Trekking the Annapurna Circuit

Everest Base Camp may boast the famous name, but the Annapurna Circuit more than makes up for its lack of an illustrious moniker. Offering perhaps the most varied scenery and terrain of any of Nepal’s great hikes – and certainly the longest distance – the Annapurna Circuit takes trekkers from the lush rice-paddies of the Himalayan foothills, over dizzying spans of swinging suspension bridges, through vast glacial valleys to dusty high-altitude moonscapes. The route is backed, perpetually, by the dramatic, snow-covered peaks of the Annapurna range, some of the highest mountains in the world.

In majority at a lower altitude, and therefore arguably less strenuous than the Everest Base Camp trek, the Annapurna Circuit is considered to be an excellent, accessible introduction to high-altitude hiking in the Himalayas. Don’t be fooled by this gentle-sounding generalisation though – the Annapurna Circuit is still a challenging, demanding trek that requires preparation, fitness and a healthy amount of respect for the mountain terrain.

Annapurna Circuit vs Annapurna Sanctuary – what’s the difference?

Two treks in the same region – sometimes with a few overlapping sections – but essentially completely separate itineraries. The Annapurna Circuit encircles the world’s 10th highest mountain (Annapurna I) and a variety of other 7000m+ behemoths in a route that takes almost three weeks to complete in full, although shorter options are possible. The Annapurna Sanctuary trek is another beautiful hike but an in-and-out linear route to the Base Camp at Annapurna I that takes around 10 to 11 days and gains less altitude than its circular equivalent.

Practicalities

Most treks will transfer you by road from Kathmandu directly to the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit at Besisahar (a 6 hour, often bumpy journey), and arrange a flight back to the capital from Pokhara after your trek has ended. On tailor-made, bespoke treks you can choose to extend your time in Pokhara should you wish, while many small group tours give you at least an afternoon free in this picturesque lakeside city before you depart.

To trek the Annapurna Circuit you’re going to need a TIMS (Trekkers’ Information Management System) card and an ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) permit before heading out on the trail and these permits are checked at several checkpoints along the way. Your Annapurna trekking specialist – whether you’re planning a bespoke, tailor-made adventure or joining a small group tour – will provide you with further detailed information and help arrange these for you.
On all organised tours – tailor-made or small group – you’ll be equipped with a porter (or porters for a large group) and guide who will travel with you for the duration of the trek. Tipping at the end of your trek is expected – and can be a key way to ensure that porters in particular are receiving a fair wage for their work. Have a chat with your vacation specialist before you leave so you know what amounts are expected and how to distribute the money.

Should you need to pick up any last minute trekking gear then the Thamel district of Kathmandu is an Aladdin’s cave of hiking supplies – although quality varies. Get your boots, at least, before you travel though – you’ll want them to be well-worn-in before you head out on the Annapurna trails. Alternatively, should you need an emergency mid-trek replacement, a few (expensive) shops in Manang sell some trekking gear, sun cream and other useful bits and bobs.

The trek – an overview

All guided trips, and the vast majority of independent trekkers, will follow an anticlockwise route around the circuit – allowing for more gradual altitude gain and an easier, safer ascent of the Thorong La pass.

Besisahar to Manang

Following this route, the trek starts in the small town of Besisahar at just 760m before climbing up through paddy fields and subtropical forest into the Annapurna Conservation Area. You’ll head through the Marsyangdi Valley – where lowland Gurung villages give way to more Tibetan cultures – until you reach Manang (3,519m) on approximately day 8. Here, most treks will pause to give you an acclimatisation and rest day – enjoying a short hike to a beautiful glacial lake or just gently exploring the village’s busy streets, overshadowed by the Gangapurna and Annapurna mountains.

Manang to Thorong La pass

From Manang you’ll head even higher – up over the Thorong La pass (5,614m) on day 12 to 15 of your trek. Before you reach the pass some itineraries will include a side trip to the stunning glacial Tilicho Lake (4,918m) – which offers additional acclimatisation days before you reach the trek’s highest point at Thorong La. This is a good option to increase your trekking days if you’ll be finishing in Jomsom.

Muktinath to the Kali Gandaki Valley

From the pass you’ll descend back down to the Hindu and Buddhist temple at Muktinath and the town of Jomsom (2,743m). Some treks end here with a light aircraft flight to Pokhara while others will continue down the spectacular Kali Gandaki Valley – the deepest gorge in the world – via the pretty mountain village of Marpha to the end point at Ghorepani (2,855m).

While the new road has made the trail less scenic and dustier after Jomsom, don’t be tempted to dismiss the route’s more verdant lower reaches. Alternative trails taking you off the road are being developed and the views are as spectacular as those from the high passes. A bonus at Ghorepani is the option to spend your final trekking morning watching the sunrise from Poon Hill, where the surrounding Annapurna, Dhaulagiri and Machhapuchhare mountains – among the highest in the world – glow pink in the soft morning light.

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Camping vs teahouses

If you’re planning to trek the Annapurna Circuit you’ll be faced with two accommodation options – camping, or the plethora of teahouses which line the route. The prevalence of these small guesthouses means that there’s no need spend a night under canvas unless you want to, but there are a few benefits to the wilder, camping experience.

Campsites are chosen for their scenic locations – usually in or near the traditional, small Nepalese villages you’ll pass. On small group tours your tents will be set up in advance of your arrival by your expedition staff – and three meals a day will be provided for you by your expedition cooks. Food is hearty, prepared hygienically, and filling – a range of Nepalese and Western offerings from dal bhat to pizza – and you’ll be surprised at how the kitchen team can create such masterpieces over simple kerosene stoves! You’ll eat in designated dining tents, which also double up as space to relax in the evening and enjoy the company of your team and guides. And with all meals included you won’t need to carry any cash to purchase food from the teahouses along the way.
Nicola Croom from our trekking experts World Expeditions, which run their own campsites along the Annapurna Circuit explains the responsible tourism reasons they choose to camp: “Ever since our inception in 1975 we have opted to offer camping over teahouse lodging to help combat the very real problem of deforestation, which presents a serious threat to life and bio-diversity in the mountain communities. Lodges rely heavily on wood collected from nearby forests in order to fuel fires to cook food, heat water and warm the common areas; in contrast, at our camps we cook with kerosene or gas. Just as importantly, through camping we are able to employ around 25% more people than teahouses”.

Teahouses

That’s not to say the teahouses are a non-responsible choice. The livelihoods of many local people depend on tourists visiting, eating and staying in the Annapurna’s network of guesthouses – and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project offers low-interest loans to teahouse owners to help them invest in more sustainable heating options – from solar energy to a network of kerosene stores.

Life in the teahouses revolves around the central dining room, where you’ll eat, socialise with other trekkers and keep warm on chilly evenings. Expect colourful Nepali woven textiles and a convivial, cosy atmosphere. Usually the dining room will be heated but often the basic, usually twin-share but sometimes dormitory-style bedrooms are not and you’ll need a decent four-season sleeping bag (especially at higher elevations) to keep you toasty at night. Toilet facilities vary in quality – and some may be in a block outside – but there are more and more western-style toilets replacing more traditional Asian squat ones and increasing numbers of guesthouses are offering en suite facilities and electric lights in your room. Don’t expect a hot shower at the end of every day – although solar-powered showers are available at some lodges (others may offer just a bucket of hot water) and will need to be paid for.
There’s a surprisingly wide variety of food on offer at the teahouses – considering how remote you’ll be. As well as the ubiquitous dal bhat, you’ll also find noodles, spaghetti, momo (Nepali stuffed dumplings), potatoes, vegetable soups, rice and eggs. You can even pick up bottles of beer, snickers bars and other luxuries – but don’t expect haute cuisine – this is not a region famed for its culinary greatness – and while the food is generally hearty, filling and surprisingly tasty even the variety on offer can get a little repetitive by day 16.

The higher up into the Himalayas you get, the more basic the accommodation and the less choice you have regarding food. Prices also increase at higher elevations – unsurprising when you remember everything has to be carried in and out by yak when the road runs out. And although most of the teahouses have electricity this is unreliable and you will be expected to pay per hour to charge phones, ipads or cameras. Our top tip? Pack a torch – for night-time toilet trips, in case of power outages and for evening reading – even at full power the electric lights can be dim at best.

New roads through the Annapurna

Road development has been ongoing for the past decade and now reach as far as Muktinath on the Kali Gandaki side of the trek, and Manang on the Marsyangdi valley side. We use the term ‘road’ loosely – these are essentially narrow jeep tracks over uneven, rocky and dusty terrain with often vertiginous drops to one side. There has been concern, rightly so, that the new roads are detracting from the pristine, wilderness experience for which the Annapurna has become known.

Andrew Appleyard, from our leading Nepal trekking experts Exodus Travels shares his thoughts: “There are jeep trails between Pokhara and Ghandruk, for example, but you don’t follow these much while you’re walking. You will cross them perhaps twice as you hike, but you’ll mainly be following a different, off-road route. Realistically you will come across the roads – but there is little traffic on them and this tends to be mostly in the first and last one or two days of the trek as you get less remote and closer to the trailheads”.

Small group vs tailor-made treks

A sociable, enjoyable way to trek, with the added security of an expert guide for the entirety of your time in Nepal, small group tours of the Annapurna Circuit will see you join a group between 4 and 16 like-minded fellow travelers – with a team of guides and porters supporting you along the way. You’ll likely have some free time to do what you want in Kathmandu and Pokhara – and your rest day in Manang – but otherwise your day-to-day itinerary is quite fixed. There’s a real sense of team achievement, however, when the trip comes to an end – and you’ll find you make long-lasting friends along the way as you support each other through the trek’s more challenging sections.

Tailor-made treks offer a more flexible approach – with departure dates and itineraries crafted to suit you. If you fancy spending a few more days in Pokhara after your trek, no problem, if you’d like to add in a few days to hike to Tilicho Lake before crossing the Thorong La pass, feel free. You could even add a few days on safari in Royal Chitwan National Park before you head home. On the trek itself you can expect your own private guide and a porter, who will accompany you for the duration of the walk, all arranged (along with your accommodation and transport) by your tailor-made trekking specialists.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Yongyut Kumsri] [Intro: Simon English] [Practicalities: Greg Willis] [Besisahar to Manang: pawankawan] [Camping vs teahouses: Matt Zimmerman] [Teahouses: Ritesh Man Tamrakar]
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