One of the many magnificent mountain views from the Annapurna Circuit.
The Annapurna Circuit is the classic hike of Nepal. Annually thousands from around the world complete the circuit and many more dream of trekking through the astounding scenery and captivating village life. Combining Nepal’s promise of epic mountain vistas and centuries old villages, it provides the best of Nepal in one hike. From lush valleys to barren deserts, Nepalese mountain towns to ancient Tibetan kingdoms, the Annapurna Circuit became a classic because it has something for everyone.
Much of the Circuit is now accessible by road, but there is a new trail on the opposite side which will allow hikers to continue to make the majority of the trek without motorized traffic.
The Circuit has existed for hundreds of years, connecting the plains of modern-day Nepal and India with Tibet and beyond. While it stood the test of time, the past ten years has changed it more than in the centuries before combined as a road was carved along much of the traditional footpath. The locals have benefitted greatly, but in the spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them” many hikers today avoid the noisy traffic by boarding a bus themselves for much of the circuit. Luckily for us, the entire nation of Nepal went on strike while we were there, allowing us to hike the entire circuit without motorized traffic. We did it, as a park ranger said, “the way we all had to do it before the road”.
Kagbeni, an ancient Tibetan settlement that is as close to time travel as you can get until you get that time machine working…
To make matters worse, because transport was suspended, we were forced to start hiking from Pokhara, hiking the Circuit “backwards” or as fellow hikers always pointed out the “wrong way”. Not only will doing it this direction not “kill you” as had been suggested, but it provides more time in the most beautiful areas, near the Tibetan kingdom of Mustang, and minimizes time in overpriced tourist towns that could be anywhere. If you want to experience Tibetan culture and enjoy hospitality from days of yore, consider hiking the Circuit the opposite direction.
Charabu, located at 4210 meters, offers lodging and food just 200 vertical meters below Thorung Phedi, where most hikers attempting the Thorung La pass start from. From either side this will be the most challenging day of the Circuit.
Guidebooks, guides and fellow hikers alike say that hiking in the opposite direction is “impossible”, but it isn’t. The reason they make this claim is because of the purported 1,700 meter (5,500 ft) vertical single-day climb up Thorung La pass from Muktinath. Guides conveniently fail to mention that this doesn’t need to be the case, in season there are basic guesthouses located past Muktinath, just 200 vertical meters (650 ft) below the guesthouses on the other side. In exchange for the additional altitude gain, coming our direction is much steeper, therefore reducing the climbing time (it took us 2:30 to the top, versus 4-6 hours of climbing in the other direction). Impossible this direction is not, in fact, there are many benefits.
Hiking the traditional direction turns your back to this view which you would walk past in the dark.
At the top of the pass you will meet tired hikers arriving the orthodox way from Thorung Phedi. From this point they will have to guide their weary legs down a steep, sandy, mountainside, while “clockwise” hikers will be rewarded with sensational views that hikers in the other direction had their back to, many of them passing some of the best views of the hike in the dark due to predawn starts. For acclimatization and culture, plan a day in Kagbeni and two days in Muktinath versus two in Manang as traditional hikers. No matter which direction hikers choose, the Thorung La day will be difficult, but with the possibility of a shorter ascent, magnificent views, and comfortable descent, hiking clockwise is certainly worth considering.
This is the view traditional hikers will see after the tiring climb to Thorung La. Even with fresh legs on an acclimatization hike the steep and sandy descent was difficult for us. After hours of climbing hikers we crossed paths with seemed to be hating their hike.
No matter which direction the Circuit is hiked, the cities of Kagbeni and Marpha are the cultural highlights of the Circuit. Traditionally part of Tibet, these cities maintain the architecture, art and religious practices of days past.
The ancient town and monastery of Jharkot, between Kagbeni and Marpha is a great example of the many Tibetan villages the Circuit passes through near Upper Mustang.
For those seeking a little more culture, the most preserved Tibetan civilization is just a few extra days away in Upper Mustang. A permit and guide are required, both of which can only be had in Pokhara or Kathmandu. Seeing the beauty of Kagbeni and Marpha made us regret not planing for this, especially upon hearing the stories of travelers who did make the trip. Missing out on this was our single biggest regret from our trip to Nepal.
A typical Annapurna Circuit view, this one heading towards Pisang.
I began the Annapurna Circuit tired after 25 days of prior hiking, not really wanting to do it, but left in awe. Though completely different than the Three Passes Trek, it is just as unforgettable. The village life is like nothing else and the mountain vistas will not disappoint. If you want to see more than mountains in Nepal, this is the hike for you.
—————– THE DETAILS —————–
THE BIG DRAW: A summary of Nepal: monumental views and quaint villages.
WHERE IT STARTS: Bus from Pokhara or Kathmandu.
HOW LONG IT TAKES: 20 days only walking or 16 utilizing transport.
HOW MUCH IT COSTS: $15/day/person unguided, $50 with guide (unnecessary). Unguided doesn’t mean “alone”, the route is well marked and many people are hiking each segment daily.
WHEN TO GO: March/April or October/November
DIFFICULTY: Medium. The Throung La pass day will be difficult due to altitude, but with proper time to acclimatize.
WHAT DO I NEED TO BRING: Permits obtainable in Kathmandu or Pokhara (“TIMS” card and Park Permit); travel insurance with evacuation coverage; down jacket; wind/waterproof jacket and pants; sleeping bag rated at 10-20 degrees fahrenheit; sunscreen with titanium or zinc oxide as the active ingredient; hiking boots are highly recommended.
HELPFUL LINKS TO LEARN MORE: Learn about the accommodations and food in Teahouse Trekking; Nepal Travel and Photo Guide; the Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal guide is a must-have guide to plan and prepare; do you need a guide? Read Himalayan Hiking to decide for yourself.
Like these photos? See our best photos of the Annapurna Circuit by clicking here.
Henrik, our hiking partner, and us atop the Thorung La pass. For all of us this would be the final pass over 5000 meters after also hiking in the Everest Region.