Ups and Downs Around the Annapurna

A few months short of 20 years ago, Janet and I walked the famous Annapurna Circuit Trek in Nepal as part of a slow journey home from living and working in Bangladesh for 3 years. It was brilliant and we have great memories of it, so we thought it was a good opportunity to return to it, walk it again and assess how much it and we had changed over the intervening decades.

As before on trips to Nepal together we did it hut to hut, and employed the services of our friend Kami Sherpa to help with some of the luggage. However, I did carry a full load in my new Mountain Equipment Tupilak pack, including Janet’s home-made, heavy but delicious Easter Cake!

Janet and Kasmi in the Rhodendron forest in bloom at Ghorepani

We had heard that the big change to the Annapurna Area has been the construction of many kilometres of dirt roads right into the heart of the mountains. To us privileged westerners, including me, these roads have undoubtedly damaged the environment and local culture. To local people they have greatly improved the quality of their lives, by giving them access to better education and health care and by giving both tourists and pilgrims easier access to the area.

Another big change we encountered on the very first day was a large Chinese built hydroelectric dam on the Marsyandi River. Controversial certainly, but it is hard to argue the case when the capital city Kathmandu doesn’t have enough power to provide street lighting, the flow of water from the Himalaya is perhaps the greatest in the world and hydro is certainly less polluting than our old coal power stations were.

The good thing about the installation and the roads is that nearly everywhere the road avoids the original trekking trail. Tourists have the choice to trudge or even drive along a dusty rocky road with trucks and other vehicles squeezing past, or take the quiet, interesting and sometimes dramatic trail that was walked by Tibetan Traders and their yaks for centuries before the Chinese Revolution.

Thorung-La Pass 5400m

You would think the choice is obvious but (grump grump) in these times of instant gratification, some trekkers choose to drive to the highest point that altitude sickness will permit, trek for a few headachy days over the Thorung La Pass (5400m) and fly back to Kathmandu from Jomsom. This is not trekking the Annapurna Circuit. The Circuit currently takes about 14 days of walking, although when it was originally created it took nearer 21 days and was camping all the way.

However, it’s not only the tourists who take short cuts. The village of Muktinath is the first settlement that trekkers reach having crossed the Pass, and an important point of pilgrimage for both Buddhist and Hindu people. It is certainly worth visiting, and in the past it required many days of trekking to reach it. Pilgrims now fly to Jomsom, take a bumpy bus ride to the lowest part of the village and then pay some of the local lads large amounts of money to escort them on their mules for a further kilometre up to the holy sites.

I must admit though that they do create a colourful spectacle. Caravans of elderly Indian ladies clad in sarees, woolly knitted socks and balaclavas and gentlemen with similar accessories and sun glasses, slowly toil up the main street to visit the temples, statues and fountains and see an amazing temple in which there is a natural flame burning out of the ground.

Nilgiri Peak: Awesome.

Of course, the mountains change very little, at least when viewed from a distance. They are still as spectacular as ever. Beginning on the second day of walking we passed below or near the elusive Annapurna 2 and then later Gangapurna, the Chulu Range, Tilicho Peak, nearly the entire Dhaulagiri Range, Nilgiri, Annapurna 1 and Machapuchare to name but a few. To use the word unusually correctly, they are “awesome”.

Tibetan style villages of Upper Pisang

How did we get on amid all of this? We loved it all and had a great time. Highlights for us were the Tibetan style villages of Upper Pisang, rare Blue Sheep grazing at Shree Karkha (they are neither blue nor sheep but never mind), the perfect snow conditions and wonderful views on the day we crossed the pass and the forest of rhododendrons in flower at Ghorapani (called Laliguras in Nepali).

The magnificent Chulu Range from high on the Thorung La

Blue Sheep

The other question is - will we be going back again in another 20 years? Well, we’ll be in our mid 80s by then so will probably be looking to do something a bit more challenging before we get too old!!

By Tom Richardson
Footwear and expedition specialist

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Tom Richardson
Team Photo
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