Ok, so we arrive in Kathmandu from Darwin, Australia after a number of delays in Darwin (not sure of the cause) and what a difference in temperature. Darwin was a balmy, humid 38C while Kathmandu was 12C when we stepped off the plane. We were met by the manager of the hotel we were staying, and he had a driver waiting for us. We quickly learned that vehicles in Nepal are often crammed with more people than the seats allow. Our duffle bags and backpacks were also thrown on top of the roof and not strapped down as we made our way to the hotel. Surprisingly, nothing actually flew off! The room was fairly small but comfortable enough.
The next day we explored the Thamel area (where we were staying) and found that there was an energy crisis due to the fact that India has blockaded the border and is not allowing the shipment of cooking and vehicle fuel through. That made driving 3x more expensive and restaurants that were open for business were harder to find. There were also scheduled rolling blackouts for the electricity. Apparently, India doesn’t like the fact that Nepal is drafting a new constitution.
We found a restaurant and I ordered a typical Nepalese dish which was called “Chicken Thali” which consisted of lentil soup, rice, curried vegetables, yogurt, and curried chicken. It was very tasty and not too spicy – just beware of the pickled root-looking things – they actually burn! Turns out that our guide and porter would eat this for every meal at every teahouse we would stop at.
After that the hotel manager took us to a trekkers shop where we could buy supplies before we head to the mountains. I had read that 90% of the stuff sold on the streets of Thamel are fake (i.e., if it’s branded “North Face” or “Marmot” or “Columbia”, it’s not the real deal) though the vendors will try to charge you as though it were and you’re supposed to haggle and bargain for everything. We ended up buying “North Face” down vests for the Barb, Caleb, and Connor and a couple of pairs of wool socks for me (local brand).
The next day we took off for Pokhara on an 8hr, jerky-jerky bus ride to meet our guide and porter at the bottom of the Annapurna mountain range to begin our trek. We stayed overnight in Pokhara at Hotel Orchid after our harrowing drive through the mountain passes. The next day we started off early and had a cup of tea before setting out. I think our guide wanted to ensure that we had something warm and sweet inside before we started. Nepali tea is served sweet with milk. And you can see that we’re all fresh and excited to start!
Dhana, our guide, was a character. He left home in the Everest region at the age of 9 to earn money in Kathmandu by washing dishes. By age 12 he had become a porter and was carrying up to 50kg packs for trekkers! He learned to speak English very well by talking to tourists and eventually became a guide around 18. Sangit, our porter, was about the same age and spoke less English so we didn’t get to know too much of his history. Laws had been put in place to help protect the porters so load restrictions had been imposed. Porters could only carry a maximum of 30kg. All our stuff weighed about 20kg so we were well within the limits.
The first day of the hike was very difficult and gruelling. We began in Nayapool (elev. 1070m) and would be climbing through Birethanti and Hile to a place called Tikhe Dhunga (elev. 1577m).
It started off as a mild incline with ramp-like roads but eventually gave way to steep stair-like steps. There were points when I felt like I was climbing a ladder but with a backpack on so I was huffing and puffing pretty much all day. I thought I was going to have a heart attack! By contrast, the boys seemed to be loving the experience and were scampering up and down the path ahead of us like a couple of mountain goats. Dhana would shake his head with a smile and say, “Too much energy”. Even worse (for me) was Barb who was right behind the boys like a mama alpaca watching over them. Whenever I asked Dhana how much farther the teahouse was his reply was always the same, “Just a few more minutes of walking”. *GROAN*
When we arrived at Tikhe Dunga Dhana suggested we keep walking for a couple more hours to reach Ulleri (elev. 2073m) because the hardest part of the trek was between Tikhe Dunga and Ghorepani so it would be a good idea to get part of it out of the way. More *GROAN*
I forgot to mention that the climate changes every 5 min. of climbing due to the altitude so this teahouse was freezing. There was a common room on the ground floor with an oil-barrel wood stove where you could hang your wet clothes (either from sweat or cold water washing) to dry overnight. The lady that seemed to own/run the place seemed genuinely glad to have us there. The high season for trekking had just ended as winter weather was starting to settle in at the higher elevations so the teahouses were practically deserted. Besides us, there were two retired school teachers doing the same circuit trek as we were. Anyway, the lady who ran the place seem quite taken by the boys, Connor in particular. I think she was just a grandmotherly type of person.
Just before we left we saw a man carrying 3 sheets of plywood on his head and back heading up the mountain. I’m not sure how heavy that was but it I’m sure it was heavier than our daypacks! It was also good for the boys to see how stuff got transported up there in the mountains. We explained that the man was only probably getting paid $1 for his labour, if even that much. Dhana’s wife is a school teacher and she made the equivalent of $60USD each month.
Day 2 was just as gruelling, if not worse than the first day. Even the boys found it more challenging and asked Sangit if they could borrow the telescoping walking poles he had attached to his pack. Eventually, they heard me wheezing away at the back of the line so they handed them over to me and Barb (she had also begun to slow down). Dhana also found a couple of stick in the woods so we could use two poles each. Apparently, 30% of your climbing energy can come from the use of these poles by allowing your upper body to help stabilize and lift yourself up. Needless to say, I used the poles for the rest of our journey. We encountered several mule trains, local wildlife, and teahouses along the way. By far the most frustrating for me was the man with the plywood. We would pass him and then we’d pause for a rest and he’d pass us. Then we’d start again, pass plywood man, rest, plywood man lap us again, and the whole thing would repeat over and over. It made me realize how out of shape I am when plywood man carries 200 pounds and laps me several time throughout the day. Must be the altitude. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
We reached Ghorepani (elev. 2850m) just after noon so we had lunch at the teahouse and my legs felt like LEAD STUMPS. I told Barb that I could not go on to Poon Hill which was just “a short walk” further up the mountain to see the sunset. She suggested I take a nap to help relax my legs and that it would be a shame to come all this way and not go the last little bit to reach the top.
So an hour later we were again trekking straight up. The boys were actively encouraging us on. They still seemed to have lots of energy. Poon Hill is a “public park” so it had actual steps for parts of the way. You can also see a cell phone tower behind Caleb near the top of the peak. Needless to say, we had great reception on our devices here.
After an hour and a half we finally reached the top (elev. 3210m) and I’m glad Barb pushed me on as the view was spectacular! We were above the clouds.
On a side note, even though the down vests were not genuine North Face, Barb and the boys were very grateful to have them. At the very top of Poon Hill was the only time I regretted not getting a vest but that would have been silly to buy one for the 45 minutes we were at the peak.
Dhana told us that the next three days of hiking would be easier as we were starting to head down, although there was a section where we had to go up, then Nepali flat (which means uneven up and down for a while), then down. We discovered that the trek down, in different ways, was just as difficult as climbing up. Again, the walking poles helped me a great deal. We noticed as we came down that much of the mountainside is terraced in order to grow crops.
We left Ghorepani and worked our way up and down through Deurali (elev. 2960m), Banthanti (elev. 2194m), and stayed in Tadapani (elev. 2630m) for the next night. We stayed at the Himalaya Tourist Guest House and the lady there had been stoking the oil-barrel furnace all day so that there was lots of hot water. We saw signs all over the common room – phone charging station (100NPR), hot shower (200NPR), Nepali Tea (50NPR). We were running out of money and I was the sweatiest and dirtiest one of the bunch so I won the hot shower. Turns out it was so hot that I couldn’t even stand under the stream and, of course, the cold valve was broken. I ended up splashing myself with scalding water to get the soap off. One of the drawbacks was that none of the sleeping rooms in any of the teahouses had any electrical sockets and I needed one for my stupid CPAP machine. I do have a portable battery but it takes a 12-13 hour charge for it to last for 7 hours of runtime. Basically, I had quality sleep a little less than 50% of the time due to non-existent sockets. Happily, though, since it was low season, we weren’t charged any money for my shower or to charge my phone and CPAP machine.
From Tadapani we walked through Bhatsi Kharka and Ghandruk (elev. 1940m) where we stayed at Hotel Manisha, another teahouse where we were the only customers. My legs were STILL leaden stumps but, surprisingly, my back had not been thrown out of whack so as to debilitate me. For that I was extremely grateful. As we walked into Ghandruk and approached the hotel I noticed a bunch of fat chickens in the their yard. It looked good enough to eat so I ordered chicken for dinner that night. It was great!
And as a final testament to my weakness and frailty, as we set out on that last day we saw another man carrying a stone slate, which was likely going to be ground and polished to be used as a tabletop. I can’t imagine it was any lighter than plywood man’s load but stone man walked along confidently as though his load were made of feathers. We passed him once but he lapped us on our first rest stop. We didn’t see him after that. I’m pathetic, I know.
The last leg of our journey took us from Ghandruk through Kimche/Dhamle, Syauli Bajar (elev. 1190m), and Birethanti (elev. 1080m) – yes, the same Birethanti that we walked through on Day 1. We were also supposed to walk back to our starting place of Nayapool but Dhana hired a Jeep to take us from Birethanti back to Pokhara and Hotel Orchid.
So am I glad we did the trek in Nepal? YES! It was beautiful, scenic, and a wonderful experience to have as a family. Would I do it again? Not unless I had properly prepared and conditioned my body to be healthy and ready to brave the rigours of the trail. Yes, the Ghorepani – Poon Hill circuit is supposed to be the easiest trek in the Annapurna mountain range but it’s all relative. When you consider the flatness of Ontario and that I’m a chubby hubby who enjoys steak, spaghetti bolognaise, bacon, and chicken wings – usually in one sitting – this is not a hike for those who aren’t prepared both physically and mentally. Yes, I managed to do the trek but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I was in better shape. Dhana and Sangit, on the other hand, were absolutely fabulous. They related well with the boys, playing Chain Reaction on Dhana’s phone or patiently learning how to play Hearts or Euchre from Caleb and Connor in the evenings.