Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Slowly, slowly around the Annapurna Circuit.

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most popular and beautiful treks in the world. Thousands of foreigners flock to this area of the Himalayas each year to claim bragging rights to this physical endurance test that features about 220km of trail and a maximum elevation of 5,416m (also known as 17,764f).

brag brag brag

Tell any Nepali you're doing a trek in the surrounding mountains - doesn't matter which trek, how long, how high - and they will all give the same advice: "bistari, bistari" ("slowly, slowly"). After 17 months and 14 countries we think this is pretty good advice. So when we decided to try the Annapurna Circuit during our month in Nepal, we followed this advice... and we had an amazing time.

Our itinerary
The circuit usually takes 17-21 days depending on rest days and side treks. We gave ourselves 21 days; we ended up trekking for 18 of those days, for about 6 hours a day on average, with one rest day. In the end we wished we'd allowed more time for rest (or as we called it, "sitting on the porch staring at the beautiful mountains for hours and hours and hours") and additional side trips.

Here was our schedule:

Day Start Village End Village Max Elevation (m) Max Elevation (f)
1 Kathmandu Bhulbhule 840 2,755
2 Bhulbhule Ghermu 1,310 4,297
3 Ghermu Sattale 1,680 5,510
4 Sattale Bagarchhap 2,160 7,085
5 Bagarchhap Chame 2,670 8,758
6 Chame Upper Pisang 3,300 10,824
7 Upper Pisang Manang 3,670 12,038
8 Manang Day hike to Ice Lake 4,600 15,088
9 Manang Shree Kharka 3,800 12,464
10 Shree Kharka Ledar 4,200 13,776
11 Ledar High Camp 4,925 16,154
12 High Camp Muktinath 5,416 17,764
13 Muktinath Muktinath 3,760 12,333
14 Muktinath Marpha 3,760 12,333
15 Marpha Kalopani 2,670 8,758
16 Kalopani Dana 2,530 8,298
17 Dana Sikha 1,935 6,347
18 Sikha Ghorapani 2,860 9,381
19 Ghorapani/Poon Hill Birithati 3,193 10,473

Generally speaking, we left around 7am and finished somewhere between 2-3pm. This included at least one tea/snack break and a break for lunch. (And also at least 30 minutes to allow for photos!)  Day 19 was the exception - we had to leave Ghorapani around 4:15am to catch the Poon Hill sunrise and then ended up trekking straight through to arrive in Birithati around 4pm. We don't recommend that and we wish we would've stayed in one of the hillside farm villages that last night before ending our trek.

Our gear list
Since we'd been traveling light for the past 17 months, paring down our packs even further wasn't a big deal. We ended up just using Patrick's large backpack and medium-sized daypack which gave us plenty of room.  We trekked in September so we didn't need to bother too much with bulky things for warmth, but colder weather would definitely have required two large backpacks.

What we each brought:
  • packing gear: 3-4 stuff sacks for keeping dirty clothes separate from really dirty clothes, 2 dry bags for keeping electronics safe, plastic bags for everything
  • clothing gear: 2 pairs of convertible hiking pants, 2 short-sleeved shirts, 2 long-sleeved shirts, 4-5 pair of quick dry underwear, 1 fleece, 1 smartwool long-sleeved, 1 raincoat/windbreaker, scarf, gloves, fleece/long john pants
  • head gear: 1 wool winter cap, 1 sunhat, 1 bandanna, comb, hair bands
  • foot gear: boots, flip flops, 3 pair thick hiking socks, 2 pair lightweight socks
  • sleep gear: pajamas (in our case this was some combo of the clothing gear above that was sort of clean at the time), sleep sack (Jen's doubled as a scarf when it got really cold)
  • night gear: headlamp and extra batteries, book (there are a few exchanges/used book stores along the trek)
  • water gear: 2 Nalgene water bottles, SteriPen and extra batteries, water purification tablets, tea bags to remove the chemical taste from the tablets
  • sun gear: sunglasses, sunscreen, umbrella for shade (and occasional rainshowers)
  • paper stuff (sealed in a ziplock): permits, passport, rupees in small denominations
  • toiletries (just a small amount - almost everything is available along the trek): soap, shampoo, toothbrush/paste, toilet paper, kleenex, lotion, quick-dry towel
  • general first aid: band-aids, moleskin, tape, neosporin, advil, electrolytes, nail clippers, altitude sickness and stomach bug pills (we didn't use either but were happy to carry them just in case)
  • electronics:  mobile and charger (which were mostly used to consult trekking PDFs and crosswords we'd downloaded - there is very little wifi along the trek), camera and charger
  • essentials for any trip: a good map, a little duct tape, a small bottle of superglue

What we didn't bring (and why):
  • a laptop (they're heavy and the batteries don't last long at altitude or in cold altitude)
  • sleeping bags and down coats (it was September - the weather was really mild, and where it wasn't, the guesthouses had nice thick blankets)
  • walking poles (we find these annoying but others swear by them)
  • ponchos (a fellow blogger recommended umbrellas instead, since ponchos just make you hot - the umbrellas ended up being more useful for shade protection than rain)
  • laundry detergent for handwashing clothes (we've found that bar soap works just as well, but you can also buy laundry bars in villages or have your clothes washed if you have time)
  • heaps of food (there were stretches here and there where villages were 3-4 hours apart but otherwise, you could easily find a packaged snack of some sort in every village)

What we wish we'd brought (and why):
  • lithium batteries for the SteriPen (or at least rechargeable batteries - the SteriPen eats regular batteries and then you're just carrying dead weight)
  • throat lozenges, hand lotion and chapstick (after 6 months in humid SE Asia we didn't even think about dry, cold air or chapped skin/lips - but again, these are available along the trek)

One note about gear and trekking in general... Porters, guides, or a combo porter/guide are available for those who choose these services. It's a serious job with a lot of responsibility (and daily potential for injury, illness, and dealing with stupid tourists). Hiring these men and women helps the local economy and ensures trekker safety, and those who speak English can give cultural context for the villages all around the circuit.

That said, we chose not to hire a porter or a guide. The trail is very well marked, and given our fitness and trekking experience we didn't expect any problems. In addition, hiring people to accompany us would have almost doubled the cost of our trek as well as forced these two introverts to be social for three weeks - exhausting just to think about!  Plus, we simply aren't comfortable having someone else lug our stuff up and down mountains. We even decline help with our bags at hotels.

And the biggest reason we didn't hire a porter or guide... surely a guide would have provided lots of interesting local and cultural information, but honestly after almost a year of local and cultural overload we just wanted to be alone in the pretty mountains for a few weeks before starting the final leg of our journey. We feel bad short-changing Nepal's rich culture and history but we have a feeling we will be back again someday, and at that point we'll be ready to absorb it all.

but here is a little bit of the culture

and here is a little more

If you do trek and do hire a porter, for the love of all that is holy please do not make the porter carry your laptop, your hair dryer, your ginormous roller bag of luggage, a hardback copy of War & Peace, or three pairs of hiking boots - these should be your burden to bear. Wandering Sasquatch, who also has lots of good tips, had a good idea that porters should charge by the kilogram, and we wholeheartedly agree.

The trail
We followed lots of advice from various blogs and online guides as well as fellow trekkers, but we mostly relied on the free 2011 version of the New Annapurna Trekking Trail (NATT). The time estimates were right on and the detailed information about the trail was invaluable. There is an updated version available for purchase but let's face it... this is Nepal, things don't change that quickly.

 well-marked all along the way

There's a handy brochure you can get at checkpoints along the trail that shows elevation gains/losses to help you plan your days. There were only a few days where the elevation gains/losses were rather painful (Upper Pisang-Manang, Ice Lake in Manang, and our last day of -1800m loss including a 500m descent down uneven stone stairs). Otherwise it was a pretty easy trek - which is why it's so popular.

A road has been built along a large part of the trail that is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it increases services to local villages, and enables tourists who wouldn't necessarily trek to visit bigger villages and spend their tourist dollars. The curse is that trekkers follow this road for large stretches so it takes away somewhat from the "trail" experience (unless you venture off on the side trails that ACAP has recently established, which can take longer and be washed out during rainy season).

The road also takes away from businesses who have relied on trekkers coming through each year. More than a handful of guesthouse keepers lamented the impact of the road on their recent bottom line. We felt less guilty about not hiring a porter/guide when we were able to spend our tourist dollars at these guesthouses that hadn't gotten much foot traffic due to the road.

The lodging
And speaking of guesthouses - this is not your standard walk in the woods. Guesthouses (also known as "tea houses") have been built along the trail so that every few hours you have the option of stopping for a snack, or for lunch, or for the night. These establishments charge a few dollars for the room with the expectation that you will eat dinner and breakfast there (meals run $3-5/person, this is how they make money).

a typical guesthouse room

Some villages have one tea house, others have plenty of options. Tea house beds and services vary greatly - we are happy to share our favorite places upon request. It was nice not having to carry a tent and set up/break camp every day and we just planned our days around the village where we wanted to stop for the night.

The food
Most guesthouses have a set menu that's the same as every other guesthouse all along the trek, and because the "[village] hotel council" often approves the menu, prices don't vary much within a given village. Here's what we ate:
  • breakfast: almost always porridge, but cornflakes, eggs and pancakes are also usually available
  • lunch: rice with egg/veggies/meat, or noodles with egg/veggies/meat, or soup with chipati, or momos (steamed dumplings) with egg/veggies/meat, or rostis (hashbrown like patties) with veggies/egg/meat
  • dinner: whatever option we didn't eat for lunch

Many guesthouses also had pizza and burritos on the menu but that was almost never appealing. (Almost.)

portions were HUGE
(but we needed the carbs)

Tea and coffee are always available. Juice is available but it's usually out of a carton and tastes like Tang. Beer is available but it's not cheap; the local rice wine is cheap and is actually pretty good (by our SE Asian taste bud standards), and in apple country we tried apple cider and apple brandy - but most days we were too tired or too high up to want to drink alcohol.

Rarer treats included yak butter, yak cheese, cinnamon rolls and other pastries, sea buck thorn juice (really delicious and high in antioxidants and vitamins), apple pie, and lasagna with homemade pasta.

The cost
Including permits, bus fare to Bhulbhuli at the beginning and a taxi to Pokhara at the end, and all food and lodging along the trek, we spent $770. That's about $42/day or $21/person/day. Alcohol is pricey and some villages let you pay for wifi but it's not cheap, so keep that in mind if you're planning a trek. Food and snacks are also more pricey as you get closer to the pass since everything has to be portered or horse-carried to those villages.

The photos
... Coming soon! Or maybe in 2015! Whenever we have unlimited uploading capability, we'll share about 700 photos of our trek. So stay tuned. In the meantime, check out the highlight photos on our Facebook page...  (Update: all photos are now available on our Flickr site.  Enjoy!)

In the meantime, we're happy to answer any questions. Just leave a comment here or email us. Happy trekking!


  1. QUESTION: what is the difference between a porter and a sherpa?

    1. Well. As referred to here, a sherpa is one who is knowledgeable about the terrain and treks and paths and dangers of the mountain. They're the leader. A porter carries bags/supplies/etc but may not know the actual route or alternate paths or how to help someone out of a cravass or that sort of thing. But Sherpa is also an ethnic group in Nepal, and a language, and apparently a Psychedelic Power Pop Band from Auckland, New Zealand. More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherpa