In 2013 I proposed to my now husband following an arduous trek along the Annapurna Circuit high in the Nepalese Himalayas. After two weeks surrounded by pristine, paper-white peaks soaring into powder-blue skies, making travel photography of quiet villages and immense vistas, even something as wonderful as our engagement now seems almost secondary to the adventure that went before it.
The Annapurna Circuit winds through some 150 miles of Nepal’s most stunning mountain scenery and includes one of the highest points to which it’s possible to trek without climbing gear. We travelled in November, after the main tourist season and before snow and ice make the higher parts of the trek more technically challenging, using the superb Lonely Planet Nepal guide.
We started our trip in Nepal’s ancient capital, Kathmandu, a godsend for adventurers on the lookout for opportunities to make striking travel photography. Surprisingly modern in some respects – particularly in its cuisine, with bars like Jatra serving traditional food with modern jazz and excellent cocktails – Kathmandu is also a place where religion, art and history are palpably part of everyday life. Ancient temples and shrines adorn the capital’s teeming back streets, where Hindus and Buddhists worship and live peacefully side by side.
Nowhere is this Hindu-Buddhist culture more visible than at the city’s two great temples, Swayambhunath and Boudhanath. Even for a committed atheist these temples can inspire an appreciation for Nepal’s religious culture. Beneath multicoloured prayer flags uttering in Kathmandu’s smoky breeze, Hindus venerate candlewax-coated holy shrines alongside orange-clad Buddhist monks chanting mantras and turning prayer wheels. At the temples’ hearts hundreds of people swirl clockwise around the central stupas: immense, dazzling white domes streaked with orange saffron water, topped with enormous golden cubes whose painted Buddha eyes gaze benevolently towards the distant mountains.
A good tour company will lay on a private jeep to take trekkers from Kathmandu to the starting point for the Annapurna Circuit – a fine, if bumpy, way to see the country, and much less stressful than making the journey in one of Nepal’s notoriously cramped and accident-prone public buses. We started our trek at a tea house in Bhulbhule, a tiny settlement at the base of towering cliffs, dark green with lush ferns and trees. Teahouses provide trekkers with accommodation, food and boiled water. Their never-ending supply of spicy masala tea and momo – Nepal’s ubiquitous steamed dumplings – will help while away the nighttime hours with fellow trekkers. Lucky visitors might even find a hot shower, but this is a trek where walkers should be prepared for wet-wipe hygiene.
For much of the early part of the Annapurna Circuit the Kudi and Marsyangdi rivers roar close at hand. Here and there wooden or rope bridges crisscross deep gorges and wide valleys surrounded by the serrated peaks of Manaslu Himal, Annapurna and Gangapurna. Prayer walls and prayer flags by the roadside, and the pungent smell of wood smoke from burnt offerings in tiny villages, are regular reminders of the region’s deep attachments to Buddhism and older animist beliefs. Here the mountains are gods.
Some trekkers find it hard to adapt to the thinness of the air as the Circuit winds higher through alpine meadows and misty cloud forests. Most guides advise walkers to stop for a full day at Manang, a strip town 3,500m above sea level, where yaks thunder up and down the main street or are served as steaks sizzling on cast-iron platters. When hikers reach Thorong La – at 5,416m the route’s highest and coldest point – eight to ten days after setting off, they are grateful for every spare second taken to get used to the altitude.
By the time we reached Thorong La we were crunching through fresh snow under starlit early morning skies, our breath billowing dense and white in the freezing air (an early start here is both essential and magical). After a much- needed break in the tiny teahouse atop Thorong La, we set off on the long walk down to Muktinah through the Martian landscape of Upper Mustang – an area of almost sterile wilderness and knee-breaking steep paths.
Most Annapurna Circuit trekkers choose to end their journey in Pokhara. This laidback lakeside city can be reached by a flight from tiny Jomsom airport, a bus ride away from Muktinah. It was in Pokhara that I asked my then boyfriend to marry me – and where we spent a morning paragliding alongside eagles before dining at the lakeside in warm afternoon sunshine. In a country like Nepal, experiences like this compete to count as the trip’s greatest memory.
Mulling over our two-week adventure between sips of hot yak butter tea in Kathmandu’s superb and unfussy Yangling restaurant, I couldn’t identify any memory finer than that final, bitterly cold early morning trek up to Thorong La. Far from Kathmandu’s glittering temples, high above the Annapurna Circuit’s warm tea houses and plunging gorges, it felt as close to heaven as I’ve ever been.
This article first appeared in Pride Life magazine.