Is the Annapurna Circuit still a Must-See?

With the spring trekking season in Nepal nearly upon us, and record numbers of visitors expected in the country for the second successive season, some people are beginning to question the impact of tourist numbers on this small developing Himalayan country, and asking whether some of its prime tourist destinations are still what they used to be.

Dhaulagiri seen from the temple complex entrance at Muktinath
Dhaulagiri seen from the temple complex entrance at Muktinath

Chief among these is the classic Annapurna Circuit trek, a three week ramble round the world’s tenth highest mountain, which passes through a number of different climate zones along the way, from humid jungle, to alpine pine forests, rhododendron-clad moorland, and the high altitude desert of the Tibetan plateau. For many years it has been a ‘must-see’ destination for trekkers and backpackers, as popular as the Everest Base Camp trek, and regularly featuring on seasoned travellers’ ‘things to do before you die’ lists.

In recent years increased tourist numbers have led to crowded trails and pressure on accommodation in the many trekking lodges along the route. Even more disappointing for trekkers hoping for a wilderness experience is the gradual extending of roads from both ends of the trail, along the Kali Gandaki gorge up the western end to Muktinath, and through the jungles and forests of the eastern end to Manang. My friends at the not-for-profit tour operator The Responsible Travellers recently modified their Annapurna Circuit itinerary after feedback from clients that their stay in Tatopani, previously an idyllic stop beside hot springs, had been somewhat marred by a dozen tourist jeeps revving their engines and beeping horns outside their lodge at 6am. One travel blogger was so disappointed by his experience to go so far as suggesting that tourism is bad for Nepal and ruining the country!

But jaundiced views about the state of tourism in any country can easily be acquired when you confine yourself to its most popular destinations. Fighting with thousands of other sightseers to see exhibits on a busy Saturday in the British Museum doesn’t tell you a great deal about the average museum experience in the UK. Neither does getting hassled by hawkers flogging nick-nacks in the markets of Marrakesh tell you anything at all about the generous gallons of complimentary mint tea and friendly smiles you’re likely to receive in a remote village in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.

In the Marsyangdi gorge on the early part of the Annapurna Circuit
In the Marsyangdi gorge on the early part of the Annapurna Circuit

It’s really a question of expectations. Let’s be clear on one thing: the Annapurna Circuit is not a true wilderness experience. Apart from the crossing of the Thorong La pass, the Circuit’s highest point, you’re not going to walk for longer than an hour without coming across a village with tourist lodges. Even before the road was built, both sides of the circuit were accessible by air, via the airstrip at Humde on the Manang side, and Jomsom airport and Muktinath helipad on the Kali Gandaki side. I remember being frustrated by the number of motorbikes haring up the Kali Gandaki gorge when I walked the Annapurna Circuit in 2006. This was before the road had been completed, and the bikes had been brought in by helicopter and were proving extremely popular. I had an equally frustrating time stuck behind queues of trekkers on a busy trail in the Marsyangdi gorge in 2008. The scenery, on the other hand, is spectacular, as it all over Nepal.

The question of whether tourism is bad for Nepal is an equally easy one to answer. The country is a fledgling democracy which has recently deposed its monarchy after a period of terrorist insurgency. Its people are among the poorest in the world in terms of income per capita, and there is still a great deal of instability while they wrestle with their newly-acquired democratic freedom. But it does possess vast natural wealth in the form of its scenery, the highest and most beautiful mountains in the world, and tourism forms a significant portion of its foreign income. The roads to Manang and Muktinath have not been built to transport hordes of tourists into the mountains as some people believe, although they can certainly benefit from it, but to allow local traders to bring apples, oranges, wheat and tsampa to the markets of Pokhara, the nearest town, in a matter of hours rather than days. Of course, tourism has to be expanded sensitively and responsibly, but citizens of a fledgling democracy have a right to modernise and improve their standard of living just as we do.

Crossing the Kali Gandaki on a suspension bridge near Kokethanti
Crossing the Kali Gandaki on a suspension bridge near Kokethanti

But these advances need not mean the end of trekking in the Annapurna region. Trails nearby have been opened up. Upper Mustang, the Naar and Phu valleys, and the Manaslu Circuit, are just three examples of trails imaginative trekkers have started visiting. Manang, on the northern side of the Annapurna Circuit, is the sort of place you could easily spend a week or two, exploring Milarepa’s Cave, where the famous 9th century Buddhist poet spent years meditating, visiting the ancient monastery at Braga, watching a horse race through the streets of Manang, making a day trip up to the Ice Lake above Braga for a spectacular view of the Annapurnas, or taking a more extended multi-day trip to Tilicho Lake, allegedly the highest in the world.

Perhaps the ‘must-see’ lists of travel blogs and magazines are partly to blame. What a waste for your travels in Nepal to be just an exercise in box ticking off the world’s top travel destinations! There’s oh so much more to trekking in Nepal than Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Circuit. The Responsible Travellers is just one of a clutch of innovative tour operators offering trips to some of Nepal’s off-the-beaten-track destinations to offer a better wilderness experience to trekkers, take travellers away from the tourist hotspots and enable villagers in other parts of Nepal to reap the benefits of tourism. The Tamang Heritage Trail is one particularly successful example of this. The Great Himalaya Trail is another initiative to introduce little known parts of this beautiful country to the outside world, and the Australian tour operator World Expeditions should be commended for making the brave step of offering this most spectacular of long distance trails in its entirety.

It’s not Nepal or the Annapurna Circuit that’s the problem. It’s we, the tourists. We need to throw our ‘100 Places to Visit Before You Die’ books into the recycle bin and start being more imaginative with our holiday destinations.

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17 thoughts on “Is the Annapurna Circuit still a Must-See?

  • February 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm
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    Sometimes western tourists seek “authentic” experiences by visiting remote and underdeveloped regions of the world. Then we want them to stay that way so we can relish in the superiority of the modern world. Try living with a three hour walk to school, uphill both ways, and then think more about the modernization happening in these places. I like the reference in the blog to getting produce to market. These are real people with real challenges. They aren’t placed their for our entertainemnt like animals in a zoo.
    Tourism should leave enough behind so these folks can have access to health and education. Roads help do that.

  • February 15, 2011 at 6:57 pm
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    Hi David, thanks for the feedback. When I walked the Circuit in 2006 every Nepali I spoke to about the road welcomed it and couldn’t wait for it to be completed. It was only we the tourists who lamented it. It’s hard to imagine there will be a high volume of traffic on it – it’s a long way from Besisahar to Manang, and parts of it will always be susceptible to landslide every year during the monsoon – but it may well end up improving the quality of life for those who live along it, and there’s no reason it should stop any of us visiting the Annapurnas, we just won’t be doing the Circuit any more.

  • October 1, 2011 at 6:57 am
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    Good summary. It is interesting how tourism is often viewed in Nepal and how slowly the view changes. The Annapurna Circuit is a legend in its own time, has had its heyday and is in decline, to be replaced by alternatives (the week’s stay in Manang, Naar Phu side treks and perhaps a circuit via Thorung La and Tilicho lake?). But still even if there was a road over the Thorung La, people would still be queuing up to go I think.

    There are always winners and losers though when a road comes. Often the debate is “roads” vs “no roads” when it should really be about the quality of roads. When a road has been built that ruins the attractiveness of the area for trekking, and is unmotorable for a lot of the year, or keeps falling into the river, then everybody is loosing. In Helambu, the bulldozers have gone wild scratching tracks to every small hamlet and the result is a mess.

    The tradition is sometimes a looser too sadly, when local artisans loose their market to cheap Indian or Chinese goods. But this is progress.

    There is a website about the Manaslu Circuit here now http://manaslucircuittrek.com/ and it shows the accommodation available that makes it a tea-house-able trek, and thus an alternative to the Annapurna Ciruit, rather than a camping only trek. There are plans to build roads here too, so conscious of what is happening on the AC, locals are trying to be proactive in promoting the trek while it lasts. There is talk of a road from China through Tsum Valley.

    Would be good to hear your opinion on how other trekking areas can step out of the shadow of the Annapurna Circuit and give more people the same enjoyable, life-changing experience that ultimately made the Annapurna Circuit a legend.

  • October 14, 2011 at 9:34 am
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    Hi Richard

    Thanks for posting the link. We walked the first 6 days of the Manaslu Circuit trek from Arughat to Samagaon on our way to climbing Manaslu last month. It’s a fantastic alternative to the Annapurna Circuit – a much more narrow and impressive gorge than the latter.

    At the moment it’s not as well developed as the Annapurna Circuit in terms of tea house infrastructure (as I’m sure you know). While there are are tea houses they were quite rudimentary and we had doubts about hygiene. So at the moment it would be safer to do it as a camping trek and take your own crew – there are plenty of campsites along the way.

    Interestingly many of the trekkers that we met in Samagaon were extending their trek onto parts of the Annapurna Circuit after crossing the Larkye La pass. Some were continuing on to Tilicho Lake or crossing the Thorong La and flying out from Jomsom. One group was even going up into the Naar and Phu valleys. So it looks like with arrival of the road the Annapurna and Manaslu Circuits may end up merging into one as tea houses develop on the latter.

    Thanks for the link again – I will enjoy looking at your website.

    Regards,
    Mark.

  • October 24, 2011 at 5:31 pm
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    Hi Mark,
    Fair point about the hygiene. Could certainly be a risk (as is Kathmandu) for a group if one member gets sick. For a couple of independent backpackers, it all adds to the adventure.
    Thanks for the note about the route extensions people are making. Perhaps I will add some itineraries to the website to reflect that.
    Hope the view from Manaslu was a clear one by the way!
    Rich

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  • February 29, 2012 at 10:52 am
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    The way I look at it, it’s definitely something that a travel enthusiast must visit. This place is filled with immense beauty of the nature which just keeps unfolding itself as you move forward.

  • February 29, 2012 at 9:22 pm
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    Hey, is that the actual Annapurna Circuit itself posting a comment? It must be the mountain spirits talking – I hadn’t realised they’d learned how to use a keyboard! 😉

    I definitely agree with you it’s a place the travel enthusiast must visit, but I’m not sure the Annapurna Circuit is any longer the best way of experiencing the area now that so much of it is road and in peak season many of the lodges are still jam packed with tourists. With new areas close by opening up to trekking, such as Naar and Phu, Tilicho, Upper Mustang, and the Manaslu and Dhaulagiri Circuits, I would personally recommend one of these options for the more adventurous type.

    In fact I’ve just posted about some quieter Nepalese trekking options:
    http://www.markhorrell.com/blog/2012/5-off-the-beaten-path-treks-in-nepal/

  • September 9, 2012 at 9:59 pm
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    It’s a difficult one isn’t it. I have always dreamed of trekking the Annapurna Circuit. I don’t know why. I saw photos of it as a teenager and have been drawn to it ever since. I’ve just turned 33 and have decided just to put some money aside and do it next year.

    But I’m glad there are people who write honestly about it because that allows me to balance my expectations. It’s a bit like you say about visiting the British Museum with the crowds – if you want to see the British Museum, you have no choice but to deal with the crowds. If you want to see A British Museum, you can choose to go somewhere quieter. But the onus is on the traveler to make an informed decision about what they really want to see (for example, I know I don’t want to trek to Everest Base Camp for the very reasons many wouldn’t want to trek the Annapurna Circuit).

    The other issue that always intrigues me is whether it’s better to have one really popular tourist area and then to still have quiet areas. Or whether it’s better to have a massive spread of tourism across a whole country. For example, I live in Queensland, Australia where we have the horrendous results of tourism on some of our Gold Coast Beaches. It would be a shame to see the spread of highrise development to other beaches. So perhaps it’s better that the tourists keep flocking to the Gold Coast, rather than building high rises all along the coast.

    Perhaps it’s the same in other countries, including Nepal? Perhaps concentrated tourism in a region is better than the as yet unknown negative impacts it might bring to other areas. It’s just something I’m pondering as I think more about the Annapurna Circuit and the possibility of trekking it.

    So now, for me, the question over the next few months will be whether it’s the Annapurna Circuit I want to trek or whether I just want to trek in Nepal. And I have to take into account the facts that there might just be a reason the Annapurna Circuit is so popular and that this will probably be my only trip to Nepal because there are so many other places in the world I want to visit.

    You certainly have given me some food for thought. Thanks.

  • September 12, 2012 at 11:08 am
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    One option for a quieter Annapurna Circuit would be to trek it in the off season, either in May, just before the monsoon, or in September just after it. I once trekked the Circuit in September 2006 and it was very quiet, with only a handful of independent trekkers and none of the big commercial groups. The downside is there is more of a risk of bad weather with cloudier skies and more rain.

    As for the road, there’s no getting away from that any time of year. It’s tolerable on the eastern (Manang) side, but in the Kali Gandaki valley there really are motorbikes zooming up and down pretty much the entire length from Muktinath onwards. Another slightly shorter option would be to walk the Circuit as far as Manang, then divert up to Tilicho Lake and cross the Mesokantho La rather than the Thorong La. This region is very remote and beautiful, though slightly tougher. The Mesokantho La descends into Jomsom where you can catch a flight out to Pokhara.

    Enjoy your trip – wherever you decide to go in Nepal the scenery will be magnificent!

  • September 12, 2012 at 11:13 am
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    Thanks for the reply 🙂 After doing some more research, I am thinking I might do a short 7 day ‘Introduction to Annapurna’ tour with a budget company who I still have credit with after not being able to go to Thailand this year.

    Then I am likely to follow that up with the Jiri to Everest Base Camp trek. I realise the Jiri start is uncommon but I like the idea of starting lower to help with the acclimatisation and also to explore the quieter few days before hitting the traditional EBC trail. (I live at sea level and the highest mountain near me is only 1,000m above sea level, with most walking trails being at or below 800m). After seeing photos of the mountains along the EBC trek I really think I have to do it. I’m going in December 2013 because that’s the only time of the year I can get sufficient time off work. Being December it should be a bit quieter on the EBC trails 🙂

    Thanks again for your post and for your response.

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