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:
Reducing your footprint
The local buses to Besisahar (elevation : 760m), Bhulbhule (elevation : 840m), and to Pokhara , leave from the Naya ("New") Bus Park, which is also known as Gongabu Bus Park . The TIMS & ACAP counters on the other hand, are not only located in Maligaon, but can also be found at the Nepal Tourism Board near Ratna Park, which is located just east of Thamel. As such, we decided to find a hotel somewhere in between Naya Bus Park and Thamel so that everything was within walking distance. Hotel Rising Home turned out to be just perfect.
I really wish I had discovered Hotel Rising Home sooner, as it would have saved me a great deal of time and hassle on all my trips to Nepal over the years. The hotel has great value (NPR1070 per night for a room for two), is strategically located for those who plan to take the local buses that head westward and who do not mind walking around, and most importantly, is neat and clean. Chandan, the owner, speaks excellent English and is helpful and very willing to impart information and stories from his seven years of guiding experience.
The items that I brought with me were almost identical to what I had brought on the Annapurna Base Camp trip. I did make a few changes to the list however, since it was summer (monsoon) this time around, such as omitting the Outdoor Research Stormtracker Gloves, and replacing the Mountain Designs Firefly Softshell Jacket with the Mountain Designs Monsoon 13 GTX Rain Jacket. Since I was planning to use my Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 8mm f/1.8 FE PRO to take CFWA (Close Focus Wide Angle) shots, I decided to bring the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f/1.8 instead of the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8 Macro for increased reach when shooting close-ups of the distant mountains.
|01.One Planet Strezlecki (85l) (Gridlock Waterproof Canvas) 02.North Face Sleeping Bag (Gore Dry Loft, 80% goose down 700 fill, -20 degrees rating) 03.Morakniv Garberg (Bushcraft Knife) 04.Suunto Buff 05.Outdoor Research Stormtracker Gloves 06.360 Degrees Stainless Steel Bottle 07.Camelbak StoAway 08.Salomon S-Lab Peak 20 (20l) 09.Mountain Designs Firefly Softshell Jacket 10.Salomon S-Lab X Alp Mid Hoodie (Mid Layer) 11.Salomon S-Lab X Alp Pro Pant 12.Blackhawk Medic Roll (Expedition-grade Medical Kit)||13.Epinephrine Kit 14.LED Lenser P7.2 15.Olympus M.Zuiko ED 60mm f2.8 Macro 16.Black Diamond ReVolt Headlamp 17.Sawyer Mini Water Filter 18.Suunto Spartan Ultra All Black Titanium 19.Survival Kit with Suunto A-10 Compass 20.Kindle Paperwhite 21.Travel Documents & Notebook 22.Jetboil Zip (Ultra-portable cooking system) 23.GoalZero Guide 10 Plus Solar Kit 24.Salomon X-Ultra 3 GTX|
Please note though, that the image does not include the food that I brought with me, as well as the camera that was used to take the photo (Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 8mm f/1.8 FE PRO). The full list of all the equipment that I own and use can be found on my '100 item list'.
Since I already had Dexamethasone and Acetazolamide, I decided to drop by one of the pharmacies in Thamel just to stock up on Nifedipene (NPR35), in order to complete my array of high-altitude medication. Nifedipene is a medication that is used for High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which is a dangerous condition where fluid leaks from the capillary beds in the lungs and into the alveoli. The drug is said to work by reducing pressure by relaxing the heart muscles and blood vessels. Of course, medication is nowhere near as effective as immediate descent to lower elevations when treating AMS, HAPE, and HACE. Immediate descent is always the definitive treatment.
The TIMS and ACAP permits are the only other permits that you will need other than the Nepal visa itself, which costs USD40 (NPR4400) for 30 days. We arrived at the Nepal Tourism Board before 14:00, just as the staff were returning from their lunch break. The office was very large with relatively clean toilets as well as drinking water dispensers, so we took the opportunity to refill our 3-litre water bladders to the brim. The Nepal Tourism Board even had a photo exhibition at that time that was in conjunction with the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. The exhibition showcased the cultures and traditions of the various indigenous communities that are found in Nepal, and highlighted their plight and marginalisation.
The application processes for the permits were extremely fast. We filled up two forms and had them ready by the time the counters had reopened. Unlike in Pokhara , the centre had no service for passport photos, so we had obtained a set of four beforehand. We first went to the ACAP counter and made the payment of NPR2300, and then made our way straight to the TIMS counter (NPR2000). A minute or two later we were done! We then made our way back out and had 'lafing' as a snack (NPR50), before heading to Gorakhali Foodland for dinner, which was the cheapest food we could find that was close to Thamel. After a scrumptious meal of vegetable thali (NPR150) and buff momo (NPR110), we returned to the hotel to pack and to get ready for an early night's sleep.
We woke up at the crack of dawn and began the 20-minute walk north to Naya Bus Park . We walked at a fairly relaxed pace and arrived well before 07:00. The rows of ticketing counters were located in the central building, but to our dismay, we discovered that there were no direct buses to Bhulbhule (elevation : 840m) and would have to make a switch at Besisahar (elevation : 760m). The bus was a little small and fairly packed, but for such a long journey, it was well-worth the price of just NPR360. Just before setting off, we were surprised when the bus touts told us that we would have to pay another NPR200 just to store each backpack on the roof! We were only able to fit just one backpack under our legs, so just had to comply. I climbed up on the roof with the two boys (I am very sure they were just teenagers), and had to resort to supervising them after seeing their rather inept way of placing the backpack. They secured the bag with clove hitches and two slipknots which I was fairly happy with, but I had to spend a few minutes convincing them that a tarp to cover the bag was indeed necessary. It was monsoon season afterall. I only paid them the money after I was completely satisfied, and the bus departed soon after, at 07:25.
The eight hour-long journey left me completely drained and exhausted, far more than a tough hike ever would have. The road was bumpy and narrow, and the ceaseless swerving and the constant blaring of Hindi music was a complete assault to my senses. The 170-kilometre journey followed roads that ran parallel to rivers for almost the entire way, except for the first 50 kilometres or so. The first major river that we encountered was the Trishuli River, which begins its long journey from the border of China and Nepal north of Kathmandu, and drains the Langtang massif. 60 kilometres further on, we reached the confluence of the Trishuli River and the mighty Marsyangdi River, the latter of which we would follow for the rest of the journey. Just south of this confluence is the Seti Gandaki River which runs from Pokhara, and not too long after that, the confluence of the Kali Gandaki River which drains the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna massifs to the west of the Annapurna Circuit, as well as the Annapurna Sanctuary via the Modi Khola River.
The food outlet that the bus stopped at was much cheaper than the ones that are frequented by the tourist buses. The vegetable khana lunch only cost NPR180 instead of the normal tourist price of around NPR250 or so. We were also entertained by a hilarious conversation amongst a large group of very typical U.S. women who had stopped for a toilet break. They were discussing how one would go about using a squat toilet: 'techniques' such as which direction to face, how low to squat, and how to balance oneself. We were not surprised in the slightest that they were from 'Good ol' U.S of A'.
After lunch, the bus continued to follow the river which swerved north at Bandipur, and departed from the main road that continued west on its way to Pokhara. The bus passed lush green forests that covered the hills and vast swaths of vibrant green paddy fields (
The bus to Bhulbhule departed at 16:30 from the side of the main road. The journey was bumpy to say the least, and was akin to an off-road journey that is usually only managed by 4WD vehicles. At least the short but frequent stops to pick up and drop off passengers provided us with some respite. The bus stopped at Khudi (elevation : 790m), which was the location of the trail head for the alternative trail to Siurung, where we met a loquacious and very friendly man called Rupesh. After talking for a while, we found out that Rupesh owned a small home-stay called 'Hotel Hilton' (Telephone: 9819145439) up in Ngadi (elevation : 930m), which was the last stop for the bus and where we planned to disembark.
Needless to say, we ended up following Rupesh back. He and his small family were so amiable that we did not even bother trying to negotiate the price of the room (NPR400/2). His place was rather basic, but still offered free charging points, WiFi, and cold showers, which was a luxury compared to what you are likely to encounter in the Sagarmatha region, and I enjoyed the dinner of vegetable curry (NPR380/2) and dhal bhat (NPR400/2).