We'd never done a trekking holiday before, and we'd really only got into the mountains, but with my 30th birthday coming up at the end of the year, we booked ourselves flights to Nepal, and figured we'd a year to get fit and organised.
I was pretty nervous before going - I'd read the full day-to-day breakdown of the walk we planned to do, and it sounded pretty challenging, with some scary and/or dangerous parts, and it was a bit hard to figure out the logistics of permits and transport to the trail head without going through a travel company. But all of that was also really exciting, to see if we could figure it all out ourselves.
In the end, I needn't have worried - the trail was exhausting, but never felt dangerous or scary, and the logistics went very smoothly indeed. We flew into Kathmandu around tea time, and by the next afternoon, we were ready to start our 10 day hike into Annapurna Sanctuary.
The walk started off in low lying villages, which were pretty tropical feeling - I found the heat to be pretty fierce, and was very glad to have my icebreaker t-shirt to cope with the hot and sticky weather! As we climbed higher into the mountains, the weather cooled a lot, and the terrain changed too. On one day we gained a lot of height, and started in the tropics, passed through a temperate forest, and spent the night surrounded by snow-capped mountains. This had its own challenges, as the nights started to get pretty chilly. We were very glad of our new Rab goose down sleeping bags, and Alpkit goose down jackets. We got around 12 hours daylight a day, but it got pretty cold in the last few hours of the afternoon, so to be able to shower the day's dust and sweat off, we aimed to finish walking around 4pm so that my hair had a chance to dry before it got really cold. And since we were up and on the trail from around 7am, we were pretty zonked by then anyhow! The accommodation was always basic, and mostly clean. The hot showers ran out pretty quickly as we continued on our walk, until, about 8 days in, they were replaced with a bucket of cold water - you had to crack the ice on the top to get to your shower water - that was refreshing! The food was surprisingly good. Lunch was tibetan fried bread and fried eggs, and dinner was Dhal Bhat (a lentil stew) - a staple served up with nice breads, and we got through a lot of guilt-free twix and mars bars. No matter how much we ate at dinner, and no matter how many times we stopped for lemon tea and biscuits during the day, we couldn't match the calories we were going through by walking - I lost 10 pounds in our three week trip.
There were tea houses, serving food and providing accommodation very regularly, so it was easy to get lots of pick-me-up snacks, and a good lunch whenever you were hungry, and stop for the night whenever you'd had enough, so we didn't really plan ahead on how far we would walk each day. And it was hard to judge how far you would make it in a day, because while a village might only be a couple of km on the map, you had to descend to the valley, and climb to the next village again and again before you got there.
We met a lot of people doing the same walk as us, but through travel companies. We knew how much they had paid, as we'd looked into this option ourselves, and it was mad to see that they were eating and sleeping in all the same places as we were, even though their trip had cost them roughly 10 times as much. We had lifted as much cash as our bank card would allow on the night we arrived in Kathmandu, and again the next morning, in an attempt to beat the daily limits, and for the first 5 days or so, this seemed like it would be ample. But as our altitude increased, so did the supply costs for the tea houses, as all food and materials would have to be walked up by porters and mules. By the time we got to the shelter just before the Thorung-La pass (the highest part of this trek), on the night before my thirtieth, we knew that we would need to pick up more money as soon as we got over the pass. We needed to get up around 5 to start the day's walk, as we had a very long day ahead of us, lots of distance and height gain, and all done at altitude where you have a lot less energy.
At 4 I was up being sick - I had picked up some bug from the water. We'd been using tablets we'd brought from home, but they had run out, and we'd picked some more up along the trail, but I don't think they were as effective. We knew we didn't have enough money to stay another night while I recovered, or to descend far enough to find a village big enough for a bank, and so we had no choice but to make the trek that day. Aaron quickly went out looking for a porter so that at least I wouldn't have to carry my bag. It was certainly a memorable 30th birthday! I leant on Aaron's shoulder for support for most of the ascent, having to nip behind rocks to be sick from time to time - it was so slow going that all the other hikers left us well behind. At around 3 pm, a local man stopped to tell us we were going too slow, and that we wouldn't make it in time at that pace. He offered to arrange for horses to pick us up, but we couldn't afford them, so he went on his way,and the way we had come, to see if he could arrange anything else for us. He must have spoken to a porter who was leading his mules over the pass in the same direction as us, as he stopped, and offered us a ride for about half the horse cost. Mule saddles are designed for goods, not people - it was a very bumpy ride on this wooden saddle, and it felt like I was going to fall off - the scariest part of the journey so far, as some of the paths were very narrow, and the mules were going quite fast. It was so painful bouncing around on the saddle that after a while, Aaron got off and walked along side us. He got left behind a bit, but the relief to not be on the saddle was too much to tempt him back on. I was too relieved to not be walking to worry about the discomfort, so I stayed put to the shelter at the top, where we were able to pick our bags up from the porter, and continue down the mountain on foot.
Despite this difficult day, we really quickly got into a daily routine, and the aches and pains we felt in the first day or two quickly subsided. It was so uplifting and soul enriching to spend all day simply walking from one village to the next in the mountains, a million miles away from cars or roads. By the time we got to the end of the trail, we felt like we could have continued to follow that daily routine forever - so we did the other big Annapurna trek - Annapurna Base Camp (ABC).
The ABC trail is supposed to take another 8-10 days, but we were starting to run out of time before our flight home, and the altitude buzz we felt when we went back to lower levels after getting used to the height, meant we were much faster, and did the whole thing in 5 days. ABC took us three days to reach, and we didn't think we had time to spend the night there, so we had left our bags at the previous night's tea house at MBC. As soon as we arrived, we knew we had to figure out a way to stay - the mountains were huge, and loomed all around, you could hear avalanches across the glacial valley, you could see clouds forming on the mountain tops and then gliding through the valley, we knew the stars would be spectacular. So we booked a room, had a lemon tea and some biscuits, and headed back down to MBC to grab the bags and return to ABC for the night - a double trip well worth making - I've never enjoyed a day as much in my life as sitting absorbing the view up there.
We needn't have worried about running out of time on the return journey, as the combination of altitude training, and the journey being mostly downhill from here, we were practically jogging, and though our knees took a bit of a bashing, we made it back easily in 2 days which gave us a few days in Bhaktapur, an ancient city full of temples close to Kathmandu.
Bhaktapur was a spectacular town, with so much life about it. It had more temples than seemed possible - all spilling over each other, and some were so old they were almost falling down, but they weren't just old ruins, people visited them every day leaving food and incense as sacrifices. It was a busy sprawl of families, mo-peds, holy men, traders, old men, people sacrificing goats - we loved it. And we got to eat something other than Dhal Bhat and Tibetan bread!
Tips for trekking solo in Nepal
Travel light - we wanted to go on our own for the sake of the adventure, to be able to experience moments on the mountains completely alone, and so having to carry all our gear was a price worth paying. However, Aaron was bringing a pretty heavy camera and tripod, and we needed to make sure we would be warm enough, so keeping weight down was a bit of a challenge. By only bringing one set of clothes, and only the most basic toiletries (toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, sanitiser, suncream, water purification tablets, blister plasters), I managed to keep my bag weight down to 8kg without water (10kg with water). We did this by using Osprey rucksacks (which are really light), goose down sleeping bags and jackets (which give the maximum warmth for their weight provided they don't get wet), and bringing just one set of icebreaker clothes (which don't smell no matter how much you sweat). We had brought playing cards, but left them behind in one of the first tea houses, as we realised we were going to have to limit weight as much as possible.
Get your permit arranged from home - it's not a question of either going with a travel company, or turning up and winging it - you can get a local travel agent to get you the permit for the national park. We arranged our by email from home, and picked it up in Kathmandu on the night we arrived, and as part of the service, he picked us up the next morning from our accommodation, and dropped us off at the public bus station, and pointed out the correct bus to get to the trail head. I'm not sure we would have been able to find this on our own based on the info in the guidebook alone.
Bring enough money, water purification tablets and blister plasters with you, in fact, bring double. It is a bit of a disaster running out of any of these, and they don't take up any weight or space, and you can't really pick them up along the way. You can't get Nepali currency before you go, so have a few different bank accounts if you're not going to be in Kathmandu for long before your trek so you can get around the daily limits. You won't get good blister plasters along the trail, and with all the miles up and down hills in the heat, you will go through them very quickly. From my experience, the water purification tablets on the trail aren't as good as the ones you get at home, but I might just have been unlucky - not worth taking the risk!
Don't leave the park if you plan to return. We did two treks, and left the park in between, not realising that this would void our permits, and we had to buy them again on our return - very annoying, and not worth the pizza we enjoyed in Pokhara between hikes!
Do your homework - The trail is pretty obvious in most parts, though we did get lost once. When we did, it was a bit of a life-saver that we had a map, compass, binoculars, and lonely planet trail guide. If you are going without a guide, you need to know the names of the next villages you are aiming for, and your overall route - they give good info on altitude, miles between villages and the terrain you can expect. This helps with not getting lost, and is vital to be safe from altitude sickness.
Bring the right gear - It gets very cold up in the mountains, so make sure you have warm enough gear - We met some people who couldn't continue their hike as they got really sick from having inadequate sleeping bags. Bring anti-altitude sickness drugs - by the time you need these, they won't be available. It gets very hot and sticky when you are walking during the day - we saw people fried by the sun because they only had vest-tops to walk in, and others struggling with the heat as they were walking in jeans - you need good breathable hiking clothes.