“What has been your best travel experience?”
Often asked, but impossible to answer.
However, if we were locked away and forced to choose just one experience in order to get out, the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal just might be it. This uber-trek (we took 17 days, some opt for several-day segments and others take a month or more) combines some of the best of what travel has to offer: rich culture, diverse people, stunning landscape, lurking adventure, breathtaking exertion and profound circumstances to clear the mind.
The first ten or so days of the traditional Annapurna Circuit take you up the eastern side of the range along paths that once served as ancient Tibetan trekking routes. There are no roads. All the supplies that come up through the mountains — from food to building materials — must be carried on the backs of men or mules. Most nights are spent in simple guest houses called tea houses; every village seems to have at least one or two families who have converted or expanded their home to take in trekkers for the night.
Around the morning of the eleventh day, we began our final ascent in the wee hours from Thorong Phedi high camp to Thorong La Pass at 5416 metres (17769 ft). Sometimes it's difficult to separate the excitement of summit morning from the floating anxiety of feeling like you might be coming down with altitude sickness. We never fell ill, nor did most of the anxious trekkers whom we managed to gather with along the way.
And on the morning we made our way to the top, the clouds — and our heads — began to clear.
The Annapurna Circuit trek did prove itself to be a walk for the ages though. And like a good stew, it came together as an experience that proved greater than the sum of its parts. As ethnic and cultural local flavors found themselves accented by an expanding cast of international characters and personalities from the animal kingdom, a truly special experience unfolded around us.
Arranging an Annapurna Circuit Trek Independently
- Note: Regardless of what travel agents tell you, it is straightforward to arrange everything for the Annapurna Circuit trek once you arrive in Kathmandu or Pokhara. Doing so will allow you to evaluate your options and likely save you a significant amount of money. We were able to obtain our permit, arrange a porter, buy bus tickets, rent sleeping bags ($0.75/day) and pick up some random trekking gear (walking sticks, chlorine drops for water purification, windbreakers) all in one day in Pokhara.
- Time Needed: There are several options for the Annapurna Circuit trek depending on your trekking objectives, seasonal weather conditions and the amount of time you have.
- Standard route: 14-17 days, from Besisahar to Tatopani (this is the route we took)
- Quick route: Besisahar to Jomson in 11-12 days and then fly back to Pokhara ($55-$80). Note: We and all the trekkers we spoke to found the landscape and experience on the eastern side of the pass (Besisahar to Thorong La) far more dramatic than that of the western side (along the Kali Gandaki river valley from Muktinath to Tatopani). So if you trek the whole circuit, don't be surprised if you experience “post-pass” depression as you make your way down the western side of the circuit (Kali Gandaki river valley). The exhilaration and adrenaline from the ascent (and the summit of Thorong La) and its exceptional views rapidly wears off as you descend. That said, the Kali Gandaki valley (particularly above Jomsom) is still impressive, if a bit windy. If you make the trek all the way around and the weather cooperates, Poon Hill views are supposed to be worth the arduous climb at the very end.
- Long route: You can make side trips from Manang to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world (4,900 meters), or extend the journey to Poon Hill for more great mountain views. Other trekkers we spoke to spent 21 days. Still others did a deep dive into the culture and landscape for over 30 days.
- Trekking Permit: You are required to obtain an Annapurna Conservation Area Permit (ACAP) and a TIMS card (Tourist Information Management System). This is very easy to do this yourself in Pokhara with several passport photos (btw, the Pokhara office is open on Saturdays despite what the travel agents and local shop owners may tell you) for 2,000 Nepalese rupees (NPR)/$30. Alternatively, a travel agent can arrange both for 2,200 NPR.
- Porters and guides: It is possible to trek the Annapurna Circuit without a guide or porter – the paths are well-worn and ad hoc tagging along with other travelers is possible. We decided to hire a porter to carry one big backpack (limit up to 20 kilos) for the two of us. We never regretted our decision. The porters not only carry bags, but also act as informal guides and make sure you don't lose your way (after an experience in Kazakhstan, we are now wary of getting lost when mountains are involved). We hired our porter through Swissa travel agency (official name is Raging River Runner with tel: +977 01 4700872) in Pokhara – they were honest and straightforward. Ask anyone, especially an Israeli tourist, where to find the Pokhara Swissa office. Please note that there are other tour agencies using the Swissa name so be sure you're at the original. Cost: 500 NPR ($8) per day (includes all accommodation and food for the porter) + bus tickets (450 NPR).
- How to Get There: Take a bus to Besisahar from Pokhara (5 hours) or Kathmandu (6-7 hours). You can start the trek immediately from Besisahar or hop on a bumpy local bus with chickens and goats to Bhulbhule, the town that marks the beginning of the vehicle-less trail. We began walking from there. At the end of the trek, we took a jeep from Tatopani to Beni, then boarded a local bus from Beni to Pokhara – it's an all-day, rump-bruising journey. If you hike past Tatopani up and over Poon Hill, you will exit the circuit at Nayapul and can hop a public bus or arrange a private taxi to Pokhara from there.
- Where to Stay: Each village has a handful of guest houses – shop around when you arrive. The facilities range from very basic to relatively luxurious with en-suite western toilet bathrooms and hot water (after Thorong La pass). During low season, room rates are negotiable from free to around 150 NPR ($2.50) for a double room – the guest houses make most of their money from food. At Thorong La high camp, rates rise to 300 NPR ($5) per room since there is no other choice. There are tons of accommodation options in Pokara. Compare hotel rates in Pokhara here.
- What to Eat: Cuisine – local or otherwise – is *not* a reason to do this trek. All the menus in the villages before Thorong La pass are exactly the same with “approved” prices for that village. The prices go up the higher you climb as everything is brought up on the backs of men and mules. The food variety and quality increases in bigger villages like Manang and on the eastern side of the trek (after Thorong La pass). Consider stocking up on granola bars, your favorite candy bars, biscuits, peanut butter, etc., at any of the large supermarkets along the main street in Pokhara. Our only regret regarding food: that we didn't bring a giant jar of Italian pesto to add some flavor to the tasteless plates of spaghetti along the trail.
- Cost and Expense Planning for Annapurna Circuit trek: We averaged about 1,500 – 2,000 NPR ($23-$30) per day for the two of us in food and accommodation (2008 prices). Bring iodine tablets or chlorine drops to sanitize local water instead of buying mineral water along the way – it saves you money and prevents plastic bottles from piling up in the mountains.
So, onto the ingredients and directions for a well-rounded Himalayan Trekking Stew:
Time and Distance
- 15 days
- 180 km or 112 miles
- 50 villages
- 5,416 meter (17,770 feet) Thorong La Pass
- 4,576 meters of elevation gain in 9 days
- 1 map with useful indicators such as “fields of marijuana” and “pleasant forest”
Annapurna Circuit Cultural Stock
- Hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags, gompas (temples), chorten (holy stone formations), prayer wheels, and inscribed stone tablets. All must be perfectly placed in the context of awesome mountain views, as if in a movie set.
- Hundreds of children with grimy smiles and wind-burnt faces offering greetings of “Namaste!” (Nepali greeting that literally means “I bow to you”), their hands placed together in a prayer-like fashion.
- Trekking porters with names like Babu, Madhav, and Hari (Hari Porter, of course) singing their way over the hills.
- A handful of stone Tibetan villages that look like they’ve withstood the elements since the beginning of time and will survive them until time's end. The villagers – weathered, wind-burnt and protected by their amulets – appear the same.
- Dozens of human porters, each carrying up to 50 kilos of tourist chickens, tomatoes, pots, pans, biscuits and macaroni up well-worn Tibetan trade paths.
Note on Tourist Chickens: chewy local bicycle chickens (preferred by Annapurna natives) are an acquired taste, so plump chickens (“like mashed potato” according to our porter) are carried uphill on the backs of Nepalese porters to please the tastes of foreign visitors.
- Hundreds of mule trains majestically maneuvering steep inclines and descents with remarkable agility. The mules help serve up a soundtrack by way of the variously-tuned bells draped around their necks.
- Dozens of yak herds bounding over hillsides in force. One herd should be well-positioned to stampede an Australian supermodel at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). Never fear, it was a near miss.
- A sprinkling of graceful vultures circling and feeding on goat and calf carcasses scattered across stony mountainsides.
- Blue sheep. But they aren't really blue – or sheep – for that matter.
- Countless aphrodisiac caterpillars (Yarchagumba) hardened by fungus, hiding in the high Himalayan brush, and being tracked down by Tibetan and Nepalese medicine collectors with ruddy faces and small backpacks. “Makes you horny…very popular in China!”
- 1000s of stubborn goats with crooked horns.
- 1 Israeli contingent fresh from military service, to negotiate all room prices. An absolute must for two lazy, but frugal, Americans.
- 1 Australian supermodel struggling to learn how to play guitar. The guitar must be schlepped by her porter up and over Thorong La pass.
- 1 Italian documentary film crew chasing blue sheep and carrying a quarter wheel of Parmagiano Reggiano (a.k.a. the real Parmesan) cheese. Cheese must be graciously shared with two cheese-starved Americans.
- 1 Russian photographer who wakes up at 4 AM every day to get the best shots with his arsenal of three Nikon D300 cameras. No, we are not green with camera envy : )
- A host of other trekkers variously seeking the meaning of life, the best views, the best photographs, and audiences to receive their monologues.
- A dash of flatland foreigner anxiety – and comparison of headaches – as everyone hopes to successfully cross Thorong La mountain pass (5,416 meters/17,700 feet) without suffering AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).
- Endless portions of dal bhaat, the local, ubiquitous Nepalese national food staple, consisting of rice, watery lentils and potatoes or the occasional in-season vegetable. In our experience, the best of the trek can be found at the New Yak Hotel in Bhraga.
- Snickers/Mars rolls (think slab of dough wrapped around a candy bar, then fried). Critical energy booster. We wonder whether Annapurna’s first trekkers were from Scotland, the purported origin of the deep-fried Mars bar.
- Pungent grated yak cheese scattered across improvised pizzas.
- Spicy fried dried yak meat to soak up an over-consumption of Marpha apple brandy.
- 1 Manang Coffee (rice kernels fried in butter mixed with a spoonful of instant coffee crystals and raksi, the local moonshine). To be tried once and only once.
Preparation of the Himalayan Trekking Stew
In a slow-building climb, make your way on foot towards Thorong La pass along millennia-old foot-worn trading paths where nature’s kindness doesn’t extend to motorized transport. You can trust that anything resembling civilization (housing, food, drink) has found itself there on the backs of mules, human porters, or both.
Watch the landscape progress from lush valleys and verdant terraced hills to the contrasting and iconic severity of the towering Annapurna sub-range of the Himalayas. The various ethnic groups that live, move, and carve out their lives in this environment are what lend this trek its cultural heft. After a 10-day climb and summit, make your descent through the whistling Kali Gandaki river valley back to “civilization” again.