of the other side to where we were having lunch – chairs into which we collapsed as we arrived. The group behind us arrived at lunch 1 hr after we did which was a brilliant achievement for all.
The rest of the afternoon was spent meandering down until we arrived in Muktinath where we visited the monastery before we arrived at our teahouse for the night. Another teahouse with a really hot shower and back to having a phone signal! We were also back into beer villages where we could enjoy a cold Everest beer after dinner which was a great way to celebrate our achievements.
The final day walking
It was quite sad – we only had one day walking left and today was the first day when the legs were a little stiff in the morning – mainly from the long descent the day before. The walking today continued to be downhill through some very different – almost Moroccan desert scenery. In this final stretch the wind played a significant factor in the day. It was extremely windy and I am not too sure I would have been able to survive without my buff – which covered my face all day long.
The conversations today all seemed to be about the foods we had craved since we had been away. Mine was wine gums – not that I really like them at home – but I really fancied some then.
At the end of this day, was the last night that we would spend with the crew (except the tour leader who would be taking us all the way back to Kathmandu – which was a good job as we did not appear to be able to function without him anymore). We had written a song for the night which we would all sing but not before a couple of drinks. It was an amazing night, loved by all and it was a great opportunity for us to show our appreciation for all those who had helped us out over the two week trek. It was also the latest night we had had and the last to bed went at 11:30. The accommodation was also outstanding with an ensite shower and flushing toilet!
There were a few sore heads for our short 12 minute flight from Jomsom to Pokhara. And what a flight on a 16 seater aircraft! It was amazing and all of a sudden we were thrust back into civilisation.
In Pokhara – it was time to regroup, do some washing, shopping, relax and enjoy the sunshine and bustle of this beautiful lake side town.
This day is also known as a buffer day just in case there are issues flying from Jomsom to Pokhara due to the weather.
We also had another full day in Pokhara where we decided to go for another walk as our legs were missing walking. We rowed across the lake and up to the temple on the other side which was fantastic. We then went to Devils Waterfall and visited the Tibetan Refugee camp.
It was fantastic and our time in Pokhara was a fantastic place to relax after the tour – especially as I was not looking forward to going there.
The final few hours of the tour were spent in Kathmandu before we had out flight back home.
All in all this was an amazing trip. I’d loved Nepal and the Everest region 11 years ago and travelling to the Annapurna region this year did not disappoint. We had a great group, an outstanding tour leader and crew, amazing scenery, delicious food, fantastic teahouse accommodation, all adding up to simply the best trek. I can’t wait to go again.