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The Annapurna circus

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

The mountain they call Annapurna
Is certainly quite a head-turner
Her awesome south face
Is the very best place
For those in the know to discern her

It can be a dangerous thing to return to a place that you have fond memories of, and so it proved when we joined the Annapurna Circuit three weeks into our Nepal trek.

This is the most popular trail in the country, a two-week walk around one of the world’s highest mountains taking in a variety scenery and local cultures which is perhaps unrivalled on any other Himalayan trek. It also includes the formidable challenge of the 5,416m Thorung La pass. As first-timers to Nepal in 2007, it was an obvious choice for our introduction to the Himalayas. But the Annapurna Circuit was hardly a secret back then, regularly appearing on the top-ten lists of the world’s best trekking routes. We therefore planned carefully to avoid the peak season. Furthermore, We had read about the construction of new roads which were beginning to encroach on the trail on both sides of the pass. Our timing was also slightly fortuitous, for Nepal had been through a period of political instability and tourist numbers had not yet bounced back.

In 2007, the day's hike from Dharapani to Koto was been a delightful walk via a high-level variant path with fantastic views back to the Manaslu range. It passed through the quiet village of Timang, which back then was a tiny hamlet with a handful of houses and a couple of shabby restaurants catering for the few trekkers who came that way.

Fast forward to October 2011, and things could not have been more different. The road had been blasted through the forests, meaning many trees had been felled and the haphazard engineering work had left piles of rubble and ugly scars on the mountainsides. This completely altered the character of the walk, and is probably going to spell the death knell for the Circuit. In five years the road will reach all the way to Manang at nearly 3,500m. On the west side of the pass, it’s already possible to get a bus to Jomsom and a jeep to Muktinath, meaning the Circuit will be reduced to a five-day walk.

What’s more, the pace of lodge construction is out of control. Timang now sprawls across the hillside with dozens of brand new lodges, and all the trekkers come this way. The sad thing is, when the buses and the jeeps arrive, they will ferry tourists straight up to Manang, meaning all the new lodges on the lower part of the Circuit will lose business and close. Our guide, Ram, told us that villagers in the mountains long for their communities to be connected to the highway network, but when the road arrives, it does not bring them the prosperity or the improved quality of life which they expect.

But my goodness, the locals are certainly cashing in right now. What crowds there are! There may not be any vehicles using the road just yet, but that doesn't mean there are no traffic jams. We couldn't believe the number of trekkers swarming up the trail, with guides, ponies and porters in tow. Being fitter and better acclimatized than most, we were storming past most of the tour groups, weaving our way through the huffing, puffing, sweating masses toiling up the hills. In fact, it reminded me of trying to fight my way through the lunchtime crowds in Manchester city centre. Jen decided to re-christen it the Annapurna Circus and that's where I got the idea for this blog entry.

The French seemed to be the dominant nationality, perhaps because of the heroics performed by their compatriot Maurice Herzog in 1950. He became the first man to climb an 8,000m peak after leading an epic French expedition to Annapurna, the large part of which was spent trying to find the right mountain. His account of the climb, called simply Annapurna, is required reading for anybody trekking the Circuit.

On reaching Koto, we breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the following morning we'd be leaving the chaos behind as we turned off the Circuit into the Nar Phu Valley. A week later we were back on the Annapurna Circuit again, staying in one of our favourite places, Braga. This is the start of the Manang Valley, where the Marsyangdi river enters a broad, flat valley and passes beneath the beautiful summits of Annapurna II, Annapurna III and Gangapurna. Here, the crowds seemed to have miraculously dissipated, and what's more the same few lodges and excellent bakeries were waiting to greet us. Over the other side of the Thorung La, we were concerned about having to walk down the jeep track from Muktinath. I had visions of us choking on dust and diesel fumes for a day. But we chanced upon an alternative route which led up to a quiet col with an awesome view of Dhaulagiri, and then down to the charming little village of Lubra. We ate a snack in the only lodge in town, which had just opened. The owner is still finishing off the bedrooms but is keen to attract more trekkers this way. I don't think he's got anything to worry about - it's an idyllic spot and word will soon get round!

So perhaps all is not lost yet for the Annapurna Circuit. Between Braga and Jomsom the combination of fine lodges, fine food and outrageous scenery keep this at the top of my favourite trekking areas. What's more, the bakeries do not yet serve custard pies, so perhaps it'll be a while before the circus reaches this part of the trail.

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:06 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal annapurna

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