A place is hard to define. Places change. People change. And in many "must-see" locations, they inevitably become entrenched on the tourist trail, losing the charm which put it there in the first place. But the Himalayas is one for the books.
This is happening right this very instant.
If you haven't hiked this incredible 17 day trekking route through Nepal's Himalayas, don not delay. What once was an awe-inspiring walk through isolated villages is increasingly becoming a magnet for anti-hikers; jeeps roar up the western slope, carrying tourists too lazy to put one foot in front of another. As you can imagine, these slopes become congested in the afternoon, as Jeeps kick up dirt and gravel on hikers.
But fear not... for now.
The eastern side remains relatively unscathed from the tourist boom. The paths remain open to hikers, the people as charming as ever, and not a Jeep in sight. The same goes for higher elevations on the western side; for now, Jeeps only run up to Jomsom, which gives hikers three full days of (almost) traffic-free trekking.
What to See, What to Skip
The Annapurna Circuit is connected by two river valleys: the eastern Marsyangdi, then down the Kali Gandaki in the western slope. A recently completed road allows jeeps and tour buses to drive up the Marsyangdi to the base of the pass.
Most trekkers prefer riding in jeeps than walking behind them, which as a results cuts the trekking time from 17 days down to 11. And with a road planned to run up the eastern slope, what was once the world's greatest trek will become a short, four-day hike.
It hurts to say this, but: trekkers may be better off with Jeeps.
My wife and I completed the 17-day trek, and (no pun intended) the trip goes significantly downhill from Jomsom. While mountain vistas remain spectacular, the constant back-and-forth of jeeps and tour buses feel more like walking a busy rural road than trekking. Which, of course, is why most people flock here.
Therefore, my suggestion is as follows: start in Khudi, and begin your hike counter-clockwise. Stop in Manang for a mandatory acclimisation day, then go over the Thorong La Pass, and down into Jomsom. From there, hop on a jeep and head either to Tatopani (where you begin the hike up to Poon Hill) or to the end of trail, where buses regularly leave for Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Sunrise views from Poon Hill are renowned for their beauty; however, its easy access make for a crowded visit. And if you've hiked for two weeks already, you can't help but wonder what all the fuss is about.
Tourism Dollars vs. Local Interest - Compatible?
I've heard older travelers lament the loss of idyllic destinations (Thailand, Bahamas, Goa, etc.) and perhaps I've even seen places change over time as word spread. But never - in all my travels - have I seen a location in such transition. You can almost see "progress" increase day by day.
Of course, this is only one viewpoint. How do local residents feel about such aggressive growth?
The answers I heard appeared directly related to financial interests. Obviously, hotel operators, tour guides, and porters are thrilled with increased exposure and business.
Well, actually... they aren't.
In fact, tour operators are against it, because they know the road will kill their business (or at least reduce the need for guides).
But what about locals with no vested interest? What do they think?
The truth is, nearly everyone - besides tour operators - are excited about the road. It opens up their world, even if it does close the book on a world-class trekking experience.
As an ardent traveler, I understand locals should have the first and last word about their infrastructure. And it most cases, it's the right thing to do...
...but in cases where beautiful, cultural places are picked clean by the tourist trail, is it really the right answer?
Travelers, take heed: the Annapurna Circuit remains one of the best treks in the world. But for how long?