Very few people walk the Annapurna Circuit as a real, complete circuit. To do so would require a pretty harsh (and arguably not too exciting) couple of days of road walking on either end of the trek to and from Pokhara. However, as the jeep road gets longer, the section of the trek that people choose to actually, well, trek is getting shorter.
Traditionally, most hikers started from Besisahar, spent about 5-10 days ascending to Thorung La, then descend through Muktinath to Nayapul, often with a stop at Poon Hill on the way.
Now, an increasingly large chunk of trekkers bypass the first few villages entirely, taking jeeps to Chame, currently the last stop on the jeep road. Obviously, this has a huge impact on the trekking villages before Chame, who have long relied on a steady stream of trekkers to provide their income.
We started in Besisahar, and spent our first night in Bahundanda, a gorgeous town, perched at the top of one of the first significant climbs of the trek. Bahundanda has amazing panoramic views of the valley and a handful of great guesthouses, yet, as the owner of our guesthouse told us, the number of visitors to the village has dropped dramatically in the past few years, leaving lodge owners saddled with unprofitable businesses, and no real options to improve their circumstances.
Admittedly, there are a few (not insignificant) benefits to the road. Villagers have easier, much quicker access to hospitals now, and – in theory, at least – the road has opened up trade between villagers and nearby larger cities. That said, the overwhelming sentiment (from villagers, porters, and seasoned AC trekkers) seems to be that the road was constructed by the government with its own interests at heart, and with little thought to the significant consequences it would have on tourism in the area.
Even ignoring the impact on the local economy entirely, there are some pretty compelling selfish reasons to do the whole thing. For me, one of the most fascinating things about the circuit was the transition — for the first few days, you’re tucked away in a deep valley, following a river through villages, passing crowds of school kids. On day three or so, the views really kick in. The track climbs out of the valley, and quickly you’re surrounded by dramatic mountain vistas on all sides.
Now, it would be a little hard to argue that the first few days are as stunning as those proceeding, but, as Ahimsa said, skipping the initial sections is kind of like ‘skipping foreplay, and just sticking it in.’
Plus, trekkers really have no excuse for skipping this section. We found the jeep roads pretty pleasant to walk on for the most part, and, if you want to avoid them, NATT has created an amazing set of alternative trails. Using these, the time you have to spend on the roads is extremely short.
Lastly (but not leastly), I firmly believe that if you skip the first part, you are a big, fat cheater*. Yep, if I see you wearing a ‘Annapurna Circuit’ t-shirt and find out that you only started in Chame, I will do my best to spill something on it.
Not convinced? Here’s what we would have missed, if we’d jeeped into Chame and out of Jomsom:
*(I’m half kidding, but mostly not.)