Diary: the Annapurna Circuit, our highest hike ever (5416 meters!)

Last Updated on by Charlotte van de Sande

We have been in Nepal for over two weeks now and have the time of our lives! After three days in Kathmandu, we went on to Pokhara where we walked the Annapurna Circuit for twelve days. In this blog, I will tell you more about this experience.


Kathmandu: smog, crowds and good food!

After a sleepless red-eye flight coming from Istanbul, we land early in the morning in Kathmandu. The next three nights we will stay in a nice Airbnb and immediately after arrival we get to bed, time for a little nap! A few hours later we wake up from my rumbling stomach: lunchtime! After a nice first introduction with momo (Nepalese dumplings, which are very tasty), we pick up our hike permits. These are needed for the Annapurna circuit, a major trekking that we intend to do.Kathmandu street tour

Free walking tour & food tour in chaotic Kathmandu

The following day we have a fun program: in the morning we do a free walking tour, where we get to see more of Kathmandu. The centre of Kathmandu is a big maze of narrow streets, honking scooters and street vendors. Through this tour, we get to hear more background about this bustle so that we appreciate Kathmandu more. Behind the dirty facades, we find beautiful temples, small courtyards and ancient history.Kathmandu tempel

In the afternoon we have booked a food tour where our guide takes us to all kinds of local places where we eat delicious dishes. From spicy samosa to lentil pancakes, and from Tibetan momo to sweet lassi (yoghurt dessert), we enjoy every bite.

Our last day in Kathmandu is all about arranging things: buy bus tickets, buy the last hiking gear and pack bags. Off to Pokhara, the second biggest city of Nepal and far more relaxing and laid back!Kathmandu street tour


Pokhara: the base for hikes in the Annapurna region, Nepal!

After a long day on the bus (Kathmandu to Pokhara is only 200 kilometres but it takes eight to nine hours), we arrive in the tourist town of Pokhara. The base for a lot of hikes in the Himalayas: Poon Hill track, Annapurna Sanctuary trek, Mustang trek, Annapurna Circuit and many more. There are so many hikes to choose from that there is a hike for everyone to enjoy all the beauty of Himalaya’s regardless of your age or fitness level. The area around Pokhara is the Annapurna mountains, with peaks up to 8091 meters high.

We relax one last day in Pokhara, where we go out for dinner with former colleague Sander. Then we get on the bus. Our backpacks are packed with, among other things, thick NOMAD sleeping bags against the cold, a walking stick and dozens of muesli bars!


The Annapurna Circuit

Departure to the Annapurna Circuit

We travel to the start of the Annapurna Circuit, Besi Sahar (three hours away by bus), after which we continue to Dharapani, our starting point for the hike (another 5 hours with a jeep). The original starting point of the Annapurna Circuit is Besi Sahar, however, over the years roads are built all the way to Manang. The downside of this expansion of road network is that some parts of the Annapurna Circuit are getting less interesting. That is why many tour operators start the trek from Chame (2700m). We decide, however, to start our trek at Dharapani (2200m), some villages before Chame. Some people even start the Annapurna trek from Manang (3500m)! Don’t make this poor decision, since you have to give your body time to get used to the attitude (i.e. make sure you don’t get altitude sickness).Jeep to Besi sahar(dag 0)

So to get from Pokhara to Dharapani, it is quite a distance that we have to cover. It takes up a full day. It is also possible to start your trek from Kathmandu, however, we are hiking a circuit and want to end up in Pokhara, it makes sense to start our trek from Pokhara since we leave part of our luggage behind.

The first day: 17 kilometres of hiking

During our first night in a tea house (the accommodations around the Annapurna Circuit are called tea houses) we slept wonderfully and we are eager to start our walk. We are quite surprised that some tea houses offer a free night in a private room as long as you eat at least two meals at their tea house! So pay for your food and stay for free, how does that sound!

The route runs through a green landscape, along a deep river, which we sometimes cross via swinging walkways. The snowy peaks of the Himalayas are always in the background. Today is a tough day where we walk a long time and ascent a lot. I think it’s pretty hard: walking with a heavy backpack takes time to get used to. I have approximately 12 kilos on my back (including two litres of water), Ries even more: 14 kilos.Annapurna Circuit (dag 1)

Tip: A general rule of thumb: your backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 1/5th of your body weight. For example, Ries weighs 83 kilograms and therefore his back shouldn’t weight more than 16.6 kilograms. However, the lighter your backpack, the easier your walk will be. Less is more.

Tired we arrive seven hours later in Chame, the final destination for today. We find a nice tea house, eat our first Dall Bhat (the draw dish of lentil soup, rice and spicy potatoes), a traditional Nepal dish. Local people eat twice a day Dal Bhat and every guide or porter jokes that this dish gives you 24 hours of power, Dal Bhat Power! After a lovely dish, we go early to bed

Hikebuddies from Belgium!

Last night we started talking to a Belgian couple (Elien and Yannick) that does the same route as we are, and we decided to walk a bit together. And so today we are starting a relatively short hike to Lower Pisang together. We only have to walk for three hours, but with an ascent of 600 meters. Once in Lower Pisang, we find a nice tea house with good WiFi and a hot shower! So far, most tea houses are a lot more luxurious than I thought.Annapurna Circuit (dag 3)

Since we want to climb a little more (walk high, sleep low is the rule), we decide to walk 150 meters higher to Upper Pisang to visit the temple on the top which provides a magnificent view over the valley and shows one of the massive ice peaks of the Annapurna IV.Thorong Pedi Base camp (dag 9)

The tough road to Manang and a day of rest

The alarm clock rings at five o’clock and an hour later we start hiking in the dusk. We planned a long hiking day today that starts off with a big climb. As long as the sun is not yet rising above the mountains, it is freezing cold and we are shivering heavily. Once on top of the mountain the sun starts to shine and we find a bakery that has warm cinnamon rolls: perfect!

The higher we get, the more the landscape changes: there are fewer trees, the cliffs become deeper and the villages smaller. In every village there is always a beautiful temple, decorated with coloured flags that flutter in the sun. It’s beautiful but I find the last hour of the trip though, my feet are starting to hurt, the kilos are heavy on my back and I’m done with it. Fortunately, Ries decided to be my porter for the last ascent of our hike and carries my backpack for me. Finally, we arrive at Manang where Elien and I rest and Yannick and Ries are scouting for good tea houses. This was quite a hassle since Manang is a very busy place (i.e. it is the  ‘hiking’ capital of the Annapurna region, the last stop where you can buy everything you need before you cross the 4000m border) and some tea houses are already full. This is also good to realise, finishing your day hike is not enough, you need the energy to find a good tea house. Remember, we are in high season and tea houses tend to get full! Luckily Yannick and Ries prove themselves worthy of also being good guides, they find the cutest tea houses of whole Manang. A perfect location for staying two nights in this lovely mountain village.Manang huisjes (dag 5)

Two nights, yes, because we also have a day of rest here, to acclimatize a bit more. During our day of rest, we do make a day hike to an altitude 250 meters higher than Manang to be able to handle the coming altitude even better. The original idea of Ries was to hike to a beautiful ice lake. This would take up to 6 – 8 hours with some steep descent and ascents. Since Charlotte got a minor food injury, we decided to take it slowly and only to do this shorter mandatory hike. Furthermore, we sleep long, do some yoga and try to give ourselves as much rest as possible.Manang (dag 5)

Shree Kharka and Tilicho Lake (world highest lake at around 5000 m)… or not?

Today it is time to rise again, this time we walk to Shree Kharka in five hours. Along the way, we come across a lot of cattle that, just like us, walk along the narrow paths. We also walk past a beautiful monastery on a rock plateau. Shree Kharka is a tiny village with only a few tea houses because we arrive relatively late, most private rooms seem to be full. And so we share a seven-person room with three other (snoring), Belgian men.

Shree Kharka is located at 4000 meters and in the evening it is freezing. The tea houses are not insulated and the bleak wind comes through the cracks between the wood. Fortunately, we have been given wonderfully warm sleeping bags from NOMAD®. These protect us very well against the cold and we sleep like babies.

This trip to Shree Kharka is because we initially plan to go to Tilicho Lake, a lake at 4900 meters altitude. But, the more we hear about it; the cold, the tough trip to there and especially the steep landslides you pass, the less we feel like going here. The next morning, Elien and I make the decision. We don’t do it, it will cost us too much energy! Leaving Yannick and Ries a bit disappointed, we continue to Yak Kharka, a small village on the route of the Annapurna circuit.Naar Yak Kharaka (dag 8)

Early departure to Thorong Pedi Basecamp

It is five o’clock in the morning and the chef of our hotel overslept. The door to the restaurant and to the exit are locked, but we really want to leave on time today. And so I bang on the door until we wake someone up. An hour later, after a quick pancake, we are on our way.

Not a long hike today, but because there are only a few teahouses in the base camp that we are heading to, we want to arrive there as early as possible. No trees grow around us anymore, the last permanently inhabited village of Yak Kharka is behind us. Via narrow paths, we walk along deep abysses and landslides. Don’t get me wrong, this piece is not dangerous, but paying attention is important.Thorong Pedi Base camp (dag 9)

Basecamp

Once in basecamp, we turn out to be exactly on time. It seems we are successful in our endeavour. There are two good rooms left available, the rest is already booked in advance by guides.

We are here at 4500 meters altitude and altitude sickness should not be taught lightly off. If you don’t listen to your body properly, you could die from it. It is a bit of a shock when we see a man on the pure oxygen on arrival, a few hours later he is picked up by helicopter and brought straight to Kathmandu. Actually, the whole day we see a lot of rescue helicopters and we see some people walk downwards because they don’t feel well.

After a big lunch (cinnamon rolls and tomato soup, the best tomato soup we had so far!) we decide to make an extra hike to acclimatize even better. And so we climb another 400 meters to High Camp (4800m) where we stay for half an hour.

Tired we go to bed at 7 p.m. The alarm clock is at 3:30 am and then the toughest challenge begins!Thorong La Pass (dag 10)

The highest walkable pass in the world: Thorong La Pass 5416 meters

As soon as the alarm clock rings, I am looking forward to it: today we are going to succeed in our endeavour to cross the Thorong La Pass! Apart from some headaches (no altitude sickness but a strained muscle in my neck), I feel fine and I am ready to ascent more than 1000 meters. Ries has some problems with his bowels and a slight headache, but this doesn’t bother him much. We feel both confident we can do this! Fun fact, for people who feel less certain, there is a possibility to just hire a porter (e.g. a donkey or horse) for just one day in order to cross the Thorong La Pass. However, I think you can buy a horse or donkey in Nepal with the money they ask for this day-service. Anyway, we saw lots of people doing it.Thorong La pass (dag 9)

Dressed up warmly and with our headlights on, we start the ascent together with our friends Yannick and Elien. The first part is known, we also did that yesterday. We are not the only people who decided to start at 4 am. It is crowded on our way up and we walk uphill in the form of a human train. When I look back I get goosebumps: everywhere you see the little lights of other hikers walking up the mountain. Add to that the ringing of the bells around the neck of donkeys lifting luggage and it almost feels like Christmas.Annapurna Circuit (dag 10)

Ries has altitude sickness symptoms

After a short break at high camp, we continue our hike. It takes a long time, slowly we go up, step by step. Going faster is not possible nor recommended, then we would get completely out of breath. At this altitude level, there is 50% less oxygen in the air. Along the way, Ries and I have a short tea break in a crowded restaurant. A quick bounty, snicker and tea for some extra sugar. Ries finds it quite though and has symptoms of altitude sickness: a bit dizzy, a small headache and stomach issues. Fortunately, it is only two hours to the top.Thorong La pass (dag 10)

Smiling and crying at the top!

And so we continue, step by step. Suddenly, much faster than expected, we see flags hanging. “Are we there yet, could it be?” I ask Ries in surprise. He doesn’t want to give me false hope and shrugs, “I don’t know but it looks like we are”. And indeed, around 8 am (after 4 hours walks for base camp) we’re there! As soon as I see the sign that says we have reached the top, my eyes fill with tears and I start to laugh! We succeeded, we did so well !!! We quickly take a picture in front of the famous Thorong La Pass board, and then quickly start descending again. Up to lower altitude so that Ries feels better.

And that descent is perhaps the toughest of all: we have to descend 1600 meters, via narrow paths and sometimes with a group of horses that stand in our way. It takes hours and we arrive in Muktinath exhausted at 2 pm I spend the rest of the afternoon in bed. Looking back at crossing the Thorong La pass, the 1600 meters descent is much harder than the 1000 meter ascent.Annapurna Circuit Thorong La Pass

Kagbeni, Jomsom and then back to Pokhara!

After more than ten hours of sleep, we wake up rested. We have muscle aches in our calves, but nevertheless, we feel good! Elien and Yannick also feel like going on for another day and so we decide to hike to the lower area: the village of Kagbeni.

There are two ways of going to Kagbeni; 1) via the (dirt)road with traffic (duration 3 hours) and 2) via local villages having no traffic at all (duration 6 hours). We decided to take the second way and we don’t regret our choice. What a scenic route! Walking through the small local villages feels like time has stood still here. This road we take is also part of the Mustang trail (another beautiful 7-day hike) in the Annapurna region. It feels like walking through a moon landscape. This is also the area where, if you are lucky, you could see the snow leopards, beers and the red panda.  It is a beautiful hike, due to a completely different landscape which we hadn’t seen in the first part of our journey.Annapurna Circuit (dag 11)Annapurna Circuit (dag 11)

Around noon, we arrive In Kagbeni, a beautiful small town. Here we visit a Tibetan monk monastery with a guide and we walk around the authentic village.

The next day we travel by bus to Jomsom, our last destination of the Annapurna Circuit. From Jomsom, we try to arrange a private jeep or flight back to Pokhara that same afternoon, but unfortunately, that doesn’t work. We are also unlucky the next morning: our flight gets cancelled since there is too much wind. And so we end up in a jeep that drops us off seven hours later in Pokhara.Nepal Himalalaya Annapurna Circuit


And then it’s over, our adventure in the Himalayas! It is an amazing experience that I will never forget! A very special part of our world trip. Several blogs will follow soon with a lot of tips about the Annapurna Circuit! And for now: we are going to rest and enjoy all the luxury in Pokhara! Starting with a three-hour massage, given as a present by the parents of Ries who did the Annapurna Sanctuary trek last year and strongly recommend a three-hour Aryuveda massage!


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4 Comments

  1. by Khadga Sen Oli on 15 November 2019  11:28 Reply

    Great to read ur experiences in one of the best trekking routes. Its ALL wonderful! The Tilicho is at 4920m, its the lake at highest altitude.

    • by Charlotte van de Sande on 16 November 2019  06:19 Reply

      Indeed! It was the best! The Tilicho Lake was a bit to hard for us this time, but perhaps next time ;-) who knows!

  2. by Aneel on 17 November 2019  05:30 Reply

    Congratulations for your achievement of Thorongla!!
    Your story worth reading, You’re welcome anytime in Nepal.
    See you again,

  3. by Vivaan on 17 November 2019  06:17 Reply

    Lovely trekking story. Love that you visited Nepal which is definitely promotes the tourism of Nepal. Thanks

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