Related Posts – Thorung La: The High Point Of The Annapurna Circuit
The Annapurna Circuit: The Trail Becomes A Road
The classic 220-kilometer Annapurna Circuit has attracted thousands of trekkers over the 45-year time span since it was first opened in 1977. 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.
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, over the years many of the villages became 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 that 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!
Accessing the Annapurna Region:
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 50 highest mountain peaks can be found somewhere near the border that Nepal shares with Tibet.
Your entry into 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 other major trekking destination the east of the capital city in Sagarmatha National Park with Mount Everest as its big draw. Check out this interactive Google map if you want more detail.
Mapping The Classic Annapurna Trail
The broken green lines on the map below trace the late-2000s 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 1970s route actually started in Dumre and ended about 23 days later in Pokhara, since there was not yet a road that went west of Pokhara up to Jomsom and Muktinath.
A detailed map (1:125,000 scale) of the Annapurna Circuit can be downloaded here. It is a 5.6 Mb file (5223 x 3638 pixels). The one thing to remember is that the map dates back to 2002 and will not show the road construction since 2000. Since we are not talking about a wilderness walk here, the map would really be all that someone would need to do the circuit.
An online view of a more recent (published in 2011 and updated in 2012) map from Himalayan Map House can be seen here. You can buy a laminated paper copy of the map at its shops in Kathmandu, including one in Thamel.
It was in the late 1980s 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 the Annapurna region. I’m sure that already in the early 1990s potential Annapurna Circuit trekkers were asking if it was still worth doing.
Acclimatization and Direction of Travel
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. In that way, crossing Thorung La, the major pass of the trek at 5416m (17,769 feet), does not become an issue.
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. A decade later a new road has been opened on the other side of the Annapurnas that allows you to drive right to Manang, the first section of the trail that used to make up the essential time to acclimatize on the classic “back-in-the-day” Annapurna Circuit.
Here is the road network in 2022. All that is left of the Circuit is the section from Manang to Muktinath!
- From Pokhara to Manang is an estimated 10 hours by jeep.
- From Muktinath to Pokhara an estimated 7 hours.
Those times are admittedly best-case ones. Landslides and other screw-ups on the road will probably add a few more hours to most trips – but still, the point is made.
In 2017 I walked a section of the trail from Chame down to Tal and then jeeped from Tal down to Besi Sahar. I felt sorry for the hikers coming up the road. The traffic on the road and the dust they were inhaling is not why they came to Nepal.
The classic Annapurna Circuit is finished as a trekking trail.
Road Construction In the Upper Marsyangdi Valley:
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.
A Kathmandu Post article from Dec. 31, 2012, entitled Chame Road, Harbinger of Development, nicely summarizes the positives and negatives that 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, jeep, truck, and motorcycle traffic. (See below for just such an alternative!)
Take a look at this Youtube video from 2017. It documents a 10-hour motorcycle ride from Pokhara to Manang and will give you a very good idea of most of the road you would be walking over a seven-day period from Besi Sahar to Manang.
Five years since that video, the quality of the roads can only have been improved. More of the gravel has been blacktopped and the road widened in critical areas.
Trekking Agency Itineraries:
Trekking agencies continue to promote an Annapurna Circuit walk that hasn’t existed since the late 1990s. Some brochures are probably written by people who have not actually walked the road.
Other agencies seem to recognize the changing nature of the Circuit and have created new itineraries, often while keeping the old names! Here is a current example.
Take a look at a current (2022) KE Adventure Travel offering – Annapurna Circuit AND Annapurna Sanctuary – and you’ll see that the idea of the actual circuit has been abandoned even while the name is kept!
Instead of Besi Sahar as the start point, the KE route now starts higher up at Dharapani and once on the other side of Thorung La at Jomsom, the walk on the busy road is eliminated by a jeep ride all the way down to Tatopani. What has been added is a side trip to Chhomrong. While it deals with the road issue by eliminating most of it, it still falls short. A hike up to Annapurna Base Camp would elevate this route to another level.
Another KE package is just a shorter trek that only includes the stretch from Jagat to Jomsom on the map above. Their advertising department probably insisted that the word “Circuit” remain in the title. (See here for more info.) From Jomsom, it includes a flight back to Pokhara. Some circuit!
KE is just one of several outside-of-Nepal adventure travel companies adjusting their product to avoid the roads. Here is another one –
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 abbreviated its Circuit itinerary though it is much closer to the classic route than the KE route above. It now begins at Jagat (1300 m) instead of Besi Sahar (820 m). Eliminated are twenty-five kilometers of the trail and the first two days of the classic trek. See here for their current itinerary, which ends at Birethanti. From there it is a jeep ride back to Pokhara.
I have often used another U.K.-based one called Exodus. Their Annapurna Circuit info can be accessed here. The Exodus”circuit” now begins at Ngaddi, just below Jagat, and ends at Maya Pul. Of the three U.K./North American adventure travel companies mentioned here, it comes closest to following the pre-road development route. Here is the map of the Exodus route:
Now, the shortened itineraries may just be the way some adventure travel companies structure this trek so that people who cannot make the major three-week-plus time commitment that the classic route involves can still do the best of 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.
Do It On Your Own!
Given the US$150. a day these agencies are charging, if you are at all comfortable with organizing and doing a hike on your own, you can probably do it for a third (or less) of the cost.
A copy of a decent guidebook like Lonely Planet’s Trekking In The Nepal Himalaya and some time spent creating a route that follows acclimatization protocols – use existing agency itineraries as a guide – and you should be fine. If you go with someone else, that is terrific. However, if you go on your own, you will meet fellow trekkers on the trail and in the tea houses every day. Like you, they will be doing the hike on their own.
The besthike.com website has lots of excellent advice for anyone willing to organize and do the hike as an independent traveller. Click on the header above or here to access their up-to-date and useful information.
The Annapurna Circuit is not a wilderness hike. However, it does have one potential trouble spot – the crossing of Thorung La. Most itineraries have their trekkers crossing it on Day 8 or 9 of the route up from Besi Sahar to ensure adequate acclimatization. Weather will also be very important. You do not want to turn your adventure into a mountaineering epic as a snowstorm wipes out the visible trail as you make your way towards the pass and down to Muktinath. See this post for more on Thorung La:
The Annapurna Circuit: it’s still worth doing but…
only if the road sections are avoided as much as possible.
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 Andrées 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.
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 guidebook 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 e-book 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: While well-intentioned, it seems that the alternative trail meant to avoid the roads has had limited success. Lack of government funding and inadequate signing are a couple of the problems. A trekker I spoke to said that after his experience with the alternative path out of Besi Sahar, he decided to just walk on the road. He was really looking forward to getting to Manang!
A New Annapurna Trek Itinerary:
On seeing this post and the abbreviated tours being offered by the various travel adventure companies mentioned above, Andrées de Ruiter sent me this suggested itinerary which trekkers could do on their own in about the same amount of time. Interestingly, he send me this itinerary a couple of years before KE Adventures came up with their “new” Annapurna Circuit package – the one that includes the walk up to Annapurna B.C.
Here is de Ruiter’s suggested itinerary:
- 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 1970s to 13 days forty years later! It is certainly an indication of how the pace of life has accelerated and how vacation time for most people has shrunk.
The Annapurna Base Camp Add-On
As effective as de Ruiter’s itinerary is at avoiding most of the road, a simple add-on would elevate his itinerary to a higher level. Here is what I suggest – After catching a ride either from Jomson on Day 11 or Marpha on Day 12 in the above itinerary and keen to spend more time in the Annapurnas away from the road, there is an excellent hike from Ghorepani to Annapurna Base Camp – with no roads or vehicles in sight. It would be like doing the Annapurna Circuit in the 1980s!
The Annapurna Base Camp Route
This would give you a 100% chance to savour those very elements of an Annapurna Circuit trek that most would agree has been ruined by the dust and noise of buses and jeeps and motorcycles and trucks on the road.
A Best of The Annapurnas Route
- jeep Besi Sahar to Chame
- hike Chame to Jomson
- bus Jomsom to Tatopani
- hike to Annapurna Base Camp
- return to Pokhara
Skipping the Annapurnas and Going to the Khumbu/Everest Region?
Having done six weeks of trekking in the Annapurna region and another three in the Khumbu/Everest region, I’d say that the best choice for a visiting trekker who has spent US$1000. to get to Nepal and wants to have the best possible trekking experience is to head to the Khumbu east of Kathmandu.
The following points of comparison between the two may help you decide which to choose –
The most recently 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.
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 you are ready to go.
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.
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 nothing but boreal forest and tundra 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, the traffic going up the Marsyangdi valley can make the walk unbearable. For some, a combination of the NATT trails and reasonable expectations 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.
If we’re talking about mountain views, the Everest region wins on this one, which is hardly a slight on the views that 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. My preference would be to spend most of my time up in the mountains.
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 for yourself. I know I would head back to Lukla!
However, take a look at this fabulous video made by someone who has been to Annapurna recently. They obviously had a great time! Nepal and its people are still there to enchant.In September of 2013 Grant Rawlinson has uploaded a great video “Walk the Annapurna Circuit in 3D” on Youtube. See it below – it gives you an idea of what the walk is like.
Te links to a series of posts on my three-week High Passes of Everest Trek can be found below –
- The High Passes of Everest: Lukla to Namche Days 1 – 3
- The High Passes of Everest: Namche To Chhukung – Days 4 – 7
- The High Passes of Everest: Chhukhung to Everest via Kongma La Days 8 – 10
- The High Passes of Everest: Lobuche to the Kokyo Lakes Via Cho La Days 11 – 13
- The High Passes of Everest: Gokyo to Lukla via Renjo La Days 14 – 18
Of my posts on the Annapurna Circuit itself, which I will soon add to the millions of great posts that other trekkers have already put out there, Thorung La: The High Point of The Annapurna Circuit has some pix and maps and more discussion of the potential dangers.
The TripAdvisor website has a forum dedicated to questions related to Annapurna. Check out its Annapurna Region Travel Forum here for a 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.
Lonely Planet recently (January 2016) released the 10th edition of its Nepal trekking guide – Trekking In The Nepal Himalaya. The chapter on the Annapurna region can be downloaded for $5. It provides excellent maps and answers all the questions a walker might have. Definitely a good investment.
Another recent book (published Feb 2017) is Annapurna: A Trekker’s Guide published by Cicerone and written by Sian Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons. I have a few of the Cicerone guidebooks and like them a lot.