Go to Nepal. But don’t go to Nepal without trekking. Don’t even think about it.
I was able to sample this form of adventure travel on an eight-day trip to Nepal that I put together thanks to award tickets in business class on Qatar’s new A350 (previous post) and first class on Ethiad’s 777-300 (following post) that I got with American Airlines miles. See also my previous post on my sightseeing flight to Everest.
Once I arrived in Nepal, I booked a three-day side trip to Pokhara, Nepal that included a round-trip flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara, two nights in a three-star hotel in Pokhara and a city tour, a two-day trek with a private guide, meals and over night accommodations. The total cost for this adventure was $650, which was more than the total spent on the rest of my trip, but it was worth it.
Flight to Pokhara
The adventure began with a flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara. The Kathmandu domestic terminal is very basic, especially when you consider that Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal. There is no lounge. For entertainment, the waiting area has a couple of TVs that were showing an Animal Planet show while I wasting. The only restaurant was a walk up counter that offered a few cold sandwiches and some fast local food .
The terminal’s best feature, without question, was the mixture of people. There were tourists speaking a variety of languages, people with huge backpacks who looked like they were setting out on a fortnight’s trek, and of course Nepalese travelling for various reasons in their home country.
My flight to Pokhara was on a Yeti airlines Jetstream 41, the same type of aircraft as my Everest flight. I even had the same seat, 6A, a window seat in the exit row over the wing. The flight is only 30 minutes. (In comparison, driving from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes over six hours.)
Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal, has a population of 500,00 or about one fourth the size of Kathmandu. The Pokhara airport is small and quaint.
My tour company had arranged for a driver to meet me. He was waiting with my name on a sign when I exited the terminal. It was a short drive to the hotel in the modern tourist section of Pokhara. That afternoon I took a private tour of Pokhara with my driver. (The Pokhara tour will be covered separately.) The next morning, I began my two-day trek on the Annapurna Trail.
The Annapurna Trail
Pokhara is the gateway to the Annapurna Region, which holds three of the 10 highest peaks in the world. Within 40km of Pokhara the terrain rises from 800m at Phewa Tal (lake) to over 8,000m at the highest peaks
Peaks of the Annapurna region from Phewa Tal in Pokhara
Trekking to Annapurna base camp requires a minimum of 10 days round trip. My two-day trek was coming nowhere near base camp or the high mountain passes. It was described as moderate in difficulty. I had a private guide, the trek was one day up to about 6,000 feet, an overnight stay with views of some of the peaks, and one day back down. No worries.
What I didn’t know until after this trek was that the worst trekking disaster in the history of Nepal happened on the trail I was setting out on.
In October 2014 (October and May being the two months with the best weather for summiting Himalaya peaks and trekking to base camps or the high passes), near 15,000 feet on the Annapurna trail, several groups of trekkers and their guides were caught in a severe snowstorm that the Nepalese authorities failed to warn them about. At least 43 and perhaps as many as 57 died in avalanches and deep snow. The exact death toll remains a mystery because there is no requirement for trekkers or guides to register names and numbers of people taking the trial and an unknown number of bodies remain buried in snow.
Snow was the last thing on my mind as we began the trek since the temperature in Pokhara was over 90 degrees F. My guide and driver met me at the hotel in the morning the day after my arrival and we drove for 40 minutes to the village of Phedi to start the trek. My guide, Om Prakash Lamichhane, is a member of the Gurung ethnic group. The Gurung are famous as Gurkha soldiers who since 1815 have fought with renowned distinction with the British army including service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Being from Indiana, my idea of a moderate trek or hike is a brisk walk over rolling terrain. Not so in Nepal. At Phedi, the Annapurna trail begins with a climb. A steep climb!
The grade at the beginning of the trek was steep enough that well built stone steps had been constructed to assist in getting up the hillside through a series of switchbacks.
To compound matters , I made the typical rookie mistake of over packing. For instance, even though our resting place for the evening had wifi, I should have never brought my laptop and paraphernalia. After being on the trail for awhile, I picked up my guides pack, and it half as heavy as mine. Still, the huge packs of some trekkers who we occasionally encountered looked like they weighed several times what my pack weighed.
I had expected that the trek would have some up and some down sections. Wrong! The best I got was a few relatively flat spots every once in awhile.
Here the trail was a path used by the local residents as well as trekkers. There were settlements of two or three houses every so often along the trail. The locals had goats, cows and chickens and raised crops on terraced farms.
Sights along the way
Despite the steepness, we kept a steady pace. I forget the words in Nepalese that Prakash kept telling me. The translation though was “slowly, slowly.” Very good advice.
We would climb for an hour or so and then rest for a few minutes at one of the small restaurants the locals would run from their homes. After three hours we reached the village of Damphus which is several groupings of houses and buildings terraced up the hillside.
One of the settlements in Damphus
I thought Damphus was where I would stay in a guest house for the evening. It turned out it was only where we stopped for lunch.
We ate outdoors on a terrace overlooking the hills and valley below.
We both ordered dal baht with chicken, a traditional Nepalese curry-like dish.
The dal baht was somewhat spicy. Cucumbers, carrots and flat bread helped to moderate the spiciness. After the three-hour trek, I greatly enjoyed the food and rest.
After lunch it was back on the trail to reach our goal for the evening, the Australian Camp. The trail was not as steep but it was still exhausting. Soon we reached a fork in the trail with a map and other information on trail safety and etiquette. These were the only trail signs since Phedi. The hiking figure indicates our position on the map
After this sign the steps started again and the trail got somewhat steeper. The trail sign claimed that the Australian camp was only 20 minutes ahead. However, I was pretty pooped and soon started counting 200 steps and then resting for a coupe of minutes. In about 40 minutes, we made it to the Australian Camp.
The Australian Camp
The Australian Camp was where we spent the night.
Interior of restaurant and guest rooms
The room had a bathroom with a shower although I never figured out how to get hot water. The bed was comfortable. The camp even had free wifi. Like the rest of Nepal, electricity was on for only about 10 few hours each day. The bed was comfortable, and the quilt kept me warm.
I had dal baht with chicken again for dinner, used the wifi with my laptop for a bit , and turned in. I wanted to get up early. Prakash had told me that the best time to see the mountains was at sunrise. They were not visible when we reached the camp because of clouds and haze.
Others had also gotten up for the view as the first sunbeams hit the upper slopes.
Annapurna South is the highest nearby peak. It blocks the view of higher peaks behind it including Annapurna which tops out at 8,091m or 26,545ft. Annapurna is the 10th highest mountain in the world.
The views were well worth the trek to get here. It would have been nice to have the time to explore deeper into the Annapurna Sanctuary.
After breakfast Prakash and I headed down on the trail to Kande.
It was amazing how much faster I could go descending. After awhile though my legs were shaking. That slowed me down a little as I wanted to be sure of my footing. It took a little less than two hours to get to the road at Kande.
The descent offered more views of some of the peaks.
A scenic walk for an hour along the road brought us to the pick up point.
Soon we were at the pick up point. The driver arrived after about 30 minutes.
I was tired but would have loved to have had the time for a longer trek.
Future posts will cover the sights of Kathmandu and Pokhara.