All Cicerone authors are enthusiastic about their subject area, that's a given. But Siân Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons are obsessed with Annapurna, warning that visitors to the region may find the experience addictive. Kev Reynolds has always said the same, hence his catalogue of guidebooks and memoirs including Everest: A Trekker's Guide and Abode of the Gods. But what is so special about Annapurna, and Nepal in general? Here, Siân and Bob share some of their highlights.
A word of warning
Having spent over half our lives trekking in Nepal, we have never tired of the Himalayas. Our youthful romantic notions about these distant, lofty peaks have not dwindled with age – we find ourselves drawn to these mountains, time and time again. It is an addiction that is hard to shed, so beware – you too may find that the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trek becomes habit-forming!
At the latest estimate there are around 32 million people living in Nepal. (In 1974 there were a mere eight million.) There are at least 26 major ethnic groups, with the majority of these living in the middle hills. Many will lament the poverty of the ‘developing’ world, but look deeper – do you see many unhappy faces? Nepal’s people are her greatest asset: hard-working, brimming with almost child-like humour, boisterous, endearing, versatile and hungry for change, just like most people across our planet.
It is impossible for any thinking man to look down from a hill on to a crowded plain and not ponder over the relative importance of things.The Mountain Top, Frank S Smythe
Of all the great Himalayan peaks, the Annapurnas are unique. They are not defined by a single soaring summit, but comprise a vast massif, encompassing multiple peaks, spires and impossibly high ridges. The whole range is about 60km in length, with four major peaks and many subsidiary summits. Even the most sedentary soul will wish to get closer, to explore the verdant valleys, discover the mysterious gorges and head for the high passes.
The Annapurna giants are sublime in all their moods – whether cast as beckoning temptresses, fiery demons at sunset, shimmering in the starry moonlight, or bathed in the soft light of dawn. They float like benign ghosts above fluffy clouds or appear as a vision of serenity reflected in the cool blue waters of a lake. Sometimes they are darkened by thunderous storms. Superlatives struggle to do justice to the sensational vistas and contrasting landscapes. It’s no wonder that trekkers and mountaineers are drawn, as if hypnotised, to these majestic peaks and their icy bastions.
Plants, animals and birds
Nepal is a paradise for botanists. With so many climatic zones, it’s no surprise to find that there are in excess of 6500 different types of plants, flowers, trees, grasses and growths of all dispositions across the country. The prolific orchids, magnolia, broadleaf temperate oaks and rhododendron (locally called laliguras) colonise the higher hillsides. Higher up are spruce, fir, blue pine, larch, hemlock, cedar and sweet-smelling juniper. Poplar and willow are found along the upper tree line; in the high meadows look out for berberis. Even in the highest meadows, hardy flowers and plants, such as colourful gentians, survive.
With such a wide variety of plantlife and breadth of climatic range Nepal is home to a diverse population of mammals, reptiles and birds. The lowland Terai is home to the spectacular Asian one-horned rhino, elephant, spotted deer and sambar deer, as well as the odd sloth bear, leopard and tiger, which are rarely seen. Gharals, marsh mugger crocodiles, alligators and snakes lurk in the murky waters of the lowland marshes and rivers that drain into the holy Ganges River. These once-thick jungles still host an amazing number of semi-tropical birds, despite clearance for agriculture. The middle hills are extensively cultivated, but still hide a variety of animals. Monkeys and langurs abound in the forests.
At altitude look for marmot, pika (small mouse-like animal, related to the rabbit), weasel, ermine, Himalayan hare, brown bear, wild dog, blue sheep, Tibetan sheep, wolf, thar (species of large deer) and the famed musk deer (a prized trading item in the past). Skittish wild ass, the kyang, are only found in the northern zones of Mustang and Nar-Phu. Wild yaks do still roam in isolated, remote valleys, but most are now domesticated.
The skies of Annapurna host the vulture and majestic lammergeyers (with 3m wingspans). Himalayan and Eurasian griffons soar, lifting every onlooker’s spirit.
Nepal is one of the most diverse places on earth, its culture and people as varied as its scenic attractions. With a long history of isolation, the country and its once mystical capital, Kathmandu, has an amazing story to tell. Its history is a complex blend of exotic legend, historical fact and religious influence, suffused with myth.
Nepal has an extraordinary number of festivals – any excuse for a good celebration! During the high season for trekkers, the Dasain and Tihar festivals can occasionally disrupt those trying to obtain the necessary trekking documents. During Dasain, the goddesses Kali and Durga are feted and the terrifying white Bhairab is allowed out of his cage in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. (Blood sacrifices are the most noticeable aspect of these celebrations; these are not for the squeamish.) Tihar is a much more light-hearted affair, with crows, dogs, cows and brothers celebrated on different days before a final party night of fairy lights and candles. Holi is another festival celebrated across the country. Watch out during this festival, as coloured dyes are thrown at passers-by; tourists and trekkers are fair game!
Everything about Annapurna is special
In the beginning it was a dream, anticipation laced with trepidation – to hike in the Annapurnas – then it became a reality. The smoky, overloaded bus, the impatience getting to grips with the pass, the brutal ascents, the noisy dogs, the knee-breaking steps and then… Back home you soon forget all those hot, sweaty climbs, midnight loo stops and hard beds – trekking in Annapurna can easily become an addiction. Have a safe and happy trek!
Siân and Bob