Heaven’s ascent

Flip Byrnes sets out on a search for truth and beauty on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit.
In a cave high above Manang village on the Annapurna Circuit, a 96-year-old Nepalese monk is chanting blessings. We’re alone, the monk and I, and as he places a blessed rope around my neck, wishing me luck on this journey and in life, a big bubble of emotion swells and explodes in my throat.
Silent tears flow as, framed by the doorway, the golden morning sun sets the pristine peaks of Annapurna II, one of the highest mountains in the world, on fire.
Why the random waterworks, catching me off guard? Maybe it’s the overwhelming other-worldly setting, the early hour or because I’ve finally found what many said didn’t exist any more on the Annapurna Circuit: the unexpected.
Contemplating hiking Nepal’s 18-day Annapurna Circuit creates more questions than answers. What new can be written about a trek as legendary as the Annapurna massif it encircles, featuring 7000-metre peaks, the world’s deepest gorge, highest lake and longest pass? Isn’t it crowded and being killed by a road? Already accessing the western third, the road is inching up the eastern portion, rumoured to cross the 5416-metre trekking highlight, the Thorong La Pass.
It was time to go and find out firsthand. I enlisted the company of Roomy, my old roommate, and together we ventured forth for a Girls v Wild adventure, to solve the mystery of the Fabled Road and divine if on the beaten track exist roads to authentic Nepalese moments, the “other” Annapurna Circuit of this well-trodden trek.
The start of the Annapurna Circuit is dusty and monotonous. Walking from Besisahar to Bhulbhule, buses trundle past spurting mud and grit. Wiping gravel from my face, I mention the bus option looks good. “If intending to walk it, we may as well start at the beginning,” Roomy calls over the roar of a Jeep. True Bear Grylls spirit.
While we have aspirations of yak wrangling, dodging donkeys on perilous suspension bridges and are prepared to create a carcass shelter in sudden blizzards (as Grylls does), our guide, Deepak, assistant guides and porters appear to be disappointingly competent.
But before querying when a carcass shelter opportunity may arise, I ask Deepak about the road. This dirt one has existed for about 12 years, maybe longer. Deepak says there are plans to build a ring road around the entire Annapurna Circuit. However, the road is government funded and they are short a few (million) quid, so there’s no problem. Day one and the Fabled Road mystery is solved. Phew. Burden lifted, I can now focus on seeking the Annapurna Circuit’s magic.
The following two days are vignettes of idyllic rural life, passing steppes, scrabbling up vertical hillsides like green stairways to heaven. The sense of industry is pervasive, vertiginous parcels of land eking out sustenance of maize, millet, wheat and cauliflower.
On day four, heading out of Chyamche we hit a logjam of sheep, laden donkeys and trekkers mingling by a sign reading: “CLOSED. BLASTING FOR ROAD.” As a clincher, there’s a dynamite BOOM, the universal sound of progress, if you count progress as seven men hand-removing blasted stone from a track. “Deepak,” I say, contemplating the construction. “That’s a road.””Yes,” he responds. “It could be a road. Hmm, new.”
Later, we pass a group gouging holes in rock for explosives, using metal rods. How long until the road? One digger thinks 20 years, another says two (perhaps just for the holes). No one agrees or knows. Clearly, I will have to interview the President of Nepal. The Fabled Road case reopens with a flourish.
Road discovery disappointment fades upon entering Manang. A red door frame stands alone and we step through it like Alice through the looking glass into a land of milk and honey. Civilisation is behind and ahead lies a plateau threaded with rivulets coloured dusty green, milky mint and pure turquoise. The glacier water hints at what’s ahead – snow-capped mountains, glaciers and heaven-piercing peaks – and, for trekkers, Tibetan villages and the Thorong La Pass. It’s a stunning entrance into what will be an epic journey.
We feel the door frame is where the trek truly begins. On that day alone, we’re almost (excitingly) crushed by donkeys darting around hairpins, dodge goats stampeding, cross multiple suspension bridges, observe a slaughtered water buffalo being divided among villagers and walk though a kilometre-long cloud of white butterflies. Apart from almost being hit by a chicken flung violently from a window, we’ve arrived in a promised land.
However, increasing altitude means increasing cold. Roomy appears shivering from the showers one morning sporting a plastic bag hat. “Insulation,” she answers to the unasked question. “It was all I had.”
But it’s in Upper Pisang, day six, when magic arrives. In Pisang, it’s still 900AD. We walk upwards through mud houses during dusk, when molten light oozes like lava down alleyways, exploding in slivers through prayer wheel crevices. At the end of the village, a gompa stands wreathed with prayer flags, boasting a point-blank view of Annapurna II, overwhelming in its enormity. Never, from Alps to Andes, Antarctica to the Arctic, have I witnessed such magnificence.
Tranquillity reigns, the sole sound is of wind teasing flags, sending prayers skywards. Reclining on temple walls, our eyes feast on Annapurna II’s flutes, glaciers and cornices, stupefied by the topographical complexity. This is an elite climbers’ mountain; with only 109 recorded climbs, it’s attempted less than Everest, with triple the death rate.
With the tranquillity comes stillness. Urban life’s frenetic pace fades, sparking an existential-oriented conversation. There’s time to think about some of the big things in life.
In Manang, the province’s capital, the time warp continues. The village sprouts organically from the arid dirt mountainside, a location scout’s dream for a Star Wars set. Watching oxen plow fields, the experience is so primal and authentic that, frankly, I never thought I’d experience something like this in my life.
But I still haven’t experienced “it”, that feeling of diverting from the predictable pathway. On an acclimatisation day in Manang, an irresistible urge pulls me from bed before dawn. Above the village is a cave with an ancient monk, Lama Tashi, offering blessings to those going to Thorong La Pass.
I could do with a blessing. The small issue of altitude needs taking care of (we’re at 3500 metres), plus the more urgent need for menu variety. After 14 omelets in 12 days, my taste buds demand divine intervention. I’m desperate.
Inching an hour above the valley floor, I’ve made a rookie error and forgotten water. As thirst slows steps, I ditch blessings and pray for tea. What if he’s visiting relatives? On holiday in the Maldives? Or starts “work” at 8am?
Finally I reach the sky-high gompa, a cave with windows, prayer flags floating above a tiny terrace and, ye gods, a spring.
The monk sleeps as a gorgeous day emerges. The 4000-metre-high grassy perch offers direct views of a peak panorama: Annapurna IV, Gangapurna, Tarke Kang and my new love, Annapurna II. I’m no yogi but the dawn inspires and while attempting a downward dog, I’m aware there’s company.
Two bright eyes find mine; it’s the monk’s daughter bringing firewood. Making a small fire, she gestures to take tea. We sit side by side in companionable silence overlooking the valley, sharing a cuppa, saying much by saying nothing, silence the only way in which to greet such a sparkling new day filled with endless promise.
The lama wakes and we huddle in the cave as he chants blessings. Goodwill echoes in the chamber in foreign words. And then there are those inexplicable tears.
While the village slumbers below, I’m in a waking dream. Travelling, small events can cause seismic perspective shifts. And all this one took was a 60-minute hike.
It snows on the morning of our Thorong La Pass crossing. Starting at 3am, Roomy looks grim, our faces reflecting both fear and determination. It’s impossible to circumvent the pass, so we commit to going over it through a wintry white landscape of raw beauty, until we’re walking above the clouds, on top of the world.
But the apex is dampened by Roomy’s scheduled Jomsom departure, meaning no more Tina Turner sing-alongs – playing air guitar with walking sticks is no fun alone.
Most time-poor trekkers depart at Jomsom, believing the trek’s highlights have passed. But the worst of the departure is that intrepid Roomy would’ve loved the second half. With the stress of crossing the pass removed, our group plugs in to cultural Nepal.
Part one was characterised by spectacular mountains and scenery (not to be missed) but the slower, more inhabited western half is defined by people and unexpected friendships.
In the mediaeval town of Kagbeni, kindly monastery leader Tenzing joins me watching dawn from the 500-year-old monastery roof overlooking Mustang.
Matt from Brisbane has been learning Nepali from the porters; he’s now joking with strangers and shopkeepers and endearing himself to every Nepali he meets.
After Jomsom, we pass Sadhus on a pilgrimage from India to Muktinath, accept an invitation into Marpha’s Tibetan refugee camp for salty Tibetan tea, find 10-million-year-old fossils on Larjung’s plains and wallow in Tatopani’s hot springs.
After 17 days, we arrive like battle-weary soldiers at our last stand, Poon Hill. Dawn here is Nepal’s worst-kept secret. It atones for the thronging crowds with a last-minute encore of mountains, night peeling back to spotlight the full Annapurna cast in all its glory, the famous mountains from Dhaulagiri to Machhapuchhre (sacred to Shiva and forbidden to climbers).
My ultimate stop is in Kathmandu. The President of Nepal is not available to answer road questions but the senior division engineer from the National Roads Department, Saroj Pradhar, is. He produces a map. It’s the plan for The Road.
Pradhar explains that it is part of a larger “national integration” strategy aiming to place citizens mere hours, not days, from roads and access to hospitals and schools.
Will it cross the Thorong La Pass? “We’re studying to see if it’s worth it,” he says. “It will be difficult to place and difficult to maintain. The area is high, rocky and challenging in terms of both cost and labour.”
Pradhar is sensitive to tourism, believing Nepal’s mountains “belong to the world”. He’s equally committed to improving the quality of life in rural Nepal. Where conflict arises between the two, solutions will be sought, including alternative road or trek routes.
I leave wondering if my right to trek is also my right to deny locals clean drinking water and amenities we appreciate in the Western world. But mysteries have been resolved. There will be a road but the government hasn’t completed research on the length.
In spring, we were lucky to see 15 trekkers daily; the circuit is far from over-run. To compare, I consecutively hiked Everest Base Camp, boasting its own merits but with Big Day Out crowds.
Above all, the literal highpoint isn’t necessarily the trek’s experiential highpoint. Stay for the second half of the Annapurna Circuit. There is one heck of a second act to enjoy.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid.

Top tips
High altitude The circuit’s gradual ascent aids acclimatisation. Nevertheless, Manang’s Himalayan Rescue Association regularly treats trekkers with potentially fatal acute mountain sickness. Attend the 3pm daily lecture before attempting the 5416-metre Thorong La Pass. himalayanrescue.org.
What to take An interchangeable-lens mini digital SLR camera; an all-season sleeping bag; ski goggles for high snow storms; Lonely Planet’s indispensable Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya; high-altitude drug Diamox.
Don’t miss The high route via Ngwal to Manang for unparalleled mountain views; pausing for tea in Tibetan village Marpha; hundreds of goats leaving Kagbeni at 6.30am for pastures.
Best side trips Near Manang, trek to Lake Tilicho (4920 metres, four days) or day hike to Ice Lake. After Jomsom, visit the Dhaulagiri icefall, the original North Annapurna Base Camp, or the limited-visa Upper Mustang area.

Trip notes
Getting there
Cathay Pacific has more than 70 flights weekly to Hong Kong, with connecting Dragonair flights to Kathmandu.

Touring there
Intrepid’s 22-day Annapurna Circuit trips depart weekly, September to May. The $1125 price includes transfers, accommodation, guides and porters.(SMH)





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