Annapurna Circuit Trek is 155 kilometers of sheer awe. With constantly changing landscapes, shifts in temperature, the massive peaks with boisterous personalities and the comings and goings of the exuberant winds, there’s never a dull moment on this long but magnificent trek. Although each day is long with an average of 12-15 kms, the constant change in scenery alternating between raw wilderness with wild horses and yaks silently going about their day and a peek into the high-mountain living culture with small hamlets scattered across the landscape, it is very hard to get bored of your surroundings on this trek. As the trails go up, down and around the many mountain faces mimicking the meandering Marshyangdi river down below, the clouds do their bit to keep you entertained as they play a game of hide and seek with the harsh afternoon sun.
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!
(Note: For a detailed description of each day’s trail, please read through the Brief Description and Itinerary)
Although pictures don’t do justice to all the gorgeousness that this trek takes you through, let us treat you to some parts of this piece of heaven that is Nepal to give you a sense of how the landscape on this trek which only gets progressively better each day, completely transforms from one day to the next on this trek of multiple climaxes.
The cities of Nepal have as much to offer as do its mountains. Annapurna Circuit Trek begins in the bustling capital city of Kathmandu. Its colourful, crowded streets packed with shops stacking trekking and climbing gear to their very top in addition to the many tourist hotels and cafes with high mountains in the backdrop is enough to suggest that trekking in Nepal equals joining the big league and being at the heart of all the action. With crowds from across the globe sifting through the city in search of climbing gear suited for the highest mountains, this place is your best bet to indulge the trekker/climber in you. The local art, local cuisine and all those colourful masks selling on the sides of the street do their bit to draw and hold your attention on the busy streets of this busy city from where most climbs in Nepal begin.
2) Kathmandu to Chame
Remember how we spoke about Nepal offering an assortment of landscapes and taking you through a variety of climactic zones? (If you missed this, you might want to read the article ‘Highlights of Annapurna Circuit Trek’). Well, the journey into the ‘many-kinds’ begins with the ride from Kathmandu to Chame which introduces you to ‘many’ and ‘all’ kinds of roads – from smooth to bumpy, well laid out to oops! we missed a patch, dry to the mucky, bendy to straight as an arrow, flanked by villages to going through patches of thick forests, ones where you can lay back in your seat to the ones which keep you on the edge for the fear of falling right down into the valley and we will leave the rest for you to experience. However, one thing that remains constant is the great views outside your window that are persuasive enough to keep you from getting a shut eye on this 12 hour journey that starts from Kathmandu and takes you to Chame through Besisahar all the way giving you an experience of the local Nepal way of travelling between towns.
Oh! Another thing that’s a true wonder on this route are the many ‘MANY’ waterfalls along the way that make these muddy roads slushy and slippery, but leave the worrying for that to the driver and wait to get to the infamous Chamje waterfall which is quite a treat to the eyes.
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 after a whole day of back-breaking drives on dirt roads. 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 View Point: Of the many things to do in Chame, one of them is a two-hour hike up Chame View Point. 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!
4) Chame to Pisang
There are miles to be walked and wonders to be witnessed on the trek between the charming Chame and the picturesque Pisang. Leaving Chame is to leave the flutter of prayer flags, stupas and chortens behind and surrender to the Marsyangdi River to lead the way with Annapurna II towering unbelievably far above the whole valley, gazing silently.
The trail starts out with alpine trees on both sides with mani stones and chortens scattered along the trail. Mani stones are stone plates and rocks inscribed with Buddhist mantras adding to the inimitable vibe of the valley.
The route also introduces you to your very first suspension bridges on the trail. These cantilever metal bridges dancing to the music of the winds are aplenty in all these regions of Nepal used by locals to cross over the over-zealous rivers which also are aplenty in Nepal. The next feature for the day are the pine forests rife with the sharp sounds of various birds talking to the winds, the intoxicating sweet smell of the pines and the trance of the sparkling turquoise river down below.
Special gifts for the day:
1) One of the most fascinating things to watch out for on this trail is Paungda Danda which stands out amongst all the splendid high mountains owning the entire view all through the trail. 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.
2) Another interesting thing to see today is what’s locally called the Dhukure Pokhari – 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.
3) Upper Pisang and Lower Pisang: Upper Pisang is a settlement nestled on the other side of our route, clinging to the mountain face right below Pisang Peak. Lower Pisang is a medieval, countryside-looking village at 3,200M. Trees ripe with pastel pink flowers randomly appear around the village. Stone and wooden houses with narrow roads, long stretches of prayer wheels and the colour of prayer flags, mani stones and chortens, the veins of the river slowly slithering in the distance and the silent gaze of the most gorgeous mountains, this village is the stuff of dreams. Stairways made out of chopped out wood, yaks chilling in the wide landscape and stacks of firewood lining each house, the entire scene is so very refreshing. It is absolutely surreal to be in the presence of these massive mountains and all the life that they hold in this godly place.
5) Pisang to Manang
Not too far after your exit from the previous village, you notice the dramatic change in landscape from Pisang, rich in alpine trees, all the way to Manang where the browns try to push out the greens donning a more rustic look! In this region which is in the Himalayan rainshadow on the geographical fringes of the Tibetan plateau, the vertical rock faces with muddy trails, dried shrubs scattered across the floor and weirdly shaped trees randomly emerging in the middle of the setting, all lend to making the trail to Manang bare a hard resemblance to the Wild West.
The exit from Pisang takes you through stone houses, lined by fields on a stone-paved path that goes through the village. Crisscrossing the wide tracks you escape to the thick of the forests. Soon as the forests end – the change in landscape is as quick as a wink! Dirt paths crisscross like the veins of a river as rock faces stand straight and tall with bushes scattered across the dirt floor and pine trees randomly about. Walking through this desert-like landscape, it is hard to shake off the feeling that you might see a ranger with their noose and their cowboy boots on their horses come galloping about from around a corner at any minute!
This leads to an endless but comfortable climb to Bgoro Danda Col (3,440M) where the view opens out to accommodate the entire Humde Valley framed by Chulu peaks. Passing by the peculiar ochre-coloured cliffs we advance to Humde – a sleepy town with an airstrip bang in the middle of the valley.
At the end of the town, the view once again opens up to accommodate the river, and the snow-capped mountains pushed to the background replaced by strangely contoured turrets eroded into phantom-like shapes, in the foreground. The landscape is now a strange geographical art dominated by the many shades of brown on this dry meadow. In the background are the sun-bathed silhouettes of Annapurna II, III, IV and Gangapurna. Here on out, Annapurna III and Gangapurna are a constant and unreservedly dominate the view.
Entering this small village with a local population of close to 200 is like entering a time warp. Its ancient stone and wooden houses with the stone-paved paths and rows of prayer wheels with locals and tourists out and about in this pleasing village, soaking in the afternoon sun, is a sight as refreshing as a bowl of ice cream on a hot summer city afternoon. Some of the many things that make this small town very special are waking up to the view of Gangapurna right outside your window with all its illustriousness seeming so close and welcoming, the many monasteries that stand on top of high hills each giving you a different perspective on the bird’s eye view of the entire town, the turquoise Gangapurna Lake, Ice Lake, Milarepa’s Cave and then of course the hordes of wild horses and yaks adding to the countryside feel of the place.
7)Manang to Shree Kharka
It takes not more than 5 minutes to cross through the medieval-looking village of Manang and what lies right outside is sheer gorgeousness. At the end of these stone houses are large fields of crops growing in the region, blades of green sway to the tune of the winds in stretches of hexagonal land with the backdrop of Gangapurna and Annapurna II, III, IV all dressed in white. The bright green of the fields with the river snaking out to find the place where the land meets the haze down below, the browns from the stone houses somewhere in the middle of the landscape as you look back and the white of all the snow-capped giants above, the beauty and the magnanimity of this scene is overwhelming yet humbling all at the same time.
The trail to Shree Kharka is beautiful through and through. The mountains up ahead look so close like you are walking directly into them – bushes and wildflowers on both sides on a dirt trail so narrow, you can only place one foot in front of the other.
8) Shree Kharka to Tilicho Base Camp
The entire route between these two places is on sliding trails going up and down on slim paths along the very edge of the crumbling mountain face. The trails get narrower, the mountains get grander and the views more spectacular. You have now truly entered the no vegetation, rocky, dry and arid zone where the mountains are a 100 shades of brown and provide for no firm footing. Blue sheep and mountain goats make the trail on the loose mountains a little precarious – them jumping around in their dry, arid homeland on the upper reaches cause rocks of all sizes to come tumbling at you at all speeds. As adorable as they may be, these playful beings could prove to be dangerous! In these regions, they remain well camouflaged too, since they match the colour of these barren brown mountains made of loose rock and mud.
The mountains here are dry with pillars of mud shaped like massive termite mounds which dominate the scenery and add to the drama of the landscape. You are now officially walking in the middle of those strange looking, extremely high mud pinnacles you had been witnessing from far off all those previous days. These seem even higher and stranger as you walk through them, like lost civilizations from the past.
9) Tilicho Base Camp to Tilicho Lake
The route makes you climb through dry mountains full of mud and gravel with the river down below and snow-clad mountains on the other side. Depending on how low the temperatures dipped to the previous night, you might also find morning dew frozen solid on top of the few blades of grass on the side of the narrow trail and few of the last purple flowers that resiliently hold on to life in these harsh temperatures. The air is dry and so is the terrain. When the sun comes up behind you, it is nothing short of magical – the sudden light on the trail, the properly defined rays from behind the mountains bringing everything in your surroundings to life. After walking the endless hairpin bends that the trail to this high-altitude lake is made of, you enter the snow area.
The terrain in snow is mostly flat but full of shin-deep snow sitting in all shapes strangely carved so by the fierce winds of the altitude. The surface of the snow looks much like waves frozen in time – it is fascinating although endless! White is the only colour you see now until you get to the lake. Depending on the season and the snowfall, you will either find an electric blue lake waiting for you at the end of the trail or you find a massive field of ice smooth enough to play a game of ice hockey – and you can only imagine the lake as it would be under that thick sheet of ice. Either way, its beauty is inspiring to say the least.
The mountains on these trails are so high and so close – it’s fascinating to think that you cannot accommodate the entire mountain to fit your field of vision all at once!
10) Shree Kharka to Ledar
Not too long ago, Yak Kharka and Ledar were abandoned stone shelters, completely ignored by trekkers going up to Thorang Phedi. But ever since altitude’s started getting a bit more respect, these places are being looked to as legit stop-holds by trekkers on their way to the foot of the pass. Since then, these places have seen the opening of some very comfortable lodges and decent cafes.
The route starts with taking you to the top of a hill with the most magnificent view of what lies below. A meandering river snaking across the landscape, village at the foothills surrounded by lush green agricultural land spread out in various geometric patterns, the peculiar termite mound-like structures spread across the view – you can see the entire valley for kilometers ahead with Gangapurna, and Annapurna II, III, IV standing tall looking down at the same view as you. This gets you to Yak Kharka.
Yak Kharka to Ledar is barely any distance and on flat, open land too. There are yaks and horses all along the way, just going about their business.
11) Ledar to Thorang Phedi to High Camp
Right after you leave on your trail from Ledar, stop and look behind or you are at a risk of missing yet another mesmerizing view of Annapurna III and Gangapurna blushing all shades of red in what is just another spellbinding Himalayan sunrise. Encircling Thorang Phedi are ragged cliffs, crags and ridges which you get to in not too long on the rocky trails from Ledar. Phedi which is a Nepali word, literally translates to ‘bottom of the pass’ where there are ample blue sheep to keep you company!
From Thorang Phedi to High Camp is a steep climb which leads you to a single accommodation with 110 rooms. What’s fascinating about this place is all the bustle in the dining area with people from everywhere who were previously scattered across different tea houses, now congregated in this one place. Everyone doing their own thing – some socializing, some reading, some playing cards and everyone swapping stories – there is enough to do here! And it is truly a global community for you to meet people from across the globe.
12) High Camp to Thorang La Pass to Muktinath
You start your climb to the pass in torchlight for you have to leave before the sun gets to work for the day. The trail zigzags up and up and is extremely narrow - it can get slippery with patches of ice and moraine. The first hour is truly tiring as you climb up a narrow gully in the thick of darkness. But with the first flush of dawn comes a new surge of energy as the glorious view makes an appearance. To look at these high mountains in the first light of the sun, it is so easy to naturally surrender to the beliefs of the locals about them being home to the Gods. Gangapurna and Annapurna III get flushed with the changing colours of the sun looking ever so glorious.
The entire trail is through soft, dusty mountains which seem like you could blow them out of existence. After a series of humps, you start to see snow appearing in various patterns, chunks, stripes, and everything else you can think of. The last bit to the pass can be a bit of a frustration as a series of false summits make an appearance.
Look out for a mound of stones draped with numerous prayer flags. When you get to that and feel yourself being pushed in all directions by the deafening wind, know that you have reached the infamous Thorang La Pass. The wind here is icy and brutal, it wouldn’t be so bad to take some photos, have a brief celebration, have some hot tea at the tiny tea house at the pass – which seems to be the only place to provide some respite from the relentless winds. The descent is going to be a long, hard, tiring journey down to Muktinath through miles and miles of deserted mountains with not a sign of any settlement into the far distance towards the horizon.
On your way down over the other side of the pass, it is a good idea to stop and admire the magnificent landscape across the Kali Gandaki Valley as it changes form and colour. The trail snakes down the dry land on ridges and moraine. There are a lot of mountains to spot and name but the highlight is when the mighty Dhaulagiri makes an appearance. You witness a constant change in scenery as you go back to green lands and hard rocks from these dusty mountains. At the end of this long descent, with quivering knees, the sense of achievement is rather indescribable.
13) Lubra Village
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. 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. The landscape and terrain here is so very distinct and jaw-droppingly gorgeous all the way through.
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 for some time out of the lashing wind.
These are only a few wonders along the trek around the Annapurna Massif and only one perspective of all the beauty the route has to offer. We would strongly urge that you bring yourself here and create your own story of the beauty you see along the way.