The New Annapurna Trekking Trails offer the essential antidote to the growing encroachment of jeeps, dust and noise on the legendary circuit.
The man with few teeth looks at my husband for some time. Then slowly, deliberately, draws an index finger across his own throat. “Tomorrow” he threatens. A dramatic pause before he erupts into laughter and points at the goat between them. The goat is chewing my husband's sleeve, leaving a white silken reminder. We pass under soaring bamboo frames, where young boys triumphantly hang flower garlands, offering namastes without compromising their balance. Between the heightening jungle-clad valley walls, villages offer up cow bell jingles and everywhere the applause of water from streams, rivers and falls.
We had arrived at the foothills of Nepal's Annapurna mountain range almost a decade late, previously waylaid by coups and closed airports in our youth. Taking a new opportunity, now without political crisis, we were disappointed to read reports about the development of a new road along our intended trekking route, the famed Annapurna Circuit. However, with insufficient information on its impact and status, we stubbornly set off with backpacks full of optimism. This is curtailed on our first morning in Nepal, with the Himalayan Times proudly declaring the Annapurna Highway officially complete and fully operational. Before doubt can put us off, I receive an email from German born trekker, Andrées de Ruiter, with an answer to our dilemma.
In short, he informs us that we barely have to venture onto the road. Anticipating that trekkers to the region would want to avoid jeeps and dust, Ruiter collaborated with Prem Rai, a local expert guide, and together they set out to provide alternative routes, rediscovering old trails away from the road and its growing traffic. Equipped with several tins of red and white paint, and a love of these mountains, they tramped the whole circuit dabbing their brushes as needed to direct walkers along the new tracks. These routes are collectively termed the New Annapurna Trekking Trails (NATT), and we gleefully purchase the handy guidebook and hit the trailhead.
To avoid walking on what is rumored to be the busiest section of the road, we traveled by local bus with an over-friendly goat, from Besisahar to Syange. We discovered that the 'highway' is actually a narrow dirt track, with enough ruts and fords to jelly any unwitting truck passenger. Over the five hour journey at peak holiday season, in total, six smile filled buses or jeeps jostle by, while we marvel at their drivers' skills. In retrospect, it would have been a lush, beautiful and quiet walk, devoid of most trekkers, who like us had taken a ride to get started.
On our first morning of walking, after an hour of road, we abandon it and swing over the Marsyangdi River, meeting with our first red and white NATT trail, threading us through the river valley. There is little footfall this side of the water, and when we can spy the road on the opposite bank, the majority of our fellow trekkers are following it faithfully. The further we travel along the circuit, the fewer people we see on the alternative trails. Over rejuvenating lemon and honey tea in the evenings, we find that most people don't know about these routes, and surprisingly, neither do their hired guides. Those who do know, seem to lack the confidence to try them. Yet even for those who choose to walk on the road, traffic is marginal, two to three vehicles per day if that, and the scenery reliably spectacular.