Nepal Trekking Takeaways

Feb 9, 2012 by     3 Comments    Posted under: Cori's blogs, Nepal, Uncategorized

I know Brandyn already written a great post about our time in Nepal but I wanted to add my perspective on the amazing Annapurna Circuit trek that we did for 20 days.

Brief background: As Brandyn described in his blog post, the Annapurna Circuit is a popular hike in Nepal that typically uses the city of Pokhara as a base. From there trekkers generally move in a counter-clockwise circle around/through/up the Annapurna mountain range which is part of the Himalayas. The trek goes through villages, past Buddhist and Hindu sites, is characterized by changes of scenery from tropical greenery to forests to desert-like conditions, and is within sight of some of highest mountains in the world (Manaslu, Annapurna I, II, IV, III, Dhaulagiri and more). Our “goal” was to cross the Thorung La Pass at 5,416 meters (17,769 feet) about mid-way through the trek and then go back down the other side and around. Whew.

While the trek can be done on your own (the trail is well marked and there are many teahouses or lodges along the way where you can easily eat and stay the night – no need to carry tents and equipment with you), we opted to hire a porter/guide for a few reasons. Most importantly, I didn’t want to carry a heavy bag and make myself miserable through tough climbs and changes in elevation. I had nothing to prove and didn’t consider it a weakness to have a porter.  Also, we thought it would be fun to have a Nepalese person with us to tell us about the culture, land, etc. And we were right…Jaya was amazing and really helped give us insight into the lives of the Nepalese. Lastly, for a relatively low price we were able to help the economy and employ a local for 20 days, who in turn could better support his family. Pretty good deal all around.

Now on to a few of my takeaways from the Annapurna Circuit Trek…

The Start of a Hike is the Worst Part

I really like the idea of hiking…meaning I like the concept of being outside in the fresh air and getting exercise. I also, admittedly, like being able to brag to people after a hike “Hey, I hiked that!” But the first half hour or so of hiking I am not very happy. I for some reason am usually terribly fatigued, each step is slow and heavy, and I feel critical of the weather, of the way my daypack is making my back sweaty and itchy, of how my trekking pants curl up weird at the hem and make me look frumpy. Most of all I am resentful of being active and think that I’d much rather be curled up with a glass of wine/mug of coffee, reading and admiring the mountains from a balcony of a lodge somewhere.  But then something begins to happen.  My legs no longer feel heavy, but strong. Wiping the sweat off my face makes me feel accomplished, not annoyed. Suddenly I’m enjoying myself! I’m taking in big gulps of delicious air, admiring scenery and my fatigue is slowly being replaced with energy. The “hiker’s high” I suppose.  The minutes and hours quickly pass and when I ask Jaya how far to the next teahouse and he says 10 minutes I am shocked! Happy of course to reach our destination, but a little bit sad to stop hiking*, something I couldn’t have imagined about 4 hours earlier. And yes, this hate-love experience happened pretty much every day on our 20 day trek.

*The exception being about 2 or 3 killer long days on the Circuit when I was deliriously happy to stop hiking for the day and just sit and drink tea by the liter. But I’m generalizing here…

Macaroni Meals Never Get Old

Every teahouse/lodge actually had a surprisingly extensive menu, with some Nepalese specialties and then a variety of foods that they thought Westerners would enjoy. Probably too many options, since a lodge in the middle of the Himalayas working on a wood fueled stove shouldn’t be expected to whip up Indian curries, lasagnas, yak burgers, soups, burritos, Tibetan dumplings, spring rolls, and pizza. Yet they did, to varying degrees of quality. The most consistent and safest bet always was Dal Bhat, the classic Nepalese meal of white rice, lentil soup and curried potatoes. But I HATED it. I don’t know why exactly, the first few bites always tasted good but then it just made me feel so full and bloated and unsatisfied. Sorry Dal Bhat! So after 1 or 2 days of Dal Bhat lunches and dinners I switched to macaroni. Not the mac n’ cheese variety that is near and dear to my heart, but shell-shaped pasta and was either boiled or fried…if you had it fried it was boiled a bit first and then sort of stir fried with vegetables and egg. Delicious. Being somewhat weight conscious, I rarely eat pasta when I’m home so it felt like an amazing gift to be able to order heaping mounds of macaroni for lunch and then again a few hours later for dinner. Completely guilt free greasy pasta – doesn’t get better than that.

Mountain Animals are Adorable

I’m the kind of person who says ‘awwww’ at nearly animal I see, and this trek was no exception! We saw so many animals that may have looked ordinary back home but when seen in their mountain habitat it was just a whole different level.

Baby goats: There were two of these cuties in Ghermu on our second night, and they were prancing around while staying close to mom, who sas tied up in a nearby shed with the food. I spent a lot of time watching them skitter across the path, climb up walls, race back to mom, and sleep curled up around each other in the garden.

Adult goats: We saw quite a few groups of them being herded along the trek, but my favorite sighting was of about one hundred of them being led across a suspension bridge. Some were trotting uniformly, some were pushing and shoving ahead of others, bells ringing, occasionally bleating and totally ignoring all the hikers on the path that had moved to the side to let them through.

Donkeys:  These passed us quite frequently, always carrying heavy loads of food, water, petrol or some other supplies that needed to make their way to the mountain villages. They all wore huge bells around their necks and brightly colored blankets or headgear and hearing them come from around the bend was always so festive – like sleighbells.

Yaks: Already on this trip I have become fond of ox, cows and buffalo and now I added yak to my list. Big and stocky with a curly mop of hair, yaks look very huggable even though apparently that’s not something you should attempt. My favorite sighting was one taking a drink of water from a faucet on the trail.

Dogs: Nearly every village we passed through was home to some mountain dogs. Usually a bit stubby legged, with a thick coat of fur, these dogs looked adorable but rugged.  Often found curled up on a step in the cold wind with bits of earth stuck in its fur, I was lucky enough to come across a few puppies along the way that were still mushballs of cuteness and hadn’t toughened up yet.

Sometimes Routines are a Relief

I’ll be the first to admit that one of the joys of traveling is the spontaneity you can have, and the last-minute decisions you can make to totally change course and stay longer/shorter somewhere, add a new destination, avoid another one, etc.  It’s something I find myself saying to others when they ask how I like travelling and tend to say things like “I love just making it up as I/we go along.” Well that’s true and that’s also false. It’s sometimes super nice to take a break from the constant planning and deciding and just get into a consistent routine that we could count on. That was part of the beauty of our trek.

Every day we’d wake up at 6am or so, put on the same clothes as the day before, pack our bags and head to the lodge’s dining room for a breakfast of tea, chapatti and boiled eggs. We’d eat quickly, focusing on fueling our bodies not enjoying the meal and then Jaya would head to our room to get the pack set for him. Usually we were on the trail by 7am and hiked about 4-5 hours, making it to the next teahouse by lunchtime. We’d drop our bags in our room, change out of hiking clothes into our spare ‘clean’ set (occasionally shower if there was hot water available but that happened maybe 5 times in our 20 day trek) and head to the communal dining room. We’d order lunch (Dal Bhat for Brandyn and Macaroni for me) and a large thermos of hot water which we used to make our own tea with bags that we’d brought. We’d play cards until our food came, eat, resume playing cards or reading or talking to fellow trekkers about their route and how they were feeling and what town they were stopping in next. We basically would try to kill time until around 5pm when we’d order dinner (macaroni for me again and either Dal Bhat or some veggie curry or veggie burger for Brandyn) and then continue to play cards and talk while huddling around the closest stove, and finally retire to our rooms by 7pm at the latest. We’d brush our teeth at some random cold outdoor faucet (or at a sink in the bathroom if we were lucky enough to have that) and then get fully clothed into our sleeping bags and fall promptly asleep, only to repeat the exact same thing the next day.

Seem dull? Well it wasn’t at all…the consistency of waking and sleeping at the same times every day, the timing or meals and the great daily exercise made us (well, me at least) feel quite balanced. And it really was a welcome relief to take a break from making the constant travel decisions that have come to define our life…where to spend the night, where to eat dinner, how best to get from point A to B, how much to pay for a particular item or tour, etc. Toward the end though we were starting to get desperate for our own time back, to veg in a hotel for a day, to watch a movie on a laptop, to eat SOMETHING DIFFERENT for breakfast. Turns out routines are a relief, but for us, they have a shelf life of about 20 days.

Slow and Steady Really Does Win the Race

Our route on the trek was planned out more or less in advance – meaning that we had a fair idea of how far we’d hike each day and what town we’d stay in, though we had the flexibility to change it if we wanted. This was dictated partly by Jaya’s experience and also by our need to ascend gradually to get our bodies used to the high altitudes that we would be getting into.  I got into a groove over the first few days and even though I hate hiking uphill I realized it was obviously necessary. The difficulties came as we got higher up…my legs by now were used to the steep climbs but it was my lungs that were not happy. I was getting out of breath after just a few steps and needed to stop and rest often. It was frustrating because Brandyn seemed immune to any of the altitude changes and could just bound up the hills and for Jaya of course it was effortless. My two lowest points happened during the climb to Tilicho Lake and the final ascent to Thorong La Pass. Both times I was so bundled up in clothing to guard against the cold that I didn’t feel limber, and I was taking these tiny baby steps then pulling up with my hiking poles and just repeating that again and again. Breathing was fairly regular, but deep and a few times I’d stop and just gasp in air again and again, trying to force as much oxygen as possible into me. Jaya was my cheerleader, telling me how it wasn’t so far left, how I needed to make it so I could take a picture at the top, etc. I was so conscious of how slow I was going and how slow time was going. I’d hike for 10 minutes and realize that I didn’t really cover too much ground. Sigh. Then, when we were almost up to the Pass my heart started hurting. “Hey Jaya! Is it normal to feel like someone is stabbing your heart with a knife?” “Okay!” was the reply so I babystepped on. The great thing was that I knew I was hydrated and hiking the right way and my slow and steady approach got me successfully both to Tilicho Lake (a beautiful turquoise lake that is about 5,000 meters high) and to Throng La Pass. Both times as soon as I reached my destination my breathing was totally normal again and I rewarded myself with tea and a snickers bar and thought to myself “that wasn’t so bad after all”.

Solitude + Hiking = Peace

This trek turned out to be the perfect time to do a lot of thinking. I tend to be a chatty hiker, but most of the time I was alone, with Brandyn way up ahead and Jaya somewhere behind me (sometimes directly on my heels but he was a quiet hiker too.) So I thought a lot…sometimes just taking in the beauty of all that was around me, sometimes trying to think about eventually going home and what type of job I may want to have, sometimes imagining how I’d react if there were a landslide (usually I would be a hero and save several people), sometimes thinking of every person I love and what exactly they might be doing at the moment I was hiking (usually sleeping).  I confronted not so pleasant memories too…I thought through all the semi-major decisions in my life in the past 10-13 years and where I may have taken the wrong path, and why. I tried to remember silly things, like how I spent New Years Eve for the past 5 years. I also thought through my favorite memories…I relived my wedding day. I relived meeting my nephew for the first time, and holidays at the Hermit Loj. It was actually very soothing. I have had a lot of downtime on this trip for sure, but often that’s on a bumpy bus ride or right before going to bed at night or while waiting for our meals to come, and it has been rare to have a long stretch of uninterrupted time when it’s truly quiet and peaceful and you can really just get comfortable with your thoughts. I wasn’t expecting that heading into this trek, but ended up really enjoying it.

I Have Much Admiration for Mountain People

As I mentioned, we decided to do this trek with a porter/guide who was carrying the bulk of our things on a big pack, while we each had a light daypack. There were many times while trekking when we would be huffing our way up a steep hill or carefully taking mincing sidesteps down a hill when we would be quickly passed by locals. Sometimes this was a group of schoolchildren in their uniforms and shoes (note: not hiking boots) literally running along the trail talking and laughing, or it was someone carrying a crates of chickens strapped to their bag, or it was a porter with 3 huge packs attached to a strap around his forehead, or it was simply men and women of the villages carrying huge bundles of grass or sticks or baskets of some type of food. It was just incredible the amount of weight they could carry and their surefootedness along the different terrain. They made it look effortless and made us look and feel like ridiculous, overdressed tourist trekkers. They really were amazing to watch – I have nothing but respect for the people of the Himalayas.

No Photos Will Ever Do Justice

We saw such stunning scenery on this trek and even though we tried to take pictures along the way, when I look back at them now they really don’t accurately represent what we were seeing. I suppose if we had a better camera it would’ve been different, but even given that, I don’t think it would’ve helped that much. The beauty was enhanced by our adrenaline, by the sounds we heard, and by our wonder at hiking through such an extraordinary place.  One day we’d be in thick forest that reminded me of my beloved Adirondacks and then we’d make our way through a village climbing over big stone steps, passing huts with vegetables drying on the roofs, little kids playing, colorful prayer flags flying, chickens squawking and dashing in front of us, and then suddenly we were plunged into quiet wilderness again and listening to the mighty Marsyangdi river follow us along. One of my favorite parts of the hike was walking from Upper Pisang to Bhraga on Day 7. The beginning was super difficult – gaining 420 meters in 5 km and I struggled through the switchbacks only to be rewarded by an incredible view.  Next we were on a (relatively) flat trail that wound around the mountain and everywhere I looked I saw beautiful rolling hills and greenery and then I’d turn my head a bit and these hulking, gleaming white mountains would be right there, literally looming over us (I think Annapurna II, III and IV). I’d stop and stare up, squinting against the glare and see what looked like little puffs of smoke coming off of the top and realize that was huge gusts of wind and snow. Can’t believe people have actually climbed those peaks. I’ve never been that close to mountains that big and I kept moving by head around while I hiked just stunned by what was around me. We stopped for a noodle soup snack along the trail, enjoyed with the mountains as a surreal backdrop. When I close my eyes I can re-live it all again perfectly in my head and can feel the wind whipping around the bends, smell the fresh scent of the air, and see the glowing mountains. Which may in fact, be better than a picture after all.

3 Comments + Add Comment

  • Awed by your insights, I’ve learned a great deal about Nepal and the Himalayas, thanks for taking the time to write about it. You look absolutely gorgeous and so healthy. Love following your adventures.

  • Cori this is amazing. Feel like I am reading an excerpt from a NYT bestseller. Thanks for enriching my day. Love it, love you and love the section “Solitude + Hiking = Peace”. Just think of how many people were also thinking about you in that moment…

  • You are incredible. I love you and love reading everything you write.

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