It was late as I was posting last night and I realized I neglected an important discussion about the ongoing road construction and it's impact on the Annapurna area. While Brad and I spent tons of time, effort and additional miles doing our best to avoid the dusty road, it is hard to overlook some of the positives it has brought to the local communities. The road has enabled the movement of goods and services rapidly by Jeep to some of the remotest villages on the circuit. Pre-road, everything not grown or hand made was schlepped on someone's back for days into the sheer sided canyons and onto mountain sides. Even the items needed at the teahouses and trekking lodges had to themselves be hiked in. Not so surprising that menu prices went up with the elevation. Now Jeeps take care of that.
The thing that seemed to be missing in the early few days of our trek were other hikers populating these now meticulously stocked lodges and guesthouses. Brad and I started the trek at Besi Sahar, the traditional beginning of the circuit, and in 3 days of vigorous morning to evening hiking we ran across only a smattering of other hikers and we walked through ghost towns of lodges and guesthouses seemingly belonging to the heyday of the circuit where every hiker had to walk every inch of the trail. We stayed in lodges where we were sometimes the only guests. In the village of Chamje, we were 2 of 4 total guests at a large lodge and the only foreigners in the entire town which had at least 6 equally large lodges. Guesthouse owners would practically plead with us to stay at their lodge as the road has really negatively impacted the tourism business. Confusingly, these ghost towns were contrasted with other roadside villages whose residents were hard at work constructing even more lodges. They theorize that the road will bring bus loads of hikers to their towns and everyone will need a place to stay.
In fact, 3 three long days into the trek, arriving at the village of Chame, Brad and I encountered our first organized trekking groups as well as individual hikers, guides, and porters piling out of Jeeps and filling the numerous lodges to capacity. This is where the Jeeps unload their passengers and where most treks on the circuit now begin. Although the road continues, it is at the elevation of Chame and no higher, that it is safe to begin acclimatization. With roads on either side of the pass, the once 18-25 day Annapurna Circuit can now be done in about one week. People on tight schedules skip the lovely lower elevation farm terraces and go directly for the high altitude thrills.
The trail is changing rapidly. Our guidebook published last year is already out of date and the map I bought in Kathmandu claiming to be the latest version does not indicate significant stretches of the road. I'm glad we hiked this route when we did because I don't think it will be a viable trekking option in even the near future. I wish I could have seen it 20 years ago and I'll be keeping up to date with it's future progress.