If trekking Nepal’s Annapurna is on your bucket list, take a long deep breath. It’s big. We’re not talking one peak, but a collection of them – a massif. The highest peak is 8000-metres-plus, there’s another 13 that nudge past the 7000-metre mark and another 16 over 6,000. Each year, 70,000 people trudge this region making it Nepal’s third most popular tourist destination.
Why not start at the biggie – Annapurna I Main, the world’s 10th highest mountain? It’s eight kilometres high plus another 91 metres. A team of French expeditioners were the first to reach the summit – they did that in 1950, three years before Mt Everest was conquered. It took until 1987 before anyone dared to climb it during winter – and succeed. Swiss climber Ueli Steck left base camp (4,130m above sea level), climbed Annapurna I Main and returned in just 28 hours back in 2013. But, more than a third of climbers who attempt that peak die, according to Wikipedia. Altitude sickness is a possibility if you’re heading above 2,500m. Seriously, it can be life threatening even for the fit. Your risk is higher if you exercise or drink alcohol before you adjust to the altitude. That and the unexploded landmines and other exploding devices across the country mean we don’t recommend trekking solo. Use professional guides and reputable trekking companies instead
History and culture
ustoms and traditions vary across Nepal due to the 100 ethnicities. It’s a secular country and most Nepalese are either Hindus or Buddhists. Nepali is the official language, and English is commonly spoken in government and businesses offices. Typical Nepali fare is lentil soup, boiled rice, curried vegies and pickles. They don’t eat beef. That leads us to the literal Sanskrit translation of Annapurna, ‘full of food’, but its meaning is more ‘Goddess of the Harvests’.
What you need to know about the country
Nepal’s decade-long civil conflict ended in 2006 with thousands of people killed or having disappeared. Then, in 2008, it became a republic after 240 years of monarchy. Now, it’s home to more than 28 million people. The conflict made it clear the country’s political, social and economic institutions didn’t celebrate diversity. Since 2006, Maoist parties still hold the majority in government.
The country is still recovering and rebuilding after the April and May 2015 earthquakes with Australia pledging about $32M in 2017-18. Actually it’s a good thing you’re looking at trekking in the Annapurna region because those earthquakes caused avalanches and landslide in the Langtang Valley and Manaslu trekking regions which aren’t quite back to normal yet.
Nepal is among the world’s poorest countries. A quarter of its residents live under the national poverty line and 23% survive on less than US $1.25 a day, according to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There’s little direct foreign investment and poor infrastructure. That extends to the only international airport, Tribhuvan, which has, wait for it, a single runway for domestic and international flights. During the tourist season, domestic flights are often cancelled so good luck with making your international connection. Airlines which Nepalese regulatory authorities have certified are banned from European airspace. Enough said.
Be a savvy traveller
You’ll need to exercise a “high degree of caution” visiting Nepal, says the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website, as of 26 June 2017. That site mentioned an increased risk of demonstrations and protests and advised to avoid large public gatherings which can turn violent. However, the timing of that info was a couple of days before national elections, with the third phase of those elections not due to happen until September 2017. During elections, Nepalese authorities are likely to restrict vehicle movements in the voting provinces. Last time it covered all private vehicles, public transport, taxis, motorcycles and bicycles – that’s a comprehensive shutdown. If you need to move within or across voting provinces, including travelling to and from airports, check in with your accommo or travel providers for updates. Subscribe to Smartraveller updates and register your route here.
At short notice, curfews may be enforced – if that happens just do what local authorities instruct. Other wildcards are impromptu illegal roadblocks even national or local bandhs (strikes) which could go on for some time. That would disrupt access to the airport and you’ll be lucky to find a taxi. (Whenever you do find a taxi, they’ll refuse to use their meter and get mega-grouchy when you complain. Just accept they’re going to rip off tourists). Something else you’ll need to let sink in: you’re three times as likely to be killed in a motor vehicle accident in Nepal than in Australia, says the World Health Organisation. Here’s the Australian Government’s advice for road safety and driving overseas.
So, wherever you go, have a good supply of essentials such as water, food, batteries, cash and medications, warns Smartraveller. Get those supplies where you can because you can’t assume they’ll be available where needed. That unreliability and major hic-cups with electricity, water, fuel, gas and kerosene supplies will impact hotels and guesthouses, too. And don’t expect to be able to brag Facebook Live your trek – mobile phone coverage isn’t reliable although guesthouses do generally offer WiFi.
A word about crime
As a foreigner in Nepal, you may be a target for assault, theft even sexual assault. This country ain’t the place to make your ‘reclaim the night’ stand, women. That’s the official advice. Criminals claiming to represent charities will sidle up to you, which you should report to police immediately. Oh, and if anyone asks you carry illegal goods, be sure to report that, too. Keep updated through the English-language Kathmandu Post.
Shake it up a bit
We’ve mentioned the 2015 earthquakes, but that’s not a one-off as Nepal is a highly active earthquake region. Major quakes will definitely lead to fatalities, widespread damage and significantly impact essential services. Before you get there and once you land learn how to be safe in earthquakes.
When to go
There’s treks for any time of year, says the Nepal Tourism Board. Ideal trekking months are March to June and from September to November. Avoid trekking from June to August during monsoon season or you’ll be at risk of major hassles with landslides, which will affect major roads and trek areas. If you have to trek during monsoon season, try the Upper Mustang, which is in a rain shadow and has only been open to non-Nepalis for about 15 years. You’ll need a special trekking permit and must go with a government-appointed officer starting from Kagbeni. The route can be arduous, but you’ll only reach a height of 3,800m.
Closer to your trip, you can check The Weather Channel for a 10 day forecast for the Annapurna Base Camp.
Let’s talk visas
Aussies need a visa to get into Nepal. Beware visa and other entry and exit conditions including currency, customs and quarantine regs might change at short notice. Keep updated through your nearest Embassy or Consulate of Nepal. Ensure your passport has at least six months left on it before you set foot in Nepal. By the way, when you land in Kathmandu, keep in mind there’s major roadworks underway so expect delays. The works are also kicking up a lot of dust so air quality won’t be fabulous either.
For US passport holders, this is your government’s site for info about Nepal. You’ll need a tourist visa. This page tells you about needing an International Driver’s License and a Nepalese one to drive there. It’s a bit strange that the US Embassy in Nepal recorded no active travel alerts/warnings in mid-September 2017, unlike the ‘high caution’ other governments had issued. If you need the US Embassy in Nepal, here it is.
For trekkers based in Canada, check in with this Canadian Government site for updates. It details how to get entry – ensure your passport still has another six months left on it. And yep, the site advises to keep updated on what’s happening with the Nepalese Government as travel advisories can change at the flick of a switch. If you are planning to drive, make sure you’ve secured your International Driving Permit and get a local Nepalese one when you arrive. By the way, there’s zero tolerance in Nepal for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Meanwhile, a mid-September 2017 travel advisory from the UK Government talks about recent monsoonal rains having caused “widespread flooding, leading to displacement of people, injuries and deaths”. Another reminder to trek outside that season. The rains have also closed roads and airports as well as local transport links. Best bet is to contact the tourist police or local authorities if you’re heading there anytime soon. Click here to subscribe to emails every time that site updates its Nepal travel advice. Yes, you will need a visa if you’re a UK citizen looking to travel to Nepal. Apply here for one, or you can get one on arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport and sometimes at land borders.
You’ll need a permit to trek
Special regulations apply to mountaineering expeditions meaning all trek members must have permits. Check with a reputable trekking company in Nepal or Australia or your nearest Embassy or Consulate of Nepal. Once you’re in Nepal, you can touch base with the Himalayan Rescue Association on +977 1 444 0292 or +977 1 444 0293 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for info about trail conditions and potential hazards in the northern regions.
The Nepalese Government has tasked the Trekking Agency Association of Nepal (TAAN) and the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) to roll out a system for foreign trekkers, the Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS). All trekkers need a valid TIMS cards because it helps them locate you and your kin if there’s an emergency. Get your TIMS from authorized trekking companies, TAAN offices in Kathmandu or Pokhara or the NTB office in Kathmandu. To enter the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, you’ll need to pay between US $2 and $20 per person, too.
For peace of mind, secure travel insurance to cover altitude sickness and overseas medical costs such as evacuation. Eight weeks before you leave, visit your doctor or travel clinic for a basic health check and talk about your travels. The World Health Organisation lists malaria, Japanese encephalitis and tuberculosis as risks. Nepal has limited medical facilities, particularly outside of Kathmandu (where you’ll need to pay cash up front). In winter, there’s usually seasonal smog and heavy particulate pollution.
Water or food borne parasitic and other infectious disease (typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, leptospirosis and rabies to name a few) are common. Boil your drinking water or drink bottled water. Avoid ice cubes as well as raw and undercooked food. HIV/AIDS is also about.
Plan your route
You’ll be able to travel by road to the Annapurna region and allot three days to three weeks for your trek (160km to 230km). You’ll wend your way through oak, rhododendron and pine forests and soak in awesome views. Choose your route from these map images. Check out the Nepal Tourism Board’s overview to see what’s around the Annapurna region or this page, for a spiritual element to your visit.
The original and longest route, the Annapurna Circuit Trek (ACT), goes from Besisahar to Nayapul, which eases you into the altitude and courses through diverse landscapes, climate zones and the climax point of Thorong La Pass (5,416m). Set aside 18 to 21 days for that, or 28 days if you’re doing side trips. You can do the ACT without a guide or porter, but think that one through. Got four minutes? Watch a two-week trek of Annapurna circuit in this vid.
The other legendary route is the Annapurna Base Camp Trek, which you can do in about 12 days. Indulge in this review by the Inside Himalayas magazine and watch this vid for more magic. Take a jeep to Chame and start there and end in Jomson. Other options include Besisahar to Tatopani or Jomson (15 or 13 days respectively) or Jagat to Tatopani (12 days). Here’s a map of a 17-day trek (typically that would be Besisahar to Birenthanti). Jomson could be your trekking start – you’ll go through the gorge carved by the Kali Gandaki River then Muktinath, a Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage site, a sacred place of salvation.
The Annapurna Panorama Trek is super-easy with no risk of altitude sickness. You can start at Nayapul, stop at Ghandruk, cross the Modi River, visit the village of Pothana, then Dhampus, Phedi and one option is to be driven to Pokhara. The trek takes in superb views of the Annapurna I and Annapurna South. Another option is the Annapurna Sanctuary from Phedi back to Pokhara. You won’t even need a sleeping bag, tent or portable stove as it’s also known as the ‘teahouse trek’.
What to pack
You’ll need a decent hiking boots that have been broken in – go for high boots if you’re trekking in winter. Pack a pair of sneakers for après-hike, a quality day pack, lightweight sleeping bag that’s good to minus 10 degrees C (you could actually rent one in Nepal), warm clothing including a down jacket plus a first aid kit including fabric Band-Aids for your blisters. Also pack trekking socks, something to wash them with such as soap, cargo pants you can unzip into shorts, a fleece top, a couple of long-sleeved polypropylene /merino wool zip-up skivvy, raincoat, T-shirts, underwear, thongs, head torch with spare batteries, sunglasses, water purification tablets, a walking stick (to save your knees) and a Swiss army knife. Consider investing in an emergency beacon, too. There’s a few on the market including the Spot II, a GPS device you can use to send simple messages or the ACR Electronics SARLink Personal Locator Beacon. Double-check with the seller that they’ll work in Annapurna.
Forget about ATMs once you’re out of Pokahara or Kathmandu, so ensure you have enough cash – about US $20 a day will cover your meals and accommo during your trek.
After you land
You really should hire a guide. Take your time to meet and chat with them about their trekking experience to gauge if you’ll gel with them on your trip. How fit should you be? Get some trekking experience in, even some exposure to high altitude if you can before you go. Some trekkers say the key issue is handling the altitude.
Heaven is a myth, but Nepal is real. Get into the zone with this short Nepal trekking video or this Facebook page on the base camp or another public FB group with that focus. Now it’s up to you to get into the picture.