Annapurna Circuit travel guide

From the humid, subtropical lower levels, through alpine forests to semiarid desert, no trek deserves the word ‘varied’ as much as the Annapurna Circuit. This celebrated, world-famous route is a 125km circumnavigation of spectacular Himalayan scenery, with the mighty Annapurna range bang in the middle. The climax is the Thorong La pass, a lunar landscape at over 5,000m altitude, with epic views to Tibet and back across the Annapurnas. This isn’t just a walk ‘n’ gawp trek, though.
Trekking the Annapurna Circuit is no walk in the park – it will test your strength, reward your perseverance and blow your mind.
The rich culture of the region, part Nepali, part Tibetan, is visible in pretty villages, Hindu temples and Buddhist prayer flags. Walk by day, then at night relax with local hosts in the teahouses that line the route, for a lesson in Himalayan life. No one ever regrets trekking the Annapurna Circuit. Go with strong calves and a sense of adventure and you’ll be rewarded by a lifetime of memories.

Is an Annapurna Circuit trek for you?

Do trek the Annapurna Circuit if…

… you like to know what you’re doing. You’re here to walk, every day, but there’s something wonderfully relaxing about this being the sole agenda. Trekking steadily, marvelling at the extraordinary views and discovering new levels of stamina as you go becomes a relaxing daily ritual. … you want to combine trekking with incredible culture. You pass through villages, your porters will be from surrounding communities and you’ll be staying in teahouses owned by people who have lived in the region their whole lives, making a trek a fantastic opportunity to learn about Himalayan life. … your mind is as fit as your body. Mental toughness is as important as physical. To complete the circuit, you must be comfortable with the idea of trekking for up to seven hours a day, for 18 days. That’s over two weeks when all you do each day is pull on your hiking boots and walk, but while the activity remains the same, just like you, the scenery doesn’t stand still.

Don’t trek the Annapurna Circuit if…

… you’re impatient. The higher you climb, the slower you’ll be and peak season trekking jams are not unheard of. Remember that tackling the Annapurna Circuit is about appreciation and endurance; don’t rush from point to point! … you like creature comforts. Some teahouses offer electric power and apple pies, but conditions are generally basic. Be happy to embrace local cuisine (typically rice and lentils), slumber in a sleeping bag and wrap up! Teahouses don’t have central heating. … you get out of breath running for the bus. Trekking is hard on your knees and your lungs, so you’ll need a good level of fitness. Do some hillwalking at home first, to break in your body and your boots. … you’re happier going solo. Although it’s possible to trek independently, going with a small group, accompanied by a knowledgeable, local guide, will bring the landscape and culture to life. Your guide will also keep you safe, helping you acclimatise to altitude and assessing route safety at all times.

A brief history of the Annapurna Circuit

Remote, bordering the Tibetan Plateau and with a strong Tibetan culture influencing life in its high villages, it’s hardly surprising that conflict between Tibetan Khampa guerrillas in the late 1950s – with a mission to preserve the Tibetan way of life – and the communist ruling party of China spilled over into Nepal’s Annapurna region.

The CIA-backed Khampa set up base camps in Mustang – the province trekkers cross into after conquering the Thorong La pass – to fight for Tibetan freedom from Chinese rule. And while on the whole welcomed as fellow Tibetans by Mustang residents, food was scarce and most guerrilla fighters lived a very hard, very deprived life in Nepal.

The CIA abruptly dropped its support of the Khampa in 1969, a condition of establishing diplomatic relations with the Chinese government, and in 1974 the Nepali government came under pressure from the Chinese to demand the Khampa guerilla’s surrender. Troops were sent into Mustang and the Dalai Lama – the de facto leader of the Tibetan Buddhist culture – sent a message to the Khampa urging them to lay down their arms and avoid bloodshed.

The end of the resistance movement brought stability to the Annapurna and the region was opened to trekkers in 1977. Originally, the Annapurna Circuit – encircling the Annapurna Massif and crossing through the Marshyangdi river valley and the Kali Gandaki Gorge – started in the market town of Dhumre and ended in Pokhara and took at least 23 days to complete. However new roads have increased access into the mountain villages and shortened the route, with some trekkers choosing to travel by jeep to start the trek later or finish earlier, if time is tight.

Of the original 23 days, only 5 are now completely away from motorised transport, although in recent years alternative trails have been developed through the Kali Gandaki Gorge, and other areas, to take trekkers off the dusty roads as much as possible. The roads have inevitably changed the previously remote villages in Manang and Mustang – driving increased contact with the outside world, and trade in goods and services became far easier than by yak or on foot. Since 2011 this region has seen a boom in mountain biking, and companies as far into the mountains as Muktinath and Jomsom now rent out bikes for tourists to speed down the virtually traffic-free dirt tracks through the Kali Gandaki Gorge.
Travel Team
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Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Yongyut Kumsri] [Is an Annapurna Circuit trek for you?: Bijaya2043]