In Part I of my Annapurna Circuit trek blog, I left you munching on apple pie at the Bhratang Apple Orchards at an altitude of 2,950m. In this part we are going to be gaining 1,300m as we climb up to Letdar, via acclimatisation in Manang.
So with happy tummies we left Bhratang and trekked on, and emerging from the forest incredible mountains views were revealed (Annapurna II, IV and III, and Pisang Peak), including this jaw dropping, rock feature called Paungda Danda, which looks like a huge glacial basin but is not. It is part of a subsidiary peak to the southeast of Pisang Peak and famous because of this almost completely smooth western rock face that rises dramatically 1,500m above the Marshyangdi River.
Known also as the Great Wall of Pisang, it is a huge slab of slate rock, with a total height above sea level of over 3,600m, and formed as a result of an ancient lakebed being uplifted during the creation of the Himalaya. It is also known locally as Swarga Dwar, Gates of Heaven, because the locals believe that the spirits of the deceased must ascend the wall in order to reach heaven. To put this in perspective this rock face is higher than the highest mountains in the British Isles: the Scottish mountain, Ben Nevis standing at 1,345m; Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales at 1,085m; and Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain at 978m.
On arrival at our teahouse in Lower Pisang at 3,310m, hungry and tired I noticed the altitude for the first time as I tried to dash up the just 10 or so steps to our room and was completely and utterly puffed before I got to the top. It also felt a lot colder in Pisang, there was to be a lot of huddling around the fire, and the tea house was a bit more basic than previous. It was raised above the ground with about 3 levels and in places the floorboards were quite dodgy, Miguel nearly fell through one! Its aspect however provided lots of wonderful views of village life, chickens pecking around, and lots of delicious looking food goods being dried, a cat napping in the afternoon sun as they do the world over, and of course the surrounding mountains.
The next morning, with electrolytes in our water and the Annapurnas at our backs, we left Pisang, on a relatively flat trail passing through pine forests and passed a beautiful, crystal clear, emerald lake named Mring Tso / Tal, glistening and steaming in the early morning sun, it was magical. I also spotted my first juniper with berries on it, oh to be able to make gin from these wild, Himalaya juniper berries!
Passing more mani stones, walls and chortens, we took the challenging high trail to Braga via the villages of Ghyaru and Ngawal, and the landscape started to become a lot more barren feeling. Gaining nearly 500m altitude in a series of steep switchbacks, this longer and tougher trail does reward you with breath taking mountain views and is absolutely worth the effort. The mighty Annapurnas II and III dominated our views on this day and for some reason Annapurna II, more than the others became imprinted in my memories and soul (and then now on my left forearm in a tattoo that I was to have drawn up for me on our last day in Kathmandu).
At Ghyaru (3,660m) we again seemed to catch up with a mass of other trekkers all taking in the stunning views and restoring the energy levels following the strenuous climb. The view point provided a panoramic view of all mountains, Annapurna II, III, IV, Tilicho, and Gangapurna, and as we gazed on, lost in our thoughts, Phurpu took an amazing photo of the three of us from behind, seated in a row, lost in our thoughts, looking towards Annapurna II. We snacked on some cured yak cheese, a bit like a pecorino, and some nuts as we contemplated the enormous mountains around us.
We trekked on to Ngawal where we stopped for a welcome lunch, again with panoramic views of the Annapurna Himal. We ordered yak dahl baht which whilst tasty, the yak meat was quite tough, as dried meat a bit like biltong had been used. Anyway, by way of warning, weirdly we all suffered from blown up, windy tums afterwards, which we didn’t know if it was down to the dried Yak or whether it was the effects of the altitude, which can do the same thing apparently.
Rather ironically, on leaving Ngawal we encountered our first live yak, shaggy and menacing looking, particularly when we raised our phones to take pictures, so we snapped and hurried on. Thereafter it felt like a very long walk indeed to reach Manang, and I must honestly admit to feeling rather beaten, so much so that most of the landscape of the latter part of the day is a blur. Probably a good hour or more from Manang, feeling like I wanted to chuck my back pack off and slump to the ground and give up, I was praying at every bend in the trail that the next would reveal civilisation and an end to the day’s walking.
Eventually our dusty trail led us beneath a Kani, complete with prayer wheels and adorned with a painting of a snow leopard, welcoming us to Manang (3,540m) and I felt quite headachey on arrival at our tea house, the grand looking multi-storey, Hotel Himalayan Singi. Once we stopped my whole body decided to seize up and it was an immense struggle just to climb the stairs, of which there were many, to access the common room and restaurant and our room. It really was not the flashest of tea houses but our wood-lined room, warmed by all day sun, had an incredible view of the mountains, including Gangapurna (7454m) and Gangapurna Glacier, and as with previous tea houses, was situated amongst beautiful, wildflower gardens. The food was also plentiful and delish, as were all our meals in Nepal.
On our continued mission to try everything that local lore promised would prepare our bodies for altitude, we sampled our first seabuckthorn juice. The seabuckthorn is an alpine shrub which produces berries, more like hips, that apparently contain 15 times more vitamin C than an orange. Served hot or cold, this bright orange drink is a delicious and refreshing tonic for weary high-altitude trekkers and is a must try. We drank it at every opportunity from Manang onwards.
That night we retired pretty early though to our rooms and the warmth of our sleeping bags but it was to be a pretty disrupted sleep, feeling the effects of altitude, with weird dreams and blocked noses, and feeling peculiarly hot (at least the sleeping bag was doing its job).
The following day was a day for rest and acclimatisation, and I awoke with a mild headache which luckily went after an albeit lukish warm shower; it felt good to be clean though and was to be the last shower until Muktinath. After a light cheese omelette breakie & chanced coffee which required sugar to taste good, we did our first acclimatisation walk up to the Chongkor Viewpoint at 3,750m on the opposite side of the valley.
Passing villagers harvesting red stalked buckwheat, we crossed the river and with Phurpu reminding us to go ‘bistaari, bistaari’ (slowly, slowly) ascended up a track overlooking the Gangapurna Tal / glacial lake with fantastic views of the glacier itself feeding it. On reaching the viewpoint we soaked up the views, which included Thorang Peak some way in the distance and where we were heading. We took loads of photos, created and perfected our ‘Mountain Power’ pose, and hung our first prayer flag at the top in a lovely little ceremony.
Led by Phurpu we were chanting whilst raising and lowering the flags, in supplication to the mountain spirits, before raising them high and tying them up where they’ll remain until the elements eventually fade them and the fabric disintegrates, and our prayers blown away on the wind become one with the universe.
We then descended back down to the valley floor and along the river to head up the other side for a climb up to a temple and monastery complex, and for stunning views of the Annapurnas and Gangapurna which apparently at Manang are less than 8km away; they are really, really huge.
As Manang is the last significant village before the high mountains, and as most trekkers acclimatise here for the higher altitudes on the way to Thorang La, it is a bustling place with the main drag packed with teahouses, bakeries, restaurants, and shops selling everything from trekking gear, various toiletries and basic pharmaceuticals, to playing cards, snickers bars and other familiar snacks. There’s also a museum, and a number of ‘movie halls’ showing mountain related films, and the Himalayan Rescue Association hosts free daily lectures at 3pm to educate trekkers on altitude sickness.
After lunch, with an afternoon ‘off’ we were keen to investigate the village, so we headed out walking from one end of the high street to the other, shopping as we went. We stopped in at the ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) visitor centre which was pretty interesting and informative, especially the bag of snow leopard poo pinned to the display, the closest we were ever likely to come to this elusive, mountain ghost. We then wandered up behind the main drag for views of Manang village life and over the roof tops towards the mountains and then back down into the high street and the bakery local to our tea house to sample the wares, medicinal of course, a lush chocolate roll washed down with a cuppa.
We then headed back for our end of day briefing with Phurpu, and health check, O2 levels good, and to order breakfast. As 7pm approached we donned pretty much every layer of clothing we had and went to our local movie hall, a very cute little establishment which could probably seat no more than 15-20 people on tiny wooden church pew type seats covered in yak skins. There were heaters thankfully, although it was not sufficiently warm to remove any layers, and the ticket included a cup of sweet tea and bag of popcorn.
All very quaint and a rather cool experience, it felt like we were starring in our own mountain movie, but we depressed ourselves thoroughly with our movie choice, ‘Everest’ based on the real events of the 1996 climbing disaster! Perhaps not the best film to watch on a high-altitude trek, it weaved its way into my already altitude affected dreams.
The trek from Manang is the beginning of a 2,000m altitude gain to the Thorang La Pass and I’d be lying if I said it was not a challenge from here onwards. Apparently, local traders ride horses from Manang to Muktinath on the other side of the pass in one day but for likes of us the huge altitude gain means the need to stop to acclimatise and do the trip in at least 3 days. I would suggest if you can more, although this is not likely to be possible if you are on guided group trek where there is little to no room for variation from the tight itinerary.
Our day 9 trek to Letdar was another long day, with the highest altitude gain in one day. I was feeling generally headachey & puffed and consequently the photography suffered too and sadly I don’t have many images from this day, I was just focusing on getting to our destination!
The trail took us up and out of the lush Marshyangdi Valley and fields of buckwheat to a more barren landscape of alpine scrub and rocks; we were climbing into the alpine zone. Apparently now in Bharal / Blue Sheep country too, we did indeed spot some on a plateau below us but at some distance and so this is one of the times I lamented not having a proper camera with me with a telephoto lens. The proof of their presence in this area was however at most establishments along the way, with horned skulls eerily adorning walls and chortens.
Letdar (4,250m) was pretty barren and the tea house very basic but after dropping our bags in our rooms we enjoyed a lovely interlude sipping tea in the beautiful afternoon sunshine on the verandah outside our tea house, the Churi Lattar. There was a fairly swift retreat inside however as soon as the sun went down and it turned bitterly cold indeed.
We settled into the common room as horses randomly wandered by the window and played cards and chatted to a lovely Canadian couple, snacking on fried, yak cheese balls which were yummy! Phurpu told us not to shower at altitude as it is too cold for the body, so with permission to be feral we donned more clothing as the evening got colder and stayed snuggled up in the common room by the fire. After dining on eye wateringly strong but delicious garlic soup (something else which apparently helps with the altitude and which we’d had previously at Bagarchap) and veg Momo (dumplings), due to the cold and long day we again all retired to our sleeping bags quite early.
While I slept better than in Manang, my sleep was again disrupted with strange dreams, combined with a feeling of being suffocated which elicited a mild panic until my foggy brain realised where I was and that it was the altitude, and so I’d relax a bit and drift back to sleep. I shall leave you here drifting in and out of altitude dreams and we will pick up in Part III on day 10 for the main ascent up the Thorang La Pass and beyond.
Although before I leave you, a note on an amazing little charity, Chance for Nepal – Prior to doing the trek I decided to set up a Virgin Money Giving page and see if I could raise money for charity in order to give back to the country which I knew was about to give, and indeed has, given me so much.
I chose Chance for Nepal because it is a small charity which works closely with established and trusted organisations, schools and hospitals in Nepal in order to guarantee aid and support to those families in need, and to offer the opportunity of education and training in order to facilitate sustained change. With the lovely and indefatigable Barbara Datson at the helm, you know that what you raise is going directly where it is needed.
Due to the incredible support of family, friends and even some kind people who I did not know, I managed to raise nearly £1,931 with Gift Aid! At the time of writing, I am aware from Barbara that £200 has been used to fill the water tank at Papa’s Home in Lalitpur, which will mean that they will have water for one whole year! And another £600 has been applied for a little girl to be able to attend Sapana School in Chitwan for the next 2 years.