After reading about the Annapurna Circuit a few years ago, my girlfriend (Julie) and I immediately added it to the top of our list of international destinations. And with the new road being built in the area, we figured we should get there as soon as possible before the trek was completely changed -- assuming it wasn't completely changed already. It was just a matter of being able to take enough time off from work to make this happen and this year we were able to do that. With just over 3 weeks off from work, we were originally planning on only hiking the circuit, but after a little bit of research we decided that we would try to add on a trip to Annapurana Base Camp (aka the Sanctuary). The schedule would be tight, but doable.
The circuit map (click for larger view). Some of the smaller villages mentioned below are not listed on this map. For a more detailed map, click here.
We arrived in Kathmandu on the evening of Nov 12th, spent the following day getting the permits, exchanging our dollars for rupees and arranging our transportation to the trailhead. The morning after that we were on our way and arrived at the trailhead in Besi Sahar later that afternoon, giving us just enough time to hike to Bhulbhule before it got dark. The teahouse we stayed in the first night was very old, but with a lot of character and delicious food. We ordered a couple veggie spring rolls (much bigger than the spring rolls we're used to at home -- pretty much a meal by themselves), some tea and some apple pie. After heading back up to the room we noticed that the walls were paper thin and when the people next door turned on their lights our room lit up a little bit as well. The layout of the room was pretty similar to most of the other teahouses we would stay in, but most others weren't quite as old and had more substantial walls separating the rooms. Some others even had attached bathrooms with solar showers.
From there a typical day was to get up and be on the trail by about 7 or 8am, hike a few hours, stop about an hour for lunch, then hike until around 4pm. This schedule seemed to work out well for this type of trip as we were able to get a fair amount of hiking in while also spending some time in the villages each evening. At some of the teahouses we would order breakfast the night before (usually at the request of the host), but most of the time we would just order first thing in the morning, then get packed up for the day and breakfast would be ready by the time we were done.
The first few days were rather uneventful as we hiked through foggy conditions without much to see other than some waterfalls. Thing changed quickly though and after those first few days it was pretty much nothing but blue skies and amazing views.
Our first glimpse of some of the mountains:
From Dhukur Pokhari, we took the upper route past Ghyaru and Ngawal. Ghyaru was an excellent place to stop for lunch, with great views of the mountains across the valley and some teahouses to get some food.
Not too long after lunch we arrived in Ngawal and decided to make it a short day and stay there for the night. Since it was at a slightly higher elevation than Manang, we figured staying there meant we'd need one less acclimatization day in Manang. The following day was another short day to get to Manang and we got a bit nervous after the first two tea houses were already full, but we ended up getting a nice room at the third place and it was a corner room on the top (3rd) floor with unobstructed views of the mountains.
Unfortunately, later that day I started feeling symptoms of AMS. It seemed strange how quickly it all happened. One minute I felt fine, then I took a sip of freezing cold water and moments later I was shivering and was having trouble warming myself up. It was all downhill form there as I sat bundled up in bed feeling awful. We had planned on hiking up to Ice Lake the following day, but after a terrible night of sleep I woke up feeling even worse than the night before and I barely left our room that day. Not fun. The next day, however, I felt completely fine and we did hike up to Ice Lake. The lake itself wasn't very impressive, but the views across the valley were tremendous.
So, after spending 3 nights in Manang and one night in Ngawal, we were a couple days behind our original schedule. If I did it again, I would have done the Ice Lake hike the morning after staying in Ngawal, then stayed in Bhraga that night (about 30 minutes before Manang), and the continued on from there.
Being at almost 12,000 feet and having recently being knocked out for a day with AMS, we debated whether or not to head straight to Thorong Phedi (about 3,000 feet higher than Manang) or take two days. I won’t claim this was the smartest thing to do, but we ultimately decided to risk it and head there that day. Fortunately it worked out just fine and we had an enjoyable eveing in Thorong Phedi. The village had two relatively big tea houses to choose from. We stayed at the one on the right as you enter the village (I don’t recall the name) and it was a fun place to be. The dining hall was comfortably packed with a lively crowd and reggae music playing. I almost felt like I was back home.
The following morning we got up early and hiked up and over Thorong La pass (17,769 feet or 5,416 meters).
After reaching the pass we hiked down to Muktinath, where we ended up staying in a relatively new tea house run by a fairly young group of people. We arrived around mid afternoon, did some laundry in a bucket and relaxed on the top floor patio until the sun went down.
After Muktinath, we hiked to Jomson via Kagbeni. Kagbeni would have been a nice place to spend more time in, but since we were behind schedule we decided to continue on to Jomson after having lunch and walking around the village a bit. Our guide book mentioned how this stretch of trail was extremely windy after about 11am and they weren't kidding. It was quite windy indeed.
We would have preferred to stay somewhere other than Jomsom, which was the least interesting village on the circuit (It was more of an administrative center, with an airport and all), but we decided to stay there so we could take a bus to Tatopani the following morning to get back on schedule. I would not recommend this bus ride. It was easily the scariest bus ride of my life (This Video that I found on You Tube doesn't really do it justice, but gives you a general idea). The first couple hours of the ride were fine, but the final stretch had a few moments where the entire bus seemed as if it was about to tip over and go tumbling down the cliff. It was not reassuring when looking over at one of the locals who, with a very serious look on his face, just says, "very dangerous." Perhaps we should have looked into a jeep or just walked even though that would have meant that we wouldn't have time for Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). At one point we decided to get off the bus the next time it stopped no matter where it was. Fortunately, that ended up being at Tatopani. Relieved to finally be off that bus, we started the long 5,500 foot climb up to Ghorepani. From this point on was my favorite section. We made it to Sikha after getting off the bus and to Ghorepani by lunch time the following day. We considered staying in Ghorepani so that we could head up to Poon Hill the following morning for sunrise, but decided we'd rather have more time for ABC, so we continued on to Tadapani. I think the name of the place we stayed was Hotel Grand View, but unfortunately it was so cloudy that there were no views at all. The following morning was a different story and the views were grand, as promised. We were told by a few other trekkers that the views from there were even better than Poon Hill, which was nice to hear after skipping that side trip. The patio outside our room was a perfect location for breakfast with more amazing views.
From there, we descended quite a bit only to climb back up to Chomrong for lunch, then descend again before beginning the climb up to ABC.
Lunch in Chomrong (Machapuchare in the distance):
We ended up in Dovan that night and Machhapuchhare Base Camp (MBC) by lunch time the following day. The views from MBC while we ate lunch were outstanding.
We considered continuing on to ABC that day, but since it was early enough we decided to get a room at MBC and just hike up to ABC for the afternoon. It was absolutely stunning up there and definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
The following day we hiked back to Chomrong and then back to Pokhara via Naya Pul the day after that. Unfortunately, that final day we made our only wrong turn of the trip (well, the only one that we didn’t realize within 5 minutes) and instead of taking the relatively flat route, we ended up climbing and descending quite a bit, adding about two hours to the hike out. At one point I questioned the route, but a guide for another group that we passed assured us it was the right way. Hopefully that group is not currently walking around completely lost.
All in all, we were on the trail for 16 full days plus that partial first day. It would have been nice to have a few more days so the we could have completed the full circuit instead of taking the bus for part of it, checked out some of the hot springs along the way, spent a little more time in the Sanctuary and spent a little more time in some of the villages, but I'm very happy with the amount of time we were able to spend there.
Here's a few more random pictures from the trip: