One of the most popular treks is around Annapruna, a few hundred kilometers west of Kathmandu, which takes most people around 9 or 10 days. This photo is from the beginning of the trek, which starts at a relatively low altitude where rice cultivation is still possible.
The trails along the Annapurna circuit are pretty clear and shown in the major guidebooks so one doesn't need a guide although some people elect to take a porter to help carry their gear. There are few roads in Nepal so many things are transported by porters and donkeys. The trails are just dirt paths often prone to landslides or buried in avalanches. The danger is not so much that you will fall off of a trail somewhere but that a rock will on you from above. More than once, I had to cross areas with falling stones, which were so narrow that one had to literally put one foot in front of the other.
This photo is of me on one of the better-made bridges I crossed. Few and far between, one can't over estimate how vital such bridges are since there are simply no other alternatives.
These are the packs of local porters who have stopped in to get some food or a drink of chai. Porters carry heavy loads on their backs for days into the mountains mostly with flimsy shoes if not barefoot. And the average Nepali was about half my size yet able to carry 3 times the load - respect! One was sometimes surprised to see and tempted by a bottle of coke available after a hard days trek but then I would have to realize how it was transported and think how unnecessary it was. Without roads, EVERYTHING had to be carried into the mountains and men used trails that even the often seen caravans of donkeys would refuse to take.
The literal high point of this trek is a snowy pass at 5500 meters. One gradually goes up over the days providing time to acclimatize. There is a small clinic manned by western volunteer doctors 2 days walk before the pass. Most importantly they gave speeches at this local guesthouse to inform people about the symptoms and dangers of altitude sickness which a decade before had claimed the lives of 1 out of 100 trekkers. They told me that the main complaint and cause of people not completing the circuit is blisters, which hamper 100% of the trekkers, and that nothing was more welcome than someone showing up with a donation of moleskin. It snowed heavily at this point and we heard that the pass was impassable, so everyone had to wait an extra day.
Waiting to continue the trek, I put on my rented gaiters and stomped around in the snow. This is when I realized that the light Adidas hiking boots I had were completely slippery when wet and like most Gore-Tex boots they were not really waterproof either.
The following day's walk was hell as I suffered from the altitude despite my extra day of acclimatization. The destination is just one building there to shelter and feed the trekkers at 4800 meters. About 100 people sleeping on wooden planks packed together like sardines. To eat were just some greasy noodles from which I caught Guardia for which I thankfully had medication along to treat myself with. I was definitely stressed and feeling bad from the altitude but was resolute on crossing the pass. People started around 4 am to make sure they would be over the top by 10 am since later the winds tend to turn ferocious. This photo shows the summit, which was marked by a few prayer flags. Like everyone else I took a short break, had a drink of water but then pushed on to descend as fast as possible. Somehow I made it despite feeling so bad. I had no gloves and my hands were freezing until someone suggested I use my extra socks. My thinking was too muddled for me to even think of such an obvious solution myself.
I would later meet a group of Isrealis who were a couple days ahead of me and had been crossing the pass when the big snow came. They had trouble to find their way and it became dark soon after they started their decent. They eventually found a wall, the remains of an old hut where they huddled together and spent the night. The water in their canteens froze and they feared they wouldn't survive. Then by daybreak they notice a plume of smoke a few hundred meters farther which came from a small intact hut. They stumbled to the hut relieved to find warmth and some friends that had spent the night there. These were the lucky ones. Not so lucky were the 3 people who died in the pass a couple days after I went over. They got a late start and the winds came up stronger and earlier than normal. I also saw a family with kids of around 7 and 9 who had walked the other direction which is much more difficult. They had a porter who carried the smallest kid part of the time but the other one did it unassisted. Survival often just depended on the luck of the weather. This photo was taken some hours later as I descended below the snow line.
I took a side trip from the main route to go up to the bottom of the glacier at Dhaulagiri, which is the 7th highest peak in the world. It is known as the windy mountain and is suppose to be one of the hardest climbs in the Himalaya. I was accompanied by a couple of others from my guesthouse. It was not technically difficult but steep and tiring and always seemed to be just over the next incline only to retreat before out eyes. We were definitely just 500 meters or so from the ice when we noticed a storm of menacing black clouds rolling over the top of the mountain. We turned around and started running down as fast as we could. We had carefully zigzagged our way up leaving a path in the light snow. In the meantime, the sun had melted so much of the snow that it was slippery and we couldn't see where we had treaded and we kept having to change our direction when we realized we had taken too steep of a way. Somehow we made it back down just in time to avoid a blizzard. One of the others had binoculars along but we failed to spot a group, which was trying to climb the peak. I heard they spent a month without success, so this is a mountain to take serious. This photo of me is taken looking down from Dhaulagiri shortly before our descent.
Along the trail.
Woman in Nepal have to share in much of the hard labor as one sees in this photo with an old woman carrying an awfully large bale of hay. Nepali men have a life expectancy of around 42 years. Although I saw plenty of small hovels, these building were pretty typical of what one saw along the route. For such a poor place, many of the homes seemed rather extensive but this is probably due to being right on a trade route.
The accommodation throughout the mountains of Nepal was just extra rooms in private homes, hotels were non-existent. In this time, the people asked little to no money to put tourists up and barely covered their costs for the meals they provided. I tried to advise some of these people the concept of making a profit but it seemed to be against their sense of hospitality. The people lived on rice and lentils, locally know as dhal-bhat. Some valleys the far side of the Annapurna pass were rather green and fertile. I saw strawberries being grown but the locals told me they only sold them. Even with the introduction of new foods they stuck to eating their dhal bhat, dhal bhat and more dhal bhat! Most of the terrain on the first half of the trek was dry and looked unable to support much agriculture. As seen in these photos, they tried to raise plants out of individual piles of dung placed on barren, rocky fields.
This photo is of a tea stand set up along the trail. It was a nice place to drop my pack, drink some tea and chat with these surprisingly cute girls. I was wearing my old thick glasses because I was unable to wear the soft contact lenses I usually used at the time. Most of the trail was so dusty that it irritated my eyes. It also affected my lungs, giving me a bad case of bronchitis and triggering my asthma. Otherwise, the walking was not all that bad. The distances most people did in a day were short of what I was actually able to do and I even some trekkers in their 50's that simply took more time but managed quite well. My hint is that being used to your boots and having a properly fitted and not too heavy backpack are essential. Good sleeping bag, sunscreen and sunglasses are needed but one can leave the soap, shampoo and all but a small towel behind. It's too cold to really wash even if you would have a place to do it.
I took this photo while leaving a small cluster of houses along the trail where I had stopped for lunch. I am not sure who was more intrigued by the other, these kids looking at the strange tourists or the westerners experiencing how people can live in one of the most underdeveloped parts of the world. Once, a boy not much older than the older of these kids came yelling down the trail. I had forgotten my sunglasses at a place I had eaten at and he ran half a kilometer to return them to me. Despite many such examples of honesty and hospitality, the seeds of discontent that have plagued Nepal the last decade or so were already to be seen in 1990. Many young guys who worked in the larger villages at the end of the Annapurna route, impacted by the constant stream of trekkers, were getting aggressive. They seemed to long for the material wealth of the foreigners and seeing the extreme poverty, who can really blame them.
This shot is very cute in a way but also kind of sad. Other kids would play with dolls, Nepali kids start at an early age to carry heavy load on their head. I can't imagine looking forward to a life of working like a beast of burden.
Yet one had plenty of impressions of happy, playing kids. Here I was relaxing on the roof of my accommodation for a night. The kids were scampering up and down the typical ladders used there, which are carved out of a single log. These were needed, as there tended not to be any stairs in or out side most dwellings. Another local oddity was the heating. There would be a living-room/dining-room with a large table covered with a heavy cloth. Heated rocks (I believe, rather than coals) were placed under the table and one put their legs under the tablecloth. One felt warmed all over and not just the lower extremities.
Another stop for a cup of chai or a cold drink along the route and a chat with the proprietor and her small child.