Hugging the Knees of the Himalayas on a Nepal Tea House Trek
By Tim Leffel

A five-day tease of a trek in the Annapurna region of Nepal turns out to be a tough act of stamina that delivers a panoramic payoff.

Snow capped mountains of Nepal

We knew when we woke up on Day 2 that we would be doing a lot of climbing before the end of the day. We had already climbed 1,100 meters in altitude the day before. It seemed daunting when the guide from Royal Mountain Travel said, "You will go up 3,700 steps." What's a step though when there are multiple paths up a flagstone staircase built into a steep mountain?" One person in my group decided to count from the first step. Her final tally was 6,200. I have no doubt that she was closer. By the time we walked through the gate at Ghorepani village, most of us were ready to collapse and take a nap.

Poon Hill trek stairs

This Poon Hill-Ghorepani "Sunrise Trek" is often billed as an easy hike, something casual travelers sign up for if they don't have time for a full-on circuit that climbs to 5,000 meters or more in Nepal. We would drive a short distance from Pokhara, tramp around the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in a loop, and return to the city for nice bathrooms and a swimming pool. As our leg muscles screamed in protest and my hiking boots started falling apart, however, I started to think that maybe the "easy" part is determined by Nepali guides and porters. The label is not assigned by those of us flying in from flatter lands close to sea level.

The Himalaya Mountains are the newest, the steepest, and the highest in the world overall. The tops are eternally covered in snow and ice, despite the tropical weather a few thousand meters down in Nepal. We've come to experience their majesty, but from a relatively comfortable vantage point, no crampons required and a mattress to sleep on at night. Like most hikes in Nepal, this is a "tea house trek," meaning we have a guesthouse to stay in each night and a restaurant to eat in. Porters are carrying our luggage, but there's no camping equipment or food to lug along with us. It seems a bit strange to everyone that we're almost always walking on flagstones. The Mighty mountains of Nepal appear to be made of stone sheets that conveniently come apart. A seemingly infinite supply of flagstones makes it into steps, and is used for paths, for temples, for houses, and even for the roof tiles on top the houses.

When I first trekked Nepal in my early 30s, I did the whole 21-day Annapurna circuit through these towns of stone while carrying my own pack. I was traveling solo at the time and had a small baggie of weed in case I needed something to numb the pain as I climbed higher and higher. I met up with two other guys to trek with and they had some too—so much that they needed some help. The seller had asked them whether they wanted a big bag or a small one. They said, "Big I guess" and he brought them a garbage bag full. It was more than they could fit in their two packs, so they asked if I could stash some of it in my backpack too. My main memories of that trek—besides the fabulous vistas—are of drinking tea, eating dal bhat, walking each day, and getting plenty of practice rolling joints.

Ghorepani trek route

This time I'm older, creakier, and not carrying a backpack that's full of Kathmandu clothing and ganja. Otherwise it feels like a step back in time in most ways. The village life is still moving at a slow pace and the buildings look the same. The mountains still stare down from high above, making us feel insignificant. The roads and electric lines have both reached higher into the mountains each year, however, meaning villagers don't have to wait for porters to climb for days in order to get supplies. It's bittersweet progress. Even in the late '90s I remember getting annoyed when hearing a Nepali guy in a Chicago Bulls jersey play a casio keyboard at at guesthouse that was at 4,800 meters. As travelers we want the pristine, isolated villages to stay picturesque and we want to capture photos without power lines. The villagers, however, are tired of the backward life. They want 24/7 power and DVD movies. In the end, we both want hot showers and gas stoves that don't require cutting firewood.

Nepal trek bridge

Our first day we stopped in a dusty and stifling village where our guide paid for permits and stocked up on supplies. The start was inauspicious, on a new gravel road with cows eating garbage and the occasional four-wheel-drive vehicle cruising by. The smells of manure covered up what was emanating from our sweaty bodies in the heat. Once we got onto the mountain path away from the road things improved, with green rice paddies beside us and the occasional gurgling spring with prayer flags flapping over it. We climbed up and up the stairs in the heat, eventually arriving at Laxmi Guesthouse in the village of Tikhe Dhunga. We sat on the balcony and watched a group of mules clip-clop by, one of them carrying live chickens in baskets on both sides. The next day we would see the mules going the other way, no chickens in the baskets.

This village, like most we would see later, seemed to mostly exist for the trekkers passing through. Every family home was a guesthouse, firewood stacked up to keep the travelers toasty when it got cold at night. The bed prices are crazy cheap-usually two dollars per person-with the restaurant meals (another three to five bucks) creating most of the profits. In a socialist system that actually works, most of them in the Annapurna district adhere to fixed prices they all share. The menu may vary slightly from place to place, but with the element of shopping around out of the picture, there's no incentive for trekkers to stay at one place but eat and drink somewhere different.

The Annapurnas Are Shy in the Morning

We got to bed early in Ghorepani, some of us feeling the effects of the altitude at 2,874 meters (9,400 feet), others retiring after taking advantage of an internet signal to upload a few photos. We needed to be up well before sunrise to make the trip up to Poon Hill for the morning panorama. We downed some tea and started walking, each crest of a hill being just a tease as we realized there was another after that. And another, and another as we crossed 10,000 feet.

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Read this article online at: Hugging the Knees of the Himalayas on a Nepal Tea House Trek

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