Nepal freaked me out instantly, in much the same way the cool, silent night air does as you leave the rock concert, ears still ringing. Compared to the hustle and bustle of India, Nepal feels like a quiet backwater; the fact that I had to put my watch forward by exactly fifteen minutes at the border only emphasises the difference between India and the mountain kingdom to the north.
Even the long bus ride from the Indian border at Sunauli to the mountain town of Pokhara is easy, and the loud horns that are so ubiquitous in India are conspicuous by their absence. A fellow traveller told me that after India, anywhere would appear mundane, but I'm not sure that's such a bad thing; after all, sitting in a comfy chair in front of the fire and flicking channels is pretty mundane, but after a long day trekking through the fire and ice of the real world, it's a dream.
Indeed, trekking is my main goal in Nepal, and that's why I headed straight for Pokhara instead of Kathmandu. The Annapurna Conservation Area to the north of Pokhara, itself in the western half of Nepal, contains some of the most dramatic trekking on the planet, and I had my sights firmly fixed on the three-week Annapurna Circuit, a circular route that crosses a very high pass (Thorung La, 5416m above sea level), trundles down the deepest gorge in the world (the 5571m-deep Kali Gandaki Gorge), and provides mountain views to stifle breath that's already short in the high altitude of the Himalayas. After beaches, rainforests, deserts, volcanoes and glaciers, it's time for the big cheese.
The Himalayas are, of course, huge, but reading about them is considerably different from experiencing them first hand. On a trek like this there are not only the usual walkers' concerns of blisters, twisted ankles, upset stomachs and sunburn, but also Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), an ailment brought on by high altitude that is fatal if unchecked, and which still claims trekkers' lives today. On the surface, the Annapurna Circuit sounds like the biggest challenge of them all.
It isn't all challenge, though, and this is a major part of its appeal. Unlike most of the trekking I've done up to this point, you don't need to carry food because you stop in villages along the way, staying in the local hotels. This also means you don't need to carry a tent, cooker, fuel or any of the other gear associated with self-sufficient wilderness walking, which leaves the pack pleasantly light and the accommodation comfortable. On a three-week trek this is a godsend; the thought of a pack laden with 21 days of survival gear is enough to make most people's knees spring a leak in sympathy, mine included.
It also means that I have to reappraise my attitude towards long-distance walking. I've been on so many walks that require serious effort and long days to get anywhere – Taman Negara, Hollyford-Pyke and Gunung Rinjani to name but three – that I've developed a bit of an attitude problem. I like to go fast, to push myself, to get fit, to be first at the destination, and in Annapurna this isn't just a waste of the ambience of the village inns and the beauty of the mountain views, it's foolhardy. The best way to avoid AMS is to acclimatise slowly to the altitude, so zooming up the peaks is simply dumb. Altitude requires a different attitude, there's no doubt about it.