Besisahar is a bustling town in the Lamjung District of Nepal that is generally regarded as the starting point for the Annapurna Circuit trek. We arrived in Besisahar by bus from Kathmandu and got settled in our hotel before taking a walk around the town. It was much larger and busier than I expected with lots of hotels and guest houses and stores selling all kinds of wares, yet it still had the feel of some kind of Wild West outpost. Jeeps, buses and motorbikes continually made there way up and down its bumpy dirt streets taking supplies and trekkers further up the trail.
The town is surrounded by hills of deciduous forests and has views of high snow-capped mountains in the distance. At an elevation of only 760 metres, Besisahar enjoys a sub-tropical climate. Even in December, it was warm and sunny during the day, although at night the temperature dropped considerably.
About the Annapurna Circuit
The Annapurna Circuit is regarded as one of the worlds greatest treks. In the most recent edition of Lonely Planet’s guide, Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, it was ranked the number one trek in Nepal, placing it ahead of the more commercial trek to Everest Base Camp.
The original Annapurna Circuit trek opened in 1977. Its starting point back then was the town of Dumre, nearly 40 kilometres south of Besisahar and it finished in Beni, around 80 kilometres to the west. The route was 240 kilometres in length and took at least 23 days to complete. It forms a partial circuit around the Annapurna massif – a huge mountain range comprising the four peaks named Annapurna I to IV, Annapurna South, Machhapuchhre and many others over 6000 metres. The giant peaks of Annapurna I, Dhaulagiri and Manaslu, all visible from the circuit, are members of the exclusive club of only fourteen mountains in the world over 8000 metres.
Impact of the Road
In 2005, road construction began along part of the circuit, inspired by a national plan to develop Nepal. Since then, the road has steadily encroached on more of the original trekking route and in many sections replaces it entirely. Lonely Planet’s guide now lists Besisahar as the starting point and Naya Pul or Birethanti as the finish of the circuit. Due to the impact of the road and time constraints however, most people start and finish their trek at different places, making it as long or short as they wish.
Our choice to trek the Annapurna Circuit was reinforced by a YouTube video called The High Pass. It was posted nearly three years ago by a couple who walked the trek in winter, during the off season, as we planned to do. We had no intention of completing the full circuit. Like them, our original plan was to start at some point north of Besisahar and if possible try to reach the town of Jomsom on the other side of the high Thorung La pass.
The video mentioned the impact of the road and said that in spite of it, the trek was still one of the worlds best. The local people from the villages along the circuit, whose livelihood often depends on foreign trekkers, understand the impact of the road on the trekking experience, however they tend to welcome it’s construction. Most importantly for them, the road means vital access to medical help in a region that would otherwise be inaccessible due to its remoteness. It also allows them better access to supplies and resources for their homes and businesses.
The road has brought overhead electricity infrastructure, a reliable mobile phone network, television and internet access and other modern conveniences appreciated by villagers and trekkers alike. Often though when viewing a scene or taking photos, I would be frustrated by the presence of electrical wiring obstructing the view. It became obvious, that there was little thought attributed to minimising the impact of the infrastructure on the environment, although for a country with an economy like Nepals, there was probably no choice.
For most of the trek, walking along the road was often little different to walking along the trail as the scenery dominated the experience. Although infrequent, there were times when the impact of the road was more readily felt, particularly when clouds of dust were generated by jeeps and motorbikes moving between villages.
We knew before arriving in Nepal that the major difficulty with the Annapurna Circuit was the Thorung La pass. At an elevation of 5416 metres, it is one of the highest passes on any trek in Nepal. Proper acclimatisation is necessary to cross the pass which in itself involves a long and gruelling day of trekking in order to make it down safely to the nearest village on the other side. During winter in particular, there is also the possibility the pass could be blocked entirely by heavy snowfall.
An awareness of the effects of altitude is important for most of the treks in Nepal. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) usually occurs at an altitude above 2500 metres. Symptoms include a feeling of light headedness, fatigue, loss of appetite (possibly nausea or vomiting), headache, dizziness and difficulty sleeping. Experiencing some of these symptoms in mild form at altitude is normal but if these symptoms are severe or worsen over time, immediate descent is the best option. Ignoring the warning signs can lead to two potentially fatal altitude-related conditions; one effecting the lungs (HAPE) and a rarer one that effects the brain (HACE).
Why AMS effects some people more than others is not fully understood but physical fitness does not guarantee immunity. With good acclimatisation techniques (i.e. taking it slow, climbing high, sleeping low), AMS can generally be managed. Taking medication like Diamox, which we did from the first day of our trek, is regarded as the most effective treatment for avoiding AMS, although it’s effectiveness is not guaranteed.
[Good source on altitude sickness: here]
Besides altitude, there was also the unpredictability of mountain weather to consider. In October 2014, at least 43 people, including at least 21 trekkers died on the Annapurna Circuit when it was hit by severe snowstorms and avalanches. Many of those who died had either limited experience in the mountains or did not have adequate equipment. They were trekking during the peak season when the weather is normally fine and sunny. The snowstorm that hit was quite rare and unexpected for that time of year.
With these things in mind, we approached the trek open to the possibility that we may not complete it, or get very far at all. We planned to carry all our own gear and not take a guide, although we were prepared to hire a porter if the need arose. We had plenty of time, and just about everyone, with enough time, can acclimatise to high altitude. It is generally people with time constraints or who physically push too hard or don’t hydrate enough who end up having problems.
We had a good map and guide book, a GPS device and satellite communicator and appropriate gear for severe mountain weather. Fortunately we had very good weather over the entire 16 days of our trek. There was no rain or snow and although the nights were cold and the temperature got down to minus 15 degrees in some places, the days were generally bright and sunny and visibility was excellent.