Nepal's Annapurna Circuit is a trekking classic, but a dirt road now threatens its tranquillity. However, a thrilling new back-route offers a quieter alternative
There was a moment in Muktinath, at the gates of the temple to Shiva and Avalokitesvara, when three worlds seemed to collide: the Himalaya, the Divine, and the soul-stirring realm of nostalgia.
Dhaulagiri, Nilgiri and the glaciated peaks of the Annapurna massif encircled us, stark in the dazzling luminosity of altitude. Tibetan nuns and saffron-clad Indian sadhus flitted between sandalwood-scented shrines of scary-faced gods and flickering butter lamps, for this is a place as sacred to Hindus as it is to Buddhists.
And then there was my wife, Hennie, and me, neither of us quite able to believe that we were back here, 22 years after spending three deliriously uplifting weeks with packs on our 20-something backs, hiking the whole Annapurna Circuit.
"Everything is just how we left it,"murmured Hennie as, breathless and a touch spaced out in the rarefied air, we pressed our hands together in greetings to the holy men and women.
In truth, however, the Annapurna region has seen profound changes in recent years. A population subsisting on ancient agrarian terraces hewn out of mountainsides has been swept along by a tidal wave of trekking. The uncertainty caused by Maoist guerrilla activity in some parts of Nepal has ended and there are now more trekkers than ever. About 50,000 foreigners a year find their way here, contributing to improvements in living standards – but also, inevitably, creating cultural crosscurrents.
Most recently, a dirt road passable by jeeps and motorbikes has been forged through the Kali Gandaki, the deepest valley on earth if measured from its floor to the world’s seventh and tenth highest peaks – Dhaulagiri and Annapurna – one on each side.
This means that almost half the traditional Annapurna Circuit, the classic 18-odd-day looping hike in west-central Nepal from Besisahar to Naya Pul, is now along a highway. Trekkers have never come here seeking wilderness – it is, after all, a region of smallholdings and ancient yak and pack-mule trails connecting myriad settlements where basic lodging is offered in teahouses.
On the other hand, roadlessness – remoteness from motor traffic has always been central to the allure.
Clearly the reasonable response is to throw up our walking-pole-brandishing hands in horror at the demise of the Annapurna Circuit. Our trek was ruined by jeeps and the dust. "RUINED! RUINED! RUINED!!!!" howls one entry from the bowels of the blogosphere.
Well, hang all that. The fact is there has always been a variety of options for trekking in the Annapurna region. Bearing this in mind, specialist tour operator Mountain Kingdoms commissioned its agents in the area to see if it would be feasible to find a completely different route through the Kali Gandaki, avoiding the new road. Accordingly, three expert sirdars (head guides) spent several weeks last year on a recce. We were the first outsiders to be shown what they had discovered.
"I will take you to parts of Nepal that very few foreigners have ever seen," promised Durga Katel, one of the trio, who was to be our guide on a new slice of the Circuit. We met him at the lakeside town of Pokhara, from where a 19-seater Dornier 228 flew us on a spectacular 20-minute loop around the Annapurna range to the airstrip at Jomsom on the Kali Gandaki Valley floor – the mid-point of the Circuit. We then boarded a jeep for a dusty, two-hour rattle and bump east up the Jhong Khola gorge to Muktinath.
It was early November: peak trekking season, a time when this immense open landscape is flooded with light and the sky is brilliant blue. Trekkers and their porters were tramping in both directions along the track in a procession of rucksacks, Polartec and walking poles. Stoically they endured the clouds of cappuccino-coloured dust ballooning in our wake as we switchbacked up towards the far-flung village from where we would trek for eight days (sadly no time for the whole lot) back, via Jomsom, to Naya Pul, along unspoiled trails.
After a nippy night warmed by kerosene braziers and triple-layered sleeping bags in our spartan room at the Dreamhome teahouse, Durga led us away from the old trail, dropping to a steel suspension footbridge across the Jhong Khola Gorge.
The bridge has been newly built by the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), the government body that regulates trekking. The idea is to re-route trekkers away from the road into an area of Upper Mustang – which was, until recently, off-limits to outsiders – along an alternative trail down to Kagbeni, where the valley spills into the Kali Gandaki.
However, without signposts or any form of publicity the message has simply not got through. So it was in virtual solitude that we hiked into a spectral canyon of amber rock streaked with stripes of ochre and black, to a backdrop of fluted sandstone towers and the snowy walls of Nilgiri beyond.
Durga explained: "Mustang is a micro-desert with only a few inches of rain a year, because it is shielded from the monsoons by the Annapurna range. As we will see, just two days’ walking down the Kali Gandaki takes you into a totally different environment."
Micro-climate aside, we soon found that we were in a pocket of pure Tibetan culture. At the village and gompa (monastery) of Jhong, the first settlement we reached, a lone lama in patched red robes led us along a corridor of gods and their mystic emanations from Buddhist mythology to the musty prayer chamber where yak-butter candles burned on an altar and holy scrolls lay wrapped in silk.
Further on we stopped at Purang (Putak), where multi-storey houses with ladders and flat roofs cluster tightly together to shelter from the wind, surrounded by tiny terraces of barley and buckwheat. Prayer flags fluttered from rooftop poles and narrow lanes lined with prayer wheels snaked between adobe-walled homes over whose front doors hung goats’ heads and diamond-shaped charms to fend off evil spirits. Villagers were weaving, churning butter and sorting piles of dry brushwood.
This is pretty much how Kagbeni was 22 years ago, as our tattered old journals reminded us when we reached the village where the old and new trekking trails converge. We watched an old woman slowly feeding grain into the chute of a traditional wooden ghatta (water mill) – but were temporarily jolted into the 21st century when we discovered that Kagbeni now has electricity, an internet café (extremely slow) and numerous teahouses and restaurants catering to trekkers – including a YakDonalds.
"This belongs to a family from Kathmandu who have come here to make business. You see they understand Westerners' sense of humour as well as their tastes!" laughed Durga.
We could indeed, but we also found it bizarre that the scores of trekkers stopping overnight at Kagbeni's teahouses had walked, or were about to walk, along the road, simply because they did not know about the route on the other side of the valley. All that people leaving Muktinath would have needed to do was find their way to the new bridge, and Bob would have been their uncle.
However, for the remainder of the trek, finding an alternative to the jeep road was far trickier. We began to appreciate the immense amount of trial, error and effort that had gone into the recce as Durga re-traced the arcane footpaths, animal trails, rocky riverbanks, harrowing passes hewn out of cliffsides and stretches of open terrain that he and his fellow guides had threaded together.
Despite Durga's expertise we did find ourselves stranded once or twice over the next few days, on account of rickety footbridges having been washed away since his pre-monsoon visit. Usually the problem was solved by finding some local people and asking where the nearest crossing point was; however, there were a couple of occasions on which we were forced to wade through ankle-numbing torrents of snowmelt.
We hugged the north bank of the river as far as Jomsom, then crossed to the south, climbing high to remote hamlets such as Thini where, as Durga had predicted, we were treated as curiosities by locals who rarely see foreigners.
Our longest and headiest day began with a cacophony of raucous cockerels welcoming the dawn in the village of Larjung and ended after dusk in Ghasa. The two villages are barely half a day hike apart – if you take the road.
But instead we climbed steadily away from the river, through forests blanketed with pine and wild cannabis, till we found ourselves high (no, not that kind) in a meadow looking across the Kali Gandaki to the colossal blue Dhaulagiri glacier. Our return was via Taglung, where we were received like dignitaries when we stopped for lemon tea; lessons were paused at the village school in our honour.
In places we caught far-distant glimpses of the road on the opposite side of the Kali Gandaki, where mule trains and jeeps were keeping trekkers company. And each evening we dropped back to villages on the old Annapurna Circuit, trying hard not to feel smug about every astonishing day we were spending far from the madding dust and traffic.
We needed to carry only daypacks and walking poles – a pair of local porters, Ram and Jiben, lugged our kit bags along the (shorter and easier) old route and found us a room at the best teahouse in each night's destination. We would arrive at the end of a deliciously exhausting day to find sleeping bags laid out on beds, next to a supper menu featuring an eclectic selection of international dishes.
We soon discovered that Swiss rosti meant potatoes smothered with melted yak's cheese, and pizza was a chapati with tomatoes and more yak's cheese. Instead of these, we stuck mostly to the ubiquitous, yet infinitely varying, daal bhaat (lentils and rice), which sometimes squeezed the perspiration out of us (chilli content was one of the variables).
The cold Everest beer went down well, too, though in Marpha – a place renowned for its orchards – we bought a bottle of apple rakshi (rice wine) at the tiny village distillery to share with Durga, Ram and Jiben. I also seem to remember several hangers-on, and a final swig of something with a kick like an aggrieved yak.
Further down the Kali Gandaki the Tibetan architecture and Buddhist culture morphed gradually into Hindu – though, as any Nepali will tell you, religions overlap here and the distinction is only of emphasis. Still, the willowy women in bright saris and the shrines to elephant-headed Ganesh did make for a change in atmosphere.
More significantly, the valley became increasingly lush and fecund, with fields of golden maize, patches of potatoes and cabbages, and trees hung heavy with oranges, apricots and big, blushing apples.
"Now farmers can get their produce to markets in Pokhara and Kathmandu," explained Durga. "I think you can see why building a road is the best thing that has ever happened in this valley. Also, the road brings new tourists from India who stay at the teahouses. They are not trekkers, but pilgrims on their way to Muktinath."
At Tatopani, a village surrounded by forests of giant rhododendrons and famed for its hot-water springs, the road finally veers off the trekking trail, leaving the last two day hike to Naya Pul much as it always was.
There was an almost tropical ambience among the Western trekkers as they sat in the thermal pools sipping cold beers. Then they started bemoaning – moralising about, even the road whose noise and dust had bloody well ruined their treks.
Ah, those cultural crosscurrents. "What do the Nepalis think they're doing – stuffing up their main source of prosperity?" asked one trekker rhetorically. "Yup, the Annapurna Circuit is dead," agreed another.
If they only knew.
The author travelled with Mountain Kingdoms on their alternative Annapurna Circuit itinerary
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