The Annapurna Circuit is in Nepal.
This circuit was once considered one of the best treks in the world though road construction is threatening its reputation and its future as a classic trek. Yet no one disputes that the scenery is outstanding: 17 to 21 days long, this trek takes you through distinct regional scenery of rivers, flora, fauna and above all - mountains.
There are four regions that are passed through on the trek; Lamjung, Manang, Mustang and Myagdi. Lamjung and Myagdi of the lower elevations are both predominantly Hindu and with lush green subtropical valleys with villages and terraced farming.
Manang and Mustang are of the higher elevations and are predominantly Tibetan Buddhist. The Manang people are Gurung (not Tibetan descent) and are very proud of their unique cultural heritage and merging of lower land Gurung and Tibetan cultural influences. People of Mustang identify themselves a lot closer with Tibet and the Mustang region has actually been part of Tibet in history. Mustang also is one of the last places in the world to view the ancient Bonpo Religion in action. Villages to note for Bonpo are Thini and Lupra near Jomsom, and Nargon near Kobang.
The trek goes counter-clockwise from Besisahar to Nayapul and reaches its summit in Thorung La (pass) at the height of 5416m, or 17,769 feet. The route goes past the following mountains: Manaslu (an 8,000-plus meter peak), Langtang Himal, Annapurna II and IV, Annapurna III and Gangapurna, and, of course, Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri -- passing through the world's deepest gorge in between those two 8,000-plus meter peaks. Poon Hill, at the end of the trek, affords views of those two mountains, as well as South Annapurna and Macchupucchre, the "Fishtail Mountain."
The trek also goes through Buddhist villages and Hindu holy sites, most notably the village of Muktinath, a holy site for both Buddhists and Hindus, and Braga, one of the oldest monasteries in the region.
The eastern portion of the trek follows the Marsyangdi River upstream, to its source near the village of Manang. To get there several days of up-hill hiking are required. Then the route goes over the pass, a grueling day of hiking, and back down the other side, where it meets up with the Kali Gandaki River. At the end of the trek, several options are available: following the river further to the road proper to Beni and catching a bus to Pokhara, or adding on a trek to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC Trek), aka the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek.
This is a "teahouse trek," meaning there are villages with lodges and restaurants to eat and stay in along the entire route. You are expected to eat breakfast and dinner in the same lodge where you are spending the night. Prices of rooms are seemingly inexpensive because of this (100-300Rs for a double) - lodge owners tend to make more money on the food and drinks they are selling you than on the room where you are sleeping.
The main trekking season is October and November with crowds going crazy at this time. It is possible to do the circuit most of the year. The shoulder seasons of September and December are a good choice because the weather is almost as good and the circuit is much less busy. Spring is also great, less people and warmer, but some guide books warn of higher chance of foggy views compared to the peak-season in October. Summer is also possible but with lots of leeches.
While travel agents will say it is necessary to hire a guide and a porter, this tea-house trek is so easy it is not required at all and the majority do it without assistance. The path is easy to follow and every three hours (max) you will arrive upon a small village with lodges and restaurants. There are many trekkers around so you always end up meeting people and making friends and trekking partners along the path.
Please note that many hotels in Kathmandu and Pokhara will try to tell you that you NEED a guide and they're just the person to help. Naturally, they'll tell you that none of the money goes to them and that they are just trying to help. In reality, most of the money does end up in their pockets and little goes to the guides. Please be very wary, stories of trekkers being scammed are all too frequent on the trail, but please note that the guides themselves are innocent to it all.
If you do decide to go with a guide through a hotel do not under any circumstances agree to a premium upgrade of about US$200. All of the hotels and food are of the same price, this is a straight scam.
If choosing to make the trek independently, go out with adequate clothing for low temperatures and rain. Temperatures vary from oppressive heat in the lowlands, to freezing cold, even snowstorms, closer to the pass. For the cold a pair of hiking pants, thermals, gloves, beanie, worn-in hiking shoes (it can be done in runners but is dangerous), a warm inner jacket and a windproof outer jacket is essential. A neck warmer is also great to keep out the cold! A hiking stick or 2 is also great to have for hills and icy sections.
The coldest periods tend to be when the sun goes down and you're at the lodge instead of while on the trail. Don't worry about waterproof gear (apart from shoes) unless you've got it, are doing a difficult side trek or are planning to hike when the weather is bad.
Keep in mind that Pokhara and Kathmandu offer everything you could possibly need for the hike (apart from decent shoes) with surprisingly good quality for cheap pirated prices. Be prepared to become a walking North Face billboard!
Bring a sleeping bag rated for winter temperatures. Linens are not provided by the lodges, and nights can get very cold. Warm blankets are provided so it is possible to use a basic two-season sleeping bag.
Everyday supplies, such as toilet paper, soap, Snickers bars, and even hiking supplies like headlamps and fleece jackets can be purchased along the way, though prices rise dramatically as you go higher in elevation. Try to stock up lower down and buy local. Fruit, Coconut biscuits and Bon Bon biscuits are made in Nepal, are a fraction of the price and taste great!
Maps are easy to get -- and very inexpensive -- in either Kathmandu or Pokhara. While the path is easy to follow be aware that these maps should not be used for critical navigation as they are not very accurate. However they are useful for pointing out the various mountains.
While you're in Kathmandu or Pokhara, don't forget to get your trekking permit as well as TIMS Card which is required and available in either city. It'll cost you 2,000 NPR for Permit & Rs.1400 for TIMS Cards. Also grab an Around Annapurna Trekking Profile which is a great free pocket guide that lists elevation and hiking time between every major stop.
Officials do check your permit at several places along the way, and the checkpoints are virtually impossible to avoid. You'll have to pay double, or 4,000 NPR, if you're caught without the permit.
Bring along a sufficient amount of money for the entire trek, though you can either cash traveler's checks or hit an ATM in Jomsom or Chame. A day on the lower villages of the trek can cost as little as 700NRs (food and accommodation only). A day in the higher points of the trail can cost 1200NRs. You can do the trek for about $13 USD a day if you go independently.
Budget for 1000NR per day if you are a modest spending trekker, though those on a budget can get by with less and people who want to live it up a little should allow for more. Please note that despite the efforts of ACAP there is still some wild swings in pricing that will surprise. For some reason the region between Tal and Chame is more expensive than from Chame to Manang which is at more difficult to access! As the prices seem to be fairly set throughout each village though do not concern yourself with hunting around a village looking for a cheaper place and try not to stop at the first lodge you see so that trekkers are spread through the village. Quite often the nicest lodges are on the way out of town.
Before you go, check on the status of the road being built on the eastern portion of the trek from Besisahar to Chame. In winter 2009, the the construction of the road interfered with trekking with some parts being dangerous to navigate. Locals tend to talk up the road and downplay its negative aspects. Be advised: road walks in Nepal are very unpleasant, and unhealthy, due to the large amounts of powdery dust that tend to kick up from passing jeeps and buses.
Be prepared for all manner of bathrooms. Sometimes you'll get a modern flush toilet with private access, other times you'll have to venture out in the cold to use a smelly squat toilet. Even so, all lodges have running water. However, it may not always be HOT water. Typically, a solar shower will give you a luke warm 'power shower' if it's been a sunny day, otherwise the thing to ask is if the water pipes run through the fire in the dining room or kitchen as once the fire is going you'll be steaming with the best of them!
Pokhara provides a great spot with meeting other trekkers who have finished the trek. Always feel free to start up a conversation in a bar or restaurant to source the latest information on what's happening on the trek.
Though not required, porters and/or guides can be easily hired in Pokhara or Kathmandu at many travel agencies. As a classic "tea-house trek," which goes from village to village and does not require trekkers to bring along food or camping equipment, porters and guides are far from necessary, though many trekkers still like to use them.
If you do hire a porter or a guide, Nepali tourism officials ask that you make sure you pay a fair wage, limit the weight you require them to carry, and ensure they are properly clothed. Pay attention to their health when you get up in elevation, since some porters may not tell you if they feel ill. Altitude sickness is potentially fatal if ignored.
Depending on where you end your trek, buses and taxis are available to take you to Pokhara, a great place on a lake to spend a few days unwinding and relaxing. Kathmandu is about a six hour bus ride from Pokhara, easily arranged once you're ready to leave the lakeside town.
You can try and walk the lower stages at a faster pace maybe combining two of them into one so that more time can be spent on acclimatization on the higher stages. For example a couple of extra days can be spent at Manang and utilized by climbing to one of the many peaks around it and coming back down so as to increase the production of red blood cells. You can also see the origin of the Marsyandi river in Manang. The best part about this trek is the varied scenery it has to offer. You start from tropical forest in Besisahar, see terminal moraine near Manang and then move past the snow line across the Thorung La and then to the barren landscape of lower Mustang and Muktinath.
When you pick up your Trekking Permit for the Annapurna, you will be given the brochure “Around Annapurna Trekking Profile” which provides estimated times along with elevation changes between villages.
The hike between Besisahar and Bhulbhule is pleasant enough. It is the jungly bit of the hike and provides a nice contrast to the coming days. Therefore I would recommend against taking a bus to Bhulbhule. It will likely take you the same amount of time either way as the road is a potholed mess and the buses are slow, uncomfortable and run infrequently.
Besisahar (820 m) to Khudi: 7 km, 2.00 hrs
Khudi (790 m) to Bhulbhule: 2 km, 1.00 hrs
Bhulbhule (840 m) to Ngadi: 4 km, 1.15 hrs
(note: Ngadi has good views of the snow-capped mountains in the early morning)
Ngadi (890 m) to Bahundanda: 4 km, 1.45 hrs
Bahundanda (1310 m) to Ghermu: 5 km, 1.30 hrs
Ghermu (1130 m) to Jagat: 3 km, 1.30 hrs
(note: Ghermu sits in an open valley and is therefore a more pleasant place to spend the night than Jagat. Jagat is a dirty, congested village that sits in a narrow chasm.)
Jagat (1300 m) to Chamche: 4 km, 1.00 hrs
Chamche (1385 m) to Tal: 5 km, 2.00 hrs
Tal (1700 m) to Karte: 4 km, 1.30 hrs
Karte (1870 m) to Dharapani: 2 km, 1.00 hrs
(note: Dharapani is a good place to stay with good views up both canyons)
Dharapani (1900 m) to Bagarchap: 2 km, 1.00 hrs
Bagarchap (2160 m) to Danaqyu: 2 km, 0.45 hrs
Danaqyu (2200 m) to Koto:
(upper trail) Danaqyu to Thanchowk: 6 km, 2.15 hrs
(upper trail) Thanchowk (2570 m) to Koto: 4 km, 1.00 hrs
(lower trail) Danaqyu to Latamarang: 1.5 km, 1.00 hrs
(lower trail) Latamarang (2400 m) to Koto: 5.5 km, 2.00 hrs
Koto (2640 m) to Chame: 2 km, 0.45 hrs
(note: Koto is small, clean and quiet as compared to the hustle and chaos of Chame. In Koto there is also a nice Tibetan Buddhist Monastary and great mountain vistas.)
Chame (2710 m) to Bhratang: 7 km, 2.00 hrs
Bhratang (2850 m) to Dhukur Pokhari: 6 km, 1.30 hrs
Dhukur Pokhari (3240 m) to Humde:
(note: there is a trail between Lower and Upper Pisang. Upper Pisang has quaint old-school lodging and an active Tibetan Buddhist Monastery worth visiting for the Sunset and Sunrise chants. Furthermore, the villages along the upper trail are full of character and the views along the trail are perhaps the best of the whole circuit.)
(upper trail) Dhukur Pokhari to Upper Pisang: 1.5 km, 1.30 hrs
(upper trail) Upper Pisang (3310 m) to Ghyaru: 4.5 km, 1.45 hrs
(upper trail) Ghyaru (3730 m) to Ngawal: 5 km, 1.45 hrs
(upper trail) Ngawal (3680 m) to Humde: 2 km, 0.45 hrs
(lower trail) Dhukur Pokhari to Lower Pisang: 6 km, 1.00 hrs
(lower trail) Lower Pisang (3250 m) to Humde: 7 km, 2.00 hrs
Humde (3330 m) to Bhraga: 6 km, 1.45 hrs
Bhraga (3450 m) to Manang: 2 km, 0.30 hrs
(note: Manang is a pleasant enough place to spend a rest day. It is clean and has a couple of “movie houses” with good DVD collections. There are many day trips one can take here. A map of times, distances, and locations is next to the central stupa.)
Manang (3540 m) to Yak Kharka:
This is one of the highest lakexs in the world at 4920 m. and requires 2-3 days from Manang. Walk through Khangasar. One to two hours after Khangasar you will find Tilicho Peak Hotel where you can have lunch or spend the night. Tilicho Base Camp Hotel is a further three hour walk from there. The lower route is the safest but has many landslide areas. The lake is reached by walking three hours up from the Tilciho Base Camp Hotel at approximately 4100 m. Snow leopards are around in this area but you are more likely to see blue sheep and yaks. Being at the lake can be cold as it can be very windy. Going back, it is possible to walk from Tilicho Peak Hotel directly to Yak Kharka via Old Khangasar so you do not have to backtrack all the way to Manang.
For health, please read up extensively on Altitude Sickness and have some diamox on you just in case (this can be bought in pharmacies in Nepal). In summary from Wikipedia; the drug forces the kidneys to excrete bicarbonate in the urine, therefore making the blood more acidic. Acidifying the blood stimulates breathing, which increases the amount of oxygen in the blood.
Note that diamox is not an immediate fix for acute mountain sickness; it speeds up part of the acclimatization process which in turn helps to relieve symptoms. This may take up to a day or two, and requires waiting without any further rapid ascent. It is often advisable to descend if even mild acute mountain sickness is experienced. If serious sickness is encountered or symptoms of HAPE or HACE occur, descent with another trekker is A MUST.
Please consult the pharmacist when purchasing regarding Diamox use and do your own research, there is also a free talk in Manang given on Altitude Sickness every day during season which is great for knowledge before doing the pass. One thing that is often overlooked is that your body requires large amounts of water at altitude to counteract sickness, therefore keep a bottle on you at all times! The Round Annapurna Trekking Profile also has a good summary of symptoms on one of the pages.
Also pick up some antibiotics for stomach infections while at the pharmacy, getting a script for bacterial and a script for amoebic infections is recommended. Luckily pharmaceuticals are so cheap in Nepal!
For drinking water, please do not drink the water from the tap on the trek due to foreigners being unable to handle the local bacteria and amoeba. The main two options for trekkers is to use the Safe Drinking Water Stations along the trek for a fee or bring your own water purifiers. KTM and Pokhara sell chlorine, with a small blue bottle made in Nepal (name unknown) being the best and only costing 50-70Rs. There is also tablets from India which people will tell you is Iodine and is better but is actually also chlorine but goes for 300Rs per bottle. For the trip, 2 bottles of Nepal-made chlorine will get you through the trek and surprisingly doesn't taste too bad.
Please do not buy bottled water on the trek as there is no rubbish disposal systems on the trek. This will also keep your costs down as the pricing can get crazy.
For safety, at all trekking times INCLUDING side treks carry a head torch, water, some food and a mobile phone with helicopter evac number (on Trekking Profile) in case of emergencies. People do get lost and have died on this trek, especially if feeling the effects of altitude sickness. On all side treks make sure you trek with other people as the path and facilities are not up to the same level as the main circuit.
Treks in the popular trails of Nepal are usually safe, but it is always advisable to trek with at least one friend with Local guide & porter. Some trails are known for encounters with desperate bandits although this is fairly rare.
Learn about altitude sickness before you set out on this trek. Also see your doctor before leaving home to make sure you have all the proper vaccinations, and that you bring with you all of the medications you will need. (Antibiotics and altitude medicine are good things to have.)
Leave No Trace
Even though the trek goes through villages with electricity and flushing toilets, Leave No Trace principles still apply, since most of the trek is still in the "backcountry." There are no ways to deal with trash away from the roads, meaning trash is either packed out on foot, or ends up a heap somewhere on the outskirts of the village.