Hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal
September 28-October 17, 2005

Sunrise from Kathmandu Sunrise from Kathmandu
Kathmandu alleyway Kathmandu alleyway
Porter carrying chickens Where there are no roads, everything gets carried in.
Bishnu, a young woman from rural Nepal sat next to me on the crowded bus from Kathmandu to Besi Sahar. Uncertain with her rudimentary English, she wrote messages to me on a piece of paper rather than speaking. At the top of a new page, she wrote, "I have no money and anything."

I knew what was coming next, but I wasn't in a position to offer her anything. I can't be reasonably expected to make a financial contribution to every impoverished citizen of Nepal who asks for help. I watched carefully as she started to write again.

"I would like give a gift."

Never in my life have I felt more selfish. Here I am with more money in my pocket than she'll make in the year, and Bishnu, having known me for less than an hour, wants to give me a gift to welcome me to Nepal. And while the experience may sound extraordinary, I've found such overwhelming generosity to be the rule, not the exception here in Nepal.

Anxious to get to the mountains -- the inspiration for my Nepal visit -- I gathered rental gear during my first full day in Kathmandu and headed out to the Annapurna region the following morning. The trek that I selected, the Annapurna Circuit, circumnavigates some of the world's highest summits. Starting at the southeast corner of the Annapurna range, the route heads north over Thorung La pass -- the world's highest at 5416 meters (17,769 feet) -- and finally loops back down to the southwest for a final panoramic view from Poon Hill.

Because of the immense variation in elevation, the trek starts in a subtropical climate with banana and mango trees, rises to an frozen alpine desert, completely devoid of vegetation, and finally returns to the tropical valley. On the way, I walked through the seasons, starting in a hot, humid summer, rising through the golden birch trees at the height of their autumn color, into the cold, crisp winter air of Thorung La, and then back again.

In contrast with most of the other trekkers, I traveled alone with neither a porter nor a guide. Guide services are cheap, so they're not financially prohibitive, but when I travel, I prefer to exercise my independence and self-reliance. I was constantly asked, "Aren't you lonely?" And at times, I was. But for the most part, I always had travel companions that I met on the trail or at restaurants and hotels. Traveling alone, I found myself more inclined to chat with other porters and guides, who often had valuable insights about the people and terrain. In fact, I met a number of other trekkers from around the world who quickly became friends generously invited me into their homes should I ever care for a visit.

The Annapurna Circuit route is remarkably well-developed as a centuries-old trade route between the rural villages and has been frequented by Western visitors since the 1970s. But even knowing this, I was shocked at the amenities offered by the restaurants and hotels. Only once did I pay more than a dollar for a hotel, yet I almost always found myself in a clean room with a solar-heated shower. Restaurants, catering to Western palettes, have extensive menus offering vast selections of international fare. And while the food is often different from what you might expect, it is invariably delicious. Although some rooms are lit by candlelight, electricity is available in most places thanks to a number of hydroelectric facilities along the route. Having left my two-ounce battery charger in Kathmandu, I felt pretty foolish at the end of my trek, carrying two pounds of dead batteries that I purchased along the route.

Of course, it's not the hotels and restaurants that make the Annapurna Circuit a world-famous destination. Throughout the trek, there are stunning views of the massive Tilcho Peak, Lamjung Himal, Nilgiri Mountain, Machhapuchhre, and the four Annapurna summits. Early in the trip, I found myself in a steep valley, carpeted in a deep green with dozens of waterfalls, hundreds of feet high, tumbling down into powerful Marsyangdi River. At the end of the valley, Kangaru Himal rises high into the sky as a surreal backdrop. Surely, I thought to myself, this is the legendary paradise of Shangri La.

Despite being days away from the nearest road, I was never far from civilization. Towns are rarely more than a 90-minute walk apart, and even between the towns, there are farm houses and tea shops. Even at Thorung La pass, where the air is too thin and the temperatures too harsh for even the toughest alpine plants, a tea shop welcomes trekkers during the height of the tourist season.

Along the way, friendly locals call out "Namaste!," a multipurpose Nepali greeting that may loosely be used to say "good morning," "thank you," or "farewell." Most Nepalis speak at least a little bit of English, and they are invariably interested in sharing their knowledge of the area, learning about my travels, or looking through my guide books and maps.

Prior to my departure, I scoured Kathmandu to find the long slender balloons used for making balloon animals, a treat that proved incredibly popular with kids and often prompted hysterical laughter from the adults. When I emptied my pockets of the balloons, I'd pick up the yellow gum wrappers that litter the trail and fold them into Origami cranes, another popular treat.

Aside from the villagers and other trekkers, I frequently shared the trail with a variety of animals. Yaks, cows, goats, dogs and chickens all freely wander along the trails. And at times, especially when crossing bridges, I had to stand aside for several minutes to allow long trains of donkeys or massive goat herds to go the other direction.

According to the American government, travel to Nepal right now is highly discouraged as the country moves into a likely civil war. Maoist rebels have secured large portions of land in the mountains, pushing to overthrow the king and form a Communist regime. And while the tourists typically aren't in any physical danger, they will almost certainly pay a price. When passing through their territory, the Maoists, guns tucked under their jackets or stashed in their handbags, demand money from the trekkers in the range of $15 to $25. In exchange, they provide a receipt, good for future encounters, indicating that a "voluntary donation" has been paid.

The extortion doesn't stop with the tourists. Lodge owners are required to pay 50,000 Rupees each year. And while $715 might not sound like much to a wealthy westerner, typical room rates of 50 Rupees per night, or about 70 cents, put the figures into perspective. Furthermore, the Maoists have made a habit of demanding free meals for 30 to 40 men at a time. The lodge owners have no reasonable alternative but to acquiesce. As the situation has deteriorated over the last four years, tourism has declined dramatically, further hurting the local business owners.

Unfortunately, no solution is in sight. The police forces steer clear of the Maoist strongholds and the wildly unpopular king hasn't demonstrated any interest in moving the country toward Democracy, despite international incentives.

On the last day of my trek, I woke before five to see the sunrise from the top of Poon Hill, 1000 feet above the Maoist stronghold of Gorepani. Looking to the north and east, the snowcapped peaks of the Annapurna Region were silhouetted against the dark sky. Soon the sun started to pour over the mountains, sending visible shafts of light through the atmosphere and tipping the peaks in an ephemeral pink. On this, my thirteenth day of trekking, I left the mountains behind and returned to the city of Pokhara. It was a remarkably fast tour, as most guide books recommend at least 17 days for the route. Personally, I like to move quickly and didn't have any trouble with acclimatization.

Even without the Maoist presence, I fear that the Nepali back-country, as it exists today, may not be around for much longer. Roads have already started to penetrate deep into the mountains, and I'm guessing that most of the Annapurna Circuit will be accessible by car within two decades. While this is a sign of progress for the impoverished Nepali people, the scars will be inevitable on the face of the Himalayas.

Bishnu, the young woman on the bus, eventually did give me a gift. While the bus was stopped for minor repairs, she bought food, insisted that I take half, and emphatically refused repayment. As long as people like Bishnu live in Nepal, paved roads and tourist buses will never destroy the country's most priceless asset -- its people.

Porters carry unwieldy loads Porters carry unwieldy loads
Terraced rice fields Terraced rice fields
I made origami cranes from gum wrappers for the kids I made origami cranes from gum wrappers for the kids
Mules cross a cable bridge Mules cross a cable bridge
Trails are blasted out of towering stone walls Trails are blasted out of towering stone walls
Workers beat buckwheat to separate the chaff Workers beat buckwheat to separate the chaff
Thorung La, the world's highest pass Thorung La, the world's highest pass
A boy raises a yak's head, fresh from the slaughter A boy raises a yak's head, fresh from the slaughter
Making balloon animals for Nepali kids Making balloon animals for Nepali kids
Not my size Not my size
Radiant green of the rice fields Radiant green of the rice fields
Out to be seen Out to be seen
Same butterfly, wings closed Same butterfly, wings closed
View from Poon Hill at sunrise View from Poon Hill at sunrise
Lake Pokhara Lake Pokhara
Ferris wheel on the shores of Lake Pokhara Ferris wheel on the shores of Lake Pokhara
Boudhanath Stupa, Nepal's largest Boudhanath Stupa, Nepal's largest

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.