ANNAPURNA TREKKING ADVENTURES
So what do you do in a country that boasts 8 of the world’s top 14 peaks over 8000 metres? You go to the mountains, of course.
I don’t think anything could have prepared us physically or emotionally for what we were going to experience. I think we pushed ourselves to limits we thought weren’t possible. We’re relatively fit, but at high altitudes and recovering from food poisoning, every step was just that much harder. We did it though, and I am so proud of us!
As part of our Annapurna Trekking Adventure, we decided to do the Ghorepani Poon Hill trek. This is a 5 day trek through the foothills of the Annapurna mountain ranges. The adventure started with a 10 hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara.
Little did I know when boarding that bus, that Friday 13th would live up to its reputation of bringing bad luck. Other than the fact that the bus ride took us on some of the worst roads ever imaginable (it felt more like a 4×4 outing on a muddy mountainside than a national highway), and witnessing some of the craziest driving ever, a little bug invited itself into my tummy. You can only imagine how nicely that bug was brewing in a stuffy bus (be warned that even if the bus is advertised as having aircon, it is merely an indication that it may or may not be working.) Combine that with another 5 hours of shaking about, and you have the recipe for a winner bug. I can confirm that this was indeed a winner bug, and exactly, and almost to the minute 8 hours later I found myself on the great porcelain throne with the bin in hand. Yes, it was one of those that came from both ends. I wanted to die. Thank goodness we were in the fabulous Hotel Nirvana, and not in the mountains somewhere!
Luckily we had factored in a few extra days in Pokhara, and we decided to postpone our trek. I spent the next day sleeping. I drank apple juice, and ate dry toast and bananas while Andre did a bit of exploring.
Pokhara is known as the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit. Life is centred around Phewa Lake. Adventure activities abound and there are loads of shops and eating spots for every kind of tourist need. A bit of advice to anyone going trekking. You can buy all of your gear here. It may not always be an original brand, but it’s decent quality and ¼ of the price you’d pay back home. Lakeside is lined with shops selling anything from down jackets to trekking poles.
After my day of recovery, we headed down to the lake at sunset. There was quite a bit of cloud cover about, so we did not get a glimpse of the surrounding mountains. It was still a great experience strolling along the shore taking in the eclectic mix of both locals and tourists alike.
Our ride to Nayapul, where the trek would start was there to collect us spot on time at 07:00 am. Luckily the excitement of what we were about to embark on cancelled out my rather weak body and frame of mind. Say WHAT!? We were going to see some of the tallest mountain peaks in the world. And sure enough, we had not even been traveling for 10 minutes, and we had our first glimpse of the snow capped peaks revealing themselves from behind the clouds for a brief moment.
And so starts Day 1 of our Ghorepani Poon Hill Trek. Our taxi dropped us at the little settlement of Nayapul. After a short walk we reached a sign indicating that we were about to enter the Annapurna Conservancy Area. It’s also here we get our first full view of Machapuchare or Fish Tail Mountain. Believed to be one of the homes of the Hindu god Shiva, it’s a sacred mountain in the Hindu faith and officially, Machapuchare has never been summited.
We crossed the first of many bridges, had a last chance to buy some cold drinks and had our permits stamped. We were now officially on the way to Ghorepan as the yellow sign above the steps indicated.
For the most part it was a steady and gradual uphill on a dirt road following the gurgling river below. It was pretty hot, and we were grateful for the occasional patch of shade we encountered. We passed through terraced fields dotted with farm houses. A few hours into the trek, the terrain became a bit more rugged, and the climb steeper. Stone steps took us through little settlements comprising of nothing more than a few homes and teahouses painted the characteristic blue colour we’d now become so accustomed to seeing.
We finally reached the last set of uphill steps that would take us into the little village of Tikhedunga where we’d stay the night. We found accommodation in a lovely tea house called Manisha Guest House. The owners were friendly and inviting and the accommodation, although very basic, is incredibly reasonable. After a semi-warm shower, we went on a little wander about. Light fades quickly up in the mountains and there is a sudden and drastic drop in temperature. It did not take us long to settle into a trekkers routine of up early at around 5:30 am and in bed by around 8pm.
All tea houses have wonderful, warm, homely eating halls. They are a great place to fuel up and socialize with fellow trekkers. When I told the owner that I had not been well, and that the only thing I could stomach was toast and bananas, the cook went out of her way to find me 2 bananas. They also gave me a plate with a huge pile of rice and some ginger tea which they said would be good for me. Andre had the chicken and veggie noodles.
We literally passed out after supper and were soothed to sleep by the sound of gushing waterfalls. Life does not get much better than this if it’s authentic experiences you are after.
It was an early rise at 5:30am. When we went down for breakfast, my bananas were already waiting for me. This time around I had a Tibetan bread and drizzled some honey over the bananas for extra energy. We were going to need it. This was going to be a long hard day. Every guide book and blog post had warned of the dreaded uphill on Day 2. From our breakfast spot we stared in horror to where Manisha’s son pointed out the first part of the climb. There are 3421 stone stairs from Tikhedhunga to Ulleri. That’s a 500 metre rise in elevation in just 2km. Then we will only be half way to where we’ll be spending the night. By the time we reach our spot for the night, we’d have done a total of nearly 1500m rise in elevation.
After a quick photo with Manisha’s son, we were off. We made a pact to have a breather after every 100 steps, and a hand full of jelly babies and some water after every 500. It would also allow us to take in the views, as the concentration on not twisting your ankle on an uneven step has you looking down most of the time. I think the counting was a good distraction, and it really was not as bad as we thought it would be. The path was relatively quiet other than having to give way to the odd herd of goats, a few panting fellow trekkers and the ever present porters. We quickly learnt to always stand “upside” to passing animals. The danger of them knocking you off the mountainside is very real.
We finally reached Ulleri where we stopped for some refueling. In other words a Coke and a Snickers. We were ready for part 2 of the next 800m ascent to Ghorepani where we would be spending the night.
The next part of the trek is the part nobody seems to warn you about. And this was probably the hardest part of the entire trek. More uphill. More stairs. Hours and hours of stairs.
I use the word “stairs” loosely. These were more like uneven rock shelves. Some the height of your ankle, some merely the width of a toe, some requiring you to lift your foot higher than your knee, some barely a step at all, just a crumbly place of rock and dirt where your foot has to find the safest place to step while precariously dodging exposed tree roots and fallen trunks. Although the terrain was really tough, the scenery was spectacular. Shaded forest areas with moss covered trees interspersed with ever present fresh mountain streams and gushing waterfalls. You were almost expecting to meet the hobbit around the next bend.
Probably one of the sounds I will most fondly remember is that of the tinkling of bells attached to the hardworking mules that we encountered along the way. A kind of friendly warning that they are on their way. That and the clippety clop of their hooves.
The higher we went, the thinner the air became and the harder it got to breath and put one foot in front of the other. It was also getting cold, light was fading and the mists were swirling in. We stopped for a cooldrink at a restaurant in Nangethanti. There was a sign saying that Ghorepani was 1 hour 3o minutes away. We asked a local if there would be a lot of uphill. We soon learnt that when asking a local this question, the answer would almost always be met with the same reply. “Nepali flat, a little bit up, a little bit down!” This term is used to describe even the most arduous and precipitous track as “flat.” It’s usually accompanied by the characteristic wag of the head, indicating neither a definite “yes” or “no.”
Just as the final light was leaving the sky and the smell of the wood fires filled the air and shrouded the teahouses in haze of smoke we arrived in Ghorepani. I don’t think I have ever felt such relief before. We booked into the Dhaulagiri Lodge. The communal dining area was amazing with a giant fire pit in the middle emitting the most amazing heat. I was actually feeling a little hungry so I had vegetable noodle soup and bread, while Andre had something a little more adventurous with an Everest beer. I was not quite ready for that yet, but I indulged in THE most amazing ginger tea EVER. We forgot all of the pain and suffering, and all was good with the world again.
Bed time was not long after supper, as we had a very early rise to summit Poon Hill.
It’s 4:30 am. It’s cold and it’s dark. We wonder to ourselves what on earth we are doing. The weather this high up is so unpredictable. You may get to the top of Poon Hill and the mountains may be shrouded in cloud. Or it might be the most perfect and beautiful sunrise you ever get to witness. It’s the chance you take. We had to give it our best.
We join a steady stream of fellow head torch bearing trekkers as we snake our way up the hill. It’s almost impossible to stop for a breather as you fear you might hold up those behind you. You can’t see much other than your own feet in the circle of light cast by your head torch and the only sounds are that of your own heart thumping in your chest, the crunch of stone underfoot and the puffing of those around you struggling to breathe in the thin, icy air.
We summit Poon Hill just before the sun paints the Annapurna snow with oranges and pinks. Even though we were surrounded by a 100 or so other trekkers, the moment was still mesmerizing. Your cheeks are frozen, and it feels you may lose your appendages to frostbite, but being in that moment is something I find hard to put into words.
This beautiful piece of writing by Jane Wilson Howarth pretty much sums it up:
“The mountains were so wild and so stark and so very beautiful that I wanted to cry. I breathed in another wonderful moment to keep safe in my heart.”
Back at our tea house, we had a good brekkie. I was actually starting to feel hungry for the first time on the trek, and had a boiled egg and toast. Packed up our things, and headed off to Tadapani. We were told it was an easy day of trekking, but oh my guess what, we first had to negotiate some MORE uphills. Nepalese flat.
We set off along the Deurali Pass . From Ghorepani it’s a climb to the same altitude as Poon Hill. At the rest point we stopped to admire the views over the mountains.
The next part of our trek took us through the gnarled trunks of ancient rhododendrons trees. I can only imagine how beautiful they must be in the flowering season.
We started the slow decent down to Tadapani negotiating what seemed like another few thousand steps. They were quite slippery and precarious so we had to take it very slowly. We crossed several streams. The scenery was stunning with waterfalls, giant trees, moss covered overhangs, and air plants that I am sure would cost a fortune at Stodels!
We came across this scene of hundreds of stones stacked in piles. They are a reminder of those who came before you and an assurance that you’re on the right path. It is said you create a moment of heightened mindfulness when you add a stone to the pile. The mere act of balancing is a reminder to be present in the moment.
Got in to Tadapani and booked into our lovely tea house, The Annapurna View. It was chilly and we had to wrap up warm. We got to have one of the best showers of our entire trek. Even though it was pretty much on the town square the water was solar heated and we were hot as toast afterwards. What a gorgeous little village. Especially loved the time at dusk when all the fires get stoking and you get to sit in the lovely warm communal dining area sharing stories with fellow trekkers.
Our guest house owner told us we should get up for sunrise. And boy, were we glad we did. What an absolutely magnificent site! When we were on Poon hill, Fish Tail was covered in cloud, but this time it was in full and glorious view!
After performing our ablutions (literally on the town square) we had a hearty brekkie and headed off in the direction of Ghandruk. We really struggled to get going as the views were absolutely captivating. It felt as if you could reach out and touch the mountains.
Our trek today was flat and downhill for the most part and through peaceful shaded forested areas. The ever present sacred Fish Tail was our constant companion.
We stopped at the Lonely Planet Restaurant which surely takes the cake for the restaurant with the most beautiful view ever. I was ravenous and ordered a huge plate of fries with tomato sauce. I was definitely on the mend!
Not long afterwards we were in the gorgeous Gurung village of Ghandruk. Coming over the hill, the view over the rooftops with the Annapurna mountains in the background was incredible!
It’s as if time stood still in this little village that is a maze of stone alleyways. Almost all of the houses look identical with lime washed walls. Some boast bright ochre colours with slate roofs that are supported by carved wooden struts. Most of the houses have verandahs on the ground floors with wooden props in front and mud floors plastered with clay.
Marigolds bloom in the gardens and ears of corn hang drying from the eaves of some homes. Stones are abundant here; pathways are paved with them, and the trailside walls, houses and inns are all built with them.
We booked into the Hungry Eye Hotel. The views from the rooftop were incredible. As we’d gotten there relatively early, we had most of the afternoon to wander around and take in the village life.
As usually we were up early to watch the sunrise over the mountains from the rooftop. You almost have to pinch yourself to believe you are actually standing looking at at Annapurna south which is over 7000m high.
Today was our last day of trekking. It seemed sad that we would be leaving the mountains behind, but we knew more adventure lady ahead.
They say what goes up must come down. And DOWN we went. Remember all those stairs we went up on day two? Well now we were going down the other side. Sometimes I wonder which is worse? This was pretty tough going on the knees.
Once we’d gone down what seemed like thousands of stairs we passed through beautiful terraced rice fields and the settlement of Sauli Bazar.
These traditional Nepalese swings are known as ‘Pings.’ They can sometimes be up to 6 metres high! The main components are four shafts of bamboo for the frame and sturdy lengths of natural rope.
The bamboo is simply set in holes in the ground and bent inward and tied securely at the apex with rope – a traditional technology that has remained unchanged for centuries. The seat is most often just a loop of rope, or a simple wooden board.
Another short walk through the rice fields, a tikka blessing for Tihar and we were on a dirt road that would take us back to Birethanti and where we’d come full circle and the end of five absolutely unforgettable days!
We caught a taxi back to Pokhara.
Now we totally understand why our hotel is called Hotel Nirvana – when you’ve been in the mountains for 5 days returning here is truly like “Nirvana.”
After one of the most glorious showers ever, we headed down to Phewa Lake for a short boat ride to Barahi Temple with its two tiered pagoda. The temple is only accessible by boat as it’s in the middle of the lake. Worship here on auspicious days is believed to bring good fortune and fulfillment of dreams.
We arrived back in Pokhara on the Eve of Tihar. So much festivity and jollification in the streets. What a fantastic vibe. I absolutely loved the Rangoli designs on the pavements and in front of homes. Even our hotel had its own one. These beautiful works of art are believed to bring wealth and prosperity to the home or business. Incense is burnt and offerings are made to invite Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth into the building.
The next morning we took a taxi ride to the World Peace Pagoda. Balanced on a narrow ridge high above Phewa Lake, is the brilliant-white pagoda. Construction was led by a Buddhist monk of Japanese origin with support from local Buddhists. It is one of 80 other peace pagodas built around the world as a symbol of peace for all races and creeds.
In the afternoon we took a bicycle ride all along the edge of the Lake to Happy Village where we had mocktails and lunch. What fun!
And so ended another portion of our fabulous trip to Nepal. But it was not over yet. Stay tuned for the next part of our trip which would take us into the most remote part of this planet we’ve ever been to.