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Hiking The Annapurna Circuit: Q&A With Shannon Davis

Associate editor Shannon Davis tells us more about the highs and lows of his honeymoon trek (featured in March 2009's "The Perfect Circle") on the sky-scraping Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.
thorung_laBACKPACKER's Shannon Davis and his wife Emily at 17,768-foot Thorung La pass.

When most people plan honeymoon trips, they usually envision white-sand beaches, luxe hotel rooms, or heart-shaped bathtubs. Not Shannon Davis: He and his wife Emily chose instead to trek through Nepal’s famous Annapurna Circuit, which he wrote about in March’s "The Perfect Circle." Here, Davis talks more about trip planning, essential gear, and even finding romance on one of the world’s most famously grueling hikes.

BACKPACKER.COM: You know, most people pick an island for a honeymoon, Shannon. How did you convince your wife to swap relaxing on beaches for lugging packs up one of the toughest trails in the world?

SHANNON DAVIS: It was my wife’s idea! To which I said: ‘S***balls! Are you serious?! Hell yes, let’s go to Nepal!’ The only debate we had was whether to hike the Annapurna Circuit or hike to the basecamp of Mt. Everest. It was hard not to choose Everest, but we went for the Circuit because it covers more ground and gets a bit more rural.

BP: And you chose to go unguided and avoid hiring porters. Most people who trek Nepal go with a guide service–why didn’t you?

SD: We didn’t want to be tied down to a rigid itinerary if we wanted to move faster or take a day off somewhere. Also, we did not want to complicate our fun role of being newlyweds with also being somebody’s boss, which is what you are if you’re employing porters and guides. This was one of the best decisions we made.

Most people we met had hired guides, and these groups inevitably moved slower. Some of the guides we met were drunks. One girl we got to know on the bus was delayed for four days while her guide suffered with the flu.

But on the flip side, having a guide can make it easier to score rooms in nicer, newer tea houses. Guided trekkers usually get served dinner first. And, usually, guides will be able to introduce you to local families you probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.

BP: Is it manageable for your average backpacker to go unguided, though?

SD: Going unguided is totally doable for an experienced backpacker–it’s what we do all the time, isn’t it? Still, use your own judgment and be aware of your limitations.

But, a couple things that will make planning a bit easier: First, book a room in Kathmandu before leaving the US–and ask them to pick you up from the airport. Most will offer this service for free, and it’s an invaluable step to navigating a crazy city. Second, get a map of town before arriving (find a map that focuses on Thamel, the name of the tourist area of the city) and scout out how to get from your hotel to the permit office and the bus station. This’ll make your essential errands in Kathmandu a little smoother, a good thing if you’re on a tighter schedule.

BP: Getting into rural zones, did you find any traditional Nepali dishes on the trail to recommend? 

SD: Dal bhat (rice and lentil soup) is the easiest and most reliable thing to find, and there’s plenty of it, making it a good choice if you’re hungry. But it is certainly not the tastiest. Some of my other favorites included pizza (yep, pizza), yak steaks, and a spam sandwich. My wife’s favorite were potsticker-like momos and salty, fried tibetan bread. But second to dal bhat, I probably had fried macaroni with local vegetables the most. 

I’d definitely avoid ordering any meal with chicken in it, especially if you are in a small village that doesn’t see a lot of trekking traffic or have electricity. Nepalis hate to disappoint, so instead of telling you that chicken is not on the menu today, they might just go kill a chicken for you, which is awesome unless you hadn’t planned on a three-hour lunch.

BP: Are you still in touch with any of the people you met on the trek? Any plans to meet for future trips?

SD: I do keep in contact, almost weekly, with a Nepali guy named Narendra Thakuri. He runs a little trekking company and had the best organized outfit we saw on the trail. He’s on Facebook now too!

BP: The Annapurna Circuit is pretty grueling–17,000-foot passes are no joke. What pieces of gear were most indispensable on your trip?

SD: Toilet paper!  There are plenty of restrooms along the trail, but TP, as a westerners-only phenomenon, is a hot commodity among trekkers in Nepal. Stock up with at least one roll per trekker in Kathmandu, then plan on re-upping along the circuit in Chame, Manang, and Jomsom. (Depending on your, uh, output, of course).

Second to TP, I’d say that trekking poles are indispensable. On our hardest day, we gained nearly 4,000 feet of elevation and then dropped more than 5,000 feet. I hate to think what my knees would have felt like had I not had poles.

A couple other essential pieces of gear to consider: water treatment and an inflatable sleeping pad. You can buy bottled water all along the Annpurna Circuit, but that leaves a lot of waste behind that rural Nepal just doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with. Pack a chemical treatment like Aquamira tablets or a Steripen–which purifies water with UV rays–and some backup batteries.  And teahouse mattresses will vary from foam, to straw, to a blanket on top of wood–a sleeping pad feels way better.

BP: Even with the TP and water treatment plans, did you ever run into any Montezuma’s Revenge-like health problems? 

SD: My wife got some intestinal bug that she suffered through on our 26 hours of plane flights back to Denver, and I caught a nasty cold that knocked me out for a full weekend after we got home. But we really lucked out on the trip–no blisters, no Montezuma’s revenge, no food poisoning, no yak-bites, no nada.

You do need to get some immunizations before going there, though, which we did. Check in at a travel medicine clinic at least six weeks before departure to see what is currently recommended. I’d also advise getting a prescription for a broad-spectrum antibiotic in advance (our doctor gave us Z-Pak). That way, if you start feeling crappy, you can nip it in the bud before it gets worse without having to find a local pharmacy that probably won’t have what you’re looking for anyway. Go ahead and pack some Immodium while you’re at it.

BP: If you returned to the Annapurna Circuit, what would you do differently the second time?

SD: I’d spend a little more time exploring some of the side trails–maybe attempt a "trekker’s peak," one of the heaps of mountains there taller than Denali that are apparently fairly easy to summit. And I’d consider ponying up the extra few hundred dollars to get a permit into the Mustang region. You head north out from Kagbeni, with donkeys carrying your supplies, and edge closer and closer to the Tibetan border. Hardly anybody does it, compared to how many people are on the circuit.

BP: Since this was your honeymoon, after all, did you ever find a romantic moment on a tough trek packed with other backpackers?

SD: Well, on a trek where we were usually fast asleep by 8:30, zipped up in down mummy bags and in separate beds, even our morning porridge had romantic overtones compared to our night life. But kissing Emily atop 17,768-foot Thorung La, the highest point on the Circuit and one of the highest mountain passes along any established trail in the world, was pretty darn epic. To me, that was the kiss I was waiting for when the reverend told me I could kiss the bride. On Thorung La is where our marriage truly began.

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