To begin the Annapurna Circuit trek, we boarded a brightly decorated local bus from Besisahar to Ngadi, a journey of 15 kilometres north over some of the worst roads I’d ever encountered. With our backpacks on the roof and the joyful and magnetic trance of Nepali music blaring from the speakers, the bus bounced and shook it’s way ever so slowly along the road. The driver regularly sounded the buses unique and musical horn to alert interested passengers of its approach. Before long, the bus was packed, and yet still more people got on, often with bags of shopping or the tools of their trade. After what must have been close to an hour long journey and watching a local woman succumb to travel sickness and vomit into a plastic bag, we were glad to finally arrive in the tiny village of Ngadi (930 m) and get started on the trail.
Some people walk from Besisahar to Ngadi however much of the route is interrupted by the road and other infrastructure. In addition, the Chinese built hydro-electric power station at Ngadi has reduced the mighty Marsyangdi river to a trickle on this stretch of the trek.
Starting the Trek
From Ngadi we followed the Marsyangdi river north through hillside farming land and traditional villages. During the first two days, there were no high snow-capped peaks visible from the trail as they were obscured by the valley hillsides that got steeper and more impressive as we gained elevation.
Huge waterfalls, plummeted from the massive hills and escarpments above us to the turbulent jade-coloured river below. The sheer scale of the landscape was like nothing else I’d seen before. Along the trail and high up on the hillsides, in seemingly inaccessible places, were tiny villages where the people lived a virtually self-sustaining existence.
Their houses were simple constructions of stone and wood, built using local materials. Animals like cows, goats and chickens lived side-by-side with the people who raised them. Village life involved time-honoured traditions like ploughing fields by hand, making baskets from bamboo, crushing rocks into aggregate and collecting firewood and different types of plants from the forest.
Guest Houses on the Trail
In larger villages or towns closer to the road, there were more obvious signs of modernity, yet still there was a simplicity and hands-on approach to daily life. Regardless of their stage of development, all villages along the circuit had guest houses or lodges to stay in. Rooms were simple, usually containing one or several beds with mattresses of varying thickness. The walls were often thin, wooden and draft-prone and none of the rooms had heating. The guest houses supply thick blankets but our sleeping bags proved to be a cleaner and more comfortable option and were often the warmest place to be.
All the guesthouses had a dining area attached, that in many places was heated by a wood burner. Due to the scarcity of wood, it was often only lit in the evenings and sometimes only if there were enough trekkers around to warrant it.
Most guest houses had some type of shower. We soon discovered the solar ones never seemed to be warm enough for cold evenings so we normally only showered if gas or electric was available. Toilets were either squat or western-style. Some guest houses had rooms with en-suites but most bathroom facilities were separate from the rooms and were always cold and dark concrete cubicles. The typical price for a room was 200 Nepalese rupees per night (less than £1.50).
Food at the Guest Houses
The best part of the stay in the guest houses was the food, which I have to conclude was excellent across the vast majority of places along the trail.
The menus were quite extensive and typically included a collection of western favourites, although we mostly stuck with Nepalese and Tibetan dishes. Our staple for most lunches was dal bhat; a dish that included rice with dal (lentil soup), curried vegetables, fried greens and often some pickled radish. It always provided great sustenance for the days trekking. For breakfast we’d normally have oat porridge with apple or honey and for the evening meal it was normally a curry, steamed vegetable dumplings (mo mo’s), fried noodles or some kind of soup.
Guest houses were also great places to stop for a drink along the trail. They served a variety of freshly brewed teas including regular, lemon and apple teas, lemon-ginger-honey drinks, coffee and a range of alcoholic beverages. Most guest houses also sold basic snacks like chocolate bars, biscuits and crisps as well as toilet paper and bottled water. The larger villages and towns usually had a variety of stores with a greater range of supplies. In certain villages you could even buy fresh fruit like apples, oranges and bananas.
All the guest houses had set printed menus with prices that applied across the whole village so there was no need to bargain over the price of meals. While the price of the room was next to nothing the food was where the guest house owners earned their income, although still very cheap by western standards. A plate of dal bhat for example was around 550 Nepalese rupees (around £3.85). Prices tended to increase gradually along the trail, according to the remoteness of the village from supply towns.
Two Days to Tal
Each day we would spend six to seven hours on the trail including rest stops and usually an hour-long lunch break. Most mornings we found it difficult to leave the guest house before 9am and would be looking for accommodation around 3 or 4pm when the temperature started to drop. Most nights, in the guesthouses, trekkers would be in bed early, usually around 8pm and the locals always went to bed not long after.
Along much of the journey we had the trail to ourselves and in most of the guest houses we stayed in, we were the only occupants. Each day we would meet a few other trekkers and they would usually stop for a chat, but on the whole the route was relatively quiet.
By the end of a long second day we had made it to the village of Tal (1700 m), located on the valley floor next to the river. Behind the village was a high waterfall with a staircase up to the top that provided a great view across the valley. It was common to see mountain ponies around Tal, grazing on the grasses by the riverbank, or standing waiting, ready to be put to work hauling loads between villages. At Tal, we had the sense that during the next couple of days we’d be edging closer into high mountain scenery, gaining elevation and perhaps getting our first glimpse of some of the worlds highest peaks.