Inspired by family trips to the United States southwest and Iceland along with school geology trips to Newfoundland, Ireland, and Scotland, I dreamed for several years of taking a long term trip abroad. In December 2018 I finally acquired a one way plane ticket to Nepal. From that point on I began seriously assembling all the gear I needed along with making what few trip plans needed to be made.
The excitement grew as the departure date came closer and closer. I said goodbye to my Pitney Bowes co-workers on Friday April 12th and drove back to Maine. Following a nice week with my family, the day finally came for me to depart on April 21st.
What follows is an abridged version of my journal entries.
30 Days in Nepal
My flight departed Portland at 5:46 PM for Philadelphia where I switched to a 13 hour Qatar Airways flight to Doha. I was very happy to get an entire row of three seats to myself. In Qatar I had an 8 hour layover. Walking around the airport at 10 o’clock at night, I was surprised to see a gold place with 8 employees dressed to the dime in suits and ties attending to one customer. Everyone in the airport was dressed extremely well and many luxury goods were for sale, including exotic cars. The flight to Kathmandu, originally scheduled to leave 6 hours earlier, left after midnight due to night construction at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. Overall, the beginning of the first flight to the end of the last flight took nearly 30 hours.
Arriving in Kathmandu at a little past 8 in the morning, we walked off the plane and across the tarmac to the airport where I filled out the visa application, paid the visa fee, went through immigration, went through a quick security check, grabbed my backpack, and walked past customs. My friend-of-a-friend and proprietor of a travel agency, Anish, was waiting to pick me up as planned. We stopped by a trekking office to get the necessary permits and I went to the hotel in Thamel, the tourist district. After recuperating a bit, I ventured out to look around and take care of some errands. I was quickly overwhelmed by the chaotic nature of the city. There were no sidewalks to walk on, motorcycles were zooming by extremely fast, and many shopkeepers called you into their stores the moment you made eye contact. The air on the streets was extremely dusty and I even got a few sudden bloody noses over the course of my two day stay. At one point a monkey or a bird got electrocuted by touching a transformer. Of course the scene was only dramatic for someone not used to travelling in Asia, not necessarily for a seasoned backpacker.
Perhaps the area where my status as a rookie traveler was most clear was dealing with the touts and scam artists. It was impossible to walk longer than a minute or two without being approached. Most of the solicitors were storekeepers trying to get me into their shops or agents commissioned by travel agencies trying to get me to sign up for their tour or trek. However, I was also approached to buy trinkets, flutes, marijuana, and to come visit their art school/gallery (scam). Though I quickly recognized all cases as disingenuous , I originally had a difficult time politely ending conversations with the solicitors. The reality turned out to be that there was no polite way to deal with the solicitors, especially once the conversation started. I went from 10 minute never-ending conversations at the beginning to becoming very good at dealing with the touts by the end of the trip by simply putting my hand up and shaking my head “no” while walking past. I do want to emphasize that the touts and scam artists were entirely confined to the tourist areas, mainly in Kathmandu. Even Pokhara, the “tourism capital of Nepal,” had far fewer touts.
Overwhelmed, I did one errand at a time before taking refuge back in my room. Anish helped me with a few other trek preparations as well. I made it until 7 or 8 PM and went to bed.
Early the second morning a little after 6, I felt a nearby 4.8 earthquake which was by far the strongest I have ever felt. It lasted about 10 seconds and little harm was done other than disturbing many dogs and birds who started barking and squawking all at once.
I did not get any pictures of Kathmandu on the first two days, as taking out the camera would have shouted “new guy” to the touts.
Beginning of the Trek
On the morning of the third day, I departed Kathmandu with Anish’s driver and a Japanese tourist doing a different trek. Anish was sending his jeep over to Pokhara in advance of one of his trekking groups returning, so we got a good deal for the trip. It took an hour or two to get out of Kathmandu due to traffic. At some point mid-afternoon we arrived in Dumre where I switched to the bus. Early evening, I arrived in Besi Sahar, the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit.
The next day, I departed late morning after taking care of a few things. The scenery was nice, but not overly remarkable and I didn’t see any other trekkers on the trail. This was likely due to the fact that many people on tighter schedules jeep or bus higher up to begin their trek.
Tired by the heat and the hike, I ended the first day mid-afternoon in Bhulbhule.
After a little while, I walked around the village and met some neighbors who welcomed me onto their porch. Though varying levels of English were spoken, one very nice guy was a trekking guide and we chatted about various subjects. Tea was served. After a while, I went back to the guest house and found that 3 young ladies had stopped there for the night as well. They were Hélène of Ontario, Hannah of Australia, and Geo of Spain. We talked for a while, had dinner, and made plans for the next day.
The next morning we took breakfast at 6 and were on the trail soon after. The day was a long one, almost 12 hours of hiking. Some sections were trails and other sections on roads.
Eventually we finished the day in Chyamche. The day was comparable to walking along a long Yosemite Valley. Capturing the towering height of the cliffs in a single photo was always a challenge.
The next morning we took another 6 AM breakfast and set off for long day. The scenery was spectacular. Some areas could be described as comparable to the world in the movie Avatar.
In Bagarchhap, I said goodbye to Hélène, Hannah, and Geo , as I preferred to go at a more leisurely pace, hiking fewer hours per day.
The next morning, I started off strong, ascended to Timang in a couple hours. However, I began to feel light-headed from the altitude so I wrapped up for the day early in Thanchowk. The elevation was about 8,700 feet. The highlight of the guesthouse was certainly the cooking; the food was excellent with generous portions.
The following day was a very short one due to the altitude. I made my way up to Chame and stopped early, still feeling the altitude a bit. I began to realize though that I needed to push the boundaries a bit in order to further acclimate, so the next day, the 1st of May, I climbed up about 1,550 feet to about 10,500 feet and stopped in Dhikur Pokhari.
The next day I started off, planning for a long day.
On a steep climb up to Ghyaru, I met and joined Whitney, Tom, and Josie, a group of young people from California and England. Once we reached the village we took lunch and in an amazing coincidence, Whitney met someone who had been to her same high school one year ahead of her.
With the 12,150 foot altitude pushing treeline, the dominant building material of Ghyaru and all following villages noticeably changed from wood to stone.
The next few hours to Ngawal was one of the most scenic sections of the trek.
With two consecutive days of large climbs reaching 12,000 feet in Ngawal, I had difficulty sleeping that night due to what I later learned was interval breathing. In short, there were a few times throughout the night where I stopped breathing for a short periods of seconds only to wake up gasping for breath. This is actually a fairly common problem and is not a warning sign of a more serious issue. Fortunately, the next day’s itinerary called for actually descending in altitude a bit to Manang, one of the largest villages along the trek. Per the general recommendations, the plan was to spend two nights there in order to help with the acclimatization process.
We settled into our guesthouse in Manang. After enjoying some pastries from a bakery, the first semi-decent bakery we had encountered during the trek, we went to the free altitude safety talk held daily. A doctor from New Zealand gave a very good presentation about Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). HACE is the more advanced version of AMS on a spectrum while HAPE occurs indepently. AMS is not serious and characterized by a headache and a few other possible symptoms. The treatment is to stop ascending and wait for the symptoms to disappear. About 50% of trekkers going over Thorung La Pass experience some symptoms of AMS. HACE is caused by swelling of the brain and the main treatment is to descend. HAPE is caused by fluid in the lungs and likewise, the main treatment is to descend. It was also mentioned that the overall amount of oxygen in the air at the pass is about 50% of what is present at sea level. Following the talk, anyone interested could have their oxygen and pulse taken for a small fee. My oxygen was 88 (better than the target of 85) and my pulse was 93 (also described as good for the circumstances).
The next day, day 9 on the circuit, was the rest day. Overall I felt fairly crummy due to the altitude and loafed around for most of the day. That evening I began taking Acetazolamide (Diamox) to treat the altitude and the following morning I felt somewhat improved.
Manang marked the end of the jeep road and the electrical grid. Above Manang all goods must be carried by hand or animal and the little electricity available was provided by solar panels.
We made a solid day of trekking, quickly rising to Gunsang. With spectacular views along much of the way we continued onto Yak Kharka.
We took a late lunch in Yak Kharka (13,200 feet). In order to stay within the 300 to 500 meters of ascent per day guidelines, I said goodbye to Whitney, Tom, and Josie and settled for the night in “Yak.” The others had already recently trekked to Everest Base Camp which meant they were already somewhat acclimated to the higher altitude. That night was one of the more memorable ones, as there was a Chinese group, 2 German middle aged buddies, a couple of pilgrims from India, and a number of Nepali guides and porters. Interesting conversations were had and a few songs were sung.
The next morning I started off trekking with the Germans, but planned a very short day to Ledar (13,900 feet) to compensate for the fairly large climb the day before. The guesthouse I stayed at was fairly large, but also somewhat dilapidated in parts and easily had the least comfortable mattress so far.
However, seemingly entirely by chance, the guesthouse was full of 20 and 30 somethings which created a fun social atmosphere. The California couple, one of which had been to the same high school as Whitney, showed up later and we ended up playing some cards along with a two other people. I taught them the game of Rat which they enjoyed.
The next day I trekked to Thorung Phedi (14,850 feet) with the California couple which passed through some rock slide areas. Though it only took a few hours, I said goodbye after lunch in Thorung Phedi in order to be conservative with the altitude.
The place in Thorung Phedi had a nicer the normal restaurant. I spent most of the day lying down and reading, as the altitude was making me tired. Once again the beds were extremely uncomfortable and crooked. I put both mattresses on the same bed, but it didn’t seem to help much. I had a difficult time dozing off thanks in part to a mouse running around at various periods throughout the night. However, I managed a few hours of sleep. In the morning, I put my shoes on only to find a walnut in my shoe! When I payed the bill, I mentioned the episode and the lady laughed, saying she thought she remembered one of my neighbors having a bag of walnuts. She also said that the guesthouse follows Buddhist custom of not killing animals, as “they were here before us.” While Hinduism, the dominant religion of Nepal, was widespread on the lower reaches of the trek, the Tibetan influence was very noticeable beginning about halfway up, with Buddhism becoming very apparent.
Following breakfast, I began the ascent to Thorung High Camp (16,000 feet). Though a sizable climb, distance wise it was very close so I made moderate, but steady progress and arrived in less than 2 hours.
The water supply at High Camp was located in a big black plastic tub and looked filthy. However, faced with 250 rupee bottles of water ($2.25), I drank it anyways after watching several other trekkers hesitatingly do the same. The taste wasn’t as bad as it looked. Of course this was put through my filter, though the filter mainly removes bacteria and other microorganisms, not necessarily sediments. As the day went on, the place filled up with more travelers and I made friends with a few including a guy from Kingston, Ontario. Of the two Canadians I had met on the trek, both were from the same city in Ontario! I also played cards with a few Israelis, a nationality well represented on the trek. After dinner, a guide was offering to test everyone’s oxygen so I took the test. The oxygen was 80 and the pulse was 73, good considering the circumstances. I’m not sure why the pulse actually decreased from Manang. Perhaps the reason was that I had rested for 10 hours at High Camp compared to a shorter amount of time before the Manang pulse reading. Following the example of a number of guided groups I overheard, I ordered an especially hearty breakfast for 4:30 AM the next morning, as the weather is most favorable early on. By 8 or 9 o’clock the place was very quiet and I went to bed early ahead of the big day.
I was very happy to get up at 4:15 the next morning because I hadn’t slept the entire night. The moment I relaxed in bed I got behind on breathing and had to consciously gasp for breath to catch up. Though unsettling, difficulty breathing and sleeping are a normal occurrence at high altitudes and not specifically a symptom of altitude sickness. As I was perfectly fine while awake, I didn’t hesitate to head for the pass. Breakfast at 4:30 was a bustling scene. I was on the trail before 5.
This section of the hike was by far the coldest due to the altitude and especially the lack of sunlight. For the first time I used my jacket and gloves and my hands were still very cold. I kept a medium, but steady pace. At around 6:30 the sun came up over the mountains to the east greatly improving the comfort level of the air temperature.
At about 7:30 in the morning, I suddenly reached Thorang-La Pass (17,769 feet)!
I spent half an hour at the pass enjoying the moment. The weather was clear and calm and it was a thrill to achieve the pass after 2 weeks of working towards it. A tea house was also present serving drinks and some food, which a few people went for.
Following the enjoyment of the pass, I started descending, meeting up with the Kingston, Ontario guy.
Eventually I got ahead of the Ontario guy and cruised down on my own. By around 1 o’clock I reached Muktinath, specifically the village of Ranipauwa. As I found out, the town is a very important religious site for both Buddhists and Hindus, and tens of thousands make a pilgrimage there every year. So many pilgrims that despite being on the Annapurna Circuit, over half of foreigners to visit the village are from India.
The village was somewhat chaotic from an outsider perspective. Dozens of pilgrims from India and elsewhere made there way on horses through the streets up to a temple. A few people were carried through the streets on stretchers for unclear reasons. When I entered the village, a man dressed in a religious outfit with no shirt on started shouting religious chants. I took lunch in a restaurant and then found a tea house (between the many hotels). The tea house ended up being one of the nicest of the trek.
Perhaps the best part was the shower. It was the best shower of my entire 30 days in Nepal and also the first one I had in a week, since Dhikur Pokhari. By Dhikur Pokhari it had been becoming too cold and uncomfortable dealing with low pressure showers of inconsistent warmth. A group of three other guys were staying in the guesthouse so we enjoyed dinner together (pizza) and talked a bit.
The next day I decided to spend another night in Muktinath. Following that, I started out on what would be my last leg of the trek to Jomson.
Not long after Lupra, I met and began trekking with a guy from Oregon named Jodi who was a habitual traveler. Continuing on downwards, the weather took a turn for the worse and we were hit by some somewhat strong winds. In parts of Nepal, moderate or strong winds occur every afternoon thanks to the large mountain shadows which create imbalances of cool and warm air. We were also greeted with a drizzle of rain and it looked like we were going to get caught in a downpour, though we ended up being spared.
Eventually we found a place to stay in Jomson (9,000 feet). Though not the formal end point of the Annapurna Circuit, I decided to end my trek there. Neither of us ordered chicken, but our eyebrows were raised at dinner when we saw them bring a live chicken into the kitchen. Bus tickets were purchased to Pokhara for about $10 and the next morning we waited for the 7 AM bus which was about 20 minutes late. The next 10 hours were sheer misery with constant bumpiness everywhere except for momentary pauses on the few bridges. There were more than a few moments where I experienced air time. There were also a few places where it was unpleasant to look out the window and see the large cliff drop offs down to the river we were next to, but it could have been worse and fortunately our driver seemed like a good one. At one point a man brought a goat on board for an hour or two.
Difficult as it was for the passengers, the goat hated the ride even more. Eventually I arrived in Pokhara and found the Pokhara Backpackers Hostel, located on the edge of the tourist Lakeside District. I spent 5 nights at the hostel, which had a good breakfast and a variety of travelers staying.
Overall, I enjoyed Pokhara far more than Kathmandu thanks to its quieter and more laid back vibe, less dusty air, far fewer solicitors, and overall better infrastructure. It almost seemed like a larger version of Oak Bluffs or York Beach to a certain extent, having a beach town vibe.
Following Pokhara, I spent three more nights in Kathmandu, this time a mile or two away from Thamel, and enjoyed it much more than when I first arrived. The highlight was certainly going to the famous Monkey Temple.
On May 22nd, my 30th day in Nepal, I boarded an afternoon flight to Bangkok, Thailand on Thai Lion Air.
In no particular order, here are a few other notes about the trip.
- The main Nepali dish is Dal Bhat and consists of white rice (bhat), lentils (dal), vegetable curry, and often a few other things. The dish is all-you-can-eat so I frequently ordered it for lunch. Many Nepalese people eat the dish twice a day everyday.
- For the trek, I avoided all meat except tuna fish from the can. This seemed to be the advice most people were following due to food quality concerns.
- Menus on the trek all seemed very similar and contained somewhat westernized rice, pasta, and potato options. However, meals were often prepared differently than in the west. Though the food was good, by the end of the trek I must admit I was pretty tired seeing similar menus everywhere and was also craving meat.
- Despite occasionally thinking otherwise for a short time, I was never able to find a guest house where at least one amenity wasn’t compromised that might normally be expected. Here is my checklist I put together over the course of the trek of less obvious considerations to check before committing to a room:
- Feel mattress for comfort
- Check location/cleanliness of bathroom
- Presence of hot shower at low to medium elevations
- Electrical outlet in room, if needed?
- In order to not present a sugar-coated version of the trip, here is a partial list of some of the “compromises:”
- Besi Sahar – banged head on low door a number of times
- Bhulbhule – fire safety concern, constantly banging head on short doors and ceilings.
- Chyamche – hard mattress
- Thanchowk – bathroom downstairs across the street, boiling hot shower, dogs barking at night (best food of the trek, though)
- Chame – obnoxiously loud group of Russians up till 11 at night
- Manang – comparatively expensive food prices to other places, tight room, dogs barking at night
- Ledar – extremely uncomfortable mattress
- Thorung Phedi – very uncomfortable mattresses, mouse running around at night
- Thorung High Camp – filthy water, mouse running around at night
- The altitude was a challenge and not pleasant. For the week or so at fairly high elevations, I usually felt tired and somewhat crummy overall.
- To further avoid “sugarcoating” the trip, boredom did occur on short trekking days and I did get a slightly queasy stomach for the last two days in Kathmandu.
- The trek was affordable, with only a few days coming to more than $20 for food and a bed. Prices were less at lower elevations and increased at higher elevations. Room cost and purchases in shops were usually negotiable, while restaurants usually had menus with prices. Of course prices were in Nepali rupees instead of dollars which is like comparing apples to oranges. While prices might seem cheap to a U.S. citizen thanks to the exchange rate, the price might not be cheap for a Nepalese citizen.
- The driving took some time getting used to, as things are far less organized than the west, but it all seemed to flow fairly well (except in traffic jams) and everything always worked out in the end. I never got behind the wheel, though.
Visiting Nepal for a month was an experience I’ll never forget and I’m very glad I did it. That being said, I must admit that by the end of the thirty days I was looking forward to moving on to Thailand, a much more developed country.
Next country: Thailand