High In The Mountains: The Annapurna Circuit

“Life is not a journey to the grave to arrive safely and well-preserved in a box, but to skid broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used-up, totally worn-out and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride!” Hunter S Thompson

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It had been almost a month since I arrived in Nepal when I arrived to the lakeside town of Pokhara, and – through the whirlwind of action-packed days, straining walks, changing environments and people – the time now felt stretched and elongated in my mind. Although it’s the cliché holiday phrase to exclaim how ‘the time flies by’ and ‘goes so quick’ when you’re outside of your typical everyday life, I have always personally found that the days, weeks and months spent in the realm of adventure and new environments feel much longer than the equivalent time within the ‘home’ environment. In the month previous to this trip I had done very little; the same old walks in the local countryside, the runs in the park, the work shifts five times per week and the odd social drink here and there; but as I arrived beaten, tired and wild-eyed in Pokhara setting my bags down at the homely Kiwi Guest House, I reflected on the last four weeks of sight-seeing, festival partying, new people, new foods, high mountain-top paths, constantly changing landscapes, dirty toilets, stomach problems and ominous plane rides. Really when you’re riding the wave of adventure and heading full thrust into the storm of what the world has to offer, more can happen in one month than an entire year living the settled life. That’s not to say it’s all amazing sunshine and rainbows of course – after a month of this I was ready to be lazy and retreat to the sedentary lifestyle for a few days as I lazed around regaining weight, using my laptop, napping and enjoying some beverages in the evening. Yeah, we all need our comfort sometimes – even you Bear Grylls.

After arriving it seemed Pokhara was the perfect place to recover and relax before me and Bryan began our second outing in the mountains of Nepal; it was hot, relaxed, full of conveniences and had the general homely feel of any place beside a big lake. It was also surrounded by more beautiful mountains – peaks of great beauty that me and Bryan intended to see up close. Yes, following the trek to Everest base camp we once again had our eyes set upon the mountains via the world famous ‘Annapurna Circuit’ trek – a circular path just outside of Pokhara that snaked its way through the diverse and beautiful landscape of the Annapurna conservation area which played host to the enormous Annapurna I, II, III and IV (the largest of these being Annapurna I which towered over 8000m and claimed around 30% of the lives of all who tried to summit her). The trek would be vastly different from the last one with the walk starting low and gradually climbing through changing scenery to reach a pass of 5414m above sea-level before heading back down again. This would make a nice change to the relentless up and down passes of the last trek. This was definitely most welcome; the few days back in Kathmandu before Pokhara had been tough – diarrhoea, vomiting, weight loss and a total lack of energy had been commonplace following food poisoning and general exhaustion at the end of the last trek. It seemed that it was only natural now for me and Bryan to roam the touristic streets of Lakeside Pokhara overindulging on Indian cuisine, Dairy Milk chocolate, sugary drinks, beer and even a cheeky little boat-ride out on the lake in the glorious warmth of low-land sun and air. Who could really blame us?

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the easy life

But c’est la vie; c’est la vie – soon the chilled life was coming to an end and it was time to head back into the wild. Fast-forward one day later and me and Bryan are clinging on to the back of a jeep surrounded by three extravagant, Danish potheads relentlessly smoking hash and blasting Euro-Trance as we roared along precarious cliff roads among the opening valleys of the Annapurna national park. ‘Here we go again’ I thought as I clung on the back rack of the jeep for dear life as the potent smell of “Nepal’s finest herb” filled my nostrils. “We are in Nepal in search of the finest herb my brotherss” they told us. The three young Danish adventurers – sporting Viking haircuts and Hawaiian shirts – regaled us with their finest tales of their drug-filled, Asian adventures while simultaneously smoking and rolling what must have been at least six joints over the seven-hour ride. These guys – alongside the alcoholic, Polish entrepreneur whom I had met at the hostel in Pokhara and who was spontaneously heading to Kazakhstan – were among the most interesting characters I had met on this trip so far. I liked them instantly. A bit wild, controversial and insane for some, but the world needs people like that; the world needs people like that to shake you out of the trance of everyday life and dispel the pool of archetypal characters that society and individual cultures produce. “You don’t mind if we smoke do you my Nepali brotherss?” they rhetorically asked as some random Nepali guys joined what was now eight of us squeezed into the back of this speeding jeep. I couldn’t help but laugh at the bizarre-ness and hilarity of the situation.

Hiking Again

Finally – following much chaos, smoke of different varieties, engine problems and scary cliffs – we arrived at the starting point of our trek deep within the Annapurna conservation area. Unlike the last trek where we took the longest route, we had skipped a few days walking alongside the road to get better situated in the park. It instantly seemed worth it; the scenery got more and more striking the further we travelled with the jeep and we were now at 2700m – a good place to begin the gradual climb to 5400m. Walking

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the squad

alongside me and Bryan were the three Danish Vikings and another Dutch guy Arthur. Between us there was a nice balance and atmosphere; we walked, chatted, had snack breaks and just generally took it easy and enjoyed ourselves – the Vikings of course searching for ‘Charash’ (hash) at every opportunity to increase their mere 50g supply. The first couple of the days of the trek were pleasantly green – we walked through nice alpine-like vegetation/woods, following the river further into the valley as the mountains increased in size around us. Soon we were walking alongside the dazzling Annapurna alps which rose to neck-aching heights. Enormous sections of snow sheets and glistening glacier faces shone in their perfect whiteness high atop the mountains creating a colourful contrast against the spring green trees and clear blue sky. April was one of the most popular months for trekking in Nepal and you could see why – relatively warm weather and clear skies before the wet season arrived in late May. We walked on and on in the sun – the views getting more dramatic by each hour.

A few days into the trek me, Bryan and Arthur split from the Danish guys to go on a detour to check out ‘Lake Tilicho’ – “the world’s highest lake” according to Nepali tourism, even though a quick Google search confirms there are dozens of higher lakes in the Himalayas and Andes. Nepali treks had a habit of dubious claims – most evident in the fact that we had seen two of the ‘world’s highest’ Irish pubs and about five of the ‘world’s highest’ bakeries. But still, a lake at 5000m high sitting under the north face of Annapurna I definitely seemed worth a two-day detour. We began hiking the path away from the main trek to head up to the lake. The trekking paths themselves had been relatively simple and safe so far in Nepal, but on the way to Tilicho we encountered thin paths alongside steep slopes of landslide-prone rock faces. We snaked our way along these ominous routes and gradually headed up to the lake. Small stones and rocks could always be seen falling at dangerous speeds down the slopes and crossing the trekking path; in one instance a rock had made its way with almost conscious precision toward the temple of my head as I hiked. It bounced a metre from my head and, luckily, I spotted

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taking in the view

it at the very last second to deflect it with my hand. It was a close call no doubt – I couldn’t help but gaze down a few hundred metres below and imagine my unconscious body falling into valley after being hit by the rock. Oh well, adventure can be dangerous but avoiding adventure can be dangerous too I told myself. Anyway, eventually we made it up to the wintry wonderland and took in the almighty snowy scenery. The lake was, as expected, completely frozen and covered in snow, but it was still a beautiful sight to behold – especially as the world’s deadliest mountain Annapurna I smiled down upon us tiny humans.

Over the Pass and Through the Portal

Following the detour we headed back to the main track to make our way up to the 5400m pass. By this point we were well-acclimatised and in good shape. More so than the previous trek, I could really feel the extra strength and lung power as I hiked up steep climbs at 4000m+. You could see why people got addicted to this sort of thing – the feeling of sparring with nature as you used your strength and power to ascend through man-eating, mountainous environments. We pressed on, all in good health, and were soon positioned to make the journey over the ‘world’s biggest’ pass Thorung La (a quick Google search again finds this to be a contested claim but hey ho – it’s all semantics). We awoke early in the morning and battled our way through the busy path of trekkers; starting at the back of the crowd, we were soon near the front as we breathed deeper and deeper and climbed higher and higher. The air got thinner. The scenery became more alien-like. The sun rose higher illuminating the whiteness of the surrounding mountains. Eventually, fuelled by biscuits and hedonism, we made it to the top of the pass reaching 5414m above sea level – the peak of the Annapurna circuit. A feeling of accomplishment flowed all the way from my smelly boots and up to my mind as I considered it was quite literally downhill all the way back to Pokhara from here. The ascents while hiking in Nepal were over and it was time to relax a bit more and enjoy the ride down. Now at the front of the day’s crowd of trekkers, we began heading down the steep pass while enjoying the sprawling view of the Mustang valley that lay far below us.

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on the pass

Coming over the pass was obviously not your everyday experience, but as we descended into the Mustang valley, it really felt that me, Bryan and Arthur had travelled through some sort of portal in space and time. As we dropped down more and more, the landscape completely changed to something unlike anything I had seen so far in the country of Nepal. As we got down below 4000m we were met with brown arid, desert, Mars-like plains and valleys. Not only that but by the time we reached the first town we could also see a large change in the people and even the buildings. Lots of Indian-looking people rode donkeys up the road; people flew past on motorbikes along the dirt roads; large, developed hotels lined the desert streets. We then found out there were lots of Indian tourists in town because it was Nepali new year and the year was 2074. 2074!? Was this really the same country we were in at the start of the morning? Was this still Nepal? Even the same universe!? My head was spinning with the sheer randomness of the last seven hours. I drank some water, cleared my head and – now with a group of a few more Australian and English friends we had met coming down the pass – we headed into the centre of town to find the ‘Bob Marley Hotel’ – the seemingly apt place we had arranged to meet back up with the Danish Vikings. The day of course was about to get even stranger with these guys back on the scene.

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the arid Mustang valley

As hoped, we found the three Danish Vikings still loitering in the hotel after they successfully made it over the pass the day previous to us. With some deserved beers, we all caught up and exchanged the stories of our trekking adventures since we had split a few days before. Equally remarkable and hilarious, we found out the Vikings had made it over the freezing mountain pass just in shorts and their Hawaiian shirts – of course smoking multiple joints along the way to fuel their colourful expedition through the Himalayas. I could only imagine what the ultra-serious, ‘professional’ trekkers thought of these guys. You know, the sort of people who had every piece of available equipment and gear known to man as they hiked along the flat ground using hiking poles, looking fierce and pretending they were climbing Everest or something. Unfortunately for the vikings their quest for the best hash in Nepal hadn’t been as successful as their walk; their 50 gram stash had now alarming depleted to just a dangerous 10 grams. Again, I couldn’t resist to laugh and smile at the scenario and the sheer hilarity of these three guys. We all played some pool, drank some beers and prepared to hike down the valley for a few more days (they of course would end up hitch-hiking in the back of some random jeep, passing us nonchalantly on the road as the tyres kicked up dust into our faces).

The End of the Road

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The final days of hiking in Nepal brought us back into the familiar environment of green trees, traditional Nepali villages, rolling rivers and snow-topped mountains. The temperature increased as we sank back into the low-lying depths of the valleys with the now humid atmosphere finally allowing me to put away the winter gear and trek in just shorts and t-shirt. Eventually our group all went their separate ways and just me and Bryan were again left to walk the final parts of our trek through the Annapurna Circuit. Following the action-packed last week we had to make things a little more interesting for ourselves. This included me going a separate way from the path to avoid climbing a hill with a hangover and ending up crossing a river directly through the flowing water, attempting not to fall in and get my backpack drenched. Bryan, watching no doubt gleefully from above on the hill, observed me at first failing miserably before successfully marching through the moderately powerfully ten metre stream of water. This ended up being nothing compared to the half-destroyed suspension bridge we crossed above a thirty metre drop into a river below as we tried to cut a corner and save ourselves some time on the final day. It truly was a terrible idea and can only imagine how our

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Bryan navigating the broken bridge

insurance companies would react after observing this lunacy. The bridge had been hit by a landslide and looked like an accident waiting to happen. Perhaps we did it for the cheap adrenaline thrill, or just a general story to tell. But the bridge felt sturdy enough to cross and the adrenaline thrill was certainly a lot cheaper than any bungee-jump or skydive.

One thing was for sure though, I felt alive. Not just in those moments but throughout the whole trek. And that’s the whole purpose of adventure when I stop and think about it. We all go through life; we all live and we all die. But a constant chase of safety and security can sedate our souls more and more. Adventure is like medicine; it can resuscitate us, revitalise us and bring us back to life; it is a portal – a gate through space and time to make your eyes a little wilder, your hair a little messier, your stomach a little more unstable, your mind a little crazier and your feet a little smellier. Not just this trek but also the Everest base camp trek had given me exactly what I wanted – memorable, diverse and action-packed days that I would be sure to remember into old age. As noted in the Hunter S Thompson quote at the start of this post, for me life is not a formality and some scripted journey from the maternity ward to the crematory; it is a crazy, shamanic dance in the waterfall – a wild ride through the universe to be filled with good friends, risky adventures, diverse landscapes and strange stories. This is what my time in Nepal had given me. It was over and I was now ready to throw away my trekking boots, head to southeast Asia and continue the adventure. It was time to keep exploring. Thanks for everything, Nepal.

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