We often hear the saying: “If it does not challenge you, it will not change you.” Well, it is true. Taking on the Annapurna Circuit is probably one of the biggest challenges I have ever encountered and indeed, I came back totally renewed with a fresh perspective on life.
Touted as the holy grail of trekking since its early days, this classic 230km teahouse trek is one of the longest and most famous treks in the world. Do not let the distance scare you though, it really does get easier (and better) as each day passes. Get through day 1 & 2 and I assure you, you will survive the rest of it.
Arriving at Kathmandu, there are a few things to be done before you start your trek.
- Get your permits ready. They are the TIMS card that registers you as a trekker and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) permit.
- Get iodine water tablets at the pharmacies. Not to worry, there are plenty of them in Thamel.
Permits can be obtained independently at Bhrikuti Mandap (Tourism Board Office). Do take note; there may be a queue during peak season. Another option would be to obtain them via official travel agents which will save you time but cost a little more. A scanned copy of your passport and 3 passport-sized photos are required for this procedure but do carry a few more on-hand just to be safe.
Hop onto a local bus at the Gongabu Bus Station that goes all the way to Besisahar (8-10 hours). Buy the ticket one day in advance just to be safe. Again, travel agents can organize this for you at a small fee saving you time. I will warn you now, the bus-ride itself is an adventure. From the locals squeezing in like sardines shoving their freshly bought vegetables in your face, to funky Nepalese music blaring throughout the entire journey and 2 bus assistants hanging off the bus door yelling out “Besisahar! Besisahar!” every minute, you will start questioning your sanity by the time you reach Besisahar. Arriving at Besisahar, to save some time, I hopped onto a jeep (3 hours, 1400 NPR) that took me all the way to Chamje and rested from all that excitement aboard that bus.
First day on foot was definitely the toughest as my body was not accustomed to the long hours of seemingly endless walking and I cannot even express how much I wanted to give up within the first 2 hours. Having a good trekking partner comes in handy at this point where all sorts of encouragement (sometimes in the form of insults) are thrown at you and I told myself: I HAVE to finish this no matter what. It was as much of a mental battle as it was a physical battle for me.
The following days proved surprisingly easier as I persevered on. The trail was also rather empty due to it being monsoon season (June), which is not the most popular time to trek. However that gave us plenty of $1/night or sometimes, free, accommodations throughout the trek in exchange for the promise of ordering food at the teahouse. Another benefit to this is also the bountiful fields of green to look at when we get tired of facing the mountains. Occasionally we would bump into the porters carrying rather heavy loads, delivering goods from village to village. Needless to say, I have nothing but mad respect for these hardy men.
Mingling with the natives, learning their local card games, exchanging travel stories with fellow trekkers were part of the fun to pass time after a day’s worth of trekking. I learnt the art of making dumplings, sipped on locally-brewed vodka, witnessed the butchering of a live chicken (beware, the chicken you were playing with could be your next day’s meal), woke up to unrivaled sunrises, showered in record-time (hot water is precious), petted baby goats, strolled alongside yaks, tasted the delicious Manang stew and forged unforgettable friendships with trekkers from all walks of life.
The climax of this trek is the Thorong-La Pass situated 5416m high where air is at its thinnest. After making the 600m steep ascend up to this point from the previous day, I was really gasping for breath. I dropped my bag and took in a big gulp of the limited air around me and looked around. My eyes took in the majestic views of the Gangapurna and the Annapurna mountain range surrounding me, the snow-capped mountains provided a scenery so beautiful that the sounds of my heavy-breathing were tuned out, and my eyes slowly wandered over every crevice and peak of the looming mountains. The thrill and exhilaration of making it to the top faded; all I wanted to do was to savor the moment of stillness where I realized how small I am compared to the vastness of Mother Earth. It really was a very humbling moment.
The Annapurna Cirucit, also known as the horse-shoe trek, will end at Pokhara. Looking at the map, I realized that I have walked from the east-end of the Annapurna Conservation Area to the west-end. I am so glad that we are not required to trek back the same way we came from. From Pokhara, there are direct flights and comfortable bus rides back to Kathmandu. I am talking about air-conditioned, wifi equipped, no squeezing, no loud Nepalese music blaring, kind of bus rides. At this point, I must admit, this was a luxury to me. Bus tickets can be obtained at the Tourist Bus Park, a short distance away from the city center. Many reviews have given the thumbs-up for this well-trusted bus agency called the Greenline which will cost you about $20-$25. Well, one has to pay the price for comfort, security and safety. Of course, there are plenty of alternatives, take your time and choose wisely. You may negotiate the price with the ticket officer if you find it unreasonable. As a rough gauge for you, I paid 1200 NPR for my ticket.
If you are looking for a moderate-level hike and have about 2 weeks’ worth of time, this Circuit is perfect for you. Extra bonus if you can swiftly maneuver your way around donkey poo. This is not an expensive trek; I averaged about $25 a day. You could probably spend lesser if you do not have an addiction to their native seabuckthorn juice like I do. If anything, this hike will take you on an adventure that will open up your eyes to the rich and enchanting village culture of the Himalayas, awaken your soul and make you feel more alive than you have ever been. You will be forced to go back to basics and when you are done; you will never take food, water, friendship and air for granted again.