And We’re Off! Annapurna Circuit Part 1: Besi Sahar to Jagat

DSC07022I’ve been struggling a lot with how to write about our trek in Nepal, as each day was so different in terms of scenery and environment and emotion, yet the routine we followed was so similar. I always thought I might be able to summarize everything together in one go, but I think I’ve realized that the intense experience we felt at the end came about slowly and grew through each daily experience we had. So maybe trying to narrow all of these memories down into one summary just won’t work. Throughout these 20 days, we not only got to see and experience so much of Nepal’s physical beauty, we also had the pleasure of spending our time getting to know two really terrific Nepalese men – our guide Hari and our porter Devraj (really Dev was also a second guide). Through them, we learned so much about Nepalese culture, tradition, food, drink and people. And we shared so many highs and even a few lows (mainly brought about by my own emotional and physical anxiety) which gave us much to laugh and reminisce about in the end. When people ask us what has been our favourite experience on our trip, we always tell them that it was this time in Nepal. But when they ask “why,” I stumble over summarizing it in a short and quick sentence. It’s hard to explain. Each day was simple. All we had to do was wake up when Hari told us to, follow him wherever he brought us (ok, I mean, sometimes that was physically challenging), take as many pictures as we possibly could of the incredible scenery, listen to some Nepalese music being played on Hari or Dev’s cellphones, and then deal with what was usually the hardest part of the day…choosing which homemade meal to order for lunch or dinner. Other than that, we could always count on a good game of cards at some point during the day, and some kick-ass scenery surrounding us along the way. We really had it made. Having been tied at the hip to google maps, travelfish blogs and Lonely Planet guide books for the past 3 months, it was so mentally liberating to finally not have to worry anymore about planning what to do, where to go and where to sleep. We felt totally free.

So if you’ll bear with us, I’m going to start out with a day-by-day recount of our trek in Nepal, because my memories still remain fresh and vivid for now. Might get lazy later and string a few days together here and there.

Day 0 – Kathmandu to Besi Sahar

We woke up in the Karma Hotel in Kathmandu for an 8AM breakfast of hard boiled eggs and a bowl of granola topped with some of the best tasting curd (a.k.a. yogurt) that we’d had in a long time. Good dairy had been hard to come by in our trip, so we savoured this big time! Hari arrived at our hotel early, anxious to leave. We showed him the 60L backpack that Fanindra lent us the day before in which we’ve tried to pack only what’s absolutely necessary for the trek (we were up later than we wanted packing and re-packing our stuff). But with what we suspected was about 5kg alone allotted to the ridiculously heavy and bulky rented down jackets and sleeping bags that we’d been told we needed to have with us, this meant the bag was still pretty heavy. Hari seemed to think it would be ok, and offered to carry some of our stuff on his pack as well. We took a tiny little taxi along the dusty streets to the bus station where we piled into a “microbus” (i.e. a van crammed with way too many people) for the long 7+ hour drive. We had the last row of seats, and I was feeling pretty queasy the whole ride there. It was really hot out and I was worried about the box of chocolate bars that were sitting in the backpack which strapped to the roof of the bus. A few hours in we picked up Devraj along the way. We learned that Dev has just recently retired from the Nepalese army. Dev looks like he’s built like a tank. But then I also realized that he had his own backpack of belongings with him (how did we not think of that??) and we began to wonder how the heck he’s going to carry our massive pack and his own too. Guilt began to sink in. We stopped at some point for a roadside lunch of dhal bhat with fried fish. It was spicy but tasty. I decided that eating rice-based dishes with my hands is even harder than it looks. We eventually arrived in Besi Sahar – it’s a small town consisting mainly of one long, main street (well, that’s all we saw of it anyway). We dropped our stuff off in a little hotel room for the night, took a shower, went for a walk with Hari and Devraj, who we were really just beginning to get to know. We discovered that Devraj’s English is pretty good, though he definitely seemed a little bit more serious than Hari, who loves to joke around and laugh. We settled in for dinner back at our hotel. It was incredibly windy and dusty outside (the doors kept slamming every time there was a gust of wind), which made me a little bit nervous about what it would be like when we start our trek in the morning. Hari re-assured me it would be fine in the morning. He taught us how to play Rummy and we played our first card game with him and Dev. They both were fairly animated when playing, especially when they won – lots of Nepalese expletives which we didn’t understand (but would start picking up along the way). It’s pretty entertaining, and we suspected already that playing cards would become a daily occurrence for us. Jesse and I decided we would teach them how to play Euchre some time soon. We headed to sleep feeling excited for tomorrow.

Day 1 – Besi Sahar (760m) to Bahundanda (1310m)

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Much to my disappointment, there was no real marker or big flashy sign that tells you you’re about to start on the trail for the Annapurna Circuit. After breakfast, we followed Hari and Dev to the end of the main road in Besi Sahar and at one point it sort of just dips down and becomes a little more gravelly. That was pretty much the start for us. So we began our walk along this dusty, dirt road that follows the Marsyandi river, passing through small villages and learning to skirt to the side of the road whenever a jeep or bus (typically bursting with people) would pass by. The construction of this “road” is one that seems to have sparked much controversy among travelers in recent years, as it has – in most places – replaced the original walking trail that locals and trekkers used to follow to move from village to village. There are still many parts of the original trail which still exist (the road does not fully link the entire circuit yet), as well as alternate walking paths which jeeps and buses cannot access. But for us, the result seemed to just be a wider road to walk along in some parts and a little more dust to deal with whenever a vehicle passed us by. Hari did mention to us that the number of trekkers coming to do the Annapurna Circuit has dropped significantly since the construction of the road began, which of course is unfortunate for all the locals who depend on tourism for their income. Without really knowing what it was like before, nor feeling educated enough about the Nepalese government’s reasons for constructing the road to further comment, I’d say that generally it didn’t really bother me so much. The road itself certainly didn’t detract from the beautiful scenery around us, so if this is what the Annapurna Circuit is like today, then this is what we came here to experience!

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After about an hour and a half in, Hari told us we could take a break as he had to stop at the first registration check point. I purchased a lukewarm bottle of coca-cola at the little road-side stall near by, which I quickly decided would not be the best way to quench my thirst in the future. Here there was a much more official looking starting point with a map. We learned that many trekkers will take a jeep to this point to begin their trekking, but Hari re-assured us that we began at the “true” starting point. We also encountered a leather-clad Australian man who had plans to travel from Kathmandu to London on his motorcycle. We wished him luck and asked him to take a photo for us in front of the big sign. We continued on, passing by endless terraces, and watching many local children playing in the river while their mothers washed clothes near by.  It didn’t take long though for the mountainous scenery to appear before us, which reminded us why we came to Nepal to begin with. Hari told us that we were looking at the Manaslu mountain range (8th highest in the world) where 13 people had died just last year while trying to summit it. Then we traversed what would be the first of many rickety wooden suspension bridges back and forth along the river. We stopped for lunch in Ngadi, at a picturesque little restaurant overlooking the river, where we had a fantastic dal bhat followed by a long nap in the shade. Dev went to the kitchen and found me an empty jar to put my Tang powder in, and then we each took turns counting the number of teaspoons we’d mix in to make the perfect tasting sugary drink. This was our first opportunity to learn a little bit of Nepalese, so I got Hari and Dev to teach me how to count to ten in Nepalese (ek – dui – teen – chaar – panch – chha – saat – aath – nau – dus) which I then started to repeat in my head over and over to try and commit it to memory. DSC06970DSC06981DSC06983

After lunch it started to get hotter out, and we were certainly lacking shade most of the way. That’s when I decided how awesome my newfound headband was (purchased with Hari’s help in Kathmandu), which was both protecting my head from direct sun and soaking up all my sweat – brilliant! Even better Dev by coincidence had the exact same headband. Made for some great matching photos. We continued to pass by beautiful terraced hills, where corn and rice were being harvested. We ended our 6 hour trek with a long, tough up hill climb towards our final destination for the day, the village of Bahundanda. Funnily enough, our first impression was that it had an uncanny resemblance to some of the small villages we encountered in Greece, because many of the tea houses and buildings were painted in bright blue and white. Upon arrival at our tea house (Hari always chose where we would stay which suited us just fine!), we were served a nice cold glass of tart lemon drink which tasted awesome. Then after a well-needed shower, we met Hari and Dev for some drinks and a few rounds of Rummy. It didn’t seem like there were many other trekkers around, as we were the only ones staying at this particular tea house and we’d only encountered a few others all day. But it didn’t really bother us. We enjoyed watching the locals pass us by on their evening strolls with accompanying cows or goats. After dinner, we settled into our simple and cozy room for the night (which had a hilarious magazine cut out on the wall), read our kobos for a short while and then fell instantly asleep.

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Pretty good first day for us, I’d say. We could already tell that we were going to really love Nepal.

Day 2 – Bahundanda (1310m) to Jagat (1400m)

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We woke up for a 7:30AM breakfast of porridge with apple, sided by hard boiled eggs. This would become my standard breakfast for the rest of the trek, though Jesse always seemed to like and venture into trying other things (which typically weren’t as good). Even though we’d spent our last hour of trekking the day before climbing up a few hundred metres of elevation, we started today by tracing another path right back down towards the river. Our dependency on our fancy new trekking poles was becoming ever so much more strong, especially as we navigated the gravelly downhill slopes along these hills. Hari and Devraj, of course, both carrying much heavier packs than us needed no such support and seemed to glide effortlessly up and down these rocky slopes with more ease than we do on a flat surface.  They never seemed to take a bad step, which we certainly could not say for ourselves. Surrounding us all along the way were some pretty awesome terraced farm fields filled with rice, potatoes, corn and cabbage. We passed through the requisite charming villages, filled with cute kids and even cuter baby goats. We were following a much narrower footpath for the first part of the morning, and could see the main road across the valley from us in some parts.

DSC07031 DSC07035DSC07039After crossing the river again, we continued along the road and passed a few power stations under construction. Hari and Dev would always stop when we came across these sites. Much like Jesse, they both seemed quite excited and intrigued by large construction projects and liked to discuss how it was all being planned out, pointing out different things to each other while in animated conversation. We appreciated their “engineer”-iness very much. That’s when we learned that one of Dev’s specialties in the Nepalese army was actually explosives, and he promised to show us a part of the road later on along the circuit which he helped build.  After an all too short bit of flat walking, we started to head straight uphill again and then finally continued on the road overlooking the river valley to Jagat. By 12:30PM, we’d already arrived at our destination for the day. Hari arranged for us to have the corner room in our tea house with an incredible view of the surrounding landscape. This place even had a gas-heated shower, which was pretty luxurious and helped us finally feel clean again. Even though the sun made the daytime extremely hot, the evenings really cooled down with some strong breezes, which was a nice contrast for us. Finally I had an opportunity to pull on those merino wool long johns I’d been lugging around in my backpack all trip! That night turned out to be the Nepalese New Year, so Hari and Dev bought us a round of drinks and Pringles to celebrate. We contributed some of our chocolate bars as well.  I headed out to a small shop in the village to buy a notebook so Hari and Dev could write down some Nepalese phrases for me to learn.  Hari labeled the front cover “Andrea Chan – Nepal Trekking.” My first sentence? “Malai bhok la gyo” which translates to “I’m hungry!” We closed out the evening with several raucous rounds of cards out on the patio before heading to bed. Hari told us we would head out early the next morning.DSC07041 DSC07061 DSC07072

Actual Travel Dates: April 11 – 13, 2013

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