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Annapurna Base Camp: Best Trek Ever.

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We found an older copy of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal while staying at Alobar 1000, our hostel in Thamel, a touristy district of Kathmandu. After flicking through different treks, we settled on the trek to Annapurna Base Camp because it was longer than anything we had done, but had guest houses where we could sleep and eat. There was a significant elevation gain and the base camp itself was an exciting destination. While planning, we went back and forth on whether or not to take a guide. We had read on So Many Places’s blog that it was not necessary, but we decided to go for it anyway. We liked the idea of supporting the local economy and it made us feel safe as we were trekking higher and longer than we had been before. Our guide, Pradeep, is a nephew of a friend of a friend, which is typical of Nepali business. If I can’t help you, I’ll find you someone who can. Pradeep took care of all of the details: obtaining our permits, renting gear, booking bus tickets, and choosing guest houses. All we had to do was walk, snap pics and decide what to eat at meal time. The following are a few excerpts from our trekking journal to Annapurna Base Camp.

Day 1 | 5pm | Landruk

Zach: Lunch at Pothana (1890m) after 90 minutes of walking up stone steps and trails. Very hot at times, but great in the shade. Cooler than Pokhara, but definitely still summer. It’s great to walk to villages rather than campsites. Paying a few bucks for fried noodles and veg versus eating in the dirt makes life a lot more enjoyable. No, it doesn’t feel like a backcountry adventure, but it’s great in its own way. We thought New Zealand did it best with their hut system, but Nepal has it beat!

Christina: I just pulled my big toe nails off. They had been dead for awhile and one day of hiking was enough for them. Wrote some post cards and am trying not to write all of my them, but it is hard because it is so beautiful and exciting. We have views of the Himilayas to the north and rice terraces to the south. Tried a glass of roksi, the local wine made from millet. It was horrific. Smelled like rubbing alcohol and I couldn’t finish the glass. Also had our first dal baht experience, which was a solid meal: lentil soup, rice, greens and pickled veg.

Day 2 | 3:30pm | Chhomrong

Christina: Zach’s muesli this morning was so good. Served with warm, sweet milk. I had Tibetan bread with honey, which wasn’t enough for a meal, but tasty and I supplemented it with peanuts from my backpack. Highlight: Nepalese tea (similar to chai). Amazing. Hiking today was killer. Stairs for hours, but passed the time learning Nepalese from Pradeep. It is really challenging to learn just by sound. We were walking single file. Pradeep would say a word, I repeated it, then passed it back to Zach.

Day 3 | 4pm | Bamboo

Zach: Great morning walking. Day began with a steep descent out of Chhomrong and steep ascent to Sinuwa. Long break there, then a few hours of awesome forest walking while white gibbons jumped from tree to tree around us. They are very photogenic animals. I was particularly struck with the beauty of the wild forest. Theres a special kind of order to the completely unordered chaos of old growth. This walk has everything. Pheri betew-la (See you later!)

Day 4 | 1pm | Machhapuchhre Base Camp

Christina: It has been on and off raining all day. The clothes we washed yesterday are soaking wet because of the rain and heavy fog. Not a huge deal, except that I have no dry underwear. After hiking for four hours, we decided to stay at Machhapuchhre Base Camp instead of continuing to ABC. Everyone going out into the rain looked miserable. Lunch was amazing- a huge pile of fried potatoes, egg, greens and yak cheese, followed by a Snickers and pot of masala tea.Didn’t even realize how hungry I was, which is a sign of altitude sickness, so even better that we chill here. Side note: Even though this is the Annapurna Base Camp trek, I think I prefer  looking at Machhapuchhre. It is so steep and so fierce. Not as tall, but that’s ok by me. We can still be friends.

Zach: We’ve met a lot of awesome people on this trek. David and Eva from Australia, Andy and Sam from England, Lindsey and Cody from Chicago via Mongolia. Just caught a glimpse of Annapurna South, Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) and surrounding peaks for about 15 min before the fog rolled in again. Some people have been waiting three days to get a glimpse of the mountains. All the more reason not to rush. Go slowly. Soak it in.

 

Day 5 | 6pm| Annapurna Base Camp

Christina: This morning was SPECTACULAR. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. We hiked a whopping 90 minutes to Annapurna Base Camp. We had a great photo sesh with Eva, David, Pradeep and Lok. Just as we snapped our last picture, the clouds and heavy fog crept back in. We considered hiking down to Duerali this afternoon, but decided to stay, play cards and enjoy the rest day. It’s not like we’re going to have a chance to come back to this amazing camp in the sky.

Zach:We were just visited by a herd of sheep and goats at Annapurna Base Camp. The shepherds are coming down from the hills for the winter They trek up in the spring and by the time they head down (with help from the monsoon) the grass has regrown in their steps as they return. Pretty cool to see exactly how these shepherds are mimicking nature. Bucks and rams are mixed in with the herd, they “rotationally graze” the valley, and live amongst the herd for months at a time. They don’t own the land, but they use it and manage it. Simple. Why does it have to be so complicated?

Day 6 | 4pm | Himilaya

Zach: It’s amazing how much shorter this trail feels heading down. Knees and toes hurt, but we’re both holding up really well for six days in. This was the first day in awhile that I felt like I earned my dal bhat at lunchtime. Not complaining, the short days were great and we avoided AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).

Day 7 | 7:30pm | Chiule

Zach: Harder day agin into Chiule. When we reached town, cheers of joy were shouted. I’m so glad we hired Pradeep. Having a guide basically means not having to worry about any of the little details or decisions that would be difficult or create tension between Christina and me. Everything from the bus tickets to where we eat lunch is already settled. On top of that, Pradeep is knowledgable, patient and so kind that his attitude inspires the same behavior in the rest of us. It’s been great sitting around the table with David, Eva, Pradeep and Lok trading stories about traveling and trekking. At ABC we sat around for hours spinning a yarn and laughing. That has been a huge and unexpected benefit of this trek.

Day 8 | 8:30pm | Ghorepani

Christina: What started off as a really challenging day turned out to be a really fun one. Early on, I was ready to throw in the towel. The trekking was uphill all morning in the humid jungle, stopping every 15 minutes to check for leeches (I found 3 and freaked out each time). The day turned around though when we stopped for a break and saw a newborn mountain goat, wobbling around on its 10 minute old legs. From there, the day just got better. We hiked along a ridge covered in wildflowers, through gorgeous groves of trees into Ghorepani and got in just as the rain started. We ordered beers and chips, our first of the trek, we splurged on some wifi, I skyped mom and dad and posted a few pics. Mom met Pradeep and Lok on Skype. They said “Namaste from Nepal,” and “You are always welcome to come visit our Himilayas,” which was really heartwarming. It sounds silly to miss wifi after just a week, but makes a huge difference to be able to share and be in touch. Especially when you can Skype from the middle of the Himalayas.

Day 9 | 3:30pm | Uleri

Thank you Pradeep!

Zach: Beautiful trail from Ghorepani to Uleri. Lovely undulating countours along the riverside with a gradual descent. The trail was well formed and wide enough to walk two abreast; a trail made for chatting. Among other conversations, Christina and I discussed the similarities between Nepali trekking trails and Kiwi tramping tracks. The consensus was that they both get an A, but Kiwis have a decidedly more hands-off approach. Where in Nepal, there are bridges and stairs, in NZ there would be fords and scree slopes. I think I prefer the heavy hand.

Day 10 | 4pm | Pohkara

Christina: Our morning trek from Uleri to Birethanti was easy, light hearted, and calm. We sailed down steps as fresh faced trekkers going the other way were experiencing their first dose of steep stone stairs. Our “Namastes!” were cheery even though we were a leaving mountains that I knew we would not see again for a long time. 10 days was the perfect length of time to be in the mountains. From Birethanti, we took the most harrowing taxi ride I have ever experienced back to Pokhara.

 

Zach and I decided that we want to spend as much of the rest of our time in Nepal in the mountains as possible. After a few rest days, we are going to go to the Langtang region and headed out on another trek, this one for just a week. Zach and I looked at our budget last night. We are over what we expected to spend in Nepal, but kind of said the hell with it. The trek will cost us each an extra $300, which is nothing for another amazing, big mountain experience. We also decided to hire Pradeep again. Bring on round 2!

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The Spectrum of Travel

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Even though we’ve been living in Wanaka since November, we still think of ourselves as travelers. Yes, we’re renting a house (or, “flat”), but we’ve never planned on staying here so it’s got a very temporary vibe. I like to think of this as just another mode of traveling, somewhere between basic backpacking and dropping permanent roots. On this trip, we’ve experienced most of the what I like to call the “spectrum of travel” and recognize that they all have their place.

Simple backpacking seems like the simplest, quickest and cheapest form of travel, but often it’s none of those things. It requires very little up-front investment, but you’re basically committing to paying for accommodations every night or finding a nice tree to sleep under (often illegally). Hostels can get expensive, and I imagine that fines can add up as well. But for short trips it often makes the most sense. If you’ve got the patience for late buses and can live simply it can be thrifty, but it’s usually uncomfortable. Your mileage may vary.

We’ve spent most of our actual travel time in New Zealand living out of a van. Yes, this has the highest initial cost, but it provides a great deal of flexibility and some comforts. We went where we wanted, when we wanted, and could carry a variety of food and cooking equipment. Hopefully we’ll recoup our investment in the van on the other end, but we’ll settle for a (hopefully large) portion of what we spent.

One less obvious form of travel is the way we’ve been living in Wanaka. We’ve rented a house, have steady jobs, and have built a community of friends, all of whom are also here for a short time so it still feels like “traveling.” This has been a wonderful opportunity to refresh our bodies and back accounts. As awesome as being on the road for a few years may sound, its pretty damn tiring and we’ve relished this opportunity to stop and take a breath.

We’ve also had a chance to make some lasting friendships here in Wanaka, which is a subtle and underrated part of this third type of travel. If you’re constantly on the move, you don’t get a chance to really get to know anyone you’re meeting along the way. Plus you suffer from a bit of introduction fatigue. You get sick of having the same conversation over and over again (“Where are you from? What brought you here? Where are you going next?”) and begin to just not bother. Traveling quickly can be like speed dating for friends: no real relationships are formed.

When we got to Wanaka we didn’t realize that we were missing having a community of our own, but it’s been great settling down for a little while and building our energy for the next step in our travels.

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Gallery: October Adventure

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October Camping Journal

As Christina mentioned in her last post, we’ve struck a nice balance, both financially and mentally, between jobs and time off to explore New Zealand on our own. Most recently we’ve been in adventure-mode, spending the last week bouncing around the Canterbury region of the South Island. Here’s what we’ve been up to:

October 10: Camped in Little Akaloa, a tiny village on the sea on the Banks Peninsula. The drive along Summit Road at sunset was stunning.

October 11: We had a lazy morning reading and relaxing in Little Akaloa, then rode our borrowed bikes up the hill beside town. We chose our destination because the street at the top had a nice name: Long Lookout Road. It turned out to be very poorly named, but the descent back to town was steep and exhilarating.

October 12: Spent the night in Peel Forest. Paid $30 to camp in a Department of Conservation site and be harassed by a power-tripping warden when we didn’t vacate the campsite promptly at 11am. Did I mention we were the only ones there? He and I had serious communication issues. The hikes around Peek Forest were tedious and I wouldn’t recommend them. But to make myself feel that it was money well spent I took a shamefully long and hot shower. And I’d do it again! I hope you’re reading, Ranger Dick.

October 13: After refusing to pay for the world’s most expensive parking spot again, we camped under a tree on the side of the road. This isn’t explicitly allowed in New Zealand, but there weren’t any “No Camping” signs and there was a public bathroom nearby. We don’t need much else. We paid for our bravado with a sleepless night, fearing our shade tree would collapse under a relentless gale and sheets of rain and awoke to find the windows in the van were stuck in the down position. In the rain. ‘Twas a challenging string of events.

We spent the day resupplying in Geraldine and visiting some very odd tourist attractions: the largest knitted sweater in the world and a handmade reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry with millions of tiny pieces of metal. As we limped up the mountain out of town the pounding rain relented into a gorgeous, peaceful snow.

In Lake Tekapo we spent the evening soaking in piping hot thermal pools, with giant Christmas-y snowflakes gently falling around us. The snow continued to fall as we went to sleep – nearly a foot was forecast.

October 14: We awoke to van doors frozen shut and thus minor panic set in, but we took a deep breath and rolled over for another quick snooze to let the bright shining sun go to work. Soon we were freed from our early-90s winter tomb and greeted by a high blue sky and blinding sun bouncing off the white hills around. The forecasts had proven to be aggressive and only a few inches were on the ground. It was too cold to relax, so we donned our thermal underwear and went for a hike around Lake Tekapo in the snow. By the time we returned, most of the snow had melted and the newly-shorn sheep were relieved.

October 15: After an off-road adventure in Nissan Serena Williams, we found a nice secluded camping spot on the shores of Lake Pukaki, with panoramic views of the Southern Alps and Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. We took a very muddy and bumpy bike ride in Ruatawhini Conservation Park and came to the realization that some kind of suspension is pretty much essential for mountain biking to be fun. I spent the afternoon getting my monthly dose of adrenaline, bouldering along the Mt. Cook highway.

October 16: Stayed a second night at our gorgeous spot near Pukaki. Awoke to more potential van problems, but (we think) they were quickly corrected with a fluid top-up at a mechanic in Twizel after a half-hour on the highway in second gear. Cross your fingers for us that Nissan Serena Williams holds together for another ten months. We feel that we’ve already dodged a few bullets.

Back on the road, our plans were again derailed in Mt. Cook National Park. We’d planned to do a short hike in the morning then go up to Mueller Hut for the night, but our discussion with with the ranger at the visitor center went something like this:

“Mueller?” He looked down at our feet. “In those boots?”
“Uh, yep.”
“Do you have skis?”
“Nope.”
“Hiking poles?”
“Nope.”
“Any avalanche training?”
Fully emasculated now: “Nope.”
“You’ll never make it. Come look at this.” We walked to a window of the sparkling visitor’s center and he pointed at a giant icy blue shelf that looked like it was about to tumble down on the mountainside and us below it. “That’s where you’re headed.” We quickly changed our plans and made the prudent choice: relaxing in the Old Mountaineer’s Cafe with a glass of whiskey.

October 17: Hey, that’s today! We’re back at the Old Mountaineer’s, caffeinating and writing. Today we’ll head back to the Tekapo hot pools for another soak and a day off from hiking/biking. We’ve both got a knee that’s barking and could use some extended R&R. Tomorrow we’ll be back at it with a hike around Mt. Somers on the way back to our WWOOF hosts.

Traveling like this provides constant freedom, but with that comes a few challenges. We’re always making plans then scrapping them with changes in the weather or our attitude. We’ve learned its useless to have more than a very rough sketch of your next few days, and the best skill you can have is flexibility. The Mueller Hut hike is on my NZ bucket list, so I was bummed to learn that it wasn’t possible this time, but I’m content in telling myself that it’s a reason to return to the area later in our trip.

Despite the challenges of the last few days, I still feel incredibly fortunate to be here. I only need to look out the window at the jagged mountains surrounding us to be reminded that this is a special opportunity.

Mt. Cook/Aoraki

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