Mike visited:

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Annapurna Circuit Trek, a 20-Day Journey in the Nepalese Himalaya

sunrise in the mountains
The 4:30am alarm seemed especially cruel because I'd hardly slept at all (few people do above 4,000 meters). I hit the snooze button and thought about the challenges ahead. I was about to climb 1,000 meters up to snowy Thorung La pass (5,416 meters in elevation), then descend 1,600 meters to the nearest village on the other side. The crossing would have to be done quickly to avoid afternoon winds. And, of course, it would all be done at extremely high altitude – the highest I'd ever been.

(Put another way, I was about to climb three Sears Towers and then descend five.)

I lifted the curtain and looked out my window. The sky was dark but clear; the half moon burned just above the horizon – a good sign. I climbed out of my cocoon into the frigid room and pulled on every stitch of clothing I had.

me, Ian, Jamie, Toc Pun, Terry
The Annapurna Circuit
I was walking the Annapurna circuit, a classic trek in central Nepal that stretches for 300km (186 miles) around the Annapurna mountains in the Himalaya. The trek begins at low elevation and climbs up to 5,416 meter (17,768ft) Thorung La pass. Along the way it passes through dozens of lowland and high mountain villages and some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the world.

Cast & Crew
Joining me on the trek were a few friends I'd met months earlier in Laos and Thailand: Jamie (who's in the Travelers You Meet video) and Ian, both from Yorkshire, England, and Terry, a fellow Web publisher from the USA. We engaged Toc Pun, a guide/porter in Pokhara, to help us mingle with the locals and to lug some of my camera equipment.

village scene with buffalo
Stepping Back in Time
Setting foot on the Annapurna trail is like stepping back in time. The trappings and distractions of modern society vanish. Life goes on in the mountain villages much as it must have a century ago. Gone are the sounds of cars, motorcycles, or machines of any sort. In their stead are the sounds of rivers and waterfalls, of women tending gardens, children walking to and from school, men porting goods or playing cards. Local products are made by hand; buildings are erected without the aid of machines. Because everything has to be carried into the mountains on the backs of porters, luxury items such as sweets and beer grow scarce.

The Trails
The trails on the circuit struck me as well designed and maintained. Solid and scenic suspension bridges span many of the big river crossings. In some areas the trail has been dynamited out of sheer mountain faces, providing dramatic, thousand-meter drops down to the valley floor below.

snowcapped Chulu West
The Views
The Himalaya mountain views are, quite simply, the most splendid natural views I've ever seen in my life. On a canvas too enormous to take in at once, rock and water and plant compete for attention. Gentle green mountains roll down to deep valley floors with ancient terraced fields carved out of their sides. Icy, unreal-blue rivers slice deep into rocky valley floors. New, angry, jagged cliffs tower off in the background, standing in stark relief against crystalline skies. An embarrassing abundance of waterfalls cut deep trenches into the rock face.

The Village People
The Annapurna trail winds through dozens of villages that offer glimpses into traditional Nepali village life. Largely Hindu in the lowlands, the villages gradually reflected Tibetan influences as we climbed higher into the mountains, Hindu icons giving way to Buddhist prayer wheels and gompas (temples).

Nepali girls with porter basket

Most people we encountered were genuinely pleased to see us, and greeted us enthusiastically with "Namaste" (I salute you!) whenever we passed. (Tourism is at a low in Nepal right now; we must have been welcome sights to the people who depend on tourists for their livelihood.)

As a general rule, Nepalese people are stronger than water buffaloes. Porters passed us on the trail carrying dump truck-sized loads in wicker baskets slung from the crowns of their heads. Children hauled loads of firewood, food, even stones that would make Western gym rats cringe. (Having a 60-year-old, load-bearing Nepalese lady speed past you on the trail, rock-solid calves pumping off into the distance, is a humbling experience.)

Tea Houses
Most of the villages we passed through had lodges geared toward trekkers. Simple wooden plank affairs with thin mattresses, clean sheets, and decent duvets, double rooms went for the low low rate of $.25-$1.00 per night.

yak, source of terrific cheese
"Dal Baht Again?"
Cuisine on the trail ranged from decent to tedious. The Nepali national dish is dal baht: rice with lentil soup and vegetable curry. It's a tasty meal, but it can get monotonous after twenty or thirty servings. The alternative is to delve into the Western items on the menu, made by people who've never tried the real thing. Discovering a rural Nepali's interpretation of a veggie quesadilla is an adventure.

Regardless of food quality, I managed to gorge myself at least three times a day. My body demanded an amazing quantity of fuel. I'd often feel satiated only after devouring porridge, hard-boiled eggs, vegetable soup, milk tea, dal baht, Tibetan bread, trail mix, nuts, cookies, and chocolate bars – all before noon.

A standout discovery I made in the mountains is yak cheese, which tastes like a fine parmesan and enhances every meal imaginable. Seabuckthorn juice, made from a local berry that tastes like apricots, was another stellar treat.

By far, the most coveted food item on the trip was chocolate. I scaled new heights of culinary ecstasy with an air-cooled Snickers bar at 4000 meters. And never before have I eaten three Mars bars in a row.

stark landscape
Keep on Reaching Higher Ground
The scenery changed for the better as we climbed higher up in the mountains. The hazy views of the pre-monsoon lowlands gave way to crystal clear blue skies and white capped mountains. Up above the tree line, the scenery morphed into a barren, Tibet-like landscape of brown hills, landslides, and jagged peaks.

The air thinned considerably above the 3,000m mark, which made steep climbs and rigorous efforts more difficult. But, although thin, the air felt so pure and fresh that I hardly noticed a change (after spending months in big Asian cities I'd grown accustomed to breathing less oxygen than usual).

chilling in the evenings
Cold Chillin'
Nepal is a southerly country (it's at the same latitude as Egypt and Florida) with a mild climate. But up above 3,000m the temperature drops dramatically, especially at night.

The thing about the cold in Nepal is that there's little you can do to escape it. Fuel for cooking is in scare supply; heating a room is out of the question. The only way to combat the cold is to layer-up; I took to wearing thermal underwear, gloves, and hat everywhere – to dinner, bed, the toilet, etc.

On the bright side, a week of freezing nights provided a great incentive to get over the pass and down to lower elevations as quickly as possible.

Toc Pun - who would have thought?
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) Strikes!
We were eating our usual breakfast of tea, apple porridge, and hardboiled eggs in Yak Kharka, a town at 4,000m in elevation, when another party's guide approached us and said, "Your guide is sick. Vomiting. Altitude. He needs to go down."

"Huh?" How could Toc Pun be sick? Toc was a rock, a pro. He was guiding us.

We went to Toc's room and found him in a sorry state indeed. He'd been vomiting all morning, was having trouble breathing, and complained of blurry vision – serious symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS). Alarmed, we broke camp and hurried Toc down to a lower elevation. His symptoms didn't improve. It soon became clear that he wasn't going to get well quickly enough to make it over the pass. Toc Pun had to go home.

The incident was an eye-opener. Toc was born in the Himalaya; he's crossed Thorung La 22 times; he's a certified, professional guide. But AMS can strike anyone, regardless of age, experience, or health.

Mountain Dog
Thorung La (And a Mountain Dog Shall Lead Them)
The first hour hurt the most. The climb from base camp to high camp is impossibly steep, utterly unforgiving. Fighting for breath in the thin air, I'd pause every few meters, gaze up the unending mountainside, and indulge in a moment of self-pity. Then I'd stare back at the ground and put one foot in front of the other.

I felt my strength and optimism rising after an hour of climbing. I no longer had to stop as often; I was even able to make some breathy chatter with the people we passed.

Near the halfway point we met a cheery brown ball of matted fur. Christened Mountain Dog, the mongrel was immediately welcomed into our party. A pleasant, motivational mascot, M.D. made the climbs and the altitude look easy.

Past the 5,000 meter elevation mark the air became impossibly thin and dry. I had to pause every few meters to regulate my breathing. A dull ache began to grow in the pit of my lungs. My heartbeat accelerated.

Just as I was growing paranoid about my health, I glanced up and noticed some colors peeking out over the top of the cliff – prayer flags marking the pass! My shallow breathing and worrisome heartbeat fell away as I scrambled up to Thorung La.

cairn atop Thorung La

Thorung La pass is marked by a large cairn (stone pile) strewn with prayer flags. Commanding mountain views greet visitors from every side. Magnificently, the surrounding mountains appeared to be at eye level or lower. I was on top of the world.

I noticed some movement by my feet. Mountain Dog gazed up at me. I swear he was smiling.

Murder on the Knees
At first, the decent from Thorung La was thrilling. The relief we all felt to have made it over the pass was palpable. I could feel the air growing tangibly thicker with each leap and bound down the mountain. And the prospect of the Bob Marley Guest House on the other side – rumored to be the height of mountain luxury – was greatly motivational.

The pure hell of descents came into sharp focus after an hour: the cartilage in my knees felt like it was compacting into rice paper, the tendon that runs down the front of my shin stiffened and spasmed, my toes jabbed against the toe of my boots.

The 1600m descent took its toll. Toward the end, I hobbled down the trail like a geriatric in a knee surgery ward, using my walking stick as a cane.

But I made it. And Mountain Dog made it too.

floating mountain view from atop Poon Hill
The Other Side
After a day of rest, we started the long climb back down to Pokhara, passing through more spectacular scenery, medieval villages, and surprisingly modern tourist towns such as Jomoson. There were rhododendron forests, German bakeries, hot springs, and local distilleries. There was Poon Hill, where at first light the mountains appeared to hover in midair. And there were more brutal climbs and descents too.

In total, we trekked the Annapurna circuit in 20 days.

Away From it All
happy to be away from it all
After spending months in big Asian cities – particularly big Indian cities – the Annapurna trek was a welcomed change of pace. It was the antithesis of the pollution, crush of humanity, poverty, and hectic atmosphere of urban centers.

Never before have I been cut off from news and communications for so long. I've never gone so long without seeing a motorized vehicle. I've never read so much, played so much chess, talked so much, thought so much.

Nepalese treks have everything going for them: culture, natural beauty, welcoming people, physical challenge, and value for the dollar. The Annapurna circuit trek has been a highpoint of my trip – one of the highpoints of my life, really.

Here's a four-part video series about the journey.

Part One: Kathmandu to Pokhara
How do you prepare for a 20-day trek in Nepal? With a load of bootlegged gear in Kathmandu.

Part Two: Pokhara to Thorung La pass
Setting foot on the Annapurna trail is like stepping back in time. The trappings and distractions of modern society vanish.

Part Three: Thorung La pass
The first hour hurt the most on this unforgiving trek over 17,769 foot Thorung La pass.

Part Four: The Long Walk Down
Circling back to Pokhara, we passed through more spectacular scenery, medieval villages, and surprisingly modern villages. Posted on April 29, 2003 06:59 AM


Comments (post your own below)

When can I go? I am sitting at work, at my computer desk, wondering how to change. Your updates always cheer me up.

Posted by: adrienne on April 29, 2003 11:35 AM

A true adventure Pugh....job well done! -MJ

Posted by: on April 29, 2003 02:01 PM

Always worth the time to drop in and catch up on your adventure. Keep up the good "work".

Posted by: Hans on April 30, 2003 12:51 AM

Sheer poetry. Thanks Mike for another thrilling and evocative post.

Posted by: Marc on April 30, 2003 06:59 AM

This report makes me wish I was in my twenties again. I'd love to experience a trek like this. For those of you who would like another good read on this type of Himalayan trek try It's by an American named Sean Connolly. Click on his travelogue called "Lathi's Tears." It is an in depth report from about 1998 and well worth the read. Mike, you have condensed this amazing experience into a well written report. It's an inspiration. Well done!

Posted by: Roger on April 30, 2003 10:21 AM

Most excellent! With it you have come away with an experience like no other! :)

Posted by: Lance on April 30, 2003 12:33 PM

WOW! Ditto - all of the above. I've gotta go!
Have you ever read THE SNOW LEOPARD?

Posted by: Joty on May 1, 2003 04:25 AM

I am so impressed by your adventure. It sounds wonderful. I can't wait to read the next installment.

Posted by: Megin. on May 1, 2003 07:05 AM

What an amazing trip: I'm adding Nepal to my list of "must see before I die" places. Thanks for the site!

Posted by: aj on May 1, 2003 02:52 PM

adrienne, i agree about needing change. i backpacked europe last summer after graduating from college and had the time of my life. sitting at a computer for 8 hours a day SUCKS. when i get really annoyed at the boredom of the computer world...i always go to this site for inspiration! Thanks Mike for the wonderful page and sharing your experiences. I have successfully read every word and looked at every picture and video on this site while at work!

Posted by: Paul on May 1, 2003 03:42 PM


I read Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard while I was on the trek and was constantly inspired by its greatness. I admire how Matthiessen can describe nature and beauty without turning to mush, and how he can get personal without getting self-important. It's one of the best travel books I've read.

Posted by: mike on May 2, 2003 12:12 AM

Just a note to echo what the others have said here; admiration and envy. I applaud your excellent writing skills. Despite health and age, and in its good cause, I plan to follow one day soon :)

Thanks for the parcel from India BTW - it arrived while you were on your trek. You made Priscilla very happy.

Posted by: Steven Ericsson Zenith on May 3, 2003 04:06 AM

Always enjoy checking in on you here. Especially so, today. Thanks for your commitment to sharing it.

Posted by: Tonya on May 3, 2003 09:33 AM

Beautiful photography, it looks breathtaking. Just one question, what happened to Mountain Dog?

Posted by: Brian on May 3, 2003 09:20 PM

Mountain Dog caught the eye of a talent agent in Jomoson and was whisked off to Bollywood to star in a Hindi remake of "Benji".

Posted by: mike on May 4, 2003 12:50 AM

Planejo fazer uma viagem como a sua um dia. Vc é minha inspiração. O que vc fala é verdade, ficar off todo esse tempo vai te faerz muito bem espiritualmente.


Posted by: Arley on May 4, 2003 11:46 PM

yeah, what he said.

Posted by: craigers on May 5, 2003 01:18 PM

We ran into Tac Poon in Tatopani. He was looking for you guys, and fully recovered. He said he did get in a little trouble because his boss thought he drank to much and that caused him to get sick. Your website is great! It helps me adjust to being back in the US after such a great trip. Tell Jamie and Terri "Hi". Hope you all make it to Tibet

Posted by: Susan Rainey on May 7, 2003 10:49 PM

Thanks for the update. I might be taking a "Business Driven Leave" soon and joining you in Egypt.

Posted by: Chuck on May 8, 2003 12:15 PM

Do the everest trek

Posted by: Caelen on May 9, 2003 10:03 AM


Just caught the latest video footage, loved the breakdance on top of the world! I am amazed at how you have put together the mini-movie on a laptop - excellent music!
Is the Bollywood Benji story a joke? Or for real?


Excellent that you read Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, I have read it several times now, and having been a Buddhist (I am now a post-Buddhist) it had an extra hit

Posted by: Joty on May 10, 2003 01:06 AM

Hello, Mike
I found your web-site competely by accident...and I cry when I read it.
I am not in a position to travel and to experience life in the amazing manner that you are, but you are a powerful motivation and inspiration for me to do the very best i can... and to go farther than I think I can.
Namaste, dear Mike. Good on ya!

Posted by: Patsy on May 10, 2003 10:43 AM

too bad about tibet, mike, but i'm glad you're going to egypt. i bet there's a camel hump or felucca out there with your name on it.

Posted by: anya on May 10, 2003 12:05 PM


Since the weather here is Chi-town is getting to be a little bit nicer, we have all been wanting to play a few games of table tennis. I thought about building one myself, but then someone (MJ) mentioned there is a perfectly good table sitting in a garage space in a North Side neighboorhood.

So what do you say, do you think that I can borrow the "old" table until you return from your travels.

Let us know,

Scott B.

Posted by: Scott B on June 9, 2003 04:22 PM

mustang cider very refreshing -

did you check out the bob marley hotel

for anyone staying in pockhara mount kailash has the most splendid plants in its garden

Posted by: george (the be-knotted one) on August 9, 2003 01:20 PM


Wow, I really loved reading about this. I am due to visit Nepal next summer I think - right smack in the middle of rainy season, but thats ok. My boyfriend is from Pokhara but has never trekked Annapurna and i think its high time he did. :-) Good luck on your travels!


Posted by: Molly on September 22, 2003 07:37 PM

surfing to find Annapurna information and came across your account. wonderful! any info on using a cell phone for daily contact with "home"? rent, buy there? - also is there a way to get off the trail in an emergency??
thanks for the report.

Posted by: Jan on November 1, 2003 08:55 PM

A wonderful journey you have described. It inspires me to try the circuit too! This will be my next trip.

Posted by: Lee Kok Kiang on November 21, 2003 08:11 PM

Inspiring stuff, anyone out there planning to do the circuit? I'm looking to go late March into April next year, and it would be great to organise some companions in advance. Mail me if you're up for it. Ivan

Posted by: Ivan on November 24, 2003 10:23 AM

Just amazing to view your excellent video clip of the Trail..Enormous interest to me personally as my twin sisters, Bon and Shirl, a friend Lou and Shirl's daughter Annie, have today (15.11.04 ) just arrived back in Kathmandu after having successfully Trek the Annapurna Trail...They are totally exhausted and in need of a 'holiday' but how wonderful to know they have DONE IT... Bon and her son Geoffrey did this same trail 2 years ago, and the magic of Nepal lured Bon into doing it again with her sister.. Thankyou for sharing your amazing adventures.

Posted by: Sue on November 14, 2004 04:41 PM

Comments closed.


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