Saturday, 24 December 2011

Around Annapurna

At the end of November we set off on our third and final Himalayan trek. The Annapurna Circuit is one of the world's classic walks, travelling up to the beautiful Manang valley and over a high pass to reach the Kali Gandaki valley, looping right around the Annapurna Massif. We had doubts as to whether this trek was worth doing for two reasons- it's immense popularity, and the controversial building of a road up both the eastern and western valleys of the trek. We decided to go and see it for ourselves before the arrival of roads change it for good. Our timing for this walk turned out to be perfect- the trekking season was ending and as a result there were hardly any tourists about. Most places we stayed it was just the two of us, while a fortnight ago they'd had to turn people away. The weather was also glorious, an unusual warm spell for December with clear skies and sunshine every day and none of the freezing cold tea houses of the Everest region.

Terraced rice paddies on the first day
We started off from the town of Besi Sahar, on the roof of a bus. It was Saturday and local teenagers were heading up the valley for a picnic, so the bus was packed. On top was the place to be, fantastic views of the beautiful river and the tropical vegetation, and a party atmosphere with all the lads singing. We chatted to them as we got thrown around on the roof- they were all keen to shake hands, which was challenging as we were busy trying to hang on! A really nice bunch to wave us off on the trek. 

The walk began heading upriver past citrus trees laden with oranges and limes, bananas and red-topped wild poinsettia (which grows as trees here rather than the mini versions you see in British supermarkets!). The first couple of days from village to village in this 
Harvest time in the fields
landscape were fascinating. It was harvest time so families were out in the fields, along with their buffaloes which they were using to help make elaborate hay bales. Harvest seemed a very happy time, the meadows full of singing as everyone worked together. The finished house-size bales are topped with a bunch of flowers making the terraced fields look very pretty. There is practically no flat land and everywhere is terraced, with paths winding between fields to link the ridge top villages.

A fascinating aspect of the Annapurna Circuit is the variety of geography- a couple of days later the scenery had changed completely. We were now in a river gorge with massive cliffs interspersed with pine forests. This is where we saw the most evidence of the new road that has appeared in sections up this valley over the last couple of years. 
Road building Nepalese style
The road is causing a lot of controversy not just amongst trekkers but also the local community. The popularity of this trek in high season means a lot of families here now depend entirely on tourism. With the arrival of the road, the number of trekkers in the area is sure to fall and many people are already pronouncing the circuit 'over', causing lodge owners major concern for their livelihoods. It will also probably bring landslides, already too frequent a cause of death in the valley. 

On the other hand, it offers development and better access to education and medical facilities. This was brought home when we saw an old lady being carried in a basket chair on a porter's back- we imagine she was being taken to medical help, probably at least a couple of days walk away. As the road's not complete, there's currently no traffic in the valley, but in the next few years that will change. It was certainly detrimental to our enjoyment of the walk- you don't come to Nepal to hear explosions and road drills! However, it was really interesting (and a bit scary) to watch workers precariously balanced on cliff edges as they threw boulders off into the river and dynamited sections of cliff face. 

As the days passed and we got higher, signs of the road faded away and the valley opened up into a landscape of dramatic eroded sandy cliffs and pine groves. An impressive 1500m slab curved up above us to the skyline, the Swarga Dar (Gateway to Heaven). The scenery seemed more Californian than Himalayan. This was the upper 
Medieval village of Bragha
Manang Valley, home to the Nyesyang people who would canter by on their decorated horses. The villages here were the most amazing we saw in Nepal, barely changed since medieval times. The houses are built of stone and wood, piled up one atop the other with narrow alleyways between the dwellings. Each family lives in a couple of rooms, with their animals beneath, along with hay and wood stores for the winter.

Horse caravan crossing the Thorung La
It was from here, 9 days in, that we climbed up through a lunar landscape of rock and mounds of scree, raptors soaring overhead and Himalayan blue sheep bounding across the path, to reach the 5420m Thorung La. The pass wasn't as dramatic as those in the Everest region (or as cold), but brought a new view of the desert like upper Kali Gandaki valley, gateway to the Mustang region, a restricted area for foreigners that leads to Tibet and used to be an important trading corridor. In the rain shadow of the mountains, the arid scenery couldn't be more different from the lush, rice terraced hillsides where we started the walk. It's also apple country, with lodges offering delicious thick cloudy apple juice, home 
Arid landscape of the Kali Gandaki valley
made cider and apple brandy, all happily sampled. Unfortunately for us, the road on this Western side of the trek is already complete and so the otherwise scenic flat bottomed valley comes with jeeps and the odd truck, throwing up clouds of dust in your face. After a couple of hours walking on this track we'd had enough and opted for a bus to skip two days of mainly road walking from Jomsom to Tatopani. Meaning 'hot water' Tatopani was a great place to stop, and we spent the whole evening relaxing in the hot springs by the river.

The next day we re-embarked on the trek with a 1750m climb out of the valley back into colourful, tropical terraced hillsides with gardens full of marigolds, children forcing oranges on us, before reaching the rhododendron forests of the higher ridges. I remember playing hide and seek inside rhododendron bushes in the park as a child, and this was like a scaled up version, the gnarled pink trunks twisting in all directions, festooned with ferns. It was really beautiful in these silent forests, sunlight streaming through between branches and pooling on the path. When out of the forest there were views of the Annapurnas, the impressive Machhapuchhare and Dhaulagiri. Our last night was spent in the lovely Gurung
Ghandruk village below the Annapurnas
 village of Ghandruk. This valley was new to us, the architecture and traditional dress both quite different. The prosperous looking two floor stone houses had carved windows, marigolds in pots and vegetables drying in the sun, all linked by stone flagged staircases and pathways. It was a lovely place to spend the night, but tinged with the sadness of knowing that the next day- day 50 of trekking in Nepal- was to be our last. We can't imagine a better way to have spent 7 weeks of our lives!

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