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I thought about reporting on my Annapurna Circuit in a systematic, data rich, day by day manner, but decided I’d rather convey the anecdotes and experiences that stand out in my memory (these fall into 3 categories: The Approach, The Ascent, and The Exit). However, I do have notes on the day-to-day information – logistics, prices, times, altitudes, favorite villages, etc – so if anyone wants planning assistance for his/her own Annapurna circuit trip, I’d be happy to help.

The Approach
I arrived in Kathmandu on May 26, to horrifying pollution, chaotic traffic, and my taxi-mate from the airport making the inexplicable statement that “it’s all so beautiful.” I chalked it up to her youth and novice traveler status. Optimism, pfthh. However, I HAD to be in the city for at least 36 hours in order to meet up with my friend Matt, get our trekking permits sorted, and get the hell out into the mountains. (Spoiler alert: post-trek, Kathmandu has grown on me)

With trekking permits in hand and packs ready to go for 2+ weeks on the trail, Matt and I boarded the Green Bus to make our way to the start of the Annapurna Circuit. It took a mere 12 hours of motor transport – a tourist bus, a cab that kept breaking down, and a bone-jarring local bus ride – to make it to Ngadi Bazaar, where we would start the trek. Note: the Annapurna Circuit can start lots of places, depending on how much road-walking one is willing to endure, or alternately, how much bone-jarring, disk-compressing, minibus transport one can put up with. Even with only a few hours of Nepali bus time to my credit, I think I might be a few millimeters shorter.

We arrived in Ngadi Bazaar at dusk and were ushered into the guesthouse (1 of 2) with availability. It was uninspiring. I woke up with bedbug bites and Matt had been under attack all night by mosquitoes. Regardless, we were on our way! I was stoked to start walking.

And then… disaster struck. That familiar and terrible gurgling started in my intestines, and a feeling of dread washed over me. Fortunately, toilets were plentiful enough along the way that I didn’t have to fertilize anyone’s fields. Also fortunately, the immodium that I started popping (like candy!) did its job. Despite my apprehension of days spent in misery in some horrible guesthouse, the fiery poops had ceased by the afternoon. Crisis averted.

That first guesthouse turned out to have been exceptionally bad. Happily, the place we stopped for our second night was lovely. The rest of the guesthouses on our trek were of varying quality, but most were very nice and none were as bad as that first place.

Right from the start of our mini-bussing out of Bhesisahar, Matt and I adopted a British gentleman named John. John is an interesting character, having retired at 46 and traveled extensively for the next 22 years. He has many stories. Sadly, he also acutely triggers my ire, so it was challenging for me to interact with him for the next couple weeks. Fortunately, he and Matt seemed to get along splendidly, so I largely left the boys to their own devices and retreated into my head for much of that first week (first 10 days?). While sometimes difficult and isolating (particularly at meal times), my self-enforced independence was fine with me. I love being in the mountains and enjoy contemplating life from the internal and external vantage points enabled by hiking alone. I spent some quality time with Macklemore in my ears, reminding me that “this is fucking awesome” and giving me societal issues to think about while putting a spring in my step. I thought a lot about my family, my friends in Seattle and elsewhere, my desires for my life back in the States.

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The first few days were HOT. Matt, a self-professed cold person who is happiest with degrees (Celcius) in the single digits and below, was rather unhappy with the weather situation. It was 35C+ in the sun, and the shade wasn’t that much cooler. I suffered less than him, but I can’t say I enjoyed getting crisped and sweaty’d by the relentless sun. I was quite happy for my full brimmed hat. Much of these days were also spent hiking on the road, the construction of which is creeping every farther up the valley. Heat aside, by about day 5 the views had improved, coming much more in line with my expectations for natural loveliness.

The Ascent (aka The Good Stuff)
On day 6, the scenery went from nice and pleasant to incredible, jaw dropping and awe inspiring. We made our way from Chame and eventually rounded a corner of the valley where we started to see Swarga Dwari, the Gateway to Heaven, so called because the people here believe that souls must climb the rock face to reach heaven.

From another suspension bridge, to the east I saw Swarga Dwari, and to the west I glimpsed the eastern end of the snow-capped Annapurna range. I was overcome (not for the last time) with awe at the beauty and grandeur surrounding me. Standing in the middle of that bridge, gazing at the glory around me, I burst into tears of joy. I’m not typically a happy crier, nor am I comfortable crying in public, so when I noticed someone on the other side of the bridge my tears dried up in a wave of self consciousness. Regardless, I still felt very full, very content, very peaceful. I understand why these mountains are considered sacred by the people living among them.

After the bridge of my teary-eyed crossing, the road has not been expanded like on the other side because the bridge can only accommodate motorbikes. (They’re working on a 4 wheeled vehicle bridge.) Therefore, the walking is more on trails and it MUCH more pleasant. My pace slowed substantially as I marveled at the nature around me.

Upper Pisang was mind-blowing. On that 6th night of the circuit, we were the only people in the highest guesthouse in the village. We chose it based solely on awesomeness of its view. From our balcony we had an unobstructed view of the north face of Annapurna II. Incredible.

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Looking back, I wish I would’ve spent longer in that area. Alas, I had a mild case of “summit fever,” even if our summit at 5416m was still only a mountain pass among these behemoth peaks. Still, I had the chance to wander up the hill beyond upper Pisang to where the village’s prayer flags originated. The views, once again, did not suck.

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The 7th day hike from Upper Pisang to Manang was a long one, exhilarating and then simply exhausting. It was also one of the most beautiful hikes of the trip. We walked along ridges at 3700m, over rolling plains, and through calm pine forests, all with magnificent views of Annaupurna III, rising proudly above the valley opposite our trail. I kept stopping to take pictures and lollygagging to absorb views. My desire to charge down/up trails was substantially diminished by my attempts to maximize my eyeballs’ contact with light reflected by the glorious nature around me.

At one point, west of the village of Ngawal, I wandered into a monastery. I was a few meters into the courtyard when I decided maybe I, as a solo female trekker, shouldn’t be there. But the sign on the door had said “welcome,” right? Rather than risk appearing uncertain and fleeing back the way I came, I walked slowly and purposely toward what I thought might be an exit on the other side. It wasn’t an exit. It led to the trails and stupas associated with the monastery. I identified a route out, and made my escape by ducking between strands of halfhearted barbed wire.

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Then I saw the obvious route around the outside of the monastery, which had eluded my perception some 10 minutes prior. *face palm* Back on track, I made my way down a very steep trail to where the path rejoined the lower path on the way to Braka and Manang.

It took our group around 9 hours to get to Manang. The first 7 of those hours were amazing, but the last stretch from Mugje to Manang was flat, dusty, and endless. Once we hit that final exhausting stretch, my frustrated ego reminded me that I could’ve covered that day’s distance in 6 hours. I’m often ok going my own pace and being behind people. However, on this trek, I struggled to remain patient while waiting for John and/or Matt to catch up. Maybe part of that comes from the fact that I wasn’t feeling any group bonding, largely due to my aversion toward John’s abrasive manner. I appreciated the opportunity to cultivate empathy as I remembered times when I was the slow one and frustrated with myself. I also remembered people who have been patient with my slowness and so I endeavored to channel similar energy into my experience. Regardless of our speed, we covered many kilometers of distance and many hundred meters of up and down, so everyone was exhausted by the end of the day.

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I was relieved to finally arrive in Manang, but overwhelmed by the number of guesthouse options and underwhelmed by the views available at most of these. (I had become the designated guesthouse-finder for the trek.) Ultimately, after some rather fruitless wandering, I decided to stay at the place where Matt and John had stopped to wait for me as I investigated other options. The couple sitting outside that guesthouse, Shay and Iliana, had recommended this place over others they’d looked at. I was feeling tired and implacable, but I begrudgingly decided that this guesthouse was just fine. Ultimately, I’m so glad I did. In our week of off-season trekking, we had barely interacted with other trekkers. I didn’t fully recognize how much I needed to socialize with other people. In addition to Shay and Iliana, Sally and Chet (also staying at this guesthouse) would become part of my trekking family and among the people with whom interacting brought me lots of happiness for the last weeks of trekking. Also, the guesthouse had delicious yak burgers, enchiladas, and brewed coffee. Not a bad place to settle for.

At 3500m, Manang is the village where most trekkers spend an extra day to acclimate to the altitude. After a cup of glorious brewed coffee (NOT nescafe), I made my way up to the Gangapurna glacier viewpoint, no more than an hour uphill from Manang.

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I had a contemplative afternoon with myself, wrestling with familiar mind demons and a newer, burning one, brought on my my aversion toward John. I have a hard time disliking people unless they have A) done something overtly horrible or B) I don’t have to interact with them. When it happens that I do simply dislike being around someone (who meets neither criteria A nor B), I feel bad for feeling that way. I think this largely stems from my latent and sometimes intense self-consciousness (which thoroughly plagued my teen and preteen years): I don’t want to be disliked, so I can’t dislike other people. Makes sense, right? It’s an irrational but deep set part of my psychology, a twisted web that began in childhood and one that I’ve been working to accept, unravel, and understand. (Spoiler: every time I think I’ve untangled the biggest knot, I notice a new jumble elsewhere in my psyche). Therefore, when I’m forced into daily interaction with a person I can’t stand, my brain launches into justification gymnastics, trying to avoid the discomfort of conflict.

I know the rational answer: I can dislike someone and still hold them with compassion and treat them with respect. This, unsurprisingly, is a difficult answer to sustain in practice. Oftentimes, I found myself reverting to that childhood lesson, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Overall, I was pleased with my behavior. When I think of Cori Ver2009, I rather doubt she would have presented herself as graciously. I know I still have tons of maturity to develop, but it’s gratifying to observe how I’ve grown. And then of course, for an afternoon of reflection, the views could get a lot worse.

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The universe works in mysterious ways. While on the trail to Manang, we’d heard rumor of a group of 20 Americans with an army of porters making their way up to Thorung La. With dread, I imagined encountering a group of insenstive, loud, obnoxious American tourists. What I found couldn’t have been more different. The group was Buddhist, on a pilgrimage to the Mustang Region beyond Thorung La Pass. While they suffered from the trials of any large group, they couldn’t have been more kind and welcoming to Matt, John, and I. Our group met theirs in Manang and ended up spending the next two nights with them. The morning we left Manang for Yak Kharka, the Americans left earlier than we did. When I caught up with the tail of their group, a woman from the Bay Area named Jan, I found that I was more interested in talking to her than I was in speeding my way up to the next village. Jan, a retired lawyer in her 60s, a cancer survivor and owner of a cadaver’s ACL, knows her pace and goes it. She doesn’t believe in complaining, nor does she want to be waited on. I immediately liked her. That day and the next, Jan and I shared our stories. We talked about work. About our fears, our joys, our own critical self-talk. We shared mantras and our love of being in the mountains. Jan taught me new things about Buddhism. We talked about the pain of conflict with family and friends. She knows how nasty divorce can be for the children (my own parents are divorcing, and it’s been really difficult). We laughed (eventually) about the pack animals who seemed inclined to knock us off the trail. We talked about people who trigger us and people who we trigger. We empathized. We talked about the difference in communication styles between men and women. I told her how relieved and happy I was to connect with another person on this trek. Matt is a great buddy, but the scope of our relationship doesn’t include talking about emotions or philosophizing on interpersonal interaction. After the emotional difficulties of the first week of our trek, I was so grateful to connect with Jan, an incredibly kind woman whose insight and strength I greatly admire. When our groups ultimately parted ways, Jan gave me her contact info and an invitation to stay with her in the Bay Area. I very much look forward to reconnecting with her again in the States.

On the way…
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On the much anticipated “pass day” we awoke at 2am to get on the trail by 3am. The idea was to get up to and down from Thorung La Pass before the winds picked up. 3am might’ve been overkill, but I was more than happy to be up that early because of the views available only at that time. First, there were the stars (and shooting star!), so bright and numerous in this alpine setting. Then there was the thunderstorm that raged behind the mountains to the east: when lightning flashed, it illuminated the clouds and revealed the jagged ridge lines of the mountains in the foreground. Then came the first rays of morning sun, lending a blue-grey, ghostly presence to the mountain range behind us. Simply breathtaking. Sunrise was icing on an already perfect cake.

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Also breathtaking was the altitude. Between 5200m and 5300m, I felt my strength fizzle out (in spite of an incredible poo in an equally incredibly disturbing poo shack.)

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I put one foot in front of the other, noting my sluggishness and fatigue with interest. At one point, just above 5300m, I decided to speed up to get through the endless rollovers. The nausea hit almost immediately, so I slowed once again to my snail’s pace. It was interesting to briefly experience the altitude affectedness I’ve otherwise only heard about. I’d decided to try the pass without diamox (altitude medication) to see how my body responded. Although I have no control over my high altitude physiology, I was somewhat pleased and proud to have reached 5416m all on my own. Now I’m curious about how I would feel with chemical assistance. Maybe next time.

I reached the pass some time after Matt. I was not stoked. I was exhausted. But a brief rest, some peanut butter sandwich, and a wander to absorb the views soon revived my stoke.

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We we so HIGH! And it wasn’t technical at ALL! How incredible!! The American group arrived a little while later, and I hung out and took pictures for maybe 30 minutes before starting my descent.

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The Descent
The descent soon killed my stoke once again. I really only like going downhill when A) I’m riding a bike, B) there’s snow and slidey planks attached to my feet, or C) I’m on a slide. Neither A, nor B, nor C were an option, so I was forced to make the knee-crunching, quad-burning, 1600m descent by foot. Fortunately, my iPod was there to motivate me with high energy tunes.

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Some hours and many thoughts of “I hate this” later, I reached Matt waiting for me at a cafe an hour from Muktinath, our final destination. He made me eat his leftover eggs and then forced me back onto the trail. This was probably good, considering that once I sat I had very little internal motivation to leave my chair and continue downhill. By noon, we had a nice little room in Muktinath. After showering, I passed out for a couple of hours, did laundry, and joined the dining room crowd. Happily, our friends from Manang, Iliana and Shay, Sally and Chet, had also moved into this particular guesthouse. Dinner was a lively and lovely affair with the group, and we would stick together for the next few villages.

We all took a rest day in Muktinath, exhausted from our many hundreds of meters of up and down the previous day. We visited the Muktinath Temple, which is a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists. The valley is particularly sacred because of the confluence of 5 elements there: earth, sky, fire, air, and water. The temple is built over a water source in which is dissolved enough natural gas that the water burns. The temple contains a flame from the water which has allegedly been burning continuously for hundreds of years (or more?). The water that flows around the temple and through 108 spouts is holy, and the tradition is to bless yourself with the waters from each spout. Many Hindus and Buddhists make a pilgrimage to this temple. My understanding is that much of the infrastructure that has reached Muktinath is due to these pilgrims.

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The hiking following Muktinath was long and dusty, with some impressively strong winds. While the landscape did not automatically excite me, I found diversion in noting how very different it was from the east side of Thorung La. Aside from some hearty shrubs and agriculture, the area is dry, rocky, and barren. The winds could be impressively strong. It reminded me of Peru near Arequipa. Happily, this area of Nepal has lots of goats, and the first herds I ran into consisted primarily of baby goats. I was in heaven.

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In the village of Kagbeni, our group coalesced at a guesthouse called “Yak Donald’s.” We enjoyed the food and each other’s company. I enjoyed wandering around the village and into the idyllic fields above it. The views of Nilgiri and into the Mustang region were also not so bad. Incidentally, to access the Mustang region requires a guide and an access fee of more than 500 USD. Nope, won’t be going there in the near future.

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Amusingly, when we arrived most of the Kagbeni was involved in a wedding, so shopkeepers and guesthouses were temporarily inaccessible. Pre-monsoon is apparently the auspicious season for marriages. We would see another one in Marpha, our next stop.

Shay and Iliana decided to stay an extra day to enjoy Marpha, so we said goodbye. It was interesting to observe my reaction to that split. Even though we’d known each other for less than a week, saying goodbye to such lovely people triggered my already sensitive homesickness, and I spent part of that day’s hike nursing my longing for home. The hiking wasn’t difficult, so I couldn’t be distracted by that. I was distracted, however, by a bit of rock that begged to be climbed. My enthusiasm for climbing had waned already in Seattle, but on this trail in Nepal I dumped my pack and made a little bouldering traverse. It was FUN. I made a mental note to reincorporate climbing into my Seattle life.

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That day, we hiked with Sally and Chet. We stopped in Jomson for lunch before heading on to Marpha. As we enjoyed our break, I made another mental note for my next time teahouse trekking in Nepal: always stop somewhere for lunch and savor the hiking day. For the other days on the trek, I was gung-ho to reach our night’s destination rather than stop somewhere for an hour or two on the way. Hooray learning.

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Around about Marpha, my picture-taking dropped substantially. We arrived in this fantastic guesthouse, complete with a lovely garden, and decided to take a rest/hang-out day there, just to soak up the awesomeness. Matt, Sally, Chet and I had a couple rounds of apple brandy in celebration of life. We had tasty dinner and then retired. The following morning, I awoke to that dreadful gurgling feeling in my gut once again. I hoped that immodium would do the same thing it had on day 1. Alas, the force was strong with the foreign bacteria in my gut, and I was helpless against the onslaught of unabsorbed liquid escaping from my backside. I had no appetite, I felt queasy, my stomach cramped. All I could do was lie in bed and read Game of Thrones, a book which itself is a form of torture (I couldn’t wait to find out what happens, but what happens is typically terrible). I awoke on our planned departure day feeling only marginally better, and very weak. I told Matt and he figured out the bus situation so we could go to the next town. The bus ride was so bumpy that when we arrived in Kalopani 2 hours later, I joyfully declared that I’d managed not to poop my pants. A resounding victory, indeed. The guesthouse in Beni, at $3 a night, was downright luxurious. AND it had views, albeit hazy, of the NW aspect of Annapurna I.

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The following day we planned to bus to Beni, from where you can get a bus to Pokhara. We thought we could get to Pokhara that day… HAH!! Things did not go smoothly. First we waited for about 2 hours for the local bus to show up. Then a bridge had washed out that morning, so we had to walk over the remains of said bridge and get on a different bus.

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Then there was a confusing bus transfer again, which took over an hour. And THEN was the 4 hour local bus ride, in which I’m fairly confident we never exceeded 30km/hr (18mph). The roads were BAD, and the local transport was not exactly a jeep. Also, my femurs did not fit in the seats, so I ended up propped on a bench behind the driver. THEN came the waterfall that was raging across the road. The driver evaluated and decided to ford it. As we approached the stream, I had visions of the mini bus getting washed over the edge. After a very tense minute (for me), we were safely across and (I was) super relieved. I’m glad I’ve had the Nepali local bus experience, but I don’t feel a need to do so ever again.

We arrived in Beni in the evening and hired a jeep for the extremely smooth ride to Pokhara (paved roads!!? what!??). For 3 days in Pokhara I did a bunch of reading, went for some morning jogs by the lake, and enjoyed a spa day with Sally. I was reluctant to leave for Kathmandu, but I had 12 days to apply for and receive my India visa and then get to Dharamshala, India, for a meditation retreat. Kathmandu for 10 days ended up being WAY better than I expected, but that’s a tale for another time.

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