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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.

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?

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