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The Perfect Circle: Hiking the Annapurna Circuit

Nepal's Annapurna Circuit can't compete with the world's best treks for lavish huts, extreme solitude, and sumptuous cuisine. So why is it still number one? Let us count the reasons.

Going off about how the Annapurna Circuit is the sweetest trek in the world is like naming The Grateful Dead your new favorite band. What a discovery! Such bold taste!

Fact is, the Annapurna Circuit is so well-known it’s as much cliché as trek. The 128-mile horseshoe-shaped route circles Nepal’s heaven-high Annapurna range, and it’s been hailed as the holy grail of trekking since it was first opened to foreigners in the early 1980s. Travel writers and hikers everywhere gush about the trail, even as others discover unknown life-listers elsewhere. There are treks that are more rugged or more remote, huts that are more luxe, pilgrimage sites that are more holy, wildlife that’s more exotic, and even scenery–sacrilege!–that’s more beautiful. Can another trail please step up and swipe Annapurna’s crown?

Afraid not. After hiking the circuit myself last fall, with my wife Emily on our honeymoon, I must join the chorus of Annapurna groupies. It’s simply the best. Here’s why:

The Annapurna Circuit Gets Better Every Day

For instant gratification, go to New Zealand. You’ll be able to snap photos of the postcard-perfect mountains from the trailhead. But compared to such instant-access treks (the bon-bons of the hiking world), the Annapurna Circuit is a 12-course dinner.

It starts with jungle–a monkey-and-banana tree tangle that’s a total shock even if you’ve been forewarned. Sweat pours off us like rain as we climb through terraced rice fields carved out of greenery. Two days later–where are the mountains?–we walk through a canyon so narrow and deep that direct sunshine only penetrates at noon. A day after that, we’re in pines so tall and dense, I think of Oregon.

Finally–slowly–the high Himalaya emerges in sneak peeks and tantalizing vistas. And then the big magic: On our 10th day, as we approach 17,768-foot Thorung La, the highest point of the circuit, suddenly there’s nothing but mountains. We’re alone in a choppy sea of 20,000-foot peaks. Spindrift unfurls off four of the world’s 10 highest summits, which loom on every horizon, their fluted walls reflecting the sun’s rays so brightly that they burn ridgeline silhouettes into our retinas. When Annapurna III and Gangapurna come into view, I have the same feeling in my chest that I had the first time I peered into the Grand Canyon: a light, wide-eyed inhale of surprise. Sounds and smells fade; my vision sharpens. I can see every minute feature on those corrugated ice-and-rock walls. I’m just a pair of eyes, floating amid the peaks like a helium balloon.

The Annapurna Circuit is a World Party

Want to hike into the middle of nowhere? A place so remote that you’ll go days without seeing other people? Sweden’s Sarek National Park is for you–but skip the Annapurna Circuit.

More than 40,000 trekkers come here each year, and when Emily and I step into the dank, hot jungle for our first full day of trekking–a humid 12.5-mile climb from Bhulebhule to Jagot–it seems like we’ve all arrived at the same time. We leapfrog with a somber German couple as the trail climbs through small stone-and-thatch villages. Then we pass a large French group traveling with guides and porters. Then a pair of young Swiss hikers. Then some elderly Belgians. Then a lone Israeli. Then a train of 50 donkeys hauling supplies–cooking oil, Coke, kerosene.

I’m not accustomed to rush-hour traffic in the wilderness, and at first the number of other trekkers annoys me. But it only takes a few days on the trail to realize that hiking around Annapurna is like joining some exclusive club. In Jagat, we drink tea with Ori, an Israeli who’s hiked the circuit seven times, and he says that the people he meets–both from Nepal and everywhere else–are one of the reasons he keeps coming back. We sit with Ori and Ryuske, a Japanese trekker, and teach each other how to cuss in three languages, then greet each other accordingly every time we cross paths for the next week. And so it goes with the Belgians, who regale us with stories of their military duty in Kashmir in the 1940s; the Swedes, who are keen to show off their well-designed cutlery and packs; and the young British couple, taking a gap year, who are instant friends and will send us postcards from India. Even the Germans make nice over garlic soup at Thorung Phedi.

By the time we ascend 10,460-foot Poon Hill to watch sunrise, on the last day of the circuit, sharing the moment seems totally appropriate. We stand in awe with more than 100 others, but it’s not a crowd scene. They’re now fellow pilgrims–many of them friends.

The Annapurna Circuit Has the Best Food

OK, the traditional Nepalese dal bhat–a simple meal of rice and lentil soup–can’t compete with the wild mushroom polenta, fondue, and coq au vin that’s served in mountain huts on the Tour Du Mont Blanc, or the paella, fresh from the sea, you’ll feast on during a multisport vacation in Spain’s Valencia region. In comparison, the Annapurna Circuit’s main fare is more glue than gourmet.

But a year after returning, Emily and I order dal bhat at local Indian restaurants just to relive memories the taste evokes. In the tiny outpost of 13,185-foot Yak Kharka, a week into our trek, we join five porters at the Yak Hotel for dinner. We eat in a cold room built entirely of stone, sitting around a square table placed over hot coals to keep our feet warm, with heavy yak-hair blankets draped across our legs to trap the heat. Emily and I use our hands like the Nepalese, and they laugh as we clumsily and repeatedly drop chunks of food into our laps. Over seconds and thirds, the porters talk in halting English about the imminent crossing of Thorung La pass. The locals, all guys in their late teens and early 20s, wearing sweats, are disarmingly apprehensive about the pass. For some, it’s their first time so high.

Over glasses of raksi, a sake-like booze made from fermented millet, the porters teach us a card game called Nepali Kings, in which four peasant boys marry beautiful women and become rich kings–or comically fail, depending on how the cards fall. We play over and over, laughing by yak-butter lamp until a perfect hand lets all the boys be kings. Hikers who crave the familiar can find macaroni, dumplings, and even pizza, but eating dal bhat is like ingesting part of Nepal, like it contains something besides protein, carbs, and spices. Plus, it’s crazy cheap (all you can eat for about $1.50), and as the local staple, it’s always plentiful and ready.

It’s Always Surprising

After climbing stone steps for three hours through a tangled rhododendron forest on our way to Ghorepani, we arrive in a three-house village with a small snack stand. The stand has a sign that says “Sale Yak Cheese” hanging next to a faded poster of Avril Lavigne. The cheese salesman looks like the Nepalese version of a Midwestern farmer, complete with battered ball cap and an Ohio State Buckeyes T-shirt. Just then a Frenchman with flowers in his long, curly hair arrives on the scene, causing nearby porters to snicker and point. It’s not, to say the least, a moment we had anticipated–but it sure is memorable.

Other treks have their life-list moments, of course. Italy’s Alta Via 1 delivers plenty of memorable moments, as well–you’ll drink espresso after a delightful sage gnocchi, while gazing at the knifey Dolomites–and that’s wonderful, but that’s exactly what the guidebook promises. You’ll never imagine what Annapurna has in store, no matter how much research and planning you do (yes, even reading this). When I come across a goat eating marijuana plants outside of a Buddhist temple in Upper Pisang, and a Confucius look-alike laughs and mimics smoking a joint? That’s a surprise. That’s the Annapurna Circuit.

It’s a Living Trail

If it’s history you want, tour the castles along England’s Pennine Way or the ruins of Machu Picchu. Unlike most treks, the circuit follows an ancient trade route that still functions as a trade route. It’s used to transport everything from salt to piglets, and the villages–with the exception of the teahouses–function much as they have for a millennium.

Exhibit A: Muktinath, where we arrive after descending 5,628 feet (in one afternoon!) from Thorung La. The town, whose name means “Lord’s Salvation,” is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. Pilgrims from distant villages in Nepal and India gather in a temple complex where water shoots from 108 springs and a natural gas flame burns on top of water in one of the temples. Hindus believe that Muktinath is the only place on earth where the five elements (earth, wind, fire, water, and sky) exist in their distinct forms. Hundreds of worshipers bathe in the fountains, ring bells, anoint each other’s foreheads, or simply look on reverently. No one seems to mind the Western trekkers firing away with digital cameras. In fact, an enterprising local has set up a bindi stand, where you can get your own forehead decoration for about $2, and a donation will get you included in the daily prayers.

But things will change, as they have elsewhere. Locals want more development, naturally, and roads are slowly creeping up both the Marsyangdi and Kali Gandaki Valleys. Already, a network of dirt roads connect Beni with Muktinath 65 miles away. On the eastern Marsyangdi side of the range, frequent landslides make road-building difficult–but engineers are trying. So believe the hype, but don’t wait. This trek can’t be matched, and–like the Dead–it can’t last. If it was the winter of 1995, and you knew Jerry only had six months left to live, wouldn’t you dig deep to catch a show?

Continue on for information about planning an Annapurna Circuit trip of your own…

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