Nepal’s recent spell of bad luck even saw tourists cancelling trips after the recent release of the ‘Everest’ movie. But before the country’s recent woes, trekking tourism in one of Nepal’s most iconic destinations, the Annapurnas, was already suffering from a self-inflicted wound – the area’s first road. Read on for more of this insightful update from outdoor author Terry Adby.
The trip to Nepal on which this article is based took place in November/December 2015 and was made possible thanks to the generous support of The Mountain Company, Rab, and Cotswold Outdoor.
From 2004, when the Annapurna Circuit road-building programme busied itself improving many aspects of life for local people, it simultaneously began killing off the reputation of the 30 mile long, 8000m high massif, as one of the world’s top treks.
By 2009 the drop in visitors had brought the famed Annapurna Circuit to its knees. But the good news is it is now getting back on its feet, thanks to the ongoing development of alternative walking trails that keep trekkers away from the dirt track that passes for a ‘road’.
These new waymarked routes are called Natural Annapurna Trekking Trails (NATT) and represent the first ever use of European-style waymarking in the Himalayas. They cover the traditional circuit of the Annapurnas massif, from Besisahar to the hot springs of Tatopani, and a plethora of diversions and additional options, to the likes of 4900-metre Tilicho Lake and Dhaulagiri’s incredible icefall.
The renewed appeal of the Annapurna Circuit, which includes the crossing of 5416m Thorung La, has also been boosted by the fact that the region survived the 2015 earthquake virtually unscathed, while some popular ‘alternative’ treks suffered serious damage, although most are now back on track and all of Nepal has been cleared for travel again.
The NATT trails are principally the work of a two-man team, Nepali outdoor activist, Prem Rai, and Belgian trekking enthusiast, Andrees de Ruiter. Between them they have explored, waymarked and promoted the new NATTs, and even written a guidebook for them. This unofficial project, only belatedly receiving official recognition and support from the Annapurna Conservation Area authorities, has been largely responsible for resurrecting the Annapurna Circuit as a viable trek that does not involve sharing a track with jeeps full (ironically) of trekkers, working vehicles and local buses.
Having personally hand-painted most of the hundreds of kilometres of main trail (red/white) and side trail (blue/white) markers – an ongoing task to which both have committed time and resources – what Rai and de Ruiter are now keen to avoid is the NATT trails becoming the Annapurnas' best-kept secret. To share their wealth, they've authored a Himalayan Travel Guides book, ‘Trekking the Annapurna Circuit’, which describes the endless trekking possibilities on and around the NATT trails whilst avoiding the road. The guide's updated third edition is currently in preparation and further information can be found on their website. The NATT trails have also been marked on Nepal’s popular ‘Around Annapurna’ trekking maps.
Strangely, while many trekkers default to the NATT trails in places where they have become the standard route, few are aware of the project that has led to their development, and even fewer use the trails to their full potential. On my own 3 ½ week trip, I saw no-one else using Rai and de Ruiter’s guidebook. Also, rather than circumnavigating one of the world’s great massifs, many of the people now coming to the Annapurnas principally want to cross the Thorung La pass, or head into the Sanctuary and the south base camp of Annapurna I. The result in most cases is a very truncated version of what can still be a classic circuit. The full Annapurna Circuit takes around three weeks, but bolt on some NATTs side trips, and you could easily spend two months here, living cheap and trekking every day. Using the NATT trails to combine the Circuit and Sanctuary treks makes, to me, the perfect introduction to multi-week Himalayan trekking.
The land that hosts the great peaks of Annapurna I, II, III and IV, Dhaulagiri, Machhapuchare, Manaslu, Gangapurna and Tilicho, and brushes the ‘hidden kingdom’ of Mustang, is not so easily reduced to an also-ran destination. It may no longer be the most remote of places, but with snow leopard and pallas cat populations proven to inhabit the hills around the regional capital, Manang, it’s hardly mainstream. Gainsayers will claim the Annapurna road has forever changed the villages that are a huge part of the Circuit’s attraction. No doubt that’s true in some cases, but this remains a remote-feeling, high-altitude hike through indigenous cultures, rural communities and a variety of climate zones, amidst breathtaking high mountain scenery where some of the most epic stories in modern mountaineering history have played out, including the first ever ascent of an 8000m peak.
Roland Hunter, of Nepal-based trekking and climbing specialists, The Mountain Company, sees a parallel with another great mountain region, where we still flock in our millions. “Roads came to the Alps” he says “but that didn’t stop people going there. In fact, it brought more.” Far from being a tarmacked European highway, the Annapurnas’ ‘road’ is a rough track that, in many places, sees little traffic, but which has done big damage to the area’s reputation. The NATT trails will hopefully encourage would-be visitors who have been put off by its existence (as I had) to come and see for themselves that the Annapurnas’ region is very much still worth a trek.
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