So, when we were planning our RTW trip, one place was a draw for nearly everyone–Nepal. Something about the rich culture, the Himalayas, and the exotic nature of places like Kathmandu, pulled us to include a stop in this small country in the mountains.
Many visitors to Nepal come for one purpose–trekking. Trekking in Nepal is a unique experience compared to any other place in the world. Here many treks are “teahouse treks,” and this means walking the trails and arriving in villages, which are populated with lodges or teahouses. The teahouse will provide a bed, bathroom facilities and a restaurant. This leaves only the need to carry your water for the day, clothes, and sleeping bag.
As avid hikers in the States there are some significant differences in backpacking in US Parks and trails and trekking in Nepal. First, these are not trails that were cut through the forests and natural areas of beauty, with the goal being to show you the highlights of the area. These are essentially ancient footpaths connecting small villages through difficult terrain. The trails have been used by the locals living in the villages for centuries. The people use the footpaths to visit neighbors and families in other villages, move goods from village to village, and access bigger villages for various reasons. Trekking in Nepal does not mean escape from civilization. Rather, you are exploring a rich civilization deep in some of the most amazing mountains in the world which are accessible primarily by foot–until civilization decided a “road” is superior to a footpath. (More on that later.)
When we were making plans, one trek stood out among the rest for several reasons and that was the Annapurna Circuit. As far as superlatives, many people consider the Annapurna Circuit to be the best hike in the world. This is an approximately 200 km circuit or loop which circumnavigates the Annapurna massif, a large mountain mass containing the 8000+ meter peak of Annapurna I, the 10th highest mountain in the world. Annapurna I is one of the most dangerous mountains in the world to climb, and of 191 attempts, 61 people have perished upon the mountain.
By Solundir – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17635720
Along with the high peaks of the Himalayas, there are diverse environments along the circuit. Starting low in elevation, you follow the Marsyangdi river valley, slowly gaining elevation. This progression allows for diverse scenery, as well as ideal acclimatization, as you walk. Climbing higher each day enables one to see the variety of plants and animals that thrive in this harsh environment.
The natural beauty is probably the biggest draw to the area, but another reason trekking in Nepal is so unique is the people and cultures represented in this area. Backpacking in the US may include the goal of solitude or escaping from normal life. Trekking in Nepal is different, as the trekking area of Annapurna is well habituated. As you walk, you will see goat herders taking their herd out for their daily walks. People may be fetching water from nearby or gathering firewood. You see people living their everyday lives and using the trails for practical purposes.
Several different cultures are represented along the Annapurna circuit. Lamjung, Myagdi, Manang and Mustang inhabit the land. The Lamjung and Manang areas are populated with mostly Gurung people. These are non-Tibetan peoples and can be divided into highlanders or lowlanders. The highlanders are primarily using animal husbandry and religiously line up more with Tibetan Buddhists. The lowlanders are more influenced by Hindu religion. For example, the Buddhist prayer flags were uncommon until reaching the higher elevations, when they became ubiquitous.
Trekking in the Annapurnas means a diverse experience of natural beauty and interesting cultural observation.
As we settled on this trek, a few things were of concern. First, this is a long trek of a distance that we, as a family, have never tackled. 200 km is around 150 miles. To complete the circuit involves a high pass of Thorong La. This is at 5416 m which is 17,769 feet–a bit imposing. In 2014 there was a horrible disaster, maybe the worst trekking disaster in Nepal’s history. About 43 people were killed in the area, when blizzards and avalanches claimed many lives. The possibility of Acute Mountain sickness begins around 3000 meters and gets worse from there. We would need to properly acclimatize, be aware of the symptoms, and as a group of 4, we would need to work as a unit, descending together if needed, even if 3 of 4 are doing fine. What would we eat? Why are there so many landslides literally everywhere? What about avalanches? How is the food deep in the mountains? There was some level of apprehension with us bringing our kids to a risky environment, with dangers of distance, unknown weather with high altitude, and significant risks. However, the lure of the family adventure proved greater.
As I dug into the details, I discovered that the “Annapurna Circuit” is a fluid route and has changed over time. The route for trekkers began in the 70’s; and at that time, the route started in Dumre and finished in Pokhara. In the 80’s the trail began in Besisahar and finished in Pokhara. Now there are roads up both sides of the circuit, and some trekkers significantly shorten the route to as little as 8 days, using Jeeps to cut down the distance dramatically.
As we were committing time for the visit to Nepal, we had to decide how we would do the circuit. Walk the whole thing? Jeep uphill some ways and then walk over? Walk up hill slowly and get help back down the other side? There were many options; and in the end, I felt like we would need to walk up the majority of the climb to help with acclimatization and to prevent altitude sickness. We should give ourselves a few extra days in case of sickness, and we would plan to consider jeeping as much as needed once we crossed the pass. We settled on about 17 days in total.
As I further researched the trek, I discovered that there has been much discussion regarding the status of Annapurna as the best trek. Particularly those who trekked it before the creation of the road seemed to view it as an unwelcome nuisance. From what I can tell, the people of the Annapurna region view it as a significant improvement in their lives as they can now move more quickly between villages and move goods and services more efficiently.
Reading about the road I discovered blog posts called “Hell Jeep,” and people claiming the road is too dangerous. My apprehension for the road was growing, but riding a Jeep some of the way would give us more of a time cushion.
Trekkers in the blogosphere viewed the road as a busy, dusty nuisance and took away from the experience of an authentic trek. Again I wondered, should we still commit to doing the Annapurna Circuit? Has it lost its soul?
Then I discovered the NATT or New Annapurna Trekking Trails. A Belgian fellow,Andrews de Ruiter, has been working to identify alternative trekking trails that bypass the road to minimize the road’s impact on trekking and preserve the experience. This seemed like the solution.
So with a combination of exhilaration and trepidation, we decided to head to Nepal to trek the Annapurna Circuit.