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Monday, 30 December 2013

Trekking Annapurna: New 'highway' or old by-ways?

Written by Heather Knight
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The New Annapurna Trekking Trails offer the essential antidote to the growing encroachment of jeeps, dust and noise on the legendary circuit.


The man with few teeth looks at my husband for some time. Then slowly, deliberately, draws an index finger across his own throat. “Tomorrow” he threatens. A dramatic pause before he erupts into laughter and points at the goat between them. The goat is chewing my husband's sleeve, leaving a white silken reminder. We pass under soaring bamboo frames, where young boys triumphantly hang flower garlands, offering namastes without compromising their balance. Between the heightening jungle-clad valley walls, villages offer up cow bell jingles and everywhere the applause of water from streams, rivers and falls.


We had arrived at the foothills of Nepal's Annapurna mountain range almost a decade late, previously waylaid by coups and closed airports in our youth. Taking a new opportunity, now without political crisis, we were disappointed to read reports about the development of a new road along our intended trekking route, the famed Annapurna Circuit. However, with insufficient information on its impact and status, we stubbornly set off with backpacks full of optimism. This is curtailed on our first morning in Nepal, with the Himalayan Times proudly declaring the Annapurna Highway officially complete and fully operational. Before doubt can put us off, I receive an email from German born trekker, Andrées de Ruiter, with an answer to our dilemma.


In short, he informs us that we barely have to venture onto the road. Anticipating that trekkers to the region would want to avoid jeeps and dust, Ruiter collaborated with Prem Rai, a local expert guide, and together they set out to provide alternative routes,   rediscovering old trails away from the road and its growing traffic. Equipped with several tins of red and white paint, and a love of these mountains, they tramped the whole circuit dabbing their brushes as needed to direct walkers along the new tracks. These routes are collectively termed the New Annapurna Trekking Trails (NATT), and we gleefully purchase the handy guidebook and hit the trailhead. 


To avoid walking on what is rumored to be the busiest section of the road, we traveled by local bus with an over-friendly goat, from Besisahar to Syange. We discovered that the 'highway' is actually a narrow dirt track, with enough ruts and fords to jelly any unwitting truck passenger.  Over the five hour journey at peak holiday season, in total, six smile filled buses or jeeps jostle by, while we marvel at their drivers' skills.  In retrospect, it would have been a lush, beautiful and quiet walk, devoid of most trekkers, who like us had taken a ride to get started.


On our first morning of walking, after an hour of road, we abandon it and swing over the Marsyangdi River, meeting with our first red and white NATT trail, threading us through the river valley. There is little footfall this side of the water, and when we can spy the road on the opposite bank, the majority of our fellow trekkers are following it faithfully. The further we travel along the circuit, the fewer people we see on the alternative trails. Over rejuvenating lemon and honey tea in the evenings, we find that most people don't know about these routes, and surprisingly, neither do their hired guides. Those who do know, seem to lack the confidence to try them. Yet even for those who choose to walk on the road, traffic is marginal, two to three vehicles per day if that, and the scenery reliably spectacular.



As we climb slowly into alpine forests, the Annapurna range crests into view. A sign announces a place found on none of our maps, and we head off-piste, submitting sweat inducing steps to the high village of Odar. Its inhabitants arrive immediately for a gaze  and greet, before we are ushered with smiles into a dark, low ceilinged one-roomed home,  woven straw mats for seating, light provided by a square relief of blue sky above the central fire-wood stove. Chandeliers of rib, ankle and thigh bones, still red with dried blood hover above us awaiting the winter dearth. Deman, a lively bespectacled school teacher gives us home-brewed chang, local beer made from corn, and explains how Odar's ancestors arrived from Tibet. Now they celebrate the Hindu Dhasin festival in their own animist tradition, sacrificing a chicken at the sacred cliff and daubing its blood on the village doors. All before 4 am that very morning. It is Deman's nieces who remind us that this is a place in progress, on holiday from their town school, flourishing mobile phone cameras and music. After their requests for a photo shoot we begin our descent through quiet horse grazed fields. 


The circuit has an unfathomable rhythm of people; from one morning of loud groups to entire days of empty wanderings. Even our two mandatory road days offer up hours of unexpected calm. On day four we encounter the reason for the traffic's hindrance. Under a granite face of rock, the road is befuddled by landfalls that descend directly into the river below, leaving a tightrope walkway for only the most skilled motorcyclist. This is not the publicized highway we had read of, and I wonder how workers with rudimentary tools and unsecured  bamboo ladders can stall off the mountains' relentless challenges. 


Regardless, the road picks up again in the form of dirt and mud on the other side, where we leave it for the Upper Pisang, reaching true altitude and cold for the first time. Ancient hamlets peer down bravely into the valley, decorated by colorful prayer flags that snap backwards and forwards in the wind. A newly arrived monk welcomes us to his monastery; its rich traditional painted walls appear mildly offended by flashing colored bulbs which highlight Buddha as the main event. Lit pine sprigs sharpen the air and the conch shell's long note gives me goosebumps; until my husband remarks that it sounds a bit like the deep moo of a cow. 


A relentless climb ends with a view of immense mountains, cut deep with black ravines, clouds rapidly spiraling down, wind scraping the snow off their summits. This short but steep walking day is rewarded by a warm courtyard on the edges of Nawal village, marigolds kept with sunny pride on windowsills, Biltok the dog asleep in a shaded corner. In return for abandoning the flush toilets of larger settlements, we receive hospitality, edging out the cold by a kitchen fire as dinner cooks. We listen to our evening's host Vim, recanting tales of wolves from the Tibetan plateau, Chinese attempts to claim Everest's entirety, frequent plane crashes, successive failing government regimes, and winter days when the sun does not appear over the mountain ridges. He rubs his hands to keep warm and laughs after each story, before returning to a deadpan face. His wife and children sleep with the cattle in a barn in order to watch over them. “The mountains are a hard place to live” he agrees solemnly. Then he laughs again. 


      That night my dash for the toilet is halted suddenly by the sight of the mountain Annapurna IV, laced in wisps of moonlight, its perfectly formed ice glowing. Only the bone chill moves me on. After some small space acrobatics, I eventually return to my stone-built room, complete with large cracks along the windows that invite the wind inside. I mummify myself in all the clothes I have: thermals, trousers, shirt, fleece, down-jacket, gloves, hat, scarf, sleeping bag, my husband's down jacket. It's still cold, but I'm smiling. 



Thorung La Pass, at 5416 meters, places itself higher than Everest Base Camp, and the bottleneck at its base is convivial as excitement and nervousness permeates the draughty buildings. We wisely wait for the sun to materialize before we begin to slowly plod each foot in front of the the other, comparing Darth Vader breathing impressions. I'm certain mine is the best. We arrive on the pass at 10 in the morning, tired but buoyed with achievement in its beautiful white expanse. We muster in a compulsory photo and celebratory tea before numb hands and a warning altitude headache propel us on the three hour descent into the Muktinath valley, a desert spread of limes, golds and rusts.


The road begins again at Muktinath, where an increasing number of trekkers now call it quits, jumping on a bus to cut off four days of the original trail. Maintaining our red and white route, we leave the road for the village of Kagbeni, its musty medieval warrens protected by ancient phallic guardians. Young men attempt to be monks, leather jackets pointedly worn over their robes, leaning on motorbikes. A Yak Donalds and another rampant goat add humor to the village serenity. We opt to follow the road for an afternoon and see a few brave vehicles force themselves along the dusty river valley. But once past Jomsom, traffic increases, throwing cloaks of cloud over us at every rumbling. We re-embrace the NATT trail with relief to wind along quiet grassy trails, ruined walls, orchards, and climb to old villages where oxen plough beneath Himalayan summits.


Our penultimate night highlights the road's draining effect on the circuit's tourism. We arrive in the virtual ghost town of Dane to find the recommended tea house boarded up. We meet the former owners, now operating from a smaller premises, who explain they no longer receive the numbers now the road bypasses the old trekking route. “Where are the tourists?” they ask, “We know they don't like the road, the trucks, the dust, but what about the other routes?” With Nepali resolve they shrug their shoulders and smile. 


The final mile of our walk reunites with the road, where we witness jeeps which steer people back to the urban bustle; their dust coats the trees on either side, whitening them like ghosts. We pause once more to succumb to the steaming pleasures of the Tatopani Hot Springs, the traditional culmination of the Annapurna Circuit. Here we celebrate our journey, and with hydroelectricity development looming, both quietly hope that the Annapurna retains its draw for those who enjoy immense scenery and the freedom of walking. 



©Heather Knight



For detailed route descriptions of the New Annapurna Trekking Trail, see Andrees de Ruiter and Prem Rai's 'Trekking the Annapurna Circuit: including new NATT trails which avoid the road' (2011 Herstellung und Verlag). New edition upcoming. The trail is usually completed anti-clockwise, beginning at its trailhead in Besi Sahar (bus from Kathmandu takes approximately 6 hours and costs 400 rupees, from Pokhara approximately 5 hours at 300 rupees).   A private jeep can also take you to the trailhead. You will require an Annapurna Conservation Area Permit (2000 rupees) and a Trekkers Information Management System card (1,840 rupees). Guides are not required. Lodging on the route begins at 100 rupees per person per night. The best time for trekking is between October and mid-December or March to May. 


Last modified on Thursday, 02 January 2014