It’s a World Party
Want to hike into the middle of nowhere? A place so remote that you’ll go days without seeing other people? Sweden’s Sarek National Park is for you–but skip the Annapurna Circuit.
More than 40,000 trekkers come here each year, and when Emily and I step into the dank, hot jungle for our first full day of trekking–a humid 12.5-mile climb from Bhulebhule to Jagot–it seems like we’ve all arrived at the same time. We leapfrog with a somber German couple as the trail climbs through small stone-and-thatch villages. Then we pass a large French group traveling with guides and porters. Then a pair of young Swiss hikers. Then some elderly Belgians. Then a lone Israeli. Then a train of 50 donkeys hauling supplies–cooking oil, Coke, kerosene.
I’m not accustomed to rush-hour traffic in the wilderness, and at first the number of other trekkers annoys me. But it only takes a few days on the trail to realize that hiking around Annapurna is like joining some exclusive club. In Jagat, we drink tea with Ori, an Israeli who’s hiked the circuit seven times, and he says that the people he meets–both from Nepal and everywhere else–are one of the reasons he keeps coming back. We sit with Ori and Ryuske, a Japanese trekker, and teach each other how to cuss in three languages, then greet each other accordingly every time we cross paths for the next week. And so it goes with the Belgians, who regale us with stories of their military duty in Kashmir in the 1940s; the Swedes, who are keen to show off their well-designed cutlery and packs; and the young British couple, taking a gap year, who are instant friends and will send us postcards from India. Even the Germans make nice over garlic soup at Thorung Phedi.
By the time we ascend 10,460-foot Poon Hill to watch sunrise, on the last day of the circuit, sharing the moment seems totally appropriate. We stand in awe with more than 100 others, but it’s not a crowd scene. They’re now fellow pilgrims–many of them friends.
It Has the Best Food
OK, the traditional Nepalese dal bhat–a simple meal of rice and lentil soup–can’t compete with the wild mushroom polenta, fondue, and coq au vin that’s served in mountain huts on the Tour Du Mont Blanc, or the paella, fresh from the sea, you’ll feast on during a multisport vacation in Spain’s Valencia region. In comparison, the Annapurna Circuit’s main fare is more glue than gourmet.
But a year after returning, Emily and I order dal bhat at local Indian restaurants just to relive memories the taste evokes. In the tiny outpost of 13,185-foot Yak Kharka, a week into our trek, we join five porters at the Yak Hotel for dinner. We eat in a cold room built entirely of stone, sitting around a square table placed over hot coals to keep our feet warm, with heavy yak-hair blankets draped across our legs to trap the heat. Emily and I use our hands like the Nepalese, and they laugh as we clumsily and repeatedly drop chunks of food into our laps. Over seconds and thirds, the porters talk in halting English about the imminent crossing of Thorung La pass. The locals, all guys in their late teens and early 20s, wearing sweats, are disarmingly apprehensive about the pass. For some, it’s their first time so high.
Over glasses of raksi, a sake-like booze made from fermented millet, the porters teach us a card game called Nepali Kings, in which four peasant boys marry beautiful women and become rich kings–or comically fail, depending on how the cards fall. We play over and over, laughing by yak-butter lamp until a perfect hand lets all the boys be kings. Hikers who crave the familiar can find macaroni, dumplings, and even pizza, but eating dal bhat is like ingesting part of Nepal, like it contains something besides protein, carbs, and spices. Plus, it’s crazy cheap (all you can eat for about $1.50), and as the local staple, it’s always plentiful and ready.