Most people are never fully present in the now because they are under the illusion that the next moment will be more exciting or increasingly important than the current one. They constantly search for the next ‘big thing’ in life and ignore the millions of special ‘little things’ as they pass by. Without a doubt, I was one of these people. Subconsciously believing that I needed to look forward to something, and never feeling completely satisfied in the present time. And then the most refreshing thing happened. . . I decided to hike a 140km loop to the top of a snow-peaked mountain with the most grounded, unique group of people. My world has been completely transformed.
Time is more or less irrelevant when you are trekking in the middle of the mountains. Every second, every minute, every hour is simply ‘mountain time’ and means something completely different than what it would in ‘real life’. Days began to blend together and if it hadn’t been for my rental equipment receipt, I would have never believed that I’d been walking for close to two weeks straight. Having done very little off-the-grid living in my past life, the whole concept of being somewhat isolated was one that I was unfamiliar with, but grew to deeply cherish. No wifi, no cell phone, no wrist watch, no problem!
Life in the mountains is like nothing I can explain. Every day brought new scenery, new faces and a new opportunity to be completely awed by Mother Nature. The simple act of walking with a group was so therapeutic; a perfect balance of self-reflection combined with an unwavering sense of togetherness.
Our bunch of five trekked the Annapurna circuit together for 13 days straight, crossing the Thorong La pass at 5416m above sea level just as the sun rose to welcome another beautiful day. The weather was unbelievable; sunny blue skies, perfect visibility and dry (windless) fresh air throughout every day of our journey.
The star gazing at night was like nothing I’ve ever experienced; no light pollution to take away from the twinkling cosmos above. After sunset we’d lay together on our backs atop the guesthouse roofs all bundled in blankets pointing out constellations (the Milky Way was so clear and bright it almost appeared fake, like a projection in the sky).
Life on the Circuit: Day 1
The majority of my first day was spent on a local bus travelling to the circuit’s entry point. This was no ‘western’ bus experience. To start, I spent the five hour journey sitting on a sack of rice in the isle with every inch of my body in contact with another human. Upon boarding, my bag was thrown on the bus roof atop the heaps of other traveller’s bags with no security ropes or ties. Occasionally a backpack would tumble down the side of the bus into the road as we were rattled by large potholes, and passengers would loudly bang on the windows to get the drivers attention to stop and retrieve it. It wasn’t uncommon to drive through knee-deep rushing rivers, for the bus tires to come within inches of a cliff edge, or for us to cross rickety bridges that I would be hesitant to walk on with my weight by foot. Although the bus was completely jammed, it would continuously stop roadside to pick up locals (who would squeeze their way on and ask to set their children on someone’s lap). Nepali songs blared from the overhead speakers and the bus horn sounded so frequently it began to blend in as part of the music. The scariest moments came during blind corners when we would round a bend only to find another vehicle coming straight at us on the one-lane road. It became a game of chicken as to who was going to back up and let the other through. . . all part of the adventure I suppose! It was this first day on the bus that I came to meet to Brenda (an endearing ray of sunshine from the Netherlands) and Sil (a spiritual yoga instructor from Australia). I had no idea in those early moments of cordial introductions (as no one ever does) how impactful these women would be in my trekking experience and my life thereafter.
Life on the Circuit: Day 2-10
The Annapurna circuit is pure magic. Every single day there is a dramatic and rewarding change of scenery. In the early days, lush rice patties and rainforests line the horizon. Shorts (or a skort in my case) and tanks were a necessity and occasionally I’d soak my hat in running streams to cool off.
As the days progressed the landscape changed; first to evergreen forests with grey/blue glacier-fed rivers.
Then came a more rocky landscape with gushing waterfalls. By day three the snowy tipped Annapurna II came into view and every day after that we were gifted a more and more stunning view of the different mountain peaks.
Once above the tree-line, the landscape became dry and barren; almost desert-like (and although I’ve never been, it somewhat reminded me of the Middle East). Golden temples with prayer flags centred tiny villages, locals dried apple rings and barley from their rooftops, and shepherds herded their goats along dusty footpaths.
Even in the lower elevations the nights were cool and crisp, the sun disappearing behind the range producing sunsets much earlier than I had expected. Complete darkness would set in just after dinner; although it didn’t much matter because after a day full of hiking, bedtime came early too.
The guest houses, in my opinion, were the most unique and special aspect of the whole trek. After hours of walking (sometimes without running into a single soul) we would approach a village and the real experience began. Local Nepali families turned their homes into ‘Hill ton Hotel’, ‘Sweet Dream House’ and ‘Peaceland Village’; willing to let one sleep for free if they promised to eat in their kitchen.
It was once we arrived in a village, selected a guesthouse and began to settle in for the night that the most special moments happened. Each place had their signature dish, but for the most part the food menus remained the same for the two week period. Momo’s (veggie dumplings), spring rolls, egg fried rice, potatoes curries and of course dal baht. Apples were in season in October, and the breakfasts consisted of fruit porridge, pancakes and fried eggs. The hardest decision of each day was whether to treat ourselves to apple pie or deep fried snickers for dessert (when in doubt always choose both!), and in larger villages we didn’t hesitate to visit bakery after bakery in search of the most delicious apple crumble and cinnamon rolls. I’ll never forget the night spent in Manang, about one week into our journey, when yak cheese came into my life for the first time (similar taste to fresh Parmesan, but with a rind like Brie). The lot of us indulged in veg and cheese sandwiches and bought large bricks to savour while on snack-breaks the following day. Manang was also the first place that I witnessed a moving picture in months. We came across a hotel that had converted an old concrete building out back into a projection theatre (complete with tiered plastic lawn-chair seating and an impressive selection of film titles). We laughed so hard watching ‘Get Hard’; ate popcorn and drank masala tea for the measly price of $3. In quieter villages, we took all the mattresses off the beds and lay them on the floor in common areas. We’d bundle up in plush blankets around candles to play Yahtzee and card games while listening to music, drinking tea and telling stories.
Life on the Circuit: Day 11
The most rewarding moment of the loop came the day we crossed the Thorong La pass (the highest in the world). It was a frigid, dark morning just after 3am when we started to hike the 1000+ meters towards the peak. It took just over four hours of switch-backing up the side of the mountain with headlamps for us to reach our destination.
There were definitely moments of doubt along the way, a small part of me not fully believing my body was going to get me to where I needed to go. But as I took step after step on the snowy earth, I saw the colourful prayer flags come into view. It was without question the highest moment of my life; endorphins flooded my body and the tears began to stream down my cheeks.
The energy at the top of the pass was overwhelming; strangers we had come into contact with numerous times over the course of the trek were now in tight embraces hugging. There were tears of happiness, words of encouragement and we were told a couple had gotten engaged just moments before. The test of focus and concentration seemed so distant now, and all that remained was pure bliss. We sat together atop that pass for hours (indulging in a dark chocolate and cashew Lindor bar I had splurged on and carried with me the entire way) savoring the view and reminiscing of the days past. In that moment, the journey became more important than the destination.
Life on the Circuit: Day 12 – 13
The days after the pass felt in a way lighter and even more carefree (I suppose the simple change from uphill to downhill walking will do that). The villages were larger and had more amenities than those on the way up. I had read that the views were less spectacular on this side of the loop and that road-walking was filled with dusty encounters of jeeps whizzing by; I found neither to be true. A new high trail alongside a mountain ridge had been created to avoid traffic, and the views of the dried up river beds in the valley below (post monsoon season) were my favourite of the whole trip. We stopped midday to try local sea buckthorn juice, replaced monotonous pancakes with spicy breakfast burritos in the mornings, visited local libraries, and wandered (expresso in hand) through towns without any rush at all. Wifi and hot showers were introduced back into my life; I relished in that 45 minute long scalding hot shower, used half a bar of soap scrubbing the filth from my body, and emerged a new person (I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my life!).
Life on the Circuit: Day 14
After an amazing ‘last supper’ of Nepal’s take on Italian food (lasagna, pizza, and fried mac n’ cheese), our group went their separate ways. Sarah and I (who were determined to end our trek on a high note before the resentment of sore calf muscles and smelly clothes set in) bussed to Tataponi to enjoy natural hot springs for a night. They were everything we could have imagined and more; glistening hot pools nestled in beside a peaceful river was the perfect therapy for our achy, cold bones.
Beer was sold from a stand beside the springs, which seemed like a fabulous idea after two months of alcohol-free living; until it really wasn’t. We were tipsy off the first few sips and the all-too-familiar ‘tummy adventures’ from the earlier days of the trek began to haunt us. We read, we wandered, we ate (and ate, and ate)… but mostly we talked about the two weeks we spent in the mountains and how happy we were to have had that time.
Sarah, an incredibly talented photographer whom I became inseparable with during my yoga training, brought out a patience inside me that I didn’t even know existed. I saw a different (more raw) beauty through her eyes as she stopped frequently to take shots. As I look over (and over) those images now I feel indebted to her for providing me with such invaluable keepsakes. She carried that 6 pound camera (with her sleeping bag and a tent!) on her back the entire way and never so much as complained once about the weight. Click here to see more of her images from the trip.
Brady (another irreplaceable member of my Rishikul yoga family) was such a vibrant light every step of the way. He has this infectious mindset that encourages everyone around him to treasure the ‘doing’ a little more, the ‘getting it done’ a little less; enjoying the dance of life as opposed to the race as he would say.
Brenda was by far the most uplifting and energetic of the group; motivating us all with her enthusiasm and happy colored pants.
And Sil, she’s just something from another world; a forest fairy or something equally divine.
Together we travelled on the most unforgettable adventure; creating thousands of special keepsake moments along the way. And for the first time in a long time, I was present for each and every one of those moments . . . feeling right then and there that they were creating the best memories of my life.