The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
4. ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT
Annapurna Massif, Nepal
Distance: 190 km
Time: 2-3 weeks
You can stand on the shoreline of Phewa Lake in the town of Pokhara in central Nepal and see them reflected in its still waters - Machapuchare (22,943 ft/6,993 m) and the other peaks of the eastern Annapurna Massif - a gigantic wall of white that glistens and sparkles anew every morning. It is an overwhelming sight, looking at 20,000 ft-plus summits from a lake that is not only a mere 2,434 ft/742 m above sea level, but a scant 28 km away! Add to that the Himalayas’ forested foothills, populated by the nation’s highest level of ethnic diversity, and you have an experience before you that rewards in ways far beyond that of mere topography.
The Annapurna Circuit is the classic of classic walks, three weeks on a giant loop on 190 km of trails that begin to the east of Pokhara in the town of Besisahar, where you’ll mingle with tourists who come here in everything from luxurious private carriers, taxis, public buses, and on foot to trace the Marsyangdi River to the circuit’s first man-made highlight - the suspension bridge in Khudi - and your first glimpses of the majestic Manaslu range. The next six or seven days are spent following the Marsyangdi River to the very Tibetan-looking town of Manang with its sea of prayer flags, a world apart at 11,545 ft/3,519 m in its broad valley to the north of the Annapurna range with stunning views across the valley to the Annapurna Himal’s northern wall.
Manang has a population of around 6,000, as well as a busy medical centre specialising in the treatment of altitude sickness, a common complaint of trekkers who really need to spend a day here to acclimatise before beginning the climb to Thorong La Pass on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. At 17,769 ft/5,416 m it is the world’s highest mountain pass, the circuit’s highest point, and a crossing that should never be underestimated, even in good conditions. You can see four of the ten highest summits in the world from here, their ridges and flanks blanketed in a mix of sunlight and shadows beneath spindrifts of snow, blown by the wind into curling patterns above their towering peaks.
Once over the pass your goal is Muktinath (12,300 ft/3,750 m), a sacred place for Hindus and Buddhists, from which you descend into the upper reaches of the immense Kali Gandaki gorge, the world’s deepest if you measure it against the summit of neighbouring Annapurna I (26,545 ft/8,091 m). On the way you pass Kagbeni, a charming alleyway-filled village resonant of a European alpine town, and Jomsom on the banks of the Kali Gandaki River with the majestic peaks of Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri brooding away in the background. The trail from Jomsom to Pokhara is a blessing to experience, following the Kali Gandaki River between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri with views over 8 of the world’s 20 highest peaks along the way. The rock-encrusted trail, like everywhere on this trek, is easy to navigate and well defined, taking you down from barren high plateau-like landscapes into forests of rhododendrons, past poinsettia bushes and under spectacular rocky cliffs, and over some seriously long rope bridges, the river roaring below you all the while.
Plenty of excellent lodges line the route, and the hot springs at Tatopani will be a welcome relief to anyone with tired limbs - and that will be everyone - as they immerse themselves in its thermal waters. From Tatopani you continue on through Ghorepani to Ghorepani Pass, where you need to depart from the trail and, after a good night’s sleep, begin the one-hour climb to Poon Hill where one of the greatest panoramas anywhere in the world awaits you - Dhalagiri (26,794 ft/8,167 m); Tukuche (22,802 ft/6,950 m); Nilgiri (22,998 ft/7,010 m); Annapurna I (26,545 ft/8,091 m) and more. Once on Poon Hill you have various optional trails available to you, but to continue on the main Annapurna Circuit you should descend back along the trail you just took and then continue on to Beni, where you can catch a bus back to Pokhara (even though the road now extends all the way to Jomsom - but this fact can, and should, be ignored).
Road building over the years, while greatly improving the lives of the local people, has gradually eroded the trail’s reputation as the world’s greatest walk. Of the 23 days that all originally had to be hoofed, now only a few days remain where walking trails are the only option. Nevertheless one can always walk if one wants to, roads or no roads, and there are still plenty of people like myself out there who prefer to call this magnificent walk by its grand old nickname: The Perfect Circle.