Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Trekking in the Annapurnas - Days 1 & 2

Nepal is home to 8 of the 10 highest mountains in the world; it will therefore come as no surprise that mountain trekking in the Himalayas is a hugely popular activity, and many tourists opt to explore the Annapurna section of the Himalayas near to Pokhara. Given that we had a limited amount of time in Nepal due to our pre-booked flights to Malaysia the three week trek around the Annapurnas wasn't a possibility for us. Instead we opted to tackle a 5-6 day trek on a loop up to the hilariously named Poon Hill (at a slightly less amusing height of 3210m) and back.


We took a bus to our starting point and made our way through the village and various license-checking points before our trek could start for real. The first few hours were a fairly gentle introduction to the Himalayas. The path was a steady incline that was taxing without being painful, and which twisted through a picturesque valley area. We got our first sneak peek of a snowy peak which gave us plenty of motivation to climb higher and see more.

As well as the local people going about there daily business there was plenty of wildlife in the form of birds, dragonflies, grasshoppers and butterflies as well as working animals in the form of mules transporting goods up and down the mountain, cows and water buffalos.

On our first check of the map we were pleasantly surprised by the speed of our progress. We thought that we had reached the first village on the map, however it turned out that the small collections of 3 or 4 buildings we had occasionally passed constituted villages, and we were therefore much further on that we had anticipated. Consequently we started to reconsider how far we could get by the end of the day. Inevitably, however, the going started to get tougher and the path turned into a steep path, then into stone stairs. When planning the route of the path up to Poon Hill the Nepalese neglected to consider out-of-shape tourists not used to climbing mountains on a daily basis; instead they created steps pretty much straight up the mountainside out of the plentiful supply of large rocks. The result of this not insignificant amount of effort is a steep, seemingly never ending stairway of irregularly shaped rocks, mostly stable but occasionally wobbly.

For a while the steps were bearable, but after a couple of hours they became pretty tedious, and the burn in the thighs became quite painful. It wouldn't have been so bad if there was some occasional respite in the form of a flat section or, luxury of luxuries, a downhill section to give us a break from the continuous climb and from having to look down at our feet the whole time, but alas we were not so lucky. The views were pretty spectacular, but unfortunately our enjoyment of them was restricted to rest stops.

We have since learned that the final section of our trek on Day 1 from the rope-bridge to Uleri consists of 3300 steps – the equivalent of climbing up the Empire State Building, then the Eiffel Tower,then the Tokyo Tower ... and then the Statue of Liberty ... followed by 6 trips up your stairs at home, all after already having walked uphill for 5 hours. The feeling when we saw signs for Uleri was one of elation. This elation turned to disappointment as we realised that we had not yet made it, and then into frustration as we discovered that were were still some way off. And it began to rain. Unbeknownst to either of us at the time, this last section was the final straw for Monique.

When we finally arrived in Uleri the selection of guesthouses was slim but cheap (they only charge $1 per night for the room, but then insist that you eat at their overpriced restaurant) and we settled into a passable room, ate dinner with a friendly Spanish couple, and had a well deserved sleep.


Rain. More rain. Lots more rain.

We had planned to make a 7am start to our trekking on Day 2 but trekking in heavy rain would have been unpleasant and potentially dangerous so we elected to try to wait it out. By 11am we gave in, pulled our colourful ponchos on over our bags and started walking in the rain looking a little like a couple of teletubbies after a heavy drinking session. We thought that we had completed the steps section of our ascent the previous day, however the first 30 minutes continued up the irregular, occasionally wobbly, and now very slippery steps. It was at this point that Monique decided that mountain trekking was not for her. There followed about 10 minutes of standing in the rain trying to decide what to do. Monique wanted to head back down, and I wanted to carry on. The solution to this apparent impasse was a compromise whereby Monique would spend another night in Uleri, and I would continue up to Poon Hill on my own and walk back down to meet Monique the following evening.

After rearranging the contents of our bags I carried on alone. After the initial step section the going got a bit easier and more enjoyable, with flat sections occasionally breaking up the ascent. The rain meant that much of the path had turned into a river/waterfall, but the rain started to lift meaning that I could put my bright red poncho away. This section of the climb passed through a huge oak and rhododendron forest which felt a lot like a rainforest – very humid and shaded by the dense canopy of the tall trees – and periodically included impressive waterfalls. I probably shouldn't say this but I quite enjoyed walking on my own. Most of the other trekkers had set off early so I hardly saw anyone else, and I felt like a bit of an adventurer walking through rivers and drinking purified water from waterfalls.

I arrived in Ghorepani, the largest village on the loop (by which I mean it consisted of maybe 30 buildings, mostkly guesthouses) ahead of schedule and checked into a guesthouse which purported to have views of the highest peaks. It appeared, however, that I was just too late for the mountain views as the evening mist had just rolled in. Even so, I wanted to climb to the top of Poon Hill that day so that I could fit some more of the loop in on the following day before turning round to go back to Monique. I met a couple of Dutch girls at the guesthouse (it later transpired that we were the only three guests staying there) and told them my plan only to be told by their guide (many tourists take guides and porters on their treks) that I was wasting my time because I wouldn't see anything and it would probably rain. I left them sitting around the fire and opted to give the peak a try anywaty – I could always turn back if it looked like he was right.

The final 350m ascent to the peak of Poon Hill was steep. Very steep. It consisted of yet more stone steps (yay!) varying between 6” and 12”. In addition the altitude had really started to kick in, making the climb extremely tough on the lungs as well as the legs, and meaning that I needed to stop to catch my breath every 5 minutes or so. At first it wasn't looking good for any decent views, but 15 minutes in the clouds parted slightly to give a glimpse of a snowy peak that was enough motivation for me to haul my behind up the rest of the way.

What greeted me at the top was the only view I have ever seen that has stopped me in my tracks. To say that it was stunning would be an understatement. All four of the highest peaks of the Annapurnas were clearly visible above the clouds and catching the early evening sun.

I spent about an hour taking in the view which was ever-changing as the clouds rolled past and the sun set. It was freezing cold and the air was so thin that I never truly felt like I had got my breath back completely, but I couldn't bring myself to turn away from the view until it became clear that I had to turn back to get back to Ghorepani before it was completely dark. After I carefully made the descent down the steep steps I ate dinner with the Dutch girls (who were pretty annoyed with their guide after I showed them my photos) before retiring to bed early ready for an early start the following day.

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