Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp Trekking Adventures

AC: Annapurna Circuit, a 17-day loop through the Annapurna Range in Nepal.
ABC: Annapurna Base Camp, also known as Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, at 4130 meters. A 5-day trek tagged on to the end of the AC, essentially trekking inside the AC loop and going to the base of the Annapurnas.
Thorung La: at 5416 meters, the highest point of the AC.
MBC: Machhapuchhare Base Camp, the village before ABC, at 3700 meters.

To view photos from the Annapurna trek, click here.

Me: "OK, you got the contact solution?"
Julia: "Check."
Me: "And shampoo?"
Julia: "Check."
"I have sunscreen and toothpaste and lotion."
"How many pairs of underwear are you bringing?"
"You only need 2."
"Eeeew! That's disgusting!"
"We'll just rotate them and wash them."
"Oh! We need baby wipes!"
"And batteries!"
"And Snickers!"
Julia and I were packing our bags for the next day's departure for the AC. We'd been planning to visit Nepal for the sole purpose of doing the AC and ABC since we'd been planning our escape from Jordan. We tested each other's packs, throwing the least necessary items out, until we were satisfied with the weights. Both of us agreed that hiring a porter would be too expensive and would mean less calories burned. So we mentally prepared ourselves to carry 15-kg packs each for 3 weeks through the Nepal Himalayas.
The first 3 days, we passed through Hindi and Tibetan villages. Looking back now, it was quite ridiculous how excited we grew each time we crossed a bridge. After bridge #7, we lost count and stopped posing for pictures at each river intersection. Prayer walls greeted us at the entrances to most villages, and it was almost comforting to stumble on a stupa strewn with prayer flags in the middle of no man's land.
The views were increasingly stunning, but the prices at the lodges grew as we ascended. A large pot of tea for 400 Nepali rupees (about $5)? Dal bhat for 320 NRs (a little more than $4)? Julia and I decided to put our thriftiness to the test, and we bought tea bags and powdered milk from a canteen in Chame...and in villages thereafter, ordered pots of hot water and unabashedly laid out our display of tea bags and milk, preparing our own tea (and saving hundreds of NRs).
Every 4-5 days, Julia and I would have laundry days, washing our stinky clothes in buckets while squatting in the shower. On lucky days, our laundry would be dry the next morning. But, more often, we'd wake up to still-wet clothes...and simply hang our damp underwear and socks from extra straps on our backpacks and start trekking. By the afternoon, the sun would've dried the hanging laundry. Towards Thorung La, when it was simply too cold to shower or do laundry, we didn't. Instead, we opted for the ever-popular baby-wipe shower and the "airing out" method of getting at least some stink out of those trekking clothes.
The amazing thing about AC and the ABC is that you pass through an array of climactic zones, see all types of vegetation, and experience every type of landscape. The entire 22 days were filled with stunning views of mountain ranges, wanderings through local villages, encounters with yaks and blue sheep, and dusty, barren trails immediately followed by paths through bamboo forests. The jaw-dropping views at Ghyaru, after suffering through a 45-minute ascent winding up a steep mountain, were the first that left me speechless and addicted. Equally captivating were the views from Manang, Ghasa, Chuile, and ABC, and by far the most stunning and intimidating peak is Machhapuchhare, a mountain that has never been summitted because it's holy...and impossibly angular.
Looking back through photos now, the highlight of the trek was Poon Hill, a viewpoint 330 meters above Ghorepani. I couldn't get enough of it; I went up for 2 sunrises and 1 sunset within 36 hours. It's breathtaking when, from one single point, you see clouds hovering above a series of lower ranges, and the panoramic views of Dhauligiri (8167 meters), Annapurna (8091 meters), Machhapuchhare (6993 meters), and Manaslu (8157 meters) stretching along the world's deepest gorge. I really fell head-over-heels for Poon Hill when I saw the endless streams of prayer flags draped around bushes, adding color and reverence to my favorite spot on the trek.
The Nepali porters were just as amazing as the views. Some looked as young as 15 years, hauling loads as heavy as 35 kilograms on a woven basket that had a single strap they placed on their foreheads. Some carried a wire cage with 4 levels of stinky, squawking chickens. Others carried baskets of 3 or 4 duffel bags stacked on one another. The most impressive were the porters who looked to be 60-plus years, wearing plastic sandals, and enunciating "Namaste!" with a toothless grin each time I passed. The loads were just as curious; I saw a Nepali villager carrying a basket full of cow dung, another hauling wood strips 10 feet long, and another whose basket was so full of leaved branches that he looked like a tree with a trunk of short and thick calves.
The menus in the lodges were surprisingly well-catered to foreigners. I'd been warned that "all you'll eat is dal bhat (lentils and rice) for 3 weeks." Not true. I only ordered dal bhat once in 22 days. Menus almost always included chowmein, fried rice, curries, and roasted potatoes. In larger villages, my cravings for pizza and cheese mashed potatoes were satisfied, although I quickly learned to avoid any item that included tuna and any of the soups (salted water). One advantage to being mistaken as Julia's porter was that I could walk in to any kitchen and oversee that extra cheese be put on my pizza and that my eggs were fried on both sides.
Bakeries were, by far, the best surprise any trekker stumbles upon. The AC is also known as the "Apple Pie Trail" - and it lives up to its nickname. The better lodges in bigger villages had irresistible displays of apple pie, apple crumble, and chocolate cakes lining the glass case. The best apple crumble I had, worthy of being served in an American diner, was at Tatopani (Thanks for letting my wandering fork dig into your dessert, Martin). The pizza at Chomrong, the spinach and mushroom enchiladas at Ghorepani, the cinnamon rolls at Manang, and the cheese rolls at Thorung Phedi were the culinary highlights of the AC and ABC. No wonder I came back from the 22-day trek not a kilo lighter - the food along the trail is irresistible, nourishing, and quickly replaces those calories lost on 7-km uphill stretches.
Each night at the teahouses, all the trekkers gathered in the dining hall, huddling around the fire or with each other for any spare warmth. Julia and I met some amazing people who followed our route and schedule. Oded, a fresh-out-of-the-Israeli-army trekker, had his first laundry day on Day 15 of the trek. Despite his clothes' stinkiness, he entertained us with conversations about homosexuality and Judaism. Meital, another ex-Israeli soldier, somehow survived through the AC without a sleeping bag. Inevitably, I found her pleading with lodge owners each night for "an extra blanket...come on, just one." Robert and Josee, a French-Canadian couple, were lifesavers; they supplied the necessary drugs to cure Julia's infected feet. We were amazed at their post-trekking plan to tandem-cycle from Kathmandu to Delhi (Are you there yet?).
Ben and Tom from southern California first stumbled upon Julia on the trail two days before the pass. Seeing her very-poorly-fitted 15-kg pack (a symptom of first-time trekkers), they asked her if she'd ever trekked before. Their honest question was met with an honest answer: "No." And so they adjusted those dozen straps that hung uselessly until the weight was properly balanced on her hips. They were using the AC as a mere preparation for their real goal of scaling Island Peak - I hope you 2 succeeded!
I first met Gerard from San Francisco at a village where I stood waiting for Julia and he stood waiting for his partner Martin - and he pulled a cigarette out of his pack to smoke. Who smokes at such a high altitude, where lungs need every extra bit of oxygen they can afford? But Gerard and Martin, reliably sporting their Ipods as they trekked, grew to be Julia's and my favorite pair (no, they're not gay). Julia swooned over Gerard's toned calves and Martin's ass (or was it vice versa?), while I unashamedly accepted every generous offer of "Do you want a slice of my extra-cheese pizza?" and "Here, have a bite of my apple crumble."
And, of course, Imogen from Germany - my partner to the very end. After completing the AC, only 5 of us set off for the ABC (Julia's feet were so blistered, and she'd already lost 3 toenails from the was only common sense that she skip the ABC). We quickly lost Adam when he dashed off to Chomrong while Gerard, Martin, Imogen, and I settled in Chuile. On day 20, the 4 of us trekked through clouds, mist, and, eventually, snow to reach ABC. The next morning, we woke up frozen, but were rewarded with the most jaw-dropping views of Himalayan peaks in snowy bliss. Gerard made a snow angel, Martin shot his expert photos, and Imogen cuddled with her rubber ducky. We were the last to leave ABC that morning, savoring that amazing feeling of being completely surrounded by dominating peaks.
During the descent, though, both Gerard and Marting complained about knee pains - and Gerard's left shin was inflamed to twice its normal size (later discovered to be tendinitis). Once we reached MBC an hour later, it was unbearable. Imogen and I slept in the sun while Gerard and Martin investigated hiring a private flight to rescue them from their suffering. One hour later, and $1900 slimmer, Gerard and Martin were skipping towards the helipad landing.
Imogen and I continued our descent, motivated by the thought of hot showers and a rare steak in Pokhara. We made a great team - on our last day, we raced 28 km to the finish line, stopping only for Snickers, chocolate croissants, and a rare photo opportunity (Do you still have that scar on your boob?). Imogen, cheers (with a thormas of tea, of course) to completing the AC and ABC together, marching in to Nayapul with your blistered pinky toes, my sore knees, and dreams of showers and steaks!

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