Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

My traumatic experience on Mt. Kilimanjaro did not dampen my spirit of adventure in mountain trekking. On the contrary, it intensified it, not only in me but also in the rest of my fellow trekkers.

Nepal, being a paradise for mountaineers and trekkers, was the obvious choice for our gang of the six die-hard trekkers. With better preparation this time, both physical and mental, my friends and I were ready for the challenge.


Among the world's fourteen peaks above 8,000 meters high, eight, including the highest peak Mt. Everest are located in the kingdom of Nepal. With numerous other lesser known peaks in Himalayan Mountains, Nepal is a paradise for mountaineers and trekkers.

There are many trekking routes to choose from in Nepal; they vary from easy walks lasting for a few days to strenuous expeditions that take up to three weeks.

The Annapurna Region, with Mt. Annapurna I as its highest peak standing above 8,000 meters is the most popular trekking destination in Nepal. There are a number of scenic treks to choose from in this region. Amongst the more popular ones are the Annapurna Sanctuary and Annapurna Circuit.

The Annapurna Sanctuary takes about 10 days for a return journey starting from the lake-resort town of Pokhara to the Annapurna Base Camp at just over 4000 meters. The Annapurna Circuit has a total distance of about 240 kilometers and will normally require more than 2 weeks to complete. As the name suggests, this trail goes on a circuitous route around the Annapurna massif. The highlight of the Annapurna Circuit is crossing the Thorung La Pass at over 5,400 meters located at about midway of the circuit. Thorung La Pass is the highest point of Annapurna Circuit. It connects the narrow Marshangdi river valley on the right with the valley of Kali Gandaki on the left.

Annapurna Circuit offers many options for trekkers depending on the their experience and time availability. The easier and more popular one is the Jomson Trek, which starts from west of Pokhara and ascends to Jomson and Muktinath (3,800 meters) in about 7 days. One can have a choice of returning to Pokhara by air from Jomson or to trek all the way back to Pokhara, which will take another 4 days.

The most strenuous part of the Circuit is to cross the Thorung La Pass. To do this one has to start from east of Pokhara, cross the Pass and descend to Muktinath. From here one can return to Pokhara by air from Jomson or descend all the way to the starting point of Jomson Trek to complete the circuit. To cross Thorung La Pass and return to Pokhara by air from Jomson would take about 12 days or another 4 days by foot from Jomson.

We, the group of 6 Malaysians - Kenny, KC, Kok Peng, Ooi, Arnold, myself and an American friend, Larry who all had, except the rookie Arnold, successfully trekked to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro a year ago, chose the more challenging part of the Annapurna Circuit. We would ascend from east of Pokhara to cross the Thorung La Pass and return to Pokhara by air from Jomson.

Our group was assigned a chief guide, an assistant guide and three porters. The assistant guide also acted as a "front runner" who would move ahead of the pack to arrive early at the next overnight stop to book suitable accommodation for the trekkers.

We started our journey by bus from Kathmandu to Besisahar, a town about 200 km away and east of Pokhara. At Besisahar, the motorised road ends. On the way, the bus stopped a couple of times for passengers to alight and in one of these stops our group, including the guides and porters, all got down to stretch ourselves and have some refreshments. Returning to the bus I saw that all our backpacks and other belongings left in the bus were ransacked. I soon discovered that my waist pouch containing my Nikon F60 with a zoom lens was missing. Kenny too lost his Pentax camera. I lost my temper and shouted at our guide for not pre-warning us or at least stationing one of the porters in the bus to look after our belongings. Was it an ill omen? I wondered.

Lost my other camera while photographing this unusual scene of a 'public bath' - was it a setup??

Our itinerary for the next 12 days was first to trek from Besisahar to Manang, where we would have a mandatory rest day for acclimatisation and then proceed to cross the Thorung La Pass (5,400 m) and descend to Muktinath and Jomson where we would fly to Pokhara. We had overnight stops in teahouses at the following towns and villages:

Name of town/village Elevation Distance trekked
1. Bahundanda
1,200 m 18 km
2. Chamje
1,450 m 12 km
3. Bagachap
2,070 m 15 km
4. Chame
2,600 m 13 km
5. Pisang
3,200 m 16 km
6. Manang (2 nights)
3,600 m 12 km
7. Yak Karka
4,150 m 9 km
8. Thorung Phedi
4,550 m 8 km
9. Muktinath
3,800 m 14 km
10. Jomson
2,700 m 15 km

click here for map

Preparing food in the kitchen

The teahouses that we stayed along the route were local inns and lodges, which provided basic accommodation and meals. The twin or triple-sharing bedrooms were spartan consisting only of single beds with thin mattresses, sheets and pillows but without blankets. So a warm sleeping bag is a necessity. Usually, a latrine/toilet (without toilet paper) and a shower room are provided outside. A small quantity of hot water was available for showers, however, more often than not it was quickly depleted because some trekkers indiscriminately used it for washing clothes. Electricity supply, if available, was unpredictable and gas lamps and candles were often used. A touch is therefore a useful tool to have at nights.

The meals provided by the teahouses are mainly of local diet, daal bhaat, which consists of a large quantity of plain rice with a bowl of lentil soup and some vegetables or potatoes. Personally, I had taken a liking for daal bhaat, because it looked not only more appetising compared to other fried oily foods but also healthier as it provided an abundant supply of carbohydrate and hence energy necessary for trekking. However, half way through the journey Kenny became "allergic" to daal bhaat and would prefer to have fried rice instead even though he was aware that the latter was not very hygienically prepared! Meats were only available at some bigger towns like Manang and Muktinath where Yak steaks were also served. Ooi, conscious of his cholesterol intake and stringently avoids egg-yoke, could not resist the temptation and savoured a juicy thick chunk of Yak steak at both Manang and Muktinath even though at Muktinath there were not enough Yak steaks for all of us.

For drinks, hot milk tea or lemon tea was popular among the trekkers. Hot boiled water was also available for trekkers to prepare their own tea or coffee in their Thermos. Mineral water in plastic bottles could be purchased in all shops and restaurants but prices varied tremendously depending on the distances they had to be transported from. A 1-litre bottle of mineral water, available at 15 Rupees in Pokhara, was sold for 115 Rupees in Thorung Phedi at the foot the Pass! However, trekkers were not encouraged to purchase plastic-bottled water, as plastic bottles are difficult to dispose of. At Manang and Muktinath, under the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) and funded by New Zealand, purified drinking water was available in designated outlets at half the price of bottled mineral water.

The trail from Besisahar to Thorung Phedi generally follows along the steep slopes of Marshangdi River Valley. It passes through many villages and small settlements dotted along the route and on both sides of the valley. Since ancient time, the route has been the only transportation and communication link between these villages. Therefore it crosses the Marshangdi River numerous times. From Besisahar to Manang, a distance of about 90km, there is a rise in elevation of about 3,000 m, giving an average gradient of 1 in 30, a gentle slope for a mountain trail. However, in many places the trail rises steeply above the Marshangdi River only to descend equally steeply to cross the river to reach the settlement located on the other side of the valley. I estimate that, considering all the unwelcome descents and ascents, we must have ascended an altitude close to 9,000 m within a distance of 90 km. For this reason, the trail is strenuous and unfortunately Kok Peng became the victim of this tortuous route and at Manang he had to abandon the journey due to exhaustion. Luckily he managed to get a seat to fly from a small airstrip near Manang to Pokhara. Poor fellow, we all missed him and especially his percussive snoring once his head touched his pillow and sometimes while sitting with his eyes closed and his upper torso swinging in the midst of a drinking session!

Marshangdi River Valley

The trail is an ancient trade route - similar to the ancient Silk Route of Xinjiang, China - and porters and animals have been moving goods since it was opened centuries ago. Today, porters are also used to carry the main bulk of trekkers' luggage. They often carry their loads - usually more than 30 kg - by means of a band going around the load and supported by the foreheads. In ancient Silk Route of China, camels were used for the transportation of merchandise across deserts and mountains but in Nepal mules are used instead. Often we met "mule trains" quite affluently outfitted with colourful saddle blankets and wearing clanging bells around their necks jamming the trail. The trekkers must make way and move to the inside of the trail lest they be shoved down the steep mountain slope. According to our chief guide, Limbu, the mule trains were either owned or hired by traders in Manang to transport goods from Besisahar and the poor local farmers could not afford to pay for such services. It was therefore a common sight to see the villagers, young and old, men and women, carrying huge loads of farm produce on their backs to the hill merchants and replenishing their domestic supplies, mainly salt and other basic daily necessities not produced by them.

A mule train

Walking along the trail can sometimes be a frightening experience. The trail, especially along the steep and rocky hillsides, often narrows to a mere foot-wide ledge and is particularly treacherous when wet as it is slippery and it overlooks a sheer River. A slip would be fatal. Along the route from Bagarchap to Chame, we encountered a couple of recent landslides. It was reported that a villager perished in one the night before. At these locations we could not help but to be extra cautious, as loose stones and sand were still moving down the eroded slopes. We also encountered a broken bridge and we had to make a tortuous detour to cross the river to avoid a vertical drop of a few hundred meters into the swift and roaring Marshangdi.

In spite of the various hazards along the route, all of us enjoyed the scenic beauty of this country especially as was seen from the higher Annapurna range. The snow-capped mountains, deep gorges, white waters of Marshangdi River and terraced hillsides planted with crops like rice, corns and wheat were sights to behold. The most consistent feature of our journey was the endless but pleasant change in environment and lives we encountered all along the route. The changing of vegetation from lush subtropical forests at the lowland to alpine meadows in mid-hills and barren wind-swept plateau in the highlands; of the various ethnic groups along the route, from mainly Hindus of Brahmins and Chhetris casts at the lower hills to devout Buddhists and Sherpas of the Himalaya who have earned fame as Gurkha soldiers and of animals from water buffaloes to the sacred cows and awful looking yaks all served to enhance the colourful mosaic of the mountains. Even the trail was changing; it could be mud, gravel, rock, snow or ice. The weather too could change anytime. From Chame to Pisang (they don't grow bananas here) we started out in fine weather, but an hour or so later it began to drizzle and very soon it turned into a heavy snowfall. It was indeed a very pleasant experience to walk in the snow as if we were in an alpine forest in Europe during winter.

The beautiful scenery along the trail

The day after the snowfall and while we were near Manang we met other trekkers coming from the opposite direction. Many of them looked tired and sad. We could not help but to accost some of them and we were told that they had to descend because the Pass was not passable due to thick snow. Though we sympathised with them, we were concerned ourselves that if the situation did not improve in two to three days or instead deteriorated we would suffer the same fate. We began to think of a contingency plan. To trek all the way back to the starting point would not be a good idea, and so an alternative would be to fly from Manang to Pokhara. As we were now a group of eleven, we were prepared to even charter a 16-seater plane to take us to Pokhara. Limbu conveyed our contingency plan to his office in Kathmandu and we were assured that it would be activated if needed.


We reached Manang, the biggest town on the eastern side of the Annapurna Circuit after six continuous days of trekking. It was in Manang that we had to have a mandatory rest day to acclimatise ourselves to high altitude. Though we were quite familiar with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) - the unpleasant effects of travel to high altitude, we attended a talk on this given by The Himalaya Rescue Association (HRA) in Manang town. The talk was very informative. And I was particularly convinced by the speaker who, in answering my queries, categorically affirmed that losing one's vision at high altitude was a form of AMS and that taking Diamox would prevent it. I had a history of temporarily loosing my sight when I reached the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro (5.600 m) a year ago and in spite of consulting a couple of doctors and eye specialists at home, I was still ignorant of how to effectively address this illness at high altitude. Better prepared this time (both physically and mentally), I was ready to cross the Thorung La Pass without Diamox. I have been wary of taking Diamox - or any drugs for that matter, because I always like to know what my body is doing and I don't want any drugs to mask my bodily signals.

Before departing for Nepal, I requested from Holiday Mountain Treks & Expedition, our trekking agent in Kathmandu, to assign a porter specifically for me on the day of crossing the Pass. This was my contingency plan in the event that I was to lose my eyesight before reaching the Pass and I had to descend. But after reassessing the condition of the trail, which in many places could only accommodate one trekker at one time for safety reasons, I realised that a porter alone would not be able to guide me down the narrow and steep trail if I could not see. He would virtually have to carry me down on his back! To assign more than one porter to me would jeopardise the progress of our other trekkers. The only alternative to my contingency plan would be for me to make it cocksure that history does not repeat itself when I made my attempt to cross the Pass. Therefore I decided to be on Diamox - a Hobson's choice indeed! But I never regretted it.

At Manang, KC and Arnold showed some symptoms of mild AMS; the former had a loss of appetite and the latter a stomach upset. All of us decided to begin taking Diamox at Manang. A tube of Diamox brought by Kok Peng was handed over to me and I had to dispense the drug to all trekkers, except Larry who carried his own, by breaking a 250mg tablet into two halves at breakfasts and dinners. After a day or two, Ooi who must have found Diamox appetising, requested to have a three-quarter portion of the tablet instead of a half as recommended!

Diamox is a sulpha drug, which helps one to metabolise more oxygen. It also increases renal bicarbonate excretion. This side effect was most unwelcome when we had to stumble to the loo located outside the teahouse in the middle of the dark and sub-freezing nights. But soon Larry came out with an innovative idea of making a better use of the empty plastic bottle by removing its top portion and placing it outside his room for all to use at night. However, his improvisation came a bit too late, because after a night of inconvenience, our urge to get up at night for the loo had subsequently diminished and we were soon back to normal.

The principle of acclimatisation is to "climb high and sleep low" and so in our mandatory rest day at Manang, we made a 2-hour short trek up a mountain to "Glacier View". On the way we walked past a small lake fed by water from the glacier and from here onwards, we had to content with trekking up the steep and snowy mountain by a small icy and slippery trail. At the ridge of the mountain there was a drink hut where hot drinks were served. From here, views of the surrounding mighty mountains and the beautiful Manang valley below were simply stunning. After lingering here for an hour or so to soak up the magnificent views, we descended to Manang. Little did we realise then that this acclimatisation exercise was a precursor of the journey we had to go through for the next few days.

Leaving Manang, we did not meet trekkers coming down from the opposite direction and so we knew that the Pass was clear and were hopeful that it would remain open for us to go through in a couple of days' time. However on our way to Thorung Phedi, we did meet one lone trekker trudging down the slope and we stopped to ask him. He told us rather remorsefully that he took more than 10 hours to cross Thorung La Pass from Muktinath and in his own words, he concluded: "I'm glade to be alive!" He was obviously quite unaware that Thorung La was a like a one-way street and to cross it he had to approach it from the right!

We reached Thorung Phedi Base Camp at the foot of Mt. Thorung after spending a night in Yak Kharka. It was cold in Thorung Phedi and KC reported that his thermometer read -6 degrees C in the early evening! The base camp lodge was big and that night, we were told that there were more than 80 trekkers staying here. We were glad that for the first time we had the chance to occupy a room with a toilet attached, never mind about having three of us sharing one room. The dinning hall was crowded even before dinner time because trekkers congregated there to stay warm as there were charcoal burners put under the tables, which were covered with thick blankets to keep the heat in. We chanced to talk to the owner of the lodge in the dinning room who looked stunning with a fur hat made from a red fox hide. Realising that we came from Malaysia, he began to converse with us in smattering Bahasa (better than Ooi's). He told us that he was in KL & Penang in the early seventies for three years as a "five-foot way" vendor selling souvenirs from Nepal. After his return, he started the lodge twenty years ago when trekkers first started to come to this area. He now owned the lodge and had two children studying in boarding schools in the US. It was indeed a classic "rags to riches" story.

After dinner, we had a little discussion about our Thorung La Pass assault the next morning. Limbu advised that we had to start at 5 in the morning, as according to him we would encounter high winds up the slope after mid-morning if we were to have a late start. Further, if we were to descend from the Pass to Muktinath in the afternoon, the water from the melting snow would make the trail wet and slippery. Therefore to make our journey more pleasant we had no choice but to make an early start. We also agreed that we would trek in a single file with me leading the trekkers. I was chosen because, according to KC, I was a "perpetual motion machine" with a consistent pace most comfortable to all. I was feeling strong, confident and focused and the possibility of losing my sight did not cross my mind at all.

We were awake at 4 in the morning and all of us were eager and ready to do battle with the mountains. No one had shown any symptoms of AMS. After our breakfast we started the ascent by about 5.30. It was still dark and we had to use our torches to see the trail. After an hour or so we reached High Camp, the last and the highest lodge along the Annapurna Circuit. We took a short rest and had a hot drink before plodding again slowly up the meandering path through snow and screes. By then the morning sun had arisen and we could see the glittering white peaks and valleys all around us. The scenery was beautiful and it was the first time that I was in such a serene and pleasant environment.

Before our next rest stop we noticed that Larry was falling behind and struggling to keep pace. He was feeling exhausted and we advised him to give up his backpack for Limbu to carry. Though reluctant to comply, he nevertheless handed over his video camera to Limbu. At another rest stop Larry was feeling more exhausted and Kenny and I insisted that he surrendered this backpack to Limbu to which he finally complied.

We summited a few cols not realising that they were not the real Thorung La Pass. Each time we reached the top of a hill we were disappointed to find another waiting for us. Nevertheless our spirits remained high and we continued to slog on slowly and steadily. Finally after about 4 hours of struggle we were all pleasantly surprised when we reached another col which was the real Thorung La col. But I only believed it when I saw a board with the words "Thorung Pass 5415m" written on it. Triumphantly I raised my hands and yelled out aloud: "I've made it, and I can still see!" We congratulated each other for our effort and settled down for a hot drink and a photo session thereafter.

The descent from the Pass to Muktinath was an anticlimax. The trail was long, steep and slippery and at many places we could slide down the icy slopes on our bottoms. However, we found it more tedious to slide than to gingerly tread our way down the slopes. We finally reached our hotel in Muktinath at about 3.30 pm, exhausted after10 long hours on the trail. So, if descending was that tough, it was no wonder that the lone trekker we met earlier took 10 hour to ascend at nearly the cost of his life! In Muktinath all of us were too tired to visit any of the famed temples and monasteries. After an early dinner we were soon in bed sleeping away an exhausting day. We left Muktinath the next morning and trekked to Jomson. Though the journey was pleasant at the beginning, we encountered strong head winds in the late morning and afternoon. We finally reached Jomson and we celebrated our success with a lot of beers and the locally produced apple brandy. We delayed our celebrations until we reached Jomsom because we were still on Diamox in Muktinath as AMS could still strike within 24 hours after the ascent. We flew the next day to Pokhara and thus ended our adventure with a happy note, all except Kok Peng.

Now that I know how to address the problem with my vision at high altitude, I would like to carry on trekking to higher peaks. But, at 61, I have had not many trekking years left. Before I call it quits, I would certainly like to go beyond 6000m. Perhaps trekking and climbing up Island Peak at over 6000m near Mt. Everest would be a happy swansong for me.

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end 2008