5-day Poon Hill Trek

Day -1: Logistic arrangement in Kathmandu:

We spent the morning walking around Kathmandu, and somehow managed to survive the choking atmosphere and erratic traffic in the capital. By mid afternoon, we were so hot, tired, and templed down that we decided to go back to Kathmandu Boutique Hotel, and arranged our air tickets to Pokhara and a 5-day trekking tour to Poon Hill. As mentioned in my first blog post about Nepal, it was a very rational decision made out of total ignorance to fly in this corner of the world. Anyway, we handed over nearly $900 (hotel accommodations in Kathmandu and Pokhara + 2 air tickets to Pokhara + transportation to and from airports + a 5-day trekking tour for 2 people with a tour guide and a porter) to the travel manager at the hotel WITHOUT getting any written confirmation from him. We then spent the next hour panicking whether the guy would vanish into thin air with our money. Of course it did not happen. Nepalese people are just too nice. That night we received two tickets to Pokhara the next morning. Bingo!

Day 0 – Kathmandu to Pokhara:

I was so excited that we both got a window seat on the right side of the plane, despite fierce competition from a well-informed group of Chinese tourists, who sprinted to board the plane first before everyone knew what was happening and got all the best seats at the back. The take-off was a lot smoother than I expected. Just a few minutes in the air, we spotted snow-capped peaks poking through a thick blanket of white clouds. So surreal! So majestic! So mysterious! But those peaks and the airplane wings were the only things that were visibly clear. White clouds turned out to be a thick haze that reached a few thousand meters high, spanned the whole distance from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and blocked the view of anything and everything below our airplane’s wing tips. Things did not get any better in Pokhara. The haze was so bad that we could not spot any sign of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges. On the bright sight, that gave us a unique view of the Phewa lake without any mountain reflection, which you undoubtedly could not find in any postcard. On the down side, it sucked big time!

We spent the after noon cycling around town, visiting the International Mountain Museum, and wondering out loud what the heck got into the heads of the Koreans that made so many of them went crazy about mountain climbing. My travel buddy got so inspired, actually I think he got a mysterious mountain-loving bug from the museum, he could not stop talking about the Everest Base Camp for the next whole week despite the very hazy reality that we were living in. Anyway, that night I got a great boost of encouragement from a colleague: “It was always pretty polluted! ….my experience is the higher you go, the clearer the air, it’s so thin, it just can’t hold all the crap in it!” And those are words from a guy who visited Nepal 17 years ago. Welcome to the pollution navel of the world!

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The most beautiful boarding pass in the world 🙂

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This luggage scale reminds me so much of airports in Myanmar

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View from my window seat

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It was so hazy we could see the top of the mountains only

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Approaching Pokhara. The city looks so much greener compared to Kathmandu

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 Pokhara lost its charm because of a thick haze. We did not see any of the big mountains surrounding the city.

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***

Day 1 – Nayapul to Ulleri:

Finally we could start the trek. Yes! But not yet. First we spent an hour shopping for a backpack and repacking my buddy’s stuff because he decided to go trekking in Nepal with a super posh leather suitcase. I was blissfully ignorant about lots of things during this trip. I did not read on airplane crashes, I did not do any research, I did not buy a guidebook, I did not do any exercise. But the guy seriously gave me a run for my money. Then, we got a 2-hour free massage in a tiny car crawling from Pokhara to Nayapul on bumpy roads. The little town of Nayapul (altitude 1,070m) is the start of the longer and more difficult Annapurna Base Camp Trek, and the shorter and easier Poon Hill Trek that we were attempting.

After about half an hour, I realized that I had left my own mark on the trek by making a very bold fashion statement. All around me, people were carrying either a huge backpack, or a small day pack (with porters tagging along carrying their huge backpacks). Many were also equipped with super light trekking poles, sweat absorbing wrist bands, breathable arm protectors, and other fancy accessories. There I was, looking like a half-wrapped half-dead mummy, with a scarlet sling bag, a camera dangling from my neck, and a white scarf draping all over my head and upper body to shield me from the scorching sun. Our guide Ram and our porter Kurma must have had a big question mark in their heads why they ended up with me instead of all those normal people.

Anyway, we kept walking at a steady pace on relatively flat and easy terrains under the baking sun for almost 3 hours before we stopped for lunch. And then the fun began. After crossing a suspension bridge, Ram told us that we were going up from there. He did not tell us ‘there’ meant 3,200 grueling steps up the mountains. Somehow I managed to ascend nearly 1,000m to get to Ulleri (altitude 1,960m) without tearing every muscle in my leg. That was a big feast for a couch potato like me. It was still very hazy. Our guide Ram was optimistic. We would go higher, it would get clearer. Tomorrow would be another day!

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Most people start their Poon Hill/ Annapurna Base Camp trek from this village

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Symbol of Shiva

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Crossing a suspension bridge

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We did not see many fruits in Nepal. We were told that many were actually imported from China

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Many local women dress in Indian-style outfits

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The place where trekkers have to register with local authorities and get their trekking permits.

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Nepal-style weather forecast

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On the way we saw a lot of ‘missing person’ notices.

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A dry river bed

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The first part of Day 1 was easy but very hot, we mostly walked on flat terrains under the mid-day sun

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Lunch stop

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It was hazy even at mid day

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Some beautiful flowers

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‘Man on the ledge’ – Our tour guide trying to call our porter

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The afternoon was tough. It was 3,200 stair steps up the mountain.

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Our guesthouse in Ulleri

***

Day 2 – Ulleri to Ghorepani:

We woke up to a mediocre sunrise. It was still very hazy. I never expected that up on mountains, so it was a big disappointment. As we set off, Ram pointed to various empty spaces in the distance and named all the big mountains we were supposed to see. I kept telling myself ‘Tomorrow will be another day, I will see the majestic Himalayas. This is the longest trek I have ever done in my life, I will not leave Nepal without seeing a big mountain.’ Despite the lack of stunning mountain scenery, I had a spring in my steps at the beginning, and quickly ascended a million more steps. My buddy sprinted ahead with our porter. As we were inching close to Ghorepani (altitude 2,855m), my body suddenly ran out of energy and I limped one step at a time. I arrived at Ghorepani at around 11.30am, totally exhausted. Still no big mountain in sight. *Sigh* I collapsed on a bench in the dining hall of our guesthouse, staring at my buddy’s very unappetizing pancake. I must have lost part of my consciousness then because I somehow agreed to have lunch 2 hours later. There was a wedding in Ghorepani that day, so the little village was abuzz with music and dances. Tourists flock to the site for a glimpse of Nepalese wedding traditions. My stomached rumbled to the sound of drums. My head was spinning when I watched dancers in red dresses twirling around. Then we saw a few men and women closing their eyes and shaking their bodies violently as if they were in a trance. So surreal!

After lunch, I walked around Ghorepani. Amazingly, the village has not just one but two bookstores where you can find anything from Arthur Golden’s novel Memoir of a Geisha to the Dalai Latma’s autobiography Freedom In Exile. Some books are brand new. Remember this village is two-day walk from Pokhara. Somebody carried all those books up here. Respect! And I would have to carry myself to Poon Hill (altitude 3,210m) tomorrow for sunrise. I asked my buddy to pray for good weather. I wanted to see snow-capped mountains. Tomorrow morning would be our best chance.

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Sunrise

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No snow-capped mountains, only small hills in close distances

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A tiny temple made from beautiful stones

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Dancers and drummers performing at a local wedding

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The bride and groom

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Offerings

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These dancers were so elegant

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The elders gave blessing to the couple

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The female ‘choir’

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A poor man got some food from the wedding

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Everyone got up and danced

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The bride’s intricate costume

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The groom

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Tourists lining up the stairs to watch the wedding

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A cute little girl

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Later that afternoon, the whole wedding party went down the mountain to a village ~2h walk from Ghorepani. They would come back the next day for another ceremony.

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This man was so drunk, he could barely walk.

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Souvenirs for sales

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A dice game

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A mini stupa in the middle of the village

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Stone slate roof

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The bell of a small temple

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The dining hall of our guesthouse in Ghorepani

***

Day 3: Ghorepani-Poon Hill-Ghorepani-Tadapani.

We started the day at 4am. It was totally dark, both inside and outside the guesthouse. The power was off, so I stumbled down the dining hall in a very lost and confused state. I had a chocolate bar, and some water, and we left for Poon Hill. Under the soft light of a crescent moon, we climbed and climbed and climbed. The experience reminded me so much of my ascension to Mount Kinabalu (Malaysia) 10 years ago. Except it was such a nightmare this time. My energy level was unusually low. I had no power in my legs. Every time I thought the peak was just around the corner, there were a million more steps to climb. Trekker after trekker passed me. By the time I dragged myself up to the top of Poon Hill, I almost passed out. Ram quickly got me a hot tea with lots of sugar. I just sit there on a very cold iron bench, sipped my tea, felt chill in my bone, and glared at the glowing horizon.

After a few minutes, the sugar kicked in, and I managed to move closer to the crowd which was gathering at the edge of the viewing platform. It was hazy, but we could make out Mount Dhaulagiri (8,171m – the 7th highest mountain in the world), Annapurna I (8,091m), Annapurna South (7219m), Hiunchuli (6441m), Machhapuchhre (6997m), and a few other peaks. In another country, Poon Hill which stands at 3,210m would be a legit mountain, but here in Nepal, it is just a little kid under the towering height of all the big boys.

As the sun crept up , I also gathered more strength. And then it dawned on me. This tea stall on top of Poon Hill must be one of the most profitable businesses in the world. Everyone wants a cuppa even at a premium price. Demand is high, competition is non-existing, and surely nobody would question the price after that trek in the dark. Somebody has to get up even earlier than us every single day, carries water, fuel, sugar, tin cups, and other stuff up all those steps, and gets everything ready for all those crazy trekkers. Now that is true dedication and hard work.

After soaking in the breathtaking panoramic view of the Himalayas, we descended to Ghorepani for breakfast. Then we left for Tadapani (altitude 2,540m). We started by climbing up, again. I was still very weak, so I crawled like a snail while my buddy just ran ahead with the porter. We passed through a beautiful rhododendron forest blooming in various shades of pink and red. And then we walked a million trillion gazillion steps downhill. I felt like I just walked all the way down to the foot of the mountain. My legs wobbled, my knees screamed at me in pain. When Ram told me we were going up  again, I was SOOOOO happy. I reached Tadapani at 12:45. Korean ramen had never tasted so good, even with a weird cheese topping.

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Dhaulagiri (8,167m – the 7th highest mountain in the world)

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Annapurna South (7219m) and Hiunchuli (6441m)

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Machhapuchhre (6997m) a.k.a The Fishtail

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A panoramic view of the Annapurna Range at sunrise.

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Going back down to Ghorepani

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We could barely see snow-capped peaks in the distance

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A rhododendron forest

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Stone piles

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A local woman using a wooden pestle to tenderize some green vegetable, which would then be fermented like kimchi…

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…and dried before being stored for future use

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A little girl carrying fired woods

***

Day 4: Tadapani to Ghandruk

I got up at 5:30 am for sunrise. The view was not as wide and clear as on Poon Hill. Soon everything disappeared in a thick haze again. It was as if haze was what we were here for, not the majestic Himalayas.

It was time to say goodbye to Pat and Moon, the two Thai medical students that we met in Ghorepani. These two little girls had not done any trekking before, and they were attempting the Annapurna Base Camp. Hats off to them.

From Tadapani, it was an easy trek downhill to Ghandruk (altitude 1,950m).  We got rooms at Trekkers’ Inn. The place looks like a Swiss chalet with beautiful flowers everywhere. Everyday, the owner painstakingly check every single pot for flower-eating worms/bugs. It was a perfect place to rest after a long trek – beautiful, quiet, and cheap ($5/night for a room with hot shower).

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Annapurna South (7219m)

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Machhapuchhre (6997m)

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Trekking to Ghandruk

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Trekkers’ Inn in Ghandruk

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Does it not look like a Swiss chalet?

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Flowers in the garden of Trekkers’ Inn

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At Ghandruk Museum

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Local women working outdoors

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View from Ghadruk

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A local woman carrying a heavy load of fire woods by resting the strap of her basket on her over the crown of her head.

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Houses made of stones

***

Day 5: Ghandruk to Pokhara

After breakfast, we descended to a village less than an hour walk from Ghandruk. From there, we got a ‘deluxe’ bus back to Pokhara. The deluxe bus had no air-con (like 99.9% vehicles in Nepal) and no seat belt. Its door could not be closed. Baggage was stored on the roof of the bus. The crew took in a lot more people than the number of seats, so a lot of local passengers had to stand or sit on the floor. The mountain road was unbelievably dangerous: it was barely the width of one vehicle, unpaved with lots of potholes, and with no guardrail or wide-angle mirrors at hairpin turns. We cruised down with military precision. One mistake would surely cost us our lives. About an hour after departure, the bus stopped. It took our guide Ram a while to get all the details, but it turned out the steering wheel was broken. Holy crap! This is the kind of travel adventure that would be shitty to be in but awesome to tell your friends after it is all over. The drama was too much for some tourists that they opted for an one-hour trek to Ulleri instead. Ram gave us that option too, but I guessed our blissful ignorance gave us grace to accept this obstacle with serenity and courage to climb back into the bus later. My buddy dozed off for the rest of the trip back to Pokhara, while I contemplated what would be a better way to die on the rooftop of the world: being blown up while naked in a gas shower, or crashed down a mountain cliff in a ‘deluxe’ bus with a broken steering wheel? Third option: lung burst and heart broken when arriving at a super dusty run-down bus stop on the edge of Pokhara. Changing from clean and cool mountain air to choking hot and polluted city air could be a huge shock for the faint-hearted.

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Men carrying heavy loads uphill in flips-flops

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Our deluxe bus got a broken steering wheel…

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…so all passengers had to get off and waited by the roadside

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Our bus blocked the narrow mountain road, so other vehicles could not pass.

***

The whole 5-day trek was such a weird and wonderful experience that made me smile while I was writing this post. I saw none of the stunning mountain scenery my friends and colleagues boasted about Nepal. I got the same food menu every single meal for the whole 5 days. I had hypoglycemia while I needed strength the most. But I also got the companion of a very patient and attentive guide, a funny porter, and a cool buddy. I got peace of mind. And I achieved my goal of trekking continuously for 5 days, which was a physical challenge I had never tried before. This would be my exercise quota for 2016 though. No more trekking. Well, unless it’s somewhere beautiful with clear views of majestic mountains, and a proper hot shower.

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