Annapurna Circuit

Prologue: I flew to Nepal some weeks after the earthquake in 2015 to check if I can support somehow. I didn’t even know about the monsoon time, which was horrible that year. As the number of visitors for the whole season dropped to roughly 5 percent of average, I found it might be best to spend travel budget among the decreasing tourism industry. And to contribute content to the tourism board, which distributed my photography within the industry to campaign against the prejudices that Nepal has been flattened by the quake. While the approach of Nepals prime minister was to channel all NGO money through his private fund, I thought it might be more efficient to spend it directly to the folks. Hence, I hiked all over the place to meet locals, spend my money there but also to check my physical limits. I decided to do the Annapurna Circuit since it is considered as one of the most stunning hiking trail in the world. The trek follows the Annapurna mountain range of central Nepal, starting in Besisahar on 780 meters of altitude and rises to an altitude of 5,416m on the Thorung-La pass, touching the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Numerous peaks of 6.000-8.000m in elevation rise from the Annapurna range. The trail passes along rice fields and into subtropical forests, several waterfalls and gigantic cliffs can be spoted on the way. Various adorable villages are offering homestays along the trek. Annapurna Circuit has often been voted as the best long distance trek in the world, a wide variety of climate zones from tropics to alpine plateau. I have been setting off by myself without any expectations, friends, porters nor guides. After all, it was an amazing experience to explore this beauty of nature but also to discover that there isn’t any physical limit if I would really go for it. On the way to the pass I felt the first time in my life that my consciousness is not connected to my body anymore since walking happend automatically even I wouldn’t think about moving. The most memorable moment had been the very 10 seconds of nude bathing in Tilicho Lake (highest lake on earth, 4’919 meters of altitude), while listening to the cracking glaciers next to me and observing a rainbow circle around the sun.

Kathmandu. Being familiar with messy cities I quickly get used to the bustling capital and its core Thamel – the refuge for hiking gear, intercontinental ambience and a chaos of billboards – And after a while, I also start improve the timing when exactly to shield all airways to eventually avoid the clouds of carbon dioxide which suddenly flod the alleys. Furthermore, I’m happy to have learned how to zigzag through the streets without becoming a victim of a hand rickshaw, a rickety small car taxi or a drug dealer. Kathmandu city bursts shamelessly in all directions. In a result, anyone who gets in wants to get out soon after. Getting out to explore Nepal’s stunning nature.

In an cozy coffee shop around the corner I plan further steps. Opposite me sit two monks dressed in yellow robes. The pair uses several screens and keyboards simultaneously. Yes, Buddhism too has arrived in the 21st century. Monks are blogging, drink espresso and ride a motorcycle. So what? I notice that I still can’t avoid labelling those stereotypes; a holy man in a robe, he’d have to be mysterious and clergy, almost certainly he’s wise and balanced, eternally committed to the principals of the monkhood. The thought of a burned-out office clerk or even a ex-criminals hiding behind the monk’s robe, no way! Next to me; Michael from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Quite fascinating I think, since roughly 80 % of the country’s population are Hindu. However, Nepal is the birthplace of Hinduism and therefore, if believing the Nepali tales, also of the resulting Buddhism. Meantime the Indians have a different version where Buddha was born.

As my only cultural activity (Durban Square has got some cracks from the quake) I deci for a stroll to nearby Pashupatinat, one of the most sacred temple complex for the Hindus. Escaping the service of unofficial guides, I end up at the river bank, where some deceased are about to get burned. According to Hinduism, the dead body shall only rest for a few hours, until being burned. Shortly after, the ash should be thrown into the holy water. Roughly 200 years ago, noble Hindu widows voluntarily followed their dead husband into the bonfire. Until now, some fellow believers are still knocking off the skulls of their dead relatives before cremation, so that the soul finds the way to the other world easier.

Pokhara seems to be a nice place, so I squeeze into the collective taxi – obviously the cheapest, and therefore the preferred means of transport from the locals. We drive seven laps around the block – to collect more passengers. I see the point, there is still one seat left for half a butt – ergo unprofitable. Everyone out there with „Pokhara potential“ is promptly addressed by our collective taxi scout. After hours of circling around, even the passengers are now keen to look for the last passengers. The snack vendors show mercy and ignore our vehicle after the eighth round. Finally we are packed enough to make the ride a profitable one. But there is still some room for musicians who cheep Nepalese folk songs about four octaves above my pain limits. After a good day in the van, we all gladly reach Pokhara. My host greets me with great pleasure. “Thanks to the media aftermath, only two or three travelers check in every day,” sighs Suman. It will throw him financially back for roughly two years. He is not the only one. Stall owners scroll through old posts of their Facebook friends, nibble on the last fingernails or simply stare into open space. Hundreds of travel agents with spider webs in their phones are waiting for the chance to master a sales pitch, or only to use the pen again, perhaps signing a document, earning money.

I can’t really remember anymore, why exaclty I wanted go through the torture of hiking the infamous Annapurna circuit – an approx. two-weeks-250 kilometers-trek, from 800 meters above sea level up to 5.413 meters and down again – Presumably I eagerly hoped that the monsoon wouldn’t reach the altitudes 2-3.000 meter higher up. However, I pack some essentials and set off the day later. I’m a bit surprised as the bus driver leaves the door open next to him. When asking, he explains that he’d prefer to leave the vehicle anytime in case of emergency. Since his words didn’t come with sarcastic overtones, I probably should be concerned. The guy next to me mentions that many locals prefer sitting on the bus roof, the chances of survival are slightly better. From Besisahar onwards only 4WD jeeps are able to navigate on Nepal’s pride; the stony paths connecting almost every hick town. Unfortunately those stone roads have been newly formed by various landslides over the time. “Buddha was born in Nepal” – the sticker on Kumar’s Jeep makes it official; Buddha was born in here, nowere else. And certainly not in Bihar India how the cheeky neighbors would claim. I’m quite late, thus I share the trunk with cargo, chickens, tools and spare tires. We do not drive, we go sailing. Like a ship in a heavy storm, the jeep swings from one side of the road to the other. At the moment, I’m not sure what’s more stunning, the shakey landscape or the Nepali sitting next to me who is urrently lighting his cigarette with a blow torch. Anyhow, what a great atmosphere for all senses of a globetrotter.

As we approach the romantic village of Chamje, the houses become more and more pragmatic. Sipping at the milk tea I listen to the horns and tara mantras of some monks. Today is the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Zakk from Indianapolis, USA joins in. It’s easy these days to befriend other foreigners, because they are quite rare, and those who hike will see each other quite often within the following days. After some chats, Zakk and I decide to share the pain of ten marching hours a day, as well as the two-dollar twin room and of course also the jars of dull rice wine. Three days and 3’000 vertical meters later, only half of the oxygen is left to breathe. Rugged mountain peak glimmer through the mystical cloud formations, the flora is blooming lavishly while lush valleys reveal an endless horizon. Not only a paradise for nature lovers, also a paradise for the Himalayan Viagra, the rare caterpillar fungus Yarchagumba. The news have spread a while back, ever since clever Nepalese crawl along the ground on their fours in search of Yarchagumba, always focusing the bushes. There they’d hang – I’m told. Once picked, they will be dealed at exorbitant prices to China’s markets. Yarchagumba might be found right next to the pickled ginseg, dried seahorses and rhino powder. “Just dip in the tea,” suggests Sonom Topke, laughing the laughter of a wise and crazy Nepalese. The mountain air must have shrunk him in half over the past decades, I assume. With pride he points to the caterpillar fungus in his hand. As my buddy Zakk is an ongoing doctor he mentions his concerns about the side effects of the viagra-like thingy. I do understand, he comes from a country that dismiss any alternative medicine as animism. Since I basically try everything that is offered to me, to refuse this medical delicacy is difficult. However, I don’t see myself roaming the provincial huts in search of a suitable village lady just because I’m on a six-hour erection. Nepal, land of miracle drugs! There is even more stimula around. One day, a pack of monkeys had been observed, strolling into the mountains at a very unusual time of year and later celebrated a lively orgy down in the valley. Promptly a spy squad was assembled. Once at the top, the monkeys were caught inflagranti when licking the stones. Subsequent research revealed that over millions of years, the various rock layers carried a kind of magic mineral paste to the surface. Pure aphrodisiac.

Now, it’s time for true men. Men who dare going further as they probably supposed to. Men who don’t know what they are doing. Men who want to bathe the world’s highest mountain lake. After reaching Tilicho Lake, 4’919 meters above sea level the clouds are just about to open a window for us, with blue sky and the sun centering in a rainbow circle. Right next to us, a majestic glaciers crunches, ice floes dangle by. I need to distract myself from all this romance, I get nacked and dive. This very 10 seconds won’t make it into any record books, who cares, I did it for the sake of pride! As so often, this euphoria soon gives way to the next challenge. After ten days of torture, “Thorong-La” is waiting for us – the infamous pass with its top on 5’416 meters just took the lives of 43 people last year. But this year the so called „thunder pass” allows us to cross. A historical moment for anyone who has hiking boots in his storage room.

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