Annapurna Circuit - March 2012


Christine has wanted to walk the Annapurna Circuit ever since we made our first trip to Nepal about 9 years ago.  It's the trek that the guides usually offer up as their favorite and with all the talk of the route being spoilt by a road we thought it would be best to try and enjoy it before it was too late.  The plan involved both of us joining a group for the three week trip, with me joining another group at the end to walk up Mera Peak.  Six weeks in Nepal should be a doddle after six months walking across Europe.
Annapurna Circuit


The Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp are by far and away the most popular treks in Nepal and I suspect that, if anything,  Annapurna is the more popular of the two.  Although it doesn't have the same iconic destination it's more accessible.  The usual benefit quoted for the Annapurna Circuit is that you start relatively low and gradually work your way up through different climate zones, experience rural Nepal on the way, and have time to acclimatise for the Thorang La pass  which, at 5416 metres, is the highest point  on the route.

Typical room in a tea house
Tea House at Jagat
Like the Everest Base Camp trip, accommodation  is provided in "tea houses".  Tea houses are a sort of rural guest house but developed specifically for trekkers.  Although accommodation is getting better all the time, tea houses are still fairly primitive.  They provide an unheated room, usually with a couple of thin mattresses, and increasingly (if you’re lucky) some sort of ensuite toilet.  All the tea houses  serve food and have a very similar menu.  The food is cheap and wholesome, although not particularly tasty.

Our Leader
Whenever we go to Nepal we go with a travel company, nearly always the British company Exodus.  We have always had good trips with them and have got used to the way they do business.  Having had a bad experience on one of our trips (with KE), who used a British tour leader, we particularly like the fact that Exodus use Nepalese guides for nearly all their trips.  The Nepalese trekking industry is perhaps the most developed in the world. They have excellent highly experienced people and crucially, unlike their British equivalents, the Nepalese guides speak Nepalese as well as English.

You don't have to go with a travel company and lots of people self organise, book direct with the Nepalese from home or find a guide and a porter on arrival in Kathmandu.  A small minority of people even do it without a guide although of course you will still need the required permits to travel the trails.  Carrying your own stuff is a tough option - given the range of temperature you are likely to experience you need more gear than in Europe and the altitude makes carrying loads hard work - but a few still adopt this approach.
Porters on the move

Personally I enjoy walking with a group in Nepal and although some groups are more fun than others we have always got on with the people we’re with.  A group, supported by guides and porters, is also part of the Nepalese approach to "expedition" trekking.  The Nepalese trekking model was developed by Lt Col James Roberts, an officer with the Gurkhas who cut his teeth climbing and then supporting trips to some of the world's highest mountains.  This included Sir Chris Bonington's first Himalayan summit in 1960 (Annapurna 2) and the logistics for the brilliant American Everest expedition which made the first ever traverse of the world's highest summit three years later Roberts established the world's first professional trekking company, Adventure Travel, in 1964.  The model is now used by every adventure travel company in the world and has been hugely influential in the way trips like these are managed.

On a route like the Annapurna Circuit you also meet a much bigger fraternity of trekkers which I must admit I get a lot of pleasure from.  It's incredibly international with French, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, US, Canadians and others.  Because you are all engaged in essentially the same activity everyone has a lot in common and conversation on the trail and in the tea houses comes easy.  Not only is everyone doing the same thing but they are generally following the same itinerary, so you may see some day after day and often share the same adventures.

It's also the case that the band of trekkers - pushing its way around the trail  lives in a distinct and separate world from the rest of Nepal.   Nepal is so poor that a parallel universe for the trekker has been constructed; a world where the trekker eats, drinks and sleeps and which, by and large, is not used by the Nepalese.  This includes the hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu and Pokhara, the transport that takes the trekkers to the start and finish of treks, and the tea houses on the treks themselves.  The tea houses may be primitive but if it wasn't for the trekkers they wouldn't be there.

Perhaps the best example of this is the food you eat.  In the tea houses you can now get all sorts of food and increasingly you can get meat, particularly yak and chicken.  Nepalese however don't, generally speaking don't eat any of it.  The food you get in Nepal is therefore a Nepalese stab at what it is they think foreigners like, a stab not really informed at all by their own tastes. My favourite factual nugget is that 22 of Nepal’s 24 million population eat Dhal Bat, essentially vegetable curry with a lentil sauce and rice, twice a day, 365 days a year.

Dhaulagiri
So you are in a special world, a trekker's world, but at least on the Annapurna Circuit this is a stunningly beautiful world.  I have started low and worked my way up before - particularly on a trip to Kanchenjunga Base Camp - and in these cases the scenic fireworks take some time to explode.  This isn't the case on the Annapurna and after 2/3 days you are treated to amazing scenery. You start with Manaslu, (an 8,000 plus metre peak), then Langtang Himal, Annapurna II and IV, Annapurna III and Gangapurna and of course two more 8,000 metre peaks with Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri.  The scenery is also varied - it includes the deep valleys cut by fast flowing rivers, the huge glaciated valleys slightly higher up and, on the western side, a huge flat bottomed, gravel filled and wind blasted gorge that sits between Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri and is claimed to be the deepest in the world.  Finally, at Poon Hill (other viewing points are available apparently) you get to see the whole lot - from Manaslu to Dhaulagiri, huge bookends to the Annapurna's including South Annapurna and the legendary Macchupucchre, the Fishtail Mountain.

The trek I went involved 17 days of walking.  After a bus journey from Kathmandu to Besisahar we walked everyday (although one day, at Manang, was an acclimatisation day) all the way round the circuit to Birethanti.  We stopped for a night and a day in the lovely town of Pokhara before taking an internal flight back to Kathmandu.  Most days we walked for about 5/6 hours although there are two fairly tough days in the overall itinery, the climb over Thorang La and towards the end the climb up to Ghorepani.
Descending from Thorang La

Personally I didn't find the walking too difficult although this was not the case for everyone in the group.

Its very tempting to recycle existing gear on a trip like this but you should be careful.  For example my thermal running leggings were not up to the job and several other people suffered from sub-standard sleeping bags and gloves and generally clothes without enough warmth in them.  Although the dining area for the tea huts tended to be heated as you got higher up, and supplementary blankets were often provided, its surprising how often you found yourself sitting around in freezing cold hut waiting for a fire to be lit.

Based on my experience you shouldn't count on a settled weather in Nepal.  In March this year it felt like at best early spring but others would call it late winter.  Apart from the rhododendrons and the magnolia there is was little colour in the vegetation, and we got fresh snow crossing the Thorang La.  We had some amazing weather on the north side of the route, in the traditionally drier valley near Manang, but it was cloudy higher up. It's supposed to be warmer in the spring than in the peak walking season in the autumn, but at altitude it still felt cold to me.

On the new road
What about the road, and is it really spoiling what is supposed to be one of the best treks in the world? Well it might be, but hopefully the Nepalese will get a grip of the situation and it won't.  What is really changing the trek is not the road as such but the number of trekkers.  The volume of trekkers is causing the growth in the number of tea houses - the limitations of the existing trail makes it hard to support these tea houses with mule trains and porters. With the cost of building roads coming down as JCBs arrive, a new road is inevitable.  If the old trail, itself a fabulous ancient trail, can be preserved for trekkers alongside the new road - itself a rough dirt track - than it might not be a disaster.

The Group (almost!)
So after a week at home, three weeks after I finished the trip and with Mera Peak in between, what do I now think about the trip?  Well I enjoyed it enormously, was never bored, although just occasionally just a but disappointed with the weather.  The scenery was amazing.  One thing which is just a bit unfortunate is that Thorang La, the high pass, hits you just past half way around the trail, and you have a long way to go after this - you don't have the triumphal return from the summit you get from some other trips.  The group was also great fun, lots of interesting characters, 10 is a particularly good number and the mix of age and gender also helped.  Lots of people cracking jokes.

I think I also understand why the guides love the Annapurna Circuit.  Not only is it a great walk, from a guides point of view it's both relatively easy and good fun.

What I would say, and I think Christine feels the same, is that the Annapurna Circuit, increasingly accessible to more and more people, is perhaps no longer quite the "adventure trip" we had perhaps hoped for.  We had adventures, particularly crossing Thorang La in the snow, but if you're sharing a trail with hundreds of others it's bound to have an impact.  Still there is no need to dispair, there are plenty of other places to go to, some of which are described in terms of "what the Annapurna used to be like" and that's what we will be looking for when we go back to the Himalayas next year.

The links to the day by day diary are as follows:

Annapurna Circuit  Day 1 Bhulebule
Annapurna Circuit  Day 2 Jagat
Annapurna Circuit Day 3 Dharapani
Annapurna Circuit Day 4 Chame
Annapurna Circuit Day 5 Pisang
Annapurna Circuit Day 6 Manang
Annapurna Circuit Day 7 at rest
Annapurna Circuit Day 8 Yak Kharka
Annapurna Circuit Day 9 Thorung Phedi
Annapurna Circuit Day 10 The Thurung La Pass
Annapurna Circuit Day 11 Kagbeni
Annapurna Circuit Day 12 Marpha
Annapurna Circuit Day 13 Larjung
Annapurna Circuit Day 14 Ghasa
Annapurna Circuit Day 15 Tatopani
Annapurna Circuit Day 16 Ghorepani
Annapurna Circuit Day 17 Birethanti


14 comments:

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  2. http://www.nepalguideinfo.com/Gokyo-Chola-Pass-Trek.php

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  3. Annapurna Circuit trekking
    This trek normally people can do twelve days up to eighteen days which starts from Lamjung District where drive from Kathmandu to Besisahar by car or by local bus exploring the view through the longest marsyangdi river of Nepal and rewarding trek , providing many opportunity to explore the scenery of both the northern and southern Himalayan scenery . From thick fir and rhododendron forests to the harsh , thin atmosphere of the Tibetan plateau , the ethnic groups encountered , lowland Hindu& Highland Buddhist are the major varied as the landscape .
    The Annapurna circuit trekking along the marsyangdi river and explore Buddhist monastery
    (Braga village ) and others .High point of the trek is manang village which offers the best panoramic view of the( Annapurna ii) ,( Annapurna iii) and Ganggapurna , then hiking up to Thorung pass ( 5416m) trek to down Muktinath temple which is most famous for Vishnu’s sacred to both Hindu and Buddhist religion and many sadhu gather there.
    Tropical Kali Ghandaki Gorge , a busy Pilgrimage and trade route controlled by Thakali and mustang tribes
    This trek will end either by fly jomsom to pokhara or continues trek through the Ghorepani to Nayapul and drive back to Pokhara .
    http://www.nepalguidetrekking.com/Annapurna-Region/annapurna-circuit-trek.php

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  4. hi thanks for your informative information! :) Also may i know if the guest houses require prior booking/reservations? i plan to go in May. ^^

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    1. Thanks for the comment, sorry to be so slow replying

      There are lots of guest houses (called Tea Houses) on the Circuit and you won't have a problem finding somewhere to stay

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  5. Sanjib Adikhari ist recomended 2010 by German trekkers Sabine and Frank from Berlin

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