Kathmandu is filled with a whirlwind of dust as trekkers from around the world prepare for their journey into The Himalayas. My brother and I met our guide Thakur the night before and today we found him waiting for us at the hotel just after breakfast.
We took a taxi past merchants setting up shop in the dusty streets. Our bus to Besisahar wasn’t far away and we were excited to get out of the city. Over the next 2 weeks we would climb to nearly 18,000ft and cover 150 km but first we had to take a 6 hour bus ride to a 5 hour jeep. With any luck leaving at 6:30 am meant we could get the 11 hour haul over with and start trekking from Chame tomorrow!
The Annapurna Circuit is one of the best trails in Asia!
The traffic in Kathmandu is unpredictable at best and sadly it took nearly 3 hours to get just 10 km from the city! Huge trucks and buses clogged the small roads as work crews dug ditches on either side of the highway. They were expanding the road to make it more fitting of that highway title but that didn’t help us too much right now.
Do I need a guide on the Annapurna Circuit?
The short answer is maybe. A guide will help let you enjoy the trek even more, stay safe and even more. My guide set up all the permits and documents for the trek before and on the actual trek he helped us find viewpoints and knew exactly when and where to go. We never worried about finding a good place to stay or eat and always had a nice room! Plus hiring a guide (or porter) makes a jobs for the local Nepalese and is a minimal cost during your vacation. That being said MANY people trek the circuit without a guide but if you can afford one it is well worth the cost. If you are an experienced hiker with a large time table then you can definitely complete the trek without a guide but if you don’t fit that description then I highly recommend hiring a guide!
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When we finally reached the first hill the congestion somehow grew even worse with endless rows of buses and trucks coming down the steep road with sharply turning switchbacks to climb the way through Himalayan foothills. Blind corners fill the air with honking horns that reminded me of driving through India on The Rickshaw Run. but slowly we made it to the top of the first precipice.
The cliff on our left fell immediately down where the road ended just below my window. With horns blaring and traffic dragging on we descended and were finally able to pick up some speed only to stop short again on the next hill. This futile exercise repeated again and again as our hopes of reaching Chame tonight were dashed. With the schedule no longer in our hands so we sat back and enjoyed the scenery.
Thinking about trekking Everest Base Camp instead?
Roadside farming villages filled our view when we left the suburbs of Kathmandu and suddenly a pair of ambulances squealed past, perhaps that was the cause of all this traffic. We stopped a few more times and even though we never saw an accident the congestion eventually gave way to terraced rice fields and later a murky river. The highway followed the river for a few hours as glacial melt magically cleaned the water into a beautiful sky blue. Rapids from giant boulders left by the titanous glaciers made an exhilarating path for rafters below but we focused on the distant mountains daydreaming about when we would finally be on the trail.
With a stop for lunch and a few more hours of driving we finally arrived in Besisahar. A few trekking shops offered last minute wares for hikers like us. I grabbed a pair of sunglasses and a hat that doubled as a neck gator. Okay so really it was a neck gator but she pulled one end tight and sold me it to me as a $2 hat. Thakur went right to work finding a jeep but told us we would have to stop at a village well short of Chame.
Beautiful scenery kept us from caring about the delay as we piled into the jeep and set off on some of the worst roads I’ve ever been on. We left the pavement behind in Besisahar and found massive rocks and puddles littering the narrow off road corridor. At least the road was wide enough for a small vehicle to pass us as long as a gouge hadn’t been cut out or a chunk of the road or eaten by a cliff. In an hour we had barely covered 10km and Thakur said tomorrow would be even worse but at least tonight there was a nice sunset in the clouds behind the distant mountains.
Our jeep picked us up right after breakfast for the ride to Chame. What we drove on yesterday was just a taste of the off road conditions. Ram, our driver, expertly navigated around boulders, through gulches and even a few rivers! Cliffs became the new norm on the side of the road with a beautiful river beneath us.
Ram stopped to pick up locals headed our way and they piled into the pickup flatbed with our bags. Unless there were too many of them and then a few would hang off the back!
Footbridges hung high across the valley and connected remote villages to this semblance of a road. Once we saw school children coming down the mountain crossing a suspension bridge to their classroom on the other side of the river. A smart shirt and tie gave away their destination and as a teacher I was happy to see them cheerfully headed to class.
We passed a handful of waterfalls and stopped for lunch across from Wayland Falls, the biggest of them. A restaurant perched itself perfectly beside the road with a wonderful view of this deluge. Ben ordered mo mos (dumplings) and I had a traditional Nepali set called Dahl Bhat. We enjoyed our meal in full view of the falls which thankfully weren’t overflowing from the monsoon otherwise we’d have been soaked during our meal!
After lunch the road climbed higher cutting into the cliffs and passing a few more waterfalls. The river must have been 1000 feet below us when clouds began to drizzle rain down on us. Light rain quickly turned an awful road into a even more treacherous one as the gulches from before grew slick with mud.
Many times throughout the day we would come across another jeep coming the other way. Now these roads are most definitely ONE LANE mountain roads. Both drivers honked and flashed some gang signs glaring at each other. This ritual usually went on for a few minutes with each driver certain that there was no room for them and instead a perfect spot for the other one to back into. Eventually one of them acquiesced and would throw it into reverse swinging narrowly close to the cliff while the other passed in this vehicular dance.
The far side of the valley was filled with long stretches of terraced farmland and a few hovels for those tending the crops. Bigger villages were scattered every few kilometers, the largest of which was Tal.
Thakur regularly asked Ram to stop for my photo ops and we still made good time towards Chame. The air was getting much cooler as we approached this minute city at 2600m (8530 ft.) Rain grew in strength and we picked up a family just a few kilometers from Chame. The mother and her two young children climbed into the cabin with us while her husband piled in the back with a few other locals. They held a tarp above them in what was certainly a turbulent ride.
We stopped at the nearby store and a few of the men jumped out while we waited. The father bought food and who knows what else as we patiently waited. Up here in the mountains no one is in a hurry and everyone was happy to help.
Driving along again we passed a group of men carrying huge logs on their shoulders. Another man led a pack of mules each loaded with two massive sacks as a third rode his mule through the rain. Ram switched the jeep into 4-wheel drive for the next stretch as the unusually steep incline had developed a small case of wanting to be a river. We drove through 2 huge puddles each deeper than a foot with a raised track with precisely enough room for our tires. Ram lined up the jeep and we precariously drove the first few meters when suddenly the wheels slipped off! For a split second the skid made our tensions palpable but the jeep quickly leveled out and Ram had control again.
Thankfully this was the worst part of the day’s journey. A few bumps and bruisers wiser and we arrived in Chame. Tonight’s guesthouse has a beautiful view of snow sprinkled mountains. The clouds parted at just the right moment revealing Manasulu, our first glance at one of the tallest mountains in the world!
Stay tuned for the next update with our first few days of trekking! If you liked this post please share it by clicking the buttons on the side and don’t forget to comment below or fill out the Trekking Form with any questions about the trail!