Alone but Never Lonely: The Annapurna Circuit in Winter
Barefoot, I ascended the steps at the entrance of a Tibetan-style monastery that sat high above the Manang Valley in the Annapurna Himalayas. Peering through the massive doorway, I found the main room dark and empty, except for a golden Buddha sitting in composed serenity at the far end of the room. He seemed to look on with approval, and welcomed me inside.
The place smelled of varnished wood and shadows. On the floor of the adjacent wall, I was flanked by a row of thick winter robes that had been left standing up, as if the monks who once wore them had simply evaporated. I prostrated before the hospitable Buddha three times. The only sounds were the creaking wood beneath my feet, the shuffling of my clothes, and the wind outside. When I turned to leave, I went back through the entrance and my eyes had to adjust to the blinding brightness of snow and sky. When they did, I was overwhelmed by the view that stretched out in front of me: the sharp fall into the valley, the village below, and the stark rise through the pine forests, culminating at the enormous blue-white peaks that scraped the clouds. At the top of the steps, with the monastery behind me and the whole of the Annapurna range in front, I thought: Could this moment really be mine alone?
I had stumbled upon a secret that only a few trekkers knew: Winter is truly the best time to be on the Annapurna Circuit Trek.
Before I started the trek, however, I was not so convinced. “It will be very cold,” a local guide told me. “You will have to have a good sleeping bag and warm clothes.”
About a week in, I knew that this was true. But only at night. Once the trail reached above 3,000 metres and the sun went down, the temperatures dropped to well below freezing. However, there was an easy solution. With a dearth of visitors in the area, extra blankets were aplenty at every guesthouse, and I piled them over my sleeping bag to stay warm enough for a good night’s sleep.
Enduring the nights was worth it when the days were so spectacular. In three weeks on the Circuit, only four days challenged me with inclement weather. The rest of the time the conditions were perfect. Views like the one from the Upper Pisang Monastery were a daily occurrence. Not a single peak was obscured, and the true scale could be felt.
Another fear I had had was the state of Thorung Pass. What if it’s closed off by snow? became a question that nagged at me along the way. Or worse: What if a storm comes in when I am trying to cross? But the same risks exist in the spring, and blizzards can even come in October, the busiest time of year. Luckily, the pass had little snow when I crossed it. There was only a light wind, and it wasn’t even cold enough to require a coat.
The most common warning I had received before embarking was: “There won’t be anyone else there. You’ll be alone.”
It turned out to be true. Alone, I explored ancient monasteries around Muktinath and meandered through dilapidated villages of stone and mud in Humde and Pisang. Alone, I circumambulated stupas near Chame, and alone I made my way across the arid expanse of Lower Mustang. When I walked by mani walls in Marpha and turned each prayer wheel, leaving them spinning and creaking in my wake, there was no one else behind me. Alone I stopped for water breaks and snacks in the middle of forests, listening to the wind carving through the mountains, the patter of melting snow falling from pine boughs, and the birdsong that filled the trees.
Though I was alone much of the time, I never felt lonely. In being alone, these moments were infused with a supernatural quality, with the sanctity of having a solitary experience in one of the most extraordinary environments in the Himalayas.
The winter season does not deplete the Annapurna area of all vestiges of life. There were many people to greet with a friendly namaste. Villagers waited outside the few guesthouses that stayed open. I’d sit with them at lunch and engage in conversation. Without the incessant chores that the high season brings, they were more available to talk about themselves, their culture, and their people. Occasionally I would also come across another trekker or two and we would exchange pleasantries—“How’s your day going? Where are you headed? Where did you come from?”—and then, acknowledging the comfort we had found in our respective aloneness, we would bid each other farewell and set off again at our own pace.
There were occasional inconveniences. When I arrived at the miniscule village of Braga, the only guesthouse in town was closed. I told a local resident of my predicament and he offered me a room behind his restaurant. When he took me there, I could see that the accommodation was the equivalent of a low, ramshackle toolshed that had been fitted with a short bed and assiduously decorated with magazine cutouts of Nepali models. Clearly it was his personal room, but he lent it to me for the night. I spent the evening with him and his family in their warm kitchen, drinking and talking until it was time for bed. What I originally thought was an inconvenience turned into one of my most memorable nights of the trek.
It is hard for me to imagine such moments of hospitality and intimacy when the Annapurna Circuit trek is at its busiest. There would be no time for a restaurant owner to entertain just another tourist. With all the guesthouses open, I wouldn’t have found myself asking a regular local for lodging in the first place.
One of the greatest pleasures of being in the Annapurnas in the off-season was the daily potential for surprise. What hidden building would I explore in silence? What engaging conversation with a local yak herder would I have through gestures and smiles? There was no sense that I ought to be doing something because that’s what everyone else was doing. Rather, every day I knew I could go at my pace and choose an itinerary that felt right in the moment. Whatever I chose, the path ahead was sure to be unobstructed with crowds, the weather would be clear, and the day would be ripe for unique and personal discoveries.