Nepal has been a place that has long attracted me. The Himalayas, to be sure, offer no end of photographic opportunities with their huge windswept peaks, spectacular views, and perpetual changing landscape. I suspected that I would find more than just that when I finally visited, and have tried to go three times now. My first attempt was in April 2015, and had fully prepared for the trip when the earthquake happened. I had planned on exploring Langtang national park and realized that I was probably going to be a liability if I went, and decided to cancel. I tried again a year later, but life intervened and I had to cancel then as well.
When a group of friends approached me with a plan to explore and climb on and around the Annapurna Himal in April of 2016, I was “game on” and started packing my bags before I had written the confirmation email. I was not going to let it slip through my fingers again.
The Kathmandu airport was, to put it mildly, insane. After navigating the labyrinthian procedure for getting a visa, I was out of the airport in just under two hours. Then, I got to experience traffic and scooter nuttiness on my way to the Thamel district, which is where most tourists end up. It is a mixed bag. It is probably one of the greatest places on earth for souvenir hunting, and, if for no other reason, a worthwhile place to explore if you’re into people watching. There are some pretty great side streets that offer quiet respite, with delicious food and even great organic coffee. Try the mo:mos, a Nepalese delicacy. They are sort of like sticky buns or dim sum, and come filled with all sorts of good things.
Anyway, on to the mountains! Kathmandu is about a 6 or 7 hour bus ride from the beginning of the Annapurna circuit. That 6 or 6 hours might easily double in length, though, especially if traffic is bad. Just accept it, bring a good book, and make it part of the experience. On the drive you will descend from 1600 meters altitude where Kathmandu is, to quite close to sea level, and then climb back up as you approach the Himalaya.
Once you’re up in the mountains, everything changes. The wind picks up, the temperature drops at night, and the air is beautifully crisp and clean. And the views. Oh MAN, the views. If you are on the Annapurna circuit, which takes about 15 days to do if you hike 6 hours a day, you are always hiking with the Annapurna massif on your left. If you look hard at the massif as you come into Ghyru, you’ll see the face of Annapurna herself, watching over you as you move through her domain. Annapurna means provider of nourishment in Sanskrit, and as the wife of Shiva, she will help you through your journey.
In the morning, expect pristine skies, very little wind, and temperatures right around or below zero. Once the sun comes around, the temperature will rise substantially and you’ll end up hiking in a tshirt for the the rest of the day. Just make sure you wear sunscreen. At high altitude the sun is brutal. I still ended up with sunburn despite using SPF 110. Hats and sunglasses are not really optional. Water can be hard to find on the hike, although food is not. There are plenty of guest houses, villages, or enterprising villagers setting up shop to offer you delicious baked apple pie for 100 Rupee, or about one dollar. I am being completely serious.
You will notice the altitude. Above 3000 meters and you’ll find yourself breathing deeper, trying to get oxygen in your lungs, and wondering why it’s not working. Above 4000 meters and steep climbs become an exercise in persistence and determination. Above 5000 meters, and well, you get the idea. You’ll suffer. But it’s totally worth it.
For me, just as important as the mountains were the villages we went through and the people we met. Everyone was so friendly, so giving, and so completely willing to help you out, offer directions, or give you advice. As a practicing Buddhist who occasionally struggles to stick with it, I found it really inspiring to be able to see temples, shrines, and monasteries, talk to monks, spend time at prayer services, and spin the wheels on my way in or out of the villages. I actually felt like I belonged there, and to be honest, coming home was hard. I had a hard time readjusting, more so than after any other country I’ve ever been to. It isn’t a bad thing. I must learn to take those memories and experiences and incorporate them into my life here. And of course, I must also begin thinking about going back. Nepal, I love you.