Home » Travel » Asia » Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – Part I: Kathmandu to the Bhratang Apple Orchards

In October 2019, I completed a 12-day Annapurna Circuit trek with Kandoo Adventures*.   Considered one of the best long-distance treks in the world, the Annapurna Circuit while at times pretty darn tough thank you very much, is stunningly beautiful, and an adventure which I guarantee will leave you forever changed. 

The task of trying to disseminate my full Annapurna Diary into this blog has been pretty tough too though!  There is just so much to share, therefore my blog appears in 3 parts: Part I is Kathmandu to the Bhratang Apple Orchards, Part II sees us leaving Bhratang with apple pie in our tummies and ending in Letdar, and Part III is the trek over the mighty Thorang La Pass and the return to Kathmandu. I do hope you will stick with me on the journey, hey and in this time of self-isolation what else do you have to do?  So, sit back, put your feet up and relax, and come with me to Nepal…

As the name suggests, the AC trek is a circuit around the Annapurna Himal, a mountain range in Central Nepal, to the west of Kathmandu, which is home to some of the mightiest mountains in the world, Annapurna I / Main at 8,091m, 5 other peaks over 7,000m, and then numerous 5,000 and 6,000ers. A Maori proverb says ‘if you should bow your head, be it to a lofty mountain’, well there are plenty to bow to on the AC trek.

On the trek you will experience a little slice of everything that fabulous Nepal has to offer from an immense variety of spectacular scenery, the richness and diversity of Nepalese culture, generous and warm hospitality, to picturesque farming villages, Buddhist temples, iconic colourful prayer flags, jingling mule trains, delicious food (including amazing apple pie), and of course those massive, snow covered mountains.  After Chame (day 5) the mountains of the Annapurna Massif dominate your views for the remainder of the trek as you walk in the shadows of these Himalaya giants. 

It is one of the few trekkable places on earth where you can experience almost all climatic zones in such a short geographical distance from the lush sub-tropics of the Himalayan foothills and rice paddy amphitheatres near Besisahar, to temperate rhododendron and birch forests, through to pine and fir forests, and climbing up ever higher to more barren alpine climes beyond Manang, and then into the arctic zone over one of the world’s highest trekkable passes, the Thorang La at 5,416m which borders the Tibetan Plateau.  The trek then descends into the semi-arid desert of the Mustang region, ending in windy, dusty but no less spectacular Jomsom, and now routinely ending with a hair-raising mountain flight over the Annapurnas to Pokhara, and then on back to Kathmandu.

So back on 04 October 2019, my pal Amy and I arrived in Kathmandu to a tropical 27 degrees centigrade and seriously wondered if we had packed too much cold weather gear, so naïve!   We were met by our smiling, Kandoo guide Phurpu who, after draping Khata, traditional silk scarves, around our necks, posed with us for one of many of what we came to refer to as ‘proof of life’ photos.  We then hopped into our transport to the Mulberry Hotel, weaving our way through the colourful, bustling and dusty roads of Kathmandu, the traffic some kind of organised chaos. 

At our pre-trek briefing that evening in the hotel garden, over a refreshing mango juice, we met our fellow and only other trekker, Miguel who hailed from Bogota, Colombia (so no stranger to altitude).  It turned out that there would be only the 3 of us on the trek, along with Phurpu and our two porters, Ox and Army who we were to meet up with the next day. However, this meant that we became a very tightly bonded little group. I really miss that mountain family!

We had a 6:30am start the next day and with packed breakfast boxes under our arms we piled into the jeep for the long, hair-raising and at times bone-jarring drive to Besisahar and the start of the trek to Bhulebhule.  However, what we had not counted on was that we had arrived in Kathmandu at the beginning of the Dashain Festival, a major festival in Nepal when people travel back to their homelands, and so there was an exodus it seemed of every man, woman, child, goat, and chicken from Kathmandu as we were also leaving and so the journey took longer than expected. This meant that we did not have time to do the scheduled trek for that afternoon from Besisahar to Bhulbhule.  We picked up Ox and Army, completing our little mountain family, and another vehicle in Besisahar, and travelling along the Marshyangdi River Valley as it turns out we went a bit past Bhulbhule to Ngadi.

We arrived at Ngadi and our first tea house, the colourful Suman Hotel & Restaurant situated on a terrace right above the Marshyangdi River. 

We were pleasantly surprised by the basic but quite pretty rooms situated in lovely gardens with a papaya tree, hibiscus and all manner of other pretty Nepalese flowers including these magenta balls which I was later to establish are called Gomphrena which is a globe amaranth.

There was a western toilet (whohoo!) and the promise of a warm shower (it wasn’t really that warm but did the trick), and WiFi! We settled in and then adjourned fairly quickly to the best seat in the house, a lovely table and benches under an awning, amongst the lush foliage dominated by lovely shrubs of Brugmansia aka Angel’s Trumpets and overlooking the roaring river.  We chatted and snacked on popcorn washed down with local, Gurkha beer.

The guys brought us the menu and thus started what would be our end of day routine for the next 2 weeks. We chose our dinner, chatted, we ate, then had our briefing and health check (to include pulse and O2 readings) and then were presented with the menus again to choose our breakfast.  The coming days were to revolve around food! Awesome! And Ox and Army would filter our water morning and evening, as you cannot drink the tap water in Nepal, and we wished to avoid buying bottled water.

We had our first Dahl Baht for dinner which is the traditional meal for Nepalese and all our guys ate, except where supplemented with the food we often shared with them because the meal portions were so plentiful, we often could not eat everything.  

Anyway, Dahl Baht is this wonderful mixed platter with steamed rice, a bowl of dahl (lentil soup), some meat or veg curry, pickles, and mix veggies (normally what is in season), and which is in fact ‘all you can eat’ if you so wish. The Nepalese call this ‘Dal Baht Power 24 hour” or ‘mountain power’ and so we figured this would be an eating habit to copy in order to get us up the mighty Thorong La!

The next morning, ahead of what turned out to be a long and hot 21km trek, we risked the coffee at breakfast but it was as awful as the one we had tried on a rest break the day before and so we decided henceforth to do without. We were instead to sample the variety of wonderful teas on offer, my favourites ended up being the sweet Masala Tea and the Ginger Tea, the latter often stuffed with fresh ginger.

Shortly on leaving Ngadi we encountered a large landslide covering the track and which was worryingly wet and fresh looking, caused no doubt by recent Monsoon rains. It was a bit scary to contemplate too much as we scrambled over it.  We had to be vigilant and Phurpu would often indicate when we were not to tarry in certain places on the trek. Phurpu warned us that some parts of the ‘old track’ might not be passable due to slips, he’d gather local intel along the way in order to decide whether we’d be going onto the old track or sticking to the road. Fortunately, we were able to use the old, more challenging and visually stunning tracks more often than not.

At this altitude everything was so lush and the air was a cacophony of a some creature which Phurpu described as ‘like a butterfly’, so I can only assume was some kind of cicada. It was almost deafening and sounded very mechanical rather than something natural, like an unoiled fan belt.   Sadly, I never spied any in order to get a photo.

There were wildflowers galore along the path, including orchids, hibiscus and moss and lichen covered rocks. There was a layer of rock along the trail which had a huge mica content, with the result that the track was glittering all the way and gave a fairy dusting to our boots and trouser bottoms, it was quite magical. Numerous waterfalls along the way were welcome relief from the heat and I’d wet my handkerchief at every opportunity to either cool my neck or drape over my head. 

Following lunch at Ghermu (1140m) overlooking the spectacular Syange Falls, the trek took us over one of the many suspension bridges criss-crossing the roaring Marshyangdi. A threesome of cute Nepalese kids passed us on the bridge saying melodious  ‘Namastes’ as they went.

Namaste is a common Hindu greeting accompanied by praying hands gesture and bow as a sign of respect and which seems to mean hello, goodbye and thank you. It’s literal meaning is something like ‘ I see the light in you / I worship the  light/divine in you’, what an absolutely beautiful way to greet a person!

We ascended further and as the valley narrowed into a steep gorge the track led us into the colourful, hot spring village of Jagat and at an altitude of 1,300m we were now back at the same altitude as Kathmandu.  It was a welcome relief to reach there after a very long day, as was the truly very hot 42 degree shower! The only one for the whole trek! All others although touted as hot, were not, and were either cold or lukewarm at best. We were to have few showers after Jagat as it turned out.

The next day’s trek to Bagarchap was long and hot but another stunning and lush one in the sub tropics, with more spectacular waterfalls, wildflowers, wild cucumber, lizards basking on rocks or hiding in the vegetation, heart stopping cliff edges and suspension bridges. Almost all the flora that I stopped and asked Phurpu about was met with the response, ‘used as medicine’, and certainly as we passed through villages all along the AC we noticed the harvesting of a variety of plants either being cultivated in plots or just growing wild along the way-side,  and often what would probably have been dismissed by us as weeds. You get the sense that everything is utilised, and I have since read that a vast lore of medicinal herbs is still in use in Nepal, as indeed in many indigenous cultures.

Apparently, Nepal has 600 indigenous plants with recognised therapeutic purposes, more than half of which occur in the sub-tropical zone and this includes a large number of the lichens. Lichens, of which there are apparently some 352 species, are also used in perfume and some have antibiotic properties. There are also over 350 species of Fern which are used for medicinal purposes and eaten.

I was also to discover that day, after a massive energy slump after 4 plus hours trekking, that I needed to be ordering more at breakfast, and to include a carb source, as trekking on a one egg omelette and a cup of tea until lunch time was just not going to cut it! 

On the approach to Bagarchap (2,160m), there was a stark reminder as to why one needs to stick to the mountainside of the track, as I was barged rather unceremoniously into it as I tried to video a passing, jingling mule train laden with all sorts, even gas cylinders and which seemed to make a bee line for me. Phurpu said that they were carrying gear down from the Manaslu exhibitions as the climbing season had now finished.

The following morning on leaving Bagarchap we got our first view of the mighty Manaslu, a proper Himal and one of the 8 thousanders no less. Manaslu which means ‘mountain of spirit’ stands at 8,163m and is the 8th highest mountain in the world, and provides a stunning back drop to Bagarchap, albeit this morning a cloud cap covered the summit.

Entering the Manang Valley, there was a distinct cooling of the climate and vegetation change as we started climbing through rhododendron, pine and fir forests and we started to see lots of different fungus too.  We encountered a small roadside vendor displaying a far too tempting array of jewellery and trinkets and after our purchases we then climbed on passing lots of stone chortens and some very picturesque scenes of rural life including a very jolly looking tractor adorned with prayer flags, drying corn, lots of goats, buffalo, and typical Tibetan stone houses with flat rooves stacked with firewood.

We passed a wonderful, rustic looking corrugated shed with a view through the open door to a  roaring fire with a huge pot hung over it which Phurpu said was ‘Raksi’ in the making, a kind of Nepalese moonshine made from millet and which we were to later sample quite a bit of in Muktinath. 

We pushed on to Chame (2,710m) before taking lunch, arriving around 1:30pm but the rain which had started about half an hour out became torrential on arrival and never let up, rather putting the kibosh on our plans to explore the village with our afternoon off.  We settled into the common room area instead for Yak curry & special pickle (left over from festival) for lunch. Followed by a small bottle of Old Durbar whisky between us. Fortunately, though this was the only rain of the whole trip.

As promised by Phurpu, we rose the next morning to clear skies and our first views of the Annapurnas. Annapurna II seemed to loom large over Chame and my first sight of it was from our bathroom window, seated on the loo!  From the courtyard we could see Annapurna II, IV, and looking back could still see Manaslu, utterly breath taking. It is very hard to describe just how immense these mountains are. 

On leaving Chame we passed under an impressive Kani marking the entrance to the village and then we passed these wonderful sacred mani stones, which we were to see again and again on the trek, either associated with prayer wheels and chortens or on their own, sometimes in very long walls, and sometimes seemingly in the middle of nowhere but apparently marking a place of significance.

We climbed on through birch and pine forests, arriving at the large apple orchards and farmhouse of the village of Bhratang (2,950m) where we stopped, along with a crowd of fellow trekkers, all clamouring for the famous apple pie! 

It is Nepal’s biggest apple farm with over 67,000 apple trees. Amy and I queued to get tea and apple pie for our little mountain family, and we had a wonderful morning tea together. The apple pie was freshly baked, just heavenly and is an AC treat not to be missed.

*As I leave you munching on apple pie, a final note on Kandoo Adventures . You can of course plan your own AC trek and do it unguided (and unsupported, no porters) but if you are not an experienced trekker and do not have high altitude mountain experience, I would strongly recommend that you do NOT do that. There’s a huge amount of planning and knowledge needed for a trek such as this, and those mountains are entirely unforgiving, you can get into all sorts of bother particularly with the altitude.  I cannot recommend Kandoo highly enough.

They might be at the higher end of the options out there but they were absolutely excellent throughout, from all the pre-trek planning and preparation, with your own consultant who is available from start to finish and beyond, to the professional and caring mountain team leading you to achieve your goal and who become like family.

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