The Annapurna Circuit – Part 1 – Kathmandu to Chame

Day 1 – Kathmandu to Ghermu

I woke to the scattered music of street dogs barking and motorbikes jetting off on dirt roads. Kathmandu has a way of clogging your every sense until you teeter on insanity, then it throws you some more. I nuzzled my face against the deep brown musk of Brian’s armpit hair, praying for another 15 minutes of sleep before I vaulted into the morning, thankful to have my boyfriend by my side in this chaos. The day had come to start hiking.

After negotiating with a stoned, drunk, or just half asleep receptionist, we agreed to leave our luggage in the hostel in Kathmandu for the princely sum of 20 rupees a day. We hurried down a nearby alleyway with only our two small backpacks in tow, flagging down a taxi to take us to the bus mall. The moment we arrived, a dozen men ran up to us shouting the names of different cities and trying to shove us onto one bus and then another, anxious to see where we, two confused white people with overflowing backpacks, might be going. We finally walked up to the ticket counter, grabbed the last two seats on a microbus to Besisahar, and squeezed into the back row among the locals. They threw our backpacks onto the roof of the bus and strapped them down with a frayed, plastic rope. I prayed for whatever the opposite of rain is.

Our bus broke down.

Ninety minutes into a seven-hour journey from Kathmandu to Besisahar, something went wrong with our bus. We took an unexpected left turn into a dusty mechanic shop in the middle of rural Nepal and waited. After two straight hours of sharing a set of headphones and listening to a series of Ram Dass lectures with my head lolling against Brian’s left shoulder, I was eager to stretch and jump around and move my body in any direction other than a bus the size of a minivan crammed full with 12 passengers. So, I meandered around the dump truck mechanics, marveling at the impossibly neon decorations that covered nearly every truck in the joint.

I had clearly stumbled into a psychedelic truck driver’s wet dream, because the more I scanned and gawked at the trucks waiting for repair, the more colorful and absurd the decorations became. Some had repurposed traffic reflectors into windshield wiper covers, some were brilliantly painted, and some featured elaborate vision boards of exotic and opulent life goals like a Maserati, a suburban house, and the Titanic.

When the time came to say goodbye to our flamboyant new friends, I was ready to burn some miles. I settled into an audio book and stared out my window, watching the thick smog of Kathmandu vanish as the skies turned a clean shade of periwinkle.

The bus ride teetered on the edge of a cliff that bordered a river of glacial blue, cutting through a landscape of roadside pit stops, green hills lush with tropical plants, and tiny, agricultural villages. As we rounded the final few curves through Besisahar, it began to rain, and I lurched out of the bus alongside Brian to steal away our backpacks and toss our down sleeping bags into plastic sacks brought just for this occasion.

We negotiated a jeep transfer to Ngadi and smashed our packs between our legs to fit an extra passenger and a bit of precious cargo inside. The Nepali people are unceasingly generous, and it seemed as though our driver was giving a ride down the road to his smartly dressed friend in a tweed blazer as well.

It began to rain harder as the jeep edged up a harrowing dirt road that was littered with rockfall on our left and a steep drop of over 100 feet into the roaring Marsyagandi river to our right. We knocked into each other for an hour, swaying like kids in an amusement park ride until, shaken and a bit queasy, Brian and I were dropped off with little fanfare on an unmarked road next to a small, wooden house in the middle of fucking nowhere in rural fucking Nepal.

“Woah,” I thought to myself, “This just got real.”

We watched as the jeep drove back the way it came, stunned and emboldened by the sudden silence. “Well, I guess we’re hiking the Annapurna Circuit now,” murmured Brian. “I guess we are,” I replied, my eyes on the mountain-studded horizon.

We had two hours before sunset to hike 9 kilometers to Ghermu, so we laced up our boots and began trudging up the road, passing goats and chubby-cheeked children eager to point out the way and practice their English with us. “Where are you going?” They would ask with an innocent inquisitiveness. “Ghermu!” or “Chame!” We would reply enthusiastically, pointing in the direction we thought we ought to go.

After two days in Kathmandu, Brian and I were already well acquainted with bowing and exclaiming friendly “Namastes” wherever we went, and here was no different. We Namasted three year olds, we Namasted grandmothers, hell, I’m pretty sure I Namasted a few goats. We climbed up a series of slippery stone steps, splashed across a waterfall, and then descended just as quickly as we came. It was a short hike, but certainly not a flat one.

Night began to fall over the verdant, green rice paddies we had traversed for the last two hours, and Ghermu was still nowhere in sight. I took a deep breath and donned my headlamp, telling myself that this was all part of the adventure. We trod on, passing farmers and cows in the night as we walked, until suddenly, we were face to face with a large sign that read “Fishtail Hotel. Ghermu.”

We had arrived.

For a mere 300 rupees, which is about three American dollars, we got a second floor room with a view and an attached bathroom, and I stumbled as we quickly shoved the two twin beds together to make the scene more romantic. There was no heat, barely any wifi, and hot water was scarce, but we were happy. We had no one to answer to but ourselves.

Day 2 – Ghermu to Karte

After a near full night’s sleep, I woke in the pitched black of our country hotel room at the ripe hour of 4:30am. Ever the good girlfriend, I carefully crept out of bed like a cat in the night and grabbed my Kindle from my backpack, eager to start re-reading Wild and not wake up Brian. He stirred for a moment, then nudged the warmth of his body closer, his beard faintly illuminated in the blue glow of Cheryl Strayed’s words on the screen. His hips curled into mine as I read and he snoozed, slowly creeping the fingers of his left hand across my belly and tugging at my very new, very unsexy hiking underwear. “It won’t be this warm forever on the trail.” I thought to myself as I nudged my mind into the idea of a sleepy, morning sex wake up. It was 54 degrees in the hotel room.

While sex was a fantastic way to wake up on trail (and make good use of the body heat trapped between our sleeping bags), so was breakfast.

Oh gods, breakfast. Breakfast is a magical part of any day spent on the Annapurna Circuit, because you submit your order to the kitchen the night before, carefully judging what future you might desire after a long and cold night spent rustling around in a sleeping bag. Then, you have to wait for something like 11 hours before it’s hot and ready and on the table in front of your face and it’s all you can do to set aside your ravenous hiker hunger and cross your legs and put the food into your face with a fork and spoon like a lady.

So, on this particular morning, Brian and I had each ordered a set breakfast, complete with eggs, potatoes, sausages, toast, and milk coffee. What a marvelous thing it is to have someone serve you eggs, toast, and coffee in the middle of a multi-day backpacking trip! I gorged on mine and finished before my one, lonely photo had time to upload onto Instagram. Soon after, we suited up with our backpacks and started walking again.

Everything around us was leafy and green and smelled like wherever butterflies would call heaven. Not five minutes after we set foot on the trail, a towering waterfall emerged on our left, across from a deep chasm in the river rock. This soon set the tone for the day, and waterfalls that once left me wide-eyed and slack-jawed would become commonplace as we hiked deeper into the valley.

We tramped through the small village of Ghermu, tickled at the sight of kids rising and readying themselves for school. A nearby store was selling individually wrapped candies for cheap, and we stopped to buy ten each, after having heard a tip that they would come in handy when befriending local children.

On the Annapurna Circuit, kids have developed elaborate systems to glean whatever goodies and sweets they can from passing tourists. It’s unbearably cute. Some fashion road-blocks out of a fabric scarf and demand a tariff of one piece of bubblegum each. Some run up from behind on narrow mountain trails, asking insistently, “Chocolate? Chocolate?” The desire is always the same. They want whatever treats you’ve got, and some of the biggest smiles I found on trail were when we gave candies to unsuspecting toddlers.

As we continued up the rocky path and through the dense, green foliage, a faint buzzing began to grow louder. As we stomped our boots up and down hundreds of feet of stone steps, the sound would rise and fall,depending on the proximity of the river. We took a sharp turn and trekked across a narrow, metal suspension bridge, turning around in awe as we marveled at the impossible hugeness of everything in sight. And right there, in the middle of it all, was a hydroelectric power plant.

The noise of the plant and the nearby construction followed us as we continued on for the next couple of miles, putting one foot in front of the other up a sturdy dirt road. It was nature, but with an asterisk. The landscape was rapidly changing. For better or worse? I didn’t dare speculate.

As afternoon neared, clouds began to hang heavy in the sky as I ascended a set of steep, rocky switchbacks through a herd of cows and their new baby calves. The fuzzy black and white lumps sprung fresh life into an otherwise daunting ascent, and each time I reached out to brush them on their pillow lips, the calves would recoil as though I were a bear or some other fierce creature. Were these yaks? I was dying to see a yak. I had paid good money to fly all the way to Nepal to see a yak.

“Oh shit.” I thought as a narrow corridor of trees opened up to round a vine-plastered bend in the trail. “That’s a huge yak.”

His horns were each easily the size of my face and curled to perfect, shiny points on both sides. This wasn’t an animal, it was a Buick. A one-ton hunk of meat and organs staring me down with a dumb, perplexed stare. It was right in the middle of the trail. The one piece of ground specifically designed for me to walk on, and his hooves had colonized it. I inched my way closer, Brian laughing and taking photographs as I clumsily sorted my face through every expression in the book.

I took a deep breath and walked as calmly as I could around the massive animal.

With my first near-death experience behind me, I was completely thrilled when the sign for Tal came into view. “Woohoo! A big town to eat lunch in,” I clamored to Brian as we descended along the wide river delta.

The clouds continued to close in as afternoon fell, dropping the daytime temperature over 10 degrees. Soup was the answer to all my problems, and I eagerly slurped down an entire bowl of it while Brian remained true to Nepalese custom and ordered a Dal Bhat set.

In a balls-out attempt to beat the rain and make it to the next village before nightfall, we had no time to linger after lunch, and instead threw our packs back on and made a dash towards the next town of Karte, 4 km away.

Prayer wheels bordered the far edge of town, and I stuck out my right hand to greet them enthusiastically. “Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum…” The Sanskrit mantras etched into each wheel spun across my fingers and into the ether as I hiked, silently parading their wisdom around. “Behold the jewel within the lotus,” they whispered. Look for the divine within yourself.

Another long set of rock stairs slick with rainwater brought us to our destination for the evening, the quaint village of Karte. Not a moment after we has set our things down inside of our room, the sky opened up and began dumping buckets of water onto anything in sight. Perfect timing.

We changed out of our dank, sweaty clothes and into a clean set of thermal underwear before dinner. Brian asked for a shower, and the woman running the guesthouse brought him a washrag and a bucket of hot water, freshly boiled on her wood stove.

Welcome to the jungle.

Day 3 – Karte to Chame

When the clouds hang low overhead for multiple days at a time, it can be easy to forget where you are in space, since the world around you most often resembles a large, foggy snow globe. Well, on my third day hiking the Annapurna Circuit, the clouds had settled, and it was finally clear that we were in the goddamn Himalayas!

At 6am, I awoke and desperately needed to pee. I poked my face and arms out of the cozy bed pile that Brian and I had quickly mashed together during the rainstorm and shuddered at the air inside the room. It was the same temperature outside as in. I crankily threw my new, down jacket around myself and stomped across the narrow, wooden platform that led to an outdoor bathroom, only to be stopped dead in my tracks by the most magnificent view I had seen yet.

There were peaks! Huge, snow-covered peaks! Far ahead and towering over the massive, Crayola-green walls of the canyon we were traversing lay the craggy points of the upper Himalayas. I giggled like a little girl and immediately ran back inside to shake Brian out of his slumber so he could have a look in the hushed pink light of sunrise.

Breakfast was a quick affair because the two of us desperately needed to get moving. We had a lot of ground to cover, and the sun liked to set around 5pm.

A short walk brought us to Dharapani, where we needed to get our trekking permits stamped by government officials. It was getting colder as we ascended. For the first time since Brian and I arrived in Nepal, we were hiking with glove liners on to prevent our fingers from going numb, even during the daytime. By the time the sun made its way across the rocky upper peaks that surrounded us an hour later, I was basically begging mother earth to throw me some warmth. I took off half my clothes and shoved my face into the light like a sun slut. I didn’t care what I looked like. The warm light bounced off my smile as I walked.

Just then, a man in running shorts that barely covered his crotch cruised by, followed by another, and then a pair of lean, sinewy men with small backpacks on, all jogging downhill. A bit farther up the trail, I yelled to another one to ask where they had come from. “Manaslu!” He shouted back, his voice gruff from exertion.

“Damn,” I thought to myself. Some people take 10 days to hike a trail; others run the whole thing in one go.

I continued to make my way up the sun-baked dirt road with Brian following closely behind. To my right, just past the city of Dharapani, stood a handmade sign touting the cultural and historical significance of the neighboring town of Odar, a tiny pastoral blip, inaccessible by car, that was supposedly only a 20-minute walk out of our way. We stopped for a minute to consider the possibility of a new and unknown left turn and, after a brief moment, decided to take the path less traveled.

45 minutes and hundreds of stairs later, we crested the hillside and took a long glance at the charming village of Odar and a sliver of the colossal, snowy peak just beyond the town. We wandered through the narrow alleyways, curious if there were snacks or tea to be bought, but none could be found. Instead, we spent our time climbing a metal step-ladder up another hundred and fifty feet to a viewpoint with three Buddhist stupas made of stone at the top. We laughed at baby goats that were play-fighting in the street, banging their small skulls together over and over again in an adorable dance. The city of Odar felt locked in another time.

The way back to the main trail was up and out, so we slowly meandered up yet another series of rough, rocky stairs, only to descend again, losing hundreds of feet of the altitude we had just gained. I was beginning to sense a theme.

We were in what really felt like the Himalayas now, gorgeous snow-capped mountains lingered overhead with enormous rocky shoulders that plummeted thousands of feet down towards the river valley beside us. Every village we walked through seemed more picturesque than the last, and, after a quick snack break in Danaqyu, it was time to climb again.

This climb, however, was different. Brian and I crossed a man-made bridge over a large, cascading waterfall and curved around a steep, rocky bluff that was covered in moss and foliage. The stairs from this point on became steep and uneven, and I thanked the gods for my two sturdy trekking poles.

Rather than cutting in and out of the main road and passing small villages every 30 minutes or so, we had suddenly found ourselves quickly ascending the side of an actual mountain, with the immense face of Manaslu, standing 8,163 meters above sea level, staring us down as we moved. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by trees in every direction, their mossy trunks furry and bewitching in the rolling afternoon fog.

After what felt like hours of relentless climbing, the trail spit us out into a breathtaking vista of nearby snow-covered hills and Manaslu, otherworldly in her sheer scale, watching over us like a ghost. We stumbled onto a cobblestone road and into the village of Timang, totally beat and ready for lunch.

The next bit of trail was perhaps the best of the whole trip.

As Brian and I made our way up the road and out of Timang, I had a sneaking suspicion creep over me that kids in smaller villages unfrequented by tourists would be ten times more grateful to get little gifts of candy while we hiked.

My friends, I was right.

The next toddler I came across dropped her jaw practically all the way down to the ground, and her eyes went wide in disbelief that a random, redheaded stranger who doesn’t even speak her language could possibly be giving her free candy. I felt like my heart would explode into a thousand pieces of Annapurna-shaped confetti. The mountains were my home.

The elevation and mileage was starting to get to Brian, and I tried my best not to hike too far in front, wanting to hold the perfect distance between us that was encouraging but not completely emasculating. Meanwhile, I was having the time of my life. The mountains were massive, the air was crisp, and somewhere up ahead laid Chame, a bigger town that would surely have a hot shower.

I put in my ear buds, turned up some Krishna Das, and started walking.

The next few miles are a blur of crags, turquoise shacks, and deep forest greens. I felt my eyes tear up with the simple harmonium chords as Krishna Das played and chanted a private concert just for me as I skipped my way through small huts and townships. Time melted away, and I fell into my bliss. I was moving my body through the mountains with a backpack on. This was where I belonged.

The scenery was impeccable in every direction, jagged rocks plunging down for miles towards different forks in the river and little Nepali villages dotting the horizon. The trail began to level out and hit the main dirt road again, prompting a friendly neighborhood dog to follow us for the next mile. I was in heaven. The light was getting low and inching sleepily towards magic hour, just as we made the final hundred feet of ascent into Chame.

For our daily meditation, I suggested we explore a nearby Buddhist shrine, and we found ourselves face to face with an elaborately painted prayer wheel that stood ten feet tall. I stepped forward, pushed the giant wheel clockwise, and began walking, eyes closed, through the rust-colored air of sunset.

At night, Brian convinced me to splurge on a premium room at the Royal Garden Hotel. As we waited for dinner, we snuggled into each other on a bench in the group dining area, which, we had learned, was the only section of any hotel that had a fire. A TV in the corner seemed to be blaring a cheap, Bollywood knockoff of a Mumbai-based James Bond-type character, which acutely contrasted my lingering addiction to the poetic prose of Wild. There was yak meat hanging from the ceiling of the kitchen and a 12-year-old boy who ran around in flip-flops helping to serve food.

It was about 30 degrees outside, and we awoke to ice crystals and views that would remind me why the turmoil was all worth it.

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