Annapurna Circuit Trek has a reputation and it is a reputation it has held strong to for decades. A known classic, it is christened as the ‘world’s greatest trek’ with fine reason – a title it’s earned and retained over all these years since the route first opened in 1977. Each day on the Annapurna Circuit Trek only gets progressively better all the way up to the last day. In the midst of some of the most glorious peaks, with its terrain and views, an early morning trek to one of the highest glacial lakes to another morning trek up and over the Thorang La Pass at 5,416M - this 15 day endeavor is a delight through and through.
Though recently, the trek’s come under the scanner for not-so-pretty concerns. There’s been much debate about whether or not, after the construction of the road on this route, this trek is still worth it. While we would agree that the coming of a motor able road takes a little something away from the overall experience, the entire route is not tarred yet. Seventy percent of the trek remains rustic. Also, there is nothing that could take away from the magnificent views. It was and remains a classic amongst all the trekking routes for a reason and the reason is strong. We would undoubtedly recommend this trek to anyone who wants to experience Nepal Himalayas and all that’s glorious about mountains and mountain living.
Every trek can mostly be described and bucketed into a few distinct highlights. But for once we are finding it difficult to do so which you’d think is a pretty big highlight on its own. Nepal Himalayas and the route of Annapurna Circuit has left us stumped. On this trek which can conjure up practically anything you could ask for on a nature trail, it is so very difficult to break it down into a few highlights – to pick specific moments or pinpoint places which could be a few of the best worth mentioning. But we refuse to fail short of trying! So here goes
1) A Land of Contrasts
Annapurna Circuit Trek is unique for its climatic zones starting from the tropics, smoothly rising up going through the forests to high-altitude glacial lakes like Ice Lake and Tilicho Lake. The jungle-strewn foothills slowly transform into cold, barren, rocky lands exposed to strong winds and harsh sun. A cauldron of Hindu, Buddhist and Tibetan cultures, the tiny hamlets on the way change form and color as you climb. Flowing water turns to frozen waterfalls, the sound of the birds merrily cheering you on transforms into the sound of cold winds screaming in your ears. What remains the same, however, are the big mountains watching over you and the joy of walking amongst the giants in the Himalayan range of Nepal. The drama of the landscape culminates at the highest point of the trek – Thorang La Pass that is dressed in a monotone of white embellished only by the many colours of the prayer flags that carry your prayers to high places using the high-speed winds of the altitude. The route goes in reverse as colours slowly start to appear when you start your descent on the other side of pass and into a different valley – one which is rustic and gives out a strong, masculine vibe!
Annapurna Circuit Trek is considered one of the most exquisite treks in the Himalayas and we want to say it ABSOLUTELY is! From the highest mountains to the deepest gorges, the longest suspension bridges swaying to the overzealous winds to crossing the most scenic settlements in high mountains with deep valleys, the greenest lands thick with forests to regions as dry as dust and bone – this trek is 155 kms of sheer awe. You will experience the sun burn through your skin and the icy winds pierce through to your bones, the moisture of the forest turning you to a pulp to the dry air slapping you from all directions on vast open lands with no obstruction. It is a trek of many colours, countless textures, sundry experiences and multiple climaxes.
2) The Big League
The Annapurna Circuit is one of those rare treks which has everything to offer. From being followed by giants such as Annapurna II, Annapurna III, Annapurna IV, Gangapurna, Tilicho Peak and many more, to rhododendrons in full bloom, to merry rivers joyously marching forward to the wildlife sprinting around on the mountains in glee – the route is the best of all that nature has to offer. The warmest sunshine to the coldest nights, the most beautiful sunrises to even more spectacular sunsets, from dusty trails with weirdly shaped trees scattered across the land and the white of the many peaks peering out from behind to the dried pine needles sharp as the sharp ascents on the trail spread across the thickly forested floor, it’s got colours and textures even beyond the splendor of make-believe!
Nepal Himalayas hold true treasures sought after by mountaineers and the Annapurna Circuit Trek brings you face to face with many such 8000M, 7000M and 6000M peaks that follow along all the way through to the end of the trail. In addition to the photogenic corridors, the mountains you witness on the Annapurna Circuit Trek are so high, it is quite a task to distinguish between snow-clad peaks and the milk-white clouds – the peaks in the region truly reach for the stars and make it there! Once you’ve tasted the mountains in Nepal, we will not be surprised if they’ve captured your imagination and got you dreaming! These lands are where the big game is, the giants in the field of mountaineering across the years have walked these lands and to be here is to literally walk in their footsteps and to feel their spirit.
3) A Heart of Cold
To add to the constant company of the mighty Annapurna massif and other 8000ers towering in your vicinity all along its route, glacial lakes are another addition to the trail’s very rich assortment of features. From Ice Lake (4,620M) half a day’s hike away from the beautiful village of Manang to Tilicho Lake at 4,919M bang in the middle of the Annapurna range of Himalayas, the trail for Annapurna Circuit Trek will have you swooning for its unimaginable beauty, and the surprises in terrain through and through. Ice Lake offers spectacular views of the massive mountains in the area and Tilicho Lake, which is at an altitude of 4,920M is a massive sheet of ice sitting on top of a massive glacial lake. The route with the sound of temple bells in the air, the colours of the bright prayer flags in the winds, the glee of the children from the local villages with their wooden and stone houses and the silence of the wild horses, yaks and hordes of blue sheep in the region all take you towards the highest point of the trek – Thorang La Pass and back down into the little Tibet of Nepal – the Mustang Valley.
(Note: To read a detailed description of the route and terrain for each day, check out the Brief Description and Itinerary)
4) Where Mountains are Gods
Along with the most diverse trekking landscapes of any trek in Nepal, the trek also offers distinct religious and cultural settlements high up in these folds of the Himalayas. From the lush, green Hindu villages at the foothills of these regions to the arid Buddhist lands with the colourful prayer flags fluttering to the high winds on the trail’s higher reaches, it’s as much of a cultural indulgence as it is a rendezvous with the illustriousness of Nepal Himalayas. To trek through these lands which take you through settlements at its lower reaches all the way to smaller hamlets towards its upper reaches with tea houses that are open throughout the year adding life to the otherwise icy slopes and the one isolated tea shop at the Thorang La Pass itself, is to experience how life in Nepal is so well entwined with the mountain and the beautiful co-dependence of the mountains and its people. It is absolutely exquisite to witness what one can do for the other. For its rich culture and the interaction of the global crowd that travels to these lands, it is fascinating to think how the collaboration makes either party only richer in experience. It is also interesting to think how the global community by the way of their fascination helps keep the religion and culture in these lands alive by making it an important part of tourism – the richness of culture and religion of these lands is as big an attraction as are the sky-high mountains of the region. Tourists unconsciously encourage locals to revive age-old traditions ultimately making their culture and community stronger. It is also fascinating to think that these mountains are a big part of the religious sentiment of the land, as these forces are personified and prayed to for their energy, power and all that they provide to its people, which again is evidential of the beautiful synchronicity of nature and man in these regions – the energy of nature in the region serving the existence of its people and the people giving back their due in the form of reverence thereby exemplifying mindful living. And because it invites a global crowd, Nepal is such a cauldron of languages and cultures which merge so beautifully with the sweet taste of the mountain air to truly make it a global community.
5) A Slight Slip into Comfort
Nepal shows you that trekking in the mountains does not have to equal discomfort – that to enjoy beauty one does not need to be in a constant state of uneasiness. In fact, we’d say it goes a little overboard to prove these points. While trekking along the Annapurna Circuit, the one thing you do not need to worry about are basics – there are plenty toilets along the way at regular intervals, porters to take the load off your backs, warm beds at night and warm meals all through the day at tea houses which are plentiful all through the trail. The tea houses all the way up to the last camp serve food to diverse tastes with extensive menus including Italian, Mexican and Continental dishes in addition, of course, to local cuisine. The trails themselves are well marked with clear signs throughout. All the available and accessible amenities make the thinning air as we gain altitude each day, the cold weather and the long distances a lot more manageable as well as enjoyable. Not challenge but awe-inspiring beauty is the absolute highlight of this trek.
The trek is known more for its diverse terrain than its difficulty. Which is to say that Annapurna Circuit Trek is not overly demanding aside from a few days which run long and a few slopes that climb steep including the altitude the trek takes you to. We’d say that it is not so difficult that it might seem strenuous but not so easy that it can be completed without breaking a sweat. Just like ‘just the right amount’ of spice is the magic ingredient of a recipe, Annapurna Circuit Trek is ‘just the right amount’ of difficult to make it ‘just the perfect trek’ to be on.
6) Days of Unrest
On no other trek are the acclimatization and rest days as restless as on Annapurna Circuit Trek. There is SO much to see in every little corner of every little village that you stay at on this trail that your days off which are meant to be restful tend to become more hectic and tiring than usual trek days which run as long as 20 kms with 10 hours of trekking. On this trek is when you experience that every inch of Nepal is a unique slice of heaven all on its own. There are two acclimatization days on this trek:
a) Chame: With the highest mountains stacked outside your wooden framed window and the sun peering from behind, turning them into all shades pastel to burnt red, Chame is a pleasant town to wake up in. Lamjung Himal (6,983M) is especially handsome in the first morning light. Stone-walled houses and dirt roads with the river calling out with all its sounds, the sunsets in Chame are spectacular too as Manaslu North (7,157m), Manaslu (8,160m) and Phungi Himal (6,540m) rise skywards, glowing a fiery red in the dying twilight. Chame also has well-stocked shops with a fair share of fried samosas and chips for all your seemingly unreasonable and untimely cravings.
The acclimatization day at Chame goes by in a jiffy leaving you wanting for more time to absorb all its charm and colour. Doing what, you ask?
There is a less than 2 hour hike up the steep forested floors of Chame to get to the Chame View Point. The pine needles on the thickly forested floor on this 450M ascent make it exceptionally hard to find a firm footing making this short hike a walk to remember. It starts with crossing the village and over the river to the other side where a gradual incline begins. Once you are past the houses and the fields growing all kinds of crops, a steep climb begins. There is a well-marked trail or you could take the short cut straight up on your own path.
The Chame View Point is a freshly cemented platform on the highest point which offers unobstructed views of Lobuche Peak (6,119M) and Annapurna II (7,937M) on the one side and the slumbering giant Manaslu (8,163M) with all its seas of ice and snow on the other. The flurry of prayer flags and the trees towering just as high as the mountains in the foreground only make the view more worthwhile. With one eye on the entire village of Chame resting silently at the foothills, the jumpy river by its side and the big mountains in the background - there is not a thing missing about this picture. It is as close as one gets to a perfect view. Add a golden eagle or five soaring in the skies and it’s only a cherry on the mountain-top!
There is a lot to do after the hike, as well. The village has two monasteries which adorn this quiet little place. With dogs running around and the cattle baying in each house, piles of firewood stacked up in one corner and the creaks on the wooden doors – locals in their warm clothes going about their daily chores, it is fascinating to take a walk around the village and discover how enmeshed the lives of people in Nepal are with these giant mountains and all of their givings.
With all there is to do, are you surprised you have no time to actually rest out the day? Even if you tried, this charming village will get your feet moving and pull you outdoors – no one has the force powerful enough to fight the pull of the Nepal Himalayan vibe.
(Note: For a visual tour of the trek, check out the Photo Story)
b) Manang: The second acclimatization/ rest day is at Manang which I personally think is the epitome of raw beauty with all its mud structures, mani walls, barren landscape, wild horses, the river, massive mountains robed in white adding to the monotone of the brown landscape, dirt roads, the incline which is the lead in to the village, stupas, the river – I could go on! It is THE perfect place to take a day off which will barely be a day off, but you won’t regret distributing all your energy through the various parts of this gorgeous settlement.
Some of the known places to explore around Manang are:
Each of the villages around Manang have a collection of gompas of their own. Some which make the popular list however are Bodzo Gompa, Kama Dorje Gompa and Praken Gompa. This is a sort of circuit which takes close to 3-4 hours to cover. There may not be defined paths leading to these, so check with locals before you head out to visit these monasteries. From their airy vantage points, the panoramic view of the valley below and the entire Annapurna barrier around is nothing short of breathtaking. While the outside is beautiful, the inside of gompas has much to offer too. The paintings on their walls, the colours of stories depicted on clothes hanging from their ceilings, the main chambers, the courtyards, and the overall vibe of these structures planted on the very top of these humble settlements is exquisite, especially when there is no one else around to disrupt the peace.
• Gangapurna Lake:
The Turquoise Lake below Gangapurna is a favorable choice if you want your rest day to be short or if you want to explore multiple places and use your time in Manang as best you can. A view of the massive glacier with all the heaps of snow and all its cracks is extremely captivating even from far. Getting to the lake provides for even better views. This glacial lake is formed from the melting of glaciers from Gangapurna, Annapurna IV, Khangsar Kang and Glacier Dom. To get to the lake takes close to 30–40mins. There is another view point which is much longer and might take 3-4 hours for a round trip.
• Ice Lake:
Ice Lake is at an altitude of 4,600M which is roughly a 1000M elevation from Manang. The hike up to Ice Lake is roughly a half day affair and is physically strenuous but it will prepare you better for the heights you are to hit in the coming days and hence makes for a good acclimatization excursion. The ascent is unforgiving but you don’t have to go up all the way. The views are sensational all along the trail too. However, if you get to the top, there are two lakes. These are unmarked so it might be confusing which one is christened Ice Lake – it’s not the first one! Keep walking ahead, until you see a small prayer structure with prayer flags fluttering around it – that lake is the one you are here for! How close the big mountains seem from here is riveting. You are face to face with some of the biggest mountains and how that can make you feel is unparalleled. The view of the lake itself will vary based on the season you visit.
• Milarepa’s Cave:
The caves are at an altitude of 4,100M which is a 600-700M climb up from the altitude we are at. Getting here and back will be between 4-5 hours. A small wooden bridge will take you to the other side which is a massive green meadow with dozens and dozens of unbridled horses and yaks soaking in the sun. You could sit there for hours watching the young ones jumping around in puddles of water, playing catch with themselves and pulling on the tails of the older ones in the herd. To sit here and watch this amidst the quietest and the most beautiful of settings with high mountains in the background is indescribable. To witness these gentle giants play with their young is the most heart-warming thing ever!
Coming back to the caves, there are a lot of stories associated with them – a lot of folklore and a lot of beliefs tied together with these caves with handprints inside and a gompa at its entrance. Even locals usually only go up till the gompa as the actual cave is apparently located in a gully and its approach is through a steep scree slope.
Besides these there are a lot of unknown and lesser known places and beautiful corners which you can explore on your own as you walk out and about in Manang.
7) Little Surprises Along the Way
Annapurna Circuit Trek is special for the way it always throws up surprises when you are casually walking along the trail on your way to your destination for the day. There are two such amazements to look out for on your way from Chame to Pisang. The first one, Paungda Danda stands out amongst all the splendid high mountains, which are aplenty, owning the entire view all through the trail on this day. Paungda Danda is one of the lesser peaks to the southeast of Pisang Peak. Unlike other mountains that are known for their height, this one is notable for its western rock face which soars dramatically over 1,500M above the Marsyangdi River. The smooth sweep of this giant rock slab which appears to your right is famously called the Great Wall of Pisang. Composed of slate rock, Paungda Danda is locally referred to as Swarga Dwar meaning ‘a door to the heavens’. It is the locals’ belief that the bodies of their deceased go up this wall to get to heaven.
The other interesting thing to see between Chame and Pisang is what’s locally called the Dhukure Pokhari or the dove pond. The shape of this pond is said to resemble a dove – which is where it gets its local name. You can see the shape clearly if the water level in the pond is low at the time. There is a small stone temple to one of its sides surrounded by a flurry of prayer flags.
8) Them Valleys
Annapurna Circuit Trek takes you to an elevation of 5,416M at Thorang La Pass which connects the green and beautiful Manang Valley (in the east) to the even more gorgeous but distinct Mustang Valley (in the west). Apart from it being a popular route frequented by a flock of trekkers each year, this high-mountain pass is still used by local traders to get suppliers from one region into the other. The trek is usually done from east to west that is from Manang to Mustang, but can also be attempted from west to east although this route forces you to gain elevation very rapidly and leaves very little room for fair acclimatization. No matter which route you dare to pick, the journey is sure to leave you speechless.
What’s fascinating is how distinct the two valleys separated by this high-altitude pass are – both matched only in the strength of each of their individual personalities. While we spoke about the beauty of Manang Valley above, here, I want to introduce you to the magnificence that is Mustang Valley. Unchanged over centuries, Mustang Valley is a historic kingdom with all its domineering sounds – those of the bells of horses and yaks, the wind wandering the rocky terrain, the gush of water in the creeks and the glacial movements. Famously called the Forbidden Kingdom where the locals practice Buddhism, honour the Dalai Lama and fly their colourful flags, villagers call out “Tashi Delek” as you pass them by, which is a Tibetan phrase meaning “May you be happy here and now”. Oddly enough, if there is any place where you can literally live this phrase, it is in the Mustang Valley. The comings and goings of locals and the way of life here is as it has been for centuries – you see locals traverse these lands on foot with a load on their backs which is the general way of existence in this region even as plentiful hotels nearby offer wi-fi connections and cars zoom past these freshly carved roads that go through this valley. Yaks carry their load as they walk around these walled cities which were once a hub for salt trade. The lands which are home to vulnerable indigenous communities were once untouched and unknown even to those who lived in other areas of Nepal. The landscape and the history of the place are as fascinating as its culture and the way it is slowly changing face but is resilient enough to retain its authenticity, at least as yet. The valley has an ancient and a beautiful soul which reflects in every little element of the place – it is even in the air.
9) The Perfect Finish
One of our most pleasant finds on this trek stacked with fine things to discover was the Lubra village and the trail that takes you to it. There are many ways to get from Muktinath to Jomsom including buses/jeeps but the trek through Lubra village is the one that’s an absolute delight. This ignored and isolated trail snakes up in to the dry terrain. As you make an exit from Muktinath, with mountains high and dry towering to your left, the valley to the right is stippled with small hamlets and apple orchards – the only green you see in the landscape. There are also cattle, horses and yaks spread across the entire scene. This is not an extremely popular route taken by trekkers; we wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t come across anyone all the way to Lubra village which is a little more than halfway to Jomsom. The landscape and terrain here is so very distinct and jaw-droppingly gorgeous all the way through. Since we get on this track on the last day of the trek, if you had thought you had seen all there was to see and experienced landscapes of all kinds that Nepal had to offer, this trek through Lubra village to Jomson is likely to come as a shocker. There are ascents on the trails and some of them quite steep, but the view dominated by Dhaulagiri, the solitude on the trail and the magnificence of the landscape all lend to making this the most leisurely day of all. It is invariably a relaxing walk down through the arid countryside to the dry, stony windswept Kali Gandaki Valley.
The location of Lubra, in addition to the distinct terrain the trail takes you through, is what lends to it being a sight nothing short of spectacular. This small high-mountain settlement which is constructed vertically along a straight mountain face on these barren mountains is the perfect place to rest out, have lunch and enjoy your time out of the lashing wind. The main settlement of Lubra is across a long suspension bridge along the riverbed and up to the left. A small tea house there serves fresh, home-made food – do go to check out their home kitchen and get a peek into the traditional arrangement of life in this village as in others in the region.
The valley receives so much wind, it’s hard to keep yourself grounded! The trail after Lubra continues to be enticing. You cross the river bed to go to the slopes on the other side and battle through the wind-blown afternoon down Panda Khola and then along the main trail to Jomsom.
This little magical town which takes you through apple orchards and the most pleasantly isolated barren mountains along the most beautiful settlements in the far distance is the perfect end to this perfect story that was Annapurna Circuit Trek.
We could go on about all the little and big things this trek has to offer but we would strongly urge you to treat yourselves to this little piece of heaven and experience this epitome of beauty first hand. If you do happen to do so, we would love to hear your experience.