Hiking the Annapurna Circuit – A dream come true!

During my stay in Nepal I did not only fulfill one wish (doing my yoga teacher training) I also fulfilled another long held wish: hiking the Annapurna Circuit. I wasn’t sure what to expect as many people say that mass tourism has destroyed its charm. And I do have to admit that the circuit is a lot busier than expected, not only with tourists, but also with locals. There are many villages (which make this circuit so convenient, because there is accommodation all along the trail) and unfortunately also many jeep roads. You can definitely tell the trail used to be a lot more beautiful some 10-20 years ago. Especially the first two-three days I wasn’t particularly wooed by the surroundings, which definitely changed starting by day four. What I specifically liked about the Annapurna Circuit is the fact that the landscape is very diverse. You walk through lush jungles, rice fields, rocky mountains covered in snow and even end up in a desert-like landscape. On top of the natural beauty you will frequently encounter man-made beauty such as picturesque villages, prayer flags and Buddhist temples.

All in all, the trail is still beautiful, very accessible and relatively easy (which doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but you don’t have to be a professional climber or an athlete). It is also a pretty cheap way of spending your holidays, since you rarely pay for accommodation (especially until the last stop before the pass). Often times a promise to eat dinner and breakfast at the hotel will make your stay free. Meals are pretty expensive, but also the only thing you will have to spend money on if you don’t hire a porter or guide. Depending on how much of a big eater you are, the circuit can be easily be done with €15 per day, ranging from €7 in the lower areas up to €20 in the higher ones.

This physical, infrastructural and financial accessibility obviously attracts many tourists. The amount of tourist while I did the hike was ok, but I also went during low season (beginning of December). I was told that in the time that I was there 20-30 people checked in for the circuit on a daily basis. During high season this number rises up to 200-300. If you value the tranquility in the midst of nature, carefully choose when to go. In my opinion December was perfectly fine. It was cold in the evenings, but with enough warm clothes it’s no problem. It will be cold any time of the year, so why not take an extra pullover and avoid the masses?

Day 1: Pokhara-Besisahar-Jagat-Chamje

The trip started at 6.30 with the bus from Pokhara to Besisahar. It’s only 70 km, but due to the bad road this trip takes roughly 4.5 hours. From Besisahar there are several options. Either you start walking from there or you take a bus to Bhulbule to cut the first part of the trail which seems to be rather unattractive.

Another option (which I choose) is to arrange some people and a jeep to even cut out more of the beginning of the trail. I had read on internet that the first part until Jagat is definitely not worth it and takes about a day of hiking. Some people even say it’s worth cutting the first 2-3 days and go directly to Chame, but I wouldn’t recommend that. The first part indeed is not that interesting but it’s relatively easy and gives your body time to adjust to the height and the physical exercise.

The ride to Jagat took us nearly 3 hours. The distance is only 25 km, but will cost  you  around 1000 rupees (€ 10). After we arrived to Jagat some of us decided to walk just to the next village, Chamje. After sitting in a bus for 8 hours, the one hour walk to Chamje was very welcome. It’s an easy pleasant walk, along the river and this pretty waterfall on the picture below.

Day 2: Chamje (1385 m) -Timang (2570 m) (6 hours)

The first day I started hiking at around 7.30. By that time I had no idea where the journey would end that day. It’s easy to decide spontaneously where to stay because there are villages every 1-2 hours. For me, the first day was tough. I really had to get used to the walking, even though the road is pretty even. Even the slightest ascent and descent made me pant.

The worst part of the this day was the part between Danagyu and Timang. Totally unexpected there suddenly came a pretty steep climb which seemed to be endless. By the time I arrived Timang I was wrecked. Fortunately, my efforts got rewarded with a beautiful scene of the rising moon over the mountain tops.

Day 3: Timang (2570 m) – Dhikur Pokhari (3060 m) (5 hours)

On day three I knew beforehand that I was only going to hike until Dhikur Pokhari. For me this was the first time being higher than 2500 m. This is also the altitude from where to not climb higher than 500 m a day. Wanting to avoid altitude sickness, I respected this rule.

The first part of the way was pretty easy and gets slightly steeper towards the end. Since it was such a short hike, I took my time and leisurely walked up. I was told that it’s better to walk at a slow pace at which you don’t pant rather than moving too quick and taking frequent breaks. From this day on I adopted this walking style and it worked really well for me. It made the ascending a lot easier and enjoyable. Obviously, it also makes you slow down, but especially at higher altitudes this kind of slow walking and deep breathing is crucial for your health. Due to this walking style, my time indications are also considerably longer than the average (time indications are excluding breaks).

Day 4: Dikhur Pokhari (3060) – Braga (3500) via Upper Pisang (8 hours)

To get to Braga or Manang there are two different routes: the easier, quicker and less scenic one via Lower Pisang or the thougher, longer and more scenic one via Upper Pisang. Since I was going to be on this trail only once, I choose the scenic route. And it was indeed very much worth it!

This route definitely involves a lot of ascending and descending. From Dikhur Pokhari you first have to ascend to Upper Pisang (3300). From there it’s a beautiful easy walk with magnificent views until you reach a hill that leads to Ghyaru (3600). The way up is a long and gruelling hike, but if you do it methodically and slowly it’s definitely doable. Take your time to stop and turn around once in a while to take in the magnificent view from behind.

From Ghyaru it’s about two hours to Ngawal (3700). The way is a lot easier and agreeable and beautiful along the way.

From Ngawal the descend towards Braga starts. You have to follow an uninspiring jeep track which does not make the hike very enjoyable. I was already pretty tired by that time, also due to the fact that I had taken some wrong turns and had spent my valuable energy. The way to Braga seemed to be endless. Once I arrived in Braga I was a bit confused as to where to search for a hotel. The village seemed to exist of three parts, two of them up on the hill and one of them down alongside the jeep track. The lower part is the one where the guesthouses are.

Day 5: Acclimatisation day /day trip to Ice Lake (4600m) (6-7 hours)

I decided to stay a day in Braga to make a day trip to the Ice Lake. In fact, I never reached the lake, because I started to feel nauseous and it started to snow an hour before I reached the lake. In hindsight I am happy I didnt go. Someone who was walking in front of me decided to go all the way but couldnt even see the lake because it was already covered by snow. The hike to the lake is pretty strenuous and takes you up 1000m in a rather short period of time. However, reaching the lake is not necessary since the view is beautiful all the way up.

Day 6: Braga (3500) – Manang (3500) (20-30 minutes)

This day I decided to stay a day in Manang and rest. First of all, I had fallen a bit ill after I came back from the trip to the Ice Lake. Secondly, there was uncertainty about the situation of the pass and going to Tilicho Lake due to the snow. It was not sure whether there was more snow going to fall and whether these places were accessible.

Many people ended up being stuck in Manang which in fact was nice, because I met almost everyone I had met the days before on one single day. Manang is pretty big compared to the other places and has a lot to offer since Manang is for many the place to take a rest/acclimatisation day. If you found out that you were still in need of something, Manang was the place to buy it. It is also the only place which offers some kind of entertainment, such as the cinema.

Day trips are also possible in Manang. The most famous are the Gangapurna Lake (30 minutes) and the viewpoint (3 hours). I went to the Lake which was beautiful. But I didnt go all the way up to the viewpoint. I was still feeling weak and wanted my body to recover properly.

Day 7: Manang (3500m) – Yak Kharka (4000 m) (3.5 hours)

After spending the day in Manang it became clear that the pass was accessible, at least for the upcoming 5 days. Hiking to Tilicho Lake was strongly discouraged, especially for solo hikers like me. So, I decided to make my way straight to the pass and continued to Yak Kharka.

This day is probably one of the easiest and relaxed days of the circuit. The hike is easy and short. Only the first part is a bit steep. The hike was not only easy, but also very beautiful. I greatly enjoyed the views over the snow-covered mountains and often stopped to gaze at the beauty I was surrounded by.

Once you reach Yak Kharka, you still have enough time to relax and adjust to the altitude. Be aware though that it’s located very unfortunately and the sun will disappear behind the mountains already very early (ca 2pm). After that it gets very cold.

In Yak Kharka I stayed in the Tilicho Peak Hotel which was a funny place to stay. It was run by four young guys who looked more like a Nepali boyband than hotel owners. But they did a great job, the food was good and I liked the fact that they were playing music. I had missed hearing music and it definitely enhanced my mood. Especially early in the morning I appreciated the music which helped me wake up. Furthermore, their prices seemed to be a lot better than the prices of the neighbours. Generally, the prices in the villages claim to all have the same prices, but I noticed that this is not the case everywhere. So, if you are on a low budget, checking the menu and comparing it to two-three other places would make sense.

Day 8: Yak Kharka (4000m) – Thorong Phedi (4500m) (4 hours)

Again it’s a short day, though this time not as easy as the previous day. This hike involves quite some ascents and descents which make it a bit frustrating. But once again: take your time, you have plenty of time and should not forget to breath and move slowly. You start to feel the altitude by now. Moving too quick might be dangerous and the views are beautiful. So, walk slowly and take in the beautiful surroundings once in a while.

Day 9: Thorong Phedi (4500m) – Thorong La (5400 m) – Muktinath (3800) (10 hours)

The big day has come. Many people are discussing about what time to begin. Some say it’s better to start really early in order to avoid the wind on Thorong La pass, others say it’s wiser to start a bit later in order to avoid frostbite. I ended up starting at 5.30 which was exactly the right time. I actually met a woman who had to go back, because she started too early. She was so cold, she had turned purple. It’s wise to keep in mind that mother nature can be quite cruel at these altitudes and you’d rather not play with her. So, once again, climb slowly and methodically. Drink sufficient water and don’t ignore your headaches.

To be honest, the day of the pass is the only day I personally would not repeat again. For me it was a very tough day and it took me 10 hours in total. Normally, people do it in 6-8 hours. I am generally not in a bad condition, but I do have to say that walking in the mountains has always been tough for me. Before I went on this hike I searched the internet and many people were saying the circuit is really easy and can be done with any fitness level. To a certain extent I agree, but this doesn’t count for the day of the pass. This is a tough day and I don’t think I will voluntarily put myself in this situation again. After all, it’s holidays, isn’t it?

The ascent to the pass is not even particularly steep, but very long and draining. The most frustrating about it is that I kept thinking I would be there soon, only to find out that I wasn’t. At a certain point I couldn’t take the false hope anymore and I broke down and cried. I had no idea what I was doing up there. I could have been lying a beach, drinking coconut water and having fun with friends instead! But there I was, stuck on this mountain. Returning made no sense. Ten minutes after my mental breakdown I finally reached the pass.

The view was not particularly spectacular, but at that point I was just happy to be there. Now the long 1600 m descent was starting. This part was not nearly as bad as expected. I normally have difficulties coming down due to my weak ankles and knees, but this descent was actually pretty nice. Long, but nice. Especially after that horrible ascent. You can feel how it slowly starts to become easier to breath as the altitude drops. While descending you can enjoy the beautiful desert-like landscape which has magically appeared on the other side of the pass.

Day 10: Rest day in Muktinath

After the long previous day I decided to stay in Muktinath with some people I met on the trail  and have a rest day. We had found a good guesthouse (Paths of dreams) which served excellent food and we didn’t mind eating more meals there. I made a day trip towards the Mustang area. I first crossed to the other side of valley, passing Chongur. From there I started following the red arrows/golden ribbons which led up to kind of a plateau.

The hike was very nice, leading to truly desert-like areas. After having spent a couple of days in winter wonderland, this was a nice change of scenery. From here it’s possible to make a round trip (which is marked on maps.me), but I wouldn’t recommend doing that. The trail down on the other side is not as clear and the last bit of the descent is horribly steep as well. It will also bring you even lower which includes some unnecessary ascents and descents.

Day 11: Muktinath (3800m) – Jomsom (2800m) via Jhong (6 hours)

This was definitely one of my favourite hiking days. The scenery was beautiful and varied and the hike was very easy. Most of the trail is moderately downhill. There is one short steep descent just before Kagbeni, but for the rest is by far one of the easiest hiking days. Most people go directly from Muktinath to Kagbeni to save time. But I would strongly recommend taking this short detour via Jhong.

My personal favourite is the breathtaking view just before reaching Kagbeni, looking over mountains of different colours (red, pink, purple, green etc.) and a river with the famous himalayan salt on the shore.

The “danger” of taking this route is having to walk from Kagbeni to Jomsom (2 hours) after 12 pm. The trail is relatively easy, but the problem is the strong wind in the afternoon. We were not aware of this problem until we reached Kagbeni at around 12 pm. Not wanting to spend an entire day in Kagbeni, we ended up taking the risk. The wind was indeed very strong, but doable. There is no public transport at this time, but there are many private cars going back and forth. The cars with space will take you, but some of them charge horrendous prices. We ended up finding an affordable ride 45 min before reaching Jomsom. In the end it was worth it, because this part is probably one of the least appealing parts of the circuit.

Day 12: Jomsom (2800 m) – Tatopani (1300 m) (5 hours by bus)

From Jomsom it’s possible to take a bus back to Pokhara, which is why many people stop walking the circuit from there. I decided to continue since I really wanted to see Poonhill. Because I had some painful blisters by the time I reached Jomsom, I took a bumpy bus ride to Tatopani to spare my feet.

Day 13: Tatopani (1300 m) – Sikha (2400 m) (4 hours)

Many people walk straight from Tatopani to Ghorepani, which is possible in 8 hours time. But since the strenuous day over the pass, I only allowed myself to do enjoyable hikes which made me feel like I was on holidays. It’s mostly a steep climb to Ghorepani and I definitely wanted to enjoy my last days on the Annapurna circuit. The hike from Tatopani to Sikha is a beautiful hike, walking through many villages with awesome views over rice fields. I genuinely enjoyed the hike. Once I arrived in Sikha at 11am, I checked into a hotel with a rooftop and spend the entire afternoon there reading and writing. This was exactly the kind of holiday feeling I was looking for 🙂

Day 14: Sikha (2400 m) – Ghorepani (2900 m) – Poon Hill (3200 m) – Ghorepani (4 hours + 1.5 hours)

From Sikha I left early in the morning again for the last steep climb to Ghorepani. The journey continues through villages with views over rice fields. On the way you will meet many people with their animals, carrying wood and other commodities up and down the hill.

Once I arrived Ghorepani, I decided to watch the sunset on Poon Hill, rather than the sunrise. I had twisted my ankle in the morning and I knew that the hike from Ghorepani to Naya Pull was a grueling hike down. Due to my weak ankles, hiking down is already pretty intense. I didn’t want to stress my ankles too much on one day by walking up and down to Poon Hill and walking down 1900 m to Naya Pul. Sikha to Ghorepani was only a 4 hour walk and after a afternoon rest at the hotel, I still had plenty of energy for the quick 45 min hike up.

Even without the sunset, Poon Hill offers a beautiful view over a sea of mountains. The sunset was really beautiful. With a 360 degree view, it was difficult at times to decide where to marvel at. While the sun was setting it was lighting up the mountains in a bright golden red colour. The mountain nearly looked surreal.

Day 15: Gorepani (2900 m) – Naya Pul (1000 m) (7 hours)

This is one of the most frustrating days of the circuit. For me at least. For those of you who don’t have any troubles walking downhill, it’s a lovely day through the forest and villages, alongside rivers and waterfalls. The worst part are the 3200 steps starting from Ulleri. Those steps were probably meant to make the hike easier, for me it only made the hike more frustrating. I really tried to enjoy my last day, but the steps made it nearly impossible.

In Tikhe Dhunga I decided to have lunch. It turned out to be a perfect decision. There was a Dutch couple who had worked for two month at that hotel and they were just about to leave the place when I finished my lunch. Since they had a lot of luggage, they had rented a jeep to bring them to Naya Pul. They kindly invited me to come with them to Naya Pul. The worst part was over and I had an easy 2-hour walk ahead, but I still gratefully accepted their offer. My ankle and blisters were not getting better and I was started to be a bit fed up with the walking. From Naya Pul I took the bus to Pokhara (1.5 hours). Taxi drivers will try to take you, but buses pass by frequently for as far as I know. Within 15 minutes of waiting, a bus passed by and the Annapurna adventure was officially over for me…

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