The Annapurna Circuit – 11/1986 through 10/2019
By the time I had gotten through Immigration Control at the Kathmandu airport, the taxi driver who had been sent by my hotel to retrieve me had abandoned me as a lost cause, and my pack, when I finally found it, was part of a pile that was being hauled away to the unclaimed-baggage room. I had queued up at a touch-screen station where I laboriously entered all of my visa information, and then I had queued up in the line to pay for my visa, and then I had queued up in the line where people who needed to use a credit card were told to wait, and then I queued up at Passport Control, by which point I was so irritated that I simply refused to believe that changing lines, to get away from the bland, slow-motion guy whose inexperience or lack of concern had paralyzed the line I was in, could possibly be a good idea. You think your incompetence is going to beat me? Just try it, buddy! I’ll stand here as long as it takes!
I was the very last person on my flight to officially arrive in Nepal.
I was in Nepal in the fall of 1986, with my ex-wife, Christina. We had quit our jobs, put our possessions into storage, and left for a trip around the world; we knew that any adventure like this had to happen before the arrival of the children and mortgages that it was easy to see waiting for us in the immediate future. After visits to Japan, Hong Kong, southern China, Thailand, and Burma, we arrived in Nepal with enough time to attempt the Annapurna Circuit before falling snow put an end to the trekking season. Now, 33 years later, I cannot remember how I first became aware of the Annapurna Circuit. I don’t know what our guide book looked like. I find that my memories of the experience are bound uncomfortably closely to the photographs I took on the trip; I’m not at all sure whether I recall the wild poinsettias and the big-eyed children and the dark, cold guesthouses, or whether I am actually recalling my photographs of them. I’m sure that we took a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara, although I remember nothing at all of this trip, and that we set off on foot from there, up the Kali Gandaki river valley, on the west side of the circuit. We got as far as the village of Muktinath, at the foot of Thorung-La Pass, before deciding that was far enough and retracing our steps to the town of Jomsom, where we flew back to Pokhara.
On this trip, in 2019, I planned to walk up the east side of the Annapurna Circuit, starting near the village of Besi Sahar, to cross Thorung-La Pass after ascending the Marsyangdi river valley, and then to drop down into Muktinath again. I knew I would continue at least as far as Jomsom on this trip, but I wasn’t sure what I might do from there; I had read that roads had been punched into the hills on both sides of the circuit, and it wasn’t at all obvious to me that it would be worth my while to spend days walking along a dirt road that I had to share with buses and Mahindra jeeps.
I remembered Kathmandu fondly from 1986, but the city and I have both changed since then. The narrow streets of the Thamel district are clogged with motorcycles that slalom among the pedestrians, every telephone pole is a sagging tangle of wire, many of the temples in Durbar Square that survived 2015’s earthquake are being propped up by timbers, and I am less tolerant than I was then of chaos and filth and rapacious tourism. Exoticism was a more important virtue to me in 1986 than it is today.
I went on long walks through Kathmandu’s disordered streets, climbed the long steps to the Swayambhunath Stupa (the famous Monkey Temple), and sought out well-reviewed restaurants. After a few days, I learned how to cross the busy street south of my hotel; until then, my strategy had been to station myself on the curb, behind a wary local, and follow them with only inches between us whenever they ventured out into the terrifying traffic. Young men on the street tried to sell me trekking packages and hashish. I saw a dog get hit by a car. I could hardly wait to start hiking.
The streets of Thamel are lined with storefronts offering guided trekking experiences. I debated about whether to sign up for one of these. A guided experience would have been more expensive and less flexible than independent travel, but it would have come with an implicit guarantee that I would always have a place to spend the night, even in the smallest, most popular towns, and it would have given me the opportunity to become part of a small social scene, as I got to know the other people in my group. In a decision that will seem almost preordained to anyone who knows me, I ultimately chose to do the whole thing by myself. This decision may or may not have been wise, but it turned out to have been lucky; after walking for the better part of a week, I was obliged to spend five nights in one place, waiting for a debilitating cold virus to dissipate and for the weather to clear. If I had been part of a group, they wouldn’t have waited for me; I’d have ended up alone, and would have forfeited the money I’d spent for the trip.
I regretted having turned my back on the social aspect of an arranged trek, though. I knew I would be spending a lot of time alone.
The micro-bus from Kathmandu to the town of Besi Sahar was seven eminently forgettable hours of juddering over half-paved roads. When we arrived, I sat on a curb and opened my guidebook, trying to figure out what to do next; I was spotted immediately by a small, energetic, bright-eyed young man who ran a guesthouse in the town of Ngadi, just up the road – the town I had decided would be the best place to start walking. He would ensure I had a seat on the bus to Ngadi if I agreed to stay in his guesthouse. We shook on the deal, and I joined a small group of other Westerners at the roadside who had also been convinced by this man that his guesthouse in Ngadi was the answer to our problems. When the bus arrived, we all found seats – but then the bus filled beyond capacity with locals before it set off. I perspired dreadfully on a woman in a sari who was crushed up against me.
That night, at the outdoor table where we were awaiting our dinners, I asked my fellow trekkers, “So, did anybody else think that the bus from Besi Sahar was going to tip over at any moment?”
“Oh, God, yes!” said a German woman.
“I had an escape strategy all planned out!” said the guy who looked exactly like a tall, buff version of Scarlett Johansson.
“I thought we were all going to die,” said a Polish-American woman.
I was the éminence grise in this group, as usual. I was the only person at the table who was older than 30, and I was the only person who was traveling alone. The Scarlett Johansson guy and his thin, timorous wife were especially taken with me; they said that what I was doing was exactly what they hoped to be doing in thirty-five years. I nodded and smiled, thinking of the thousands of ways the actuality of my situation might disappoint them, but keeping these thoughts to myself.
On the following morning, I figured out how a person whose knees do not permit squatting can use a squat toilet, took photographs of the 15-foot-tall marijuana plant growing among the marigolds at the guesthouse, paid my bill, put on my pack, and set off north along the road, through the rice fields, toward a snow-covered mountain in the distance. It didn’t take too long for the trail to leave the road; when it did, I was suddenly on the narrow, flagstone-laid paths that I remembered from 1986. But even here the old trail was only intermittent; bulldozers had smoothed the trail in many places, and motorcycles and jeeps sometimes jounced inelegantly by.
For the first few days of hiking, I was sometimes on an old Nepali track – designed for pedestrians and animals – but often this track had disappeared and been replaced by rutted dirt. Electricity was everywhere, of course, as was wifi service. I paused at the top of one long climb, at a village that had parthenogeneticized at the ridgeline; the tree under which I put my pack was listed on my map, as “Tree – Place of Worship,” and the tottering building across from me, where a dour man sat and watched me without expression, had once advertised “International Telephone Service,” but the word “Telephone” had been mostly effaced from the sign, leaving current visitors to wonder what sort of International Service this shack might offer.
The climate changed from day to day; from rice and bananas, to apple orchards, to fir forests, to fallow fields of wheat and barley, and finally to hills covered with pine trees that looked to me just like the Okanagan. The mountains were always there, at the heads of valleys, but they were always at least partially obscured by clouds. I mentioned the persistent cloud cover to a young couple and was surprised by the vehemence of the woman’s reaction. “I know!” she said. “We might as well have stayed in Europe!” I told them that I was determined to wait for clear weather – that I hadn’t come this far to cross the pass under clouds. They responded that their schedules didn’t allow this kind of flexibility; the woman glared at the man in an accusatory way while he silently opened and closed his mouth.
There was another village every few miles. Every afternoon I arrived in a town, eyed the array of guesthouses, trying to guess which might be most appealing to Westerners, and walked into whichever of them seemed most promising. The proprietors were often surprised to learn that I was alone – no porter, no guide – but I was denied a room only once. Meals were always part of the package; in exchange for very cheap lodging, guests were expected to have dinner and breakfast in the guesthouse’s dining hall. I ate a lot of Dal Bhat.
The main town in the Upper Marsyangdi valley is Manang. The villages at this end of the valley are low buildings made by piling brown stones atop one another. Each building is decorated with prayer flags that snap in the persistent wind. Mani walls full of prayer wheels and chorten gateways are important parts of every village. It was all very exotic, but I was quickly finding myself incapable of appreciating my surroundings.
A few hours short of Manang, I crossed a steel suspension bridge and climbed 1500’ of switchbacks to a village named Ghyaru. I had read about this climb in my guidebook, and knew that it would be difficult – especially since it was at about 12,000’ – but it was much harder than it should have been. Broad-beamed middle-aged women were passing me on the trail and looking at me with expressions of concern. When I finally reached the top, I threw myself onto a bench at an overlook that, on a clear day, offered a view of Annapurna II that my book called “stunning, to say the least,” and drank most of a liter of water. Something was not right.
It was several hours of walking to the village of Bhraka, where I splurged on a sumptuous room with a private bath and gave myself over to my first bout with traveler’s diarrhea of 2019. After a day and a half, this problem had resolved itself, but the cough that had been my constant companion since Athens had gotten worse, and it was everything I could do to drag myself out of bed to explore the town. Manang was only a mile away; I walked up there, one afternoon, to visit the High-Altitude Health Clinic, where a weather-beaten French woman listened carefully to my history and my lungs and told me that my problem was not altitude-related. I was already starting to feel better at this point – I’d made it up to Manang, after all – and the weather had begun to clear. I decided to move from Bhraka to Manang and wait a few more days for my health to improve.
After two nights in Bhraka and three nights in Manang, the skies were a deep, deep blue overhead, and I felt ready to start hiking again. It was an easy walk to the town of Yak Kharka; the road had ended at Manang, and the broad trail led through yak pastures and tundra. After a night at Yak Kharka, it was another easy walk to Thorung Phedi, a small cluster of lodges at 14,500’, just under the pass. The dining room at my lodge was packed with down-clad trekkers, drinking their Gorkha beers and arguing about how early to get up the following morning. A Swiss woman told me that she and her guide were beginning their attempt on the pass at 4:00 in the morning; instead of saying, “In that case, you should have no trouble,” as I should have, I said, “But even the menu here at the guesthouse says it’s only four hours to the pass!” She looked slightly pained, and I realized that she should of course rely on her guide for decisions of this kind, so I stammered something about how sure I was that she would be fine, and that I would be fine, and that everything would be fine, and then skulked off to bed.
The next morning’s walk was one of the high points of my life – the literal high point, of course, but also an experience of joy that I had begun to think might have deserted me. While I was lying in bed in Bhraka and Manang, I had lost the ability to care about anything at all. My reading bored me, Tibetan Buddhism seemed childish and illogical, yaks were just hairy cows. People said “namaste” to me purely as a prelude to trying to sell me something. The snatches of conversation I overheard at nearby tables at dinner were almost unbearably vapid; conversation, especially among people of approximately my age, seemed to consist almost entirely of eager attempts to be dreadfully pleasant.
But the mountains never deserted me. Every glimpse of the glaciers justified my presence in the Himalaya, even when the virus had scrubbed me of practically every human feeling. As my health returned, other sources of pleasure returned with it: I had begun reading David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished book, The Pale King, for instance, and was experiencing my usual incredulous thrill at his genius, and at the way he seemed to be talking directly to me, and at the ambition of what he had attempted with this book, even though I thought he had set himself an unachievable goal. And the exuberant health and adventurousness and beauty of Verena, the Swiss woman who planned to start hiking hours before dawn, filled me with admiration, and something more. The cinnamon rolls they made at the guesthouse were surprisingly good. I was returning to life.
I had breakfast at 5:30 in the morning and was hiking at dawn. My guidebook, imbecilic as always, had said that the old moraine that begins the hike was the steepest and most difficult part of the whole day’s climb – that the scree slope approached 50 degrees in places, and that I should be careful about turning around to admire the view behind me, because of the risk of tumbling down the cliff. None of this was remotely true. I walked as slowly as I could, and still had to stop to gasp in the remarkably thin air, but every time I stopped, it was another opportunity to watch the sun coming up on the peaks. During one of these wind-sucking breaks a teenaged boy from India who was slightly ahead of me called out, “You can do it!” and nodded his head at me. “Yes,” I called back, “I know I can do it!” I don’t know why I have always been bothered by this kind of thing – encouragement that has no basis in fact. Eager attempts to be dreadfully pleasant. This kid knew nothing about me, after all.
I had almost caught up to him when he and I both stepped off the trail to make way for a porter who was coming back down, at a shambling trot, carrying on his back a small, thin, gray man who I remembered from evening dinner at the lodge. I don’t know whether this man was semi-conscious or unconscious, but he was obviously not doing at all well. A little behind them followed an upright woman who was probably his spouse, her face a mask of concern and grief. As the Indian kid and I watched these people hurry down the trail, I made some comment about how peculiar it was that they weren’t using one of the nearby horses to get that man back down to the lodge. “That’s a good point,” he said. We watched them in silence for a more seconds, when he added, “It is commendable. That a man of his age could make it so far. Even if he has to turn back now. It is commendable.”
Well, yes. Perhaps. I don’t really know. What’s the difference between a noble failure, a foolish attempt, and simple bad luck? Is it more than the amount of preparation and the moral standing of the person making the attempt? The question is far from clear to me.
The Indian kid was fumbling with his water bottle, trying unsuccessfully to put it back into his pack without taking the pack off. I put it back for him and noticed that he was looking a little raggedy. “We’re almost there,” I said; my guess was that we were less than 1000 vertical feet from the pass. “Do you think so?” he asked. “Oh yes,” I said. “We will be there in an hour.” I walked on to the top of a little rise and, when I turned to look back, I saw that he had taken his pack off and was messing with the water bottle again.
The sky was ultramarine at this altitude. A few ground-hugging plants clung to exposed surfaces here and there, but these were rare; everything was bare rock, dirt, ice, the overwhelming sky, and dots of color in the clothing of the other little figures that were struggling up the mountainside. My pace was so slow that I didn’t feel fatigued at all by the exercise; I was limited by the lack of oxygen, not by my heart or legs. The steepness mitigated a bit and prayer flags began to appear on the hillocks in front of me.
And then I was there. A mound of prayer flags surrounded a sign that said “Thorang-La Pass. 5416 meters. Congratulation for the Success! See you again!” We took turns posing with the sign. A woman offered to take my picture and, as she accepted my camera, said, “I’m all emotional, for some reason.” “I know!” I said. “Me too!”
An Indian woman who had just been helped off a horse approached me and asked whether I’d seen her son recently. “Yes,” I said. “I’m sure he’ll be here in a few minutes.” She set off down the trail to find him and, a few minutes later, reappeared at his side. He was walking slowly and with apparent concentration, but he was okay. He gave me a wave as he approached, but he didn’t have the energy to smile.
The west side of Thorung-La Pass is drier and less interesting than the side I’d just ascended. It was down, down, down, for hours, through scree and over rocks. The Muktinath temple complex didn’t come into view until I was almost on top of it, with the little village just beyond. I checked in at the Bob Marley guest house and lay down for an hour. “See you again,” the sign at the pass had said, but this was wrong. I’d never be on Thorung-La Pass again.
I gave myself two nights in Muktinath, because I wanted to take my time with the temples. The Muktinath temple complex is an important pilgrimage site; it draws the devout from thousands of miles away. The heart of the complex is a temple where a flaming jet of natural gas comes out of the ground immediately next to a natural spring; this juxtaposition of fire and water has been recognized as holy ground for longer than anyone can recall. This is not the main temple, though; the main temple is dedicated to Vishnu and features 108 water spouts around a courtyard, where people anoint themselves and then rush around to the front of a pagoda to plunge into two frigid pools. I sat on a bench and watched this for half an hour. An old Brahmin man wearing boxer shorts and a sacred thread raced under the spouts and then leaped bravely into the pools, to shouts of encouragement from his family. A man with a little girl under one arm reached out to fill his palm with water and poured it onto his head, ignoring the tearful pleas of the girl, whose chubby little arms were not long enough to allow her to reach the water, too. A klatch of old ladies submerged themselves in the pools and then changed into dry clothes in full view of everyone at the temple, secure in the knowledge that the social context removed any hint of impropriety from their actions.
On the way back from the temples, I matched strides briefly with two middle-aged men and an older woman – two brothers and their mother, I believe. They asked me where I was from and how many times I had visited Nepal, and how much longer I would be able to stay – and then the man to my left, smiling into my face, took my left hand in his right, laced our fingers together, and walked with me holding hands for a little while.
“Nepal!” exulted the other brother. “It is the country of heaven!”
I disentangled my fingers long enough to deliver a proper “Namaste” to the shy, smiling mother – hands held in a posture of prayer at your chin, the word accompanied by a little bow – and then left the group when they stopped to exclaim over the wares on display at one of the streetside stalls.
I remembered Muktinath as having been something like the smaller villages at the top of the Marsyangdi river valley – buildings made of piled stones, tethered goats, prayer flags straining in the wind – but that village is gone. In its place are concrete guesthouses, convenience stores, and a wide dirt road that stretches all the way down the Kali Gandaki valley to Pokhara. I told the man who ran the Bob Marley guesthouse that I remembered the town from 1986, and he replied that in 1986 he had not yet been born. Then he told me that I should really take the alternate route to Kagbeni, if I liked old, traditional towns; he took me out onto a rooftop terrace to point out the route.
I took his advice on the following morning, walking to Kagbeni through a series of lovely little villages. Poplars and cottonwoods are common up near Muktinath, but, as you descend further down into the gorge, the trees disappear, and soon you are walking through a landscape that looks like it could have been photographed by the Curiosity rover, except for the high snows of Dhaulagiri, hanging over the valley to the west. Overhead, large, soaring birds appeared. “Lammergeiers,” I thought.
These birds had been important to me ever since Peter Matthiessen published The Snow Leopard in 1978. This book was serialized in The New Yorker and was the first new book I ever bought in hard cover. In it, Matthiessen reflects on the recent death of his wife, on his ongoing commitment to Zen Buddhism, and on his current trip into the Himalaya with the naturalist George Schaller, where they hoped to catch a glimpse of a snow leopard. Here is the passage in which he mentions the lammergeier:
On Christmas Eve, I had gone home to patch together some sort of Christmas for the children, but I forgot to bring the bowl back to New York. Had I given it to her earlier, she would have understood just what it meant; but by January, D was in such pain and so heavily sedated that any sort of present seemed forlorn. She scarcely knew friends who came to visit: what could she make of a bowl she had seen just once, on another continent, a year before? I had missed a precious chance, and I remember that as I propped her up in bed, coaxing her to concentrate, then opened up the box and placed the bowl in her hands, my heart was pounding. I could scarcely bear to watch how D stared at the bowl, grimacing in the effort to fight off the pain, the drugs, the consuming cancer in her brain. But when I prepared to take it back, she pressed it to her heart, lay back like a child, eyes shining, and in a whisper got one word out: “Swit-zerland.”
Far overhead, the great lammergeier turns and turns.
This broke my heart in 1978 and, rereading it today, it breaks it again. Like all such injuries, for me, there is no recovering from it; after a while, the pain becomes less present, other parts of my psyche learn to carry the burden of the injured piece, and the ache becomes part of my personality, something I cannot remember every having lived without. Of course the sight of lammergeiers overhead brings tears to my eyes, forty years after reading The Snow Leopard. The part of me that Matthiessen broke is still broken. I adapt, but I do not recover.
It was only on arriving in Kagbeni that I opened my guidebook and read that the route I’d just walked was actually part of Upper Mustang, an area where I was not allowed to go without a separate, expensive permit. “Some trekkers visit (this region) on the sly, but if you are apprehended by police, it could mean trouble.” Once again, good luck had saved me.
The next town beyond Kagbeni was Jomsom. I had already decided to fly from Jomsom back to Pokhara; the road-walking that would be required by the next days of trekking did not appeal to me at all, and besides, my enthusiasm for living had never fully returned. I didn’t need to see another Nepali village. I’d had enough.
I fell in with a long-legged young woman from Poland on the morning’s walk to Jomsom. I saw the top of a book poking out of her backpack and asked if she was looking forward to the new HBO series, His Dark Materials. “What is that?” she asked.
“Isn’t that a copy of The Subtle Knife you’re carrying?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “This book is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.” Then she described some of the finer points of this book’s arguments, and told me about having cured her hip and knee problems with long, strenuous fasting, and about taking up free-diving, and about any number of things that, taken together, might lead you to think that she was something of a kook, instead of the excellent, free-spirited, brave, independent person that she actually is, in addition to being a kook. The walk was entirely along a dirt road, but her mile-eating pace and the flow of easy chatter made short work of it. We parted ways at the edge of Jomsom, where she was stopping to arrange a bus ticket south on the next day. I walked into town until I found the airport terminal and walked in with the intention of buying a flight on the following day. The man behind the counter told me that there was one seat left in the Twin Otter that was scheduled to take off in half an hour, so I grabbed it. I had left Kagbeni a little after 8:00, and by 11:30 I was in the air.
When I landed in Pokhara I was even more confused than usual about what to do next. I had thought I would do some research about the town from my hotel in Jomsom, but everything had moved much more quickly than I’d expected. I didn’t have data on my phone, and the airport didn’t have wifi, so I pulled out my mapping app and took a hard look at it. The lake I remembered from 1986 was about a mile north of the airport; many hotels and guesthouses were clustered along its eastern shore. This was good enough for me, so I strapped on my pack and walked up there. The area I’d chosen, the Lakeside neighborhood, turned out to be the heart of Pokhara’s tourist district. The place was aswarm with restaurants and trekking shops. I was in no mood for this, so I spent most of my time for the next couple of days attending to chores and finishing The Pale King.
There appeared to be only one activity in Pokhara other than shopping and eating, and that was renting a little boat and taking it out onto Phewa Lake. I didn’t feel capable of doing that, though. I remembered almost nothing of Pokhara from my earlier visit, but I remembered paddling out on the lake with Christina, and visiting a small island where a battered, vermilion-daubed temple deteriorated in the sun. I took a photograph of her, sitting sideways in the boat in front of me; her red shirt was ablaze against the blue of the water, and the sky, and the mountains that hung on the horizon. This was another case in which I couldn’t tell the difference between my memory and my photographs. That image is heavy with all of the things that we couldn’t know – not only details about our unborn children and the upcoming trajectories of our personal and professional lives, but also with the features of our lives at that time that we couldn’t see because we were too close to them. We didn’t really understand how rare and wonderful that adventure was, or how young and beautiful we were, or how time might subvert our best intentions. We didn’t understand except in the most superficial way that we would never have a moment like this again, and that there was no recapturing it.
Neither David Foster Wallace nor Peter Matthiessen will ever write another word. I will soon be neither young nor fit enough to hike over Thorung-La Pass. The young people that Christina and I were in 1986 are gone forever and are remembered now only in flashes of color and recollections of heat and light. There is no recovering from injuries like this. I adapt, but I do not recover.