The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most beautiful and well-known long-distance treks in the world. It offers fantastic views on the Annapurna Range and the 5416m high Thorung La Pass poses a challenge for everyone doing it. The newly built Jeep road makes it a very attractive destination for mountain bikers. But is it possible to complete the circuit on a regular touring bike? My partner and me did exactly that.
How We Biked The Annapurna Circuit
While we were biking through Nepal in November 2015, my partner and me wanted to do some day hikes around the Annapurna range. As we heard the complications of the entry permit and the difficult accessibility we had to rethink our plans. After discussions with locals and some research on the web we decided to change our plans and try to bike the Annapurna Circuit. As the decision was very spontaneous our equipment wasn’t exactly ideal. We were just on regular touring bikes without any shocks. My hiking shoes were built for day trips, weren’t waterproof and had no ankle support.
After some tough weeks on the trail we eventually finished the Circuit but it was much harder than expected and took us much longer. My personal conclusion: Been there. Done that. Never again. This blog entry sums up our experience on the Circuit.
When talking to people in Nepal there seems to be a myth around. It is the myth that the new jeep road completely spoiled the track and now the Annapurna Circuit is not worth to be hiked anymore. Maybe this is the reason why so many people think the Circuit can be easily ridden with a regular trekking bike. We had discussions with a lot of locals beforehand and they all agreed that it’s absolutely fine to do this trip. We were told that the only problematic days would be the one before the pass and the pass itself. The rest of the trail was supposed to be very easy.
While I’m a very optimistic person and always looking for a challenge, I honestly have to say that this is just not true. We met a lot of people on the trail having a hard time on their bikes. The jeep track is often very steep and tricky to ride, sometimes it’s only a hiking trail. Some rocks on the road were as big as the wheels of our bikes…
No wonder, my partner and me fell off our bikes a couple of times on the circuit even though we pushed the most difficult parts. Luckily we weren’t injured seriously. But apparently we weren’t the only people who had that problem. We met a German biker who got his bike destroyed as he fell off while riding in Lower Mustang. He had to wait three weeks for replacement parts being shipped. We heard of another girl who supposedly tried to do the Circuit on a normal trekking bike with very slim tires. I have no idea if she succeeded but there’s a good chance the rocks ripped her tires.
Summing it up, biking the Annapurna Circuit on a touring bike is not as easy as many people suggest. While it is certainly possible to do (we did it), it is questionable whether the efforts justify the outcome. Just because it is possible doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a nice experience. As the jeep road mostly leads through the valley it misses the most beautiful parts of the trek. So in order to get the full experience of the Annapurna circuit you have to get your hiking shoes and climb up these mountains anyway.
How To Bike It
If you still want to bike the Circuit, take either a decent hard trail bike or preferably a full suspension mountain bike. 29″ would be better because it will be easier to roll over these rocks on the road.
When doing the circuit on a bike, don’t expect to be much faster than the regular hikers. There are some very tough days which are almost only pushing and because of the acclimatization you can’t cover much more distance than the average hiker when higher in altitude. I recommend to plan at least two to three weeks for the entire circuit. This will give you enough time for acclimatization and you won’t have the pressure to hurry over the pass when there’s a bad weather forecast. Plus it will allow you to do some side-trekking to enjoy the beautiful nature and the stunning villages.
While the best travel time used to be from early October to late November. However, this it is somewhat changing according to some lodge owners I spoke to. Apparently, the hiking season is shifting more towards the winter because in early October there is still a lot of rain. We were there at the end of November/early December and we found the time to be perfect. The views were crystal clear and there was very little snow on the Thorung La pass. It was quite cold during the night but completely fine.
Rumors On The Trail
Once you are on the circuit it will be a bit tricky to get decent information about the weather forecast or the current situation on the Thorung La. There are some tourist information centres in the bigger villages but I found them only partly helpful. And since there are so many people on the trail, rumors start to go around. It’s like the game silent post. “There is so much snow on the pass” was a rumor we heard so often or “our guide said the weather is supposed to get really bad in two days”. And so people start rushing and meeting irrational decisions. Instead of taking an extra day for acclimatization they climb up to the pass very fast. In the end, all of these rumors turned out to be wrong in our case.
I’m not saying that you should ignore warnings other people tell you but watch out where the information is coming from. Try to get the weather forecast via the internet or at the tourist information centres. Don’t believe everything other people say. For many hikers it’s the first long-distance trek.
In order to enter the Annapurna Conservation Area, you have to get a permit beforehand in Kathmandu, Pokhara or Besi Sahar. You need two documents as an individual tourist. The ACAP card which is the trekking permit and the TIMS card (each was 2000 rupees) . Bring your passport and two passport-sized photos with you. The permit is single-entry – so once you enter the Conservation Area, you cannot re-enter before getting a new one. You will have to show these permits at check points on the way. You can get up-to-date information on the permits at http://www.ntnc.org.np/trekking-annapurna-gaurishankar-and-manaslu-information-and-entry-permit-forms.
You need very few equipment in order to ride the circuit. The only important thing is to be prepared for some really cold days. Especially during the nights the temperature may drop below freezing point inside the room. So bring some warm cloths and a good sleeping bag. In case you miss something you can even buy outdoor gear in Manang, before you go over the pass. Try to leave all unnecessary luggage in a hotel in Kathmandu or Pokhara in order to minimize the weight you carry with you.
Food & Accommodation
You can find an incredible amount of lodges and villages around the circuit. One thing to keep in mind though is that the food is much more expensive than in the rest of Nepal. Dhal Bhaat usually cost 400 to 600 rupees in 2015. Thus, it is important to carry enough cash with you because the only ATM we found on the Circuit was in Jomsom. Bring some extra money in case something goes wrong or the tour takes longer than expected.
Accommodation around the circuit is very cheap and we often arranged a deal with the lodge owners so that we would sleep in the lodge for free but we would have the meals at their house. This deal worked well because in 2015 there were very few tourists in Nepal. If you would like to stay in villages that are not overly touristic I recommend to look for the smaller villages on the map. The bigger villages are often overcrowded and it might be difficult to find a room.
Navigating on the circuit is really easy, it is almost impossible to lose the road. The standard map “Around Annapurna Circuit” was very good and gave detailed information about places to sleep or sights along the trail. A guide or GPS navigation is certainly not necessary if you have at least a little bit of mountain experience.
Renting A Bike On The Trail
As many hikers see the Thorung La as the ultimate challenge, they want to get back to Pokhara as soon as possible once they completed it. A thing that is advertised along the trail is to rent a bike in Jomsom or Muktinath and ride it down to Pokhara or Beni. The offer normally includes a luggage transfer so that you don’t have to carry your big backpack with you on the bike. If I recall it right, it was about $100 for three to four days of cycling. (Leave a comment if you want to correct this!)
We accompanied three guys doing it and I asked them about their experiences. Each of them got a 26″ hard trail bike. Apparently the bikes were not so well maintained and they had problems when changing gear. They said that the built-in components were pretty bad and after two days of cycling their arms were really sore because the shocks weren’t exactly good. They also said that the saddles weren’t very comfortable.
So check out the bikes beforehand to avoid bad surprises on the road. I would try to take a fully MTB if possible, however it might be difficult to find one up there. After what these guys told me I personally wouldn’t rent such a bike. Instead I would rather take my time and hike down to Begi.
For those who want to bike the circuit I put together the route segments for an overview.
Besi Sahar – Talekhu
Once you enter the circuit in Besi Sahar the road surface immediately changes from well paved to rocky terrain. The first two to three days were almost only pushing with very steep ascents.
Manang Valley (Talekhu – Manang)
Between Talekhu and Manang the road leads over a high plateau. The road is very flat and the surface here is very good. It feels incredible to cycle in this unreal environment.
Between Pisang and Braga the hiking trail and the motor road differ greatly. While the motor road only leads through the valley itself, the hiking trail goes up the mountains. Make sure to either hike a part of this section or do some side-trekking in this area. This is the most amazing part of the trek with stunning views on the Annapurna Range.
Manang is very good place for acclimatization and some side-trekking. The two most famous trips are: climb up to the Ice Lake or hike to the Annapurna III glacier. In Manang there even are some cinemas and shops with outdoor gear.
Manang – Muktinath (with Thorung La Pass)
After Manag there is a little bit of pushing involved but after a few kilometers the trail eventually becomes a narrow single trail which was amazing to bike.
One of the toughest part of the trail was between Thorung Pedi and the high camp. This part was pushing up a really steep hill for several hours. I highly recommend to sleep at the high camp because it will be a brutal day if you do both this part and the Thorung La in one day.
Pushing the bike over the Thorung La pass from the high camp is not so difficult even though the high altitude will make breathing much harder. Descending with a bike is horrible however. The path is extremely steep and partly icy. Unless you are a real pro at downhill riding I wouldn’t even think about biking here.
Lower Mustang (Muktinath – Beni)
The road surface here is totally different from the Manang valley. No more big rocks but a very rough surface that will make your bike shake a lot unless you have some good shocks.