The Annapurna Circuit is one of the world’s most famous walks. Take the trail, and it’s obvious why. The route circles the great Annapurna Himalaya range, with breathtaking views throughout and the crossing of a high 5416m pass, the Thorong La. While the views are the main attraction, this trail is also a wonderful way to see the culture of the Himalayas. The trail begins in the lowlands, where Gurung Villages and farmland occupy most of the trail, before climbing into the barren, dry Manang District, where you’ll find villages with a strong sense of Tibetan culture and a long history of trading with the occupied country to the North.
For most trekkers, perhaps the culture of the trail takes a secondary place behind the long day hikes and the breathtaking mountain views all around. I found little information on the internet about the villages on the trail or the wonderful Buddhist gompas and unique cultural aspects which I found to be one of the highlights of the trek. So I’ve made a guide myself. Here is a Guide to the Annapurna Circuit, but from a cultural point of view.
Besi Sahar to Chame
You’ll most likely start the trek by taking a bus from either Kathmandu or Pokhara to Besi Sahar. This is where the ‘good’ road ends, and dirt tracks begin. Besi Sahar is a dusty town with a few sites and is a fine place to spend the night if you’d rather start the place early the next morning. One of the best attractions is the Lamjung Durbar, the first royal palace of Lamjung (see more information about reaching it here. Although most trekkers are keen to get straight on the trail.
From Besi Sahar, there are jeep options all the way to Manang. But by taking a jeep you are skipping some great hiking and some wonderful culture of the foothills – so I recommend to start walking from Besi Sahar.
It won’t be long until you reach Khudi, the first Gurung Village on the trail. Gurung Villages occupy much of the Annapurna region and you’ll pass through many of these villages when trekking the Annapurna Circuit. Many of the villages are perched on high slopes, surrounded by tiered rice paddies. Gurung people have lived in the Annapurna region for over seven hundred years. Some legends suggest the Gurungs came from Burma, across Assam and into Nepal, while others suggest they came from Tibet.
The tribal group has no caste system, although over the years influence from Hindu cultures has contributed to the group somewhat adopting a caste structure. Likewise, they are also not set to a specific religious heritage and celebrate both Hindu, Buddhist and Animist festivals. Historically, the Gurungs were animal herders, and this influence is still seen strongly on the trail where you’ll spot buffalos in the farming fields and goats walking the village streets. Around Gurung Villages, you’ll see tiers of farming terraces where a range of crops is grown. Rice is the basic crop of the Gurung, but you’ll also find maize, millet, pulses and vegetables. In these lowlands, trekkers will find that vegetables are plentiful and there’s a good and cheap variety of food on offer in the villages.
Ngadi is the next village you will reach on the trail, a pretty collection of homes set around cobbled streets, although the nearby road and huge Chinese hydro plant being built don’t make it an ideal overnight stop. Hiker’s Lodge does have a small bookshop.
Continue onto Bahundanda, a picturesque village perched on top of a ridgeside. Bahundanda translates to ‘Hill of the Brahmans’ and is the northernmost Brahman settlement in the Marsyangdi Valley. The streets in the village are quaint and traditional and look overviews of the sweeping valleys at either side of the ridge.
After Bahundanda, you’ll pass amphitheatres of rice terraces and follow the river until you reach Kanigaon, which has a kani marking the entrance to the town. A kani is an archway over the trail, shaped like a Chorten and you’ll find them throughout the trail from this point onwards. Ghermu is the next pretty village stop, in a typical Gurung style, with some bright yellow mustard fields framing the town. Ghermu is also a good place to overnight. The trail from here continues on the road (unless you take the much longer upper trail).
Jagat was one of my favourite villages on this part of the trail, and if you can time your trekking right, it would be a wonderful place to overnight. Unlike the villages you have already come through, Jagat is a village populated by people of Tibetan heritage, and you’ll spot monks in red robes and women in the traditional Chuba dress of Tibetans. Jagat translated to ‘toll station’, and this village was once a tax collection post for the salt trade from Tibet. It has a medieval feel and is packed with homely lodges serving delicious food and some Tibetan delicacies. There is a hot spring at the river near the village, giving you yet another excuse to spend the night here. The oddly named Mont Blanc Hotel does delicious food and Tibetan bread served in the garden in the centre of the village.
From Jagat, you’ll pass through the small village of Chamje, cross the river and then climb steeply up to Tal, the first village in the Manang District. Set in a wide and dramatic valley, Tal has quite a different feel from the villages you will have passed through so far on the trail. It’s flat, wide and set along a long central pathway. There are dozens of lodges here, and a safe water station. Many of the lodges have a Tibetan feel, and some have views of the waterfall which sits at the end of town. The region between Tal and Bagarchap is known as Gyasumdo, which means ‘three trails’. Once, the district was heavily dependent on trade from Tibet, particularly with the sale of the local musk. Although since the border was closed in 1959, the villages now rely on agriculture and tourism.
The trail continues past the villages of Karte, Dharapani and then to Bagarchhap, where you will spot the first views of the Annapurna mountains. While there are many lodges in Bagarchhap, I recommend continuing to the Gurung village of Danaque and the wonderful New Sunrise Guest House. The Gurung Village is set on a long slope-backed with beautiful snowcapped peaks. There is also a safe drinking water station here. New Sunrise Guest House is run by a Gurung family who has a son ambitiously training for the army. He spoke wonderful English so it was a great treat being about to chat to him about the Gurung tribe, and his ambitions to join the British or Indian Army. Many Gurung men train to become Gurkha’s in the British Army, one of the most respected and well-paid jobs in Nepal. If you would like to know more about the selection process, I recommend watching Michael Palin’s Himalaya, where he goes to a selection camp.
Danaque to Upper Pisang
From Danaque, the mountain views just get better and better, and the villages continue to have a Tibetan feel. The next village of interest is Thanchowk, one of the most traditional Tibetan villages on the trail. With typical stone houses piled with firewood on the roofs, it’s a wonderful place to stop for a break and enjoy the unique atmosphere. Pine forests will then take you to Koto, which has a gompa, ACAP check-post and some spectacular mountain views. Head on to the larger village of Chame, though don’t expect a small town as we did. But it is a lovely place set around a river with some good guesthouse options. There are hot springs here (although they weren’t so hot in late February when we were there), as well as the large mani dungkhor, a giant prayer wheel and a small gompa.
As you head out of Chame, you’ll cross a bridge covered with prayer flags and then pass an impressive Kani as you head towards Bhratang. After the apple orchard village of Telekhu, you’ll reach the rough stone houses of Bhratang. The older part of the village here is an abandoned Khampa settlement and guerilla camp since the 1960’s. Khampa people are from the Kham region of Tibet. Another notable point on this part of the trek is the Paungda Danda rock face, a curved slab of rock rising 1500m from the river above the trail. Locals believe that spirits of the dead must ascend this wall after leaving their bodies. You’ll reach the village of Dhukar Pokhari, which has many rooftop restaurants with breathtaking mountain views. After days of walking through green lush villages, it is around this point that the trail has become barren and dusty, with the mountains constantly dominating the skyline. The villages now also have a distinctly Tibetan feel, and the culture here is known as Manangi, with origins from the Tibetan trading routes.
Dhukar Pokhari is a great place for lunch before you continue on to Upper Pisang for the night. When you enter the two villages of Pisang, you are at the beginning of the Nyesyang portion of the Manang district. The arid and cold climates limit the people here to a single crop annually, which ranges from buckwheat, potatoes or beans. Horses are also the main form of transportation here, and you’ll frequently see them speeding through the valley’s trails.
While the ‘official trail’ leads to Lower Pisang’, I highly recommend taking the trail to the upper part of the village instead. Upper Pisang is one of the most memorable villages on the trail, due to the quiet nature of the settlement and the stunning panoramic views of the Annapurna’s the guesthouses look out on. This is the first place on the trail I was truly blown away by the views, although also the first place you might start to feel the altitude and cold, as the village is at 3310m. The village has two gompas and ruins of an old dzong (fort).
The Upper Pisang Trail
From Pisang, you have the option to do an easy route along the road to Manang, or to climb up to the Upper Pisang Trail. Even though it almost killed me, I highly recommend doing the second option. The views and cultural villages you will pass through on this day are some of the highlights of the entire Annapurna Circuit, and even though I was tired and beaten by the end of it, it was one of the days I would love to do again.
The views of Annapurna II are breathtaking from the moment you set off, and after a gentle flat walk, you start to climb up to the village of Ghyaru. This is arguably the worst climb of the entire circuit trek, gaining around 500m in altitude in a series of steep switchbacks. At the top, you’ll spot the glowing white Jhunji Chorton, laced with prayer flags and a series of benches looking out to some of the best views of the Annapurna’s of the trail. When we arrived here, a wonderful woman with an aged Tibetan face handed me a warm apple pie and at that moment I swear she was a saint to me. Grab a tea and enjoy the views and atmosphere of this special village.
The next village on the trail, Ngawal is also incredibly charming, with narrow streets, wooden door frames and buffalos getting in the way of the paths. If you had more time on the trail, I would recommend stopping here or in Ghyaru to get more of a feeling of these unique and well preserved Manangi villages, and exploring the gompas attached to both villages.
From here, the trail descends through pine forests, and the views just keep on getting better. You’ll pass the Lophelling Boarding School, which looks like a monastery, and some small Chorten’s dotted around the landscape. Soon you’ll reach Bragha, one of my favourite villages on the Annapurna Circuit. Perched high on the rock face above the old village is the Bragha Gompa, one of the oldest in the area. It is only open to visitors at certain hours, and if you are travelling in the off-season, you will need to catch the lone monk who lives up there. Ask locals for advice on opening times.
Bragha is also the starting point for the day trek to the Ice Lake, otherwise known as Kicho Tal. This hike is a great way to acclimatize as the lake is at 4800m, and the trek also has some of the most beautiful views of the entire trek. Another popular day hike from Bragha is to Milarepa’s Cave, a Tibetan pilgrimage site. The story goes that Tibetan poet and singer Milarepa was meditating in a cave above Bragha when a local Gurung hunter and his dog stalked a deer into his cave. Milarepa persuaded the Gurung man to sacrifice his bow and become his disciple. In Tibetan culture, there are many songs and dances which celebrate this story.
From Bragha, you will pass rows of chorten’s and prayer wheels before you reach the bigger village of Manang, only 20 minutes away.
Most people stay a few days in Manang for acclimatization. Manang is located at 3540m and is one of the biggest and most interesting villages at this side of the trail. The first part of the village is filled with guesthouses, cafes, a museum and small shops selling everything you might desire, from fake North Face fleeces to Snickers bars. The accommodation and food choice here feels like a treat after spending nights at so many simple villages on the trail.
I recommend spending two nights in Manang to properly acclimatize, and a third if you want to explore the area in a little more depth. During high season, the Himalayan Rescue Association hosts free daily lectures at 3 pm which educate trekkers on altitude sickness. There are also many more food options than in usual villages on the trek, including local spots which are not connected to tourist lodges. We ate a delicious and very cheap lunch at Gyatzen & Sisters, I highly recommend it and you can also try the local Seabuckthorn Juice here. The juice is made from local berries which are crushed down into a delicious and bright orange drink (it can be served warm or cold). The vitamin content of the juice is said to be higher than any other fruit and vegetable, and the berry has been a staple in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
Manang is also a historic village with lots of cultural heritage to explore. Walk through the ‘tourist’ side of the village and you’ll reach the medieval old town. There are around 500 houses here, in typical Manangi style, stacked up on top of each other with flat roofs which form wood stores or animal grazing platforms. The narrow alleyways of the town are fascinating to explore, and local people go about their days, feeding the goats and buffalos and turning prayer flags on the way to the towns small Kagyud Gompa. The area has a wonderful atmosphere and seems a little lost in time. I found locals to be very friendly when wandering alone, although if you have a guide it would be a great way to know a little more about the architecture and history of the town.
In winter, many of the locals leave the high altitude village and take their animals down to lower pastures to graze. They return around mid-March and spend the summer back in Manang. If you are in Manang during the high season, the local Manang Cultural Museum will be open, sharing local heritage and culture. The museum also operates hour-long guided tours of Manang’s old town. There are also many ‘movie halls’ in Manang which during high season, show mountain related films such as Everest and Seven Years in Tibet.
If you still fancy hiking during your ‘rest’ day in Manang, there are many day hikes which will let you explore the valley in more depth. Two shorter hikers are to the Chongar Viewpoint or Papuchong, which are on either side of the town’s valley. Another popular hike is to the Praken Gompa, a retreat centre high on the hillside above Manang. The climb takes just over an hour and leads to stunning views of the Annapurna’s. On the way down, you can also choose to stop by the 400-year-old Karki Gompa and the Bocho Gompa which is situated below a ruined fort.
We did the Kicho Tal Trek from Bragha (see above) on our rest day in Manang, and Milarepa’s Cave is another popular choice. Manang is also the starting point for the three-day side trek to Tilicho Tal. I didn’t do this route but word on the trail is that is is a wonderful hike if you have the time and energy to spend a few extra days in the area.
Part 2, from Manang to Pokhara coming soon!
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Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.