Just a Spot of Hiking in the Himalayas, Darling!


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March 19th 2012
Published: March 19th 2012
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When our pockets are emptied and we are eventually forced back to reality, potential employers will no doubt ask what it is I’ve been doing since my graduation; why is there a gaping hole in my employment history? I’ll tell them that, amongst other things, I’ve been hiking. I’ll say it proudly, “Well, to you sir or madam who it may concern, I’ve been hiking in seven different countries thus far”. Is it reasonable to put that on my C.V.? Then perhaps I could remove “playing squash” from the hobbies and interests section, as in all honesty I haven’t actually played squash since I was twelve, but included it to seem more “well rounded”... Well, just look at me now, all rounded out, hiking!

“There is no rest for the wicked.” Then I must have been particularly naughty lately as yet again I found myself up at the crack of dawn taking a car to Naya Pul, a town more than an hour from Pokhara which would be the start and ending point of our hike. Needless to say the roads were bad, when are they ever good? And on the way I started to feel sick; not a great prospect for a “traveller” to whom motion sickness is the ultimate enemy. On the way we had risen to 1070m from Pokhara’s lowly 820m.

After a twenty minute walk we found ourselves at the TIMS and ACAP checkpoints in Birethanti. Having collected our stamps and eaten breakfast we were good to go. From looking at the map we had predicted our trek, the Gandruk- Gorepani Loop including Poon Hill, to take just one or two nights but soon came our education on the “Ghurkha Mile”. All those we encountered, guides, hotel and TIMS staff, advised us to stop the first night in Tikhedhunga (1500m), just a short 2 ½ hour walk from Birethanti. We couldn’t understand why. When we asked the response was: “steep”. Just a few hours would not constitute a full day’s walk, steep or not, so we decided to play it by ear.

The walk to Tikhedhunga was pleasant. The weather was good and the path was just a gradual incline, not “steep” at all. We would pass through a different village every twenty minutes or so, each village consisting of a few Teahouses offering food and accommodation. We stopped after a short while for a sugar fix. As we were going to take a biscuit each for a bit of energy, and a few villagers had joined us, we offered them around. The box was returned to us empty, none left for ourselves as they had taken two each!

Plodding onwards, the landscape was evocative of that which we had seen previously hiking in Sapa, in northern Vietnam. In parts it was also suggestive of mountain-scapes you might find in North America. The sky was clear and the weather warm enough to work up a bit of a sweat. We were thankful that the dust we had experienced elsewhere had started to settle and the clouds now lifted to reveal those snowy mountains, at long last as they had been hidden from us previously in Pokhara.

It wasn’t long at all before we came to Tikhedhunga. We hadn’t decided if we should stay or not, until we passed a beautifully painted, blue Teahouse draped in gorgeous orange honeysuckle. It loured me in despite the fact that neither of us were even nearly tired and could have gone much further. It didn’t seem like a bad idea to stay at this attractive little place by the waterfall, so that’s what we did. After a cup of tea we crossed a rope bridge to the falls and napped in the sun for a few hours, acquiring a moderate amount of mosquito bites. Later, when we headed back up to the room we soon realised that there was very little left to do and now it was too late to leave for Ghorepani. We wasted time by playing card games and I felt guilty for having wasted the day.

That night we climbed into our sleeping bags and were thankful that it was not cold. I slept relatively well, or would have had it not been for Dad jumping about like a fish out of water in his bag. We had decided to get up early in the morning and start for the next village of Ulleri (2010m) before breakfast, as it was rumoured to have a good view of Annapurna South, which TIkhedhunga sadly lacked being situated in a valley.

It was more than three thousand irregularly placed stone steps up to Ulleri. Now this must have been the “steep” people were telling us about! Those 3,000 plus steps had to be accomplished on empty stomachs. As I perched on a rock at the halfway mark to catch my breath an elderly man approached, on his way down. In his left hand he carried a bag of leaves, some of which he was currently chewing. He sat down next to me and began to talk incoherently. His eyes filled with tears and he emitted lime coloured saliva with every word. I immediately regretted shaking his hand when he offered; he was filthy and really squeezing my fingers but I had felt obliged to return the gesture. I pulled away and we quickly got going, nodding our heads to whatever he said and repeating the words “Namaste”, meaning goodbye as well as being the common greeting.

We finally reached Ulleri but that stone staircase kept on and on. We stopped to devour boiled eggs and lemon tea and from our table we could see through a crevice created by two lesser mountains, revealing Annapurna South. We took a lot of photographs, being so impressed. Little did we know what was still yet to come...

Our mission that day was to reach Ghorepani (2750m), an estimated four hours hike away (looking at our highly uncertain map) including a rise in elevation of more than 1000m. Ghorepani is the home of Poon Hill (3200m), a kind of crowning jewel and the place from which we would watch the sunrise the following morning, as the day broke over the Annapurna vista

Once again the hike was not difficult. We were afforded the opportunity to take it easy; resting in whichever attractive spot should take our fancy, usually in the shade as the early part of the day was quite hot. Just an hour from Ghorepani we stopped for lunch, eating amazing soup and cornbread. Luckily, the teahouse we had chosen had a small fire as the temperature dropped quickly and it became apparent that the white particles falling from the sky were not in fact ash, as we had assumed, but snow.

A small, slight flurry blew in and it was time to don our thick down-jackets and woolly warmers. The altitude didn’t help the temperature any. We arrived around 3pm, collected the necessary stamps from the police checkpoint and climbed just a little further in the direction of Poon Hill to a teahouse recommended to us by a friendly guide. It was much plainer than where we stayed the previous night but came with the promise of spectacular mountain views, should the weather ever clear.

A hot shower took the chill from my bones. I couldn’t help but remark how difficult it has been at times to find even lukewarm water in much more convenient locations. To further that, the food and accommodation during the hike were much better than in some of the less “remote” areas we have visited in our travels, which was unexpected but highly appreciated. We spent the evening sat around an oil drum which was now seeing out the rest of its days as a make-do heater. Time passed slowly as we read, drank copious amounts of tea and I repeatedly killed Dad at Blackjack (He’s recommended a career in the casinos should I fail to impress those potential employers).

We counted down the minutes and seconds to bedtime; an early one due to another very early start the next day. That night the weather was bad and visibility awful. Everyone sat around discussing their plans for the following day should they be unable to see the mountains. It was a little bit much for me. People seemed prematurely disappointed and I personally couldn’t find the sense in it. Dad and I stepped outside and were encouraged by the few stars showing through; the sky appeared to be clearing and we were hopeful. It turned out that Dad was especially hopeful, only sleeping for one hour that night due to excitement (he really loves the mountains)!

Before crawling into my sleeping bag that night I’d prepared myself to be able to get up at the last second. But it wasn’t meant to be, as giddy-pants turned the lights on a 4am announcing the mountains were out. And they were. Lit by an almost full moon, they were stunning.

We were the first up that morning, and the first to summit Poon Hill. (We were also the last to leave.) It was an hour long, steep ascent at an ungodly hour. The temperature was freezing and snow and ice glazed the path at times. I struggled a little; a combination of altitude, having no food in my belly and still being half asleep. We reached the top a little out of wind and were greeted by (literally) breath taking views! The range before us included Annapurna South, Annapurna III and the “Holy Mountain” Machhapuchre (6998m) on which ascents are forbidden, resembling of the fishtail for which it is monikered. There were more besides, but we are still unsure of their names, there are just so many!

That morning the mountains seemed close enough to touch and the view was crystal clear. When we first arrived dawn was still yet to break and the silvery moonlight gave the peaks a ghostly appearance. The sky began to colour and after a while the sun rose in the east. The snow reflected pink light and we could do nothing but watch the transformation, enthralled.

More people came, but the crowd was not too much as to spoil the atmosphere. Now that we were sat still we quickly began to feel the cold, despite wearing so many layers. Dad left and came back with two tin mugs filled with sweet black tea; the best cuppa of our lives. I took photos, avidly, utilising the changing light, then sat back to appreciate my gorgeous locale.

Back at the teahouse we warmed and breakfasted, our bags were packed and we were first on the trail. We had not decided whether or not to complete the circuit or to go back the way we had come. The weather was perfect, our spirits were high and we decided it would be an awful shame not to continue on and complete the whole Gorepani- Gandruk circuit. That was the best decision we could have made, as this, the third days trek, was my favourite day by far! The mountains remained clear to our left the whole day, a pleasant companion for any hiker. The weather was perfect and the scenery nothing short of stunning. The trail started steeply but soon evened. We sat for a while to take in the view.

It was here that we were introduced to a man more impressive than most. He is a real “Sherpa” and has summitted Everest three times, no less, including an expedition from the Tibetan side of the mountain. He has climbed above 8000m fourteen times and furthermore, he’s been to Alton Towers (a theme park back home in England which he was proud to tell about). Dad was star struck to say the least and made me pose for a photograph with this celebrity Sherpa. We spoke for a while and shared emails for “next time”.

The third day of the trek was the best and most enjoyable hike I have ever done, in all aspects. We encountered less villages with their many teahouses, which meant less interference with the natural surroundings. Down in one of the valleys along the way I stopped to change my socks as, glamorous as it sounds, mine were drenched in sweat and threatening to cause blisters. I heard the ring of a bell and movement in the bushes; “is that a yak?” I asked only half hopefully, knowing that we were too low now to see them. “Get your shoes on and have a look at this!” I did as I was told and before me stood a herd of at least one hundred yaks. This was quite a spectacle and we were very lucky to see it. Two other hikers must have gotten wind of it and came running back up the mountain to see for themselves. They told us that this was the first time that yaks had come here in more than ten years. Now I could go home a happy girl!

Later we stopped for lunch and I decided that it was about time I tried the famous Nepalese dish “momos”; a kind of steamed dumpling. I ordered them filled with potato and yak cheese and was not disappointed by the taste nor by the energy burst they provided which gave me the steam to get all the way to Gandruk that night.

We arrived in Tadopani by three, the town in which we were supposed to spend the night. Despite having just climbed a very steep incline, even indicated as such on the map as being quite tiresome, Dad and I were not ready to call it a day. Stopping before we were exhausted, as we had that first day, would feel lazy... Not my usual theory of things in general, I’ll admit; I’m usually one to take the escalators before the stairs...

Gandruk was two or three hours away, with only one small village between. We thought we could get there before dark and decided to go for it. The trail began as a pleasant woodland walk to the following village but once that was passed, this “point of no return,” the path became very steep. I grew tired and my knee (to be read in appropriate disgust and infamy) began to burn. We were very pleased to arrive hours later in Gandruk, as it had evaded us at every corner forcing us ever onwards.

We stopped at the first teahouse we found, Gandruk Guesthouse, and from its small garden we had the best view of the whole trip. Right on top of us, as close as we could be, was Annapurna South and its base camp, beside Macchupchhare. We had this lovely little place to ourselves, and were content to know that our little slog of effort had been very much worthwhile. Dad ordered a well earned beer and the owner Jay lit a fire for us as we ate dinner.

It wasn’t long until we were ready for bed. All in all, including the ascent of Poon Hill, walking from Gorepani to Gandruk (a leg of the larger Annapurna circuit), we had been going for fourteen hours. I settled into my sleeping bag and didn’t manage even one page in my book.

The fourth and final day of our trek gave us the best views and clearest weather to date. Although Dad promised a “lie in” until 8am we were once again up with the birds and breakfasting on the lawn with the mountains before us. We were just four hours from the finish line and with my knee well rested and ever so slightly coddled by Paracetamol we were good to go. The whole way day was, as you might expect, a constant, steady descent. We passed through many villages this day, one of them named “Kimche” where I stood by the signpost to pose “Korean Style”; fingers in a “V” formation. We found ourselves constantly harassed by children asking for “chocolate”, “school pen”, “balloon.” This has of course been encouraged by those well intentioned tourists who have sadly but inadvertently encouraged a begging mentality in the local kids. The parents hate it, and we saw one or two of the children smacked behind the legs for their audacity. But more so, it should be obvious to the tourists that handing out sugary foods is less than ideal for an abundance of reasons, if not just for the fact that there mustn’t be a dentist around for miles...

The trail continued before us and we submitted to the growing heat and beginnings of bodily aches by sitting on a stone wall to drink water. One minute became five and we had been sat silently for some time. Suddenly two unfamiliar creatures bounded across the rocks to our left; movement like wild cats but not quite so big. We took out Grandad’s binoculars which Dad had brought along and discovered that the animals were lemurs. We watched them for a while, delighted.

Down in the valley now, towards the hottest part of the day, I was glad to be wearing the hat Dad had insisted upon. Not flattering but definitely advantageous. I longed to roll the pants of my leggings to catch the breeze, but refrained for fear of being mistaken for the local Yeti. Hygiene had not been our priority in the mountains, and needless to say some time had passed since I last shaved those legs. ( A special thanks to Dad here for suggesting that he had packed soap, deodorant etc., when in fact he had intentionally left them back at the hotel.) Aquamarine glacier water of startling colour ran along beside us. In the villages we passed through we watched as numerous mothers bathed their children in the icy water to a chorus of demonstrations, screams and wails. One mother looked over at me and laughed naughtily, much to my amusement.

We had almost made it and now I was tired. I was craving Birethani, the final village. The annoying custom in these parts is to claim you are part of the village many miles before the actual village boundary. Further and further we walked until all of a sudden there before us stood nondescript, nothing special, Birethani. All that was left for us to do was stamp out, pose for one last photograph and hail a cab.

*****

Dad is well experienced at this kind of thing, and I’m thankful that he chose to spend time with me in Nepal, partaking in a shorter, easier trek when he is capable of much greater undertakings. The Poon Hill/ Gandruk- Gorepani Trek is not particularly hard. It is an enjoyable, leisurely trek which I would recommend for all those in a reasonable condition of fitness. For us it was not undertaken as a challenge or a test of endurance, but a chance to get out of the tourist towns and into the mountains. I loved every minute of it! And what’s more, I finally mastered a long time ambition of mine; the “snot rocket”! (Such a lady I am!) Now, if that’s not worth including on the C.V. then I don’t know what is!

Because sharing is caring...

The first night of the trek we spent at Tikhedhungai in the quaint and clean “Chandra Guesthouse”. What I would recommend as an alternative would be to extend that days trek from 2 ½ hours by an extra hour and take those steps up to Ulleri, where the next morning you will wake up to stunning views. As such you will reach Gorepani much earlier, but that won’t be much of a problem as the views are even more spectacular and the town a little more developed. I would recommend staying at the “Hill Top Guesthouse”, but check your bill carefully before paying! My final recommendation would be to end the third day at Gandruk instead of Tandopani, and I cannot speak highly enough of the “Gandruk Guesthouse” where you might even chose to spend more than one night and do some more local treks. The view from Gandruk is really special!

Prices are fixed in the Annapurna Conservation Area (to enter you require a Permit costing 2,000 rupees). For example, at this level, a double room will cost just 200 rupees, a bottle of coke 130 rupees, a cup of tea 50 rupees or a pizza about 250 rupees; make sure to bring enough cash! And prices get higher the higher you go! A taxi back to Pokhara from Birethani should cost no more than 1,000 rupees, a small sum for a thrill ride!

Along the way I met a very impressive Sherpa, Dawa Geljin Sherpa, as I mentioned in the blog. Should you be interested in contacting him his email address is sherpag77@hotmail.com, and he comes highly recommended, undertaking many bigger treks.

Alternatives we met a very nice guide named Jeevan who was greatly helpful to us without any ulterior motive, just being a nice guy. We would personally recommend him for similar treks. His email is basyaljeevan@yahoo.com.


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30th March 2012

FIRST GLIMPSE [photo=6798579]
Would have excited my soul too...hope to be there in 2013...can't wait.

Tot: 2.437s; Tpl: 0.103s; cc: 11; qc: 30; dbt: 0.0355s; 2; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb