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 Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple  in the background collapsed in April of 2015

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.

annapurna trekking map

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 a wilderness walk here, it would really be all that someone would need to do the circuit.

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!

Itineraries of Three U.K. and North American Adventure Travel Companies:

Take a look at a new (May 2016) KE Adventure Travel offering – The Ultimate Annapurna Trek –  and you’ll see that the idea of a circuit has been abandoned. Instead of Besi Sahar as the start point it is now higher up at Dharapani and once at Jomsom it is a jeep ride down to Tatopani.  What has been added is an Annapurna Base Camp  side trip. Not a bad solution to the road issue!

Annapurna Circuit map - KE Adventure Travel

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

This is an improvement over another KE package – ashorter trek that only includes the stretch from Dharapani to Jomsom. (See here for the map and itinerary.) From Jomsom it was a flight back to Pokhara!  To be fair, the word “Circuit” was not used to describe their route; it is called “Annapurna and the Thorung La Lodge Trek”. KE is just one of many excellent-quality and fairly expensive agencies out there adjusting their product to make it more marketable.

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.  It now begins at Jagat (1300 m)  instead of Besi Sahar (820 m). Eliminated is twenty-five kilometers of the trail and the first two days of the classic trek. See here for their current itinerary, which  ends at Nayapul. From there it a jeep ride back to Pohkara.

Of the adventure travel companies mentioned above, KE was the only one to use tents instead of the guest houses or teahouses for the trek. Given the abundance of inexpensive and acceptable accommodation, sleeping in a tent will always be a poor second choice and way more trouble than it is worth. The new KE offering now makes use of the lodges.

I have often used another U.K.-based one called Exodus. Their Annapurna Circuit info can be accessed here. Of the three U.K./North American adventure travel companies mentioned here, Exodus is the only one which still offers the full trek from Besi Sahar. See their map below –

Exodus Annapurna Circuit

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.

Road Construction In  the Upper Marsyandhi 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.

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! (Update: the link is dead as of May 2016.)  Check out this post instead for an account of a ride done in May of 2015.)

A thread in the Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum section (started June 2014) titled Transport Logistics to Chame for AC Trek has contributions from a number of trekkers or riders who have been up or down the stretch from Besi Sahar to Chame in 2014.  It is worth checking out for more up-to-date information to help you decide whether going up by vehicle is what you want to do!

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. See the map below for the route –

the trail from Ghorepani to Annapurna Base Camp

the trail from Ghorepani to Annapurna Base Camp

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. (May 2016 Update – Ke Adventure Travel now offers a trek that does exactly what my paragraph above suggested.)

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.

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.

Useful Links: A series of posts on my three-week High Passes of Everest trek can be found elsewhere  in this blog.  Click here for the first of them.

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 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.

Trekking_in_the_Nepal_Himalaya_travel_guide_-_10th_edition_Large

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 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 guide 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

 

 

If you are not familiar with the Cicerone guides, Google Books (here) has the first 68 pages of the Pritchard-Jones/Gibbons edition of Annapurna: A Trekker’s Guide.

You’ll find enough useful information to make checking it out it worth your time –  and may help you to decide that it is worth having either for planning or to take along in your pack.

 

Update – Post-April 2015 Earthquakes

 While the Annapurna region was not hit with avalanches and mud slides in the way that the Langtang Valley was, the circuit was closed for three months. On July 23, 2015  it reopened. (See here for the Reuters news item.)  A week later monsoon-triggered landslides NW of Pokhara destroyed the village of Lumle.) 

Trip Advisor has an active Annapurna forum with a few  threads on the situation  post-earthquake. See here for the latest contributions from travellers on the ground in the Annapurna region – and elsewhere in the country.

I guess the bigger question these days is – Is it right to visit Nepal so soon after such a catastrophe?

Given the coming rainy season, the next few months are not prime tourist and trekking time anyway.  But October is coming.  Visitors who treat their hosts with compassion and respect  – and do not use the situation to bargain prices down even more – will provide the guides and porters and teahouse owners  and everyone else involved with the trekker infrastructure around the circuit  with a reason for hope and an injection of money to feed their families.

35 thoughts on “Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit: Is It Still Worth Doing?

  1. It sounds like a beautiful trip, but I’d first have to get over the fact that it is no longer the isolated trek that it used to be. Extremely well written article and super-helpful photos and illustrations. Thanks.

    • Susan, I checked out your blog again and thought :Jeez, this is a great collection of info” before I realized that I already knew you and had spent some quality time at your site before!

      Re; the trail’s lack of isolation. Unfortunately, what’s happening there is happening everywhere! My current favourite canoe tripping destination in north west Ontario will be changed forever in the next ten years. A massive mining development to extract 30 Billiion dollars worth of minerals in an area called the Ring of Fire just north of the Albany River is in the planning stages.

      It all reminds me of that epic Dire Straits song called “Telegraph Road”.

  2. The “Classic Annapurna Circuit” is actually longer than what you make it to be: there was no road past Dhumre and no road west of Pokhara until late eighties. I have walked the whole thing Dhumre-Pokhara twice, in -84 and -86, it took 23 days or so. This should be corrected, also on the map. The area was opened for trekking in 1975 unless I am mistaken, not early eighties.

    Khumbu versus AC: The “Classic Everest Trek” is also a walk, it is NOT necessary to fly to Lukla (at some cost), as the classic trek starts from Jiri, the road was constructed there in early eighties, finished in April -85, I actually happened to be there, and have walked to/from Jiri five times so far. It is just that modern trekkers are too short on time to do the Everest base camp trek properly, with walk in/out it takes 28 days or so. What comes to costs EBC is also a 100% teahouse trek, camping is totally unnecessary there just like it is on the AC. Even the 3 Passes variation can be done lodge based. Prices are a bit higher there than on the AC side. It is also equally possible to arrange everything by yourself and just go as it is on AC.

    Your blog gives a good idea about the treks, though. I have walked the AC again in -06 and part of it in -09, and the road has taken most of the cultural variety away from the trek, sad to say. Partly this is from the shortness of the trek, it is not from 600m altitude rice terraces to Alpine meadows anymore, partly from the motor traffic and standardized bazaar atmosphere it inevitably brings to the villages.

    • Petrus, thanks for the long reply. My “back-in-the-day” obviously does not go back as far as yours! I have seen your contributions on the Lonely Planet forum over the years and have always noted the solid information you provide. I’ll amend my text to make it more accurate.

      Re: my AC/Everest comparison. I was thinking specifically of the Three Passes Trek when doing the comparison. While starting in Jiri is clearly an option, I didn’t include it because I wanted to keep the time lengths the same – i.e. three weeks.

      You are right about the teahouse option being there on an EBC or a Gokyo Lakes trek; we tented away from a teahouse only on a couple of occasions in twenty days – just before Kongma La and again just before Cho La. With a longer day Kongma La could be done in one day from Chhukhung to Lobuche.

      it is also sad to see your negative assessment of what has happened to the lower part of the Marsyangdi trail up to Chame. It makes the NATT alternative that much more necessary to get an idea of the way things used to be. Perhaps another thing to do is not go in high season when the traffic will definitely be at its worst.

  3. Pingback: Treking dookoła Annapurny…czy nadal atrakcyjny?Oraz pogoda w Nepalu i zabójcze skutki choroby wysokościowej | Backpackers Club

  4. Just got back from the AC three days ago. Yes, roads to Chame; they are mid way through building a bridge over the river, just upstream of the current suspension bridge, near the Chorten on the …umm…north side of town. Then they are widening the trail (thinning the cliff) just past Bratang and another bridge crossing to get to Dikhu Pokhari (after a few switchbacks). From there it will be smooth driving all the way to Manang for Jeeps. True; fortunate for some, less so for others.

    On the positive, for tourism, this make the whole region (almost) as accessible as Switzerland of Banff. Get in there, then choose your multi-day adventure up or around or through. There are plenty of new lodges being built on the Chame – Pisang – Manang side so someone either isn’t getting the message about trekkers not liking roads, or …or…the road is, and will continue to, bringing trekkers in like mad.

    There aren’t really that many jeeps, really. The culture and scenery haven’t changed, the only thing which might change is a less servant/master relationship between Nepali and Westerns as the Nepali might actually have other things to sell other than their gracious smiles. Only thing to suggest to Nepal is to get the lodges a bit tidied up (say, clean the places sometimes) and to regularise the bus and jeep network (ticket and transfers) so it isn’t just unnecessary chaos. Then, then Nepal can really capitalise on Western (or Eastern) Tourists to their benefit.

    Also, make extensive use of the side trails to Ice Lake, Tilcho Lake (maybe a via Ferrata on the Jomson side?), Marepa’s Caves and all of these…as the Swiss have done. Worth doing? Yes!!! Want pure untouched precious wilderness?….go to Iceland, Canada, New Zealand or Australia for that kinda thing.

    • Cole, thanks for the on-the-scene reporting! Nice to hear you had a great walk. You did pick one of the quieter periods to be there – that is, outside of the three big months of October, November, and April. I’ve got to agree with your comments, including the one on having a realistic view of the nature of the trail – it is not a wilderness trek. This was something I myself had to wrap my head around!

    • Lyn, you’re right on missing the lush forests and fields at the lower altitudes if you zip right up to Chame. Clearly if you are going to speed up the entire trip, something has to give – and that includes the extra time to ensure acclimatization.

      The way I see it, if you were coming from Kathmandu with its 1400 m altitude, a great place to aim for the first night- assuming that you would take a bus or jeep ride instead of walking it – would be Dharapani at about 1900m, an acceptable 500m increase. Then the second day to Chame would only represent a 500 m increase in altitude.

      I should also mention that Manang has many possible day hike options and one could easily spend two or three nights there – walking high during the day in the surrounding hills and coming back down to Manang to sleep. This would certainly help with the acclimatization process. When I did the walk, we spent two nights at both Pisang and Manang. I still remember the visit to the monastary in Upper Pisang on our extra day there.

      If you can, take it slower and enjoy it more – and feel better doing it!

  5. previous last annapurna circuit i did on my own over 20 years ago….took 2 mates this last easter..the road has ruined this classic route and the tourist trade for the lower villages has been devastated

    • Anon, there is no denying that twenty + years of infrastructure development have changed the Annapurna Circuit. Among other things, it does illustrate the two-edged sword that tourism is.

      I am wondering if you made use of any of the side trails to avoid the main road or added on the Annapurna Sanctuary walk as a replacement for some of the busier road stretches? I would have thought that Easter time would be less busy than the prime October/November period.

      The guide book to alternative Annapurna trails mentioned in my post could have opened up some undiscovered delights. The second edition has just been released.

  6. I did the AC and Everest Treks (from Lukla) in 1990. I am very hesitant to do either again because of the new roads and accessibility for tourists ( I guess you know who I am talking about, the mobile phone camera snapping variety which have recently spoiled my Cambodia trip)… are there no alternative routes (Mustang region for instance?) that aren’t as affected?

    Thanks so much for this forum. It has been many years and as I am approaching 60 I would like to make this as memorable and spiritually uplifting an experience as it was 24 years ago. I am so concerned that it will be disappointing for me and my friends in 3 years’ time. Your advice will be much appreciated.

    • Jacob, we are getting older and everything around us is changing. Our own perspectives have also changed a bit since 1990. Do go back to the Annapurnas and Lukla – I know I plan to visit for a third time when I turn 65 in 2016 – but accept the fact that you’re not going to see exactly what you saw a quarter century ago! Well, the mountains will be still be the same but, as I point out in the post, road development has been extensive and you have to be a bit creative to avoid the road.

      One thing I plan to do is take a jeep ride from Jomson to Tatopani and use the time to do the walk up to Annapurna Base Camp instead – that stretch will still be free of roads. I still remember my initial disappointment in 1996 as I walked up the Khumbu Valley from Lukla surrounded by dozens and dozens of fellow hikers. Coming from a Canadian wilderness hiking background, I wondered – “What are all these people doing here?” It was only when I realized that they – and I – were all pilgrims walking up to the Holy of Holies together that I saw that my expectations had been creating some static for me!

      Yes, there are alternative walks in Nepal – but there is a reason why the Annapurna Circuit and the walk up to Gokyo and/or Everest Base Camp are so popular – they are the two most stunning walks.

      As for the hordes of cell phone camera picture takers – no escape. It will only get worse! What I love are the folks who pull out their iPads and hold them with outstretched arms to take the picture. Coming from a 35mm Nikon F3HP world, I still can’t see all this as anything but strange. Trapped again by my ideas of what is normal! I need to leave home equipped only with a iPad next time to force myself to get over it…

      Three years is a long time to wait for your next adventure – I hope you can fit something in there before then. Getting out there and seeing the world and how it’s changing is what keeps us alive! I’m currently reading a book on architecture in Burma to whet my appetite for my upcoming trip to Yangon. And just what was wrong with the name Rangoon?!

      It’s always nice to know someone reads my posts! Thanks for getting in touch.

      • There are several “unspoiled” areas still left, but unfortunately they require trekking permits (restricted area permits) and a guide. For elderly persons like us, I just turned 60, who have always used at least porters and often also guides this is not a problem.

        Possibly the best of these is now Manaslu Circuit especially if the Tsum Valley side trip is included. It is the “new AC”. It would take about 23 days, like the old full AC, but if enough time can be continued to AC, Naar-Pho and from there even to Manang, Dolpo etc.

        Another good candidate is Kanchenjunga, only that it requires 4 days of travel to get there and back. The full Kanchenjunga trek also takes 23-25 days KTM-KTM. Both of these treks mix Buddhist culture and village life to high alpine pastures and high 5000m+ passes.

        Upper Mustang is not roadless anymore, there has been a road from China to Lo Manthang for quite a while already, and trucks are also going there from the south during the dry season using the riverbed as road. Lo Manthang is still worth a visit, but permits are $500/week per person.

        There are two true wilderness routes from AC to Upper Mustang via Naar-Pho valley and either Saribung pass north-west from Phugaon, almost 6000m, or Mustang Pass from Naar, around 5500m. Both require full camping and take 7-12 days to complete between the last villages, including exploring Naar-Pho and Upper Mustang we are talking 20 to 30 days total.

        Dolpo is a world of its own, requires 3 weeks. Permits are expensive but there are few trekkers around. My dream trek is Manaslu-Tsum-NaarPho-Mustang-Dolpo, which would take at least 2.5 months to complete.

        The most spectacular permit-free route must be from Makalu BC to Khumbu, crossing the Barun Glacier at over 6000m and then Amphu Labtsa to Chhukhung Valley next to Nuptse-Lhotse south wall. It is a really demanding route, fitness, acclimatization and good weather required. Doing that with Kongma La, Cho La and Renjo La would make an ultimate 6-passes trek, 2 of which are over 6000m.

      • Petrus – thanks for the enticing list of alternative walks in Nepal for those of us who are too narrowly focussed on the Big Two of Annapurna and Kumbhu! Lately my free time has been spent on boreal forest canoe tripping; I need to put away my canoe paddle and get back to hiking more often!

      • Thanks TN. I’ve done some nice trekking in the north of India with a guide and ponies, but don’t know what that’s like these days.

      • Thanks for your insightful reply TN. Do tell us about your trip to Burma! All the best.

      • Jacob, check out Petrus’ menu of enticing Nepalese walks. You’ll have much to research over the next three years. Good luck making a choice!

      • Hi,
        Thank you so much for posting this article.

        I’m Burmese and have been living in LA for over thirty years. Recently I retired and trekking in Nepal is the one and only thing on my bucket list.

        I need some advice – in fact, a lot of advice. Doing it with email ok with you?

      • Ah, the bucket list! If you’ve been doing hikes in your backyard – California has some incredible places to hike – and have the basics down, then you may be able to organize a trip on your own. However, if you haven’t done a lot of hiking and trekking then it makes sense to leave the logistics to some professional outfit which has done the trip before.

        All you have to do is get in the best shape you can and show up with your $$ in hand and the trekking company will take care of the rest, including park fees, sleeping arrangements, and food. You could fly into Kathmandu and hire a local trekking company – or you could make use of a US or other trekking agency. Two small group adventure travel companies I have used are Exodus Travel based in the UK and G-Adventures based in Toronto. They both do an excellent job of locating Nepal-based agencies to work with. Their guides are always competent and they have offered their trips for years.

        For an idea of what is on offer see here: http://www.exodustravels.com/ca/nepal-holidays

        or here: https://www.gadventures.com/search/?f=3d6b26726fb5

        There are other companies that also do a fine job of taking care of all the details for you and saving you a lot of time and worry. The cost – it is more expensive than organizing everything yourself.

        Given that this is a “bucket list” item, I’d splurge and go with an agency like the two I mentioned. A successful trip with one of them will perhaps encourage you to add more adventures to your list and help you decide whether you can take more control of organizing them.

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  8. At 75 last year ..I’m reasonably fit…I did my last (*of three) trips on the Annapurna circuit. Disastrous! Coughing all the way as motorbikes, trucks and jeeps roared by. Impossible to avoid the traffic except for a few kilometres below Jomsom.
    If the Government wants to retain its income from trekkers it must find suitable alternatives.. Assuming, that is, that there will be ANY trekking visitors in view of the earthquake (which I missed by four days…)

    • Mike, congrats on your most recent circuit. While I am still a young 65, I am hoping that I’ll still be motoring like you are in a few years.

      As for the roads and traffic on the trail – it is sad to hear the negatives but I don’t doubt the truth of what you write. I am still contemplating a return visit in October of 2016 but am thinking of using some of those very roads to condense my time on the “circuit” and substitute a walk up to ABC from Ghorepani.

      The earthquake and its aftermath – the Langtang Valley looks like it was especially hard hit – continue to shock. Of all the places I’ve been to I think Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley and the trekking trails rank up at the top of places where it just felt really good to be. It is going to take a while for the people to get back on their feet. I do wonder exactly what role tourism should be playing in the rebuilding. Do we stay away while they recover – or will the return of the trekkers and tourists help speed up the recovery process?

      • I had that conversation soon after the earthquake with someone who works for the UN’s disaster recovery programme. Her thoughts were that they will need tourism more than ever to help with the financially crippling aftermath. Of course not right away, but maybe in a year’s time. I am hoping to do the AC for my 60th in two year’s time. I guess it will be even shorter by that time.

  9. Hi there,

    Just stumbled across this article while having a reminisce about doing the AC on our honeymoon 20 years ago. Very interesting read, as we have often talked about doing this again PK (post-kids). One of my very clear memories is the many changes in habitat as you go from Besisahar up to Manang – sounds like a real shame that the lower part of the walk is losing its identity as roads take over.
    In some ways it is probably selfish, as I’m sure roads will make a huge change to the quality of live for those Nepalis living in the valley – but it sounds like it would not be the same walk again.

    • Twenty years ago is when I was first there too! Given the new roads and the impact of the earthquakes, there will be no return to the past when you go back for another go-round! I plan on making use of some of the secondary trails away from the road. Still there is the magnificent mountain scenery and the Hindu/Buddhist cultural mix of the various communities on the trail.

      This September I am doing a trans-Cordillera Real trek and the route is nothing like the one my twenty-year-old guide books describe either. Thanks to mining activity on the east side of the range, our route will stay on the west side for most of the 16 days of the walk.

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  11. I keep thinking about it. I am not a trekker, but I do love to see new things and photograph beautiful vistas. This trek was highly recommended by a friend of mine, met on the side of a Canadian highway in the rockies. It does seem like a very fitting recommendation and you post is just bolstering my desire to fly out to Nepal and do it.

    • Vanished, walking in Nepal is special not only because of the mountainscape – the most spectacular in the world – but also because of the cultural component. The visible signs of religious belief – from small local shrines and stupas to massive temple complexes – makes for a different walk than a hike on a mountain trail in the Rockies or in Patagonia. If you’re into photography Nepal will provide you with endless inspiration.

      I am planning to return to the Annapurna region this fall. I also plan to set aside a week to visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley. The earthquakes of April 2015 affected some of the sites – I guess I want to see how well the temples survived.

      October-November is prime time for the Annapurnas or the Khumba valley. Best of luck in finding the time to get there!

      • Thanks a lot for the recommendation. If I do not make it to graduate studies next September, I’ll take it as an opportunity for a walkabout on the trail perhaps and check that off my ever expanding bucket list:)

      • And here I thought that the “bucket list” was something for old guys like the ones in the movie! Your walk through grad school is a bucket list item in itself. As the Tao Te Ching – Poem 47 – puts it –

        Without opening your door,
        you can know the whole world.
        Without looking out your window,
        you can see the way of heaven.

        The further you go,
        the less you know.
        The more knowledge you seek,
        the less you understand.

        The Sage understands without leaving,
        sees clearly without looking,
        accomplishes much without doing anything.

        Enjoy your studies!

  12. Hi!
    First of all, many thanks for this site – I’ve been planning to trek the Circuit with some friends and your extensive articles and knowledge have been invaluable. One question I’m hoping you can shed some light on, or at least offer a bit of advice – what the trek will be like during the monsoon season, or more specifically, how I can get up to date information on the weather and conditions of the trek in July? We had done a lot of research over the past few months that seemed to indicate that the trek would be wet, but doable – but very recently received information from a contact, a friend of a friend of a friend, who is living in Nepal and seemed to think that the circuit would not be trekkable at all. We were surprised, and now a little worried, unsure if we should change our plans for some shorter treks, or if this information may have been exaggerated.

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks again for the lovely blog.

    As an aside, I was browsing your ‘About’ page, and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is one of my favourite pieces of poetry. I carry it with me on most of my travels.

    Best,
    Deryn

    • Deryn, I’m glad to hear my post was of use in your planning. i did the trek during prime time – i.e. post monsoon time! It was early October which is probably the busiest month.

      As for July, I am not sure what to say! I did google “trekking the Annapura Circuit in July” and like you came up with a wide range of views. I did check the Exodus Travels, Mountain Kingdoms, and KE Adventures web sites to see what a few upscale small group adventure companies I have occasionally used do and none have anything scheduled between May and October! So – your call! It certainly won’t be as busy as during the prime season. Here is a weather profile for Pokhara for July – it is probably not applicable to the other side of the mountain range as you walk up the Marsyyandi valley from the Besi Sahar.

      http://www.myweather2.com/City-Town/Nepal/Pokhara/climate-profile.aspx?month=7

      Keep that copy of Four Quartets dry if you set off. BTW – i also have a small paper copy which comes along on my trips. I even have a digital version on my iPhone!

  13. Hi:

    A question if I may. We are planning on doing AC via NATT trails in Oct/Nov 2016. I want to carry a full pack at least to start (nothing against hiring porters, just want to try it on our own). I have been in Nepal before so I am aware that the altitude can really crush you, so I wanted to ask how easy it is to find porters once you are are out on the trails and at altitude. If, for example, we got to Manang how hard would it be he hire a porter to get us across the pass to say Muktinath? I’m guessing everything can be had for the right price, but just wondering how easy or difficult we might find this.

    Great site BTW.

    Thanks in advance for any insight.

    jordy

    • Jordy, as you write, the right price can get you most anything!

      While I personally would just cough up the $15. a day – I am not sure exactly what the going rate is – and have a porter carry the bulk of my stuff from Besi Sahar I am sure you can find someone in Manang who would porter the stretch over to Muktinath. He would then have to return to Manang and that might add a cost in itself.

      Prem Rai – premmainarai@hotmail.com – along with Andrees de Ruiter is the guy most responsible for getting the NATT trail going. The last time I emailed him early in 2016 he and Andrees were out for a month working on the trail. Prem and his wife also run a guide/porter agency out of Pokhara. When I do my return visit to the Annapurnas I plan to hire a porter that works for them and who knows the NATT well. You might ask him about the different costs of portering – from Besi Sahar, from Manang, etc.

      Good luck with your plans. I am sure they include travelling pretty light!

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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