Friday, May 27, 2011

Guide to the Annapurna Circuit Trek: Part One

At 150-miles and filled with stunning views of the Himalayas, the Annapurna Circuit trek has become one of the world's legendary treks. A controversial road being built along the route has caused great lamenting about the Circuit's ruin, but the truth of the trail is complicated and ever-evolving. The road has been completed along what was traditionally the second half of the Circuit, and over the last handful of years this road and its traffic have effectively halved the traditional route for most trekkers. A road is currently under construction along the first half of the Circuit, creating fears that this remaining section of the trail will also be spoiled once the road is complete around 2012.

As the road brings development along the trail, the experience of the trek evolves. This is why we thought an accounting of our experiences might be helpful to others currently considering the trek and searching for the most up-to-date information.

But the trek is so much more than the road, at least for now. We'll certainly cover the road in more detail later in this guide, but for now suffice it to say that we found large sections of the trek totally unspoiled and amazing (while others, in our opinion, may in fact be skipped).

Arrival in Kathmandu

It is likely that you will begin your adventure in Nepal's capital of Kathmandu. We suggest you stay in Thamel, the main tourist hub of the city. From there you will be in easy walking distance of everything you need before taking off for the mountains, including access to just about any last-minute provision or piece of equipment a trekker could desire. More on this later when we post separately and in detail about preparing for the trek.

Thamel has hundreds of options for lodging. If you're looking for an affordable sure bet, try the Kathmandu Guest House. It has a range of room types and prices and acts as one of the major landmarks for giving directions in Thamel (since there are basically no street names or addresses).

One thing you must do in Kathmandu before leaving for the trek is to get the requisite permits, a TIMS card that registers you as a trekker as well as an Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) permit. You can do this when on the trail, but expect to pay twice as much. There are a handful of places in Kathmandu where you can get these documents, but we went to Bhrikuti Mandap (Tourist Service Center), which is about a 20-minute walk or a short cab ride from Thamel. This location allows for a "one stop shop" trip where you can get both your TIMS and ACAP permit, and as an official tourist center it feels pleasant and legit. If you're getting your documents in Thamel, beware scams and rip-offs. It will take a number of passport photos (three, I believe, but have more on hand to be safe) and photocopies of your passport to receive these documents. The TIMS costs 1450 NPR (although we've heard it is unnecessary if you have a valid non-tourist visa in Nepal) and the ACAP permit costs 2000 NPR. The process took us less than 20 minutes because there were no crowds or lines when we went (but I can imagine these lines could triple the length of your trip in high season). I can't promise that you similarly won't encounter any lines, but I can give you these tips to speed the process: bring sufficient Nepali rupees in cash and bring both your passport photos and photocopies of your passport. You can get both photos and copies at booths and shops around Kathmandu, but it might be wise to come to Nepal with a stash of both to save yourself the time and hassle (and maybe money). For any traveler, it is a good idea to have a stockpile of passport-size photos since they seem to be frequently necessary in other countries, whether applying for visas, permits, or a cell phone number.

Before leaving Kathmandu, choose your meals wisely since you will be at the mercy of teahouse menus for the duration of your trek; this is your last chance for more variety beyond the traditional Nepali meal of dal bhat (cooked lentils, rice, curried vegetable, and pickle), chowmein, and other noodle and potato dishes. We like OR2K for excellent and authentic Mediterranean food. Don't miss their pita bread, better than most I've had in the US. Northfield Cafe is a good if inauthentic place for Mexican if you're in the mood. Gaia Cafe has an excellent and very inexpensive veggie burger. There are a couple of (surprising) places for real, decent coffee (like Lavazza) on the trail, but if you're a fan of the joe you'll likely be drinking Nescafe powder mixed with hot water for the duration of your trek. Given that fate, load up on authentic coffee and your complicated caffeine concoctions at one of two local Himalayan Java locations in Thamel. One location is on the second floor at the intersection just south of Kathmandu Guest House and the main location is on the second floor on Tridevi Marg, just across from the place for Nepal's best pizza, the famous Fire and Ice Pizzeria. Perhaps better is Cafe Kaldi in Thamel's pedestrian-only Sagarmatha Complex/Mandala Street. This Japan-based international chain serves superb coffee, bubble tea, and smoothie drinks and provides free Wi-Fi (Himalayan Java, are you listening?).

Annapurna Circuit trek map, courtesy of

Day One: Kathmandu to Bhulbhule

This is not going to be the best day of your trip. At least, it wasn't our favorite. You'll be taking a bus from Kathmandu to either Besi Sahar or Bhulbhule to begin your trek. Depending on your timing and choices, you may get some trekking in and consider this "Day One" or you might just consider this a transport day that gets you to the starting line.

There are a number of ways to get to Besi Sahar that we know of. Pick your poison.

1) Local Bus. Go to Kathmandu's "New Bus Park," also known as Gogonbo Bus Park, which is to the north of downtown (the wrong bus park is more in the thick of things, not too far from the Tourist Service Center). Get to the bus park early, as your ride will be around 8-10 hours and the ride is less scenic and generally less enjoyable and safe after dark. Buses to Bhulbhule depart the bus park about every two to three hours. This option is not for the faint of heart. Especially for those new to Nepal, trying to sort out getting on the proper bus could be a chore. The New Bus Park is not a very tourist-friendly location, and I hate to imagine spending hours there waiting in uncertainty for a bus with no reliable schedule. Then again, I schedule casual meetups with friends with Swiss precision, so perhaps I am biased on this point.
2) Tourist/Direct Bus. We were told there is no tourist bus to Bhulbhule. Our bad experience just may have proven this statement true: a local travel agent in Thamel sold us tickets, $12 each, for a "tourist bus" to Bhulbhule departing from Sorhakhutte, very near Thamel, at 7:30 AM. Everything started fine enough with our bus taking off on time and partially filled with eager trekkers like ourselves. But instead of hitting the road, we headed to the New Bus Park. We stopped there for a long while for some apparent repairs but also to pick up locals. After that annoying delay, we took a spin down the street adjoining the bus park and picked up more locals. We proceeded to wander around Kathmandu, repeatedly stopping and trying to pick up enough locals to fill the bus. I have nothing against locals or sharing a bus with them, but I did not enjoy spending time picking them up when I had paid for a supposedly direct bus ticket. We were delayed two hours departing the Valley and delayed numerous times along the trip (especially near the end) as we stopped to let people on and off the bus in a frustrating door-to-door service of sorts for any Nepali within two hours of Bhulbhule (more than you'd think). All of that said, we think getting a tourist bus would be the best option, if you could ensure that it is in fact a direct tourist bus for which you've signed on. And, while we ended up on essentially a local bus, I preferred doing so by this method (having a secure ticket and departure point and time) to my showing up at the New Bus Park hoping to get on whatever bus happened to be leaving for Besi Sahar that morning (says the control freak).
3) Tourist/Local Bus Hybrid. Greenline is an excellent, reliable tourist bus company that operates routes between Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan, and Lumbini in Nepal. You can arrange with them to take their bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara but to let you out at the town of Dumre, about two-thirds of the way through the trip. At Dumre you can supposedly catch a local bus up to Besi Sahar. Just when that bus will arrive and what shape it will be in and whether there will be room for you is unclear, however, and this is why we did not choose this option.
4) Private Hire. There is always someone willing to drive you anywhere from Kathmandu if you ask around. It will come at a pretty steep price, though. If you have some mates willing to split the cost and are willing to splurge, this may be the easiest and most pleasant option.

Upon arriving in Besi Sahar you can start your trek and walk the approximately two-and-a-half hours to Bhulbhule, take a jeep to Bhulbhule, or stay in Besi Sahar for the night and begin your trek (by foot or jeep) the next day. We don't suggest planning to stay in Besi Sahar if you can avoid it -- this is one reason to leave Kathmandu and arrive to Besi Sahar as early in the day as possible.

We left Kathmandu at 7:30 AM (well, we probably exited the Valley finally around 9:30 due to our local bus adventures) and arrived a kilometer outside of Besi Sahar around 2:30 PM. It was about an hour before our bus driver finally informed us that instead of continuing to Bhulbhule (as we had planned) or even Besi Sahar a stone's throw away, the bus would be going nowhere due to a Nepali bandh (political strike). So, we strapped on our packs and began the trek. It took a bit to find the trail head after walking through the (unimpressive) city because we were not dropped at the typical trek origination point. Due to the bandh, jeeps were not an option for us, but once on the trail in earnest around 4 PM, we didn't mind. The scenery was already a welcome break from our urban jungle in Kathmandu, and we were quite relieved to be off a hot, crowded, bumpy bus with a driver we had learned to loathe.

In retrospect, though, the scenery was completely mediocre compared to the vistas we would be treated to in the coming days. This coupled with the thought of having to trek on a dusty road competing with jeeps shuttling back and forth to Bhulbhule makes us think that a jeep might be a good idea for getting to Bhulbhule (especially if you arrive a bit late to Besi Sahar and don't want to stay there for the evening). Thanks to the complications of Nepal's fledgling democracy and a countdown to a new constitution, we didn't have the jeep option and didn't have to deal with jeeps as we walked. A blessing in disguise?

After about two hours, we hit what we thought was Bhulbhule, but was instead Khudi.

Day 1: Besi Sahar to Bhulbule

I was getting grumpy at this point. It was a long, hot, frustrating day on the bus, and I wasn't thrilled that my trek began about a three-hour walk earlier than anticipated. Plus, as a total novice to backpacking, I hadn't properly adjusted my pack, which now felt more like a sack of bowling balls than a couple of week's worth of trekking supplies. If this pack felt excruciating already, how would I ever make it to the Pass days hence? Maybe I could lighten my load by digging into the Snickers I had packed...? Like any amazing wife, Claudine seemed to intuit my struggle (or was my groaning becoming audible?) and, no stranger to trekking with heavy packs, gave me some strap adjustment tips. To all of you new trekkers out there: tighten your pack's waist straps!! I neglected to do so and was carrying all the pack's weight on my shoulders instead of distributing it to my hips and legs. For the remainder of the trek, I found that minor aches and strains on my body could often be cured with a bit of strap adjustment. After proper adjustment, my pack was completely comfortable. A few days into the trek, I ceased to notice it on my body.

Finally, just as dark was setting, we arrived in Bhulbhule, which straddles a river. We completed the obligatory registration with our permits at the first ACAP check post and decided to cross to check out the teahouse accommodations across the river. Sleeping accommodations along the trek are called teahouses because they originated as teahouses that housed the original trekkers who braved the Circuit when it was first developing. Compared to camping, the teahouses are plush, providing beds, shelter, a toilet, shower (usually), and a restaurant. Compared to a typical motel or hotel, though, they can be a bit frightening -- no one warned me just how rustic they would be. Like with altitude, I quickly acclimated to the scene, but if the thought of a common squat toilet (aka "squatty potty") really freaks you out, you're in for a trip. Speaking of trips, this was the bridge we crossed in Bhulbhule, clearly a stand-in of sorts since another nearby bridge site appeared to be either in a state of construction or recent destruction, and we had to scramble down a steep unmarked path to reach it.

Day 1: Besi Sahar to Bhulbule

After a long, exhausting day of travel, we had reached our first destination. Welcome showers and dinner were all we could manage before passing out at our first teahouse of many, dreaming of the mountain peaks that awaited us now that we were on our way.

Continue Reading: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, and Tips of the Trail.

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