Thursday, January 3, 2013

Annapurna Circuit, Getting there

Getting to Kathmandu is quite a feat in itself.   It is easy to look at the continent of Asia and see that China goes from the pacific ocean to India and wraps to the north of Nepal having consumed Tibet and forget how darn big those countries are.

 This view of the Himalayas just prior to landing in Kathmandu is complimentary of continental plates clashing and pushing up over several hundred million years bringing marine depositional earth, full of history and fossils, up to some of the highest places on the Planet.

China is the fourth largest country (Russia, Canada, USA) covering 6.4% of the total land area of Earth.  All in all, it's a very efficient use of space given that they have 15% of the population.

China Railway map.  Maps of China are a bit hard to find and I had no luck finding apps or maps I could used on my I-phone.  I ended up doing Google image searches for maps and saved ones like this one using an app called GoodReader so I could view them off line.

Getting from Xiamen, China to Kathmandu, Nepal

dbBrad testing his Green Giant boots in the Airport!!

There are some interesting issues to solve when traveling in China.  One is that as an individual person I can't get a Visa to travel in Tibet yet to travel to Hong Kong I don't need a visa.  Yessi, being Chinese  had a different problem as she needed a Visa to travel to Hong Kong.  We had hoped to take the train across the country to Kathmandu but that can only be done from Shanghai to the north and requires going through Tibet, which would require Visa for me.  Additionally, we needed to arrive at one of the entry/exit points where you can be issued a Visa on the spot and where we could obtain the trekking permits we needed.  Kathmandu was the spot and anyone approaching Nepal for Trekking will want to arrive via Kathmandu.

Our day went like this--
Yessi Ye modeling her new hiker look available at
TuTwo Stores in southern China

  • Rush shopping for a few of our last needed Items.  Thank goodness one of the stops was TuTwo, one of the better outdoor adventure shops in China. 
  • Get a ride to the Train Station, the same train station I threw up in only a week previous, to catch a 5:00 train
  • Arrive Guang Zhou at 7:00, 1 hr. layover
  • Catch overnight train to Shen Zhen, the main entrance between China and Hong Kong.  Arrive 8am, 11hrs later.
  • Customs and walk across river into Hong Kong.  Due to Yessi being Chinese and me being American, we had different lines to go through.  Yessi was sent back becasue of Visa issue but somehow got in front of me so I waited for an hour, as did she for me.     Finally we found each other only about 2 minutes walk from each other, and then off to the MRT
  • MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) from Hong Kong to Sheung Shui where we could catch a bus.
  • Catch bus to airport, arrive airport terminal 2 about 1.5 hours later.
  • Catch flight from Hong Kong to Mumbai, 7 hours on plane, arrive around midnight.
  • Layover Mumbai, 8 hours in the most getto-like airport I've ever been in.  Yuck!!
  • Catch 8am flight to Kathmandu.
  • Arrive Kathmandu 6 hours later.
  • Immigration, Visa, luggage and customs, roughly 1hr.  Nepal's laid back atmosphere was actually the most pleasant of all the international airports i've had to deal with.
  • Catch taxi to Buddha Garden in Thamel district, Jyath, Kathmandu, a half an hour ride through narrow bumpy streets and so many motorcycles it felt like Sturgis in SD!!

Kathmandu to Besishahar

Yessi and Brad at Buddha Garden in Kathmandu, early December 2012.  70 degrees!
It takes a day minimum to be in Kathmandu before anything even begins to make sense.  Maps are far and few between, the streets are unmarked and complicated, the shops begin to look identical and the streets are flat out dangerous to shoppers who aren't paying attention to the cars, trucks and motorcycles.  Even finding a CashMachine can be tough and chances are pretty good it won't work for your card, is out of money, or is broken!!  If I had it to do again, I'd take several days in Kathmandu to explore the historic elements of the city, the temples, other districts and to do a better job finding local food.  Once you're ready, find a bus.  

Yessi and I headed from Kathmandu to Pokhara with our necessary permits to hike the Annapurna Circuit.
Our bus was a tourist bus (next time I will take only local buses as they work great, are cheap, and are really a lot of fun).   But purchasing a ticket from a hotel and getting delivered to the correct bus stop was worth the extra money.  Even so, there are no 'bus stops' only streets with busses which all seem to be leaving at the same time.  Many busses around Nepal seem to leave around 7am for the longer trips as did ours from Kathmandu to Pokhara.

It's hard to read numbers or letters in Nepalese, a Tibeto-Burman language, since they have their own alphabet called Sanskrit.  This 'tourist bus' was a bit easier to find with it's clean windows, fresh paint, lack of ornamentation and the 18" tall letters spelling TOURIST!!

After 6 hours on a bumpy bus, we got off prior to Pokhara, where the roads fork at a town, on no map I had, called Kumbra.  From here we needed a ride to Besishahar.  It was now 2 pm and we really wanted to get hiking and away from the masses, so we let ourselves get hustled into a private taxi where we ended up giving our money to the wrong people and had to somehow pay twice, but we got there in just under an hour.

Photo taken from our taxi back seat on the way to Besishahar!  Even our taxi driver had to stop several times and ask to make sure he was on the right road. We had no idea where we were going, but he got us to a town, the correct town, safe and sound!

This was now my second time getting hustled and I decided I was getting pretty good at it!  We adopted a rule to never go with the first person, the first inn, the first bus, or the first restaurant   We learned to slow down, get our bearings, take a breath, and then how to make our own decisions.   The reality is, if you ask someone for something it is very likely they will take care of you.  

Day 1 Annapurna Circuit

Our first day of tramping was all about getting to the trail head, (previous post) but we wanted to arrive early enough so we could hike at least to the next town, to stretch our legs and make some progress. Since we only had 14 days to do the Annapurna Circuit, we knew progress every day was important.  Most guided tours recommend three to four weeks.

Annapurna Circuit
When we arrived in Kumbra, we immediately got hustled off the streets and into a taxi.    It wasn't our intent, but it just happened and we made it to Besishahar in record time. As it turns out, the taxi wasn't that expensive but getting hustled ended up costing us almost 3 times more.  The taxi driver himself got hustled, or so he said, and most of our money went to the hustlers so we ended up giving the taxi driver more money to be fair.

Yessi in front of one of the local taxis.
Always in Nepal, and especially if you don't know what you are doing or where you're going, take a deep breath, relax and forego any offer for anything until you've got your bearing.  Lost and helpless tourists are easy prey and taking a few minutes to gather your thoughts is all it takes to avoid problems.  Go to the bathroom, have a cup of tea and then ask someone for help.  You will get it if you ask, but if the hustlers approach you, without your asking, best to walk away.

Annapurna I, of which there are five named peaks
photo thanks to Google image search.
We had read that Besishahar wasn't so nice and we'd be better off hiking to Khudi, the first real village along the way.  Thus, our early departure from Kathmandu and a private taxi allowed us to begin our hike at 4:00 pm for a nice stroll along a dusty road.

A bridge being constructed near Khudi
One of the best sources I found for concise helpful written material on the Annapurna Circuit was Wikitravel, providing great general information initially then town-to-town information with brief descriptions.  It really helped us initially until we felt knowledgeable and comfortable enough to start making our own informed decisions.  I saved this data to my phone using GoodReader again.

One of the many suspension bridges connecting villages across the Marsyandi river.
I recommend taking a jeep taxi up to Khudi or even a couple towns further if one is short of time.  This section was my least favorite part of the trip.  Roads have been build along much of the Annapurna Circuit and though they are very rough 4 wheel drive roads, they have replaced many of the trails and displaced much of the culture including the donkeys which were needed to carry goods between the towns.

Simple shelters along the way,  probably for animals and farm supplies rather than people.
Typically though, there is a trail on one side of the river and a road on the other side and most towns have suspension bridges.  It's definitely worth paying attention to which side of the river is less developed and walking over there.

And finally we're on our way, walking the Annapurna Circuit starting at Besishahar
Get off the roads and you get away from the less skilled, guided trekkers, the jeeps and the dust and you get on trails with old women carrying baskets of wood and produce; donkeys carrying people and goods; and old hand built trails that are not as direct, usually much steeper and so much more fun to walk.

Day 2 Annapurna Circuit

Our lodging on this night was some of the most basic, simple lodging I've ever had.  There appeared to be no one else in the building and it seemed this was the only inn in town.   We were checked in by a guy who didn't live there.  He went and found a young boy who spoke English and who negotiated the deal, including no bathroom inside or running water.  A room with 6 bunks to ourselves, and a balcony for 200RU or $2.25 US.  He then brought us a menu, came back with our drink, and then showed up about 1/2 hour later with all our food.  We saw him once more that evening when he picked up the dishes.  We didn't see another person or pay any money before retiring.

The haunted hostel and the young boy.   Nepal
 We woke up pretty early.  When you are trying to go for longer days on a thru hike, getting up early is one of the most important things you can do.  It turns out that to get 20 or 30 miles per day, you don't have to walk faster, you just need to walk longer.  Getting 10 hours of hiking time in a day is harder than it sounds and getting up early is important.

Yessi and I standing very close to a very long drop!
We saw no one in the morning while using the bathroom, about 50 steps up a narrow path paved with flat rocks to where there were two springs, each with a small wall on one or two sides for privacy.  To the left of these was a very small mud coated stacked rock building with a roof made out of straw and pieces of wood and a hole in the floor.  A bucket sat in one corner with a dipper for an automatic self regulating environmental low flush toilet system.  When I walked around the building I could see the pipe head into the ground, unsure of how much further it extended, if any.

Having obtained water from the spring, wondering if we'd accidentally purchased the building and that's why no one was in it, we decided to make our own breakfast.  One of my rules is always carry some extra food.  I also brought a stove for which Yessi and I were grateful for when it got cold, higher in the mountains.  I boiled water, made coffee, hot chocolate and instant oatmeal and we sat there enjoying the moment.

We packed up our bags, it was after 8am now, cleaned up the room, straightened the table cloth, grabbed our garbage and headed downstairs.  There we were relieved to find the boy from last night, leaning against a porch support.  We gratefully paid finally having a bill.  Off we went.

We ended up walking about 18km from Khudi to Ngadi.  This is a good time to say that Yessi had never hiked or camped before so this was really her first day hiking ever. She did great.

We took it pretty slow and still overwhelmed with the uniqueness of our environment and the people, stopped at the next town Bhulbhule for coffee.  A great view of a spectacular waterfall with snow covered BAM's (Bad Ass Mountains) in the background.

Brad and Yessi passing a thrashing machine.  Two cows, a post, lots of grain and a covering of straw with plenty of Nepalese to keep the cows walking around the pole where their hooves separate the grain from the chaff and the straw helps keep it clean.

After another hour of hiking, we came to another town, Ngadi, and had lunch with a wonderful hostess at Hotel MINA.  In very basic English, she gave us an English menu, navigated drinks and ordering, told us her husband was fishing in the next town and that one of her children goes to boarding school in Kathmandu. (a 3 hr hike with a 1 hour jeep ride to Besishahar and then a 5 hour bus ride).

These construction sites have more machinery and fuel than the rest of the towns along this river combined, and the damage is proportionate.
We hiked another 2 hours but somehow we ended up on the wrong side of the river,  I think because of construction of yet another large bridge.  As a result, we missed Bahundanda and Ghermu, but learned an important lesson.  The maps of the Annapurna Circuit are scaled too big (for the convenience of having a single map), are inconsistent, abstract, and many of the roads, and even more trails, aren't represented.

Yessi, having never backpacked before, quickly adapted to the rough terrain and the use of trekking poles for balance and support.  

I believe it's better to look at the map, look at the river, look up the valley for the road, locate suspension bridges and always head away from the road.  You'll still have to walk some roads, but a lot less and the trails are so much more interesting.

Yessi and a local boy on a suspension bridge.
One of the locals helps us with directions as we contemplate a long climb to the hot pools in Mipro.
After a steep climb, still on the wrong side of the river, we arrived at Syange just about dark.  As it turns out, there are some hot pools in Mipro, said to be about a half an hour walk.  The walk however, was entirely made up of steps going straight up the mountain.  While we both wanted nothing more than to be on top, looking at the spectacualr view and soaking in a hot tub, neither one of us wanted to do the climb.
Stairs near Syange that head up to hot pools, or so we heard. The hot pools along the Annapurna Circuit are a lot like Sasquatch along the PCT.  Everyone has a story but no one really knows where they are, including the maps.
After 15 minutes we decided to turn around and find a place for the night. The Waterfall Inn caught our eye with it's intense verticality, perched on the edge of a cliff,  high above the river with windows providing a wonderful 360 degree view.

This evening I contemplated the value of thru hiking in such a cultural rich environment with not enough time.  Would it be better, I wondered, to not have tried to do the whole circuit leaving more time for side hikes, hot pools, temples,  and mindless wandering through the spectacular villages. The down side is that we wouldn't have hiked much and would have seen less overall, though in more detail.  When you have a goal, progress is always hanging in the air, but when you're just traveling, it's easy for time to just slip away leaving you feeling like you didn't see that much.

Day 3 Annapurna Circuit

Syange to Tal via Chyamche

We departed Syanje around 9:00 am with a leisurely start and a nice stroll to Jagat.  We met our first fellow tramper today, a young man from Europe who, like us and contrary to Nepalese advice, was also without a guide.  We stopped and had coffee together.

dbBrad in front of a mountain in Nepal rising 4000 meters above me (2.5 miles straight up)
From Jagat we hiked on towards Chamje but got separated along the way from our new hiking friend.  Our pace was just a bit slow for him.  I felt bad loosing him because he was so excited when he found us, to enjoy some English speaking company.

An amazing waterfall with water cascading down over 1000 meters.  Reminded me of some of the spectacular waterfalls I saw in Doubtful Sound while tramping the TeAraroa trail across New Zealand.
In Chamje we had a leisurely lunch.  Of coarse by now we were realizing that things in Nepal are always leisurely   There is no quick lunch as all the meals are cooked on wood fires at the same pace they've been cooking for centuries.  Although the food is fresh, hot and often quite good, it is anything but fast.

Yessi models her GreenGiant backpack and pants.
Somehow, here again, we ended up on the wrong side of the river, probably due to another massive bridge construction project.  We found ourselves high above the town of Tal which was down by the river on the other side and without a bridge.

So we backtracked a bit and descended a steep side trail to arrive at a vehicle bridge which took us to a Nepalese military camp about 1/2 hour walk down the valley to our destination.  It was getting late but the setting sun and evening light made for a nice stroll into town where we found lots of tea houses for hikers, most of them closed for the season.

Our town of Tal, far below us and on the wrong side of the river.
We picked a tea house using a process similar to selecting a book in an airport -- by the cover!  It's hard to know the difference between the inns and the menus, which we were finally figuring out were pretty much all the same.  It comes down to the woman in the kitchen, the children, HF (Hustle Factor of proprietor) and things like overall size, potential views from rooms and light.

An amazing road cut into the side of the mountain.  Death is eminent for anyhow who steps off the trail at any point.  I can't help hugging the edge and contemplating the hang-time possible from such an act!
Our tea house decision wasn't the best, though we did have a toilet and hot water for showers, but the food took a very long time to arrive and was awful in so much as you can ruin fried rice grown less than 1km away.  But the views were terrific and we had a great time in each others company.

Day 4 Annapurna Circuit

Buildings are build for the single purpose of holding prayer wheels with the path always on both sides. Clockwise is the direction of travel and as you walk, you spin the wheels.

Today we got a late start, although we've been waking up at the break of dawn which emerges slowly from twilight.  The sun climbs for hours in the Nepalese sky before ever shedding any light into the deep chasms between the rivers and mountains along the Annapurna Circuit.

There are many sections of the trail which have been hand chissled out of the rock. This is the first railing I've seen.
Besides, rushing, rushing, rushing, is no fun.  It's a constant effort to balance progress with enjoyment.  Not that progress is independent of enjoyment, in fact good progress for a day often leads to more satisfaction and enjoyment of accomplishment in the evening.  Yet, rushing is tiresome.

Yessi Ye spinning prayer wheels.
One cannot make progress forward on a trail when one is not walking, so there is always a need for discipline.  To tell ourselves yes, we like this town, but we still have 15 km to go for the day.

One of the few signs you will see along the Annapurna Circuit.

So our departure wasn't until about 10:00 from Tal.  We ended up cooking our own coffee and oatmeal in our rooms since our impression of the food the previous night was less than desirable     We talked about guides this morning. We began wondering if we'd made a mistake.  The awful Americanized food was getting increasingly expensive and our natural inclination to travel on the wrong side of the river, could have been avoided with assistance.

A waterfall dances across beautiful rocks worn smooth from the raging river

The flip side is everyone traveling with a guide can be seen from a kilometer away.  The guided travelers are obvious by their small packs, light skin and shiny new gear.  Their guides are following conspicuously behind with big backpacks and well used gear.  And, where is the challenge when you never have to read a map or make a decision?  The guide has walked this circuit a hundred times before and must wonder, "Why is my group not walking faster.  They aren't carrying any weight!!"  As a result, most of the guides stick to the dusty roads because they're shorter and easier to walk.

More trail chissled out of rock, high (50m) above the river.  Watch your step!

My other thought on guides has to do with the impact of tourism on the villages.  These patient village people with almost nothing are too often bombarded with arrogance, wealth, poor manners and little concern for the negative impacts of tourism.  Tourists come into the villages wanting things like hot water, WiFi, a flush toilet and then want to barter for a better price.  A cost already far cheaper than anything from home.

A giant prayer wheel in its own little building.

Yessi crossing a suspension bridge.  By now she's figured out that you don't use your poles on the bridges because they'll get stuck.  Notice the trail on the other side chiseled into the rock cliff.

 Do guides help insulate the locals by consolidating the imposition brought via tourists, or do they just take additional advantage of these villagers?  The guides know the ways and customs of the villagers, and they come into the villages with their clients, power of knowledge and money.  Are they taking care of the villagers or are they only representing their clients interests?

One of the many little structures build to hold prayer wheels always located in the center of the trail. Walk on the left side, clockwise.
We hiked on while I contemplated the value and ethics of guides.  We came to Dharapani where we took a break by a giant prayer wheel.  A local passer by showed us how to use it (clock wise, always clockwise)  He then showed us the path we wanted to travel.  A good thing too because we were probably going to head out of town on the road.

There appear to be more waterfalls in Nepal than in New Zealand!!
Instead, we took the suggestion and headed up the hill to Timang.  It was quite a climb but a very interesting walk and we arrived at the first building just after 5:00.  The town was quite sprawled with buildings 1000m or more between, initially.  After another half hour, we arrived at the town proper and found a nice place for the night.

There are certainly more suspension bridges than on the Te Araroa in NZ!
It had gotten fairly cold this afternoon and clouds rolled in obscuring the valley below us from view.  This was the first time I found myself chilly, but as it turns out, not to be the last.  I wouldn't actually be warm for another week!

Yessi walking with mules who appear to be wandering just for the heck of it.

Nepalese children are no strangers to the camera.

View from balcony of our little room in Timang

Yessi Ye with Nepalese children.  We've been getting some interesting behavior from locals and are now thinking that the locals think Yessi is Nepalese.