Trekking the Annapurna Circuit Part I

Looking for signs in Annapurna
Looking for signs in Annapurna

After a brutally long bus ride to Kathmandu we took a break to recover and plan our trek, the Annapurna Circuit.  We spent a few days to purchase some additional gear for the cold weather, apply for the special permits needed for the Annapurna Conservation Region (ACAP and TIMS rs 2000 for each permit, per person), and extend our visa (the more passport photos you have for the last two the better, we needed 5 total but online sources say less). The day before we left we purchased bus tickets to Besi Sahar, our starting point. With the new road on the east side of the Annapurna region, any village along the circuit up to Manang can be a starting point but we planned to do the whole thing, between 20-21 days.

Check point in Besi Sahar
Check point in Besi Sahar

We reached Besi Sahar (800 m) in the early afternoon which allowed us to relax a little before beginning the trek. It was a rather quiet place with few foreigners and several guesthouses scattered close to the trailhead on the north side of town. Unfortunately most people never start from here and due to time constraints start further up but seeing the contrast between the lower and higher elevations is pretty amazing and I think Besi Sahar is the perfect place to begin the trek to see this progression.

Big events in small villages
Big events in small villages

For anyone who has hiked the Annapurna Circuit the new road on the east side would be a bit of a shock and I was no exception. Fortunately there are new trails being constructed for trekkers wanting to avoid the traffic, not that there’s all that much traffic to begin with. They are marked with red and white OR blue and white paint and there are usually signs that tell you where to go, especially if there are commercial interests further up.

Streets of Bhulbhule
Streets of Bhulbhule

We took the trail to Bhulbhule first passing terrace farms and then a new dam being constructed by the Chinese. After lunch we continued to Nagadi Bazaar (930 m) where we spent the night. The north end of the village was a bit of a mess with the new road and the construction of two dams that are nearly complete. We heard there are plans in the near future to build a third.

Looking away from the dams in Nagadi Bazaar
Looking away from the dams in Nagadi Bazaar

From Nagadi Bazaar we continued to Bahundanda (1310 m), which sits on a steep hill overlooking the terraces and river below. It’s a long hike to the top but the view was amazing and it was the perfect spot for some mid morning tea. It was also suprising to see WiFi advertised at almost every hotel. This was a trend that continued along the whole trek but it didn’t take us long to figure out that less than a quarter of those places actually had WiFi.

Rachel enjoying the downhill after Bahundanda
Rachel enjoying the downhill after Bahundanda

After Bahundanda we came to an area called Lili Bhir. Bhir is the Nepalese word for cliff and Lili was the name of the first trekker that supposedly died there. It’s a bit of a dangerous area to pass because the trail is carved into the side of the cliff and the stairs are uneven. After 2001 there were handrails installed next to the cliff but they’ve fallen apart and now provides nothing more than a false sense of security.

Waterfalls in Ghermu
Waterfalls in Ghermu
Relaxing in Ghermu, looking at waterfalls
Relaxing in Ghermu, looking at waterfalls

We reached Ghermu (1130 m) and found a hotel at the end of the village that had a spectacular view of the waterfall across the river. After studying our books, maps, and apps we tried to find an alternative route the next day to avoid the road. We found the trailhead next to our hotel and some red and white paint markings but after about 45 minutes of ascending a local farmer told us there was no bridge across the river and that it was a dead end. Frustrated and already tired, we turned around and crossed the river to take the road to Jagat. Along the way I counted at least 3 bridges crossing the river but after looking at our maps it would have ended up being a 7 hour or more detour climbing over 1000 m to just come back down and that was something we would not have wanted to undertake.

Crossing the bridge after Ghermu
Crossing the bridge after Ghermu

In Jagat we stopped for tea and in Chamje we stopped for lunch. With the new road neither of these villages would be places I’d stop to sleep and unfortunately the hotel owners are finding out I’m not the only one who feels that way. After Chamje we crossed the river to avoid the road and began our long climb to the village of Tal. The trail was nice but we were exhausted, especially after our hour we wasted earlier in the morning. By the time we reached Tal it was nearly dark. We checked into a hotel at the north end with another view of a waterfall.

Bridge below Jagat
Bridge below Jagat
Typical bridge in the Annapurna Region
Typical bridge in the Annapurna Region

Tal (1700 m) is a nice little village situated on a flat plain with the river on one side and cliffs that form a wall on the other. There’s a lot of accommodations to choose from and some even with western toilets and WiFi! The road continues on the other side of the river so the only traffic is the occasional motor bike.

Trail carved in the side of the cliff near Tal
Trail carved in the side of the cliff near Tal
We needed a break and thought this place might have good food
We needed a break and thought this place might have good food

From Tal we took another trail carved into the side of the cliff and then crossed the river taking the road to Dharapani (1860 m). Here was an option to take a trail up to the village of Ogar but since we had a lot of ground to cover we stuck to the road to Bagarchhap and then the ghost town of Danaqyu (2160 m) where we had a late lunch. We continued up another steep climb to the village of Temang going straight up the hillside and avoiding the long switchbacks the jeeps had to take.

Finally, snow capped mountains
Finally, snow capped mountains
Sometimes it feels like you're at a petting zoo
Sometimes it feels like you’re at a petting zoo

In Temang (2270 m) we were rewarded with views of snowcapped mountains all around us. The temperature was much colder and there was no stove in the dining hall. Behind Temang was a long gradual climb to Namun La at over 5,500 m. Once the sun disappeared we were rewarded with amazing views of the stars with the faint silhouette of mountains in the foreground.

 

The next day we had a much easier hike to Chame (2670 m), the district headquarters of Manang. There were hot springs along the river that were a bit disappointing and a couple of Buddhist monasteries. Since Chame is a larger village there are also a few shops selling outdoor clothes and hardware that we hadn’t seen earlier on the trail. We also found a hotel off the road so we wouldn’t have to listen to the rumbling of the trucks through the night.

Mani Wall
Mani Wall

From Chame we passed through apple orchards in Bhratang and crossed the Marsyangdi River before a long climb to Dhikur Pokhari where we ate lunch. It was on this stretch that the mountains became much more rugged. Behind us was an impressive slope the rose over 1000 m and had the appearance that the earth had been removed with a giant ice cream scoop creating a perfectly smooth mountain with a light dusting of snow on top.

Bridge crossing in Chame
Bridge crossing in Chame
Chorten at the entrance to Chame
Chorten at the entrance to Chame
Kids harvesting crops in Chame
Kids harvesting crops in Chame

We continued on, choosing the route through Upper Pisang (3300 m) for its better view of the mountains, lack of traffic, interesting architecture, and higher altitudes for acclimation. We met a lot of people who passed through Lower Pisang (3200 m) but they were usually under some time constraints. I would recommend against going through Lower Pisang simply because you can stay at a higher elevation by taking the upper route.

Rachel trying to smile
Rachel trying to smile
Ice cream scooped mountains?
Ice cream scooped mountains

Once we reached Upper Pisang we kept going since it was early in the afternoon and the next village of Ghyaru (3670 m) is an even better spot for acclimation. As we crossed a bridge and passed a Mani Wall stacked with flat shale rocks with Buddhist carvings, we could see Ghyaru on top of a massive hill almost 400 m high. Guide books say you reach the top when you pass 14th electricity pole. The climb was so difficult I stopped counting at 6. It was also along this stretch that we scared a small Himalayan fox that took off running down the trail.

Last bridge before Ghyaru, Nepal
Last bridge before Ghyaru, Nepal
Prayer wheels near a Mani Wall
Prayer wheels near a Mani Wall

In Ghyaru we stayed at the Annapurna Lodge and got to really see how the locals live. They invited us into their home after dinner to sit around the fire and a few of the owners friends stopped by too. They even let us try their home brew also known as Chaang. The buildings in Ghyaru were made entirely out of stacked rocks with yak horns sticking out of the walls every 5 meters, no doubt for religious reasons. This was very different from the wood and clay homes we saw in the lower elevations. If it wasn’t for the power lines crisscrossing the narrow streets I would have thought we were in a medieval town.

Stone houses in Ghyaru
Stone houses in Ghyaru
Sunset in Ghyaru
Sunset in Ghyaru

We were happy to stay in Ghyaru for the night especially after seeing how built up Upper Pisang has gotten. There’s a newly built pink and white lodge that is just massive and cellphone towers that seem to have taken away the vibe that Ghyaru still has. It was also nice knowing that the 400 meter climb was now behind us.

 

Ghyaru, Nepal
Our hotel room in Ghyaru

 

Ghyaru, Nepal
Ghyaru, Nepal

 

The Annapurna Circuit Trek Part II

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