Saturday, February 18, 2012

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: Introduction

If somebody were to ask me what would be the highlight of my trip thus far, I would be able to give an answer easy. Our 10 days in the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek was the most grueling, most difficult yet the most enjoyable and most rewarding experience of my life. I would do it again and again and yes, again in a heartbeat. Hell, if you give me enough resources now, I'd hop on the next flight to Kathmandu and return to the country I left my heart in.

Machhapuchhre Base Camp, Nepal
Breathless scenery at the base camp
of Macchhapuchhre (Fishtail Mountain), Nepal

But let's set aside my gushing about the trek for one moment. I'll get to that later. This post will be the first of a seven-part series that talks about everything about trekking in the Nepal Himalayas, particularly the Annapurna Himalayas. Yes, it will take me seven posts (or more) to sum up how great a time I had up in those mountains. The series will cover:
  • Introduction: I tell you about the what's and the where's. That's this post.
  • Teahouse Trekking: This is what makes trekking in Nepal a relatively cheap and easy activity to organize.
  • Preparations: This will be about organizing the trek, securing permits, booking transportation, hiring guides and/or porters, and a note on responsible trekking.
  • Things to Bring: Trekking is a specialized activity. You need to be prepared. You need gear, clothes, meds, water, etc. Without them and left on your own, you will literally die.
  • The Trek: Part 1, Part 2. I'm planning to create two to three posts on this, tackling the trek, all the highs and lows, literally and figuratively. Good thing I kept a journal up there.
  • Budget: I think there is a misconception that you have to have lots of money to be able to trek to the Himalayas. Until you look into it, you will find out that it doesn't really costs that much. I promise.
  • The Take Away: Lessons learned and what not.
I'm sharing all these because I want other people to experience the joy of trekking. And trekking in the Himalayas at that! You learn to enjoy every single, grueling moment of it—from the highs to the lows, no pun intended. But first, let's tackle the basics.

Where's what and what's where?

The trek that we did was in the Himalayas. The Himalayas is a mountain range stretching all the way from northern Pakistan, the whole of northern India, to China's southwest. The massive mountain range was formed millions of years ago when the Indian subcontinent collided with the Eurasian continent pushing their edges upwards forming what are now the highest peaks in the world. Everest, K2, Kangchenjunga, etc. They are all here.

We got our first taste of the Himalayas in India, in Himachal Pradesh (literally, Himalayan Province) when we went to the Tibetan township of McLeodganj in Dharamsala. We got to see the Dalai Lama while we were there as well as do a bit of practice trekking in the foothills right below the Dhauladhar Himalayas. The trek that we did in Nepal though was a lot bigger. Way bigger.

Where is Nepal and how do you get there?

Nepal is a small country straddling the highest mountains of the Himalayas, sandwiched between the two giants that is India in the south and China (Tibet) in the north. That is not to say that Nepal is all snow and mountain. For a country its size, Nepal has a very wide range of environments. Due to the differences in elevation, the country has tropical regions (especially the areas bordering the Indian plains), temperate forests and grasslands, to alpine environments at higher altitudes. And you can experience trekking in all these types of environments, if you wish.

I highly recommend getting in to Nepal via flight. You will most likely fly to Kathmandu, the Nepali capital city, and it is connected to several major cities in and outside Asia. You can figure out which city you can fly from by visiting the Wikipedia page on the Kathmandu Airport.

I say flying is most recommendable because flying into Kathmandu is an experience in itself. You get spectacular views of one long, uninterrupted wall of the Himalayas. Nothing but snowy peaks outside your window. I flew in from Delhi, India and I specifically requested that I be seated at the left hand side of the plane. If coming from southeast Asia, request a seat at the right hand side. It's worth the trouble. Believe me.

View from the plane flying into Kathmandu, Nepal
The most beautiful plane ride in the world

Flights to and from Southeast Asia can a bit expensive at around 250 USD or 10,000 PHP. That's for a one-way flight to/from Bangkok, Thailand via Royal Nepal Airlines. Fortunately for us, we backpacked through India first, so we flew in from Delhi to Kathmandu and it cost us a measly 80 USD (around 3,800 PHP) via Spicejet Airlines. So yes, plan accordingly. When you get to Nepal, visa is easily available on arrival for most tourists: 25 USD for 15 days, 40 USD for 30 days (what we got) and 100 USD for 90 days.

UPDATE MAY 12, 2013—Good news for those coming from Southeast Asia. Budget carrier AirAsia has started flying between their hub in Kuala Lumpur and the Nepali capital of Kathmandu. If you book weeks in advance, flights either way cost anywhere from 145 to 185 USD. If you book way in advance, like several months, you might get cheaper rates as AirAsia likes to put up discounted fares from time to time. Again, best to plan ahead.

From EBC to ABC

The trek that we originally planned to do was the Everest Base Camp Trek (EBC Trek). It is the most popular trek to do in Nepal, so it is the easiest to organize. And hey, we were already in the Himalayas anyway. Only right that we see the highest of the highest of them. But the travel gods had other plans. You see, to get to the jump-off point for the EBC Trek, you need to fly to Lukla, probably the busiest airport in the world, which is ironic because it is one of the most notorious airports in the world. It has a short landing strip on top of a cliff and a very unpredictable weather.

We waited eight hours at the Kathmandu Airport, but weather never cleared (neither in Kathmandu nor in Lukla, and you need both) so we never got off the ground. Flights were cancelled that day, and the next. Lucky for us, we weren't the thousands of people trapped in Lukla. Reports circulated about trekkers missing their continental flights out of Nepal, about how bread cost five times due to the increased demand in that tiny village. Things were getting crazy. So we figured, we head to another region and do another trek.

Instead of EBC in the Khumbu Region, we are now going to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), in Central Nepal, so called the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek because at the base camp of the Annapurnas, you get a 360-degree view of the snowy peaks of the high Himalayas. Nothing but white mountains around you.

View from Chomrong, Annapurna Himal, Nepal
The Annapurna Sanctuary is behind those mountains directly below it. And yes, we reached it.

I guess that covers the basics. I hope the information here has helped you at least consider trekking in the Himalayas. It's a big undertaking, sure, but it is an experience you will have under your belt and engraved in your most delightful memories. Stay tuned for my next post: Teahouse Trekking.

Did you take anything from this post? Anything else you wish to learn about trekking in Nepal? Anything I should include in my next posts?

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