The Annapurna Conservation region is the most geographically and culturally diverse protected area anywhere in the World. Nowhere else in Nepal can one meet and experience such a wide variety of human culture. There are seven ethnic groups living and working the region, from Hindu farmers to Tibetan Lamas. Due to the extremes of elevation the region contains a remarkable diversity of flora; from sub-tropical lowland forests of oak, bamboo and rhododendron in the south to the high alpine meadows and windswept desert plateaus in the north, bordering Tibet
Beside the Everest region, the area around the Annapurna massif is perhaps the best known trekking destination in Nepal. Based on sheer numbers of trekking visitors it is certainly the most popular. As the title suggests, the centre piece of this part of Nepal is the range of mountains that includes Annapurna I, the first of the 8000 meter peaks to be climbed. Also included in this general area is another 8000 meter giant, Dhaulagiri , which is located west of Annapurna I. Between these two mountains runs the valley of the Kali-Gandaki River, the deepest gorge on earth. Combine this with lush, fertile farming land, stands of undistributed natural forest and a mixture of different ethnic inhabitants and you have a diverse range of experiences that makes this area one of the most satisfying trekking destinations in Nepal.
The fact that the main Himalayan range runs south of the border with Tibet means that that the northern parts of the area are in the rain shadow and are considerably drier than the southern slopes of the mountains. This leads to unusually diverse landscapes.
Permits and Fees
For most of the Annapurna trekking area, no trekking permits are required. The exception is upper Mustang where a fee of US$700 per person is levied for a ten-day visit. Additional restrictions relating to Mustang will be outlined later.
Most of the area discussed in the trek descriptions is within the area controlled by Annapurna Conservation Area Project. Entry to this area is controlled and an entry permit has to be purchased. The permit must be purchased before starting the trek and can be obtained in Kathmandu or Pokhara . The proceeds of these fees are largely used for the local community development within the project area.
Regardless of the trek chosen it is most likely that Pokhara will be either starting or ending point of your trek. Pokhara is located 200 km. west of Kathmandu and can be reached by road in five to six hour or by air in 30 minutes from the capital. For road travel there are a number of tourist buses available daily from Kathmandu and from Chitwan.
There is no shortage of tourist facilities to be found in and around Pokhara. The main center for tourists is at the side of the largest of the three lakes in the area, Phewa Tal. The suburbs of Lakeside and Damside both provide a wide range of accommodation and restaurants along with the usual variety of trekking and traveling agencies and suppliers of souvenirs and trekking equipment. For those trekking in the eastern side of the Annapurna massif the most likely starting point will be Besishahar, the district headquarters of Lamjung district. Buses from Kathmandu, Pokhara and the Terai arrive and depart here on a regular daily basis. The bus trip from Kathmandu to Besishahar takes around four to five hours but, at this time, there are no tourist bus services available.
Most treks starting or ending in Pokhara will require the use of buses or hired cars to reach the trailheads. Specific details appear in the trek descriptions.
Flora and Fauna
As can be imagined, the range of geographical and climatic regions has led to a diverse variety of flora and fauna within the Annapurna region. Both Pokhara and Besishahar are below 1000 meter elevation and their climate is quiet tropical. These parts of area are heavily cultivated and the landscape, therefore, largely consists of terraced paddy fields for most of the year. The area is also famous for its winter crops of oranges, which can be purchased fresh from the trees along the trails in the foothills. As you progress higher up into the hills the natural vegetation changes from the tropical species to more temperate stands of forest trees including oak, beech and rhododendron. These finally give way to coniferous forests of pine and, ultimately, juniper just below the tree line. In the rain shadow, to the north of the mountains, the landscape is quite barren being an extension south of the Tibetan plateau. Here there are only stunted bushes and shrubs except for close to the rivers where irrigated cropping is possible.
Native animals to be seen include many birds the most obvious being the pika, blue sheep and Himalayan Tahr.
Most of the trekking routes in the Annapurna region are well serviced by teahouses for most of their length. This is particularly true for most popular treks-the Jomsom trek, the Annapurna circuit and Annapurna base camp treks.
Trekkers should be aware, however that there is always the risk of being stranded by bad weather or injury/sickness between teahouses, particularly in the more remote parts of the trek itineraries. a good example is on the Annapurna circuit where there is one very long day when the high pass of Thorong La has to be crossed. There is little or no shelter available for most of this day and some trekkers have been caught unprepared by bad weather and altitude problems.
The treks in less developed areas, particularly the Dhaulagiri circuit and the trek east of Lamjung, definitely require trekkers to be self sufficient in food and shelter.
People and Culture
The most prominent ethnic groups in the Annapurna region are the Gurung, the Thakali and the Manangba. The Gurungs are the most widely distributed being found from the hills of Gorkha district to as far west as Palpa. There heartland, however, is centered on the hills and valleys between the Marsyandi river and the kali Gandaki. The Thakali come from the upper kali Gandaki valley around Jomsom where their traditional farming has being supplemented by trade and, in particular, hotel and restaurant businesses. The Manangba are found in the upper reaches of the Marsyandi River and are in many ways similar to the Gurungs to whom they are possibly related. They are skilled traders and trace their roots back to Tibet. Religiously, the Manangba and the Gurungs of the upper hills is Buddhist with traces of their ancient, shamanistic faith still apparent. The communities live further south are predominantly Hindu.
All of the communities, particularly the Gurungs are famed for their cultural performances, which are easily seen while trekking in the region. Many villages along the trails will arrange performances for trekkers during the main seasons.
When to visit?
As with most of the trekking areas in Nepal, the best time to visit are during spring and autumn. Spring is the time for rhododendrons while the clearest skies are found after the monsoon in October and November. At these times the weather is generally mild and there is little rainfall. Unlike other parts of Nepal, the monsoon, from June to September, is the ideal time to visit pats of the region that falls in the rain shadow. In particular, upper mustang is the perfect destination during the rainy season. The winter months provide good trekking conditions throughout the foothills but some of the higher passes will be closed due to snow.
If you have not traveled from Kathmandu with your staffs then you will be able to make all of the necessary arrangements in Pokhara through one of the many trekking agencies that have offices in lakeside. This is generally only place where such arrangements can be reliably made although porters will often be found at centers such as Besishahar at the start of the Annapurna circuit.