THIS ARTICLE DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF KARNA GHALE, our guide for this trek and the president of the Nepal Trekking Association. He passed away in January 2021 of kidney disease. Photos of Karna throughout the article and at the end.
Trekking in the Himalayas – does it get any more exciting than that??!! As the date for departure to lofty places grew near, we could hardly contain our anticipation. We had been travelling and living for 7 months in boiling hot Asia, and were far from equipped for mountain temperatures or climbing. Fortunately Pokhara, Nepal, our jumping off point, houses a wealth of trekking shops where equipment can be purchased or rented. Being caught in sudden and torrential downpours during this two day shopping excursion caused a flicker of anxiety but certainly did not douse the fires of our trekking fervour.
We would be a party of four: my partner, Aaron and me, our guide, Karna, and our Sherpa, Rudra. The route of the 5 day trek would begin with a taxi ride from Pokhara to Nayapul (1070m) where we would begin hiking and arrive at Tikhedhunga (1540m) on the first day. The following days would cover Ulleri (1960m) – Ghorepani (2860m) – Poon Hill (3193m) – Tadapani (2630m)- Ghandruk (1940m) – Nayapul, with another ride back to Pokhara, spread over the five days. This little hike is considered the baby of trekking routes, compared with the Annapurna circuit or Everest Base Camp which can entail three or four weeks of trekking to elevations of more than 17,000′. It was even suggested that we could do this little stroll without guide or sherpa. I have to admit I was feeling uncomfortably pampered at the prospect of some other person carrying most of my supplies, especially after I saw Rudra, our porter. He stands about 5’3″ and weighs about 120 lbs. However, I consoled myself with reassurances that I was fuelling the Nepali economy by hiring its citizens to ‘accompany’ our trek. Not that we needed them, they need us! We packed light, a fact confirmed on the trek when we noted the enormous loads under which many other porters laboured.
Day One we set off in a taxi to Nayapul, bumping along the mountain road, cramped, and clammily warm in the tiny 90s vintage car. I’m proud to say I kept my cookies for the entire one and a half hour joggle. We had a bright day for hiking and set out with spirits high. When I say bright, I suppose I mean bright for this area because, although the sun shines abundantly, the viewing experience is often akin to looking through a gauze curtain at the mountains and distant scenery. Our thirty days in Kathmandu and Pokhara included itchy, burning eyes and raspy chests, just part of the package. Sad and disappointing in a land so ripe with natural beauty. A week or so later we were told by a local man who lives up a mountainside overlooking Pokhara, that the air was perfectly clear when he was a boy, just 30 years ago and Pokhara was all village and farmland, without the tourist infrastructure that exists today.
Nevertheless, off we marched from Nayapul, spirits aloft, along the riverside for the first leg of our journey. Bucolic scenery kept our hearts light as we wound along the riverbank, marvelling at groups of pack animals – ponies, donkeys, water buffalo – meandering the trails with their shepherds. We were thrilled to witness Indigenous people going about their daily lives, marvelling at how hard they work to carry provisions up and down the steep trails – farming, gardening, forging a life out of the land. It seemed every step was an education, with a new astonishing sight to marvel at. Our guide, Karna shared his ample supply of information, gleaned from a lifetime in Nepal. At one point we passed an entire family, men and women of all ages, up to their elbows in the butchering of a buffalo. Karna informed me that they were of the Margar tribe, one of five tribes which inhabit these mountains. As we continued along, he pointed out plants which are used in local medicine, including moss used to promote healing of a flesh wound and another leaf crushed to make a natural paracetamol for headache, fever and pain. No pharmacies are to be found in these mountains. Imagine living so self reliantly!
We arrived slightly tired but fully satisfied with our first day, at the Chandra Guesthouse in Tikhedunga, delighted with the brilliant display of orange honeysuckle covering the buildings. A dozen loaded ponies clattered through the narrow streets past our small but adequate room and I wanted to pinch myself at the novelty of such an experience. After a cool (brrrrrr) shower, I was introduced to Roasty, a garlicky refried mashed potato dish with veggies, yak cheese melted on top. Yum, who knew the Nepalese have comfort food at its best? Yak cheese is a mild but tasty, hard yellow-white variety of cheese which is widely used in Nepalese cooking.
Day Two we set out filled again with high energy and bright spirits, despite the wakefulness of my night. Arriving at a tea stop we were astonished by our first views of mountains as snow capped Annapurna South sparkled and winked at us. It was a surreal moment for me. Though we had planned and hoped to do amazing things on this Asian adventure, in that moment I was deeply astonished to find myself actually in the Himalayas, witnessing such a spectacular scene. Of course no reproduction can ever do the original justice.
I must admit at this juncture, that I had a different, perhaps naive idea of what a trek in the Himalayas would be. First, I had imagined the four of us, pioneers hiking in solitude for miles and miles with not another soul to be encountered, only the sounds of nature tickling at our senses, except perhaps a few hard working Indigenous people and their donkeys appearing in our landscape from time to time. While we did encounter many local people and had the privilege of witnessing their daily lives, and we did take a few solitary steps, there were, in fact, many other western Trekkers seeking the same experience as we were (of course!). It actually proved enjoyable to confer with some of them along the way, sharing stories and travel experiences (while sneaking a break from the sometimes gruelling work of trekking). Another misconception I entertained was that we would find ourselves eating every meal of dal and rice – sitting in a circle on the floor in some mountain people’s home, and that sleep would be on a mat on the same family’s dirt floor. Actually, we got to order our food from a menu at a guesthouse each meal, and sleep in an austere but private room. Another area in which I was greatly mistaken is the actual terrain. For some reason I was picturing open hillsides and wilderness with little growth, ice capped mountains towering beyond. In fact there was a lot of forested area, including an entire two days of meandering through a glorious rhododendron forest, trees towering as tall as forty feet high and blossoms radiant with colour! Another surprise was the almost constant development to be found along the way – homes, barns & gardens (terraced) of Indigenous people, guesthouses catering mostly to Trekkers, small provisional stores or craftspeople & farmers with their products arrayed for the viewing and purchasing pleasure of passersby. Sadly, another factor of which I have already spoken, the vision of pristine views and sparkling clean air was shattered by the daily haze of smoke and smog which blankets the Himalayas. The final surprise was the seemingly endless winding stone stairs. For days we climbed both up and down these stepped paths. I was awed that most of these stairways and paths were ancient; people had built them centuries ago in order to carve out a life of farming and foraging from this mountainous land. What incredibly tough people! Karna, our guide and information man, told me that although the average life span in Nepal is about 65 years, indigenous people in these mountains tended to live much longer. I can easily believe this with the constant cardio workout and natural diet lacking processed junk foods consumed by these mountain people.
As Day Two progressed, and afternoon waned, the sky darkened with clouds and gusts of wind slapped at our cheeks. Exhaustion dragged at us as we lifted our bodies ever higher. The first sprinkles brought out our rain protection as we soldiered onwards, stairs stretching and winding upwards forever it seemed. Rubbing a slight tarnish to our buoyant spirits – why hadn’t we found a way to keep up our exercise routines and stay a tad more fit while travelling these past six months – we were anxious for the work of trekking to be done. Just when I thought I couldn’t lift myself up another stair, a sign welcoming us to Ghorepani loomed large ahead. Oh yes! The sky opened at about the same time; icy, biting raindrops splashed over us and I somewhere found the energy to gallop to the top of the stairs where our guesthouse awaited us (or did I just imagine I was galloping?).
Rudra our ever faithful porter, had gone ahead and prepared our top floor room for us, bathroom and hot shower included (!). As we entered, the panorama of snow packed mountains that lambasted us through massive windows rendered me speechless. Were we at the Planetarium having a virtual viewing experience or was this real? After drinking in my fill of the splendid vista, I collapsed onto the bed, staring in wonder at the rapidly forming icicles that dripped from our eaves. My breath puffed from my mouth in steamy clouds. I swore I could not climb those stairs again – such was my exhaustion – however both hunger and cold eventually drove me down to the warmth of the dining room where a wood stove in the shape of an oil barrel radiated and glowed in a friendly way in the centre of the room. Starving from calorie burning activity, I reverted to my standard craving for carbs, and guess what – pasta was on the menu! Who thought, in Nepal? As I hungrily dug into my first mouthful, it was all I could do to force myself to swallow the saccharine sweet, candy-like glob of congealed muck that lay upon my pallet. I really should have known better. This was far from my first experience of disappointment with Asian versions of western food. I picked at what I could, worried about offending the cooks and went to bed thoroughly unsatisfied. Oddly, being so depleted, I still found myself starkly wakeful yet another night.
When the knock on our door came at 5 a.m., I dragged my clothing on and grabbed my hiking poles. This was the morning to witness the sun rise resplendently over the mountain peaks from Poon Hill, the highest point on our route. I first attributed my sluggishness to lack of sleep and food as I forced my body up the steps behind the others. Kind Rudra, minus his porter’s load, stayed beside me and, seeing my difficulty, offered to carry my small pack. Glimpsing the others in the darkness above, I laboured upward. At some point I realized that this complete absence of bones I was experiencing, the barely resistible urge to lay down on a cold stone stair and drift happily off to sleep, this dizziness, shortness of breath and emerging nausea – it just had to be more than simple lack of sleep and nourishment. Could I be experiencing altitude sickness? I had been reassured that this would not be a concern on this route so it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment. Discussion with the expert (Karna) ascertained that this was the most likely explanation for my malaise. In the daylight that had broken meanwhile, it was clear that there would be no view at Poon Hill due to overcast (and smoggy) skies. It was decided that climbing on to the summit was unnecessary. After slowly making our way to the tower at the halfway point, we returned down to Ghoripani.
After a scant breakfast due to my lingering sensations of altitude sickness, I had a powwow with our guide, Karna, and he laid out the options. Continuing on meant climbing yet higher before descending, not a recommended course of action when altitude sickness symptoms are present, yet he claimed it to be a possibility if one went ‘slowly, slowly’, a phrase we’d been hearing from the outset of the trek. Other choices involved heading back the way we came – downhill, or spending a day acclimatizing at Ghoripani before going on. The very mention of going back brought a lump to my throat and the threat of uncontrollable tears. Ruin everyone’s trek? Never! The layover day option did not suit my impatient nature. So we agreed to forge onward – slowly, slowly – and see how it went. It turned out that ‘slowly, slowly’ was just the ticket, and, while dizzy at times, my body rallied and I enjoyed another day of spectacular scenes of nature and culture. A large part of our trek this day three was through the aforementioned rhododendron forest – spectacular! We reached the (new) highest point without mishap and I declared my victory over the mountain with a photo op.
A stretch of rugged hiking remained in Day Three’s route, so onward we forged – up, up, up then down down, down and then again some more of that. While my little crisis seemed to have been overcome, we had not anticipated the wear and tear those long downhill stretches would take on Aaron’s fairly new knee replacement. Arriving at Bhanthanti (10,700′) for a late lunch, those knees desperately needed a rest. Though the decision to stay or go was with Aaron this time, I did a silent happy dance in my head when he chose to stop overnight rather than continue to our scheduled point. I was beat! Besides, at this guesthouse, a pony lived under the restaurant; we could see her through cracks in the floor, smell her horsey aroma and hear her neighing. Who wouldn’t want to stay at such digs? Truthfully, I was so done in that I climbed into bed fully clothed, unshowered, intending to rest just a few minutes. I did not rise again (no dinner, an unheard of phenomenon in my world) until morning. Now this is not to say I slept. Unbelievably, I was still – after several virtually sleepless nights – unable to fall into a good slumber. Exercise, fresh air – isn’t that the recipe mom always gave as a sure-fire insomnia remedy? To top these conditions off, a new health concern had arisen after lunch in the pony cafe. Poor, poor Aaron! Rushing outside every half hour to vomit, he slept not a wink either. Seems something he ate at the Tranquility Inn did not agree with him and he was not feeling so tranquil.
We arose the next morning, Day Four – haggard, stinking, throbbing with pain – and were a sorry, pathetic company that set off trekking that day. I don’t know what our guide and Sherpa were thinking at that point – perhaps some phrases that would include ‘old geezers’ and rolled eyes had they been thinking in English. At least I didn’t have to get dressed before setting off, having slept fully clothed from the previous day. It seemed truly miraculous that Aaron trekked at all that day after the night he spent. I have no doubt that each nausea inducing step took every ounce of his will to execute. I know that when we arrived a couple of hours later at the previous day’s destination, Tadapani, and mountain vistas that were absolutely to die for, he – quintessential photographer, naturalist and mountain lover – lay his head down on his arms and moaned softly, deliriously for the hour or so we spent there. And did I see his lip tremble slightly when Karna announced it was time to set off again? I’m pretty sure I did.
Somehow we got through that day – it was gruelling for both of us though downhill most of the way, we plodded along. We arrived at Ghandruk, a hillside village overlooking terraced gardens and pastoral valleys. A hot shower would have been welcome but alas there’d been no sun that day so the solar power that heated water was not to be. We satisfied ourselves with a light wash, light dinner and bed.
I slept! Finally I slept. Upon arising on Day Five of our trek, mostly recovered from our collective litany of woes, we both felt like a million bucks, bright and ready to seize the Trekkers life with a vengeance again. We set off for the short hike to Nayapul, a skip in our step, a song under our breaths. We had survived the worst and were into our final day of trekking. Arrival at Nayapul found us questioning that assertion a few times on the harrowing taxi ride down the dirt mountain track. Views over the cliffs were dizzying and I found myself wondering about the maintenance of this cranky old taxi, especially the brakes.
Nonetheless, we arrived safely to Pokhara and, though it seemed like weeks since we had set out on our ‘little’ trek, – I felt satisfied that we had gone, we had seen and we had conquered, with the help of our guide and porter. And – though some might be inclined to think I just described the trek from hell – well, I prefer to think of it as a great metaphor for life: We plan with specific expectations – The actuality pretty much never turns out as we had envisioned – Our lives are enriched.