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Comparable to the Everest region, another very popular trekking destination is the area around the Annapurna massif. A very commonly heard name is the ‘Around Annapurna Trek’ and based on sheer numbers of trekkers visiting, this is certainly the most popular. As the name suggests, the centre piece of this part of Nepal is the range of mountains that includes Annapurna I, the first of the 8000m peaks to be climbed. Also included in this region is another 8000m giant, Dhaulagiri, which is located west of Annapurna I. Between these two mountains lies the valley of the Kali-Gandaki River, the deepest gorge in the world. Views of lush, fertile farmland and stands of undisturbed natural forest, snow covered mountains and encounters with a mixture of many ethnic communities all add up to a diverse range of experiences that makes this area one of the most satisfying trekking destinations in Nepal.
The fact that the Annapurna chain of mountains lies inland causes a large chunk of land to fall in the rain shadow area. Hence these parts are considerably drier than the southern slopes of the mountains. This leads to unusually diverse landscapes and the possibility of trekking during the monsoon.
Permits and Fees
For the Annapurna trekking area, ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project). permit is required. The exception is upper Mustang where a special permit and fee is levied depending on length of visit. Additional restrictions relating to Mustang will be outlined later.
Most of the area discussed in the trek descriptions is within the area controlled by ACAP. Entry to this area is controlled and an entry permit has to be purchased. The permit must be purchased before starting the trek and can be obtained in Kathmandu or Pokhara. The proceeds of these fees are largely used for local community development within the project area.
Flora and Fauna
As can be imagined, the range of geographical and climatic regions has led to a diverse flora and fauna within the Annapurna region. Both Pokhara and Besishahar are below 1000 m in altitude and their climate is tropical. These areas are heavily cultivated and the landscape, therefore, largely consists of terraced paddy fields for most of the year. The area is also famous for its winter crops of oranges, which can be purchased fresh from the trees along the trails in the foothills. As you progress higher up into the hills the natural vegetation changes from the tropical species to more temperate stands of forest trees including oak, beech and rhododendron. These finally give way to coniferous forests of pine and, ultimately, juniper just below the tree line. In the rain shadow, to the north of the mountains, the landscape being an extension of the Tibetan plateau is quite barren. Only stunted bushes and shrubs grow around here, the exception being the area close to the rivers where irrigated cropping is possible. Wildlife seen here includes a variety of birds like the pika and among animals: blue sheep and Himalayan Tahr.
Most of the trekking routes in the Annapurna region are well serviced by teahouses along almost the entire length of the trek. This is particularly true for the more popular treks like the Jomsom trek, the Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Base Camp treks. Trekkers should be aware, however that there is always the risk of being stranded by bad weather or injury/sickness between teahouses, particularly in the more remote parts of the trek itineraries. A good example is on the Annapurna Circuit where there is one very long day when the high pass of Thorong La has to be crossed. There is little or no shelter available for most of this day and some trekkers have been caught unprepared by bad weather and altitude problems.
The treks in less developed areas, particularly the Dhaulagiri Circuit and the trek east of Lamjung, definitely require trekkers to be self sufficient in food and shelter.
People and Culture
The most prominent ethnic groups in the Annapurna region are the Gurung, the Thakali and the Manangba. The Gurungs are the most widely distributed and are found from the hills of Gorkha district to as far west as Palpa. Their heartland lies on the hills and valleys between the Marsyandi River and the Kali Gandaki. The Thakali come from the upper Kali Gandaki valley around Jomsom where their traditional farming has being supplemented by trade and, in particular, hotel and restaurant businesses. The Manangba are found in the upper reaches of the Marsyandi River and are in many ways similar to the Gurungs to whom they are possibly related. They are skilled traders and trace their roots back to Tibet. The Manangba and Gurungs of the upper hills are followers of the Buddhist faith with traces of their ancient, shamanism still apparent. The communities that live further south are predominantly Hindu. All of the communities around here, particularly the Gurungs are known for their cultural performances, which are routinely seen while trekking in the region. Many villages along the trails will arrange cultural performances for trekkers during the main seasons.
When to visit
As with most of the trekking areas in Nepal, the best time to visit are during spring and autumn. Spring is the time for rhododendrons to blossom while the clearest skies are found after the monsoon in October and November. At these times the weather is generally mild and there is little rainfall. Unlike other parts of Nepal, the monsoon, from June to September, is the ideal time to visit this region that falls in the rain shadow. In particular, upper Mustang is the perfect destination during the rainy season. The winter months provide good trekking conditions throughout the foothills but some of the higher passes will be closed due to heavy snow fall.
Regardless of the trek chosen it is most likely that Pokhara will be either the starting or ending point of your trek. Pokhara is located 200 km. west of Kathmandu and can be reached by road in five to six hour or by air in 30 minutes from the capital. For road travel there are a number of tourist buses available daily from Kathmandu, Bhairawa and from Chitwan.
There is no dearth of tourist facilities in and around Pokhara. The tourist area here is beside the largest of the three lakes in the area, Phewa Tal. The suburbs of Lakeside as it is known and Damside both provide a wide range of accommodation and restaurants along with the usual variety of trekking and travel agencies and suppliers of souvenirs and trekking equipment. If you are trekking in the eastern side of the Annapurna massif, the most likely starting point will be Besishahar, the headquarters of Lamjung district. However, roads are reaching further up into the trek routes making it possible to start the trek from either Khudi or Bulbule. Buses from Kathmandu, Pokhara and the Tarai arrive here on a daily basis. The bus trip from Kathmandu to Besishahar takes around five to six hours but.
Most treks starting or ending in Pokhara will require the use of buses or hired cars to reach the trailheads. Specific details appear in the trek descriptions.