Mark JohnstonLESSONS LEARNED WHILE TREKKING IN NEPAL Mark Johnston December 11 Nepal, Travel 1. TREKKING THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT IS WORTH IT — Although the new road may have ruined the Annapurna Circuit for many purists, the trek is still an awesome experience with the same great views and variety it had 50 years ago. But if you’re looking to get off the beaten track and dusty road, maybe consider the Manaslu Circuit or Dhaulagiri Circuit. In the aftermath of a deadly blizzard, the Annapurna Circuit trail was very quiet for us most of the way, but still bustling with trekkers between Manang and Muktinath. I can’t imagine this place during peak season. 2. PLAN AHEAD, PLAN FOR YOURSELF — Advice from returned trekkers in Kathmandu should be taken with a grain of salt, as temperatures and conditions will have changed in the week or two since they were up there. Don’t always listen to the guide book either, as a lot has changed since some were printed and most are subject to bias of the author. One of our best nights on the circuit was in a “scruffy little settlement” somewhat ignored in our guidebook. 3. DO IT WITHOUT A GUIDE — Before we started the Annapurna Circuit, we debated whether or not to get a guide — this was just two weeks after the deadly blizzard that killed many trekkers and Nepalis on the trail. While still in Kathmandu, I talked with neighbors in our guesthouse who had just returned from the circuit and they gave me the best possible advice: do it without a guide. Thanks Ab and Laura! The trail is very well marked and with a good map and guidebook it is nearly impossible to get lost — unless you are stuck in bad weather on Thorung La Pass. For most of the trek the trail follows narrow river gorges and wider valleys, making the direction of travel obvious. There were numerous occasions where we met other trekkers that were unhappy with the pace of their guides/porters, who moved too slow or rushed them along too fast. Some trekkers were ushered into guesthouses they didn’t want to stay in just because the guide had a connection with the owner. Others had side trips to peaks or lakes cut short because their guides/porters were too cold or tired to go on. If you plan more strenuous side trips to peaks, or more remote treks such as the Manaslu circuit, then a guide is probably a good idea if not mandatory. No matter where you end up going, if you hire a guide and porter it is your responsibility to make sure they are properly equipped for the trek. Flip flops are not appropriate footwear for a porter, no matter what the season. 4. BUY CHEAP GEAR IN KATHMANDU — Cheap gear is readily available in Thamel, the tourist shopping district in Kathmandu. We bought two ripoff North Face sleeping bags, quality trekking poles, (a must on these steep trails), a fleece for Britnee and four water bottles for around $90 — the same price some shops were trying to rent it all to us. The fakes are far from the quality of the real stuff, but we trekked from October to December and our sleeping bags — combined with the blankets the teahouses provided — kept us both plenty warm at night. After we finished our two treks, we sold it all back to a shop in Pokhara for $20. The one piece of gear we didn’t skimp on was a SteriPEN, for good reason (see #10). The gear we wish we’d packed for some icy portions of trail was Yak Trax. 5. SLOWLY, SLOWLY… AND MAYBE WITH SOME DIAMOX — There are plenty of reminders along the trail to be wary of signs of Acute Mountain Sickness — take heed. As they often say, it’s usually the fittest and strongest hikers that get into trouble as they are overconfident and climb too fast. I consider myself a relatively fit, fast hiker, but I suffered with brutal headaches and nausea at altitude — even while on Diamox. But don’t let that stress you out, as many trekkers, including Britnee, manage just fine and only get a little winded at the highest points along the trail. However, listen to your body and take a rest day when needed. We were lucky enough that our schedule permitted this. Plan for extra days on your trek to give some flexibility for when your body demands it. Diamox can be easily found at pharmacies in Kathmandu and Pokhara for cheap. If possible, try to do a hike at altitude before the circuit so you better understand the harder work required up there. 6. PACK EXTRA CASH — You’ll probably eat more than you expect and guzzle warm tea daily when it gets cold up there. We packed enough cash to see us through to Jomsom — where we could get more from a rare ATM — and divided it up between our packs and pockets for safekeeping. While we never felt threatened along the way, we were extra cautious with our money as it would be difficult to come by more on the circuit and hard to continue with none. 7. SHOP AROUND FOR YOUR TEAHOUSE — When you arrive in each village on the circuit, don’t get sold on the first teahouse you come across. Often times the best is just around the corner… as is the actual village you were probably looking for until the first teahouse owner fooled you into stopping. However, the Annapurna Sanctuary is more heavily trafficked, so prices are much higher and less flexible. While trekking, you will start to build a list of things to ask for before agreeing to stay somewhere, especially as it gets colder: Shower? Hot shower? Gas hot shower? Free gas hot shower? 8. JEEP RIDES ARE NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART — Be forewarned: if you take the jeep to Syrange or beyond, you might be in for a terrifying ride and wish you’d walked! This picture doesn’t do it justice. The amount of bouncing and swaying the top-heavy jeeps were doing, inches from sheer drops into the river, was hard to watch from the safety of the footpath across the gorge! 9. COUGH DROPS! — Vitamins. Advil Cold and Sinus. Aspirin. Pepto. Ginger chews. And maybe some Ciprofloxicin and Tinidazole — easily picked up in the city for a few dollars. Twenty days of hiking takes its toll and it was good to be prepared as our bodies broke down. There is an HRA clinic in Manang with international doctors treating trekkers suffering with everything from HACE and HAPE to pregnancy. But a little self-medicating will go a long way in making the trek more enjoyable. 10. PACK A STERIPEN — A SteriPEN made water purification easy! We filled up at taps in questionable kitchens or from hoses around villages, and in 90 seconds we had a liter of purified water, while others waited up to two hours with tablets to treat for giardiasis. And while we did fall ill with giardiasis in Pokhara, it was after we stopped using our SteriPEN back in the comfort of the city. While trekking, pack extra batteries and keep them warm in your sleeping bag at night to prevent them from draining in the cold. The SteriPEN itself also required a little warming in a pocket in the morning before use. 11. CHECK THE WEATHER REPORT WHEN POSSIBLE — There is Wifi and internet at many stops along the trail now, but none above Manang until you descend Thurong La to Muktinath. According to many sources, the deadly 2014 blizzard was predicted well ahead of time and common knowledge on the trail — yet so many people pushed on foolishly and perished on Thorung La. If the weather is deteriorating, seek shelter and stay put! 12. DON’T LOOK UNDER THE MATTRESS! — Don’t ask me why I thought I should. 13. TRY THE LASAGNE IN MARPHA AND ENCHILADAS IN TATOPANI — The teahouse menus provided many possible dishes using the four staples: pasta, rice, noodles and potatoes. Occasionally there were pizzas that were hit or miss — one even came out looking more like a Navajo taco. And while beloved Dal Bhat became my go-to lunchtime fuel on the trail, there were two guesthouses that sported such good food we thought they deserved a special mention: The mushroom-tomato lasagne at Neeru Guest House in Marpha was phenomenal and filling, arriving at the table on a sizzling iron plate complete with a small side salad — you’ll understand my excitement about the side salad once you’ve trekked up there. And the vegetarian and chicken enchiladas and chocolate cake with fresh-ground coffee at the Dhaulagiri Lodge in Tatopani were also at the top of our list. That was a wonderful way to wrap up our trek, stuffing our faces. 14. HIKE BEYOND JOMSOM! — Some of the villages south of Jomsom are looking a bit sad these days, as much of the tourist traffic skips over them by bus, jeep or plane. As we continued on to Tatopani, the number of other trekkers we saw faded to almost none, providing us with some wonderful solitude on the trail. The photo above was shot looking at the Nilgiri Himal from Tukuche, a day or two’s walk below Jomsom. Also, some of the best views we got on the entire circuit came to us while hiking below Dhaulagiri, which was by far my favorite mountain that we saw in Nepal. A night in Larjung wasn’t too enticing when we arrived, but the side hike up to the village of Naurikot made it worth while with up-close views of Dhaulagiri on one side and Nilgiri across the valley to the east. 15. MOUNTAIN BIKE AFTER LARJUNG — If you decide to rent a mountain bike, do so for the ride after Larjung down to Ghasa or Tatopani. The road is just asking to be raced down on a beefy bike. The road before Larjung, however, was mostly flat and covered in big pebbles or deep gravel, making for slow going on a two wheels. Be sure to carry all your valuables with you in a daypack, as one trekker-turned-biker we met had his trekking backpack — that was being driven ahead — disappear. 16. BUY SMALL SOUVENIRS IN MANANG OR MUKTINATH — You’ll have to pack the extra weight further and you’ll probably see all the same items again in Pokhara or Kathmandu, but it’ll mean more to you having bought it in the middle-of-nowhere from a Tibetan refugee living in the Mustang region. 17. MAYBE DON’T WEAR YOUR MUSCLE SHIRT… when your porter is carrying all your stuff right next to you. 18. DON’T BOARD THE BUS IF THIS GUY IS THE DRIVER — If you end up taking a bus from Beni to Pokhara, do your absolute best not to board a local bus driven by cracked-out teenagers who insist on passing every other vehicle on the road! Even while climbing steep switchbacks — hundreds of feet above a river in their ancient bus, while blasting their horn at everything and anything — these kids had to race it like Formula 1. This is why there are so many deaths on the roads in Nepal! Two buses toppled off narrow roads and down hundreds of feet into rivers, killing dozens of locals and tourists during our time in Nepal. Yet, they still don’t learn. If you happen to see this driver, pictured above, on the bus you just boarded, walk away. I just saved your life. You’re welcome. 19. TREK BOTH THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT AND SANCTUARY (BASE CAMP) — If you have the time, hike both the Annapurna Circuit and the Annapurna Sanctuary. When we admired the mountains from the south and while at Annapurna Base Camp, it was very satisfying to think we had just hiked behind the entire length of the Annapurna Himalayan Range on the Circuit. Calling to mind all the wonderful sights we saw and people we met in the isolated land beyond those giant peaks was really special.