Published: August 3rd 2012August 3rd 2012
Me at Thorong La Pass
17,769 feet -- probably the highest I'll ever be.
I completed most of the circuit in a 12-day, 200 KM trek counter-clockwise (the way most everyone goes, since the other direction would be much more difficult at the pass) trek from Besishahar (started walking in Bulbhele) to Beni. I moved at a fast pace because of limited time, and the only part of the circuit that I didn't complete is from Tatopani to Nayapul via Ghorepani / the Annapurna Sanctuary (see map). It would be better to plan for at least 14 days, especially if you go to Nayapul, but it's possible to go even faster if you are fit and have time constraints. Most recommend close to three weeks to do it properly and to see some sights off the main trail, including high-altitude lakes (like Tilicho) and religious sites. The amount of walking ranges from 3-9 hours / day, which was fine carrying about 10 kilos (20 lbs), including 2 liters of water.
Details about all the towns, how far to go per day etc. can be found in any guide book (to avoid the crowds in the high season, go to adjacent towns, rather than the ones suggested by Lonely Planet), so most of what I've
This map is from www.nepalteahousetrekking.com I tried to create a map on this site, but I can't get the scope right. Don't be misled: Pokhara is nowhere near the trek -- it's a two hour bus ride even from the Beni side.
written below deals with the trail during the monsoon (specifically in late July / early August), as it's very difficult to find information about trekking this time of year. Everyone I'd spoken to beforehand told me this trek is straightforward, pretty much on a road, and that no guide is necessary; in fact, all information online and in guidebooks seemed to corroborate this, giving only vague descriptions of problems during the monsoon.
PROS OF WALKING ANNAPURNA DURING MONSOON:
1. Hardly any tourists are on the circuit during this time of year. In 12 days, I only met six others on the trek. There were some more foreigners around Jomsom, but they were just doing day treks, or were headed to Upper Mustang. Guest houses are empty and you'll essentially be able to name your price. You'll get better service since you'll be the only one there.
2. You don't have to carry much -- you only need warm clothes near the pass, so you shouldn't need a porter.
3. Once through to Pisang, there is a rain shadow; the mornings are clear, the evenings are a mist, and most of the rain is at nighttime. The
The first section of the trek -- near Bhulbhule and Chyamche consists of hills and rice paddies.
rain shadow continues into Mustang.
4. Because of the landslides and lack of tourists, very few jeeps or buses will pass you on the road sections of the trail.
CONS OF WALKING ANNAPURNA DURING MONSOON:
1. You will need a guide for some parts, particularly from Tal to Chame (see disastrous day 3 below). There are landslides daily that can alter routes, often forcing detours to the new dirt road rather than the new trails on the other side of the valley. Locals might try to be helpful, but most just point in a vague direction and mumble something in Nepalese when asked for directions.
2. It rains most days (but mainly at night), and when the sun is out, it's very hot at the lower elevations. Some sections are slippery and dangerous and there are leeches.
3. The views are nowhere near as good as they are in the spring or fall. I could see the mountains in the morning, but they were still somewhat obstructed, and at the pass, I could barely even make out the peak right next to me.
4. Clean water stations and some shops / restaurants are often
Waterfall on Road / Trail
There are countless waterfalls like this one throughout the Marsyangdi River Valley, and some crash down onto the trail during the monsoon season. This one didn't look very powerful up against the wall, but it threw me against the ground when I walked through it.
5. If you're traveling alone, it is actually difficult to meet many people.
6. Flights out of Jomsom are often canceled, and apparently they're pretty rough due to high mountain winds.
I flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara, which was a waste of time and money, since the bus to Besishahar is only an hour more from Kathmandu (5 hrs total). You only need to go to Pokhara first if you're going clockwise around the circuit.
Be sure to purchase a permit for this trek (2000 rupees / 25 dollars) ahead of time in Pokhara or Kathmandu; it costs double at the start of the trail. You also apparently need a TIMS card -- some sort of tourist ID card that I didn't buy. It caused me no problems until my exit from the trek.
Definitely buy a waterproof map at home. There are plenty of maps for sale in the cities, but they must be kept dry or they'll disintegrate. I just used the map provided at the permit office, which was a mistake.
A new jeepable road is being built here (currently you go by foot, mule, or not at all). Construction
Horse at Braga
Braga is a picturesque town just before Manang.
is well underway; it will be open in a couple of more years. Get there now before it's all ruined.
DAY 1: BHULBHULE (820 m) (took bus from Besishahar -- see below) -> GHERMU (1130 m)
After a horrible, 50 near head on collision, 4 hour bus ride from Pokhara, I got off in Besisahar and looked for signs of the trail. I had planned on start in Besishahar, the very beginning of the circuit, but the pissant bus helper (usually I really like those guys) was a liar and cheat, and told me that the water was impassable on the trail and that I had to take the bus. He charged me 3-4 times the rate of others, which explains why he wanted me on the bus. After seeing that the water was easily passable by foot (even easier than by bus), and an argument with him (suddenly he couldn't speak any English), I bought four potato samosas, checked into the first Police Check Post, and started up the trail.
This portion of the trail is significantly uphill, and if the sun is out, is extremely hot. There are also plenty of leeches and mosquitoes at
View from Gompa
This is the rewarding view from the Lama's gompa above Manang -- a 2-3 hour day hike.
this elevation; ask for a mosquito net at your guest house.
There are also plenty of suspension bridges of varying sketchiness. They are pretty good in this section of the trail -- well built, with high railings, but there are some later on that were a bit hairy.
There are numerous touts on this part of the trail, trying to convince trekkers to stay at their towns and guest houses. Some even lied to me and told me that I was already in the town I was headed to, so don't listen to them at all. They speak pretty good English, so after awhile I spoke to them in broken Spanish and said I didn't speak any English. I asked probably 10 guesthouses in more than one town if any other travelers were there, but everywhere was empty. Eventually I found a place with one other trekker -- a Korean named Kwangsoo, who I would walk most of the circuit with.
DAY 2: GHERMU -> TAL (1600 m)
The trail continues up the violent Marsyangdi River. Gorgeous but powerful waterfalls plunge into the river. Right before Tal is the entrance to the Manang district. Tal means
Inside his gompa, this 96-year-old Lama blesses you and gives you a necklace, for a donation. I tagged along with four other travelers who had a guide. There must be a line out the cave during high season
"lake," though it's not a lake anymore -- it's now a wider part of the river before it breaks through the rocks into a torrent of rapids. It's nice to sleep in a guesthouse close to the waterfall in the far end of the settlement.
DAY 3: Tal -> CHAME (2670 m)
Today was disastrous. The trail looked simple enough, but 20 minutes upstream from Tal, the river had taken over the trail, and a new trail has been built along the cliff. This had collapsed as well, and the local solution was to put a rope and a ladder there, so walkers can lower themselves to another trail 15 feet below. Kwangsoo went for it, but I couldn't do it (nor could anyone else we spoke to later), so we split and I walked back to the other side of Tal to cross the footbridge to the new road on the other side of the river.
I walked this road for an hour or so and then found that it isn't finished. Workers were jackhammering and moving the debris to build the road, and I had to walk on a narrow section, 1 foot from jackhammers,
Upper Manang from Gangapurna Glacial Lake
This is a view from another day hike from Manang.
and 1 foot from a cliff, in order to pass.
Then I came upon a cascade that fell directly onto the road (see photo). It looked passable near the wall (as far away from the cliff as possible), though I knew I'd get drenched. I passed through, but the power of the falls pushed me to the ground, bloodying my knuckles. I got up and ran the rest of the way though.
Then I figured all would be well as I walked back across the river to Bagarchhap -- back to the trail. After a few minutes, though, I saw Kwangsoo walking toward me. He had walked 20 minutes from the town only to find the trail had completely collapsed into the river in a landslide. We went back to the other side -- to the road -- and continued on. We had lunch in Dharapani, signed into the check post, and the officials there said the trail was in good shape from then on.
There is a high road and a low road to Chame. The low road is much easier and we figured, safer. The trail was empty, which should have been a sign that
Entrance to Manang
Manang has a strong horse culture; races are common.
we were going the wrong way. Shortly after the split we had to climb over a landslide; on the other side was that turns into a strong stream before heading over the cliff. We discussed it and decided to jump from rock to rock, over the stream. If we had fallen, the water probably wasn't strong enough to push us over the cliff, but it would have been scary as hell.
A few minutes later we came to another waterfall that was much more powerful, and certainly impossible to cross. I judged I'd have a 50-50 chance to get across standing, but if I fell over, I'd be pushed off the cliff.
We turned back, defeated. I was thinking of just giving up the trek. But, at the intersection between the high and low trails, we came upon a halfling (I was reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy on the trip; I have a photo of the three of us, but I feel bad about posting it here, especially after calling him a hobbit) who offered to guide us the rest of the way to Chame. The trail was steep and at times dangerous. There were many
intersections with other trails, so we never could have done it without him. He wore heel-less sandals, had no equipment, and effortlessly climbed the steep sections. He leapt gracefully over 6-foot puddles and seemed to have family all over the valley. We waited at the gates while he visited them briefly.
He essentially saved us. He never asked for money, but I tipped him fairly when he left us in Chame.
DAY 4: CHAME -> LOWER PISANG (3250 m)
For the rest of the journey, the walking was much easier. The river was smaller, and the trails were just fine, moving first at the bottom of a steep valley through pine forests, then down to a smaller river, past an incredibly long, smooth rock face formed by glaciers, and then up to Pisang. Still, it was slightly confusing because sometimes the trail goes along the new road and at other times follows the old trail. Signage is poor.
Upper Pisang is more attractive and has the safe water station, but I wanted to keep things simple, after the day before.
DAY 5: PISANG -> MANANG (3540 m)
There are two trails from Pisang. According
Thorong La Base Camp
The food at the first of two hotels at Thorong La Base Camp is some of the best on the trail. I had a slight headache in the evening from the altitude (4540 meters), but I slept fine. There is also a high camp a steep hour farther up the trail, but at 4850, it might be pushing it for sleep.
to a Dane I met in Manang (who has done parts or all of the circuit 35 times), the views are spectacular on the high trail, but I was tired and didn't feel like running into more variables. The low trail was fine: uneventful and easy.
An excursion from Manang to Tilicho Lake would take an extra three days, but sounds amazing.
DAY 6: ACCLIMATIZATION DAY IN MANANG / HIKE TO GOMPA, GLACIER
I highly recommend hiking to a gompa high above Manang, where a Lama has lived for the past 40 years. The trail rises from the front end of town (the side you enter from), passes a stupa halfway, and hangs precariously 500 meters above the valley. I tagged along with four other trekkers here, but the path is pretty obvious. It looks impossibly steep from the bottom, but it's not terribly exerting, especially without a pack. It is steeper than just about anything at Thorong La Pass, so it's a good test. The day hike took 2-3 hours, including the business at the top. The Lama and his daughter (interesting...) are extremely friendly and have no problem with photos.
Later in the day
Terrain near Pass
Most of the land near the pass is a wasteland of black cinder rock; this photo is from just after the pass.
I walked/ran across the valley and to the lake of Gangapurna Glacier. It's possible to walk to a viewpoint of the glacier as well, but I ran out of energy.
DAY 7: MANANG -> YAK KHARKA (4050 m)
This was a short day. The trail finally bends away from the river. The accommodations in Yak Kharka are much better than they are in Letdar, which is a half an hour farther. Still, all of my clothes, as well as my sleeping bag, were infested with bedbugs here. They plagued me for the rest of the trip.
We met a monk from Mustang while staying here. He told some interesting stories about the harassment he endures from officials for being a Tibetan monk.
DAY 8: YAK KHARKA -> THORONG PEDI (4450 m)
There are some sketchy sections here and the trails are a bit unclear. Thousands of rocks and boulders rest precariously above the trail, and the guide we met earlier in the trip specifically warned us about this area. As such, I ran though several parts of the trail, figuring it improved my chanced of making it through unscathed. We made it through without a
The towns surrounding Muktinath are incredible. If you know where you're going, stay in one of them instead of ugly Muktinath.
problem and arrived at Thorong Pedi relatively early. There are a few options here -- all empty, but obviously rocking during certain times of year. The surroundings are beautiful, but barren and inhospitable.
DAY 9: THORONG PEDI -> THORONG LA PASS (5416 m) -> MUKTINATH (3800 m)
We awoke at 4:30 AM to eat breakfast and left Pedi at 5:30. The walk was particularly steep at first, until reaching the high camp (4850 -- too high to sleep comfortably) an hour later. From there it was counting steps -- I could do about 50 steps before I had to hunch over and take 20-25 deep, wheezing breaths to go on. The path is very easy to follow. It was snowing at the top, and I was still cold with all my layers (t-shirt, wicking shirt, light fleece, light down jacket, waterproof jacket) on. We got to the pass at around 8:45, took photos, and started the long, much steeper descent to Muktinath. We arrived at about noon, but we were practically running down the hill. Muktinath itself isn't the nicest town -- the streets are wide and dusty, and there are several big hotels to accommodate Indian pilgrims.
Entrance to Upper Mustang
Below Muktinath, near Kagbeni, is the entrance to Upper Mustang. It looks amazing, but this Tibet-like region has a $500 entry fee.
There are some breathtaking towns right nearby, though. We were exhausted, so we didn't do any exploring, but I'm sure you could find some interesting alternatives in the area.
DAY 10: MUKTINATH -> JOMSOM (2720 m)
Jomsom is the biggest town in the circuit; flights from here to Pokhara are about 100 dollars. Jomson proper and Jomsom Airport are basically two different towns -- on opposite sides of the river. Unless you are flying, or have to use Internet, continue on to Marpha or stop earlier in Kagbeni -- they are both much more pleasant, interesting places.
The trail turns into a road in this area, so many people end their treks in Jomson. A road is also being constructed all the way to the pass, and it looks like it will be completed in a few years. It made me ill to see the beautiful land dug up with no proper planning or drainage, and sad to think about how the locals, who just want better goods and services, don't know that with a road will come the monstrous, soulless tour buses, and that the Chinese will come in droves and not stay at their hotels,
Wide River Valley
Between Kagbeni and Jomsom, the Kali Gandaki River is nearly a km wide.
but just go to a lookout for some photos and then back to Beni, and then the corporate hotels will come in and serve Western food and sell cowboy hats, and maybe let them take a photo with a llama, and no one will bother to walk the circuit anymore, and that the locals will lose their culture and probably not make any money out of the deal.
DAY 11: JOMSOM -> LETE (2480 m)
Seven hours of walking today, all downhill. I walked all the way to Lete so that the next day would be shorter, but the town of Kalopani, which is right before it, has better accommodations, Internet, as well as the safe water tank. Those who took the bus through this section had to stop five times to walk around landslides.
DAY 12: LETE -> BENI (via Tatopani (1200 m))
The weather was good and I was making good time, so when we got to Tatopani, I decided to split from Kwangsoo and keep walking, all the way to Beni. It was my longest day of walking ever -- 40 km, 9 hours of walking and running -- but well worth it.
Dawn in Lete
This is a morning view of Dhaulagiri, the world's fifth (according to my guidebook) or seventh (according to Wikipedia) largest mountain.
I wanted to get through all the landslides (I had heard horror stories of falling rocks -- one of which almost killed a French woman I met in Jomsom) while it wasn't raining. In one section between Tatopani and Beni, the road was completely gone, so a path has been built high above the river. On the other side, buses and jeeps were waiting, but the road was very narrow, so I walked 4 more hours to Beni. I got there at 4:45 PM and boarded the last death bus of the day to Pokhara. I arrived before 8 PM, had 2 days of rest, and then flew back to Kathmandu for 55 dollars.
The trip was spectacular, but I had expected to meet more travelers along the way, regardless of the season. Since I didn't, and since the route is unclear, and since the new road makes directions even more confusing, I do recommend hiring a guide (25 dollars a day-- same price for a group), at least for the Tal-Chame portion. Later in the trek, I met a Kiwi couple and Canadien couple who ran into similar difficulties during this section and ended up having to hire
The views along the steep descent from the pass to Muktinath are incredible. Sadly, there is litter throughout this part of the walk.
a guide as a group.
For this time of year, you need the following, all of which can be purchased very cheaply in Kathmandu or Pokhara (mostly cheap imitations, though). You could buy everything below, excluding the footwear for about 50-75 dollars; there are also options to rent gear. Once I was done with the cold gear, I gave it away to locals on the circuit.
- good footwear: other than the summit, I wore Teva sandals for the whole trip and had no problems (and Nike Free running shoes for the rest). I only found one leech on my foot, and after awhile I just resigned to the fact that my feet would be covered with a mix of donkey shit and mud. It's everywhere on the trail, so boots wouldn't really be any better.
- comfortable walking clothes (shorts and a t-shirt for me). I did laundry at the guesthouses every couple of days. They give you a bucket and can usually provide soap. My clothes never really dried during the night, though, because of the rain / humidity.
- small backpack with cover (or poncho / garbage bag) -- mine
This is the typical meal on the trek. The quality varies, but it's always all-you-can eat. The guides and porters eat nothing but it.
was only 24 liters, forcing me to take very little
- light sleeping bag -- mine is rated just 54 degrees (blankets can be provided at all guesthouses). Not all the sheets are clean, so it's nice to have something between you and them.
- down jacket
- fleece and / or long underwear (I just had pajama pants)
- waterproof jacket (I took waterproof pants as well)
- warm gloves, hat, and socks for the pass
- big water bottles, or a bladder, plus purification tablets, or a filter. Finding fresh flowing water is never a problem during this season.
- sunglasses, sunscreen, hat (baseball cap with material to cover the shoulders); it was surprisingly hot at the lower elevations.
- a torch / headlamp -- electricity is spotty
- at least 20,000 rupees (230 dollars) (There are no reliable ATMs along the way; Jomson has one, but I wouldn't count on it. It's very safe to carry that much cash on the circuit.), to be safe. I spent only 15,000 in 12 days. If you don't drink or buy any clothing along the way, you will likely spend 1,000
You will cross at least 20 of these throughout the trek; some are scarier than others, depending on height, condition, wind, and how high the railings are. Here a village matriarch crosses in front, while Kwangsoo carefully follows.
($12) or less per day for everything.
- basic medical kit (there are medical stops along the way)
- toiletries (including toilet paper -- no guest houses have it in the rooms, but have it for sale (exorbitant prices) in their stores; Charmin travel rolls are the best)
- snacks -- Snickers bars, etc.; they are very expensive on the trail
- Diomox (I didn't take any, but those who had altitude sickness said it helps. It is inexpensive in Kathmandu / Pokhara.)
- My Kindle allowed me to have several books with me without much weight. The Lonely Planet Nepal: Trekking guide was only 5 dollars to download and it fulfilled its purpose. There is plenty of time for reading, especially late afternoons.
- Playing cards
There are several more photos below.
There are more photos below