“Coming down the mountains!” Completing our Annapurna Circuit trek

Lacy: Being as we have been off the Circuit several weeks now and are currently in Malaysia, this post is a bit overdue.  Apologies for the delay, but this post, while a little long, will tell the tale of how we ended our trek.  I LOVED hiking the Circuit.  It was so different from anything else we have done.  Yes, we hiked 800 miles of the PCT last year, but this is literally and figuratively worlds apart.  Passing through Himalayan villages, staying in tea houses, waking up early to catch a view of the magnificent tall mountains, being immersed in a completely different culture and having hot food all day while hiking that we didn’t have to cook are all new to us.  I could hike every single day for years on end.  It is one of my favorite past times, but even Daddie Gizmo has had enough sometimes and so we ended our hike and spent 4 days in Pokhara before returning to Kathmandu and flying to Malaysia.  💜

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Hiking into Kagbeni, a stunning oasis north of the Annapurna Circuit, housing a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that has been in use for nearly 600 years

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A rare photo of the two of us hiking together that Cristoph took

Rob: After spending a few days decompressing in Muktinath we departed for Kagbeni, a Tibetan village in northern Nepal. Over hundreds of years, redrawn boarders, boarders redrawn again and even again, it was never under the rule of China. Nepali and other cultural influence have also been minimal because of the remoteness of the village and the presence of a 585+ year old Tibetan Buddhist Temple & Monastery that is still in full use today. So… it’s said that it is as close to a purely Tibetan village as it can be, even inside of Tibet. If you purely view the oldest part of the village and Temple, I can definitely understand why. It is, however, attached to a typical mountain Nepali village that caters to trekkers from near and far.  The authentic and amazing old village has doorways that are all wooden, about 5 feet tall at most, and connect a warren of stone tiny alleys that connect multiple layers of homes and barns as one contiguous structure. Windows have tiny intricately carved wooden shutters used like vents. Rain cleans the pathways downhill to the river and fills the rice paddies, local gardens and apple orchards that are all woven together in a lush oasis tucked in a tiny river valley high up on a very, very barren mountainside.  I’ve used the word charming once in my life before at some point, I’m certain, but it’s also very descriptive of Kagbeni. We enjoyed a full day’s rest, Yak Mo-Mos (dumplings), the local Raksi and sitting in on afternoon Prayer time with the young Monks of the Monastery.  Lacy says Kagbeni is probably her favorite Nepali village of the entire circuit.

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Stone alleys in Kagbeni

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Lovely views in then Tibetan village

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Very old stupa at the entrance to Kagbeni…

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With beautifully painted interior

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Leaving after 2 nights in Kagbeni, we hiked 5 hours turning south for the first time on the trek. Marpha was another one of the little mountain towns with similar charm (said it again). Trekking “down” this side of the Annapurna Circuit hasn’t been the same as our previous 2 weeks of challenging ascent nor does it have the same vistas.  It’s been rocky, dry, downhill and dusty. Figure 8 didn’t hesitate to duck us under one of those 5 foot doorways the very moment we reached Marpha to have us sit down to a little reward for our efforts of the day. Thongba is a warm millet based beer found in just a few places in Nepal that she enjoyed when she was in Nepal five years ago.  A generous amount of fermented millet is scooped into a big pewter schooner that has a lid and pierced pewter straw. Boiling water is poured over the millet and you begin a slow stirring and mouth watering process as your beer  “brews”. It takes 10 minutes for the water to become cloudy and cool enough to drink. It was a fantastic reward for the day and the last 10 minutes of patient stirring. It has a slightly sweet, grain like taste with the tang of fresh alcoholic beverage. After you drain your schooner, you start over with more boiling water. It was a little weaker tasting the second round but still really great. I hope YouTube can teach me how to make this when I get home. I can’t wait to try it out on so many of our friends!
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Thongba!

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Entering Marpha

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Visiting the local monastery

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Prayer wheels up the stairs

Our 3rd day down was from Marpha to Kalopani. We knew it would be a long day to start but we were aiming to make Tatopani in 2 long days versus 3 short ones. There was a lot of construction along the old trail, which is becoming a new road, so we crossed a suspension bridge to the other side of the river; thereby, hugging the opposite side of the valley on the newer trekking route. It wasn’t long before we picked up a local dog to join us on our route. Soon after we were also joined by a young French guy named Christoph and 5 cows!  These cows had also decided that today would be the day they moved a village or 3 downriver and were with us at least 2/3 of the way until they apparently reached their destination and were herded away by a little old local woman.  The rain had been very intense along this section of the trail / road / river for the last few weeks. The road on the other side of the river had several landslides that made the road completely impassable. Busses would have to pull to both sides of the avalanche so passengers could climb over to continue their journeys. On our side of the river, we followed the trail up and down the hillside taking several small detours where the trail had been washed out or where the swollen river had simply re-carved the fields and riverside.  We (Lacy, myself, the dog, French guy & all the cows) reached a small village that had become completely flooded by the widening river. With the help of several local men, they guided us along a flooded former path and across several stream areas. We thought we were all set to rejoin the trail with just wet shoes until we reached the far side of town where the muddy water was about 3 ft deep for a 100 foot span. Once again, with their guidance to stay centered where the path or road would have normally been, we crossed carefully, but easily, to the other side. With waves of “Thanks” and “Danyabads” we set off for the remaining 3-4 hours of trail with mud filled shoes, socks and gaiters that smelled of muddy trail, river silt and manure. It was a relief to stroll into Tatopani, rinse our legs and sit down right at dinner time to a cold Gorkha beer and generous plates of Dal Bhat.
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Trail washed away in monsoon season

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This is the main road that is completely turned to a river. I later saw a man using the running water to clean clothes in what is normally the road!

The following morning we began early in the rain and mist. The previous day’s dusty roads were now just big mud puddles and rock. We had to follow the road for a few klicks due to rockslides taking the trail that ran above the road down into the road itself. We could hear rockslides on the other side of the canyon as we climbed through the rubble on our own side of the river. After a long suspension bridge to cross over, we were in dense vegetation river valley jungle and back on a safe and beautiful trail for several hours. Our tummies were grumbling after 5 straight hours of and 11 miles of climbing down through rain forest and along a raging river below. Our French tag-along trekker may have gotten more miles in during our morning than he expected and was ready to stop for lunch when we crossed back over the river to the little village of Dana. I needed fried rice and a large beer as well as a break for my tender knees. Several straight days of big downhill were taking their toll. Before we reached Tatopani, we passed an area of road totally blocked by mud and rock slide that had a big jam of people, jeeps, trucks and busses waiting for one lone bulldozer to help rebuild the road to at least passable conditions.  It looked like there was going to be a very long wait for everyone.  We simply excused ourselves through the crowd, crossed a narrow row of freshly plowed mud and continued on down the hill. I did have a sly little smile cross my face as we did so too.  Even though it was another long day on trail and road, I’m certain we reached Tatopani hours before anyone did by the main road alone.  Entering the village, we caught up to our friends, Ryan & Meg, and agreed to  all take a Jeep to Beni the next morning and eventually back to Pokhara. I gave myself a cold water “village” shower before a quick dip in a scalding hot spring just below our Tea House Cabin. Lacy showered and now that we were both refreshed, we ate and turned in early so we would be ready for the 6:30 am Jeep.

The recent week, climbing up and down Tilicho Lake and then further up and though Thorung La Pass, were a natural wind down from so much physical and mental work to accomplish the first 3/4 of our trek. Even so, I still felt the abruptness of the end of our trek as I put on sandals in the morning versus our routine of sock liners, socks, gaiters and hiking boots. It was a strange feeling as we had only decided the night before to end our circuit trek . I could also feel even more of the same coming from Figure 8 who would now go back to being Lacy by name as we were finishing the trail. After 22 days, our boots could dry and our bodies could rest but our emotions were still not ready to end our experience.

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Me and Ryan while we wait for the road to be rebuilt so we can pass. The four of us enjoyed milk teas to pass the time

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The Tata truck being pushed out of its mud hole while we all look on. Note how close we are to the river edge. All this crazy driving has been going on mere feet from rolling into the river.

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A glimpse of the insanely muddy road we bumped along on down the mountain

The Jeep ride to Pokhara with Ryan, Meg and 4 other passengers and driver would also be a memorable experience & E Ticket Ride. The first 4 hours were spent slogging through muddy roads rutted by tractors and huge 4 or 6 wheel drive Tata Trucks especially designed to travel just about anywhere. The Jeep, with all 9 of us crammed inside, negotiated these 3 foot deep ruts, big rocks and flooded roads better than you would believe if you were challenged with the same obstacle course yourself.  Important to note is that we are doing all this insane Jeep driving while on the side of a mountain overlooking the river we have been hiking along. Lacy had some serious nerves as the Jeep approached the edge of the road that naturally has no guardrails. We forded several deep streams with water splashing into the open windows and over the hood. That really seemed easy compared to the continual rock and mud crawl that we swerved along in the totally destroyed road for hours on end. We had to stop twice for bulldozers to create a path through the rubble and mud. Once we topped a small hill only to see the front end of one of the tank-like Tata trucks on the opposite side that was hopelessly buried in mud and had lodged itself into a spot between piles of rubble a foot or so too small for its wide body and huge tires. I watched a bulldozer approach from behind the truck to see how it might go about pulling it back, digging around it or what the plan might be? First, I was curious and second, I was selfishly trying to gauge how long this extraction might take. To my surprise (or maybe not) the dozer never slowed down and instead hit the back of the Tata with enough force that they both pushed through the thick mud and rubble and right across to our side of the road. The Tata sped on. The dozer dragged a little mud to the side. We all hopped back in the Jeep and we were off on our crazy ride again. We only had to climb out of the Jeep and all push us through the mud (that was a cross between wet cement and peanut butter consistency) one time. I was truly impressed with our driver. When we finally reached Pokhara some 8 hours later I resisted the urge to give him a hug and just shook his hand. We were safe and sound. Back on terra firma, we had completed a full circle of the Annapurna Circuit.

Many years ago all that made the Circuit were trails used daily by villagers to cross from one village to another. The Circuit literally drew a circle around the Annapurna Mountains I though IV. It used 2 main river valleys and 1 seriously high mountain pass to make the loop.  Modern progress has taken away some of the original pathways and replaced them with plowed rock roads. Often the trails were preserved or just moved to the opposite side of the river valleys. Villagers, cows, goats and a few motorcycles still prefer these trails to the now perpetually reconstructed and dusty roads. So did we, only taking the dirt or rock roads when there wasn’t any other option. The Circuit is also not a complete circle anymore. It looks more like an upside down U.  It’s not safe or practical to try and trek the lowest portion of the circuit since it is all road today and has been for many years.  What many trekkers do (as we did) is add in side trails and side trips off the circuit to build a 3 week itinerary that is actually much more challenging than the original circuit alone.
 It was these extra experiences that made the trip an amazing trek.  The Himalayas and the Annapurnas overall are all about the journey versus the destination. The experience will never be forgotten and it will be difficult to impossible to explain the full depth of our feelings, emotions and experience to anyone other than each other. I do hope we have helped carry you along for part of our journey and thank everyone so very much for all of your love, support and comments along the way. They get us both through the long days, sore muscles, the rain, the heat, the snow, freezing nights and make us smile for days and days.
Next up: Malaysia and prep for our sailing adventure!

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