The Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
 
 

Welcome from Jim (:40)

 

 
  Introduction to Annapurna Circuit Trail (1:34)  

 

The political climate of Nepal has changed dramatically since the days of my trek in the 80’s and when this feature appeared in 2000.  Nepal remains one of the most beautiful places in the world.  It would be best to do some checking with the proper authorities to determine whether conditions are safe for trekking. 

 

It’s been almost 20 years since I walked, counterclockwise, around Nepal’s Annapurna Range, in the Himalaya. The trail, called the Annapurna Circuit, extends over 200 miles (322 kilometers), most of that either uphill or down, following the courses of rivers, passing through small villages on ancient trails in the company of donkey caravans, yak herders, pilgrims, farmers, schoolchildren, and fellow trekkers. It takes about a month, starting in a sultry, almost rain forest environment, ascending through terraced farmland and on past the timberline up to Thorung La, a mountain pass, and then on down to the lowlands again.

These sights and sounds from that trek are like jewels in a necklace of memory.

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In the Himalaya, there are no roads, only trails. So if you want to get somewhere, you walk or ride a donkey or a horse. If you want to transport something, you usually carry it yourself. On the trail you’ll see pilgrims carrying all their worldly goods on their backs and farmers hauling mini-bales of newly cut hay. I recall two men shouldering a telephone pole up a steep hill!

Once, near Manang, a village not far from Tibet, I encountered four girls carrying large baskets of dried dung to be used as fuel. They stopped for a moment to rest and were singing snatches of songs. I asked them if they wouldn’t mind my recording a few of their tunes.

 
  Nepalese girls singing (1:48)  
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Here’s a translation of one of their songs:

Hearing the sound of a flute being played at a chautari [stone
monuments built as resting places in mountain villages]

Nepalese girl
Nepalese girl carrying a heavy basket using a strap across her forehead
The queen is dancing before my eyes.
I cannot rest until I bring the master of the house here to this forest
(to see her).

If everything comes from the sky, they are for the Earth.
The younger sister is lovelier than the older one,
but she’s just an early bloomer.

Take me, my love, to the sugarcane field
If you love me, pick up a flower in remembrance
When will you forget this love?

The clothes my mother gave me are all torn and gone.
It’s a hot day, and as fate would have it
I’m all alone.

My heart cries
Oh sister, for you a song!
Where is equal love?

For transporting bulk goods to the remote villages, there are caravans of donkeys, often with colorful bridles and bells hanging from their necks. You’ll hear them ringing faintly from far off. Then suddenly the caravan will round the bend, and you’ll be in the midst of a dust cloud of donkeys and their herders, whistling and shouting to keep them on the move. The whistles and shouts blend into the cacophony of bells – pure trail music. And then, just as quickly, they’re gone, leaving a haunting whisper of sound.

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  A donkey caravan along the trail (2:12)  

Map of Annapurna
Click to enlarge map

The high point of the trek, altitude-wise, is Thorung La, a mountain pass with an elevation of 17,769 feet (5,416 meters). Under the supervision of Sherpa guides, you’ve spent almost two weeks gradually acclimatizing to the altitude. So when the time comes to cross the pass, you’re ready for it.

 
  Sounds from my ascent to Thorung La, a mountain pass, beginning with birds at the start of the climb and ending with Sherpas singing at the highest point (1:55)  

Although it supposedly rarely snows during early October (trekking season), it did on the eve of my crossing. The intense glare of the snow added to the list of challenges on the day of the ascent.

One of my strongest impressions is of the difficulty of breathing at the highest altitude. We lowlanders are attuned to a certain “density” of air. Up in the nether regions, when you breathe in, you don’t receive the amount of air you’re programmed for. It’s sort of like drinking a whole glass of water and ending up with only a few sips. Gradually you learn to economize your breathing and your movements, as you find your own rhythm to make it to the top.

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A few days after traversing Thorung La, while dining at an inn in the village of Marpha, I was jolted by a clash of cymbals and a discordant blare of what sounded like trumpets in an adjacent room. It turned out that the proprietor of the inn had invited a lama to hold three days of puja – vigilant prayer and ritual observance – during the holiday of Dharma Mandal.

 
  Monks using the sounds of chants, bells, cymbals, and horns to celebrate a three-day-long Buddhist holiday (1:41)  

After receiving permission to enter the room and record, I saw Lama Lobsang Tempa intoning a chant from a sacred text. Next to him in a line sat four novice monks, barely in their teens. From time to time they joined in playing cymbals and reed instruments.

Everyone followed the proceedings with their own copy of the text, the older boys chanting softly in unison. At certain intervals the youngest novice replenished everyone’s teacup. The ceremony had the curious quality of being informal, unpretentious, and at the same time, quite precise.

Later, after he’d finished the evening’s puja and had a bit of dinner, the lama granted me a brief interview. In response to one of my questions, he said, “Once we come into this world, we must die, isn’t it so? We die and our external bodies might not exist, but our souls will still be here, accompanied by what good or bad we have done with our lives. What will you take with you?”

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Trekking Advice
Tourism has become one of Nepal’s primary sources of income, and there are a number of options open to would-be trekkers. You can show up in Kathmandu and hire a guide, find your way to a trailhead and trek it yourself, or work with a trekking agency, which will help you handle all the details of the journey. I went the agency route and never regretted it for an instant.

Jim Metzner with a Nepalese musician
Jim Metzner with a Nepalese musician

On the trek my companion and I slept in tents, had our baggage carried by porters, and had our food cooked for us. It was wonderful. There are also inns and small restaurants along much of the route.

A number of trekking agencies have extensive experience in Nepal, including Mountain Travel•Sobek (www.mtsobek.com) and Wilderness Travel (www.wildernesstravel.com), both based in northern California. The company I worked with, Geographic Expeditions (www.geoex.com) (no affiliation with National Geographic), was first-rate.

The typical cost of a trek today is approximately U.S. $100 to $200 per person per day, depending on the size of the group.

— Jim Metzner


Credits:

One in a series of archival articles originally produced in 2000.

Photographs, text and sound by Jim Metzner.

Photograph of Jim Metzner and musician by Eileen Behan.

Special thanks to Shana Chrystie of Geographic Expeditions for generously sharing her knowledge of Nepal, and to Eileen Behan, my stalwart companion on the Annapurna Circuit. Although we encountered many difficulties along the way, I don’t recall her ever complaining, not even when she twisted her ankle along a rock-strewn stretch of the Kali Gandaki riverbed.

Pulse of the Planet  is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

This feature originally appeared on NationalGeographic.com and appears here with their kind permission.

© 2000-2007 Jim Metzner Productions. All rights reserved.