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
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
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
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.