“It’s the best hike in the Himalayas, you have to do it!” “It should be on everyones bucket list!” “Forget Everest, do the Annapurna Circuit!”
These days there are so many Annapurna groupies that it has become just as popular as the Everest Base Camp trek (which says a lot). When I hiked the Annapurna circuit 12 years ago it was only just emerging as a rival to Everest. I had heard rumours that Everest Base Camp was a “Coca Cola parade” where I could get hamburgers, mars bars and of course Coca Cola at every stop along the way. This notion of western availability and the parade of people it supported clashed with my idea of what hiking in the Himalayas should be which is remote, rugged and isolated.
These days the Annapurna Circuit is spouted as the holy grail of trekking. Not only for those too poor to buy their way onto Everest or not fit enough to climb some of the other available peaks but also as the grail for your average backpacker and traveler. Each day of hiking builds the anticipation with the mountains teasingly staying hidden until suddenly you pop out of the forest and you are surrounded by them. They make you catch your breath and feel completely insignificant as you stand at the base feeling like a tiny ant. They have an imposing solidity and strength which is difficult to articulate to anyone who isn’t familiar with mountains (growing up in West Australia I had never seen mountains like this before).
Depending on where you start/finish, hiking the Annapurna Circuit takes about 15-20 days and covers 160-230kms. Given this was my first time out of Australia and I had no idea what I was doing I chose to hike with a tour group. This meant we had guides and porters assisting us the whole way with all arrangements taken care of. Even though there were porters I chose to carry my own pack and was one of only 4 people in our group to do so.
We started at lower altitude spending the first few days sharing the track with trains of donkeys and rushing porters trying to deliver goods further up the mountain. We followed behind, sweating profusely in the tropical heat and trying to concentrate on our footing so we didn’t step in Donkey poo or trip on the uneven stairs.
After a few days the villages become more sporadic, the scenery changes to almost rainforest like and the temperature starts to cool off. The trail starts to undulate so your calves get a work out as you climb the uneven stairs and then your knees get sore as you try to prevent yourself from falling on the slippery, ice covered downhills.
Eventually you are so high you walk in the clouds and arrive at your designated tea house for the night covered in a mixture of condensation and sweat. The altitude starts to affect your breathing and I found myself having to do everything slower, almost at half speed and kept jerking awake at night when I would stop breathing in my sleep.
All this energy and effort was worth it when we arrived at Annapurna Base Camp and spent the afternoon bathed in sun. I could see for miles and hiked a short distance away from the tea house and the rest of my tour group to sit alone and contemplate the meaning of life while listening to the mountains shift and crack around me and the thunder from a distant avalanche roll through the valley. I still haven’t figured out the meaning of life but I do remember that afternoon sitting up there alone and loving it having finally found my remote, rugged and isolated Himalayas.
Having walked this circuit I can see the attraction for so many people and understand its popularity. Sure there are other hikes that offer instant gratification by being able to see your destination from the trail head, other hikes with better wildlife, that are more remote and with better accommodation or are more spiritual in nature but there is something earned by hiking the Annapurna Circuit.
These days I hear rumours that the Annapurna Circuit has surpassed the Everest Base Camp trek in popularity and is just as much a Coca Cola parade. I also hear they are building a road to make it more accessible and while this will destroy the isolation of it in my opinion I know that it will open it up to mountain bikers and other industries which the Nepalese in these regions need to survive. Knowing how good a trek the Annapurna Circuit is I can only advise people to book now before it’s too late.
Do you have a secret destination that is now popular? Let me know in the comments below.