The inescapable bus ride to Besisahar was as predictable as it was packed. Hours late, we were released from captivity and erupted on the street in the late afternoon, backpacks raining down from the roof. Various small groups reassembled and decided where to get a bite to eat. I hit the trail right away and declined the next bus ride to Khudi, preferring to walk. Aside from adjusting my pack a few times and overtaking a group of 4 Brits, not much happened on day one. The scenery is largely similar to the start of the Helambu trek, given the altitude.
I ended up in Bhulbhule, just short of the suggested schedule printed on my map. Donkey caravans are a tad more dangerous than I initially realized, and after being rudely pushed aside once decided that waiting till they pass is the way to go. Countless swing bridges cross various rivers all along the trek, flexing improbably under the weight of the donkeys.
On the evening of day two, I stopped in Jagat and ended up talking with two retired Israeli couples. They were French by origin and moved to Israel decades before I was born. They were charming to a fault and we laughed till late at night.
The next day was waterfall day. I stopped counting at ten or so. Feeling exceptionally lazy, I ended up in Dharapani shortly after lunch.
By now I'd realized that leaving on a weekend day guarantees you start at the same time as all the tour groups. Most of these have guides, porters and some even translators. Arriving at a hotel with a tour group guarantees you poor service and massive dinner delays. I decided the next day to push on past Chame, another tourist Mecca, and ended up in Bharatang, as deserted as the Baghdad Cafe area in the similarly named movie.
A surprised lodge keeper pulled all the stops and cooked up a storm. I was the only guest until an American couple arrived. They were at least 15 years younger than me, but we had a blast and talked until the wee hours. A few weeks later they were the first ones at the scene when an avalanche on the Thorung La pass kills one Swiss hiker, injuring another and their porters.
From Bharatang to Upper Pisang the scenery starts to change. Leaving the lowlands, the first real mountains start to peek through.
Deserting the main trail, I crossed the bridge towards Upper Pisang. The meadow provides a second look at Paungda Danda, the sloping rock face which remained visible for the next two days.
The older part of Upper Pisang and the monastery below set the architectural scene for the next few days.
I descended to Lower Pisang for the night.
The following day I wanted to get an early start. It's a long and hard climb up to Ghyaru. At 5 am, I was the second one on the trail. After about 15 minutes, the weather went from bad to worse and I decided to seek shelter from the sleet and snow in Upper Pisang. An American couple I ran into the day before arrived an hour later and we set off together. The weather improved and shortly after lunch we left Ghyaru, having ascended 500 meters in record time.
This is Yak territory. Their shape is decidedly different from a cow, with an odd fur pattern. They're also twitchy and have been known to charge people. We stayed well clear of this dominant male after a short stand-off.
Although the skies were not totally clear, we enjoyed some good views.
Ngawal was the chosen stop for the day. We were now at altitude and needed to spend at least a few days at that level to acclimatize before pushing over the Thorung La pass. The bitter cold in Ngawal drove me to Braga the next day, just before Manang. My rented fake "North Face" -10C sleeping bag proved less efficient than my +5C bag I left in Pokhara. Luckily most lodges had quilts and duvets.
Not much happened in Braga. I stayed here for 2 days in a very decent lodge with good food and a heated restaurant area. I found myself in a fierce snowstorm on the way back from Manang one day, stocking up on emergency food. By the time I got back to Braga, a 20 minute walk, I was covered in a few centimeters of ice. Luckily I had my rain gear with me.
Leaving Braga, I headed to Yak Kharka. It proved hard to find lodging. In a rare moment of clarity, I hiked back towards the first lodge outside of Yak Kharka and booked 3 rooms, one for myself and 2 for the 4 Brits I ran into again in Braga. We'd been talking all evening and played with the idea of hiking together. I ended up hiking with them for the rest of the Circuit trek. To say we had a good time would be an understatement.
Gregg, ZoŽ, Sarah and Paul.
The weather changed for the better and the next morning started with turquoise, blue and some pink, then solid blue for the rest of the day.
We arrived in Thorung Pedi, at 4,441 meters one of the last stops before crossing the 5,416 meter Throung La pass. This stop proved to be a trying one. Our lodging for the night was a 10 bed dorm with a tarp roof. The restaurant, if you can call it that, was full of people and leaving your seat meant you were relegated to standing room only. We managed as a group to carve out a section and alternated bathroom stops. This went on for the entire afternoon and evening. A donated copy of "East of Eden" kept me busy. A day or so earlier I had finished the "9/11 report". Nobody seemed to want to read it, so it went with the kindling the next morning. We slept badly and got up early to tackle the pass.
Going over the pass proved to be easier than expected. The 1,000 meters up were not the problem and we arrived earlier than anticipated. The weather was perfect and we ended up spending an hour or more at the pass, taking pictures and getting ready for the 1,700 meter descend.
The way down was grueling. At times those of us without walking sticks or crampons needed to get off the trail to walk through knee-deep snow to cut our own way down the mountain. People were backed up on the slippery sections. In a few hours, we descended below the snow line. It looked like we'd landed on the moon. A fierce wind blew along the dry, dusty riverbed.
Muktinath, the first sizeable village, was solidly booked so we continued on to Jharkot. From Jharkot, the scenery is quite dull until Tatopani. We made time and ended up in Marpha the next day. The next stops were Ghasa and Tatopani, where we had a rest day before tackling the climb to Ghorepani. From Ghorepani, we went up to Poon Hill the next morning to watch the sunrise.
At this point, Gregg and Paul needed to make time to Pokhara to fly back to the UK. I continued on with ZoŽ and Sarah to Annapurna Base Camp.