Every day in the evening or in the early mornings right after I woke up, I made a point to jot down (or should I say type out on my phone) how our day went during my entire trek in the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. I ended up trekking with Giulio, an Italian guy I met through Marco, a mutual friend of ours who put us in touch with each other when he found out we were both going at the same time.
DAY 1, November 5th: Kathmandu to Besisahar
Woke up super early today to meet with colleagues of Uddhe (a trekking guide from the Everest region Marco met from his previous Nepal trek) and take the long bus ride together with their two clients from Ireland. We were told the bus was going to leave by 7am, but by 8am, we were still trying to figure out which bus we were taking out of the hundreds of variety of buses parked in the depot.
There were a few fancy-looking ones with “tourist bus” and “free wi-fi” marked all over it (great target, thank you very much), while many others were filled beyond capacity with missing windows and loads of what looked like furniture on the roof deck. Waiting at the bus depot and watching hundreds of people milling about and seeing every little thing happen around us was in and of itself quite the entertainment, .
I was extremely jet-lagged and stayed up later than I wanted to last night. I was a little perturbed waking up at the crack of dawn for a 0500 departure to the bus depot only for us to be late while waiting for the bus. Exhausted and hungry, luckily there was a little nondescript food stand at the bus depot where I happily ordered a vegetable omelette with chapatti and masala tea, all for 70 Rupees (~ $0.75).
I didn’t think about that bold move I did until we were on the bus on our way to Besisahar. That was pretty ballsy of me to consume food just about anywhere only within two days of arriving in Nepal, and more importantly so – before starting a big trek in the Himalayas! Quite frankly, I was too hungry and exhausted to register any kind of thought process in my brain (a pseudo-perfect combination to throw caution to the wind).
I did, however, watch the lady to make sure every portion of my omelette was fully cooked and saw the boiling pot of masala tea as they opened the lid. Cooked and boiled – good enough for me! Secretly, I have always given credit to me being born and growing up in a third world country until I was 11 years old for my “stomach of steel”.
Technically today doesn’t count as a trekking day, but it ended up being a long one. We arrived in Besisahar after that seven-hour bus ride, which didn’t turn out so bad after all (the bus made breakfast and lunch stops – woot!). Immediately as the trekkers stepped off the bus, we were swarmed with jeep drivers looking for passengers to the next villages further up the mountains.
We haggled hard for a jeep ride to Syange, the first village where we would officially start our trek tomorrow morning. Every jeep driver told us 1000 rupees and frustratingly wouldn’t budge until one finally gave in to 800 rupees. Mind you, that long bus ride from Kathmandu only cost us 700 rupees each, so I was a little shocked with the sudden inflated prices.
“Contrare il prezzo, Antonietta”, Giulio reminded me, over and over. Haggling prices is something I’m not good at, but I have gotten better over the years.
That jeep ride turned out to be the bumpiest, most uncomfortable ride. Whiplash, throw-around-everywhere kind of bumps taking us over three hours to Syange, which I’m sure on a paved road would have taken us no more than one. Not that the towns are far away from each other, but the road conditions are atrocious! In fairness, while doing a little research on the trek, the road along the Annapurna trail is still fairly new to that region of Nepal. Considering how fast tourism has taken over the country, I wouldn’t be surprised if I ever come back to do this trek to find the road paved smoothly.
Surprisingly enough, the consistent violent bumps on the road lulled me to sleep, despite utter discomfort. Hello jetlag!
When we finally arrived at Syange, I practically threw myself out of that jeep as we gathered our backpacks, waved goodbye to the other passengers, and stumbled into The Waterfall Guesthouse. We took a bare-minimum private room with a shower & toilet. I’m never one to make such a big deal about where I sleep, sometimes, especially with all the travels I’ve done, but I’m not the least bit comfortable nor sure of the degree of cleanliness, especially with these bedsheets I’m laying on. Can you tell I’ve heard way too many stories of bed bugs?
I was so exhausted I ate my dhal bat dinner and excused myself from Giulio to take a quick shower. His phone was able to pick up the free wifi coming from Russia, while mine didn’t. Not that it even mattered; it’s only a little after 8pm right now but I am so ready to pass out!
DAY 2: Syange (1100m) to Dharapani (1860m)
With any multiple-day hiking trips, the first day is always the worst day. We started out strong, and kept up at a faster pace. I felt well-rested even though I woke up at 0200 and didn’t go back to sleep until 0430. We were the first ones up, and as we waited for our breakfast I explored the nearby river gorge and managed to Snapchat a thing or two into a non-existent internet connection on my phone.
I was bursting at the seams with excitement, I was so pumped to start the day and just keep going. And going and going we did. Most of the trail was right along the Kali Gandaki river surrounded by giant granite rocks, trees, and plenty of vegetation, occasionally crossing over narrow, steel bridges lined with fcolorful prayer flags on both sides.
We made a quick stop for masala tea at a small guesthouse off of the original Annapurna trail just above a steep hill we climbed surrounded by the forest. An older American guy who lived in Bali showed us all the Himalayan marijuana plants growing wild around the property, describing every detail he could about their appearance and characteristics. He couldn’t stop talking about the high quality Himalayan kush, and how we ought to try some before we leave the country. Cool story, bro.
From that one stop, we kept going and going, our voices often times drowned out by the river gorge, other times silent in our own thoughts as we peeled off more and more clothes under the strong early afternoon sun. We must have lost track of time because before we knew it, it was already 1500, and we saw a sign that said Dharapani was three hours away. THREE HOURS.
Okay, so I read somewhere that this day was only supposed to take six to seven hours, and I know I wasn’t going slow. We started trekking at quarter to 0800, so what happened to the so-called 6 hours? We took the original route, off of the main road trail to get away from the jeeps and all the dust blowing in our faces. The trail had so many ups and downs, and while it wasn’t hard at all, I had a feeling all along that it was a much longer way. I think I would have gladly done the road trail if it meant six hours and six hours only. That was a lot, for me at least, for our first day of trekking with a heavy backpack.
I was all of a sudden fully aware of how hungry and exhausted I was, and my feet hurt like hell. That was when I lost it. No matter how comfortable your boots are, the pain in your feet will always come up to torture you on your first day. I ate a Clif Bar and that did nothing to satiate my hunger, which made me angry. I wanted a real meal. I wanted to stop trekking. I just wanted the day to be over with. I know for a fact seeing that “three-hours-away” sign discouraged me a lot.
I grew quiet as I tried to hold back my anger. I was on the verge of crying. Twice. I tried to focus on just putting one foot after another. I wanted to just keep going and get the hike over with. I no longer wanted to stop. Giulio practically had to force me to stop, even for just five minutes, to take a drink of water, splash some water on my face, and take a quick load off my back.
I reluctantly sat on a giant granite boulder, ate the dried coconuts from his trail mix and a few small pieces of chocolate with almonds to make myself feel better. My “h’anger” slowly dissipated as I felt the sugar rush, and jumped up on my feet to finish off the day.
When we finally arrived in Dharapani, a small town with colorful guesthouses everywhere, I didn’t even bother taking off my clothes. I simply took off my boots, laid on the bed, and put my feet and legs up against the wall while waiting for dinner. Oh, and it really didn’t take us three hours from where we were. It was more like 1:45 to 2 hours. It did help that we increased our pace and stopped making small stops here and there.
We met a very nice guy from New Zealand who volunteered at a different region in Nepal for a month before this trek and three older Japanese guys in their 70’s were finishing up their Manaslu Trek. When I told one of the older gentlemen of my plan to fly out of Jomsom back to Pokhara after the trek, he took the liberty to tell me about his friend’s flight that crashed into the mountains.
When he saw the sheer look of terror on my face, he nonchalantly informed me, with a big smile on his face, that his friend survived the plane crash. Thank you kind sir. Just the thing I needed to hear before my flight.
Anyhow, can you believe today was only the first day of our actual trekking? I practically had a meltdown over skipping lunch! It’s funny thinking about it now that I’m warmly cocooned in my sleeping bag with a full stomach ready for sleep. My “h’anger”, sadly, is no joke!
I felt bad for Giulio who for sure caught an early glimpse of me in my most vulnerable moment: being hungry! I mean, we’re in this together for the next several days. No holds barred, so might as well lay it all out there on the table, right? There’s always an off chance that we might try to kill each other halfway through or towards the end of this trek, but I solemnly promise not to.
Total $ spent: 1000 rupees for dinner and breakfast at Dharapani place. Room was free.
DAY 3: Dharapani (1860m) to Chame (2670m)
This was actually an easier day for us. Not in the sense that the trail was easier, as there were definitely a lot of difficult inclines both on the road and original trails, but easier in a way that I knew at least what to expect.
Note to self: Never follow people who do not look at maps or listen when people tell you not to go a certain trail. We were talking to this one Canadian guy, who by the way bought a dozen bananas and was kind enough to share it with us and another English couple. He thought he knew where we were going as we took a trail off to the right from the road. Many people kept signaling us to go back to where we were; some even called out from the houses nearby flailing their arms in the air, clearly telling us something.
The Canadian paid no attention and kept going ahead of us. About one to two kilometers off trail, I stopped others in the group and insisted we look at a map. So happy I listened to my instincts. We were completely going the wrong way! We turned back around, left the group all together, and went off on our own.
They said this would take us six hours and it took us seven. The one thing we got right today was actually stopping for an hour on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the beautiful Manaslu peak and had a full plate of lunch – potatoes, eggs, and some veggies. It wasn’t my favorite (I never eat potatoes) but it sure held me over until dinner.
No episodes of h’angriness, woot!
We went on and off the road trail several times and I actually found the original Annapurna trail easier as we entered in and out of the forest. We passed through several paddy fields, farms, valleys, and smaller Nepali villages offering trekkers much-need respite. We happened upon several white and gray monkeys hanging on the trees everywhere, and it brought back memories of South Africa.
Beth and I were hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains one day during our road trip across South Africa, where we knew the area was filled with wild baboons . We literally had to fend for ourselves when we saw one nearby, picked up giant rocks, and tried to scare them off.
I didn’t know how these wild monkeys in the Himalayas were going to be so I was cautious as I watched every single one of them eyeing us intensely. I was quite alarmed at first but they turned out okay.
Giulio spotted a Snickers bar on the road somewhere and I picked that thing up like my life depended on it. It was expired with Hebrew characters on it. Curious, I opened and peeled the wrapper, and surprise surprise the chocolate was still fully intact so I ate the whole thing. Oooohhhh yes I did!
It’s getting cold now. No, scratch that – it’s freezing now. We’re at a really nice guesthouse with gorgeous views of the Manaslu Peak, and a burning hot stove in the dining area. Even better: hot hot hot water for that shower earlier. Not to mention getting electrocuted while plugging my phone charger. That shocked me so bad, no pun intended. I think I was probably a young girl in the Philippines the last time I can recall being electrocuted.
Dhal bat for dinner, again. This guy we met from Colorado had this scrumptious apple pie at our table. I was tempted to order it except I’m not the biggest fan of apple pies. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll try it being that this trek is famously called the apple pie trek for a reason. Planned out the rest of our route for this trek and sat around the burning stove talking to other trekkers. Overall fantastic day!
DAY 4: Chame (2670m) to Upper Pisang (3300m)
Chame to Upper Pisang was a shorter day, but the challenges behind this route were the very many inclines which lead to higher altitude gain, of course. By the time we stopped for tea, cookies, and peanut butter two hours after we started the trek for the day, I started feeling nauseous.
This is it; it’s coming, I thought to myself, as the same thing happened to me when we were in Banff at the beautiful Lake Morraine just over the summer. I vomited my breakfast on the trail on our way up to the Sentinel Pass as I went too fast, couldn’t catch my breath, trying to catch up with my friends.
This time around, I recognized the feeling again and right away Giulio suggested we stop and take in some tea. Probably the best idea as it helped settle my stomach as my body adjusted to the altitude little by little as we sipped our tea slowly. The teahouse also served hands-down the best fresh apple juice I have ever tasted!
Sidenote: Bought a jar of peanut butter in Chame before we left town for 400 rupees (~$4 pretty expensive!), and it’s quite possibly one of the most useful things I’ve bought in Nepal, so far.
The blazing sun beamed down on us most of the time, except for maybe a kilometer here and there where we would fall under the shadow of the mountain peaks looming in or the trees, but the wind remained cold. I kept my Dri-Fit fleece on as I have been feeling sick since the night before. The cycle has been pretty much the same: sweating and burning under the ferocious sun while our sweat is slowly evaporated by the chilly mountain wind, and then warm up under the sun again, and eventually put the layers back on as we get closer to each town.
Within two days we’ve also achieved that Himalayan tan on our faces and hands. I practically wore my thin gloves even though I felt so hot. You know how I feel about too much sun-exposure on the hands!
We finally made it to Upper Pisang in no time, around 14:30. We had the choice to stay on lower altitude at Lower Pisang but we decided to trudge up that extra 200 meters for better views of the Annapurna massif.
I felt every single one of those 200+ meters increase in altitude. I think an angry bull might have chased me because of my red jacket and I seriously tried to run away. Me, with a full backpack, at over 3000 meter altitude tried to run. What a joke – that was a complete fail! I felt so winded by the time we got up to the higher village we stopped and dropped our backpacks at the first guesthouse perched above the “Welcome to Upper Pisang” sign.
The good news is the place turned out to be surprisingly cozy! It had an outdoor deck where a few of us trekkers sunbathed under the hot afternoon sun with an unobstructed sweeping view of the Annapurna massif. I got to catch up on some reading, and met the three cyclists we’ve seen on and off the trail from Poland. In all of my travels abroad, I have never met Polish people so they were pretty surprised and joked about making a good first impression.
The food here is not so bad; I am especially a fan of their garlic soup. I never knew garlic helps prevent or minimize altitude sickness so I think I’m going to keep having it, stinky breath notwithstanding. Surprisingly enough it wasn’t as cold as the night before when we were in Dharapani. It was definitely cold inside the dining room but it was bearable. It wasn’t painful to get in or out of bed and we’re fine with just our sleeping bags for now.
DAY 5: Upper Pisang (3300m) to Mungji (3500m) via Ghyaru (3760m)
I always knew there were going to be moments in this trek wherein I was going to ask myself:, “Remind me again why the fuck am I doing this?” Today was one of those days. We started out strong leaving Upper Pisang at a good pace for roughly 45 minutes. I remember looking up at a steep switchback trail from afar and pointing out to Giulio that that was the way to Ghyaru.
“No, I don’t think so”, he replied.
When we got to the trailhead to Ghyaru, we looked up that same vertical incline of switchbacks I pointed out earlier and deep inside I cringed. How I wish Giulio was right about what he said.
Typical Italian man who grew up near the Alps, he looked me in the eye and simply answered, “Antonietta, piano piano.” Go slowly, take your time.
And off we went, slowly. Step by step. The sun, once again so strong so early in the day, its burning rays clawing on to our backs as group after group of trekkers slowly trudged up the steep incline. We stopped a few times to try to catch my breath, and about 45 minutes in, I thought we had reached the top. I was ready to do a dance.
A few more to go.
I normally never listen to music when I am hiking or just being in nature but today, to pull myself through the last remaining part of the steep climb, I took my headphones out and played Galantis’s ‘Runaway U & I’ on repeat. Let me tell you, it really helped!
The sublime view of the Annapurna massif right in front of us made it more than worth the 400+ meter climb, I thought to myself, as we made it to the top. We ate some snacks, hydrate, and spoke to a few other trekkers we’ve met along the way. We took photos and strapped our backpacks once again to make our way to Manang.
I thought it was going to be easy breezy from there on. What I didn’t know nor expect was another giant hurdle, not as bad as the one we just climbed up to reach Ghyaru, but perhaps another 200 meters or so of steep incline. At already over 3600+meters, every fiber of my being faltered. I was stumbling on rocks, I couldn’t catch my breath even when I slowed down.
I am not going to allow the mountain to kick my ass. I am not allowing the mountain to kick my ass. I am not gonna get my ass kicked.
I tried to play the Galantis song in my head to help me get through the last hurdle.
Nothing. Crap! If I am struggling tremendously at 3800 meters, how the hell was I going to go over 5000 meters on the Thorong La pass in a few days?
This is deeply worrisome!
Not surprisingly, sometimes, I think food is the answer to all my problems so I took the jar of peanut butter, scooped out a couple finger-full servings and let it sit in my stomach as we continued on.
One step after another, we finally went over that last hurdle for the day and everything from there on was downhill; and burning hot, as we trudged along under the sun with our heavy backpacks. Nothing like a Himalayan sunburn!
By the time we reached Ngwal for a lunch stop, I was burning up with a fever. I was hot, I was cold, hot, cold, hot, cold. My nose couldn’t stop dripping, my throat was severely sore, I was still fervently coughing my lungs out, and I couldn’t stop shivering while sitting under the sun. I knew my body took a major toll for the day. I put my body through the ringer, from higher altitude, a hacking cough that wouldn’t go away since Kathmandu, and two strenuous climbs in less than seven hours.
I could feel my body shutting down as I couldn’t even finish lunch. Me? Not eat? Tragedy! As we headed back on the trail for Manang, I had no energy left in me. I just kept sneezing and coughing. I was so cold, I was shivering despite the hot sun.
Giulio has been nothing short of patient and understanding throughout this entire ordeal. We communicated before we met up in Kathmandu, and I let him know that while I am overall physically fit and active, my long-trekking experiences are far and few in between.
I warned him that I was going to be slow, and I was really worried I was going to slow him down, and he understood. Or at least I hope he did. I never knew the value and importance of an excellent trekking partner, until today. He understood me at my most vulnerable point high up in the mountains, and I am forever grateful to him for that.
We never made it to Manang as planned. We walked into the first guesthouse we came across in the town of Mungji, just right outside Bhraka (Braga), with no questions asked. Normally we like to look around town and pick a nice-looking guesthouse before deciding. This was different. As soon as we entered our room, I plopped on the bed while eating my first slice of apple pie from the bakery across the street.
Because you know, I still have to have food despite my fever!
I then curled up into a shivering ball on the bed under my sleeping bag, and Giulio placed all the blankets in the room on top of me, gave me tachipirina (paracetamol), and I fell asleep.
Side thought: I can’t believe I did not bring Tylenol! I brought ibuprofen, antibiotics, multivitamins, Diamox, and dexamethasone (steroids for severe altitude sickness), but no Tylenol! Thank god the Italian came super prepared with all these medications! He hates taking medications while I was more than happy to pop a pill or two here and there.
To make it worse, as soon as I woke up from my nap just in time for dinner, I found out I had gotten my period. Wrong timing; it was not supposed to come for another week!
To make matters even worse, I also found out Donald Trump won the presidential election back home.
I sat there stunned as I digested the news. At the dinner table, I was contemplating what was worse: that I was very sick in the middle of nowhere high up in the Himalayas or that Trump had actually won the election. I reckon it’s the latter. Everyone in the dining room, all of whom were Europeans offered their deepest sympathies.
Good thing I am far away from all kinds of media outlet at this point; I think I’m partly in denial. I really just wanted to go back to bed and sleep this day and night off.
DAY 6: Mungji (3500m) to Manang (3519m)
That 1.5 hour walk we did from Mungji to Manang was nowhere near strenuous as we walked at a more leisure pace and just took our sweet time. Today was considered part of our rest day so we ate breakfast, hung around the dining area around the warm stove and talked to the other trekkers staying in the guesthouse. At 9am we slowly made our way back to the room to start packing, and headed out for Manang.
As soon as we arrived in Manang, we dropped our bags off and walked around town, looking into shops and restaurants. It seriously felt so good to just walk around without our heavy backpacks! We found an amazingly cheap place for lunch called Cyalzen & Sisters Lodge & Restaurant. It was super cozy in there, and while the food took forever to arrive (only one lady in the kitchen), we still enjoyed the food and the place.
We hiked out to the nearby lake, Gangapurna Tal, just across the river, and took lovely photos as the sun started coming down behind the mountains.
That’s the thing with the Himalayan sun: you get a good amount of strong sun light beaming down on you for several hours in the morning up until 3:30-4pm or so. While the sun is still out piercing through the canyons, the surrounding high mountains peaks are quick to cover the strong sunlight at an earlier time. This was how I timed if I was washing clothes or my hair. It needed to be while the sun was still out, shining bright and strong.
DAY 7: Rest Day Manang
Today felt AMAZEBALLS not having to wake up early to start packing the bag and getting ready for another long trek. We slept in, and by sleeping in, I mean only a little after 07:30a, ate breakfast late, and since I had a fever only several hours before, I took some paracetamol and went right back to sleep after eating. I definitely spoiled myself with that extra snoozefest!
Giulio went back to the lake to take more photos and was very excited about meeting a Nepali guy and two Spanish girls who all spoke Italian. I’m sure he misses speaking Italian freely, but on a brighter note I am learning more Italian, myself. We had lunch once again at the Cyalazen Restaurant – two days in a row, you know that place is good!
We made it just in time after lunch for the Acute Mountain Sickness talk the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) was giving at 3pm daily.
HRA is a non-profit organization run by volunteer doctors and nurses from Nepal and other western countries. Aside from offering the free 3pm daily talk and advice on high altitude sickness, they also run a medical clinic starting at $45 for consultations and upward (They accept credit cards if you much prefer to have cash on you). I decided to get a consultation and get checked for my fever and chills for the past two days, and also for the persistent violent cough I have had since Kathmandu. I was almost for sure I had bronchitis or pneumonia or something.
The good news is – my lungs are aerating well, I am moving my secretions up and out, and he suggested I take some “De-Cold” cough medicine and some Amoxicillin. Oh, and at 3500 meters above sea level, my oxygen saturation was pretty high at 89-91%. They say it’s actually one of the higher ones especially at that altitude. Probably from all that coughing and deep breathing I have been doing! While the doctor highly suggested for me not to take the antibiotics, he did still charge me for the antibiotics, “just in case”.
We chilled out for the rest of the day, bought myself a thermos, which by the way was one of my better investments for this trip along with that jar of peanut butter! Drinking hot drinks have totally helped with my cough and colds.
DAY 8: Manang (3500m) to Ledar (4200m)
I felt overall amazing today after two rest days back to back. My body felt ready to conquer the trail again, and while most of the routes were going uphill, I didn’t seem to mind it. One step after another, I just kept going and going. Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely feeling the altitude well, but we just kept trudging on and on.
We stopped for lunch at Yak Kharka and walked for another hour for the remainder of the trek to Ledar. I have this thing wherein after lunch, big or small meals, I get so weak, exhausted, and have the hardest time catching my breath. I can’t stand that feeling, as it’s gotten worse at higher altitude.
As a matter of fact, sometimes I do not like stopping in general especially if I have gotten myself into a good rhythm. Giulio always tries to get me to stop and drink and sometimes I just don’t even bother. It becomes more painful to stop and go again, especially going up a hill. It takes twice the work just to get the body going again, and trying to get that rhythm back, one stop at a time.
Now can you imagine putting all that heavy food in your stomach, and then hitting the trails once again, going higher in elevation. It’s like my body doesn’t even know how to distribute what little oxygen is available to begin with: should it digest the food? Should it give my lungs some oxygen so I can catch my breath or for my legs so they don’t get too tired as they are the main power machine behind this hike? Oh what to do, what to do, what to do. Usually I am twice as exhausted after a meal as opposed to when I first started hiking for the day.
Ever since that Acute Mountain Sickness talk we attended yesterday with HRA, I have been paranoid about High Altitude Pulmonary Edema.
Will today be the day my lungs give out on me? Will this violent cough (which by the way sounds really awful as mentioned by many people) ever go away? Am I gonna die high up in the mountains? Oh god I don’t want to be evacuated to lower altitude, oh no no no!
Yes, I do get a little dramatic, but it’s all mostly in my head. As a matter of fact, I laughed to myself plenty of times just listening to my own dramatic thoughts as we were trekking. It’s a good thing Giulio doesn’t understand a lot of English, because I mostly did keep these thoughts to myself. I didn’t know how to explain myself in plain, simple English without sounding like a total nutjob. Otherwise he would have thought I was una ragazza pazza Americana.
DAY 9: Ledar (4200m) to High Camp (4900m)
Today, for sure, was a tremendously difficult day, not in the sense that it was a long trekking day, but because of the steep climb from Thorong Phedi to High Camp.
In reality the trek from Ledar to Thorong Phedi was just as difficult as it was all uphill, at over 4000 meters. I was exhausted, almost like I didn’t even know what hit me when we finally reached Thorong Phedi (meaning foot of the mountain, in Nepali).
Did I just trek all of that?
My chest was burning so bad and I literally could not stop coughing violently. Once again, I kept thinking to myself, ‘this is it, this is how the High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is going to start‘.
When we rested at Thorong Pedi, my chest continued to hurt and burn as we contemplated our next move for the day. Should we just stay where we are or go further up to High Camp?
We needed to make sure I wasn’t going to be emergently evacuated on a helicopter as we have seen twice that morning already. Giulio offered that we change our plans and stay at Thorong Pedi instead if I didn’t feel any better. As music to my ears those words sounded, deep inside I wanted to keep going up.
And so we went further up to High Camp. This was where the real struggle was, as we felt every steep increase in meters, trudging up slowly, slowly to 4,900 meters. I sometimes just can’t understand, looking at other trekkers, how they seem to be doing just fine, as if not even struggling with the steep climb up, passing us like they’re just strolling through the park. I am either out of shape or just not built for these intense hikes up these too-high elevations.
Or my genetics are all screwed up, because let’s be for real, you don’t actually read about Filipinos summiting high mountains or trudging through snow-capped peaks anywhere in history books. And that’s fine.
Not that I am comparing myself to any of the trekkers, as many of them probably do more hikes than I have done this year alone. If there’s one big thing I have learned from this trek alone: go at my own pace. Do not worry about how fast anyone else is going, and don’t try to overexert just to keep up with someone or a group. Which is why I am so grateful that Giulio has been so patient with me, and has always reminded me to take it easy. Piano piano.
Within a little over an hour, we finally did make it up to High Camp. I also felt how much lower the oxygen content in the air was. Even without knowing that I was in higher altitude, I found myself having to take four to five deep breaths just to feel my lungs oxygenated and aerating well.
High Camp has a bed capacity of 150, I heard from one of the guides, so I did let Giulio go ahead a little bit just to make sure he can secure two beds for us. It’s funny, as soon as you reach High Camp, there’s still this small hill up towards the guesthouse rooms, and while you just want to run or gun for it, you find that you can’t. It was exactly what happened to me as I took baby steps, barely breathing, to the room. It felt so close yet so far, but I made it!
If I struggled immensely today, I am almost scared of what tomorrow’s big hike crossing Thorong La pass will entail. We shall see!
On a brighter note, the surrounding views of High Camp is so worth the overnight stay up here! Snowcapped mountain peaks in every direction, remoteness & stillness, and fresh fresh air. Could a girl ask for more?
The full moon, with a slight orange tint, tonight was absolutely breathtaking, illuminating the jagged mountain peaks.
I stood outside atop a little hill surrounded by other trekkers, guides, and porters taking photos, as I stared hard at it. I might have meditated, and even found myself welling up with tears of happiness. (I found out a few days later that it was the supermoon – the closest the moon is within the Earth’s orbit.)
It was such a tremendously beautiful sight that I stood there longer, lost in my own world and basking in my own bliss, while everyone ran back inside seeking warmth. For once I did not care how freezing it was outside. I just wanted to stand there and try to embed as much of the sight in my head. I wanted it etched in my memory forever, the same way with every beautiful sight or view I have ever come across during my travels.
DAY 10: High Camp (4900m) to Muktinath (3710m) via Thorong La pass (5416m)
I barely got sleep last night as I had the worst headache throughout this entire trek. My head was pounding all night as I drifted in and out of sleep. I don’t know exactly how much sleep I got, but I woke up begging Giulio to pass me paracetamol as my head felt like it was going to explode.
I almost wanted to strangle him in his bed when he refused to give me the medicine until we had breakfast. He really meant well; I understood. He just wanted to make sure I didn’t take any medicine on an empty stomach. However, at the highest altitude I have ever slept in my entire life with an excruciating headache, I think it’s safe to say that my poor brain was swelling, I was dehydrated to the bone, and I needed that paracetamol in order to function for the day.
Taking it worked like a charm and within ten to fifteen minutes, I was moving and getting all my things together and bundling up for the day’s big trek.
We originally planned to leave by 5:30am but with my debilitating headache and how slow I moved this morning, we didn’t actually start heading out until a little after six in the morning. By the time we finished breakfast, the sun was already out, and we no longer needed our flashlights to guide us in our journey over the pass.
The first three hours of this morning’s trek was exhausting and challenging. I pushed so hard, and by pushing hard, by the way, I meant small baby steps. (Haha!) I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t catch my breath. We were reaching all the way up over 5,000 meters in altitude and my body couldn’t cooperate with my determination to go at a faster pace. If and when I took four to five regular big steps, I needed to stop for a few seconds to catch my breathe.
Baby steps were all that worked for my lungs and my body. My coughing fit, not surprisingly, was at its worst point as I already felt and heard the wheezing with every increase in altitude.
Dear God or Buddha or the Hindu gods, I am not about to go down with HAPE so close to the top, so please help me out here!
I struggled throughout this entire trek uphill. It wasn’t as steep as yesterday’s climb to High Camp was, but the altitude was the biggest factor. Many times I saw the horses for hire and many times I wanted to allow myself to give in to the temptations of being swept up to the Thorong La pass by these beautifully-adorned animals. In my head, I even picked out a beautiful white mare to get on… just in case. While totally impossible, it felt like they were dancing in circles around me, taunting me to take a horse!
I thought I started hallucinating, but the horses really were everywhere. One look at my face and the horse porters knew how much I wanted to get on one of them. The sheer look of despair and struggle gave it all away, but nope, I persevered through the toughest part of the trek. Besides, Giulio definitely did not allow me to take a horse at all. All I had to do was look at him, and he’d just shake his head.
A small saving grace today was the fact that there were no steep inclines. It was a gradual climb up to the pass. The river disappeared somewhere in Thorong Phedi and surrounding us was a complete barren landscape of brown soil and small rocks, save for a few plants and boulders here and there, and horses grazing about.
I took refuge within the thoughts inside my head, concocting imaginary scenes of me floating in the sea in the Philippines with a sleek white bathing suit on, with Pepper laying right by the beach looking at me. (How I miss that dog!). I know I am always all about being in the moment but those thoughts helped distract me from the second to second struggle up the mountain.
Remember how in the beginning I used to ask myself why I was doing this big trek? I stopped asking myself that question many days ago. The fact is, I committed to doing this since day one. I knew what I was getting myself into; I knew the difficulties this hike entailed. This was no easy breezy beach holiday. I could have gone to Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia, instead, but I CHOSE NOT to.
So this was what it was. Day in and day out I was more than happy I chose to be in Nepal. What is there to complain about. This place is absolutely beyond my wildest imagination! Beyond my expectations. The people are just as friendly, warm, and so open. I could feel how open their hearts are to complete strangers.
And that. That I love. Just as much as I have loved being high up in the mountains surrounded by natural beauty, with my phone defaulted to airplane mode. Sure the high altitude, my persistent violent cough, and my fevers and chills got to me, but honestly, it’s a small price to pay for the amount of happiness, contentment, inner peace, and exhilaration I have felt every single day.
I wouldn’t trade this for anything!
I wouldn’t even trade it for that relaxing beach holiday I initially thought about taking. Even when every morning, it became harder and harder to get out of the sleeping bag due to the freezing temperatures. Nope. This is definitely something I would do all over again.
A little after 9:30am we finally reached the Thorong La pass. All we heard was the howling wind and hundreds of colorful prayer flags flapping against each other. I was stunned, I was speechless, and even for a second I felt no emotions whatsoever. I blinked several times, looked around, and then it hit me: WE FINALLY MADE IT TO THE PASS! 5,416 meters up to one of the highest mountain passes in the world – we made it! Tears welled up behind my sunglasses as I continued to take in the Thorong La surroundings.
Thank you, God, thank you Buddha, thank you to the Hindu gods for that safe journey to the pass. With all my heart, thank you – I did not get HAPE! Wooooot!
We took several photos and videos, and Giulio inserted some prayers from his friends back home among the other prayer flags buried and tucked within each and every one of them. We stayed around the area for almost half an hour before continuing the downhill trek to Muktinath.
Did someone say downhill? Oh yasss!
We went faster going downhill, and I felt normal again without having to struggle with my breathing. Don’t get me wrong, I was still coughing violently, but going downhill made it a little easier on the lungs. The further we came down, the steeper the trails became, with loose rocks, a few slips here and there, and some major quad exercise – probably the first one within the past several days. My toes were numb and on fire by the time we stopped for lunch.
I finally tasted that sea buckthorn juice I read about for the first time, and while it was too sweet for me, diluting it with water definitely helped. We sat near the Belgian couple for lunch and spoke to them for awhile before they left. They were my favorite couple throughout that entire trek. I thought they were so cute together.
An hour after our lunch stop, we finally arrived in Muktinath. Allefuckinglujah! We stumbled in this cozy-looking guesthouse and the owner gave us a big corner room with lots of sunlight and our own bathroom/toilet. While they insisted on charging us 500 rupees per night including everything from hot showers to phone charging, we were at a point (well at least I was) where we were too exhausted to haggle.
I saw that cozy bed in the corner with lots of sunlight pouring in the room and I just wanted to plop down and take an afternoon nap, a hot shower, a hot meal, and call it a day/night!
DAY 11: Rest Day in Muktinath, Mustang Region
Did I tell you how much I love rest days? I didn’t even anticipate us taking a rest day here in Muktinath but Giulio included that in our plan a few days ago. We wanted to just explore the village and relax after yesterday’s struggles, both going up and down the Thorong La pass.
Do you know how good it felt to sleep in this morning and not have to pack our sleeping bags and backpacks to set off for another long day of trekking? It was marvelous!
Those little moments felt like heaven – comfortably ensconced in our warm sleeping bags while watching the sunlight pour in from the two large windows in our corner room, a heightened sense of sensuality hanging in the air.
For all those days hiking, I have not once felt my legs sore until today. I got out of bed and my legs felt like they could barely do any walking, hurting so bad with even going up and down stairs. Even getting up from the chair or from squatting to pee felt like such a heavy task.
All those days we’ve been climbing uphill, and yesterday after crossing the pass, it was a continuous steep switchback descent over 1,600 meters down to Muktinath. My legs sure got a workout for days to follow! Quad-killers, much!
Muktinath is the gateway to the [upper] Mustang district coming from the Annapurna region. From a little bit of my research before coming to Nepal, the Mustang region is considered a high-altitude desert, and Muktinath is one of its famous small villages highly-revered as a sacred pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists.
We visited the famous Hindu/Bhuddist temple up the hill from our guesthouse where a lot of Hindus from all over Nepal and India were making pilgrimages for the day. Apparently, it’s famous for its 108 baths that they have to go through including the pools in order for their sins to be forgiven.
With below zero freezing temperature this morning, even with the sun blazing, I watched in awe, shaking with chills underneath my warm layers as both males and females went through the freezing baths half naked. I couldn’t help but admire their dedication and commitment to the purpose of their pilgrimage to this specific temple in Muktinath.
We treated ourselves to yak meat delights for lunch at the Bob Marley Restaurant & Guesthouse. Giulio had the yak burger while I ordered the yak sizzler plate, both of which were equally delicious. We pretty much have had nothing but Nepali food, mostly vegetarian, for the past several days so it was quite satisfying to just get some western meals for a change.
We continued to explore a little bit more of the village and went over another hill to check out another Buddhist statue in its golden grandeur. I had to laugh, as in the middle of a really holy pilgrimage place in the Himalayas, someone was blasting some pretty raunchy rap music about big booty and hoes; granted I was probably the one one who understood the lyrics.
Since Muktinath is a popular place for the Hindu pilgrimage to the temple, this was the one village where we met a lot of local Nepali guests in our guesthouse. One particular group of young men from Kathmandu who made a motorbike trip out of their pilgrimage to Muktinath sat with us in the dining hall, and shared their Apple brandy mixed with hot water.
If you ever want to clear your cough, colds, or sinuses in general, the solution is simple: that apple brandy with hot water!
DAY 12: Muktinath to Jomsom
With legs still sore and freezing morning temperatures, we headed out for Jomsom around 9am today.
Quick note to self: Don’t leave washed panties to hang and dry near other people’s hanging clothes. They might mistake it for their own. I had to interrupt this Dutch guy’s breakfast with a big group so he can dig out my panties from his pile of laundry on our way out the door. End note.
It was a rather easy hike downhill, but not steep, as we passed town after town, going at a faster than usual pace. How good it feels to breathe in all that oxygen again! Since most of the route is on the jeep road, it was dusty but easy, nonetheless. Might I add slippery with a few icy puddles on the road here and there.
“Fai attenzione!” Throughout this trek, there have been countless opportunities to learn and teach Italian and English to each other, and today it was watching Giulio slip and almost fall a few times on the road. It’s nice to be short and closer to the ground sometimes. The falls usually do not hurt as bad.
We stopped for lunch at this “beautiful” town called Kagbeni. I put beautiful in quotation marks because that’s what I kept reading everywhere on the internet, that this was supposed to be a wonderful gateway to the Upper Mustang region of the Himalayas. I think the more appropriate word for the time we were there is deserted. Lunch was unimpressive, but thankfully, we stopped, rested, and relaxed at the table while charging our phones. We didn’t know we were in for quite a trek on the second half of our journey to Jomsom.
By the time we walked out of the restaurant in Kagbeni, the wind, while not cold, was blowing strong. We joined a few Sherpa porters and French trekkers who were also on their way to Jomsom. Within half an hour of hiking through the Himalayan desert, the strong wind picked up significantly. I kept hoping it would eventually die down but the surrounding area was flat. No nearby high mountain peaks, no trees, just the Kali Gandaki river to the right, and dust.
This. Is. Desert. Storm.
We were encapsulated in a constant surge of wind and dust for almost two hours. My hat flew off my head, I couldn’t keep my jacket hood up, and the wind was so strong, I had to stop a few times just to turn around to avoid being knocked to the ground. I wish I could have jumped on the back of the pick-up truck with those other porters to Jomsom and just call it a day, but we trudged on. I was holding my breath so many times just so I wouldn’t inhale more dust. Bad enough my cough has not gone away despite the lower altitude, my lungs couldn’t really take breathing in any more dust particles, could it?
I have never been so happy upon our arrival to Jomsom. I didn’t know what to make of the village but it wasn’t as inviting as all the other ones we have come across. Muktinath remains my favorite, so far.
Tried to purchase plane tickets for Pokhara for tomorrow morning but the first airline office we went to was closed. We started looking for accommodations for the night around town and many of them were full or too expensive. We finally stumbled into one with a promising hot shower included in the room price of 600 rupees per night.
We threw our dusty backpacks on the floor and peeled off our jackets and hats with lightning speed when we got to the room. I wanted nothing more than just to sit there, relax, and not think about anything. Of course, I haven’t been able to tear away from this book I’m currently reading ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi, the neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. What an impressive writer, the way he weaves his words together and share his utterly heartbreaking personal story to the world.
The owner of the guesthouse, upon asking him about obtaining plane tickets, was kind enough to call his friend at the ticket airline office for flights to Pokhara tomorrow. Giulio and I quickly laced our boots and threw our jackets back on so I can finally purchase my ticket.
Remember earlier when we struggled to find a place to stay? If we would have just kept going 200 meters or so, we would have come across all these decent-looking guesthouses so close to the airport! Meh, not that it really matters at this point. We’re only here for one night, and tomorrow we finally go our separate ways.
I think I’m really going to miss Giulio and his bad English. Maybe not his stinky boots nor how he says my name Antonietta a billion times a day, but definitely his company. I think it’s safe to say we’ve forged an unexpected friendship after spending time together day in and day out for almost three weeks.
Side note: The vegetable pakoda in our guesthouse is one of the best Nepali food I’ve tasted during this entire trek. That and the garlic soup from Upper Pisang.
Day 13: Jomsom to Pokhara
If you allow me to pick one day, and one day only, that truly sucked, it would have to be today! Honestly, I’m still trying to take in everything that happened, but I’m also beyond exhausted from what turned out to be a ridiculously long day.
The empty airport in Jomson, Mustang Region
I was excited to take that short flight this morning to Pokhara as I heard the view is breathtaking! Same early routine: pack up the backpack, this time the sleeping bag remained in the bag as the thick blanket sufficed last night – wasn’t too cold. Giulio walked me to the airport, stopping at the German bakery for chocolate pastries, before we said our final goodbyes.
There were many people waiting for their early flights already, and unfortunately ALL FLIGHTS WERE CANCELLED. We all did get our money back from the airline office. Apparently, this is a common occurrence as it all depends on the winds.
Yup, I can definitely say I know a thing or two about those winds! If yesterday’s desert storm was any clear indication of today’s flight cancellation, I can wholehearted understand. That wind was no joke!
A group of four Italian travelers approached me and another American girl traveling solo if we wanted to join them in their jeep to Pokhara. (I can’t seem to get away from these Italians!) How I wish I should have just taken that long bus ride, as that jeep ride was the most UNCOMFORTABLY LONG ride ever.
We were packed in there like sardines, it was hot, the road was too bumpy, and the Italians’ guide decided to squeeze in one more fat person in the jeep making the ride even more uncomfortable for everyone. Ma cazzo, vafanculo! (I mean, you can’t learn a new language without learning its curses, no?)
To carefully place the icing on top, our jeep broke down three hours away from Pokhara. That might have been the best thing that happened today as we ended up switching to a bigger, more comfortable jeep in the town of Beni, and the overweight friend of the guide separated from us.
The narrow, winding roads improved significantly (think paved) as we grew closer and closer to Pokhara. I could hear my stomach growling, but even my hunger I’ve learned to curb these past few days, as we all sat silently, eager to finally get to our final destination.
We arrived in Pokhara close to 2100. The American girl already had a room booked in a hotel in town so I followed her as she knew where she was going and stayed at the same place. A long, hot shower seems to cure any mishaps here in Nepal and I must have guilty stayed under that hot shower for a little over half an hour scrubbing all the dust from that horrendous jeep ride.
Pokhara, please be good to me. I have heard nothing but good things about this place and I have been looking forward to exploring Nepal’s second largest city.
This entire trek has been nothing short of amazing. There were extraordinary days and not-so-great ones here and there, but this one’s quite memorable. I know I won’t be able to stop talking about this trip for awhile. I feel like I could conquer mountains!
Essential Info: Giulio and I trekked the Annapurna Circuit without a guide nor porters. It is absolutely doable to do it independently as the trails are clearly marked and the chances of getting lost are close to none. We spent an average of $10-$15 per person per day, including food and lodging, with prices increasing as we went up higher in elevation and in most of the Mustang Region.
In regards to altitude sickness: I took Diamox (acetazolamide) four days into our trek, initially at 125mg daily and increased it to 250mg daily when my cough got worse over 4000meters (over 13,000ft) and suffered no severe altitude sickness except for that one tiny excruciating headache in High Camp. Giulio (and a lot of other trekkers we met) took no medication, whatsoever, and felt absolutely fine. My recommendation: take it!
Drinking water source: We bought water-purification tablets in Kathmandu (also available in liquid form) and got our water from the faucets of restaurants and guesthouses. I also had the UV wand stick which I absolutely love, but drains batteries! We were both fine.
Equipment and packing: I used a 45L backpack (highly recommend Osprey’s Kyte 46), packed a sleeping bag, one convertible hiking pants, one pair of Lululemon leggings, 4 pairs of wool socks, two Icebreaker long-sleeve tops, one fleece-lined sweater, a light down-jacket, and my Gore-tex Arc’teryx jacket, plus the usual toiletries. Other essentials: Purell hand sanitizer, travel soap sheets, baby wipes (lots of them), and facial wipes.
In regards to the Italian portion of the title of this post, it translates to: The Italian guy who doesn’t speak English, The American Girl is Always Hungry. That was the story of our trek.
Giulio, mille grazie per tutto, per tuo pazienza, gentilezza, e tutto el risata noi condiviso.