The Annapurna Circuit is a classic trek that used to be considered one of the most beautiful hikes in Nepal. The circuit goes through incredibly varied terrain; taking you first through paddy fields and dense forests, before passing steep cliffs and gorgeous mountainscapes as it traces the Marsyangdi valley ever upwards. The trek can last for between one to three weeks and can cover between 150 to 300 kilometres depending on where one begins and ends the trek, as well as how extensively the side trails are explored. The circuit itself encircles the Annapurna massif, with the two side trails of the glacial tarn of Tilicho Lake (elevation : 4920m) and the glacial basin of Annapurna Sanctuary (elevation : 4130m) straddling the north and south of Annapurna I (elevation : 8091m), the 10th highest mountain in the world. The Annapurna Circuit crosses the Thorong La Pass (elevation : 5416m) at its highest point before descending rapidly towards arid Kagbeni (elevation : 2800m), which lies alongside the incredibly deep Kali Gandaki gorge, and is the gateway into Upper Mustang as well as the Tibetan Plateau (Tibetan: བོད་ས་མཐོ།). This rapid descent is the very reason why the circuit is almost always traveled anti-clockwise as the gradual ascent to the high-altitude pass dramatically decreases the chances of trekkers getting sick from the altitude.
Interactive Location Map
The plan this time around was not only to test out these NATT routes and to trek the Annapurna Circuit before the roads completely destroyed the region but also to hike during the monsoon season. Despite the central parts of the circuit being deep within the rain shadow that is cast by the Annapurna massif, trekking the circuit in the monsoon still poses its own set of challenges. I did however find that there were also some very obvious advantages:
1) Since the Annapurna Circuit is one of the most popular and well-beaten trails in the whole of Nepal, it indubitably attracts hoards of tourists. Hiking in the low-season avoids these trekker 'conveyor belts' and will give you a lot more space to breathe.
2) The lack of crowds makes it easier to get rooms. If you avoid the large villages and stop at the 'satellite hamlets' like we did, there is a high chance that you will be the only guest at the guesthouse. In fact, out of the 15 days during which we were up in the mountains, we had the guesthouse to ourselves for 10 of them. This way, you will definitely be able to negotiate for cheaper rates. We decided to purchase breakfast, instead of eating the food we had brought along, at the guesthouses that decided to waive the accommodation costs (which were at least half of them).
3) The plentiful rain brings with it never-ending and beautifully vibrant wildflowers and ubiquitous waterfalls. The volume of water was so high that the torrential waterfalls caused the river below to churn with dramatic violence.
1) The rain clouds and incessant mist obscured the views of the mountains more often than we liked.
2) Leeches. To be fair, we were only attacked by leeches on one out of the 15 days. Nonetheless, we were still left with 50-60 bites all over our ankles.
3) Landslides were very prevalent. Although this does not affect walking access on the trails all that much, it is a significant obstacle to vehicles. When planning your descent down the mountain by vehicle, please do take this into consideration.
I also decided to set a few challenges for myself. The first was to enter and exit the range by using public buses only: I had heard from several different sources that there were syndicates that controlled vehicular access to the roads, and that apparently these syndicates imposed fees on certain types of vehicles, and were even inclined to use force against those who refused to comply. I could not find a way to verify this information and thus decided to just avoid the 4WD services that could be found in most of the towns. I also decided to bring a completely different set of Olympus lenses for my camera: instead of the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO and Olympus M.Zuiko ED 60mm f2.8 Macro (my go-to combination for outdoor activities), I brought with me the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 8mm f/1.8 FE PRO and Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f/1.8, two much faster but highly-specialised prime lenses.
The Annapurna Conservation Area is Nepal's first and largest conservation zone, and has been set up to protect the Annapurna massif and the biodiversity-rich areas that surround it (entry into which requires an ACAP permit). This initiative is quite vital as the number of tourists that have flocked to this region has soared over the years--the region currently attracts about 60% of the total number of trekkers that visit Nepal. This is not only due to the cultural and natural richness of the region, but also because of its accessibility; the range is so close to the city of Pokhara that trekkers are able to reach Annapurna Base Camp (elevation : 4130m) in just a matter of days.
This surge in popularity has resulted in the establishment of thousands of guesthouses [I intentionally choose to use the term 'guesthouse' instead of 'teahouse' to distinguish between lodges that cater to trekkers and the authentic Nepali teahouses], as well as other services to accommodate the trekkers' whims and fancies. The consumption of wood in the region stresses forest resources, and to make matters worse, visiting trekkers consume multiple times more wood, either directly or indirectly, than the locals do.
The amount of litter that is generated is another matter of concern. It is estimated that an average trekking group of 15 trekkers generates about 15kg of non-biodegradable waste on a 10-day trek, which amounts to tonnes of waste produced in the mountains annually. As such, the reduction of my ecological footprint when in the mountains was of paramount importance to me. So to keep it low, I decided to do the following: