I've always known that someday I would end up in Nepal. Bordered by India and China, this little country is only approximately the size of the state of Tennessee and yet it contains eight of the ten tallest peaks in the world. How could anyone not feel the allure? With this in mind Justin arranged for one of his final rotations of medical school to be at Scheer Memorial Hospital, which is just outside Kathmandu. We convinced our friend Charlie (one of Justin's classmates) to do the same rotation in order to join us in our travels. We also asked another dear friend, Sarah, if she'd also like to join us. Without hesitation she said, "Of course!" and promptly requested the time off. That's the sign of an awesome friend. When the boys finished their month of work we flew over and met them in Kathmandu. We had three weeks to work with and decided to split it evenly between Nepal and India. We never could decide exactly what we wanted to do in India, but in Nepal there was no question: we were going to go trekking. Naturally, our first choice was Everest Base Camp, but that is usually completed in 14 days as time must be taken to acclimatize. With that off the table we considered the amazing Annapurna Circuit but quickly realized that it would be too lengthy as well. During my searches I noticed that a town called Pokhara seemed to be the starting point for a number of trails, and one name in particular kept popping up. Poon Hill. A quick Google image search yielding stunning photos of snow clad peaks towering over grassy slopes and rhododendron forests. I'll confess that I may have made our decision to trek Poon Hill based almost solely on those photographs, but it did fit nicely into our time frame, as it can be done in three days if you're really hardcore, or in 4-8 per most trekking companies. It also appeared to be well marked, which was important to us since we intended to do it without a guide or porters. We planned for and were successfully able to complete it in four days. The following is a breakdown of those days.
Traveled from Pokhara to Nayapul. This took approximately one hour, and although we'd planned to hop a bus we ended up taking a car arranged by our lodging, which cost USD 20 for the four of us. After reaching Nayapul we asked directions from villagers as to the whereabouts of the trailhead, which we reached without too much difficulty. At this point we were required to show our TIMS and ACAP permits. I'll give you the scoop on those later. After only three or four hours on the trail we reached Tikhedhunga where we spent our first night at See You Lodge - one of the teahouses. The rooms were simple with two beds a piece, each stocked with two blankets which we found to be adequate. We were thrilled to discover the place had a single shower and made it our first course of business after stowing our packs. What started as hot water cooled considerably with each subsequent user, but we hadn't expected showers at all and remained delighted and grateful. After we showered we walked around a bit and were surprised by how many amenities were available. For example, for a small fee you could use the teahouse's single power outlet to charge your stuff. The teahouse also ran a small shop from which you could purchase things like sunscreen, toilet paper, and bottled water. They were even selling a few cans of Pringles! On popular and less remote trails like Poon Hill, it appears that a fair bit of modernization has occurred. However, all the supplies still have to be carried in on pack animals, so we shared the trail with a lot of mules, all with bells around their necks to give you a fair notice to get out of the way.
We traveled from Tikhedhunga to Ghorepani, which took us approximately seven hours. Shortly after departing Tikhedhunga the terrain began to narrow into a canyon, and we reached a sign that stated we were now going to climb up 3,000 steps. The heat combined with the lack of switch backs reduced us all to a pathetically slow pace, including trekkers who had briskly passed us earlier with smug glances. And while that particular segment may have contained 3,000 steps, that certainly wasn't the final count for the day. We spent the rest of the day unrelentingly gaining elevation, with each stint on flat ground quickly giving away to yet another stoney stairway. Nepal seems to not have much use for switch backs! About two gallons of sweat later we finally trudged into Ghorepani, which was shrouded in mist. Believe me when I say that in that moment the little cluster of tea houses before us looked exactly like paradise. I don't think a cup of tea has ever tasted as good as it did that evening, relaxing around the communal fire at our teahouse. Speaking of tea, for tea connoisseurs like ourselves, Nepal was amazing. You could order tea with every meal, and I don't think we had one cup that wasn't absolutely delicious. While we were trekking we did in fact have tea three times a day. I think twenty four cups of tea in four days is a new record for us. We went to sleep that night looking out our windows at the snow clad peaks we'd get to watch the sun rise over the next day from Poon Hill. Ghorepani sits nestled against the base of Poon Hill, which rises over 1,000 ft above the village. A path winds to the top where one is afforded a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. Poon Hill sits just over 10,500 ft in elevation, so the fact that those mountains tower above it gives you an idea of just how magnificent the Himalayas are.
We hiked from Ghorepani up to Poon Hill and then on to Gandruk. We had been warned that this was the hardest day, which I think is accurate for several reasons. The biggest reason is that if you want to see that famous sun rise, you have to start day three with a decently stiff 4:30 AM climb to Poon Hill and then still hike another seven hours to Gandruk. On top of that, by day three our calves and thighs were beginning to beg for mercy after faithfully propelling us up all those stairs on day two! We met some other trekkers who advised us not to burden ourselves by adding the climb to Poon Hill to our itinerary, arguing that many spots on the trail afford similar views. And while I agree that we came upon similar vistas during our descent to Gandruk, they in no way replaced the wonder of watching the sun crest the Himalayas from our nearly 360 degree view on Poon Hill. I probably took about two hundred pictures of that sunrise. It was just so surreal. Post sunrise we headed back down to Ghorepani, where we stopped at our teahouse to grab our packs and have a quick breakfast before hitting the trail. In retrospect I think we would have made it into a five day trek and spent that extra day in Ghorepani just to do Poon Hill. I think the worst part of that day was when we spent around an hour making a long decent into what we presumed was the valley containing Gandruk, only to cross a bridge and discover the trail headed straight back up a hill side so steep I have no problem referring to it as a cliff. To say we were filled with despair in that moment is no exaggeration. The whole thing was completely worth it though. We wore the agony like a badge and kept pushing forward because around every corner was a new view so sweeping it could have easily graced a post card.
Gandruk to Nayapul. We arrived in Gandruk in light rain and heavy cloud cover, so you can imagine my surprise to walk onto the porch of our teahouse the next morning and discover that the village is presided over by a towering peak that was utterly hidden from our view the day before. What a blissful start to the day. By the time Justin came out about a half hour later, it was once again completely obscured by clouds. During breakfast we had a lovely chat with the teahouse owner. He was sporting a Patagonia down jacket, which he said a Japanese trekker had given to him this year. He told us how this trekker returns to Nepal year after year and completes a number of challenging routes at a blistering pace before returning to Japan. However, he always includes Poon Hill and stays at this particular teahouse every time, where he presents the owner with a gift. A beautiful friendship. It's stories like this that manage to restore a bit of my faith in humanity. After breakfast we geared up and began the last leg of our journey. Part of the reason Poon Hill is such a lovely trek is that it's a circuit so every day is fresh. Our last day was arguably the easiest since it only took us four hours to reach Nayapul and was almost all down hill. It's a beautiful descent through terraced rice paddies, herds of buffalo, and a string of tiny villages. And then suddenly you're back at the bridge in Nayapul that you crossed on the first day to start the trek. We were more than ready for some rest but also felt a pang of melancholy at ending what had been undoubtably one of our favorite adventures. On our flight home we sat next to an Irish fellow who had also just been trekking in Nepal. He said, "I think there's this thing about Nepal where you have to pretend that all the treks are easy because so many legit people go there, when in reality most of them are pretty difficult!" I couldn't have agreed more.
If you've thought about trekking in Nepal and are interested in this particular trek, here are more details to help you plan your trip.
For most trekking in Nepal, you need permits. If you go with a trekking company this is something they will pre-arrange for you. If you go solo as we did, then you'll need to head to an office in Pokhara that issues them. For the Poon Hill trek we needed both the TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) permits. These cost 20 USD a piece for a total of 40 USD per person *TIP: you need four passport style photos to get the permits. If you don't have enough there are shops around the offices that can take them. We paid 2.00 USD for two extras*
Although you can bring a tent and find a place to make camp if you desire, I'm a firm believer that the best way to do most treks in Nepal is via teahouses. Not only are you providing people with a source of income, but who wouldn't want to wash the salt crust off their body at the end of a sweltering day? Pre-Poon hill I had no idea how nice the teahouses would be. Now understand that budget travel is our bread and butter so "nice" for us means a place that has warm running water. But really, I didn't expect most of the teahouses to have running water (mostly hot, sometimes warm) or individual rooms with beds. I was kind of expecting to just be shown to some sort of communal sleeping platform and be handed a blanket. Each place had a little restaurant and sold bottled water or had a purification system from which you could fill your own bottles for a small fee. The villages have multiple teahouses to choose from and there are also a number of them spread out along the trail, so if you decide to end a day early or push a little further, you are totally able to do so without having to stick to a rigid plan.
We are very independent budget style travelers and so we trekked sans trekking company, guide, or porters. As such, our cost for this trek was solely the permits, food, and lodging. As mentioned above the permits were 40 USD per person and were definitely the most expensive part of the trek. Food and lodging were very affordable, with food usually costing us around 9 USD per person per day. For lodging we spent between 5-10 USD per night for a room accommodating two people . Buying bottled or purified water was only about 50-80 cents a container. With all that taken into consideration, we estimate our total cost per person for this trek to have been approximately 90 USD ($36 for food, $40 for permits, $10 for lodging, $4 for water).
In summary trekking in Nepal was challenging in some ways but easy in others. The drastic elevation changes were rough, but staying in teahouses made it easy to pack way less without the hassle of finding a suitable location for a tent at the end of a long day. And truly, it's been one of the best things we've done in our travels so far. We will definitely be back to do more!