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  • Andrei Stoica

Nepal (Part 2): Poon Hill Trekking


Having just left the comfort of our hotel in Bhaktapur, a new adventure was awaiting us: trekking in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. It's one of the most popular trekking itineraries in the region due to its relatively low difficulty and abundant facilities along the way. The trek will take us to Poon Hill, the highest point of this itinerary that also offers spectacular views of the Annapurna mountains.

"Trekking" is not a word I hear often in the US, so I had to look it up: dictionary.com defines trekking as "1. To travel or migrate, especially slowly or with difficulty and 2. (South Africa) To travel by ox wagon". The second definition certainly didn't apply to our trip for practical reasons... Another feature of trekking is that luggage is usually carried by porters, leaving the trekker the liberty to enjoy the views and, in our case, photograph as much as possible.

A stop in Pokhara before the trek brought a few more photo ops. This is where I got the first glimpse of Machapuchare (translates to "Fish Tail") Mountain, part of Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal. By the end of our trip, I had the opportunity to it view it countless times from a lot of angles and they were all striking.

Day 1 - Nayapul to Ulleri

The starting point of our trek is Nayapul, a small village in the foothills of the mountains., busy with the loading and unloading of trekkers. We soon got on our way to higher altitudes, although at first the climb was minimal.

One thing that sets this trek apart from anything that I've seen before is the actual trail: I'm used to well-beaten mountain trails that meander upwards, zig-zagging as needed in order to make it easier to approach the steeper segments. But we had none of that: the path is often going straight up, with very little concern to my knees' well being. Also, most of the path is covered with well-fit rocks to create steps, millions of steps! While that sounds like a good idea, offering a stable, rain-proof surface, it actually puts a lot of strain on joints, especially when going downhill.

Picturesque villages mark the path along the way, most of them catering to trekkers' needs. These villages hug the trail very closely so you can step right into houses.

The so-called "tea houses" are essentially hostels offering shelter for a few dollars a night and a good, hearty meal throughout the day. All rooms we stayed in were stripped to the bare-bones of a traveler's needs: a basic bed and a door to close behind you at night. Oh, and did I mention there was no heating in any of the rooms? That explains the thick, warm cover over the bed that really did help going through the frigid temperatures at night, especially at higher altitudes. The only heated room was the "lobby" where everybody gathers around the central stove for meals, to talk, laugh and, of course, warm up a little.

Some houses are perched on the mountainside, surrounded by rice paddies.

Just like elsewhere during our trip we met locals (some in flip-flops vs. our heavy boots), donkey trains (carrying supplies) and porters (carrying trekkers' bags) flying up and down the stairs as if going on a leisurely walk. And speaking of porters: I still cannot reconcile these people's ability to carry large and heavy bags with their relatively small stature and skinny appearance. Here's a group of porters carrying bags 2/3 of their size and weighing an average of 65 lbs (30 Kg) each! And you may think they're all men, but you'd be wrong: one of our porters was a woman and she was carrying bags no smaller than every other porter.

The end of the first day caught our group in Ulleri, a village atop of a long climb of steps and a well-deserved respite after reaching 500 meters above the valley below. Our first night on the mountain started with a good, but cold-as-ice shower and a great meal served in the warmth of our tea house.

Day 2 - Ulleri to Ghorepani and Poon Hill

Bright and early we started towards Ghorepani and nearby Poon Hill, the highest point of our trip in Nepal. The endless stairs continued, alternating with milder paths in the shade of Rhododendrons and old trees wrapped in green moss. Unfortunately, this wasn't blooming season for Rhododendrons so their red and pink flowers were left to our imagination.

A common fixture of many locations we visited in Nepal is the colorful prayer flags. They are printed with mantras used to bless the surroundings, as well as a "thank you" sign from those blessed.

We reached Ghorepani in the afternoon and settled in our tea house, the highest point on our trek. But the highlight of the day had to be the impressive views from Poon Hill: at 10500 ft (3210 m), it's a modest height compared to the Annapurnas nearby, but the location offers grand views of the mountains in the region. The sunset added color and warmth to the snow-capped peaks, making for a few more postcard shots.

Fish Tail Mountain never disappoints...

Day 3 - Ghorepani to Tadapani

The day started with another superlative view of the Annapurnas.

We finally started hiking downhill, although a final climb was awaiting us towards the next overnight stop. The usual stream of tourists, locals and porters trekking in a cool forest of Rhododendrons. Along the way we met a good number of small waterfalls just inviting to be photographed.

Shortly before reaching our overnight destination, an interesting man showed up in my path. With a huge knife under his belt, he looked a bit threatening. His face expression didn't help either, but I asked if you could take a photo anyway. He grudgingly agreed, but demanded some financial compensation in exchange. I was happy to oblige and payed him 20 rupees. Later that day I showed the photo to some of the locals and they described him as a "conservative guy", in both attire and attitude -- I had to agree.

We reached Tadapani late afternoon when the village and its many tourists were getting ready for the night.

Lesson learned from the cold showers I endured the nights before, I made sure to be first in line for the hot shower and rushed to finish quickly -- it was me or the hot water and I wasn't ready to lose, not today! Happy and squeaky clean, I stepped out of the shower room only to find all my photographer friends frantically shooting the sunset. And what a sunset, probably the best we've had during this trip! The window of opportunity was closing quickly so I ran to my room to grab the camera and this is what I've got: clouds and tones of red and orange intertwined in a grand panorama.

Day 4 - Tadapani to Ghandruk

Today: no more climbing! We finally started going downhill, a well deserved respite from the previous days. Ghandruk, our final destination, is just another village on the mountain that derives its livelihood from the numerous trekkers stopping overnight. The familiar subtropical forests continued uninterrupted.

As much as Nepal is rooted in and observant of old traditions, it's hard not to notice the Western footprint, especially in the urban areas. Even here in the mountains you just can't escape the Pringles, Coca-Cola and the plethora of other foreign brands. Notice the prominent Coca-Cola ad featuring the traditional Nepali momos (steamed dumplings) on the side.

We reached Ghandruk early afternoon and took the rest of the day to relax and explore the village. The first local to encounter was this lady who greeted us with her best smile, even though, I'm sure, we were just another group passing by...

Even before reaching the village we heard the sound of drums and traditional music being played in the distance -- it was the coming of age ceremony for a local boy, where the whole neighborhood took part, danced and made offerings for the soon-to-be-man (white turban on the right side).

Over in the mountains working WiFi was hard to find and mostly unavailable. Once at our tea house, most of us jumped at the chance to relax in the afternoon sun and, of course, catch up with Facebook and such.

Exploring our surroundings was too tempting, so I soon started downhill to the center of the village. There was no shortage of photogenic subjects, even though it quickly became apparent that most of the village life was catering to the needs of tourists more than anything else.

More old ladies, of course... The backstory here is the same as everywhere we went in the countryside: many young people are moving to the city, leaving their elders and traditional life behind for better job opportunities. The lady in the photo below lives alone in her two-storey house behind our hotel...

The day ended with yet another great sunset over Fish Tail Mountain.

Day 5 - Ghandruk to Hemjakot and Nayapul

It was now time to say good bye to trekking, but not before snapping a few more photos in Ghandruk. Most locals were very nice, even to the point of inviting us to take photos of them and their houses. This is something I've noticed during our entire stay in the country: Nepalis are a nice and tolerant people, something I can't say about many other nations. For two weeks I haven't seen one fight, not even an argument in the streets. It's this calm and forgiving nature that impresses most foreigners, myself included.

Surprisingly or not, some old houses exhibit the same delicate woodwork that we've seen in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. Woodwork as an art form is unfortunately disappearing quickly nowadays, losing the battle with modern brick and mortar.

A common sight during our trek was the odd man carrying unbelievable objects on his back, like this guy hauling a barrel larger than himself. I'm sure that, even empty, that barrel was pretty darn heavy.

Before returning full circle to our departing point in Nayapul, our tour lead Dan chose a remote small village to spend the last night in the mountains: the Uma house in the Hemjakot village, a short drive away.

Affectionately called "mama Uma", our host prepared a delicious dinner: the "dal bhat", a traditional Nepalese meal consisting of steamed rice, lentil soup, vegetables and, optionally, meat.

It is not often that I'm being asked to be photographed, but Nepal was such a place. At 6'7" (2.04 m), I'm a giant compared to the average Nepali who stands at a mere 5'3" (1.6 m). I was stopped quite a few times in order to be photographed, usually next to a giggling woman a few feet shorter than me!

From Hemjakot we traveled by minibus back to "civilization" in Pokhara -- yet another occasion to marvel at the state of disrepair that Nepali roads exhibit and the driving skills of Nepali drivers. Most roads are essentially strings of potholes connected by short stretches of asphalt! Add to that the incredible number of vehicles and crowded buses and you only begin getting the picture of driving in Nepal. There's no wonder we passed numerous cars and trucks being repaired roadside, but the true miracle was that I haven't seen a single traffic accident for the entire duration of our stay.

Can I say the trip was a success? Absolutely! That's not to say there weren't minor hazards along the way such as the tour bus quitting on us the last day of the tour -- all faded away quickly, leaving all of us with a great desire to return one day to continue exploring this great land and to better know its people.

Many thanks to our tour lead, Dan Mirică and local guide Basu Panday who worked together to make this trip a success!

#nepal #trekking #mountains #himalays #adventure #village #landscape

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