After enjoying extreme relaxation on the beach in Koh Chang, it was time to put our muscles to the test and get in some physical activity. Our solution for this adventurous activity – hiking in the Nepalese Himalayas. Our initial goal was to hike into Everest Base Camp, but after doing some research we decided that the flight into Lukla was far too dangerous for us to take and we needed to find a second option. Additionally, after speaking to some other trekkers in Kathmandu we found that the Everest trail saw lots of snow in this early part of the season and was intermittently closed due to avalanche danger. So, given these two fairly ominous omens we changed our goal to one a little safer – hiking into Annapurna Base Camp. But first, we spent a little time in the hiking-haven of Kathmandu.
Kathmandu is an incredibly interesting city. It's the jumping-off point for virtually every activity in the Himalayas, from day hikes into the nearby hills to climbing to the top of Mt. Everest, so it's a very eclectic city filled with lots of travelers from all over the world. We explored the tourist section of Kathmandu, called Thamel, and did a day tour of the local temples in the area. Nepal is mostly a Hindu country, though there is a strong Buddhist influence as well, and we were able to see both Buddhist and Hindu temples within the city limits. The Buddhist temples were pretty amazing – multicolored prayer flags, giant gilded stupas, and prayer wheels of all sizes. It's easy to become mesmerized by the holiness of these sites.
Journey to Pokhara
The next day we headed off to Pokhara, which is the second largest city in Nepal and the home base for all Annapurna treks (as well as a slew of others). We took a bus ride through the countryside, winding back and forth around the massive terraced peaks, passing through tiny roadside villages, and seeing subsistence farming at its best. Like many things in Nepal, the bus ride took much longer than anticipated. Rather than a 6 hour bus ride it turned into an almost 10 hour ride as there was an accident on the road ahead of us which stopped traffic for 2 hours. It's not like there are alternate routes to take here! We found out from our guide that the reason for the backup was that a bus collided with a motorcyclist and, unfortunately, ended in a fatality. In Nepal, when something like this happens, the family of the deceased requires payment for the death in the family. And, they will not move the body until this payment has been agreed upon. So, as far as we could assume, the body laid in the middle of the road for 2 hours while the family negotiated with the bus driver for payment for their loved one's death. A morbid topic, but an interesting insight into how accidental death is handled.
The next morning we met our guide Nikhil and our porter Narendra and crammed into a jeep that would take us the 45 minutes to the trailhead in Nayapul. After the taxi dropped us we did a little repacking and were off! The plan was for us to spend the next 10 days slowly winding our way through the trail system that links the main road to Annapurna Base Camp. The hike starts out fairly innocuously – we follow a rutted, rocky 4x4 path through a few of the villages on the edge of the mountains. Little kids are excited to say “Namaste” and “chocolate?” to us as we pass by, but we were told to not give them anything as this encourages even more begging. After a couple of hours we leave the “road” and enter the actual trail, which is a wonderful respite as it means no more smog, no more honking, and the true beginning of our trek.
The first couple of days were pretty easy, and the schedule was fairly similar – wake up, have some fried bread and tea for breakfast, and hike 5-7 hours. We were also very lucky to spend most of these days hiking through rhododendron forests in full bloom. The rhododendron is Nepal's national flower, and we could see why. The hills were covered in giant pink blooms, more amazing than any spring forest we've ever seen. They only bloom for a few weeks of the year too, so we were incredibly lucky to witness this seasonal moment. We'd stop at a tea house for lunch and eat a giant plate of pasta with fresh veggies, noodle soup, or even pizza (with yak cheese instead of mozzarella, of course). The food is actually really good given how remote these villages are and there really isn't electricity except at night. At around 4pm we'd stop at a tea house for the day and get settled in for our afternoon of recovering from the hike and an evening of warming up and relaxing.
wHAT'S A TEA HOUSE?
A word on tea houses, since they're pretty odd places. Tea houses are very basic shelters, consisting of concrete or plywood rooms with wood frame beds, thin foam mattresses, and, in the higher villages, blankets. That's it. The main area of the tea house has a dining room and kitchen as well as very basic toilets. Many of the tea houses in the lower valley also have wood burning fireplaces, which are so amazing to cozy up to after taking a lukewarm shower or getting soaked by the daily 3:00 rain shower. The fireplaces and the adjoining common area are great communal spaces where we met trekkers from all over the world. We swapped war stories, talked about interesting travel anecdotes, and even debated global politics.
The tea houses make for a fun melting pot of different backgrounds. Ultimately, the tea houses are more civilized than camping, but not by much. We ate dinner at the tea house where we spent the night, and it usually consisted of dal bhat, the local Nepalese specialty. Dal bhat is rice, lentils, potato curry, and some sort of spicy pickled vegetable. It's delicious, and all of the guides would proclaim “dal bhat power, 24 hour” whenever they were done with their meal. Initially we were worried about eating lentils and rice for 10 days, but our introduction into dal bhat was great! The combination of perfectly cooked rice, delicious curry, and lentils is exactly what the doctor ordered after a long day of trekking in the cold.
FIRST MOUNTAIN VIEWS!
After 3 days of hiking we stopped in Ghorepani, which is a village at a confluence of trails due to its proximity to Poon Hill, a viewpoint for two massive Himalayan mountains, notably Dhauligiri (the 7th tallest in the world) and Annapurna South, which is smaller than Annapurna I but still intimidating. Everyone hikes up to Poon Hill for sunrise, so we woke at 4am and then started the 45 minutes of vertical hiking to get to the viewpoint. When we woke, however, Carrie had a massive headache, likely due to a combination of the altitude and dehydration. Although she started up the trail, she had to stop and turn back, it was just too much and she wanted to go back to rest. I continued on to the top with our guide and got there just as the sun was beginning to touch the top of Dhauligiri. It was one of the most breathtaking sights I've had so far on the trip. We then headed to the top of a man-made observation tower for a slightly different look. As I was contemplating the sunrise over the giant Himalayan peaks, I heard Nikhil yell “heeeeeey, you made it!”. I turned around and there was Carrie – she decided to not turn around but rather take her time on the hike up. She persevered and made it after all, which was great because we were able to enjoy this amazing sight together. We descended the observation deck and sat down on the edge of the hill, enjoying the sun continuing to brighten the peaks around us.
ANNAPURNA BASE CAMP
We continued on for the next 3 hard, long days until we got to our high camp Machapuchhre Base Camp, where we'd make our final early morning ascent to Annapurna Base Camp. The route up to MBC was incredibly challenging as we'd have to descend down one side of the valley just to go back up the other side. Why couldn't they make a bridge across the valleys?! We struggled along, fighting the steepness and altitude, until we got to MBC where we'd spend the night. The next morning, surrounded by snow and tons of stars, we left the MBC at around 5am so we could get up to ABC by sunrise. Just like at Poon Hill we reached the top and were greeted by blue-bird skies, pink mountains lightened by alpenglow, and giant peaks all around us. Standing at ABC were were at 13,600 feet, which, to provided scale, is the height of many of the highest mountains in the Rockies. The peaks around us, however, were an additional 13,000 feet above us, which humbled us and made us feel like ants. As we looked around us it seemed like we were dropped into a huge crater with jagged mountains literally surrounding us on all sides. It was a very tough 7 day trek to this point, but the payoff was totally worth it.
After a few hours we began our decent, which took 3 more days. Along the way we stopped at a natural hot spring to soak our weary muscles. We were making really great time on the way down, so we actually decided to exit the trail a day early, thus cutting the total time down to a 9 day trek. We longed for a warm room, normal bed, and shower, so hot-footing it down the mountain wasn't a very tough sell. We hopped in a taxi back to the hotel, and had a celebratory beer along the shores of Phewa Lake in Pokhara with Nikhil and Narendra. Mission accomplished, and we were ready to head back to Kathmandu to finish out our time in Nepal.
everest after all
Once back in Kathmandu we had one last early morning treat – a flight around Mt. Everest. We couldn't leave the region without seeing the biggest, baddest mountain on the planet. The only option besides taking the death-flight to Lukla and hiking in is to fly over the Everest range from Kathmandu. We opted for this, which entails at 6:30 am flight in a small plane out to the range. Seeing Everest and all the other nearby peaks is mesmerizing and simply seeing these peaks stoked the fire for us to trek into Everest Base Camp in the future (maybe when less planes crash at Lukla).
The next day we headed out, ready to leave the dusty, crazy, rice-filled city of Kathmandu behind, ready to welcome pasta and wine in Rome.