Nepal is a trekker’s paradise. It forms the heart and spine of the majestic Himalaya’s and boasts countless miles of untouched wilderness, quaint mountain villages and national parks which will blow your mind and fill up your camera roll.
When I was in Nepal last year I was lucky enough to complete the famous Annapurna circuit which takes in the highest mountain pass in the world. It was a long but rewarding walk across deep woods, high mountains and ancient villages.
A lot of you have asked me a lot of questions about trekking Annapurna which I will today try to answer as fully as possible!
What is it?
Annapurna is a trekking circuit which was first opened to foreigners in 1977. The name refers to the national park in which the trail is located. The full circuit winds from Besisahar to Ghorepani and in total covers 230km. It begins at a humble 750m altitude, gradually climbing to a peak of 5500m at the high pass. Then it gradually winds back down again.
The circuit is very popular with travelers and every year around thousands of tourists enter Nepal purely to take on Annapurna. It’s not quite as popular as the overrated Everest park trek and is far better.
How hard is it?
The circuit is demanding but is by no means the preserve of athletes or accomplished trekkers. Anybody with a reasonable level of health and fitness will be able to complete the circuit and the only variable is how fast. If you are super-fit then you may be able to dash the whole thing off in 10 days whereas if you are not fit and want to go slower, it can take up to 20 days. Trekking Annapurna is very much within the capabilities of most people.
I did a shortened version of the circuit (more on this below) which took 7 days. This included taking 1 full rest day and 1 sick day (more on this below too!).
When should I go?
There are two peak trekking seasons. These are October – December and March-May.
During high season, the skies are cold and clear and the mountains topped with snow offering the best views and the best photographs. The downsides are that it is very cold (so wrap up) and this is high season meaning that prices soar and the trail can literally be packed with other trekkers. If you do visit in the high season, it may be worth bringing along a Hebrew phrase book and leaving that “Free Palestine” bracelet at home if you want to make some friends if you know what I mean…
I did the trail in June which was the beginning of Monsoon. The increasing precipitation did dilute some of the views but some days I had miles of trail all to myself. Prices were also lower. If you go in high monsoon (July – August) expect daily rain, leeches and a lot of closed guesthouses.
Do I need a guide or porter?
As soon as you touch down in Kathmandu, you will be inundated with Nepali’s offering to find you a guide or porter for Annapurna or Everest. In truth though, you don’t really need either. It is very hard to get lost in Annapurna as the trail is essentially, a long straight line which is well marked and regularly punctuated by villages and tea houses. There will also be other trekkers around so you can use them as signposts. As for a porter, you don’t need really need to bring that much stuff (see below) and you don’t camp on the trail as there are plenty of guesthouses to stay and eat in. Only bring a porter if you are suffering from ill health or carrying some big, novelty item up the trail!
I would, however, advise against doing the trek alone as there are some high drops, the risk of landslides and chance of AMS at the high pass so it is better to have somebody with you. In these cases it may be worth taking a guide or porter – it will also put some hard, foreign currency into some much deserving pockets.
What should I take?
Firstly, you need a few permits in order to be allowed access. You can buy these pretty much anywhere in Kathmandu or Pokhara for around 1000rps each. Please note that you will not be allowed on the trail without these, there are regular checkpoints and you will be either turned away or fined. Furthermore, the fee also pays for the upkeep of the trail so you damn well should pay you due!
It usually takes around a day for a permit to be prepared. However, it is best to allow for a few days in case there are any issues. You will need to provide a few passport photographs so either bring these from home or have them done in Nepal.
Make sure you have adequate Insurance. If you are injured or die up in the mountains, then getting you back to civilisation will be expensive. Make sure your insurance covers trekking and the correct altitude (5500 meters). I do not condone doing this trek without Insurance.
In terms of packing, you will be walking a lot (potentially for 15 days) and going up and down some serious inclines. Therefore you want to pack as lightly and efficiently as possible. Take either a 35l or 45l pack and make sure it has straps that spread the weight across your body. In terms of what to wear and put in your backpack here it is;
- Good footwear. I should recommend trekking shoes, boots or trainers although I personally did it in a pair of Converse.
- 2 pairs of thick socks and 2 pairs lighter socks.
- 1 pair of breathable trekking pants which zip off bottoms and/or fasten ups.
- 1 breathable t-shirt. You can pick up knock off Northface ones in Pokhara and Kathmandu.
- Jumper or tactical fleece.
- 1 rain jacket or poncho. One that folds up like the one you can buy here.
- 1 quick drying, micro towel. I use the one you can pick up here and it’s the greatest travel accessory I ever got!
- 3 changes of underwear.
- Thermal base layer. You will need this at night and possibly for the high pass.
- Buff. You will need this to warm your head at the high pass and to protect your mouth from dust en-route to Jomson.
- You may wish to bring trekking poles.
- 1 refillable water bottle. I would recommend a LifeStraw with a built-in filter/purifier.
- 1 x set of playing cards for the long nights at the guesthouses.
- 1 x book for the same long nights. I recommend “The Waiting Land” by Dervla Murphy which is all about Nepal in the early 1960’s. You will be able to exchange this once you finish it.
- As many chocolate bars as you can carry. These are expensive to buy up on the trail.
- 1 head torch. A USB, rechargeable one like the one on this link is ideal.
- Water purification tablets.
- Altitude sickness tablets.
- Basic toiletries.
- Cash. There are no ATM’s in the park and nobody accepts card. This is very important.
- 1 alternate change of clothing. It isn’t a fashion parade so get used to living in the same clothes for a long period. However, it may be wise to bring a 2nd pair of pants, some shorts, a vest and another breathable T-shirt (a football jersey will do).
Depending upon the time of year, you may need extra cold weather gear such as a down-jacket and Cossack hat. I did it in June and this was not necessary.
You can pick a lot of stuff up from Thamel in Kathmandu or Lakeside in Pokhara. A lot of this is fake and bad quality, so do be mindful. If your fake boots or bag breaks whilst out on the trail you are utterly fucked.
What devices will I need?
Your camera will get some serious use on Annapurna as you are confronted with stunning mountain vista’s, entire herds of Yak’s and quaint, traditional houses at every turn. Ideally you will want a proper, DSLR camera with a wide angle lens to really capture those mountains but of course, this will mean extra weight and space in your bag. I used my Samsung Galaxy phone. It did take some OK pictures but in hindsight, I do have some regret.
You can bring your phone along but expect an intermittent signal. Also, you should expect to get off-line. You will find Wi-Fi in Manang and maybe a few other towns but that’s it. There is no point whatsoever in bringing a laptop.
I also never leave home without music and whether you play it through your phone or an MP3 device, some suitable mountain music will enhance the experience!
Also, bring a power bank to power your device as you may sometimes have to go long distances without being able to plug in.
Where do I sleep and eat?
The Annapurna circuit isn’t a wilderness experience. You will never be more than 10km from the nearest village or outpost and all of them offer places to sleep and eat. Often, accommodation is free on the condition that you eat in the guesthouse although you may have to pay extra if you want an extra blanket or hot water. Meals on the trail are far more expensive than in the cities and get more expensive the higher up you get. You will still rarely pay more than 5oorps ($5) for a meal though and it will be filling.
You don’t need to book anywhere in advance, just ask around and somebody will put you up.
The food available ranges from the traditional Nepalese dish Dall Baat (cheap and filling) to western fayre such as pasta & burgers. Apple pie is also usually available during high season.
Accommodation options are however basic and the people living on the trail live pretty much as they have done for the last 100 years. The notable exception is Manang where a few of the lodges have Wi-Fi and even cinemas!
How much money will I need?
Once you’ve got your pass and bus ticket, the budget for 1000rps per day. This will leave you plenty to eat well and cover of any unexpected costs. Note that if you decide to get a jeep some of the ways it may well use up your entire day’s budget.
Is there much nightlife?
Trekking Annapurna is about getting in touch with the important things in life away from frivolities and titillations! There are no bars or clubs and on most nights you will be in bed for 9 pm.
You will still have great, fun times and will still make friends for life. You may even meet the love of your life out there but if you do you will probably be far too knackered to actually shag them until you get back to civilisation and have a good long sleep and a hot shower!
Beer is available at many guesthouses but can get expensive. Remember to drink responsibly because higher altitudes course alcohol to go straight to your head. You may also wish to try Roxy; the local moonshine which you can find in most shops or guesthouses. Finally, Marijuana grows in abundance throughout Nepal and you will be able to find this if you make some discreet inquiries.
Manang has the nearest thing to a social scene with more cafés and restaurants and even a few cinemas. I highly recommend watching “Himalaya” which was filmed in Nepal’s Dolpa region and won the best foreign language, Oscar.
Is it safe?
As I said, this is not a wilderness experience and you are unlikely to get lost. Crime is exceptionally rare along the trail and the locals are very friendly, helpful and grateful of the economic benefits which travellers bring.
There are however some dangers you need to mindful of;
- AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness (Altitude Sickness) begins to kick in at around 3500m and reaches its peak up on the high pass at 5500m. You can countenance this by not ascending too fast, taking a full acclimatization day in Manang (you will want the rest anyway) and by taking altitude sickness pills which you can buy cheaply back in town. The real test is the high pass, you may feel lightheaded, sick or your head may ache. Listen to your body and retreat if necessary.
- Yaks – Yaks are placid animals but be mindful a herd doesn’t drive you over the edge of a ravine.
- Rockfalls – Be mindful.
- Insects – During certain seasons there are midges and flies. Use jungle formula insect repellent.
- Cold – During the peak season, it can get very wintry. You will be exposed to the elements for long periods so ensure you wrap up accordingly. Check weather condition before you set off.
There is a Doctors clinic up at Manang. They operate on a donations basis so pay what you can afford for any treatment you receive. If you have a serious accident then it will mean an expensive Helicopter evacuation so make sure you have the right insurance.
Can I use Transport?
The Annapurna circuit is a trek and as such is intended to be walked. Not so long ago, there was no road whatsoever although one is gradually been built into the national park. Some say this is spoiling the character of the area and diluting the trail whilst others point out that the natives have as much right to civilization as anybody.
You can now take a jeep from Besisahar town some of the ways up the trail. Be warned, it will be a long bumpy ride and can be expensive (up to $20 per head – a fortune in Nepal). Taking the jeep though, however, may save you up to 4 days walking depending on how far you ride it. You will miss of course 4 days of exercise, contemplation and spectacular terrain but is handy if you can’t spare time for the full 10 – 20 days for trekking Annapurna.
The road absolutely stops dead at Manang and does not go any further. It picks up again at the other side of the pass in Jomson. Jomson also has an airport.
What about the itinerary?
I’m not going to list every town, trail or outpost because I can’t be bothered. However, the headlines of the trail are set out below.
- In all probability, your adventure will begin on a crowded bus from Pokhora to Besisahar. The ride takes around 4-5 hours and buses leave early every morning. You can buy your ticket in advance or on the bus. In high season I would buy in advance in order to guarantee a space. If a travel agent or guest house owner offers to get your ticket, they will add a commission on. The ride can be bumpy and can be delayed by landslides.
- The trail starts at Besisahar. This is the last place you can buy your permits and the last place to stock up on medicine and gear until Manang. From here you will either hop into a jeep or begin trekking Annapurna!
- Manang is a favourite place of mine. It marks the 3500m point and as such is the recommended rest spot. You should intend to arrive here a few hours before sundown, find a room and get some food. The next day you need to stay around Manang to allow your body to get used to the altitude. There a few little side trails you can do if you have the energy and in the evening there are few cinemas showing DVD’s on projectors. There is also a Doctor here as well as a few stores selling all manner of trekking gear. This may also be a good place to top up your chocolate bar collection.
- The high pass (Thorung La) is the highest mountain pass in the world. If you was to ascend any higher than this then you would need hooks, ropes and loads of mountaineering experience. The high point is marked by a plaque and loads of prayer flags. Reaching it is a moment of euphoria you will never, ever forget. From here it’s all downhill both in terms of the trail and your life hereafter.
- Jomsom is where you can reconnect with civilisation. You will reach Jomson 1 or 2 days after the high pass depending on how fast you go and how stones you get at the Rasta Café back in Muktinath. Jomson has quite a few stores, a bank, a post office and even an airport. From Jomson you can continue with the trail or get a bus back to Pokhara. The bus leaves early and arrives by nightfall; it’s not a pleasant experience but recommended if you are low on time or knackered out. Jomson is by the way, one the most oppressive & awful places I have ever been, there was just something unpleasant about the whole town.
- Ghorepani is officially the end of the trail. It’s now time to go back to Pokhara for a hot shower and to upload your pictures to “Lookatmyawesomelife.net”.
In addition to trekking the main circuit, there are a few little side trails you can do. These will of course add additional time but will allow you to get off the main drag and see some cool sights. The most popular ones go from Manang and take a day or a day and a night. They are useful for acclimatising. The Ice Lake is very popular (more info coming soon).
Is there anything else?
Yes, enjoy the experience of trekking Annapurna. Afterall, it may well prove to be the experience of a lifetime! A few of you have also asked me about the logistics of trekking Everest base camp. I have not done the Everest base camp trek myself but Unusual Traveler has and has written this useful article about Tea House treks which will come in useful.
Everest Base Camp is Nepal’s most popular trek for obvious reasons. However, some say its popularity is its downfall as the entire route is lined with trekkers. The Dolpa and Mustang regions are reportedly beautiful and relatively untouched. However, they require expensive permits.