The ANNAPURNA REGION’s popularity is well deserved: nowhere else do you get such a varied feast of scenery and hill culture and the logistics are relatively simple. Treks can all start or finish close to Pokhara, which is a relaxing place to end a trek and a handy place to start one, with its clued-up guesthouses, equipment-rental shops and easy transportation to trailheads. With great views just two days up the trail, short treks in the Annapurnas are particularly feasible, and good communications mean the region is also fairly safe, from the point of view of medical emergencies. Tourism is relatively sustainable, too, thanks to ACAP, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project. The inevitable consequence is commercialization. The popular treks in this region are on a well-beaten track, and unless you step aside from them you’re more likely to be ordering bottled beer from a laminated menu than drinking homebrew with locals.
The Annapurna Himal faces Pokhara like an icy, crenellated wall, 40km across, with nine peaks over 7000m spurring from its ramparts and Annapurna I reigning above them all at 8091m. It’s a region of stunning diversity, ranging from the sodden bamboo forests of the southern slopes (Lumle, northwest of Pokhara, is the wettest village in Nepal) to windswept desert (Jomosom, in the northern rain shadow, is the driest).
The himal and adjacent hill areas are protected within the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). A quasi-park administered by a non-governmental trust, ACAP aims are to protect the area’s natural and cultural heritage and ensure sustainable benefit for local people. To take the pressure off local forests, the project has set up kerosene depots and installed microhydroelectric generators, and supports reforestation efforts. Lodge owners benefit from training and low-interest loans, enabling them to invest in things like solar water heaters and efficient stoves. Safe drinking-water stations (bottled water is banned), rubbish pits, latrines, health posts and a telephone service have all been established on the proceeds of park entry fees. ACAP also sets fixed lodge prices, and agrees menu prices (which vary by area), to prevent undercutting and price wars; these prices should be respected rather than negotiated – though the system does seem to be breaking down, and lodge owners get around it by putting “special items” on their menus.The Annapurna Sanctuary
The ANNAPURNA SANCTUARY is the most intensely scenic short trek in Nepal, and one of the most well-trodden – there are lodges and tea stops at hourly intervals or less, until the highest sections at least. The trail takes you into the very heart of the Annapurna range, passing through huge hills in Gurung country with ever-improving views of the mountains ahead, then following the short, steep Modi Khola, before you pass into the most magnificent mountain cirque: the Sanctuary. Wherever you stand, the 360-degree views are unspeakably beautiful, and although clouds roll in early, the curtain often parts at sunset to reveal radiant, molten peaks.
The Sanctuary is usually an eight- to twelve-day round trip from Pokhara. The actual distance covered isn’t great, but altitude, weather and trail conditions all tend to slow you down. The trail gains more than 2000m from Ghandruk to the top, at 4100m, so you’d be wise to spread the climb over three or four days – and dress for snow. Frequent precipitation makes the higher trail slippery at the best of times, and in winter it can be impassable due to snow or avalanche danger.
There are two main approaches, both converging on the major village of Chhomrong after two or three days’ walk (though hardy types have made it in one exhausting day). At the time of writing, however, new roads were being built towards the largest villages, Ghorepani and Ghandruk, which will reduce the walk-in – though it may take some time for regular bus or jeep services to become established, and longer still for this area to become a tourist rather than a trekking destination.