'A lover without indiscretion is no lover at all' reads a poster in the tea shop a few days into the trail, and the total nonsense of the message seems quite in keeping with the contradictions you can see along the trail. Slashing a route through the deepest mountain valleys, the Annapurna Circuit passes through villages that used to be almost invisible, but which now sport signs in English, shops selling western luxuries, hotels with hot showers and even international telephone booths for those people who can't resist intruding on the outside world. The Annapurna Circuit isn't known as the Apple Pie Trail and the Coca-Cola Circuit for nothing.
This type of trekking has its ups and downs in more than just the literal sense. The impact of tourism on this erstwhile netherworld is plain to see: piles of bottles lie cracking in the searing sun, candy wrappers litter a number of the paths and the local culture is hard to separate from the service industries of hotel and restaurant. On the plus side, though, income is higher, ecological awareness is increasing, and the litter problem is nothing compared to India or Indonesia, an impressive feat when you consider the sheer number of people involved.
The Circuit also has an image problem among hardcore trekkers, who see it as more of a long stroll than a serious challenge. Trekkers who are more at home in waist-deep swamps and leech-infested tropical rainforests call it the 'milk and honey trek' because of all the luxuries you encounter on the way – shops, real beds, bottled water and so on – and indeed Peter, with whom I trekked in Sulawesi, described the Circuit as more of a collection of day walks than a real trek. In a sense he's right because most of the days are fairly short in terms of time and distance, but I'm not sure I'd say that the Circuit is easy; I found the Annapurna Circuit a phenomenal challenge, though perhaps for different reasons than normal.
With such a walk one doesn't walk alone, even if one initially sets out on a solo trek. The groups I joined kept changing as various people went at different speeds or succumbed to the demands of the trek, but the main people were great company. There were Clare and Anne, sisters from Vancouver; Jakob from Denmark; Bob from Cleveland, a veteran 13-year traveller; Sheldon from Australia; and a whole spectrum of other characters to liven the mix. Sharing walks, something I've tended not to do in the past, is a good thing when your nightly stops are in hotels, and I soon realised that Annapurna is made to be shared.
Another thing to share is paranoia about AMS. If you could take a man from sea level and transport him straight to the top of Everest – which, incidentally, is impossible because helicopters don't have enough air at that height to operate – then he would sink into a coma after two minutes, and be dead after four. This is down to a combination of the lack of oxygen and the low atmospheric pressure at that height; on Thorung La, the highest point of the Circuit, the atmospheric pressure is half that of sea level, and the partial pressure of oxygen (i.e. the amount of oxygen in the air) is a third of that at sea level, as oxygen is heavier than nitrogen. The result is that without slow acclimatisation, people can die from AMS on the Annapurna Circuit, and they do, although not in high numbers (it's about one in 30,000 trekkers).
This sort of challenge provides plenty of food for thought for trekkers whiling away the hours in their hotel restaurants. In a display of group psychosis that is rarely seen outside village knitting circles, AMS is the subject of the moment. Every other question seems to be 'Do you have a headache? Are you on Diamox? How many acclimatisation walks have you done today?' It would be boring if there weren't so many conflicting opinions as to the truth behind AMS.
AMS is still a bit of a mystery, even though scientists know exactly why it happens and how to prevent it. The difficulty is that everyone seems to react differently to increased altitude; some might be able to go all the way from 300m to 5500m in a day without any symptoms, and some will die if they do the same. The guidelines are simple, though; when you get to 3000m you should only ascend 300m in each day, you should try to go on an acclimatisation walk to a higher point than your sleeping height, and at the sign of any symptoms you should stop ascending and, if they don't go away or get worse, you must go down. Descent is the only treatment, and the recommended drug, Diamox, is only an aid to quicker acclimatisation, and is not a cure.
It's made even trickier because the symptoms of AMS are a headache, reduced appetite, nausea, a loss of good humour, a congestive cough, and in serious AMS, ataxia (wobbly legs) and vomiting. These symptoms are fairly common on all long walks, with their exhausting days, uncomfortable beds and dubious food, so the paranoia runs rife, and with the temperatures well below freezing on the higher parts of the track, you have to wonder if your headache is from the icy blasts of wind freezing your ears off, or genuine AMS.
But still, what a beautiful place to walk...