Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

We spent the last two weeks trekking through the Annapurna Mountain Range on the Annapurna Circuit.  The Circuit is one of the worlds classic treks, and winds through traditional Nepali villages, climbs the challenging Thorong La Pass, and offers incredible views of the surrounding peaks.

Make sure to first check out our previous post, Trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary, which details much of the relevant information for trekking in Nepal including access, permitting and our trekking packing list.  Also see our other posts on world travel, including our minimalist packing list, the best travel insurance comparison, and how to prepare for a round the world trip!

As a couple, we averaged 3,347 Nepali rupees / $32.14 per day to live on the Circuit, including food, lodging, tea and entertainment, making this a very affordable activity. Our 36 days in Nepal as a whole cost us just over $70 per day for two people, which includes both treks, our time in the cities, and all transportation including our flight in from Cape Town.  The flight into the country accounted for 35% of the total cost.dsc_0516-3We started our trek on the Annapurna Circuit in Besisahar and ended in Jomsom, adding some amazing side hikes along the journey.  Our route took us over 100 miles / 160 kilometers, peaking at 5,416 meters / 17,699 feet elevation.  The classic trekking route continues beyond Jomsom, but there has been road construction in recent years which has made the remaining portion of the trail less enjoyable.  The beginning portion between Besisahar and Bahundanda, which was the first day of our trek, is also on road and could be skipped as well.

The Annapurna Circuit is a popular trek which is done by hikers from all over the globe, so it doesn’t take long to meet other trekkers along the route.  We made friends early on and trekked together for most of our 13 day trip.

Access

We took an early taxi to the Tourist Bus Park to catch our 500 rupee bus to Besisahar.  The bus departed at 6:30am, and dropped us in Besisahar by 11:00am.  The “tourist bus” designation means simply that is should have fewer stops than a “local bus”, although we found that it quickly became a local bus once it left the station.  There were several people with seat reservations that ended up without a seat since it operates as first come first served.  It is advisable to get there early.img_6919-1There is also another bus that leaves from the same station in Besisahar and goes up the valley as far as Ghermu, which gives the option of skipping the beginning portion of the trek.  This frequent bus does not need a reservation and can be taken upon arrival.  In addition, there are shared jeeps at the bus station which travel up the valley as far as Manang, and leaves whenever there are enough people to (over) fill the vehicle.img_6882Upon arrival in Besisahar, we decided to take the local bus to the next town to avoid the first couple of hours of road hiking.  There was an empty bus waiting at the station whose driver stated was soon leaving for Bhulbule and we were instructed to wait by the vehicle.  After 15 minutes, another bus arrived which was brimming with riders, and our driver told us that this would in fact be our transport.  That driver started to throw backpacks onto the roof with no tie down, so we attempted to bring our packs onboard.  We were the last sardines in the tin, and could not get in further than the entry steps.  There was a spare tire in the aisle which we attempted to use as a seat, but there are too many butts on the rim and we were forced to stand.  The bus was designed for people who are significantly shorter, forcing us to hunch over.  The first bump in the road introduced our heads to the ceiling, which made this the second worst bus ride from this trek.  After seemingly forever, we couldn’t take anymore and hopped out to realize that we had only made it 100 meters up the road from Besisahar.  We decided to hike the rest.img_6843

Permits

The Annapurna Circuit requires permits to be obtained before entry, including the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) and Trekkers Information Management System (TIMS).  We easily obtained our permits from the Nepal Tourism Board in Pokhara for 2,000 rupees each, which got checked periodically during the trek.  ACAP also provides helpful information about the trek at the Nepal Tourism Board office in Pokhara or Kathmandu, along with ACAP offices along the trekking route.img_6951-2img_6952-2img_6312

Day 1:  Besisahar to Lampata

We started our trek in Besisahar after the aforementioned bus experience.  After a short distance, we met a fellow trekker who had been traveling in Asia for several months.  He flagged down a tractor and hitched us a ride for the next mile in the bed.  The locals got quite a kick out of us as we passed, we got a free ride, and Megan got a mild case of spine compression.

The remainder of the day was spent hiking along a sparsely used dirt road until we reached Lampata, which is located just below the hill from Bahundanda.  The trek was relatively uneventful, except for one part where six naked young boys, no older than five, jumped out of the bushes and chased us with buckets of water.  Megan snapped a hiking pole while frantically trying to escape.

Lampata made for a nice quiet stay with a few family teahouses offering homegrown organic foods for very cheap.

Total distance:  9 miles / 14.5 kilometers
Trekking time:  4 hours

Starting elevation:  820 meters
Ending elevation:  1,200 meters

Day 2:  Lampata to Tal

This day was spent with a mild incline as the path goes deeper into the valley.  It follows the river, and joins the dirt road on and off throughout the hike.  The trail makings are poor or non-existent, so we missed a turnoff in Chamje and spent more time on the road than necessary.  The elevation is still relatively low and the surroundings humid and jungly, making it prime area for leech sighting.

Total distance:  12 miles / 19.3 kilometers
Trekking time:  7 hours

Starting elevation:  1,200 meters
Ending elevation:  1,700 meters

Day 3:  Tal to Chame

This was another day spent gently ascending through the valley.  The cliffs get higher and there is a section with some steep climbs through the forest in the middle.  There are alternate trekking trail options which split from the road, allowing long portions away from the dust.  The markings are still poor in this area, which again left us on the road more than necessary after missing the trail which crossed the river through Karte.

Total distance:  13 miles / 20.9 kilometers
Trekking time:  7 hours
Starting elevation:  1,700 meters
Ending elevation:  2,710 meters

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Day 4:  Chame to Ghyaru

The surroundings begin to get more impressive in this section as the snowcapped peaks start to show and the cliffs get more rocky and steep.  There is an option between two different routes once the trail reaches Upper and Lower Pisang.  We took the route through Upper Pisang which culminates with a 400m vertical climb to end in Ghyaru.  This section is significantly more difficult than the path past Lower Pisang which follows the river, but offers infinitely better views of the valley and Annapurna II and IV.  The painful climb was well worth the added scenery, and the overnight at higher altitude helped us with our acclimatization.

Total distance:  12 miles / 19.3 kilometers
Trekking time:  6 hours

Starting elevation:  2,710 meters
Ending elevation:  3,730 meters

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Day 5:  Ghyaru to Manang

This portion of the hike follows the previously mentioned upper path, and provided us with some of the best views from the entire Circuit.  We started with an amazing sunrise on the Annapurna peaks before following the contour path around the mountains past several amazing viewpoints.  The high path offered sweeping views of the surroundings with prayer flags and stoupas along the way.  From speaking with other trekkers, this path is far superior to the riverside route following Lower Pisang.

This is a relatively easy hike with a slight downslope.  We arrived in Manang early to secure a room.  This town is a hub for trekkers who often use it as a spot for acclimatization rest days and side hikes  It gets relatively crowded so late arrivals may have difficulty finding decent lodging.  Manang is also lucky to have two seasonal volunteer doctors at the Himalayan Rescue Association.  They offer a daily 3pm lecture on Acute Mountain Sickness and Altitude Sickness to prepare for going over Thorong La Pass.

Total distance:  8.7 miles / 14 kilometers
Trekking time:  4 hours

Starting elevation:  3,730 meters
Ending elevation:  3,540 meters

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Day 6:  Rest day in Manang: Chongkor Viewpoint

We spent the day in Manang and the surrounding area, with an added side hike to the Chongkor Viewpoint above the town.  This is a short but steep day hike to an overlook point with stoupas and prayer flags which added a few hundred meters of elevation for acclimatization.  There are numerous day hikes of various length, shown in the map below, which can be done from Manang including the popular Ice Lake.  These side hikes should not be overlooked due to their acclimatization benefits, but also come with some of the most memorable views of the entire circuit.

The town has lots of amenities for trekkers and locals alike, and all types of goods, supplies, snacks and toiletries are available at a reasonable price.  There are also projection screen theaters, German bakeries and real ground coffee.

Total distance:  2.6 miles / 4.2 kilometers
Trekking time:  1.5 hours
Starting elevation:  3,540 meters
Peak elevation at Chongkor Viewpoint: 3,900 meters
Ending elevation:  3,540 meters

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Day 7:  Manang to Tilicho Base Camp

We added a two day side trip to visit Tilicho Lake from the main Annapurna Circuit route.  The lake is considered the highest of this size in the world, and sits just under 5,000 meters / 16,400 feet elevation.  Tilicho Lake is a 24 mile round trip from the main trail.  The route starts just north of Manang, and winds above a rocky valley until it reaches Tilicho Base Camp at the foot of the mountain.  The trail to Base Camp becomes extremely dangerous as it passes over skree slopes above steep drops to the riverbed.  The path is mostly remote other than a couple of small villages offering tea and meals along the way.

Tilicho Base Camp has only three lodges, and was one of the more crowded places where we spent the night.  Rooms were mostly booked by 12:00pm, so an early arrival is essential to avoid sleeping in the dining hall.

Total distance:  9 miles / 14.5 kilometers
Trekking time:  5 hours

Starting elevation:  3,540 meters
Ending elevation:  4,200 meters

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Day 8:  Tilicho Base Camp to Tilicho Lake to Lower Shree Kharka

We started our hike to Tilicho Lake at 5:00am to ensure an early arrival to the top.  This was a tough trail, with 800m elevation gain to high altitude over the three mile / five kilometer distance.  The oxygen density at the top is just over 50% of that at sea level which adds to the difficulty.  We brought only a day pack with warm clothes, water and snacks and left our trekking bags at the lodge below.  The hike took 2.5 hours to the summit, where the air and wind were quite chilly.  The trek to Tilicho was one of the highlights of the Annapurna Circuit, and should not be missed.  The snow peaked mountains and glaciers feed the lake giving it glass-like glacial blue appearance which shimmers in the morning sun.  Another 1.5 hours got us back to the bottom for breakfast before we started the short retrace hike to Shree Kharka for the night.

Total distance:  10.5 miles / 16.9 kilometers
Trekking time:  6 hours
Starting elevation:  4,200 meters
Peak elevation at Tilicho Lake:  5,000 meters
Ending elevation:  4,000 meters

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Day 9:  Lower Shree Kharka to Thorong Phedi

The route from Tilicho Lake cuts a shortcut just after Shree Kharka to wrap the mountain contour and meets back up with the Annapurna Circuit.  The path rises before dropping significantly as it cuts the corner to reconnect with the main trek.  The trail became relatively mild for the remainder of the day as it crept up the valley between high mountains.  We ended in Thorong Phedi, where the lodging and food is decent, making it a surprisingly nice, albeit cold, place to stay at this elevation.  There was actual ground coffee and baked goods on offer as well along with a reggae vibe.

Total distance:  11 miles / 17.7 kilometers
Trekking time:  5.5 hours
Starting elevation:  4,200 meters
Ending elevation:  4,450 meters

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Day 10:  Thorong Phedi to High Camp

We took a rest and acclimatization day at this point with only a short hike to High Camp where we spent the day relaxing before Thorong La Pass.  This is the last lodging before the pass and is the highest point to stay on the Annapurna Circuit.  Some people opt to hike up for the day and then return to Thorong Phedi to sleep at a lower elevation, but we preferred to get a portion of the hike behind us before summiting the next morning.  The path from Thorong Phedi is a set of very steep switchbacks which would not be fun to do twice.

If we had been hiking alone, we would have skipped this day at High Camp and gone straight over Thorong La, but added the day to stay with our trekking friends.  Sleeping at this elevation was not comfortable due to the low oxygen density, so would not be recommended for anyone who is not well acclimatized.  There was also a nice but steep overlook you can hike to with great 360 degree views.

Total distance:  0.8 miles / 1.3 kilometers
Trekking time:  45 minutes

Starting elevation:  4,450 meters
Ending elevation:  4,850 meters

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Day 11:  High Camp to Thorong La Pass to Muktinath, bus to Kagbeni

We started the trek to Thorong La just before 6:00am, despite dozens of people hiking out at 4:00am and 5:00am.  The hike up was difficult due to altitude, but otherwise surprisingly less steep than expected.  It took just over 1.5 hours to the pass with frosty fingertips and toes.  The views were clouded over for the entire ascent until we reached the top where the skies opened up and the surrounding mountains shown through.  There is one teahouse at the top serving hot overpriced drinks which were well worth the money after the chilly hike.

We stayed up top for 40 minutes before starting the long 1,700m descent back to a normal elevation, which was again surprisingly less steep than we had expected.  It took 3 hours to reach Muktinath, where we did our final check out at the ACAP office.  A trekking friend had heard of a nice side trip to nearby Kagbeni, so we hopped on a 30 minute bus to spend some time in that area.

Kagbeni is in the Mustang region, which offers significantly different landscapes and culture than most of the Annapurna area trekking.  The region has Tibetan heritage and added a nice mix to our tour of Nepal.

Total distance: 8.5 miles / 13.7 kilometers
Trekking time:  4.5 hours

Starting elevation:  4,850 meters
Peak elevation at Thorong La Pass:  5,416 meters
Ending elevation in Mukineth:  3,710 meters
Sleeping elevation in Kagbeni: 2,804 meters

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Day 12:  Day in Kagbeni: Tiri and prehistoric caves

We spent a full day hiking around Kagbeni and exploring the neighboring area.  The Mustang region is protected and requires a separate $500 permit than what is required for the the Annapurna Circuit.  There are, however, a few side trips near the town which are allowed without permitting, including nearby Tiri village and a series of prehistoric caves along the cliff side.

We hiked up the valley to Tiri, and found numerous fossils in the rocks by the river along the way.  We later scrambled up the skree slopes to explore a couple of potentially unvisited caves in the cliffs, finding evidence of ancient habitation on the walls.

We also stumbled on a local restaurant, the Dancing Yak, which we came to love during our stay.  The owner spoke no English, but cooked amazing food.  We would be ushered into her kitchen to sit on benches drinking Nepali tea while we watched her roll our dough for our meals.  Due to the language barrier, our order would routinely change to whatever she felt like serving us, which was always a surprise but amazing.

Total distance:  3.1 miles / 5 kilometers
Trekking time:  1.5 hours
Elevation:  2,804 meters

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Day 13:  Kagbeni to Jomsom, bus to Pokhara

This was the final day of our trek.  Kagbeni is relatively remote so there are few reasonable transportation options out of town.  We decided to trek to nearby Jomsom where we hoped to find a bus back to Pokhara.  The trek continued down the river with the Mustang scenery, mostly following the jeep road.  Upon arrival to Jomsom, we were able to secure two direct 12:00pm bus tickets back to town for 1,000 rupees per person.

This bus ride was said to take 8 hours from Jomsom, but ended up taking a full 10 hours.  The road is exceptionally bumpy for the entire trip, and speeds seemed to rarely exceed 10 kph as we crept along the cliff edges.  We were stuck in the six seater back row, where several locals attempted to use us as pillows.  Inconveniently placed bars on the windows kept ramming into our shoulders with every bump in the road.  There was a car sick baby throwing up in the row in front of us, adding a pleasant smell to our already comfortable situation.  This ride took the prize for the worst bus trip of our travels, and likely the least comfortable experience of our lives.

Total distance:  6.3 miles / 10.1 kilometers
Trekking time:  2 hours

Starting elevation:  2,804 meters
Ending elevation:  2,743 meters

img_6928-3img_6923img_6930-3We got back to Pokhara during Diwali Festival, the Festival of Lights.  The town was awash in colors and candles, with locals dancing and celebrating along the streets.  After three weeks of trekking it was time for some relaxation with a $10 massage and a four day residential yoga retreat to end our trip.img_6965

img_7025Make sure to take a look at our previous posts from our round the world trip, including Iceland, Romania, and our camping safari in Eastern Africa.  Also keep a look out for posts from our upcoming visits to India and Australia!

20 thoughts on “Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

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