Nepali Flat: Little bit up, little bit down

After nearly expiring whilst climbing up Sarangkot, we were a touch apprehensive about our 5-day hike in the Annapurna Range. It was very hard work at times but ultimately a fantastic and hugely rewarding experience. Now be warned, this is a fairly long post and it gets pretty gushy, we apologise for this and would like to offer the qualification that whilst this was a brilliant experience, there were most certainly times when the climb made us want to vomit and/or cry.

First a bit of background: We (James) had done a lot of research on treks and, having only done a 3-day trek previously, we decided that somewhere in the 4 to 8-day range was about right. Altitude was another consideration. We have had absolutely no experience walking at high altitudes and therefore weren’t sure whether or not we would be susceptible to altitude sickness. More importantly, insurance costs absolutely skyrocket once you start walking above 4000m. The final consideration was gear; beyond daypacks and clothes we didn’t have any trekking equipment and didn’t know how to use it in any case; Caro thought crampons might be hairclips.

Picking a company: Even with all of the above criteria taken in to account there are still a huge number of options and this was where our fantastic trekking company, Eastern Light Trek, provided the first of many faultless services. We (James) had an extensive email exchange with the owner Dev about what we had in mind, how long we wanted to go for, what we liked to see etc. He recommended a route for us that had everything that we wanted and wouldn’t require us to splash out on anything beyond a couple of water bottles and trail mix. Our permits, accommodation, food and transfers were all taken care of and we borrowed sleeping bags and hiking poles. You can trek without a company or a guide but this was one cost that was a no-brainer for us, it made the whole thing so much simpler.

Picking a trek: The route we ended up taking started in Dimuwa and went through Lespar, Nangi, Mohare Danda and Ghorepani and finished in Hile. It had a bit of everything: for two days we didn’t see a single other hiker as we climbed up through villages perched on hillsides and had our first glimpses of mountains and rhodedendrons. We dragged ourselves up to 3313 metres and approached iconic Poon Hill from above, as opposed to the much busier routes that approach from below. We marvelled at the rhododendron forests and stomped our way down hail covered stone steps and finished the trek with the best dal bhat that we tasted during our time in Nepal.

Our guide: Karna was an absolute hero who turned a great experience in to a fantastic one. Before he became a guide, he was a porter, a gruelling job that has earned him a pair of the most defined calves we have ever seen. His English, learned entirely on the job, was fantastic and he had a wealth of knowledgeable about the area whether we asked what different plants were used for or about the day to day life of the locals in the villages. He chatted to every man, woman, child and animal that we passed along the way and would occasionally burst in to song. We both had a couple of wobbly moments with the altitude and he ensured that we were taken care of and consistently checked to make sure that we were ok to carry on.  He also carried our sleeping bags for us, a service for which we will be eternally grateful.

The main event: We dashed around on the first morning trying to get our necessary electrical items charged, re-checking our bags and having a rushed breakfast before presenting ourselves at the Eastern Light Trek office to meet Karna for the first time. We had booked a group transfer but actually ended up with a private jeep and were soon winding our way up through Sarangkot and out west.

Lots of treks start from Nayapul but we carried on for another 15 minutes along the same road and started from Dimuwa, which was much quieter. We slathered on suncream, shouldered our packs and set off. We had gone all of 10 steps before Karna stopped to befriend an adorable fluffy white puppy and it was at this moment that we knew that we had the right guide for us. Our happiness at this fact soon vanished as we began to climb up the beautiful stone steps that lead up from the main road. We climbed all morning, passing through hamlets and terraces of small fields worked by cows pulling makeshift wooden ploughs.02We were a source of intrigue for the locals who chatted with Karna but simply watched us. We asked Karna if Nepalis think that tourists are crazy for coming to Nepal in order to climb mountains and received a massive grin in response. We passed schoolchildren in neat blue uniforms either on their way up or down the hill and marvelled that they have to climb this bastard hill every day for school. We stopped in one of the villages along the way for lunch and had our first ever dal bhat. This is a Nepali staple consisting of vast amounts of rice, lentils and veg which will keep appearing as long as you keep eating. The place we stopped was nothing more than a wood and mud hut and the veg was washed in a paddling pool of water outside. The food was yummy and offered in huge quantities. Please note that Nepali generosity knows no bounds and we have to assume that it frequently exceeds their means. Definitely eat your fill but don’t go overboard as you may be eating their dinner too.04Karna had described the afternoon’s walk as flat and here we had our first experience of “Nepali flat: little bit up, little bit down”. There was definitely more up than down. Whilst the climb wasn’t as strenuous as the morning it was still pretty hard going and it was with relief that we arrived in the village of Lespar, our final stop for the night after 8 hours of walking.

We stayed at Jaljala Homestay, an absolutely fabulous hobbit hole of a place run by a gorgeous 5ft tall couple who could not do enough to take care of us. There certainly weren’t any other hikers in the village and the location of the toilet immediately next to the main path up to the village meant that if you timed it wrong, people would stop and stare at you as you made your way there.06Despite spending the entire time bent double to avoid hitting our heads off the ceilings, we absolutely loved it there. The food was simple but very tasty and they made us a tablecloth out of newspapers.0708The following morning kicked off with another gruelling climb with very occasional flat sections. The first section took us back out through the village and we both admired the amazing stone courtyards outside of the houses, it would of cost thousands to achieve something so lovely at home. The countryside that we were walking through was beautiful but for the hundredth time in two days we were wondering why on earth we had decided to do this.09Fortunately, the climb was steep but relatively short-lived and we stopped to rest at a natural spring. We were bright red and breathing deeply which made for an unfavourable comparison to the Nepali family who were also there, sitting around chatting having easily climbed the hill in flip flops and carrying infants. According to Karna they were making a day trip to visit family in the next village, the same place we were headed, and would make the return journey that same afternoon. This was apparently not considered to be an insane undertaking. We set off again 10 minutes behind the family and didn’t see them again, we are convinced that they ran there. What we did see was our first glimpse of the Annapurna range which immediately made the climbing worth it.10We also saw our first rhododendrons, Nepal’s national flower and what this particular walk is famous for, aside from the mountains. Caro’s family call them rhodododos so that’s what we called them throughout, we are pretty sure that Karna thought that we were a bit simple. There were whole forests of rhodododos to follow but it was exciting to see the very first of them.

The walk was largely flat from here so we were able to appreciate the gorgeous countryside properly, as well as the increasingly beautiful views of the mountains.

12We have hundreds of pictures from this hike and Karna, who has done it many times, took nearly as many as we did because he loves the flowers. This turned out to be very helpful as we ended up with some pictures of the two of us looking super professional and smooth in our hiking gear.13It is debatable whether Caro was more taken by the mountains or by the incredibly cute puppy that we encountered next. We came across a stone house in the middle of nowhere with an old lady sat outside with a puppy. She seemed to have no issue with Karna climbing over the wall and liberating said fluff ball so that we (Caro) could cuddle it.1415Karna told us that the dog is there to protect the house, once it has grown up a bit that is. The couple will have to venture in to the forest daily to collect foliage to feed their cattle and to store for the monsoon and it is puppy’s job to keep watch for the 3 or 4 hours that they are away. He said that if he comes back next year the same friendly puppy is guaranteed to bark at him if he comes too close to the house.

We made one final stop for the day before reaching our beds for the night and sat eating peanut cookies which, it transpires, are like crack to James, and admiring the truly glorious view.16That night we stayed at a community lodge in Nangi; government money and donations went towards building it and the village run and profit from it. We were astonished by the level of facilities, bearing in mind that everything has to be carried up the hill. There was hot water, a pretty extensive menu to choose from and even wifi. Admittedly we would have preferred that there wasn’t wifi but it was impressive nonetheless. There were more hikers here and we made friends with an English American couple who were in the same situation as us i.e. had been travelling just the two of them for several months and were in desperate need of conversation with another person but now lacked any filter whatsoever. It was entertaining.

Whilst not as physically strenuous as days 1 and 5, day 3 was probably the hardest for both of us. James had developed a headache which gave Karna cause for concern, Caro struggled with dizziness later on and we had some pretty unpleasant weather to tackle towards the end of the day. In the morning, however, we were feeling good and set off out of town, uphill obviously. The first part of the day involved a 45-minute climb up through the forest which even Karna admitted was “a little bit hard”.17

At the end of the climb we had reached 3000m and we stopped for a well-earned snack break. The setting felt like wild moorland with wind blowing through the parched grass and views out over the mountains.

1819We were joined by other groups and whilst we were tucking in to some biscuits, their guide and porters were unloading flasks of tea and packets of cake, much to Caro’s envy. Fortunately, it was not long before our desire was for tea was met. After another 30 minutes of walking across grassed hillside with the valley opening out below we came to a cliff face and walked in its shadow for a while. We saw an interesting water diversion contraption in one of the streams which Karna informed us was used by the local tea hut. We passed two ladies on water collecting duty shortly after.20

We could not pass a tea shack at 3000m and not stop for a cup, so we parked up for 10 minutes to enjoy the view.

21

Shortly after the ladies returned with very heavy looking loads of water.

22We had one final push left to reach our bed for the night, which Karna had told us was a tent and we couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. We passed a plant with lovely lilac flowers which Karna told us are used to make Nepali paper. Caro instinctively bent to the smell the flower and Karna mentioned slightly too late that the smell can give you altitude sickness. Oops.22a

We also saw our first red rhodododos, which only grow at altitdues above 3000m.

22bIt was all uphill until we reached our stop for the night at Mohare Danda and the weather was closing in. The temperature dropped significantly and Caro was really struggling with dizziness. Karna walked at the back to make sure that she was ok but we pushed on until we reached our goal and our highest point of 3313m.23

On arrival, we also found out that Karna was not joking and our room for the night was actually a tent.

24It was extremely cold and we spent the afternoon huddling in the as yet unheated dining room drinking tea.  We were soon joined by the walkers we had passed and our new friends from the previous night. There was a wood stove in the lodge which for some reason they refused to light until dark, much to our annoyance. After several hours of more inappropriate conversation and much laughter, we retired to our tent just before a hail storm set in. Despite the temperature dipping well in to minus figures we were really toasty in our tent and probably better off than the people in rooms who had corrugated iron roofs which rattled incredibly loudly with the hail.

We had set an alarm the next morning so we could watch sunrise over the Annapurna range. We bundled up in every piece of clothing we owned and clutched on to our cups of tea for dear life. We were not disappointed, it was stunning and worth every metre of climb we had endured.252627After drinking in the view and many warming cups of tea we set off on what was a pretty short day’s walking to the very famous Poon Hill and down to Ghorepani. Our walk started down some very slippery icy slopes but only resulted in a muddy bottom for Caro on one occasion. The walking was pretty stop start as we stopped to take many many pictures of the mountains and the flowers.2829Poon Hill was one of the original trekking location in the Annapurna area to be promoted to foreign trekkers and rightly so, as the view on a clear day is stunning, but it also means it can be very busy especially as you can get there in one or two day’s worth of walking. Miraculously, we found ourselves there alone for about 30 minutes and managed to peacefully appreciate the natural beauty of the area.

We were also very fortunate to get there when we did as the clouds were rolling in and quickly obscured the views of the mountains. They were fairly ominous looking and we hurried down the many stone steps to the town of Ghorepani, which has the feel of a slightly shabby ski town and seems to exist purely to serve the hikers that pass through. Compared to our last 3 nights where we had stayed at the only available accommodation, Ghorepani is overflowing with hotels and more were being built all around us. Karna very proudly told us that he had secured us a room on the top floor with a private, indoor, bathroom. After lunch, we spent all of four minutes exploring the town which mainly consisted of Caro resisting the urge to stroke one of the many donkeys wandering around town.30We retired to our freezing room, attempted to warm up with hot showers and then got in to bed fully dressed including gloves and hats. We looked like the grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The following morning, we set off early to clamber down the many million steps to get to the end of our hike. We set off through the last of the rhododendron bushes, following the river in the valley below us. It was a gorgeous crisp morning and made for a great start to our last day.3132We stopped at the town of Ulleri for a cup of tea at a teashop perched on a very thin, flimsy looking concrete platform hanging over the edge of the hill. We opted to remain firmly on the ground and sat instead on the wall running alongside the path. On the way out of town we passed a dog with fabulous markings: tiger dog!33Now, downhill is easier than uphill, but is tough work on the knees particularly when it has hailed overnight and the hail / slush is lying ankle deep on the narrow, steep stone steps that you need to climb down. We have mentioned Caro’s lack of balance previously, she is also terrified of falling and can do so standing still. So the hour or so where we were climbing down through the slush with rivers literally running over the steps were pure torture for her. Karna meanwhile was skipping down the steps like one of those goats that can scamper along millimetre wide ledges. It became particularly galling when he started texting at the same time.34We passed loads of people making their way up the hill and were so hugely grateful that we weren’t going in the opposite direction. People generally split the climb over two days before tackling Poon Hill on the third morning at sunrise but it would be a daunting prospect all the same. Day five took us about 5 hours in the end and we did feel every minute of it, particularly when the rain hammered down for the last 30 minutes, but Karna is an expert and knows just how to improve everyone’s mood. We reached Hile, the end of our hike, and he steered us in the unassuming Annapurna Guest House & Restaurant where we were served mountains of simply delicious dal bhat and good humour was restored.

Our jeep was waiting for us 5 minutes away and we settled in the back for the 3 hour drive back to Pokhara. Just to cap of a brilliant five days, we were treated to one final stunning view of the mountains as evening closed in.35We had such a brilliant time on our trek and are already planning to go back for a longer trek next time, perhaps in September. We will 100% be going with Karna and Eastern Light Trek because they offer such a superb service (plus singing and dancing).36

 

2 thoughts on “Nepali Flat: Little bit up, little bit down

  1. Pingback: Visiting Nepal: Some hints, tips and general observations | The Rolling Stones

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