Annadana Murugan

Bragging Rights and Beauty Rest

Annapurna map

TIME Magazine, February 24, 2003

When I told my boss about my holiday-trekking plan, he grimaced and proclaimed, "It's so dirty."  When I informed my friends that I was going to spend 15 days hiking 300 kilometers around one of the Himalaya's most iconic mountain massifs, they told me I was "hardcore." They were all wrong. I discovered that hiking Nepal's Annapurna circuit is almost luxurious—and you can do it alone.

Looping through lush, lowland villages, fragrant pine forests, the austere pastures of the Tibetan plateau and over one of the world's highest trekking passes, the Annapurna trail is dotted with charming teahouses and pretty stone hamlets, which means you will rarely walk for more than an hour before you find a place to pause for a cuppa or a rest room. And the plentiful lodges offer comfortable beds, hearty meals, a steady supply of chocolate bars and most surprisingly, hot showers. Many hikers in Nepal opt to join a group tour, but I wanted some individual freedom. In Kathmandu I hired a guide, Kamal Bhatta, and he obtained my trekking permit hired a porter and arranged transport to the trailhead, which took six hours to reach. Once on the trail, I could hike at my own pace and choose where I wanted to sleep, which was usually the place with the best apple pie. The Annapurna circuit's nickname in fact, is the "Apple Pie Trail" in homage to the local specialty and the easy trek.

The well-trodden path started with a gentle climb past golden rice paddies ready for harvest, then ducked into the cool embrace of massive rhododendron groves. My first days were long, about five hours of hiking broken up by a leisurely lunch. By the fourth day I was hiking only three hours to better adjust to the 3,000-m plus altitude. I spent my afternoons lounging in the sun with a pot of tea and a book or visiting nearby hot springs with a cold beer. Hard-core?

Hardly I was getting more rest on my two-and-a-half-week holiday hero than from the last six vacations combined. It is possible to hike entirely alone—without a guide or a porter—but it's a false economy.

Kamal was a font of knowledge about local culture and the unique flora and fauna I would have otherwise overlooked. He showed me bow to crack open a type of mud-color river stone to reveal ancient fossils. He also pointed out ragged scars on the mountain flanks caused by landslides that not only destroy villages but take out trekking parties as well. Altitude sickness is another potential killer. I chafed at Kamal's exhortations to go slower, but soon came to heed his warnings. Even after several days' acclimatizing, it was a struggle crossing the 5,416 meter Thorung-la Pass.

From the Thorung-la it was downhill all the way and straight into a riot of civilization. Cars honked, Hindi music blared, and it was hard to distinguish where the garbage dumps ended and the streets began. Friends back home may have thought I was roughing it, but I can affirm that life on the Annapurna circuit is more than civilized.         — by Aryn Baker