Hiking the Himalayas: 17 Days Along the Annapurna Circuit

Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit was one of the few anchor destinations along our year-long adventure. The trek, which took us 17 days to complete, is the quintessential Nepali experience. Unlike some of our favorite hikes from other destinations, which are remote and feel far from civilization, the Annapurna Circuit meanders through the center of rural towns and countryside villages. Some may imagine that this spoils the natural beauty of the Himalayas. And yes, there are electric lines, unsightly dirt roads and sometimes garbage. But we found that the people add a cultural element to the hike that — combined with the magnificent views — makes the Circuit unique, and frankly, unforgettable.

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View From the High Road on Day 7

In some ways our time volunteering in Kathmandu prepared us for the trek. We met several day volunteers that had completed the circuit and had given us valuable advice. The long, hard days toughened us up a bit and re-accustomed our feet to hiking boots. But most importantly, we were introduced to Dal Bhat, otherwise known as rice and lentils. Nepalis live on this stuff–and for good reason, it gave us the energy to hike for hours and hours each day. Dal Bhat power 24 hours!

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On day 1 the Circuit doesn’t seem so special. The hike begins (and ends) in rice terraces similar to the ones outside Kathmandu. But between the rice paddy bookends, there are 130 miles of diverse and varied terrain. Some days brought us through pine forests, some through high mountain passes, others through marijuana meadows (seriously). Each day was different. Each day was beautiful. Somehow I didn’t tire of hiking; don’t get me wrong, there were certainly times when I was exhausted by day’s end, when my pack seemed to weigh a ton. But each morning I woke excited by the day’s route, by what we’d see.

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Perhaps the Annapurna Circuit is best known for its spectacular views of snow-capped mountains, after all  two dozen peaks that soar above 20,000 ft. are visible from the trail.  There’s no mistaking these mountains for the Tetons or the Alps. From the incense in the air to the wild marigolds growing just about everywhere, it was clear that we were in Nepal. We traveled through a village every few hours and were greeted by countless ‘namastes’ from smiling faces offering us lodging or ginger tea. We visited monasteries and listened to sunset chants from monks robed in maroon. We spun prayer wheels in the shadows of ancient stupas and we watched people plow their fields with oxen, as they had for generations.
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This place, more than anywhere we’ve visited, had an overwhelming sense of culture and custom. That’s the real allure of this trek.  I suspect that years from now I will look back and remember the monk who showed us his monastery paintings or the countless kids who chased us down asking for sweets, as much, if not more, than the scenery.

Tips:

– We managed just fine without a guide or a porter. In retrospect we should have hired one of each to support the local economy.
– Take the high road between Pisang and Manang. The views were spectacular and it may have been the most beautiful day of the trek.
– Do the whole circuit! Most people stop in Jomson after they complete the pass.  (At 17,800 ft. Thorung La Pass is the highest mountain pass in the word). We found the second half of the hike to be more enjoyable than the first,  plus no one was on it!
– Plan the month of your trek carefully. We had perfect weather (barring one day of snow at high altitude) in October.
– Bring warm clothes for the high altitude. With no electricity and no heat at high camp, we were freezing.
– Make sure you finish with Poon Hill and Ghorepani. We had the best views of the entire range from there, but the hike down kills your legs. We did the whole thing in one long 8.5 hour day. It’s probably better to split that segment in two.

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