I had a couple of weeks to spare in Nepal before my yoga class started and so decided to go on a trek. The yoga course is in Pokhara, making trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area the easiest option. I decided to go with an organised group for a few reasons. Foremost of these is that I am a lazy sod and found the idea of someone else carrying my sleeping bag and spare clothes extremely appealing. This is especially so as our GR20 trip is coming up and I thought it would be a good idea to get in a bit of leg strengthening hill climbing without an injury inducing heavy pack. I was also pretty keen to hang out with some Nepalese women and some friendly other trekkers. I was also a bit concerned about my route finding ability and had general woman-walking-alone type concerns.
In retrospect, the chance to spend some time and have fun with the guides and assistants was the main advantage of this approach. They were absolutely lovely and I learnt a lot about socio-cultural-gender related stuff from them as well as a smattering of Nepalese. I also quite liked having someone hold my hair back for me while I vomited my guts up for days on end. At the other end of the spectrum, the only other trekker in my group had what is politely termed a ‘challenging personality’ and had I been alone, I would have adjusted my itinerary accordingly.
In relation to my other reasons for having a guide and porters: the route finding was incredibly simple (although bad conditions in the snow could conceivably make this more challenging), I would have no particular safety concerns about walking by myself in these areas and the terrain wasn’t difficult enough to justify not carrying my own pack. In terms of general safety you’re very rarely actually alone, there is always someone just ahead or behind you, but of course normal precautions apply. General mountain safety awareness is required (i.e. don’t linger when crossing avalanches!) and on the snow days it would be sensible to tag along with some other people. Unless you don’t like asking for weather and other local advice as you go or you have a guide who is competent in mountain rescue (almost none of the trekking guides are and they don’t carry ropes or anything likely to be particularly helpful in fishing you out of an ice crevasse) there is no real safety advantage. Having said that, it was absolutely delightful to have someone holding out a helping hand whenever it could conceivably be needed. I carried the porter’s packs for an hour or so each day (which included their stuff as well as mine) for the purposes of getting a bit more of a workout on the walk. I could definitely have managed my own pack for the full trek. On the other hand, it was really quite delightful to not have to: even after a six hour day of steep walking I felt fine. A quick DIY massage each night prevented much in the way of lingering stiffness and I had no actual soreness at all. Of course, for the masochists out there (I am looking at you Roboslov), this kind of comfort is a disadvantage. You kind can carry some extra bricks in your pack if it makes you happy.
It was also good to know that I was providing relatively easy and well remunerated work in a country where people (women especially) usually get paid very little for often difficult or, indeed, dangerous work.
I tipped about 15% of the cost of the trek and even split three ways that alone is about the same as a rural primary school teacher gets paid in a month or a cleaner gets paid in about 50 days. Note that tipping in Nepal is more of less the same as in Australia – as in, you don’t need to and it’s not really expected. But it is a nice thing to do you when you get exceptional service.
On our first day we squashed into a jeep for the drive to Nayapul. I celebrated our departure with a pre-drive vomit followed by a celebratory arrival vomit. An auspicious beginning. I was profoundly grateful to only be carrying my day pack and that it was only a short (four hour walk) to our guest house. However, had I been well, this would have been an overly short day of walking as were a number of other days on our trek. Our schedule allowed for a day or so of ‘harder’ walking followed by short easy days. I personally prefer longer/harder days followed by total rest days but of course, everyone is different.
We traipsed through very pretty terraced farmland complete with lazy buffalo and nonchalant cows. I celebrated our arrival in the village of Hille in my traditional manner and then watched a thrilling hail storm from the comfort of my bed. My guide was very kind and sympathetic and delightfully mothering. Dinner was a non-event.
The following morning I had some plain pancakes and then promptly regurgitated them. This was followed by the allegedly fool proof folk remedy of a cup of Coca Cola with salt, administered by my ever watchful guide. I felt a surprisingly improvement thereafter.
The way to Ghorepani was paved with an unbelievable number of stone stairs. These were quite beautifully and carefully crafted and there were stone resting benches every so often in turns in the path. Incredibly, these stone paths and stairs more or less continued all the way to the snow line – six days ahead. Apparently each village is responsible for their section and intermittently everyone gets out to make necessary repairs. After a few hours of walking I had a lunch consisting of three small boiled potatoes. This was possibly the best meal I have ever had.
In terms of ongoing nutrition, despite finickity eating, obsessive soap hand washing and liberal applications of hand sanitiser, I estimate that about one in four meals on the first week of the trek stayed inside my body long enough to provide any kind of sustenance. Nevertheless, by drinking a minimum of three litres of water per day (plus ginger tea, gastrolight and the occasional dose of coke and salt) I quite easily managed to keep going. I might have been in a bit of a pickle if it had gone on much longer than a week though. Most guest houses had more of less the same menu: pancakes, porridge or eggs for breakfast and then noodles, soups, sad pastas and dhal bhat for dinner. Dhal bhat is of course the Nepalese national dish, combining a dhal soup and bhat (rice) with a bit of vegetable curry and some spicy pickle. I have eaten quite a lot of it now, in towns, guest hoses, home stays etc and can say that while almost inevitably tasty, it is never truly delicious. It’s just kind of too bland and texturally boring: even when it is ‘spicy’ it’s just chilli-hot, not many-spices-that-combine-to-make-your-mouth-melt-in-ecstasy hot. On the other hand, if you are ever going to order a plate of boiled vegetables, this is the place. No matter what the vegetable combination, it is always cooked to perfection and the vegetables themselves are pow! boom! type fresh and flavoursome.
The afternoon’s walking was in the blooming rhododendron forests. I had read about these and in my mind’s eye they were going to be scenes of particularly large rhododendron bushes, crowding onto the path. No. They were actual trees, not bushes, and they were HUGE. As in, really very big for trees, let alone the bushes I was expecting. The flowers were concentrated on the top of the canopy, with a few dripping down on railing branches. Fortunately, due to the steepness of the terrain, you could really enjoy the dazzling pink and red flowers in the canopy. I loved it.
The Ghorepani guest house was quite comfortable and had a wood heater in the dinning room. I had an enjoyable chat with some Dutch girls and with one of the assistants who was delighted to find that her guide husband was at the same guest house with his tour group.
All of the guest houses were basic but comfortable. Until the snow line many of them had dazzling displays of garden flowers. In little gardens or squashed into every probable (and improbable) container you were greeted by bright pink and red geraniums, amber marigolds, red lilies, roses of every imaginable colour, occasional flamboyant orchids and hydrangeas just coming into leaf. The bedrooms were fairly austere: the norm was a small cell-like room with two beds with firm foam mattresses and a pillow each. Blankets were supplied as necessary. All were reasonably clean and all lacked sufficient hanging hooks. Some alleviated the prison vibe with walls painted Miss Piggie pink or a rainbow of other happy hues. These were, predictably enough, my favourites. Most guest houses had a toilet room with a squat toilet (occasionally a western style one) and a shower room with some kind of warmish bathing option. All were supporting various interesting life forms (ranging from ordinary grouting mould to mushrooms, lizards and a very bright green lichen) and flip flops were essential. Probably best not to look to closely if you are squeamish about these sorts of things: although I know a certain Tasmanian who would have been fascinated by it all.
Early the next morning we set out to climb Poon Hill, aiming to arrive in time to see the sunrise. The view as the sun gradually lit up the mountains was absolutely magnificent. The Climber would have hated sharing it with the zillion brightly jacketed other tourists but I quite enjoyed the party atmosphere as well as the tea station at the top. I’ll confess though that I would have happily swapped both the tourists and the tea for a snuggle in my Climber’s awkwardly huge puffer jacket.
On the way down the hill I saw a number of hugely tall blooming magnolias as well as some more flower drenched rhododendrons. These both continued intermittently all the way to Tadapani and provided a delicious thrill every time I saw one. The walk took us along a ridge for some time that provided quite inspiring views of the snow capped himals. On the ridge I had a chat with a rather overweight American who was seriously struggling up the comparatively easy incline. At a guess I’d say he was carrying about 30-40 extra kilos. He was sweating like an oinker and huffing and puffing with every step. Even given height and build differences, I figure the extra effort would be the same as me carrying a 25 kilo pack but without the fun of taking the damn thing off at the end of the day. He said that his Himalayan exercise regime: (insert broad American drawl) “Sure beats the stairmaster at the gym”. He had an insanely happy grin on his face. I thought he was pretty awesome.
I was sick again in the evening but this was made up for with the most incredible breakfast view you can imagine (and a quite tasty pancake). The ice cream mountains put a bouncy skip in my step from the moment I got out of bed. On the way to Chomrong through the mossy forest we saw a tiny little grey bird with an enormous crest, yellow fantails, a pompous looking black and white woodpecker, a very attractive electric blue bird and a gorgeous red and green warbler.
Somewhat incredibly we also passed a number of yaks – including some calves!
They are very rarely kept at such low altitude and were a delightful surprise. We walked along the rushing river for some time, until it slowed and spread. Here, stone cairns had been built all across the water as memorials. Resuming our walk, the air became progressively heavier with water until at last the rain and tiny hail began. It was quite refreshing, in its way.
Over dinner I chatted again with our team as well as the Dutch girls (their contingent having shrunk due to injury and illness to just two), a delightful older couple from the USA and a rather opinionated Brazilian whose lobe stretching earrings were a target of uncontrolled curiosity among the Nepalese. At this altitude (2170 metres) it was quite chilly at night and the unheated guest houses are quite cool (only a few degrees warmer than outside). The North Americans and Northern Europeans seemed to suffer the most and complained of aching cold. It turns out that a childhood and university years in Canberra (home of cool weather, crappy building standards and completely useless/non existent heating systems) gives one comparative super-powers of indoor cold weather endurance. Pro tip: there is nothing wrong with wearing two sets of thermals, downie, beanie and gloves to the dinner table.
The next day we walked through gorgeous bamboo forests on the way to the aptly named village of Bamboo, where we rested for lunch. We crossed a few very scenic swinging bridges (fortunately, many of them very new and reasonably confidence inspiring) and from one I saw the electric blue bird again (the females are black). From a hill I also spotted the smaller (and brighter blue) sapphire flycatcher hopping around in some trees. We spent the night in Dovan where the Dutch girls were warned by an elderly compatriot of fresh avalanches before the Base Camp. Great.
By day six we had more or less become one group (with the Dutch girls and their guide) which made for quite fun walking. We were all quickly named by Miss Monkey (one of the assistants) and Donkey, Butterfly, Chicken and Mieow (guess who that was!?) enjoyed lots of singing, laughing and shouting on our short walk to Durali. We passed through dripping green forests and crossed in front of some beautiful and faintly Scottish waterfalls just before the village. That night we had a completely unsafe gas heater under our dining table (basically just a massive open cooking flame) and played Uno, ‘less than five’ at cards and the ever-popular spoon game.
The next morning we began the ascent to Machhapuchhare Base Camp (MBC). There were some gorgeous mountain views as we started and the river we crossed was breathtakingly beautiful. The snow was thick on the ground and the dark bamboo against the white of the snow was particularly striking. It was quite icy underfoot to begin with and I appreciated not having to carry a heavy pack and the availability of a helping hand and a giggle whenever I wanted it. We quickly crossed a few avalanche fields and stopped for a long lunch and incredible views in the sunshine at MBC. While we were there we heard the awful crack and boom of an avalanche somewhere in the distance. A hundred winged prayers must have gone skywards with that sound.
By the end of lunch I had a pulsing headache from the bright snow, and or the altitude. Nevertheless, after some discussion, we decided to head upwards to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). Note: this was fairly stupid. As the saying goes “never take a headache higher”. If I had been by myself I would have stayed the night at MBC, just to be on the safe side, and added a day to my trip. By the time we had walked up in the snow to ABC I felt wretched. I’ve never walked more than a few feet in snow before and it took a while to get used to it – my flailing around used up a lot more energy than necessary and my headache now also included some fairly acute nausea. On the upside, we walked into the cloud, which was a seriously eerie, strange and amazing experience. The snow muffles any surrounding sound and all you can see are your feet and white all around and above and through you. It would be terrifying without an obvious path.
The welcome sign to ABC rather unexpectedly popped up at us out of the cloud and we gratefully made our way to the guest house. Neither my headache or nausea were improved by the evil smelling open gas heaters in the dining room but luckily, by the time it was getting dark, I felt quite a bit better and felt reasonably happy about my decision to not turn around and walk back down. By morning I felt fine but the headache returned after spending the morning out in the snow watching the incredible sunrise. El cheapo sunglasses clearly need replacing with something a bit more protective.
But wow, it was beautiful. The folds of the mountains mean that ABC feels like it is laying in a little hollow completely surrounded by the soaring mountains. You really understand what they mean about mountains being the cathedrals of nature. Completely awe inspiring.
Before breakfast I had time for two hours or so of enraptured gazing and happy snapping as the light crept over the mountain tops and the soft blues and pinks and greys of grainy dawn were blazed by illuminating fingers of dazzling white. I also spent a serene and uplifting half hour meditating on my own perfectly placed and sun warmed stone in a sea of snow.
It was magical.
Having finally acclimatised, I would have preferred to have spent another night at ABC for the opportunity just to indulge in a bit more mountain gazing, snow yoga and meditation.
Nevertheless, the walk back down to MBC was really enjoyable. It was a perfectly blue morning and while the mountains gloried in the sun we threw snowballs and made snow angels and skied in our shoes and laughed and giggled and generally had a fabulous time. We paused for a cup of tea at MBC before continuing towards Deurali.
On crossing the avalanche field we had some problems with the challenging personality in our group who refused to follow the well trodden path and instead tried to cross on a path of her own design. Don’t do this. Only our frantic waving prevented her tumbling over an ice cliff and it seriously slowed down our crossing. The necessity for speed was amply illustrated when I looked upwards to see snow and rock starting to fall towards us. I would like to have helpfully shouted ‘Avalanche!’ at this point but the less articulate ‘Faaaaarkallllaaanche!!!!!!’ came out in a strangled scream. Fortunately, combined with my horrified expression and pointing finger, this was more than enough to motivate our group into a swift trot and, pausing once there was no more snow above me (falling or otherwise) I saw that the avalanche was thankfully only very small and that we should all be quite safe. The now frenzied challenging one raced past me shouting ‘be smart! don’t stop for them!’. Nothing uplifts the soul quite like the beauty of human charity.
Between Durali and Dovan there was a significant new avalanche fall – perhaps the one we had heard the afternoon previously. The many porters and trekkers who make the passing each day had already made a good pathway and we scooted across as quickly as was safely possible. I shiver to imagine being the first person to edge across.
We paused to enjoy a snug lunch as the rain fell outside and the resumed walk in the light hail was again quite enjoyable in its own way (I fully appreciated my rain jacket and change of socks though!). The bamboo forest was even prettier than it seemed on the way up and we delighted in the fecund dripping green, the slanting sunlight, bird calls and occasional butterflies. We walked right under a family of gambolling monkeys (Grey Rangurs perhaps?) which, for monkeys, were quite cute.
Actually, cuteness is one of several reasons (the others being less crowding and more flowers) to visit Nepal in March rather than the true high season (October). March is the Himalayan spring and we must have encountered hundreds of incredibly cute baby animals: tiny chicks, puppies, goat kids, buffalo, cattle and yak calves, foals but, sadly, no kittens.
The next day’s walk to Jhinudanda was very hot and I cleverly remembered to apply sunscreen on my face, neck and hands. Pity I neglected my wrists, which were pink for several days afterwards. We passed many porters who were carrying quite insane loads – weighing as much as or even more than the porters themselves. Apparently most of these were in aid of camping trips for tourists. One older man I met at a rest stop had a huge dent in his head from years of carrying these ridiculous loads. If you couldn’t happily carry it on the flat I don’t think you should be asking someone to carry it uphill, especially when you are paying next to nothing.
From Jhinudana those with animal names walked down to the hot springs. On the way we passed some absolutely luscious white orchids, dripping from trees and rocks. It was delightful to relax enjoy the view of the river and it’s huge smooth boulders and white tumbling water from the comfort of the warm baths. The mouthful of rum and coke was also surprisingly enjoyable. After a good long soak we walked back up, spotting more orchids, a jungle fowl and a few quail.
Dinner was tasty and involved being mesmerised by Indian T.V soaps. I could so easily become addicted.
Day ten of our walk dawned bright and sunny and I draped all available scraps of fabric across my pink wrists and over my head. We left the Dutch girls at a fork in the road, as they turned down towards their lift to Pokhara. We ambled on, stopping at all the shady places, rising up through terraced farms. At one point we came across a perfect ferny gully – cool and shady and green. We were also lucky enough to spot a couple of Ospreys circling quite low. I wouldn’t want to be the mouse they were hunting.
Our guesthouse in Ghandruk was comparatively fancy (I got a towel!) and after lunch there we visited the local museum and I hugely enjoyed dressing up in traditional Garung costume (lots of draped red fabrics and huge jewellery) and having a dance. $1.15 well spent. We also walked to see the old end of the village. The houses are absolutely gorgeous – wattle and daub style with beautifully carved wooden windows and roof trusses and slate tile roofs. There is a steep hill behind the village as as you climb it there is a spectacular view of the village and, on a clear day, of the mountains. It is also an ideal place to play mimic games with the ant sized girls in the village: try not to tumble down the stairs while attempting a triangle pose.
The next day’s walk to Landruk was steep down to the river crossing and then equally steep back up the other side. Fortunately we were in delightful green shade for almost all of this and it made for a very pleasant morning. The afternoon was not nearly as enjoyable as a road has recently been put through most of the way to Tolka. Obviously, this development is very helpful for local residents (jeeps and tractors can now access the whole area) but walking for hours on a dusty unshaded road in the midday sun just isn’t that much fun, no matter how hard you concentrate on enjoying the scenery.
Eventually we stepped off the road into the cool delicious Eden of the forest and the well remembered stone paths took us to Tolka and an afternoon on the lawn with tea and card games.
As it was our last night I treated myself to two pots of Masala tea and we shared the end of my chocolate supply. Living it large!
On our final morning there was a steep but slow walk down through the farmland to Phedi and a short drive to Pokhara. I spent an afternoon luxuriating in the comforts of civilisation (taking my clothes to the laundromat and ordering a birthday cake for Butterfly – told you I live large) before a very tasty final dinner with the group.
Overall, I hugely enjoyed the experience and can’t recommend hiking in the area highly enough. The scenery is absolutely magnificent and the trails easy to find and well maintained. There are comfortable guest houses along the whole route and the cheap, tasty and nutritious restaurant food means that, unless you are on a very tight budget, you don’t have to carry anything except your water, sleeping bag, clothes and personal items. Being in a group meant that I had a very comfortable and easy introduction to the region and I really did value the time spent with my lovely guide and assistants. However, if I knew earlier what I know now about the low level of physical and cultural difficulty of the trek, I would have preferred to spend a few days having Nepali lessons with a female tutor in lazy Pokhara and then to have done the trek by myself, hooking up with other independent groups for the snow days. Although I am very lazy, I’m not quite lazy enough to enjoy not carrying a pack and having arrangements made for me more than I enjoy the feeling of satisfaction and the freedom you get from walking independently.