View from Praken Gompa, Manang
Any time I say I'm going to be away for a while I always seem to come back a little faster than planned. I had been told that the Annapurna circuit took a minimum of two weeks, but with a little over ambitious hiking and the addition of roads for quick entry and exit to the best parts, I managed to do it in seven days. What is to follow is a retelling of my personal experience, I am in no way recommending this as a template for other people. Often times when I would check in at the ACAP check points the people had to have me explain multiple times where I had come from, followed by questions about what time I got up in the morning, and then finally the inevitable "You must be very fast trekker". Apparently. I point this out not to brag, but as to make it clear that the itinerary I will describe in the following posts may not be something to plan your own trip around.
In fact in this post I will not be going over my exact route at all, instead I will address some of the truth and rumors about the state of the trail, some of my own impressions, and my thoughts on the trip as a whole. I plan on doing three other posts describing in specific detail what you come across along the trail in each particular region.
Dynamite Blasts the Far Ridge, South of Tal
Truth & Rumors: I had heard from several people prior to going on this trip, that my time and money would be best spent elsewhere, for the Annapurna circuit was "done". The key cause of this according to the critics were two roads, one leading north from Besi Sahar and the other working its way north from Jomsom on the west side of the circuit. As of this writing transportation can get as far north as Syange on the East side of the circuit and all the way to Mukinath on the west side. The "road" impacts much further north of Syange on the east side though, it appears that it is being completed in sections, and blasting and clearing of rubble happens as far north as Dharapani. The above photo shows some spectacular blasting that held me up for 40 minutes just south of Tal.
So the big question is how does this affect the trekking? Well in the east it isn't that big of a deal. I arrived at Besi Sahar and walked mostly on the road to reach Bhulbule, and after that the road was often on the other side of the river from the trail. In the few places where the road and the path crossed there was as of this writing no traffic aside from mules, which are unavoidable on this trail. One thing to be very cognizant of is that Nepali work crews may be clearing rubble from recent blasting, and they may be above you. While supporting myself by a bamboo limb with loose footing on some scree I heard an air compressor kick on above me and looked up to see a boulder half again the size of a basketball tumbling toward my head. With a last minute maneuver to the left I dodged the boulder mostly, incurring a small wound on my right hand and the inside of my right ankle. After some choice words were sent up toward the people above, I was motioned to move out of the area. Anyway, the lesson here is when you cross paths with the road crews pay attention to what they are doing, because they very well may not be.
The effect on the West side of the trail is severe. After passing over the high Thorung La pass I arrived in Mukinath, which is an important pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists. Now that the road goes there, many pilgrims had ridden their motorcycles in or hired 4WD transport from Jomsom. The town appeared ready to double in size by the look of all the construction and there was no chance I was going to spend a night there. To be fair the town of Jharkot just a bit to the west was largely unaffected and was a really interesting place, but the trail and the road are one through this whole region, and even in the tourist off season it has quite a bit of traffic due to the interest of pilgrims from India and Nepal. This does not negate the worth of the sites in Lower Mustang, and I think going as far as Marpha would still be worth while, but south of there the traffic is too much, the road too intrusive and the sites too meager to really justify your time compared to what other treks in Nepal have to offer.
Donkey Train Passes By
Another thing I would like to address is the time of year that I did this hike. I saw more of those donkeys pictured above than I did other trekkers on this trail, which is the most popular in Nepal. Why? Apparently everyone thinks this is a bad time of year to trek. They are 100% wrong. Late May and early June seem perfect for this trail. The monsoons are not in full swing, and from Chame on you are in the rain shadow anyway. I got more rain doing Everest Base Camp in March. The first day in the middle hills was a little warm, but certainly not unbearable, and to my advantage was that at the high elevations it was warmer and there was no snow on the pass. I don't get why you would want to do this trek in March and not May. Yet looking at the statistics in the ACAP office something like 5000 trekkers go through in March and only hundreds in May.
Having less people on the trails has its ups and downs. On the one hand I had the towns and trails to myself most of the time, with a few recurring faces here and there to share meals with and friendly chat. On the downside was that places like Manang and Kagbeni felt like ghost towns, with shops closed, services unavailable, and menus reduced from their high season glory. Not competing with crowds for rooms or waiting hours for dinner out weighed any downside and the great weather was also a big bonus, but places that advertised internet didn't bother turn them on, bakeries weren't baking and those Fajitas you see advertised aren't available.
Scenery is THE Highlight on this Trek
Over All Review: I had a great time, and I'll start right off by saying that this trek is not "done". It is well worth doing and I am very glad that I went and saw what there was to see. Now if you were to come to Nepal and you could only do one hike, this would not be my recommendation. The scenery was stunning, the Thorung La pass was a fun challenge, and you get too see almost all the different types of environments in Nepal; from rice terraced hot and humid middle hills to areas that look like a combination of the American West and Capadocia. You see Buddhist gompas and mani walls as well as Hindu shrines as well as different architectural styles practiced by different ethnicities in different regions. All that said it exists almost entirely as scenery. This trail, and the people who live near it, have become so use to tourists that you get more odd stares in Kathmandu than on this trail. People only say "Namaste" about half the time back if you say it to them, and if children approach you it will surely be followed up with a request for a pen, rupees or sweets. While I am glad for the people in this region that they have access to modern conveniences like roads, and don't have to pound rice or spend quite as much time in fields, this is not the trek to do if you are interested in seeing any more traditional culture.
Walk That Horse!
To give the trail some credit many towns from Tal onward had an almost 'wild west' kind of feel to them. Horses were still being used for transportation, and mule and yak trains were common. Also Manang and the surrounding villages are some of the coolest places I have ever been. I have never been so happy to spend a day acclimatizing somewhere as I was in Manang. The Mountains were so close, the glaciers were right there, the valley was beautiful, and the Gompas and other sites you could visit could keep you busy for days. I may very well fly into Hongde in the future just to visit the area again with Kim or if someone visits and just wants to visit something interesting for a couple days. The sights around Manang really redeemed this trek for me.
Other highlights include the sights of Lower Mustang which were really cool to see first hand. Kagbeni was a really cool sight and if accommodation had been reasonable there I would have spent a little more time there as well. The food was also much better than what I have had anywhere else on treks, and the food at the Alka Marco Polo in Jomsom rivaled some of the food I have had in Kathmandu, it was really good. Then there were the just amazing mountain views. These are the best I have seen in Nepal. You see so many different peaks, glaciers and landscapes around them that it really does put many other treks to shame in this area.
Tomorrow I'll try to get a post up discussing the trail up to Manang.