by Alan Burgess
Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
As I toil step by slow step up the final switchbacks to the top of 17,000-foot Thorung Pass, I see a group of Danish trekkers dressed in hand-knitted yak wool sweaters and tie-dyed shirts emblazoned with Buddha eyes-traditional garb among the 5,000-plus travelers who circumambulate the Annapurna massif each year. Shifting my gaze westward from my fellow Europeans, I peer through fluttering Buddhist prayer flags slung between rocky cairns and let my eyes travel across the full length of the Dhaulagiri Himalaya. Along the horizon stretch 26,000-foot summits-jagged, shadowed, and icily menacing against a sky as dark as ink. A golden eagle plays the thermals while a herd of blue sheep graze wild grasses amid edelweiss and scrub juniper. If this circuit is a Grateful Dead show on the one hand, it’s also high Asia at its finest.
The Himalaya stretches 1,500 miles from the Pamirs of the old Soviet Union through Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and the forested slopes of western China. Among these mountains are the best treks in Asia and possibly the world, and over them all lords the Annapurna Circuit. Walking this route, you certainly won’t have the illusion that you’re the first sahib to explore Asia. But the very reasons this has become the most heavily touristed of all the trails on the continent may be exactly why you should make this your first serious walk there, too. Close to Kathmandu, capital city of Nepal, this 20-day circuit is equipped with a well-developed chain of small villages and locally owned “tea-houses” and mountain lodges, all of which make first-time trekking much easier. While back home you may hike to get away from people, visitors to Nepal’s Himalaya fall in love as much with its inhabitants as with the scenery. Between the villages, some perched on the edge of monstrous gorges, you’ll travel through terraced rice fields, over passes high enough to give you a taste of mountaineering, and beneath two of the world’s tallest giants, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, both over 26,000 feet high. The diversity of cultures (Buddhist and Hindu) and mountain vistas make this perhaps the most memorable walk you’ll ever take.
Duration: Three weeks or more, depending on your pace.
“Great Traverse”: Zanskar to Ladakh, India
To traverse from the low plains of Hindu India across three mountain ranges to the Tibetan Buddhist land of Ladakh has always been one of the ultimate Himalayan journeys. Political problems in Kashmir now force travelers to start the trek farther east than they used to, but the wild aspect of this classic remote journey remains essentially as it ever was. On this strenuous hike you’ll cross nine high passes, ford swift rivers, wander through small villages that see relatively few Westerners, and marvel at tenth-century Buddhist monasteries that reveal the essential timelessness of this landscape. Like most trekkers, you’ll probably hire Tibetan ponies and their driver to carry your provisions. Occasionally a backpacker burdened by a huge load demonstrates that the journey is possible without support.
Duration: Sixteen to 20 days.
Trek to K2 Basecamp, Pakistan
The second highest mountain in the world, 28,253-foot K2 positively soars above its neighbors in the Karakoram Himalaya of northern Pakistan and southern Tibet. The hike to the 16,500-foot-high basecamp on the Pakistan side of the mountain passes through Islamic villages before dropping onto glacial moraine and continuing up a titanic river of ice. Be careful on the glacier because you just might dislocate your jawbone, the scenery is that spectacular. Along this route rise the most awe-inspiring rock and ice walls in the world, all the way to Concordia, where three huge glaciers intersect at the monstrous foot of K2 itself. A minimum of 12 days is required for the round-trip, although I recommend taking a few extra days to allow for road washouts and bad weather and to explore the basecamp environs.
Duration: Twelve or more days.
Long-time Himalayan travelers make a habit of warming up on the beaches of Thailand before flying home to America or Europe. Those with a little energy left over often head up to northern Thailand for rugged low-altitude hiking. Even the experts prefer not to identify a single, specific trail here; instead they come for an open-ended hiking experience in some of the friendliest and most beautiful subtropical environs in Asia.
You’ll walk through mountain jungle on narrow trails-sometimes hiking across and sometimes directly up the rivers-and climb steep hillsides through bamboo forests to isolated tribal settlements set among cultivated rice paddies and opium poppies. Stay in a budget guest house in Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, or Pai while you make arrangements for a local guide to lead you from village to village.
Duration: Typical treks last three to seven days.
Alan Burgess has been on more than 20 Himalayan mountaineering expeditions, including ascents or attempts on most of the giants. After two decades of Himalayan explorations and a decade as a professional trekking guide, he became Asian Operations Director for Camp 5 Expeditions.