Shivering in the cold dawn, I wished I was back in my sleeping bag.
I looked across the valley at Annapurna Two’s dark shape, its face still covered in shadow. Where was the damn sunrise?
Pacing around the temple grounds, I tried to get some warmth into my limbs. Despite my thick gloves, my hands ached, changing camera settings was a pain. I especially regretted not fixing my torn jacket in Kathmandu.
Depeche Mode played in my headphones, I managed to listen to two more songs before the sun finally appeared, tracing an angelic glow around the mountain’s summit.
From the temple behind me a drum gonged, drowning out my music. I walked over and removed my boots, then stepped inside the main hall. A lone monk was sitting and chanting, his hypnotic voice echoing in the empty chamber.
An hour later I was rushing along the trail to Manang. The lazy sun still hadn’t crested the 8,000 metre high Annapurna Massif. The bitter cold told me that I’d reached the high altitudes.
By the time I reached the hamlet of Ghyaru, the sun had finally appeared. I sat down and basked in its warmth, soaking in the mountain views. I wasn’t even annoyed by the old lady pestering me to buy an apple pie.
From here the route was high but flat as it followed the valley’s contours. I met a couple of trekkers, Brendan and Ali, and we had lunch together in the next village. After five days of solo hiking it was good to have some company.
Not that I had much to say, as I was constantly left speechless by the scenery. No hyperbole could do this landscape justice, it was even grander than Everest Base Camp.
It wasn’t just the mountains, but the way that humanity had left its mark — like the grand stupa built from the surrounding rock that was now crumbling back to nature. Gods lived in this land, even an atheist couldn’t deny that.
We came to a large temple, painted red and yellow and adorned with golden spires. One of the monks spoke English, “I love this place, much better than Kathmandu with all its people and pollution!” he said.
The lush pine forests had disappeared by now, replaced by mangy trees and scrubby bushes. The ground was extremely dry, all the moisture scoured by the incessant wind.
It was a hard place to live in, but people had been managing this for centuries. Bragha Gompa appeared, a temple that seemed to be carved from the desolate hills it sat on. Inside were statues and Tibetan manuscripts over 500 years old.
Brendan and Ali had left while I looked around the temple. So I walked alone up the centre of the valley, the eroded cliffs reminding me of Cappadocia. I shielded my face from the stinging dust that flew through the air. It felt like I was on a true adventure, at the end of the world, in search of Shangri-La.
Manang sat on the next plateau, a sprawling place that qualified as a town in these parts. Half of it was trekking lodges, while the other half had a strong medieval feel, stone houses crowded the narrow alleyways. The next morning I explored it, deciding to take an acclimatization day here to help my body adjust to the altitude.
After a much needed sleep-in, I climbed the hill behind Manang to Praken Gompa. The track up passed a bleached white stupa, it stared fearlessly at the immense mountains of ice on the other side of the valley.
The walk was hard but the views from the top were a privilege to see. I chatted with a Dutch girl who’d just paid for a blessing for a safe trek from a monk inside the gompa. This seemed gimmicky, the view of the valley was the only blessing I wanted.
In the afternoon I wandered through Manang. The old buildings had been built from the very earth they stood on, making the town blend into its natural surroundings. I wondered about the hard lives that the people had to endure just to survive in this gorgeous but brutal land.
I walked down to the river and crossed over an old bridge, the steel coloured water moved silently below. A collection of chortens stood on a broken hill among flying prayer flags. Beside this was a lake, the end of the mighty glacier towering above.
What I saw next was utterly bizarre. Three monks were doing a photoshoot. One was piloting a drone (which was illegal in these parts), while another was shooting with a Canon 5D (a $4,000 camera). All while wearing their immaculate orange robes.
I returned to the lodge as a low cloud rushed down the mountain, an ominous sign for any trekker. I had to stop as a large herd of goats was being driven through Manang’s main street.
Back indoors, I chatted to Brendan and Ali. After much deliberation, they convinced me to join them the next day on the side-trip to Tilicho Lake.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this turned into one of the scariest things I’d ever attempted.
After trekking from Upper Pisang to Manang, I continued to Tilicho Base Camp, which you can read about here.
You can find more about my trek around the Annapurna Circuit at the links below: