Zen and the Art of Slow Trekking
Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
By Stephen Tapply
“Namaste”, I smiled, as I handed over my Annapurna Conservation Area Permit at the Chame checkpoint. I had been trekking for a little more than half an hour since my late, relaxed breakfast.
The officer who took my permit slowly copied the salient details into his logbook.
“Where from today?” he asked without raising his head.
“And where going?” he continued.
“Chame,” I replied.
Now he did look up. Glancing at his puzzled colleagues, he informed me, “Is possible to reach Pisang today.”
I shook my head. “Pisang takes me two more days after Chame.”
Confused looks, and then one of the soldiers asked. “How many days from Besi?”
(Besi, or Besisahar, is the starting point for the Annapurna Circuit. Most trekkers get from Besi to Chame by day three.)
They were surprised, but now they understood. They smiled. I retrieved my permit, said thank you, and departed.
I ambled along the single rutted street past the dilapidated wooden lodges looking like cheap sets from a B cowboy movie. Crossing the Marsyandi river I found a lodge with a particularly good view of Lamjung Himal and poked my head into the kitchen. The owner, a robust woman with a baby strapped to her back, was cooking rice and lentils for the ubiquitous dahl bat. She looked up curiously, not expecting visitors so early in the day.
“Can I have small pot milk tea, please…and you have room?”
She looked at her watch with some concern. “You want room? Now?”
I nodded. She shrugged her shoulders. Since any other trekkers wouldn’t be stopping for at least four hours, I looked at several rooms, picked the one with the best sunrise view, then we returned to the kitchen for my tea and a chat. I learned that since moving from farming to lodge-keeping, Kanti and her husband could now afford to send their two other children to a school in Pokhara. Kanti had been there once, but found it too busy. Two days later, I arrived in Pisang, to stay in the lodge run by her sister, bringing news of the family. Not surprisingly, my welcome there was particularly warm.
Trekking as slowly as I did meant that I almost always arrived before other trekkers. This gave me first choice of room and, with no other guests to contend with, the owners had more time to sit and talk.
But trekking for only two or three hours most days didn’t make the Circuit any less strenuous. An early arrival at my destination meant that I could pack my daysac and set off to take advantage of the views from the ridges on either side of the valley, climbing anything from 500m to 1300m. On several occasions I stayed two nights, taking a packed lunch and spending the second day on a long, high excursion, often to places few trekkers visit.
Ice Lake Above Manang, with the Summit of Annapurna III
Ice Lake Above Manang, with the Summit of Annapurna III
From 1200m above Marpha, for example, it is possible to see north into the Hidden Kingdom of Upper Mustang, and all the way into Tibet. Above Pisang, some careful navigation takes you high up the central ridge towards the quite breathtaking north face of Annapurna II. If you’re patient, you’re guaranteed to see an avalanche at what feels like very close range. A leisurely four-day side trip to Tilicho Lake saw me standing at over 5000m, with Tilicho Peak caught blindingly white between the two cobalt blues of the lake and the sky, colours you’d scarcely believe existed in nature. By the end of my trek I had climbed almost 10,000m in fourteen side trips.
If you’ve never trekked before, Nepal has to be the world’s most “trekker-friendly” destination. In the three main trekking regions there are lodges or converted tea houses, not just in each village, but also scattered along the trail at strategic locations. Accommodation costs between 20nrs and 100nrs per night for a single person (there are 120 Nepalese rupees to the English pound – you do the maths), and it is possible to eat well and sleep comfortably for around 700nrs a day.
Because of the lodges, it isn’t necessary to carry a tent, food, or cooking equipment. You need a couple of changes of socks, some warm clothes, wash kit, camera and sleeping bag. I was carrying just over eight kilos.
You could hire a porter and/or a guide, but on the Annapurna Circuit it really isn’t that necessary. You can’t get lost. Even if you don’t know where you’re going, the locals do. I used a second hand copy of the quite wonderful “Trekking in the Annapurna Region” by Bryn Thomas (shameless plug), supplemented by talking to lodge owners, locals and other trekkers. Sometimes I walked alone. Most days I walked in the company of other trekkers.
Many people take around three weeks to complete the circuit. About eighteen months earlier, I had done just that, with a nagging feeling that I was going too fast, that there were more places to explore, more people to talk to. Two weeks into my second trip round, I met Jean-Pierre. He had been trekking for about four weeks each year for the past fourteen. Every other year he returned to the Annapurna Circuit and took in different side trips. This was his seventh time, and I was quite envious.
The Zen bit.
Combining the Annapurna Circuit with a trek up into the Annapurna Sanctuary, I walked for a total of eight weeks. That’s fifty-six days waking up to sounds of rivers, waterfalls, birdsong, mule bells and the rhythmic clacking of prayer wheels. Fifty-six days without cars, buses, lorries or horns. No mobile phones, no email, no television, no newspapers. Everything happens at walking pace through the most incredible and varied scenery, through lush rice paddies via high, snow covered passes to bleak Himalayan desert. The air is so pure you could bottle it. The skies are so breathtakingly blue your friends won’t believe the photographs. Above 4000m the night sky is so clear that you see stars you never saw before with the naked eye, and the Milky Way, far from being a vague, insubstantial smear, stands out like a broad swathe of white emulsion, as if carelessly painted by some invisible giant’s brush. I’ve subsequently met people who weren’t convinced. “I’ve seen stars in the desert, the Alps, from a boat at sea…” they say. So have I, and trust me, none of these compare to the views you get at serious height, where not only is there no atmospheric haze, there almost isn’t any atmosphere.
Eight weeks still wasn’t nearly enough. I’ll be back.
If you’re thinking of trekking in Nepal, and have enough time, the Annapurna Circuit is the most wonderful route – and you don’t have to backtrack.
You also don’t have to walk the dusty road from Besisahar to Khude. There’s a peaceful, solitary track that runs from the other side of the river straight to Bhulebhule. For details, and some other side trips not yet in any of the guide books, see my trekking webpage.