Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit: Is It Still Worth Doing?

chorten above Manang in the Annapurnas

chorten and prayer flags above Manang in the Annapurnas

Images enlarge with a click; blue text leads to a related page when clicked on.

The classic 220-kilometer Annapurna Circuit has attracted thousands of trekkers over the 45-year time span since it was first opened in the late 1970′s . This slice of the world’s greatest mountain range, the Himalayas,  belongs on any list of the great long-distance walks in the world.

But as with all things, this region of Nepal has not been exempt from the forces of change and progress – and from a trekker’s standpoint it does not look to be  positive.  Roads now stretch deep into an area that was once accessible only by the age-old footpaths which both locals and visitors – from Tibetan traders to the more recent trekkers –  have used to walk from one village to another all around the Annapurna mountain range.

traders and trekkers meet on the Annapurna Circuit trail

traders and trekkers meet on the Annapurna Circuit trail

For the locals, building the roads for buses and jeeps means easier travel to see relatives in neighbouring villages or for purposes of trade; it also means that the goods that make their way up from the highway can be moved more quickly and cheaply. However, many of the villages are heavily dependent on the steady stream of trekkers passing through. Since the Annapurna Circuit  is very much a teahouse trek, there exists an extensive infrastructure which caters to these visitors.  As more and more traffic makes its way up the road that once was the trekking trail, it becomes that much less appealing. Noise, dust, and general commotion are not what the trekkers were looking for!

Nepal map – with two main trekking areas and ethnic groups – indicated. Source of the map here

Nepal map – with two main trekking areas and ethnic groups – indicated. Source of the map here

To walk the Annapurna circuit, you must first make your way to the mountain nation of Nepal, which sits on the top of India and to the south of Tibet.  From the Tarai, the lowland farming area along its border with India where almost 50% of Nepal’s thirty million inhabitants live,  the land slopes up to the Middle Hill country and then to the Himalayas themselves.  Many of the world’s fifty highest mountain peaks can be found somewhere near the border that Nepal shares with Tibet.

Your entry to Nepal will probably be at Kathmandu’s airport. The above map gives you a general idea of where Kathmandu is situated in relation to the Annapurna region – and to the east of the capital city is  the other major trekking destination, Sagarmatha National Park and the Mount Everest region. Check out this interactive Google map if you want more detail.

Kathmandu Durbar Square

Kathmandu Durbar Square

The broken green lines on the map below trace the mid-2000′s version of the  Annapurna Circuit route, which takes you through always-changing terrain and through villages belonging to a variety of  cultural groups. Our three-week trek started at Besi Sahar and finished on the other side of the Annapurna Massif at  Birethati. The original route actually started in Dumre and ended about 23 days later in Pokhara, since there was not yet a road which went up to Jomsom and Muktinath.  It was in the late 1980′s that a road was built from Dumre up to Besi Sahar and it became the new Annapurna Circuit trailhead. Clearly the last forty years have seen many changes in Annapurna region. I’m sure that already in the early 1990′s potential Annapurna Circuit trekkers were asking if it was still worth doing.

Note the direction of travel – the Annapurna Circuit is done in a counter-clockwise direction so that your body has time (i.e. about ten days) to acclimatize to the increasing altitude, so that crossing Thorung La, the major pass of the trek at  5416m (17,769 feet) does not become an issue.

Annapurna Circuit- the classic route

Annapurna Circuit- the classic route from Besi Sahar to Birethati over a 20-day period

Even when I did the trek in October of  2006,  the “trail” from the pilgrimage center of Muktinath to Jomsom and on down to Tatopani was often a dusty gravel road that we shared with buses and jeeps and motorcycles; now a new road has been opened on the other side of the Annapurnas that allows you to drive right to Chame, the first  section of the trail that used to make up the first  week or so of the classic “back-in-the-day” Annapurna Circuit.

walking the Annapurna Circuit road south of Marpha

walking the Annapurna Circuit road south of Marpha  at about 8:00 a.m. – no traffic yet!

Take a look at this adventure travel company’s Annapurna Circuit and you’ll see that its clients get to do large chunks of it in a vehicle. (The KE Adventure Travel website can be found here;  it is just one of many excellent-quality and fairly expensive agencies out there.  I have often used another U.K.-based one called Exodus. Their Annapurna Circuit info can be accessed here.) Now, it may just be their way of structuring  this trek so that people who cannot make the major three-week plus time commitment that the classic route involves can still do the circuit.  Just as likely is that it is a response to the “trails to roads” development and the desire to avoid walking these dusty, busy stretches.

Annapurna Circuit map - KE Adventure Travel

Annapurna Circuit map – KE Adventure Travel – the red bits are what is left of the circuit

The adventure travel company which organized my trip, Gap Adventures (now called G Adventures thanks to a lawsuit by that famous American clothing company!), has also changed its Circuit itinerary and now begins in Syange instead of Besi Sahar, thus eliminating the first two days of the classic trek. See here for their current itinerary, which also includes a drive from Muktinath to Tatopani, much like the KE Adventure’s. Of the three adventure travel companies mentioned above, KE is the only one to use tents instead of the guest houses or teahouses for the entire circuit.

This BBC article, Nepal’s Shrinking Annapurna Circuit, from May 2011  examines the potential impact on the Annapurna Circuit of the road from Chame to Manang. It makes for disturbing reading from a trekker’s point of view.

Already intrepid adventurers are joining locals as they motorcycle their way from  Chame to Manang on a partly finished road.  Here is a WordPress blog post which describes the road and the ride!

A Kathmandu Post article from Dec. 31, 2012 entitled Chame Road, Harbinger of Development nicely summarizes the positives and negatives which the opening of the road has brought.  Also mentioned in the article is the need for an alternative trekking route to replace the old one which has become a gravel road with bus and truck and motorcycle traffic. (See below for just such an alternative!)

The Google satellite map below shows the road is almost up to E on the first part of the circuit and a road is indicated almost all the way to Muktinath on the west side. This leaves the top third, the above-the-tree-line alpine stretch from Chame to Manang to Thorung La to Muktinath as the road-free section of what seems to be  left of the Annapurna Circuit.

So the big question these days is – Is the Annapurna Circuit still worth doing?

The short answer is  - Absolutely!

While there is no going back to the past, what is still there waiting to be experienced makes the journey worth your while.  Even better is the work being done by the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) and people like Andrees de Ruiter (his website here), a Belgian trekker whose visits to the Annapurna region over the past thirty years make him very familiar with the situation and the response necessary.

Andrees guide book cover first edition

The answer he has worked on along with a Nepali trekking guide Prem Rai and members of the ACAP during the past few years is the New Annapurna Trekking Trail (NATT for short). Their commitment to establishing a viable new Annapurna Circuit resulted in this 2011 first edition of the guide-book Trekking The Annapurna Circuit (Including NATT – Trails Which Avoid The Road), which is available for free online in pdf form. Click here.

A more detailed second edition complete with useful maps was published in early September 2013 and is available  here at Amazon in Kindle ebook form.  Given the time and money that trekkers will have spent on getting to the trailhead, the $7.50 investment in the guidebook should ensure that they have the information needed to get the most out of the time spent in the Annapurna region.

Update – on seeing this post and the abbreviated tours being offered by the various travel adventure companies mentioned above,  Andrees de Ruiter sent me this suggested itinerary which trekkers could do on their own in about the same amount of time. Here it is-

Day 1: From Kathmandu (1400m) drive to Besi Sahar (850m)

Day 2: Jeep Besi Sahar to Chame (2670m): (it is absolutely necessary to  stay one night in Chame for acclimatization)

Day 3: Chame to upper Pisang (3350)

Day 4: Upper Pisang  to Gyaru to Ngawal (3680m)

Day 5: Ngawal to Julu to Braka (3470 m)

Day 6: Braka to Manang (3500 m)

Day 7: Manang to Yakkharka (4020 m) or Churi Lethar 4200m)

Day 8: Yakkharka to Thorong Phedi or High Camp* (4529m /4890 m)

                        (* high Camp only if you stayed in Churi Lethar)

Day 9: Thorong Phedi to Muktinath

Day 10: Muktinath to Jhong to Kagbeni

Day 11: Shortest, Kagbeni Jomsom then Bus to Tatopani 1 day

Day 11: Kagbeni to Jomsom to Marpha

Day 12: Bus to Tatopani,  evening in the hot springs

Day 13: Tatopani  to Pokhara by bus

Allowing at least one extra “just-in-case” day in the schedule you would need 14 days to get from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and another one to get back to Kathmandu.

This would still be a fantastic journey with good acclimatization with less than 3 hours spent on the dirt road! It also offers more than the Annapurna Circuit tours by the various agencies mentioned above.

So there you have it – from 23 days to do the Annapurna Circuit back in the late 1970′s to 13 days  in 2013. Maybe the big question these days is – Will I be able to Facebook or send hourly tweets about my progress?  Seriously though, it is certainly an indication of how the pace of life has accelerated and how vacation time for most people has shrunk.

One more thought on the above compromise itinerary – If you are okay with the idea of starting a bit higher up than Besi Sahar on the Marsyandhi side and with catching a ride either from Jomson on Day 11 or Marpha on Day 12  but still want to spend more time in the Annapurnas away from the road, there is the excellent walk from Ghorepani to Annapurna Base Camp – with nary a road or vehicle in sight. This would give you a 100% chance to savour those very elements of an Annapurna Circuit trek that many say have been ruined by the dust and noise of buses and jeeps and motorcycles on the road.

Another answer to the question of whether the Circuit trek is still worth it is – it all depends!

A classic dilemma for trekkers bound for Nepal with a limited amount of time is this – Do I do the Annapurna Circuit or should I do an extended trek in Sagarmatha National Park (i.e. Khumbu and the Everest region)?  Luckily, I did not have to come up with an answer – I just did both of them back-to-back with a few days in Kathmandu in between!  Based on my experience, I can offer the following points of comparison between the two which may help you decide which to choose-

Popularity: The most recent available statistics indicate that the Annapurna Circuit attracts more trekkers than the various trekking options available in Sagarmatha National Park.  A Google search turned up figures of 80,000 for 2009 and 89,000 for 2010, with a low of 36,000 in 2005 during the worst of the Maoist insurgency.

Sagarmatha/Everest trekkers, on the other hand, numbered about 25,000 in 2010, which was still quite a bit busier than the 7,500 who visited the Everest region in the pre-Into Thin Air days of  1989! The factors below may explain why more than twice as many people head to Pokhara instead of Lukla for their Nepal trekking adventure.

Cost: Trekking Everest  is a bit more expensive than trekking Annapurna. Instead of busing to Dumre you will have to arrange a flight to Lukla. (You could always begin your Everest adventure by busing to Jiri and then walking to Lukla from there but that involves an extra week and has expenses of its own.)  Bringing in supplies to the Khumbu region is more expensive than bringing them to Pokhara and the Annapurnas on the highway from Kathmandu.  My G-Adventures Annapurna walk cost about 40%  less than my Exodus- organized Everest trek. A major reason is that my Everest trek was a tent-based one with all the food and gear moved along by yaks and porters; the Annapurna Circuit is very much a teahouse (i.e. lodge) based trek, with meals available at the lodges.

Tents, however, are not necessary if you choose the Everest region.  It too can be a teahouse trek since there are lodges at reasonable intervals all the way from Jiri and Lukla on up. You are never very far from a can of Coca Cola or a Mars bar. Both treks can be done on your own.  Get the necessary permits and perhaps hire a porter and you are good to go.

morning camp on the Imja Khola side of Kongma La

morning camp on the Imja Khola side of Kongma La – Ama Dablam is on the horizon

Length of time: The Annapurna Circuit takes about three weeks; my High Passes of Everest trek also took about three weeks. There are all sorts of route variations possible in both areas to create different hikes.

Roads: Annapurna’s weak spot, though addressed by the NATT. Not at all an issue in Sagarmatha Park but do expect to step aside for porters and yaks on the trail from Lukla to Namche Bazaar and beyond.  Neither trek is a wilderness trek, which took a while for me, a Canadian hiker used to total bush with not a soul between me and the North Pole, to understand. When I finally realized that what I was really on was a pilgrimage – a mountain puja, if you will – with other pilgrims sharing the trail with me, I felt much better!  In the end, there can’t be that much traffic going up the Marsyangdi valley to make the walk unbearable. A combination of the NATT trails and reasonable expectations will make a difference.

Level of difficulty: The Annapurna Circuit is a moderate-level trek. By the time you get to the one major challenge – the pass at Thorung La (5416 m or 17,769 ft) – you should be well-acclimatized.  During the Everest trek we came close to or surpassed this height on six different occasions, the three major passes (Kongma La, Cho La, and Renzo La)  plus three peaks, including Kala Pathar and Gokyo Ri. You also spend far more time at higher altitude on an Everest trek than you do on the Annapurna Circuit.  A number of my Everest trekking group had the so-called Khumbu Cough; I don’t think there is an Annapurna equivalent! I do worry about acclimatization issues now that people are able to bus far up the Marsyangdi valley in a day instead of walking up over five or six days. Annapurna still requires adequate acclimatization time.

Views: if we’re talking about mountain views, the Everest region wins on this one, which is hardly a slight on the views which a walk around the Annapurna Massif provides.  What you will see more of in Annapurna is a variety of terrain, from sub-tropical all the way up to the alpine zone.  if you choose to start your visit to the Khumbu region at jiri instead of Lukla, then you will get to walk through some of the same terrain that the early days of the Annapurna Circuit presents.

prayer wheels on the Annapurna Circuit

prayer wheels on the Annapurna Circuit

Culture: the Annapurna Circuit wins on this one, which is hardly a slight on the Tibetan Buddhist culture of the Sherpa people of the Khumbu Valley. What there is in the Annapurna region is a greater variety of cultural groups (which you may not even notice if you don’t inform yourself about the differences!).  Both treks offer many opportunities to contemplate various dimensions of religious expression, from architecture to clothing to ritual.

So which one to choose?  Given the various factors which might make a person pick one or the other, only you can answer this question.  I do know that there is no bad answer!

Take a look at this fabulous video made by someone who has been to Annapurna recently. Nepal and its people are still there to enchant.

Useful Links:

A series of posts on my High Passes of Everest trek can be found elsewhere  in this blog.  Click here for the first of them. Coming soon is a series of three posts on the Annapurna Circuit, which I will add to the millions of great posts that other trekkers already have out there!

The tripadviser website has a forum dedicated to questions related to Annapurna.  Check out its Annapurna Region Travel Forum here for current and informed discussion of issues you may be wondering about.

A useful post with all sorts of up-to-date information about the logistics of doing the Annapurna Circuit can be found here on Wandering Sasquatch’s travel blog. It will make you feel more at ease with planning a self-supported trek.

There is a Lonely Planet travel guide – Trekking In The Nepal Himalaya - which has a section on the Annapurna region.  The guide (9th edition – 2009) is seriously out-of-date and due for a scheduled update in August of 2014. The Annapurna chapter is available as a digital download for $4.95.  It will still have some useful background info.

front cover of the  2009 edition of Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya

front cover of the 2009 edition

A more recent book (published Jan 30, 2013) is  Annapurna: A Trekker’s Guide published by Cicerone and written by Sian Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons. It replaces the previous edition written by Kev Reynolds.  I have a few of the Cicerone guidebooks and like them a lot.

the 2013 edition by Pritchard-Jones and Gibbons

the 2013 edition by Sian Pritchard-Jones & Bob Gibbon

If you are not familiar with the Cicerone guides, Google Books (here) has the first 68 pages of Kev Reynolds’ 2008 edition of Annapurna: A Trekker’s Guide.  It contains enough useful information to make it worth your time –  and may help you to decide that the current edition would be a good investment.