One of the most popular short treks in Nepal is the Ghorepani Ghandruk Circuit Trek also known as Poon Hill because of the scenic vistas of the Himalayas seen at sunrise from the hilltop of that name partway through the trek. Although generally billed as a 4-5 day trek, I had a plane to catch in five days, so I decided to only do part of the trek, and come back the same way I started, or only if I felt particularly strong, complete the whole circuit in fewer days. I was also a bit tentative hiking alone in Nepal—what if I got hurt days from anywhere?
Rebecca, my wife, was already heading back to the US—her luggage was lost somewhere in the Middle East—and I was alone in Nepal. I know there are many brave souls out there, but at least for me, there was something a little scary about trekking alone in the Himalayas while the only people who knew me or cared about me were half way around the globe. I would have to be careful.
Having survived a six-hour Nepalese bus ride the day before, I opted to take a 90-minute taxi ride ($17) to Nayapul, the starting point of the trek. The driver let me out with my backpack, which I had trimmed down to the bare minimum, and pointed the way down a hill from the bus park in Nayapul. I hestitated. He pointed again. And off I went. It was about 8:30 in the morning.
I followed a dusty road through a village with the usual array of tiny shops selling snacks, vegetables, clothing, electrical wire and pots and pans. Soon I reached the next village Birethanti where there was a TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) checkpoint. An agent checked my TIMS permit and a short while later I crossed a large bridge festooned with prayer flags and stopped at another checkpoint where an agent recorded the information from another permit that allowed me to enter the Annapurna Sanctuary area where the upper reaches of the trek are located.
The trail, initially paved flagstone between shops and houses, headed gradually upward. I was on my way. I continued steadily uphill with a small river to my left, passing terraced fields where an occasional farmer could be seen stooped and tending to his or her crops. The trail merged with a dusty, pot-holed dirt road that continued upward through the small villages of Matathanti, Lamdawali, Sudame, and Hille. Somewhere before Tikhedhungga, the road ended. Some guidebooks recommend spending the night in Tikhedhungga since by this time you’ve been walking four or five hours. But feeling strong, I pressed onward. At Tikhedhungga the trail crossed a small swing bridge, and then began a steep climb straight up a steep mountain face. Here, the trail consisted of an endless series of steep generally irregularly-spaced stone steps. Looking upward, I cold see them continuing seemingly forever. Unless you’ve been to Nepal, I am not sure you can be prepared for the number of steep stone steps on some of the treks. The switchback has not been invented in Nepal. Stairs, meticulously crafted out of stone, climb virtually straight up mountainsides. Occasionally, there are rock resting points, that allow one to rest one’s pack or more often to allow the local people to rest the ponderous burdens they carry up and down the mountains daily. I slogged my way up the never-ending stairs. Once in awhile, there was a house or even a small teahouse with a display of aged Snickers bars and Coke to entice trekkers like myself.
Like most Westerners, I feel that I rush too much. I had watched Nepalese, including older woman and men, move at a slow, steady, methodical pace when climbing steep steps such as these, and I wanted to be like them. Watching them, it was almost as if they weren’t trying or intent on getting anywhere. They weren’t looking ahead like I was and saying, “Oh my god, more steps,” or “How much farther do these damn steps go on.” When watching many of the Nepalese, there was also a certain gentle grace to the way they walked, as if they knew that hurrying wouldn’t get them anywhere faster, while I sweated and tended to want to go too fast often forcing myself to stop and rest at too-frequent intervals. I remember our porter from our previous trek telling us “bistari,” which is Nepalese for slowly, and I tried to go more slowly and steadily and pace myself, telling myself it didn’t matter how long the steps went on. The other thing I had noticed about our Nepalese porter who had carried our weighty burden on the previous trek was that he had rested whenever he had seemed to be tired. Sometimes he would go long distances and not rest; sometimes, on steeper terrain, he would stop and rest very frequently. All this sounds like simple, common sense but I tried to incorporate these things into my trekking.
About halfway up the steep climb, an elderly woman at a teahouse perched on the cliffside called out to me, “You tired, you stop rest and eat something?” And so I did. I sat overlooking the long, green valley below me and ate dal batt (rice and lentils), the national dish of Nepal. Continuing my climb—I had seen hardly any other trekkers despite the popularity—I was startled to hear clickety clackety over stone stairs and the bong dong of bells and, dodging to the side, suddenly a small herd of ponies clambered past me down the steep stairs. A few moments later they were followed by their driver who seemed to incessantly curse at them in Nepalese. Two other small herds of ponies followed.
Finally, the stairs seemed to end or at least let up and I reached the village of Ulleri where I had initially planned to spend the night, but since I was feeling good I continued upward. Along the path wherever there are houses, or sometimes just at random locations there are plastic pipes that stream water down from farther up the hillside. It was hot and I stopped frequently to replenish my water. It is recommended that you purify water in Nepal no matter what the source since a number of harmful organisms (protozoa, bacteria, viruses) are commonly present. Certainly the guides, porters and locals drank the water without pause, and I even talked to a few fellow trekkers who did the same without ill effect. But for those who may be interested, I used a water filter (Sawyer) which removed all material down to one micron including protozoa cysts since the cysts of organisms such as giardia are often resistant to other purification methods. Viruses, however, are too small to be removed by the filter and both polio and hepatitis, both caused by viruses, occur in Nepal. After using the filter, I used either a Steripen, a device that produces ultraviolet light denaturing the DNA in organisms including viruses, and allows the water to be suitable for drinking in 90 seconds, or used purification tablets, which take 30 minutes to work. Maybe overkill, but as I write this, I have been in Nepal almost a month without any stomach problems.
The trail was generally easy to follow. Sometimes I would go almost an hour or so without seeing anyone and then I’d see only a local person carrying a huge bundle of something on their back and we would pass saying “Namaste” to each other. I took GPS coordinates on the way since one of my big fears was getting lost—in retrospect, it would have been hard to get lost, but I was alone. Occasionally, I’d ask someone to make sure I was going in the right direction—“Ghorepani?” and they’d wave their hand off in the direction I was going
After Ulleri, the trail continued climbing upward through pleasant forest to Ban Thanti. These weren’t regular villages like down the valley, but rather a village consisted of only a few houses and hotels. The hotels had names like “Sherpa Hotel,” “Good View Hotel,” or “Wel Come Hotel,” each having only six or seven rooms and a shared bathroom outside. The small hotels also served meals from sometimes-elaborate menus. Usually there is an indoor eating area, a few tables, and also outdoor tables set up in the paved courtyards. This is one aspect, the fact that there are places to stay and food along the way, that makes trekking in Nepal in such a unique experience. You don’t need to bring a tent on most of the treks (or even a sleeping bag at lower elevation treks), nor do you need to carry any food except for maybe a few snacks for the trail. The hotels or lodges are all fairly regularly spaced and all provide rooms with beds and blankets, and meals.
Part of me wanted to go as far as I could on this, the first day, to leave my options open on the next days and to cut myself some slack on the return, or in case something untoward happened. I certainly wasn’t super-human, but I had the plane to catch in five days. At the same time, I didn’t want to injure myself or do something stupid because I was tired.
But now I felt a deepening fatigue as I walked. I talked to a guide I met along the way and he said it was two or two and a half hours to the next village of Nangage Thanti. What to do? I decided to plod onward. Of course, as had been my previous experience that day, when someone said “two hours,” it had turned into three hours or even four hours, and so in this way, I inadvertently made my way slowly toward Ghorepani, always planning to stop for the night but being led to believe the next village was only a little ways farther. Finally, I reached Nangage Thanti, the last village before Ghorepani. Another guide there said it was “two hours” to Ghorepani from there, but a local man told me it was only an hour. It would soon be dark, and I had been walking nine hours. With a certain amount of trepidation I kept going. I can’t tell you my relief when one hour later, I reached a large sign that said “Welcome to Ghorepani.” I had been travelling on fumes. I felt like a huge burden had been lifted off me.
Ghorepani was a large village with lots of hotels. It looks like a run-down Colorado ski town, and has the look of being hard-hit during the snowy winter season. There is a lower section and upper section. I stopped at the Annapurna Sanctuary station in the lower section as required. The agent took my permit and said, “How many in your party?” “One,” I answered. “How many guides and porters?” he continued since most people have at least a guide if not a porter also. “None,” I answered, “just me.” He looked impressed. “Where did you come from today?” “Nayapul,” I answered. He looked up at me looking even more impressed. “Long way,” he said. At least for me, it had been an arduous day; I had been hiking about ten hours and climbed almost 6000 feet in altitude.
I continued on up to upper Ghorepani. I was so relieved I had made it that I hardly felt the climbing anymore. I was so glad that in a few minutes I would have a bed to lie down in. There were many large lodges scattered along the hillside looking out over the valley where allegedly the entire snow-capped Himalayas were somewhere in the twilight mist. I couldn’t see anything.
I checked into a lodge. “How much is a room?” I asked the woman in the warm entranceway where off to the side I could see other trekkers eating at tables and huddled around a wood burning stove. “Three hundred rupees,” she said. It wouldn’t have mattered what she had said, but three hundred rupees is three dollars. She showed me the room, a small, spartan room with two single beds with giant red blankets and a large window looking out toward the valley. A common toilet was down the hall.
For dinner I had dal batt again, and then sat by the stove drinking hot milk tea with other trekkers, guides and porters. A guy and a girl were playing chess and we all laughed and gave our input on the game. One Nepalese, who didn’t seem to understand the game, at one point suggested the girl jump the opponent’s pawn with her knight and take the king. There were several books on a bookshelf. They were all in different languages. The only one in English was an old book, “Basics of Bicycle Mechanics.” Finally—the chess game was still going on—most of us went off to bed. I lay in the bed under the heavy blankets, thinking here I am alone somewhere in the far-off Himalayas which I had only read about in books or seen in pictures. How strange life is. I let out a giant sigh of relief and almost instantly went to sleep.
In the middle of the night, something awoke me or as if by design I awoke, and for some reason I parted the thin curtains that covered the window. In the foreground were the smaller mountains just as I had seen earlier in the day, but now looming behind them were the true giant Himalayan peaks. It was like waking up early Christmas morning as a small child. I was breathless at how massive the mountains were. I had been used to snow-covered mountains back in Colorado, but nothing had prepared me for the immensity of the Himalayas. These were steep, sharp mountains rising straight up in the sky with giant white pinnacles and buttresses. A long band of them spread across the skyline. And while they were indeed magnificent, at the same time they were frightening in their immensity. Gazing out at their size and grandeur, I had new appreciation for anyone who would attempt to climb them. For a long time, I gazed at the giant white peaks silhouetted against the night sky, and then finally went back to sleep.
The quintessential thing to do on the Ghorepani Ghundruk Trek is to wake up before dawn in Ghorepani and climb Poon Hill, which takes somewhere from 45 minutes to one hour, and watch the sunrise as it hits the Himalayan Annapurna range. I didn’t do it. I heard people rustling below me and gathering outside in the dark but I stayed warm and snug in bed. A few hours later I heard them return. Talking to a fellow trekker later, he said at least on this day, the view wasn’t that much different than the one from the lodge.
After a breakfast of milk tea, eggs and Tibetan Bread (which is almost like Navajo fry bread if you are familiar with that), I headed in the direction of Ghandruk, six or so hours away. A short section of stone stairs—my legs remembered the anguish of yesterday—and then the trail followed the undulating ridgeline. This was the most spectacular portion of the circuit. To the north, 8000-meter white peaks loomed against the blue sky as the trail wound through open grass areas and rhododendrons with white, red and pink blossoms. At every step, I wanted to stop and take another photo. The trail reached a high point at Deurali Pass, then after short ups and downs, the trail began to descend in earnest through mixed forests of oak and rhododendron. Somehow I had left everyone behind and I walked for a long time alone eventually reaching the village of Ban Thanti, which curiously had the same name as a village I had passed the day before. I guess numerous villages can have the same name. Most often the trail will pass right in front of the lodges or teahouses where the courtyard will be paved with flagstone. As I passed one small hotel, a woman called out in a friendly matter. I sat for a long time in her pleasant courtyard as she aired mattresses and linen in the warm sunlight, while off to the side, a small boy cut coarse green vegetables with a giant knife.
Walking on the trails in Nepal is a unique experience. You’ll be walking along alone sometimes for a long period of time and suddenly a local person will pass you going in the other direction carrying some huge load on their back with a strap across their forehead to carry and distribute the weight. There is no end to the surprising number of different things that you will see people carrying. They will be carrying such things as massive logs, huge stacks of smaller wood, giant plastic containers, sacks of grain or cement, or huge bundles of foliage in wicker baskets. Or sometimes porters will pass going in the same direction carrying ponderous loads followed later by the clients wearing only small daypacks. The porters will invariably be wearing the most minimal of footwear. While most trekkers like myself were hiking shoes or boots and take great care in picking out and breaking in the correct footwear, the porters will invariably be wearing frail, thin canvas shoes such as you might buy at a very cheap shoe store in the US or even be wearing flip-flops. And when they are resting, the porters will often smoke cigarettes, which only serves to add to the notion of how incredibly fit and adapted they are to this environment.
After Ban Thanti—the second Ban Thanti— there was a very long section with no human habitation. I saw a herd of presumably wild buffalo, giant snorting beasts with big horns, wander across the trail in front of me. The trail descended constantly now rapidly losing altitude. Then after a brief brutal steep climb, I reached Tadapani where I stopped for lunch.
For lunch, I had—you guessed it—dal batt. I have read that upwards of 90% of all Nepalese eat dal batt every day. Nepalese generally eat two largish meals a day, often dal batt for both meals again according to my understanding. Dal batt as served in Nepal is generally the same but varies slightly. It usually consists of large mound of rice, a small metal bowl of watery soup-type lentils, a small portion of green spinach-type vegetable, a portion of curried potatoes and usually two or three small strips of spicy cucumber or pickle. Dal batt, depending on where you are, costs from about $2.50 to $5.00. One of the traditions of dal batt, which I learned from our previous trekking experience, is that whenever you order it, you get seconds. The waiter comes around after you’ve been eating awhile and offers you more rice, greens and curry. On several occasions around Westerners, while they had finished their non-dal-batt-meal, I had felt like some sort of honored guest when the proprietor came out and heaped another mound of rice and curry onto my plate. The other thing that’s funny is that while hiking back in Colorado, for example, I would never think of having a heavy meal such as rice and lentils for lunch. But somehow it works here, and I seem to be able travel long hours on my dal batt.
On the way to Ghandruk, alongside the trail a ditch about three feet had been freshly dug for a plastic water pipe. It looked like brutal work since the ground was incredibly rocky and since there are no roads up here, it must be being dug by hand. After about kilometer, I hear voices in the distance and in the shade under the trees a work crew of about thirty, half men, half women, are eating. I see the tools they use to dig: ancient pickaxes, woven baskets to carry dirt. They are all happy and laughing and eating. Later I learn they are villagers working to bring a water pipe to their village. They have another 1 ½ kilometers to go someone tells me. Later in the same forest, I see a man below me. He has cut down some trees and now he is perched on a platform standing above a log and with a long saw is sawing the log into a beam. It is the type work that was done back in pioneer days in the old West. I constantly see scenes like this in Nepal, and marvel at how incredibly hard the people work.
Two hours after Tadapani, I arrive in Ghandruk (6 ½ hours after leaving Ghorepani). Ghandruk is one of the strangest, most interesting villages I have ever seen. For one thing, it is large village with hundreds of houses and structures. But the main thing is that is spread out over one of the steepest mountainsides you can imagine. The entire village is linked by tenuous stone pathways, alleyways and steep stone stairways which wind past houses and hotels and various businesses. For those back in Colorado who might be reading this, imagine a steep long ski slope in Vail or Aspen except covered with tiny structures all linked by a web of stone steps. It would be easy to get lost in Ghandruk. There are so many hotels that I don’t know where to stay. Finally, I settle on one. Again, as is my wont, I ask how much for a room. This time the woman answers “One hundred and fifty rupees ($1.50).”
I sit in the courtyard at night while a never-ending version of Om Mani Padme Hum drones on in the background. Very few lights twinkle down below in the rest of the village and the valley. The music is hypnotic, meditative. Eventually, I go to bed. Despite the tranquil environment, I have bizarre dreams. I dream my wife is leaving me and I yell, “No, no.” Then the dream morphs into someone dying in a bed, and they are giving away their stuff in a large burlap bag.
In the morning, I wake early and sit on the porch watching the sunrise over the distant soft mountains. The giant Himalayas are no longer in sight. The village is already alive. Strings of ponies carrying sacks clatter past down stone alleyways. People are already bustling past. Two men go by each carrying an entire small bed on his back. Schoolchildren in uniforms wander past holding each other’s hands. A rooster crows in the distance.
I take my time making my way back to Nayapul looking closely at the houses, fields and people I pass because I fear this is my last time in the countryside of Nepal. Soon I will be back in the crowded, noisy, polluted cities of Nepal and then I will fly west back to civilization, as I know it. So I savor these last miles as the trail this time descends steep stone stairs pass the villages of Chane, Kimche and Kilyu. The trail then reaches a large river (river is “khola” in Nepalese) and merges with a road that follows the river past Syuli Bazar back to Birethanti. At Birethanti, almost six hours after I started walking, I check in at the TIMS station and eat lunch.
Crossing the prayer-flag festooned bridge, I see new trekkers arriving at the beginning of the trek. I feel a bit like an old warrior returning from battle. There is a bus to Pokhara from Birethanti (200 rupees), but I decline because I feel like walking the extra kilometer to Nayapul. I feel strong and alive. In Nayapul, I catch a local bus (200 rupees despite walking the extra kilometer) back to Pokhara. The bus assistant who collect the fares comes to the back of the bus and sits next to me asking me questions: Where am I from? Am I married? How many sons do I have?
After more than an hour, we arrive at back in the center of Pokhara. I heft my pack and walk the half-hour back to the hotel.