About the Trek
Located in the dead centre of the Nepal Himalaya, the Annapurna Circuit trek is a spectacular experience, and possibly one of the best hiking adventures in the world. The stunning scenery, variety of animals, convenient food and board, great exercise and plentiful sunshine all combine into a memorable experience, usually backed up by 2000 photos.
The 160 kilometre trek can be done in about three weeks, although for the speedy types the option of flying out of the town of Jomsom on the far side of the Thorung La pass shaves the distance to about 100km and the time down to 14-16 days or so, even less if one is already acclimatized, or wants to recklessly disregard proper acclimatization schedules.
Starting at tropical low elevations, the path takes one through the temperate, sub-alpine, and eventually alpine zones. The high parts of the trek are behind the Grand Barrier of the Himalaya, which prevents moisture from making its way north, and means there are several days of hiking through a high-altitude desert. Then there is a huge descent back into the tropics. Wrapping your head around the sheer diversity of scenery is next to impossible without actually being there.
When to Go
The absolutely best month is October, although plenty of good trekking can be done in September and November. September might be subject to some late monsoonal rain, in which case you may want to do the bulk of the trekking in the mornings, as the rain tends to roll in in the afternoon. This also is the season for leeches, so watch out. November, on the other hand, will be significantly colder, especially at the high elevations, and some years the pass gets completely snowed-in, causing delays, and in some extreme cases, turnarounds.
There is a second trekking season in Spring, notably March and April, but in my personal experience this time of the year is not as spectacular as Fall as the lower elevations are not as green and lush as at other times of the year, although the peaks might be beautifully snow-covered. Unfortunately, this is the time of the year when you will most certainly be breaking through a big pile of snow at the pass, and so you better be fit as hell. Avalanche danger is significant at this time of the year.
Some trekkers show up in the summer months, but those invariably come with the monsoon, which will make for a sloppy hike, while the tiny number of hardcores who show up in winter have to brave severe weather, reduced availability of certain goods and services (less traffic in the off season means less stuff is brought in from the lowlands), and, quite often, an impassable Thorung La.
For a visual sample of the trek, head to youtube and enjoy “Himalaya – Annapurna Circuit”, a production dating back to 2009 when myself and 3 of my friends slogged for nearly 3 weeks along roughly 100km of trails, which resulted in this 8-part, 1 hour and 20 minute long video series:
What To Expect
Nepal is a 3rd world nation. As such, the infrastructure is basic, water/electricity unreliable, transport can be relatively unsafe and quite uncomfortable. The trek is through the least developed parts of this under-developed nation, so don’t expect much in the way of comfort. Some restaurants/lodges go out of their way to make things comfortable, and you will be pleasantly surprised, but those are the unusual occurrences in the land so don’t take them for granted.
On the trek, most of the food will be quite basic. Although in the recent years a marked improvement was seen in the quality and variety of food available to foreigners visiting the trails, you are still looking at mostly rice and potato-based dishes with protein coming mainly from eggs and lentils, all prepared on scarce propane stoves (which takes time), in kitchens that, with few notable exceptions, would immediately fail even the most rudimentary of health inspections in the West.
Similarly, accommodation is quite basic. Simple stone-and-wood houses, cabin-like rooms with two beds and a window, shared toilets, no showers above 3500 metres (not that you would want to shower in the cold anyway), often lumpy mattresses, and interestingly stained pillows make for an adventure, more so if you are a germophobe. If you know what you are geting into (and prepare accordingly), all of these things actually add to your experience, and you will etch the whole thing into your memory as one of the best things you have done in your entire life.
Things are changing, however. A road is being built as I type these words, connecting more and more villages to the outside world. This raises the standard of life for the locals and increases the comfort for foreign visitors, but it also, quite inevitably, changes the feel of the area, and in a few years it may not be such a great getaway as it has been in the past. Come with an open mind, but prepare to open your wallet.
Getting to Nepal will be the single biggest expense for you, unless you are already in the region as part of a bigger backpacking trip. Flights from US/Canada will set you back between $1,500 and $2,000 while a return flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu can be purchased for as little as $300. Many backpackers exploring India choose to visit Nepal as an add-on, which is possibly the best idea ever if already in the region. Once in Kathmandu, you will need some time to organize yourself, which could be as quick as one day, or, if you turn up with no gear, several days of shopping. Luckily, hotels in Thamel, the main backpacker area, are fairly cheap, ranging from 300 to 1000 Nepali rupees per night. Similarly, food is not very expensive, especially if you eat local fare.
Before you head to the trail head you will need to sort out the trekking permit and a T.I.M.S. (Trekker Information Management System) card. These are simply Nepali government’s methods of making money on trekkers (about 2000 rupees) without providing any service, but you can’t skip this step. For a fee, it can be done for you by any travel agency in Thamel, or, if you have the time and don’t have the money, you can do it yourself. Ask around how to get to the Tourist Service Centre, don’t forget your passport and a photo.
If you need gear, the good thing is things are very cheap in Kathmandu, especially if you are not fussy about quality. If you already have a sleeping bag and a backpack, you can get fully kitted out for between $130 and $150. Backpacks, sleeping bags, parkas, trekking poles, and some other stuff can be locally rented, which also helps.
Once you get onto the trail, the total cost will be somewhere around $800 for 3 weeks. While lodging gets cheaper (and more basic) up there, food has to be carried up there, usually on someone’s head, and so you pay for it. Simple dishes that would set you back 50 rupees in Kathmandu suddenly sell for 300 rupees up there, but that’s just business.
If you are frugal, you can do it quite cheap. If you like to blow money, the sky is the limit: people charter helicopters to bring them into Manang, and then pull them out of Jomsom. You can eat fancy meals, or stick with basic local fare. You can stay in very simple accom, or spring for places with hot showers. You can update your Facebook status every other day, or just totally unplug.
For some details of the expenses, you can watch the “Nepal Details” series on Monkeetime where I hand out quite bit of info about the trek.
[Note: These videos were shot in 2009. Prices and logistics change. Don’t take this as backpacking gospel, rather, as a rough guide.]
You should be fit. Not just for this trek, but in general, you should try to maintain yourself in a shape other than beach ball. You will find that the trek will be much easier on you if you do. I maintain a steady regimen of exercise incorporating plenty of weights and aerobic workouts, which means I have a much easier time of it. Still, for a few months before the trip, a few times a week I load up my backpack with rocks and go hiking. Anything is better than nothing, and you seriously will be in a lot of trouble if you think that you can do 100-160 km without any preparation.
Aside of fitness stuff, you should decide on a few things. Do you want insurance? (I don’t have any, but if you get injured, you definitely want to be flown out to Hongkong to Singapore) Did you buy your air tickets? (The earlier the better) Who are you going with? (Choose your friends carefully, or you will ruin your trip) Trekking group or solo? Do you need a porter? Do you need a guide? If you think you need a guide, how do you know you are getting your money’s worth?
Here are some of my thoughts:
I guess I am a bit reckless and have no insurance. I compensate by trying not to get into shit. By “trying” I mean not just talking about not getting into trouble, but actually doing things that reduce the chances. I never drink, which prevents stumbling into crap and knocking teeth out, or worse, getting stabbed in a dodgy bar. That is something to consider when backpacking, and particularly important when on the trek: a small inconvenience at sea level can quickly escalate into a full-blown emergency at altitude, so don’t be a muppet.
You shouldn’t get too banged up if you don’t do anything stupid, but if you do, here are your options: helicopter evacuation, which will cost anywhere between $3000 and $5000. I would say, stay away rom that one, so the higher you go, the more careful about everything you should be. If you end up with a minor sprain, just stay where you are for a few days, and then make your way back down. If it is something more serious, you can always pay for a yak or mule to ride out on. This option is not super cheap, but much cheaper than the heli. By the time you break a femur or puncture a lung, you have no choice but to fly out, and at that point without insurance you are screwed. BUT, make sure your insurance covers trekking and such, otherwise they will weasel out of payments.
Who do you go with?
Bring a friend. Bring two friends. It is much more fun with other people, as it can be a very social experience in the evenings, sitting around the lodges, yakking about stuff, making up tall tales of mountain conquest. Pure bliss… UNLESS your friend is a sad pussy who complains about blisters and the coffee and the bed and the pillow and the dirt and the wind and STFU! Choose your friends carefully for this trip because if they go stupid on you halfway through, that is a long time to spend with a bringdown. You’d be better off going by yourself, an then just meeting people there. When pitching the trek idea to friends mention the hard facts: It is long. It is arduous. It is dirty. It is cold. It is hot. It is sweaty. It doesn’t have Starbucks. There won’t be showers for many days. Someone is bound to get the shits. The food will be fairly basic. No internet. No taxi. Are you sure?
Trekking group or solo?
If you cannot round up any friends after that previous shpeel about how tough the trek will be, you could either go solo and make it all about zen and introspection, team up with random other trekkers and see if you like them, if not, dump them, OR join a trekking group. There are plentiful trekking companies in Kathmandu and Pokhara, as well as various parts of the Internet, that will be more than happy to organize something for you. But there is a problem with them: they always overemphasize the beauty of it, and hardly ever mention illness, discomfort, and annoyance. If you are jammed into a group of 20 French hikers, someone is bound to be unhappy, and someone else is bound to be a drama queen, and one way or another, there goes your solitude. My biggest beef with group trekking is the loss of flexibility: you like a place and want to stay an extra day.. FORGET IT! You get sick and want to recover for a day or two… FORGET IT!! They will medicate you and off you go hiking. Not fun.
Having said that, some groups are very competent, and offer a very different experience from solo trekking. Well trained and highly skilled guides add greatly to your experience as they can explain what you are looking at, ad spice things up with interesting stories and anecdotes. If things go wrong, they know how to deal with it, and they ensure the smoothes possible experience. Unfortunately, just because a trekking agency in Kathmandu has a big shiny website, it doesn’t mean that they know what the hell they are doing, and in those instances you are paying more for less. I have seen many groups doing silly things, going too high too fast, pressuring themselves unnecessarily, running amok on the mountainsides.
Guides and Porters
Many people do not join a big group, but don’t go solo. Instead, they hire a porter and a guide. I definitely have a bag of mixed feelings about this. I have met many 20-somethings with porters, which makes me laugh: why the hell are you not carrying your own crap, you puss? Anyone under 40 should be capable of carrying their own crap, unless they are doing some specialized activity like diving in Tilicho Lake near Manang, or going up Gangapurna. If you can’t carry it, bring less! On the other hand, there are plenty of adventurous 60-somethings (and a few 70-somethings) who want to do this, have the right attitude, but unfortunately their bodies are not cooperating. In my head, porters are fine for them.
Guides… Another bag of feelings there. Some are highly competent, fun people, while others are dog shit. I ran into many “guides” who had no clue where they were, what elevation they were at, or have never heard of things like AMS (more about this later) and how to deal with it… Staggering incompetence. Just because they are Nepali, it doesn’t mean they automatically can be mountain guides. Training and experience make a Himalayan guide, not merely brown skin and a Nepali passport. I personally never felt like I needed a guide, because the paths are easy to follow, and you can always find out what you are looking at by scanning through your Lonely Planet. Only truly experienced guides will have something to offer you, some knowledge, ability to arrange accommodation ahead of time, and so on. Search carefully.
If your guide is just walking with you, barely able to communicate, and his only functions are bringing you a cup of tea in the morning and then sending you on the easy low path instead of the harder but spectacularly scenic high path, then he is nothing but an overpriced impediment. In that case you are rewarding shoddy service and raising costs for everyone else. Keep in mind that incompetence is not limited to Nepali guides: plenty of westerners pose as guides but in reality also have received limited (if any) training, thus endangering your life with the only benefit of reduced language barrier. Don’t do it, unless you are terrified of hiking alone, or have some sort of disability that would make having another person with you a basic necessity.
Ok.. Back to the trek talk.
Go slow. That is single biggest piece of advice I can give. I spend a lot of time in the mountains, and keep a very active fitness schedule throughout the year, and I still take my time on the trek. Unnecessarily fast pace will leave you sore at best, but may result in twists and sprains, which could mean the end of your adventure. Then, once you get to about 2,500 metres above sea level you get a new foe to worry about. At that elevation and above, atmospheric pressure is so low that you are no longer getting enough oxygen to support normal bodily functions. In layman’s terms, things go out of balance, and you develop a complex of problems collectively known as Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS. Breathlessness is the norm in these places, and every time you do anything physical you quickly “run out of steam”. However, if you go too high too quickly, you may get into a world of trouble.
Acute Mountain Sickness primarily consists of weakness, loss of appetite, insomnia, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting. Other symptoms reported by a minority of trekkers include pins and needles, nosebleeds, drowsiness, general malaise, and, even more rarely, peripheral edema (swelling of hands and feet). This cluster occurs between 2,500 and 3,500 metres, but some people will start feeling some of the symptoms at elevations as low as 2,000 metres above sea level, while others will not be affected at all.
Once at very high altitude, between 3,500 and 5,500 metres, AMS can progress to more severe symptoms, which come in two separate clusters with different names: High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), a buildup of fluid in the lungs, and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) which is a swelling of the brain. Pulmonary edema has symptoms similar to bronchitis, persistent dry cough, frothy pink sputum, fever, and, most notably, shortness of breath even at rest. Cerebral edema is characterized by a headache that does not respond to analgesics,increased nausea, unsteady gait, gradual loss of consciousness, retinal hemorrhage, loss of coordination, bowel and bladder dysfunction, confusion, and paralysis on one side of the body. Both HAPE and HACE will result in death if the affected person isnt immediately taken to a lower elevation (minimum descent of 500 metres, preferably 1000m).
If it sounds bad, that’s because it is. Luckily, only a small number of people get into serious trouble, and an even smaller number die. The fact that you are reading this already puts you in a safer category because now you know that there is a potential for trouble and that there is something that you need to do.
The headache is very common, to the point that just about everyone on the trek will experience some head sensation. It may start in the afternoon, get quite persistent throughout the rest of the day, and then, in the morning, you wake up and realize that is is *POOF!*, gone! This is a normal part of acclimatization. You push yourself up a mountain, drive up the oxygen demand little bit beyond what is available, and then, while resting, your body systems are slowly playing a game of Catch Up. The key is in allowing the catching up. The standard rules of ascent are as follows:
1. Do not climb more than 300-400 metres a day, once above 3,000 m. This means, you can go as fast as you wish up to 3,000 metres, but once there, SLOW DOWN.
2. Climb high, sleep low. This is particularly applicable to true mountaineers, not so much to hikers, but the mechanism is this: You go up higher than the elevation you will sleep at, which lightly shocks your body into producing more red blood cells, but then you descend a few hundred metres where you spend the night. Next day you go up again, this time you go higher than previous day’s high point, shock again, then sleep at a new, higher elevation. While on the trek, odds are you will be too knackered to keep going to these higher elevations, but if you do little “acclimatization hikes” on rest days, it should help you get physiologically prepared for the very high elevations to come.
3. Take rest days. After days of hiking at high elevations, odds are that at some point you had a climb greater than the maximum of 3-400 metres. Taking a rest day reduces the average rate of climb, and allows your body to “catch up”. These are particularly important if you suddenly arrived at high elevations, say, by a heli into Manang. Rest day, however, doesn’t have to mean “do-nothing-day”: go for a hike, climb up to a ridge, explore, have fun, snap some photos. Rest if you really are knackered, but first check if you are not just being a pussy.
4. Drink lots of water. You need to drink plenty of water, and you need to stay away from booze. Dehydration exacerbates the effects of altitude, and the thin, dry air of the Himalaya is very good at stealing your moisture, as is binge drinking. Naturally, don’t overdo the hydration bit, or you risk “over-hydrating” and ending up with hyponatremia. Four litres a day should be good.
If you got carried away and worked your way into AMS, just stop and rest. Take an analgesic, and don’t worry, there are plenty of beautiful lodges to spend your headachy and queezy day, and then you can move on a day or two later. You can take 250 mg of acetozolamide (Diamox) twice a day – this drug deepens the breathing, which gives you a better shot of oxygen. Some start taking it before the onset of symptoms, with the dosage being between 125 and 250 mg twice a day starting about 24 hour before ascending. Keep in mind that Diamox comes with an annoying side effect of pins-and-needles in your hands and feet, and a reduced aerobic performance. If you are one of the few unlucky people who progress into HAPE or HACE, there are some medical treatments: Dexamethasone for HACE and Nifedipine for HAPE. It gets much too complicated at that point, and the best way of dealing with it is not getting sick in the first place, so GO SLOW and monitor your symptoms.
Some trekking groups are equipped with Gamow Bags, which are portable plastic hyperbaric chambers. Operated by a foot pump, they are used to reduce the effective altitude by as much as 1,500 metres. Used as an aid in evacuation, these bags are generally not available to single trekkers, except at the Himalayan Rescue Association’s post in Manang. Do pay them a visit when you arrive as they do a very informative lecture about AMS every day at 3PM. You learn, you know, you don’t get sick.
What to Pack
If careful with packing, one can get away with a backpack weighing as light as 10-12 kg. While it doesn’t seem that little, keep in mind that the hike starts at the tropical 800 metres of elevation, and then progresses all the way to the alpine 5,416 metres above sea level. One day you are sweating like a pedophile in a playground, and then a few days later you are freezing. This means that you have to bring clothing for all weather.
Over the years I have visited Annapurna 4 times, and developed certain habits and preferred ways of doing things. Here is a list of what I usually bring on Annapurna:
Large (84 litre because I bring a lot), comfortable backpack with a quality harness – ensure that the bulk of the weight is resting on your hips, otherwise you will have two very sore shoulders at the end of day 1.
Cold weather, down-filled sleeping bag, rated to at least -7 degrees Celsius. It gets very cold in the upper bits, and if it isn’t, you simply don’t have to zip it all the way up. Down is a very good insulator, and these bags pack very small.
A water-resistant / water-proof compression sack for the sleeping bag – keep your bag clean and dry. If you are not keen on wet sleeping bags, a good idea is to have a plastic liner (garbage bag) inside the compression sack, in case the waterproofing is compromised. When sleeping, I stuff this one with some garments and fashion into a pillow.
Telescoping trekking poles: help keep your balance towards the end of the day when you are tired, wobbly and more likely to sprain things. Also make it easier to jump over puddles and small creeks. The far side of the Thorung La pass is a huge 1,600 metre descent, and you definitely will want to use poles to save your knees.
A down filled parka of some sort, not so much for the hiking but for sitting around and chilling out. As soon as the sun disappears behind a cloud or a rock, your body heat disappears surprisingly fast up there. Once the sun sets, it is like Arctic up there, and you will freeze without proper clothes.
If the parka is not covered with a good waterproof/water resistant membrane, then a rain jacket of some sort would be a good thing to throw over the top if you get into the snow zone. Alone, the jacket will do you good in lower elevations.
A pair of zip-away quick dry trousers for hiking. The zip-away bit is very important because the first 3-4 days are in tropical heat, and the next 3-4 days are cold in the mornings, turning hot about 15 minutes into the hike: you will want the ability to adjust to the changing temperatures. The quick dry quality allows you to wash them if they become too soiled for your liking, and have them ready for you in a couple of hours.
Some sort of membrane shell to wear over the pants on rainy / windy / cold days.
I love fleece. A snug-fitting fleece top, and a pair of fleece pants will feel great.
Under the fleece, I like some sort of quick dry long underwear. Both top and bottom.
A few (2-3) pairs of merino wool underwear.
4 or 5 pairs of good quality hiking socks. I love SmartWool. Some people go with only 2 pairs or so, but I have a unique ability to turn socks into biological / chemical weapons after a day of wear, so 5 it is.
Light fleece gloves (for low elevations) – it all be a bit nippy in the mornings after day 6 or so, but not nippy enough for anything more substantial.
Big fat “Winter-in-Canada” mittens – this is my personal preference, as I get cold hands. With mitts I find it comfy on even the coldest of days. You make your own decisions, maybe regular ski gloves might be enough for you.
Big fat “Winter -in-Canada” hat – it will get cold. And windy. And cold. All kinds of fat hats can be bought in Kathmandu, but whatever you buy, make sure it is fleece-lined.
Neck tube – Protect your neck/chin on those windy days. Keeps dust, sand, pebbles, and sparrows out of your piehole.
Quick dry T-shirts (2) – At the start you will be in a lot of heat, and so two T-shirts will be good for you – wear one while the other one dries on your backpack.
Water treatment system. Biological water contamination is common in Nepal, and the last thing you want at 4000 metres is a case of shits. Either bring a SteriPen UV water treatment system, chlorine drops, or iodine pills. I have used iodine pills quite extensively, and while cheap and easily purchased in KTM, at this point I dread the taste. Chlorine drops are a bit better, but pricier. You SteriPen won’t change the flavour, but be careful because they break easily. UV treated water can be purchased at many different sites for reasonable price. If not, you can purchase bottled water, but this is ill-advised: the cost will be high, and there is no effective waste disposal in these areas, meaning you will be contributing to the ever-growing mountain of plastic bottles. Alternately, you can buy boiled water from lodges, but this may get pricey, and you’ll depend on the innkeepers good will that the water was actually brought to a boil.
Water bottles or some sort of hydration device – I like Nalgene bottles, and hate CamelBacks. Nalgenes are easy to clean, durable, and idiot proof. Also, you can fill them with hot water, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, juice, whatever. CamelBacks are water-only, unless you like mold. They also seem to change the flavour, which i don’t care for at all. The flip side is that CamelBacks are super easy to access, the water “is just there”, which translates into consistent hydration. If you are a strong fella and wish to be fancy, you could bring a thermos. Sort of useless for the first few days, but once you get into the cold areas you will love the hot coffee/tea/hot chocolate in the middle of nowhere. The drawback is that they add to the weight.
Mole Skin – if you think you will end up getting blisters, apply Mole Skin to the affected areas (hot spots) to reduce friction. Pick up a few strips at home or in Kathmandu.
Duct tape – if you don’t have mole skin, same result can be achieved by taping your feet.
EAR PLUGS – someone somewhere is bound to be snoring or making some sort of unnatural noise at 3AM, and you will write me a personal “thank-you” note for telling you this. I bring several pairs.
Torch (flashlight) / head lamp – Electricity can be unreliable anywhere in Nepal (even Kathmandu, the capital city, is on a regular schedule of blackouts). Your midnight trip to the outhouse could easily turn into an overwhelming adventure if it suddenly got dark, with results ranging from poop on your shoes to a sprained ankle. Bring a good LED torch or headlamp, and either a few sets of batteries, or a charger.
Altimeter watch – This one is not at all necessary, but it is a fun device to have, and you should bring yours if you have it anyway. It is nice to know what your progress up a mountain is, and of course you find out what you peaked out at, and that equals bragging rights.
Sunglasses – most people these days have sunglasses, so it is odd to remind you here, but the importance of a good pair of well-fitted, UV filtering sunglasses cannot be overstated. High up in the mountains you are getting a massively high dose of UV and you don’t want to burn your eyes. Make sure you don’t have a crappy Chinese pair that only gives you a raccoon tan. I personally like close-fitting wraparound types as they don’t allow light to get in through the sides, and also keep the dust away from the good old blinkies.
SUNSCREEN – Jesus Christ, YES! When you get to Kathmandu you will meet heaps of silly trekkers who just finished their adventuring in the mountains and are severely burned, with half their faces falling off. Cover up with sunscreen, and, my personal favourite, throw some zinc on your nose. Thank me later.
Camp towel, soap, shampoo – Hiking in the low parts will generate a lot of sweat which you will want to wash off, although once you get to 3500-4000 metres you will not even think about showers…
Jandals / flip-flops / thongs (in the Australian sense, not American, unless you are cute and will send photos) – Get out of your boots, and wear these around the village. Also nice to wear in the shower, especially if you are not keen on fungus and plantar warts.
Foot powder – help keep your feet dry, preventing blisters and fungal problems. Throw some inside your boots when drying.
Snacks – there was a time on the Annapurna trek when people brought their favourite snacks, candy bars, trail mix, and so on, because it was not available. Nowadays, every brand of chocolate bar, every snack, chip, soft drink, gum… everything seems available, although interestingly priced. If you have some specific snack you like, bring it. Or just bring money. I always bring brownies, that’s my vice, leave me alone!!
First Aid Kit
Things will happen. Bring some stuff.
A lot of trekkers end up with food poisoning of one type or another, and it is a good idea to talk to your doctor and get some Ciproflaxicin (an antibiotic used for gastrointestinal infections). Pricey in Canada/US, Cipro can be purchased over the counter in Kathmandu for about 50 rupees (less than a dollar) per blister-pack of 10. Don’t take the pills for just any case of food poisoning: try to get over it the good, old-fashioned natural way, and only if you develop a fever, have blood in your stool, or the whole thing is dragging out for several days. Once you start, continue with the whole battery of treatment for 5 days.
Although I have not had it in Nepal, giardiasis is reportedly rife in the region, so a treatment’s-worth of Metronidazole might be a good idea. Pick it up in KTM, much cheaper.
Whatever is causing “the shits”, you might also want to have some gut-blockers, just in case you don’t have the option of staying where you are, and hiking can be difficult if you have to poop every 15 minutes. Bring Imodium (Loperamide), but don’t take it unless you HAVE to be away from a toilet for a number of hours, as you might actually want to get rid of the contents of your gut instead of holding onto them.
You might want to have a few days’ worth of Diamox (Acetazolamide) to prevent or treat AMS. While I personally prefer not to (the side effects can be very annoying), and instead have a very slow ascent with many rest days, you could start taking these pills when you get to about 3000 metres. Cheap in KTM (120 rupees per pack).
Oral rehydration salts – If you got the shits, or if you simply forgot to drink enough water, you might want to rehydrate with the use of electrolyte powder. Bring a few pouches.
Other items that you may consider include iodine drops or alcohol swabs for cuts, bandages, plasters, tweezers for pulling out thorns and such, and whatever else you think you will need. I don’t usually bring these to save weight, and I try to prevent cuts by not being too much of an assclown in the mountains. Vast majority of injury can be prevented by thinking, staying sober, and having a light at night. On the serious side of the spectrum, if you get nailed in the head by a rock falling off a cliff, your first aid kit better contain a helicopter, or you are screwed.
There will be slow days. You will want to have something to occupy yourself on those. Here are a few ideas regarding what to bring when blue skies and IMAX vistas are not enough:
Camera – Jesus, yes, do bring it. Holy shit. It is a crime against humanity to do this trek and not have a bunch of photos. Don’t forget the charger, and a few extra memory cards. You could easily lose control and snap 2-3 thousand photos, which is way too much, but it happens. If short on memory, go through the photos and delete the crappy ones during downtime at the lodge.
Lens cleaning kit – it will be dusty. Very dusty. You’ll need it.
MP3 player – You will love music in your ears, especially if hiking solo. Sometimes it is nice to hear the wind, but sometimes some good beats really pump you up. If your MP3 player is actually an iPhone/iPod, then throw a few movies on for rest days, or lazy afternoons in lodges. DONT forget the charger.
If you are in a team, consider bringing an external speaker, but don’t be one of those assholes who play their music so loud that people in the next room have to hear it. Watching a movie with friends is awesome, but doing it too loud at 11PM when others are knackered and trying to sleep is asking for an asskicking. If you have the money and the will to carry it, an iPad is nice. But then, you have to decide if you want movies, music, and games, or if you want to just enjoy the mountains. But do keep in mind that there will be plenty of down time, and you are most likely not a monk.
Book – Pick one up in Kathmandu. Pilgrims Book House in Thamel has plenty of stuff to choose from, and you definitely will appreciate it out there. I suggest it isn’t anything too heavy as you will be the one schlepping it around the Himalaya, and preferably something very enjoyable. A really neat idea is bringing a number of books on your e-reader: I bring my Kindle, loaded to the titties with all sorts of books: Lonely Planet, stuff about local fauna/flora, some history, as well as other crap not related to Nepal. Good times.
Bringing all these electronic devices means you need to charge them all. Some lodges have plugs in the rooms, others don’t. Many want you to pay for usage. This may seem like a scummy way to travel, but when the lodge owners charge an extortionate 300 rupees per hour of charging, a good idea is to pick up a light-socket-to-power-plug adapter in Kathmandu. It is a simple device that has a lightbulb-type contact on one side, and a regular electric socket on the other – you take out the lightbulb, screw this one in, put the lightbulb back in, but now you have a perfectly good plug to connect your stuff to. If you are using this, a good idea is to get a light extension cord so that all your chargers and devices are not hanging from one lamp.
A note about buying gear: A lot of stuff you find in Nepal is very low quality knockoff stuff that will fall apart just when you don’t want it to. You will want to ensure that your shoes and backpack are top performers, because they will experience a lot of wear and tear, and you need them to work 100%. Most of the footwear you will find in Nepal will be low-quality Chinese stuff which will not feel very good, and, at worst, will come apart once it gets cold and wet. To avoid blisters, you should buy your boots months earlier and make sure they are well broken in before you venture out into the mountains. Same goes for backpacks.
Garments, on the other hand, are much lower tech, and while it is nice to get some late-model GoreTex gear, if you are not fussy, you can save yourself a good bundle by shopping in Kathmandu. Fleece tops, shirts, trousers, and the like can be bought for half the price or better. Parkas, which can be quite costly in the West, can be bought especially cheap in Kathmandu (2000-6000 NPR), so this is definitely the one purchase that you are better off making once you arrive in Nepal.
Relatively low-tech telescopic trekking poles can be bought for as low as 400 rupees each, and they will do just fine, though you shouldn’t expect years of service. Western models can go into high thousands, which, in my opinion, is a high price for a stick.
How to Go
The circuit trek is best done in the counter-clockwise direction. This is due to the fact that Thorung La pass is a huge hump, and if done in this way, you have several options for acclimatization stops and accommodation. If done in the clockwise fashion, the trekkers face a 1,600 metre ascent after leaving the village of Muktinath, which makes for a very long day and very poor acclimatization schedule.
The trail head is in Besi Sahar. In order to get there, take a Kathmandu-Pokhara bus (easily arranged by any travel agency in Thamel, cost around 350 rupees), and approximately 5 hours later get off in the town of Dumre. From here you can take a bus to Besi Sahar (90 rupees, 2 hours), although unscrupulous local operators will insist that there is no bus and that you should take a taxi. This is bullshit, wait for the bus, but make sure you don’t get scammed by the bus crew who love to overcharge foreigners. Pay what everyone else is paying, not a penny more (for more about responsible backpacking click here).
Where to go? There is a variety of ways of doing this. If you have heaps of time, then you have no rush. You could spend an extra day in just about every village, really snoop around, get to know the place. Fun. My idea of trekking is to arrive at a place, unwind, explore, really get to know the are, all the nooks and crannies, way beyond the standard-issue backpacker’s experience of lunch, photo, and hiking out.
Of course, to each their own, and most trekkers seem to be more wound up. I recommend hiking about 5-6 hours a day (even less at altitude), so that you don’t destroy yourself and take away all enjoyment. Do most of the hiking in the mornings, and then in the afternoons explore the village you are staying in. Of course, the actual amount of hiking will depend on your will and ability: I can cover an amazing distance before lunch. A 75 year old trekker might want to go from village to village and then make decisions about where to go. Luckily, there seems to be a lodge every hour or so in all except the highest of places.
The schedule that I usually follow looks something like this:
Day 1: Besi Sahar to Bahundanda – the first day is most challenging, because that’s when you are discovering that the straps are digging into places you don’t want straps digging into. The boots feel funny, you are hot, you are sweaty, and you are suddenly aware of muscles you didn’t really know that you had. But it has to be done. Although not a huge day, it will feel huge, especially with the final approach to Bahundanda, which is on a big hill. You COULD break up this first day into two shorter days and stay overnight in the village of Bhulbule. If you got the time.
Day 2: Bahundanda to Chamje – First thing in the morning you will have the demotivational descent out of Bahundanda. The feeling is “WTF are we going down if we have to go up to 5,416 metres!?!?!”. Well, this is the topography, deal with it. This day has some really impressive cliff hiking, and a pretty big suspension bridge spanning the Marsyangdi. Unfortunately, just like the first day, before you get to Chamje, you have a huge ascent, but the views of the cliffs, eagles, and waterfalls should make up for your bruises and aches.
Day 3: Chamje to Bagarchap – The first part is easy, and quite beautiful: gentle descent towards the river, another huge bridge over the Marsyangdi, some level hiking among some huge boulders, a bit of an ascent, then some beautiful cliff hiking… Until you get to a huge moraine which you have to climb, pass the village of Tal, cross the Marsyangdi again, have a huge climb, a descent, another climb, another descent, and then arrive at Bagarchap, knackered. Once again, you could stop in Tal, which is a very pleasant village with plenty of accommodation options and tremendous views.
Day 4: Bagharchap to Chame – The day starts with a huge ascent, several suspension bridges, some wonderful forest hiking, countless prayer walls and temples, and then a rolling path into Chame which is located at the bottom of a steep gorge. It will start getting nippy at this point, but the wonderful thing about Chame is that it is superbly stocked with all the wonderful things a hiker might want to buy: chocolate bars, tuna cans, Skittles, Choco-Pies, and other wonders. But try not to overdo it, fatty.
Day 5: Chame to Lower Pisang – This day is a treat. Spectacular cliffs, first views of the Annapurnas, more bridges, a huge uphill struggle, a forest hike, a tremendous view of the quarter-pipe like Paungda Danda, and then a long approach to Lower Pisang, a sunny village at the foot of a glacier.
Day 6: Rest Day in Pisang – no guidebook recommends a rest day here, which is a shame. Not only is it good for acclimatization, but also there is some great exploring to do in both Lower and Upper Pisang (about 200 m higher), which is home to a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist temple. If you are feeling particularly energetic, you can go for a hike to the Pisang Peak Base Camp, which is at about 5000 metres – this is as good as it gets for a while! You will see yaks, Himalayan vultures, pikas, and a variety of other critters.
Day 7: Pisang to Manang – This can be a very short hike if you are knackered from the previous days adventure and take the low path (3-4 hours), or you can take the high path which, while much longer (7-8 hours), will present you with stunning scenery, amazing villages perched high up on the slopes, and make you feel like you own the universe. At the end of the day, when you get to Manang, you will feel like a million dollar bill, albeit a crumpled and dusty one.
Day 8: Rest Day in Manang – ALL guidebooks recommend this stop, and you will need it if you came here on the high path. I usually do 3 or 4 rest days, because the place is awesome: several bakeries are cranking out all sorts of pastries, the village receives heaps of sunshine which is ideal for sitting around and doing nothing, and if not, then you can hike to the Gangapurna Icefall (although the path there is one of the dodgiest you will ever see), nearby ridges, monasteries, and a variety of other places. If you got the time, stick around.
Day 9: Manang to Yak Kharka – Not a particularly long day, but also not a particularly stunning one. You are now leaving the tree-line below you, and the hike takes you through sub-Alpine shrubbery. Stacks of yaks, vultures circling overhead, and if you look back, an amazing view of the Annapurnas.
Day 10: Rest Day in Yak Kharka – Once again, not a standard place for a rest day, but it will help you acclimatize, and you can go for a hike up to the top of the ridge.
Day 11: Yak Kharka to Thorung Pedi – Couple of long suspension bridges, two hamlets, a river crossing, some landslide areas, and then you are at the end of the valley. This is Thorung Pedi. A lot of accommodation here, plenty of good food, and great views. Save your energy for the next day though.
Day 12: Thorung Pedi to Thorung Pedi High Camp – This 400 metre climb will take it out of you, so go easy. Keep a steady pace, use the rest-step technique that I explain in this video, and don’t forget to look back and say “Fucking hell, am I ever glad to be here!”. You can say it in your own language.
Day 13: Rest Day at Thorung Pedi High Camp – once again, no guidebook ever talks about staying here an extra day, but why not?!? You get great views of Thorung pass, most of the Annapurnas, all the other nearby peaks, the accommodation comes with superb views, the lodge is cozy, the food is good, so what is the rush? And guess what.. If you stay here an extra day, the next day is much, much easier.
Day 14: Thorung Pedi High Camp to Muktinath – This is the peak experience of the hike. Many people, especially the slow pokes, wake up at 5AM, have a desperately cold breakfast and then start hiking. Some even sillier, masochistic types wake up at 3AM and start their hike… From Thorung Pedi! I might be missing something, but hiking at night doesn’t present you with great views, unless you packed some night vision goggles. If you are fit (and you should always be), properly acclimatized, and well rested, you can wake up at 6 or 7, have a nice breakfast, and then start hiking up to the pass. Odds are you will arrive at the same time as the slow pokes anyway, but you will actually get to see the entire path. Mandatory photo stop at the top, perhaps a cup of overpriced, but great-tasting hot chocolate, and then the big descent into Muktinath. Tread carefully, as this 1,600 metre descent can really beat up your knees.
Day 15: Muktinath to Jomsom – This is an easy, mostly-down day, with great views all around. It does get very windy on this stretch, so have some sort of face protection (bandana, neck tube, whatever) handy.
Day 16: Fly or Jeep out of Jomsom – Compared to what you have been looking at for the last 2 weeks, Jomsom is a huge metropolis. It has an airport, for dog’s sake! You can spend an extra day snooping about, or you can fly out to Pokhara where you will catch a bus (or another plane) to Kathmandu. Alternately, if you are poor, you can take a jeep to Beni, then take a bus to Pokhara. Jeeps and buses leave in the mornings, usually before/around 7AM, make sure you arrange this the day before. I personally prefer the jeep option, as the buses are rickety, and with as much suspension as a grand piano. A jeep ride to Beni should be about 1000 rupees per person, but probably more. If flying, you can buy the ticket(s) in Jomsom (you will not miss the airline offices, they are everywhere), or, if you like things pre-arranged, buy a ticket before leaving Kathmandu. The only problem with that is the loss of flexibility as you gotta make your way to the airport for that day. Tickets are flexible, but if you start moving your departure dates, there are no guarantees you will have the spots, and when you add the fact that a lot of flights get cancelled due to nasty mountain weather, you might be spending several days in Jomsom waiting for a plane.
If you are scared of mountain flights and death, but enjoy tractors, jeeps, exhaust fumes and noise, then you could walk down instead of jeeping/flying out. It looks like this:
Jomsom to Kalopani (about 6 hours)
Kalopani to Tatopani (about 5 hours)
Tatopani to Gorepani (6 hours)
Gorepani to Gandruk via Poon Hill (7 hours, big ascent, fantastic views)
Gandruk to Birethanti (3 hours, then take a bus or jeep to Pokhara, about 1 hour away)
And then, you are done. I recommend staying in Pokhara for a few days, as it is a much more chilled spot than Kathmandu, with cleaner air, great vibe, and heaps of awesome food. You will definitely want to replenish your fat stores, and indulge in beef steaks (Everest Steakhouse!) to fix up your shredded leg muscles. If you have the proper health insurance and strong bones, Pokhara also is a great place to organize rafting/kayaking tours, and a variety of adrenaline sports are plentiful, including one of the longest zip lines in the world, and, my personal favourite, paragliding. A flight will set you back about 70 Euro for a short 15 or 20 minute ride, and 110 Euro for a hour-long soaring experience, and you definitely get your moneys worth on that one, unless you get queazy and throw up all over yourself, your pilot, and Nepal. [VIDEO: “PARAGLIDING IN NEPAL“.]
Most importantly, however, the hordes of dusty trekkers can shower and do their laundry. Which you also should do. Immediately.