Trekking in Nepal will, quite literally, leave you feeling on top of the world, and the Annapurna Circuit will challenge even the most enthusiastic walker
My first experience of trekking in Nepal was mixed. I’d chosen the Annapurna Sanctuary 12-day trek and hiked amongst beautiful mountains, through lush valleys and into desolate and high altitude terrain accompanied by an inspirational female guide who became my friend. Yet every day was a supreme effort to continue. I wasn’t fit and I was too proud to hire a porter to carry my backpack. Each morning I woke with yet more aches and pains, and each day I longed for it to be over.
For most sane people, that would be the end of it. I’d wanted to trek in the mountains. I trekked in the mountains. End of story. But I’m not most sane people. Having done it once and found it amazing, though challenging, I wanted to do it again – but this time I wanted to fully enjoy it. This is why, when I returned to trek the Annapurna Circuit, I spent the six months prior to the trip getting fit. I’d never even entered a gym before then, but by the time I landed in Kathmandu in October, I was the fittest that I’d ever been in my life – either before, or since.
Hiring a guide or porter for the Annapurna routes isn’t essential, but if you want to get the best out of your trip, and to contribute positively to the local economy, it is definitely recommended. There was another factor for me when I went. I was on my own and I didn’t want to hook up with a random group of people who would probably have been fitter than me.
So I sought out Nepal’s pioneering women, the Chhetri Sisters, to hire one of their guides. I was lucky to get Dicky Chhetri, the middle sister, and one of the first women to train as a guide in Nepal – second to her sister Lucky. For my second trip, I secured Dicky’s services once again, and also hired a porter from the Chhetris so that I didn’t have the additional burden of carrying my backpack for 21 days.
Trekking the Annapurna Circuit is not to be taken lightly. Even though I was as fit as I could get, it was still hard work. There’s a lot of up when you’re going from almost sea level to over 5,000 metres, and naturally, quite a bit of down too. The higher you climb, the less oxygen there is available and so, though we could have walked further each day, Dicky ensured we acclimatised gradually, taking days off to recover and get used to the thinning air.
We took three weeks to do the circuit, which is a pretty long time to be walking in anyone’s books – especially mine! But it’s absolutely worth spending as much time as you can. The scenery changes on a daily basis as you rise higher and higher into the mountains, with the vegetation thinning with the altitude. About halfway into the trek, you tackle the challenging Annapurna Pass. The scenery here is desolate and the walking tough; the air is thin and each step is a supreme effort, like something out of a nightmare.
We woke early that morning, setting off before the sun had even risen, the caravan of trekkers creating a long line from our lodge and up the mountain. I was elated when we finally reached the pass, but I was less than halfway through, taking another seven hours to get 1,500 metres down the other side to the village of Muktinath where we spend a well-deserved rest day getting our strength back.
Dicky wasn’t just my guide. She was my companion and my friend. She ensured that I ate well, that meals were properly cooked and that we stayed in the best tea houses along the way. She taught me about Nepalese culture and conveyed the trials and tribulations she and her sisters have experienced in their quest to set up their NGO and trekking business. It’s made them determined women with a good sense of humour, both necessary traits. She was able to translate for me when we met local people, and her hands were always there, waiting to help me down or catch me if I fell. Although this might have been acceptable with a male guide, I would have felt awkward and uncomfortable with it.
Condensing that three-week walk into a short article is almost as tricky as doing the walk itself. There aren’t many experiences that can come close to the elation and exhilaration of reaching the pass at Thorung La, or the wonder at seeing the mountains so close, with more mountain ranges in the distance on the horizon.
The satisfaction of getting places that you can only arrive at on foot is huge, and for three weeks, just being a physical being, eating to walk, walking to get to the next place, was the most amazing experience for me. For three weeks, I did not see a single car, nor use a computer or mobile phone. When we arrived back at Pokhara, I felt shocked at the noise of the cars, and my legs complained that they missed the exercise. Even so, it was a pleasure just to hang out at the Three Sisters Guest House, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but just read my book and watch the rural life around me.
My two treks in Nepal with the Chhetris count amongst my life’s biggest achievements and whenever I need to find some inner peace, I close my eyes and remember sitting in the middle of the mountains, breathing in the fresh air and feeling completely on top of the world.