Once considered the best multi-day backpacking trek in the world, Annapurna Circuit Trek has changed in the last few years. The trek used to be 240 km, following ancient trade routes between remote Hindu and Buddhist villages. A new road has made all but 34 km of it accessible by jeep.
The Nepalese government began building a road in 2005 to provide access to remote mountain villages. Before the road, locals were completely cut off. They had to walk for a day to the next village; several days to a larger centre. Construction took several years due to the difficult terrain in the steep valleys. In 2014 the road was completed and now covers all but 34 km in the centre of the route where it crosses over a high mountain pass.
There are pros and cons for the road. It has meant fewer tourists stopping at the small villages that once catered to their needs with shops, restaurants and hotels. But the villagers have better access to the cities for health care, fresh food and special needs.
In 2011, when we did this trek, the road barely affected the first half of the route, but was a nuisance in parts of the western side. Seven years later we completed two treks on either side of Annapurna Circuit and used the road on both sides.
In this post we’ll recount our trek of the circuit in 2011 and try to explain the differences we saw in 2018, seven years later. For us it’s a little sad because it is honestly one of the most picturesque treks in the world. Not only does the trek pass the huge massifs of the Himalayas, but walking though the small villages was a huge part of its charm. The map below shows the route that we trekked. The road now runs from Besisahar to Manang on the east and Muktinath to just passed Tatopani on the west. Apparently new trails are being built so you can hike away from the road, but there are many sections where trekkers have to walk on the road.
Kathmandu to Besisahar
In 2011 we took a long bus ride from Kathmandu, getting off in dusty town of Dumre (416 m). The 185 km drive took almost 7 hours. From there we found a jeep that would take us on the rough road to Besisahar (760 m). The 41 km trip took another couple of hours. Besisahar is an even dustier town with a few modest guest houses, but at that time was the usual starting place for the trek.
Day 1 – Besisahar to Bahundanda
Distance – 17 km; Elevation Gain – 554 m
Admittedly, this wasn’t the most interesting part of the trek, and nowadays everyone drives right by. In 2011 you could take a jeep to Bhulbhule village, about half way to Bahundanda. We wanted to walk so we began on the gravel road outside Besisahar. After not too long though we were able to get off the road and on to the trail.
The hiking trail is an old trade route following the Marsyangdi River Valley, passing between small villages. At the lower elevations the villages are Hindu, higher up they are Buddhist. It was interesting to see the changes in the villages as we walked higher and higher. On the first day the locals are mostly farmers who we saw working their fields and tending to their animals.
The trail crossed the Marsyangdi River a few times on suspension bridges in various states of disrepair. The rickety bridges were strung between tall mountains on either side of the deep valley. At times the bridges seemed frighteningly high.
Outside the village of Bhulbhule is a magnificent 60m high waterfall. It was the first of many tall waterfalls we’d see.
From this point the road was being built in stages. In some areas we walked on what would soon be a road but for us was a widened pathway. Most of the time we walked on narrow trails up and down the mountain ridges.
It was cloudy and although there aren’t many spectacular views in this area, we should have been able to see Mt. Manaslu. Unfortunately for us, it was hiding behind the clouds. After a final climb up steep switchbacks, we arrived at the hilltop town of Bahundanda (1,314 m). The new road is on the other side of the river so apparently businesses in Bahundanda have suffered.
Day 2 – Bahundanda to Tal
Distance – 17 km; Elevation Gain – 316 m
After Bahundanda the mountain sides were filled with green rice terraces. It was more picturesque than we expected with small farming villages filling in the spaces between.
Although the absolute elevation gain on this section of the hike isn’t large, that doesn’t mean the trail is flat. We had a lot of elevation gain and loss during the day. The trail went up and down hills. It descended to bridges and then climbed back up on the other side. Even though it was a tough walk, the spectacular waterfalls that we saw made up for the work. Some of the trail we hiked on became the new road. I wouldn’t want to miss these incredible scenes by driving quickly by.
The higher we climbed, rice terraces were replaced by thick jungle. Villages had dramatic settings, built on steep mountain ridges. Most of the villages on the trek have guesthouses which serve as restaurants and hotels. As we passed through most were hoping we would stop for lunch or stay the night.
Before the village of Chamje, there is a gorgeous tiered waterfall that makes a spectacular crash in the middle. As we approached the village an excited group of Nepalis were running down the steep, narrow trail toward us. They were carrying a pregnant woman who was in distress, using a door as a make-shift stretcher. She was having complications with her pregnancy so villagers were carrying her all the way to Bhulbhule which was as far as an ambulance could drive. We passed through Bhulbhule the day before so they had a long way to go. Seeing this made us realize the importance of the road to the locals.
After Chamje a long suspension bridge was crowded with mules. The trail wasn’t busy with trekkers, but there were many porters and mules taking supplies to the villages higher up the valley. This was the only way those villages received supplies.
The trail took us through a forest of bamboo and poinsettia. It was November when we were there and the poinsettia were in full bloom. It was gorgeous! I had only ever seen them in small pots at Christmas.
Tal, which means lake, is a small village on the flats of a dry lake. After passing through so many villages precariously hanging on hillsides it seemed odd to find one on flat ground, and at 1,700 m. On the end of Tal is yet another lovely waterfall.
Day 3 – Tal to Chame
Distance – 23 km; Elevation Gain – 930 m
After leaving Tal, the valley narrowed again with tight walls on either side of the river. The trail was often cut out of the rock, leaving little room for error. After a few river crossings we arrived at the Tibetan Buddhist region in Annapurna. Entry to Dharapani is marked by a large kani which is an arch-like gateway.
Not long after the kani, the trail goes through the middle of a rushing waterfall. In 2018 we entered this region on foot from Dudh Khola Valley after hiking the Manaslu Circuit. We hired a jeep in Dharapani that took us all the way to Besisahar and then Pokhara. We went though this same waterfall, except in 2018, we were in a jeep!
Driving on the road, we couldn’t recognize any of the villages that in 2011 we had walked through. The picturesque waterfalls, trees and flowers were just a blur. In the picture below you can see the road being built beside the bridge. This became the road that we later drove on in a Jeep.
We entered our first Buddhist village and saw the first of many chortens, mani walls, prayer wheels and prayer flags that we would see over the next several days. The mantra ‘Om mani pad me hum’ is written in Sanskrit on these sacred objects. A prayer is made by spinning a wheel, passing a mani wall on your right side or when prayer flags flap in the wind.
These villages are very remote and we were reminded how tough their lives are when we saw them butchering a buffalo on the ground beside the trail.
The trail then took us through a lovely walnut forest. The huge trees with large canopies were a change from the bamboo and jungle lower down. As we walked, we heard crashing in the trees and were lucky to see black faced langurs jumping between branches.
Finally, after a lot of climbing we arrived at a mani wall before the village of Chame. Tibetan Buddhists believe that walking clockwise around a mani stone is akin to saying a prayer. Some times we had to go out of our way to ensure we always kept the mani stone on our right side.
The entrance kani to Chame is gorgeous. A white horse standing in front of the elaborate white and gold kani added to its charm. It appears that this kani was not destroyed when building the road. Plenty of other Buddhist structures that we saw in 2011 though were damaged during the construction and new ones were built to replace them.
Since the road was built, many people begin their trek in Chame (2,630 m). They arrive by jeep and have missed all of the waterfalls and villages that we passed over the last two days.
Day 4 – Chame to Pisang
Distance – 14.5 km; Elevation Gain – 560 m
The hike to Pisang is a tough day on a rugged trail with many river crossings on wooden and suspension bridges. River crossings usually mean that you have to descend from the trail to get close to the valley bottom and then reclimb on the other side of the river. The new road allows a much easier and faster walk, but misses out on most of the views. Parts of the old trekking route can still be used, but only for about half of the day.
Above the village of Pisang (3,190 m) is the fascinating old village of Upper Pisang. The old stone buildings cling to the side of the mountain while narrow alleys crisscross their way between. The walls have interesting architecture with goat horns embedded between the stones. Flat roofs are covered in rocks that act to hold down the wooden shingles.
At the top of the village is a Tibetan Buddhist gompa (monastery). The colourful eaves sitting on top of white-washed walls are typical in Tibetan Buddhism.
In Pisang we saw the likely source of the goat horns. Some of the goats had the funniest look because their horns didn’t match. See if you can spot some below.
Day 5 – Pisang to Manang
Distance 15.7 km; Elevation Gain – 350 m
After our typical guesthouse breakfast of Tibetan bread we were back on the trail. The route to Manang can follow the new road for a shorter day, but it by-passes a lot of wonderful old villages. We don’t suggest taking it.
Finally, we had clear skies and gorgeous views of snow-capped Annapurna II. There’s a tough switchback climbing 540 m, but it ends at the interesting the village of Ghyaru (3,730 m). This village of flat-roofed stone homes has a wonderful setting in front of the Annapurna Range.
At almost 4,000 m, the vegetation is sparser and consists mostly of evergreens. We passed through another stone village, Ngawal. Its tall white chorten contrasted the grey stone buildings. We thought that these three stone villages would be the most interesting on the trek. But we were wrong.
By far the most interesting village in the region is Braga (also spelled Bryaga or Byraka). From a distance it looks like matchbook houses piled one on top of the other. One house’s roof is the patio of the one above. This may sound like a metropolitan city, but these stone homes are very rustic. We wandered up and down the narrow winding passageways between the small homes. Many were drying apples on their patio. Behind the village pillar rock formations gave additional interest to this unusual village.
At the top of the village is a 600 year old Buddhist gompa (monastery). It doesn’t have the flare of the newer gompa in Upper Pisang, but we loved the old two-story, white-washed plain style. Inside were statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and festival masks, all typical in Tibetan Buddhism.
From Braga the last 3 km to Manang is an easy walk but arriving in Manang (3,540 m) is a shock. Even before the road was built the tourist part of the town was filled with ‘German’ bakeries, restaurants coffee shops and hotels. Manang is very busy. On the trail, trekkers are spread out as they stay at the different villages along the way. In Manang however, that changes. Everyone spends at least two nights in Manang, so we could see the large amounts of people that were on the trail.
Outside of this tourist area though Manang has the stone, flat roofed homes similar to other villages in the area.
Day 6 – Manang
Manang is set in a wide valley below the beautiful snow-capped Annapurna Range. At an elevation of 3,540 m, it is necessary to have an active rest day to acclimatize before moving higher. We wanted to get a better look at the mountains so we hiked up to a ridge overlooking Manang.
On the ridge Budhhist chortens added a unique aspect to the view of the Himalayan giants. It’s a spectacular spot where you can see Annapurna II, III, IV, Gangapurna and Tarke Kang.
In a cave above the chortens we found the small Praken Gompa. We received a blessing from the Lama. He prayed for us to have a safe journey over Thorong La.
After being blessed by a Buddhist monk during the day, we met a Jesuit priest at dinner who said he would pray for us. It made us wonder if this upcoming mountain pass was going to be more difficult than we expected. Thorong La is the high point of the trek and at 5,416 m (17,769 ft), it is one of the highest passes in the world. We still had 2 more days of trekking before we see if it’s really that difficult. That story to come in part II.
Driving vs walking summary
Sometimes the new road follows the old hiking trail and sometimes it crosses new territory. Where the old trail still exists you can often follow it, although it is more challenging than the new road. The government realized how the road has affected the trekking industry and is building new hiking trails. It appears that if you hike the entire route as we did, over 50% of it is now on the road.
You can start trekking anywhere between Besisahar and Manang. Buses can only go as far as Bhulbhule, from there you have to go by private or share-jeep. It may be difficult though to find a seat on a jeep anywhere further than Besisahar. It sounds like most people begin trekking in Chame, but some take a jeep all the way to Manang. Beginning a trek at 3,500 m without acclimatizing is very dangerous and not recommended.
Here’s a short video from our trip.
Coming Next: Trekking the Annapurna Circuit Part II – Thorong La
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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