Written by Sherry Ott
The Annapurna Circuit has been called one of the top 10 most beautiful hikes in the world. It winds around 4 regions of the Himalayas; Lamjung, Manang, Mustang and Myagdi. Each region has a rich with culture and personality, in addition to varied terrain. The trek normally takes around 16 to 18 days to complete and it begins in a different place than where it ends; making it a circuit hike.
You will witness some of the best scenery Nepal has to offer, but you will have to work to see it. The highest point of the trek occurs at Thorung La pass at 5417 meters /17,781 feet. Many people are worried about how fit you must be to do the complete circuit; it’s a long trek, but you don’t have to be in ‘Everest’ shape to do it. A moderate to above average fitness level is good, but mostly you have to have patience and mental stamina. The living conditions are very simple, and it’s a long trek; so be prepared.
This isn’t a trek up 17,781 feet and then down. Instead, you go up and down in an undulating fashion eventually making more up than down until you reach the pass. In addition, be aware you will cross many hanging bridges during this trek all with different stability and heights. If you are scared of heights, be prepared to push through your fears.
The villages and local culture rival the scenery when considering the best things about the circuit. You’ll stay in villages every night and meet locals running tea houses. In addition, as you trek along trail, you’ll see the locals out carrying on with their normal agricultural responsibilities everywhere. In some ways you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time about 50 years as you witness how the Nepalese work the land and provide for their families. Electricity is sporadic and heat comes in the form of burning coals and fires.
Besisahar to Manang (Lamjung District): This is farming country. The trail takes you through lush green terraced farming land giving you your first look at just how much a local can carry on his/her back; it is impressive. You roam through villages bustling with kids, and roadside stands selling fruit. The terrain is up and down but you can stop frequently to interact with the locals. At all times you will hear the sounds of rushing water as you seemingly weave around and over the many rivers carrying the cold water from the mountain peaks. Gradually you pass from terraced rice fields into evergreens and start to see the smooth rockface walls of the mountains. The air gets thinner and colder; and you‘ll get your first glimpse of the snowcapped peaks in the distance beckoning you to come closer.
Manang to High Camp (Manang District): Manang is an important stop on the circuit. It is usually reached after 7 days of hiking and it’s the place where all hikers stop and rest for a day of altitude acclimation. Manang is also one of the last villages to get supplies, medical help, and to really operate as a village. As you trek outside of Manang, the livable villages disappear and only small encampments of tea houses exist for tourists. The only locals living above Manang are the ones serving the tourists. The people may disappear, but the Yaks begin to appear. They like this high altitude, colder weather and graze on whatever green they can find. The color palette slowly changes from bright green to shades of brown. The trees disappear along with the people and at times you feel like you may be walking on the moon.
As you leave the comforts of Manang, you are now always going upwards as you work towards the pass. In order to reach the High Camp, you’ll have to make it up a challenging set of switchbacks, but the views are worth the sweat. During this section of the circuit, you’ll slow down considerably and have to be aware of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) striking and sending you back down the circuit.
Thorung La: The trek to the summit of Thorung La starts early before the sun comes up. This is the longest day of the trek; the trek up is slow and arduous and the trek down is long and challenging. The trail is covered in snow and you’ll be surrounded by snow capped peaks feeling as if you’re walking on top of the world. The pass itself is host to a small teahouse and colorful prayer flags whipping in the cold wind. You will feel as if you can touch the sun it is so close. Yet this is only your midpoint of the hike today. You have to go down 5,000 ft in order to reach the next livable village.
Muktinath to Marpha (Mustang District): The terrain changes drastically on this side of the pass; wide, empty river valleys filled with rocks greet you everywhere you look. The culture also changes as you pass into the Mustang District with a distinctively more Tibetan feel. Livable villages begin to appear again and once again you are soon surrounded by agriculture and children. The town of Marpha is a favorite village along the trail perfectly groomed with it’s red and white buildings. It also happens to be best known for it’s apples and serves up apple pie, apple crumble, and apple brandy.
Tatopani to Birethandi (Myagdi District): You know you are coming full circle as this part of the trail is much like the first in the Lamjung District. First a dip in the Tatopani hot springs is a must for your aching muscles. The next day you move back up and over the last mountain ranges. Terraced farming perched on steep mountain sides and up and down trekking resumes; this time with more down than up! You can get that one last great picture in Gorepani’s Poon Hill. Early morning trekkers get up before the sun to hike the hour upwards to photograph the sunrise over the Annapurna range.
Pokhara: This oasis town with its big, beautiful lake is a the perfect ending point. Here you can re-enter the modern world of restaurants, hotels, proper showers, and you can pick up all of your souvenirs.
Lodging on the trail comes in the form of Tea Houses. Tea houses along the circuit are an exercise in simplicity; in many cases they are a small step up from a tent. For $6 you can rent a room with two beds plus you must agree to eat your meals at their dining room. Typically the rooms had two little wooden beds with a pad on it; and sometimes extra bedding is provided. The electricity is sporadic and normally consisted of one little light bulb sputtering out light trying to illuminate the room. Keep in mind it’s also cold as you trek upwards towards the pass, and these tea houses are not heated in any way. The good news is that you’ll be so exhausted from hiking all day that you will sleep like a baby; even in these conditions.
It is possible to hike the circuit completely on your own and stay at tea houses, or even camp if you carry your own gear. However the most popular way is to hire a porter and/or a guide to accompany you as the prices are cheap and it’s nice to have some help carrying your bag as well as learn more about the culture. You can also trek the circuit as part of a larger tour group. These groups normally have a number of porters and the group camps instead of staying in tea houses. You are easily able to locate tour groups, guides, and porters in Kathmandu or Pokhara. However, it is best if you can find a group or guide via recommendations of friends or others who have completed the circuit. Eighteen days is a long time to spend with someone if you are unhappy with their services.
If you don’t have 18 days to do the full circuit there are a number of shorter options that include flights, buses, and jeeps. Roads and alternate transportation mainly exist in the Mustang District and are full of controversy as people are concerned the roads will make the Annapurna circuit obsolete.
This will be one trip you’ll never forget as you feel as if you touch the sky as well as really touch the culture of Nepal.
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcase to Backpack, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice. She also runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at Ottsworld .
Sherry hiked the Annapurna circuit with her 73 year old father in October of 2009. She has chronicled the story in a free, downloadable ebook titled The Tiger Balm Tales. The book provides a detailed look at what the circuit is really like (accommodations, terrain, food), and the heartwarming stories of a daughter traveling with her father. It also includes a resource section regarding recommended guides and lodging in Kathmandu.
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