Sunday, June 6, 2010

Annapurna Circuit in 7 days (Part 3)

In this post I'll go over the part of the trail that takes you over the north end of the Annapurnas and describe the trail between Chame and High Camp near the Thorung La pass. This was my favorite part of the whole trip and the scenery and villages in this section really made the whole trip worth it. Manang especially was one of the most scenic areas that I have ever been.

Cappadocia like Rock Formations just West of Chame

After being quite exhausted on my arrival in Chame, it was nice to get some serious down time and rest up for the next day's hike. I woke up feeling great and after a quick breakfast and some chatting with the Australian trekkers I headed out for the trail. The trail crossed a bridge to the north side of the river and hugged closely to the north ridge, at times the trail even was cut out of the cliff face. The further west from Chame I walked the dryer the environment got, and slowly the scenery began to resemble the American West, with some rock formations that looked somewhat simmilar to some of what you see in Capadocia Turkey. The mix was really beautiful, and the natural scenery through this section was amazing. Views of snow capped mountains continued to dip in and out of view to the south as well, providing stunning views. 

Map showing the route from Chame to High Camp

Mountain face that appeared to be one solid piece of granite.

The trail through this section was quite trekker friendly in that the incline was quite gradual, the trail was wide and the walking was fairly easy. For a moment the trail turned north following the river and I got a view of a mountain face that seemed to be one solid piece of raised granite. The scale of it was quite striking and I'm not sure I've seen anything quite like it. After gazing at that for a bit the trail crossed westward over the river and up an embankment, passing a series of chortens and prayer flags that bear witness to several German climbers who perished attempting one of the nearby peaks. 

Afternoon clouds gather over the Annapurna range.

As I came up over the ridge I entered the village of Pisang, and from here the trail split, with the lower route to the south through Humde, and a higher elevation trail to the north that passed through Upper Pisang and Ngawal. As I was planning on heading straight to Manang I took the southern route. I would arrive in Manang before 3PM and in retrospect I wonder if maybe I should have taken the northern route, which I heard was a bit more scenic and that Ngawal was quite charming. As I can't change the past, I won't spend too much time pondering it, and as the photo above showing clouds moving in around the mountains demonstrates the views on the southern route were still spectacular.

Lunch in Humde, no extra charge for the mounted yak head

After leaving Pisang you climb up along a ridge on the south bank of the river, and after a while you crest and look off to the widening valley where Humde is located at. Humde serves as the regions transport hub as it has a small landing strip and airport. After descending the ridge and walking across the flat plain I arrived at Humde just in time for lunch. Tomato soup became a staple for lunch on this trek and the Tibetan bread (essentially fried dough with out powdered sugar) I had at this particular lunch spot was quite good. 

Horses Graze with the Annapurna Mountains in the Background

Really from the area around Humde on is where the trail really started to get captivating. Every corner you turned, every pasture you came across and every river bend gave you a sight that was worth a picture. Goats, horses, mules, yaks, and donkeys grazed in areas just off the trail, with the mountains and sand stone rocks set behind them. Buddhist mani walls, chortens, and stupas dotted the landscape and colored the trail. Prayer flags flapped in the wind by gompas set high into the cliff faces, or were impossibly tied between too very high points. The glaciers on the mountains seemed almost close enough to touch, and their run off made the rivers and lakes that were fed by them that bright turquoise blue. To put it simply, the area seems incredibly beautiful and every corner of it seemed to beg for exploration.

Village of Braka

Shortly after leaving Humde the trail crossed to the north side of the river and soon I found myself passing the very picturesque village of Braka (Braga) which is a popular alternative to Manang. From here there was also a trail to go up to the ice lake for a day trip and another half day trip that brought you to a Milarepa's Cave  a site of importance in Tibetan Buddhism. From here I kept on going and about half an hour later I came across the entrance to Manang. The town sits on a bit of a plateau above the river with high rocky cliffs at its back. Walking through the gateway to the city was a slogan painted on the inner wall proclaiming; "My Manang, My Shangri-La". It's a fitting slogan, and it captures very well the feel of the area.

That all said, Manang was not shining in all its tourism glory when I arrived in late may. I wandered into town just before 3 PM and it looked almost like it had been abandoned until tourists came back in numbers. Half of the shops were closed, the bakery had only half an apple pie in its window, the boards out front of guest houses that proclaimed their dinner specials were either empty or the chalk was smudged from the recent bit of light rain. No one asked me if I was looking for a room, and most of the reception areas of the guest houses looked abandoned. I looked around for a bit, and while in the front entrance of the Hotel Yeti someone asked me if I needed a room. For 100 Rs I was given a nice room with an attached bath and an outstanding view of the mountains and valley. The attached bakery however was closed, the advertised internet never was turned on, the fajitas and burritos promised on the sign board failed to materialize on any available menu, and a hotel that could fit easily a couple hundred guests seemed to have between five and seven. This is mostly tongue in cheek whining, as the food I did have here was quite good, and though it would have been nice to send Kim an e-mail, it wasn't entirely necessary. 

Morning View from my window at Hotel Yeti

After getting washed up a bit and changed into my end-of-the-day clothes I took a short stroll around town. Closed video shacks advertised showing films daily such as Into the Wild, Seven Years in Tibet, Everest, Into Thin Air, etc. Mule trains wandered by and Manang's residents gathered at tea shops and the central stupa. That night I had some very good spaghetti with real tomato sauce (not ketchup!!) mushrooms and topped with yak cheese, with a side of chips chili. I was the only guest dining at the hotel aside from two other girls from the UK, who I had a chance to chat with a bit. They had just finished their acclimatization day in Manang and were ready to head up to Yak Kharka with a pair of German girls that they planned on tackling the high pass with. 

The next day was my rest day in Manang, to give my body a chance to get use to the altitude and take a break from the long trekking days. To be safe I have always taken the additional days suggested for high altitude trekking, and because of that or a lucky roll of the dice on genetics I have never had a problem aside form the most mild of headaches that may just as well have been caused by a lack of sufficient hydration. In the past I have always been kind of antsy on these kind of days, I usually just want to keep going, but this time was different, I was really looking forward to exploring the area around Manang. I ended up doing several short hikes around the valley.

Manang's Valley seen from the trail to Praken Gompa

My first destination was Praken Gompa, a Buddhist Gompa that was built into the cliff side about 1,500 feet above Manang. The trail was quite steep in places, but without a pack on it wasn't too hard. The views on this little hike are spectacular, and for the time it takes to get up to this site it would be a shame for anyone to miss it. The building itself was small, there was a small stupa outside along with some terraced gardens and prayer flags draped appropriately. There was a monk up there when I visited, but the "100 Rupee Lama" who blesses a little scarf for your impending crossing of the Thorung La pass (for 100 Rupees) must have left with the tourists.

I descended down from that high point and crossed over to the four hundred year old Karki gompa. This Gompa appeared to be closed for the season and some damage to nearby trees and some structures told me that it had not been open at least since some fairly strong storms came through here. Still the building was quite interesting, and the trees around it really stood out in the barren area. From here I descended across a stream that fed the main river from the north, and then ascended a hillside to Bocho Gompa which was situated just under a ruined fort and some other abandoned structures. A donkey here seemed quite interested in following me around, and I was heart broken to see he had a rear hind leg that was still there but not functioning and appeared to have been injured and infected. Poor guy.  

I also went back down to the village of Braka to take a closer look at some of the stuff around there, and had some lunch. In the afternoon I headed back up to Manang, and headed south across the river and up to the look out area for a really great view of the Gangappurna Glacier and the lake that its run off forms called Gangappurna Tal. Finally it was back to the Hotel where I had dinner with quite a few more people including the Australians that I had met up with as long ago as the dynamite stop. I had kind of wanted to take a side trip over to Tilicho Tal, the highest lake in the world (I have been to lake Titicaca which is the highest navigable lake) but according to books and people I had spoken with the trail is a bit sketchy in places. It crosses several places with unstable scree and has a danger of rock falls, so I thought it would be irresponsible to do it by myself, and since there were no trekkers heading that way the next day I decided to head for the pass.  

The Village of Letdar

So because of elevation I am limited to how high I should really go in a single day at this point. In some ways I think the guide book I used and the literature in general for this trail is quite over cautious. I actually did more acclimatizing for this pass then I did for Kilimanjaro, and that mountain was a much tougher climb and was a thousand feet higher. Anyway the short of it is that I took the trail out of Manang heading west and then breaking north. It was a short day and not long after passing the village of Yak Kharka I was in the two guest house (and that's it!) village of Letdar. I arrived before noon, and it was at this point unfortunately that the batteries to my kindle died (I left with it only a quarter charged...even though the green charge light had come on...grrrr). Luckily I had a couple of audio books on my Ipod which I listened to and strolled around the area, or bundeled up in my room to stay warm. Night time temps here may have almost hit freezing.

Shaggy yaks on the trail near Thorung Phedi

The next day finally came after a long rest period. I was really antsy to get going, but again today I would have to limit my ascent to make sure I became adjusted to the elevation. Knowing that I would only spend a few hours walking I took my time at breakfast, packed up and leisurely strolled up to Thorong Phedi, which bosts two enormous lodges with attached bakeries, internet and other trekker conveniences. I arrived and it was only 10AM despite my late start. I signed in at the police check post and then looked to see if the internet was working. "No sorry, no sir." The Idea of just sitting here until 6AM tomorrow was just too much to bear, so knowing that there was another lodge up the steep trail heading to the pass known as High Camp, I set off to stay there. At this elevation I started to notice that I was easily getting winded faster and had to stop every twenty minutes or so to kind of catch my breath. It wasn't bad, or hard, but you definitely noticed it.

Afternoon clouds gather around high camp.

I reached High Camp around 11AM. I was still antsy. According to the book it was like 2:45 to get up to the high pass and three hours to get to Mukinath. I had been cutting most of the book times by a third, and I figured that even if the altitude bothered me a bit, I'd be heading right back down. To add to the urgency, the weather was perfect on this day, hardly any clouds and the pattern had been that after a clear day, the following day would start off cloudy and foggy and then alternate back to clear. Still I was by myself and I thought that to play it safe I should spend the night at high camp. It was cold here, and the night was sure to be colder, that also gave me incentive to just summit and get to the other side, but in the end I decided to play it safe. That night the fog rolled in, and though it got quite cold, the two large thick blankets provided allowed me to sleep comfortably.

Next I'll cover crossing the Thorung La pass and the traversing the area over lower Mustang, as well as getting to Pokhara via Jomsom. 

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