*Days 11-18: Poon Hill/Ghorepani Circuit Trek!

Trip Start May 20, 2008
Trip End Aug 19, 2008

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Flag of Nepal  , Himalayan Region,
Monday, June 9, 2008

June-August are generally regarded as the worst three months to venture into the local mountains. Rain clouds obscure most of the views, bring rain and turn the trails to muddy slop. Ever since seeing Frank Capra's Lost Horizon as a kid and most definitely since seeing Kundun in 7th Grade social studies class though, the tranquil Shangri-La paradise of the high Himalayas has captured my dreams, and the possibility of visiting it was half the reason I chose to come to Nepal over [insert other basket-case country here.] Buddhist prayer flags fluttering on the tops of mountain peaks, yak herders herding their yaks, monks hymning over the roar of a blizzard, YETIS... ahh I just had to see it for myself. So, off Janu (the guide) and I went, mountain tree-line bound.

After a comfy late-morning taxi ride from Pokhara, we arrived at the trek's starting point, a hilly strip mall of shanties named Naya Pul ("New Bridge" or something like that.) Our path was to take us on a six day journey through the forests just below the peaks with an option to extend the trek four days if I wasn't too tired, possibly reaching Annapurna Base Camp. The trail along those extra four days would cut straight into the mountain range's heart and across a glacier, something I was psyched about... if I decided to fork out the extra money and strength to go that extra mile. Time would tell.

The trek's initial leg took us through a humid little valley filled with fluttering butterflies, flowers, mist, and vines, or in short: a jungle. A light subtropical jungle, but a jungle nonetheless. Not the sort of scenery I was expecting after conjuring images of an Asian Switzerland in my head, but it was gorgeous all the same. A wet and virgin wilderness it was, not far removed from Hillary Clinton. Janu half-jokingly tried to set me up with every young-enough pretty female innkeeper along the way, but severe language barriers and the general awkwardness of it all proved insurmountable boundaries. We settled down around sixish in a lodge run by Annemarie's long lost Tibetan twin sister, nibbled on some dal bhat, chatted about love, family, and stuff, and called of the night. It was the first of what would be many lonely and quiet mountainous nights. The trails were devoid of tourists, the locals spoke nary an English word, Janu's own English was too spotty to converse for longer than ten minutes at a time, and I brought no books along for fear of their weight straining my shoulders. Many times after finals or a heavy bout of deadlines one is left wondering what to do to kill one's suddenly huge amount of free time, but I can't remember ever having so literally *nothing* to do as I did during those six nights trekking. It was a weird feeling, neither good nor bad. We'd stop walking every afternoon and pondering the meaning of life while staring at the view would be the only activity option until dinner and sleep rolled along. Some deep pondering went on there.

Anyways, trekking day dos began by climbing a three hour long staircase, with minimal breaks, followed by another three hours of mostly flat walking to the next village of Ghorepani. During this ascent, my legs and butt came to know a new definition of pain and suffering. In addition, it soon became clear that whenever Janu said "ok! We're over the climb!" he actually meant "there's another fifteen to twenty minutes of slightly less steep climbing lurking around the corner, I'm just trying to instill you with false hope." The jungle views more than made up for my rapidly liquidating legs, however. There were no snow capped peaks at this point, but we'd pass many a steep misty ravines and cross at least three precarious wood + rope bridges that looked like set pieces from Indiana Jones. We arrived in Ghorepani around three in the afternoon with the remainder of the day reserved for thumb-twiddling and recovery. Janu gave me a crash course in the world of Hindi pop during this thumb twiddling. One song was awesome and shall be downloaded as soon as I return to the US, the rest entered the "a bit too different" file.

We woke up uber-early the next morning, around four thirty, to climb adjacent Poon Hill and watch the sunrise over the mountains. At the top of Poon Hill was probably the greatest single landscape view I have ever seen in my life. Six of the world's tallest snowy peaks surrounded us on almost all sides painted gorgeous-orangish by the rising sun, marking the first moment of the trek when it seemed like my beloved Switzerland would be dethroned on the beauty meter. I tried to snatch a Facebook profile picture that would make it look like I had actually climbed one of the adjacent mountains, but after seven attempts and none of the other handful of (nearly all Japanese) tourists understanding my probably incoherent instructions, I gave up. I think "Backfired Mountain Climbing FBook Pictures" will be the "Trying to Take a Pic of Myself in the Swiss Alps" album of this trip.

The Poon Hill climb was followed by what would become the most pleasant walking day of the trek, through the jungle's most scenic and flat turf with a German couple and a very-American guy (he sported a cowboy hat) named Doug for company. I also snapped the best "Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind" picture I've gotten yet, but it came at a price. As I finished snapping the picture, Janu shouted a terrifying, vile word that I have long since dreaded and never thought I'd actually hear:


I looked down, and sure enough... the slimy little asshole was trying to burrow it's way into my shoe. Now I can handle bugs, rats, blood, and most other ickiness that would make weaker men faint - actually no I can't, but parasites are the one group of evil creepy crawlies that just chill me to the bone. In a freak out that was probably hysterical to anyone watching, I shrieked like a girl, tore my shoe off, tossing it halfway down the trail, and scrambled half-barefoot to the nearest leech-proof boulder. As he took care of my shoe, two more leeches popped out of the soil and ambushed Janu. He vanquished them like a pro. This event marked the beginning of the Leech Series of Nightmares during sleep, and the era of leech paranoia during the daytime walks. Stepping light and fast, and not standing still over open wet soil (as opposed to stone) kept most of them away. My shoes got seven total by the end of the trek and my skin got none, so it was a victory.

That night had the greatest lodging of the trek, an isolated tea house perched over a valley in perfect quiet harmony, with a crystal clear view of Macchapuchare Mountain to ponder over. The layout reminded me a lot of Gimmelwald, except while Switzerland was a charming winter wonderland where the world's greatest chocolate grew on trees, this was a harsh and brutal environment of peasants who struggled day in and out to simply get their crops to grow, or carry huge loads of vital cargo on their backs up the endless stone staircases to their village. One really feels like a spoiled weakling when watching them go about their routine. As we waited for dinner, Janu came up with a great idea: "Okay, I make example without sound, you guess which example is." (charades!) Many mutual giggles where shared over the resulting antics. Janu's laugh is one I'll never forget... Beneath his smiles he was clearly a bit depressed and hopeless, having given up on a dream of working in the West, and his dog-whimperish chuckles where always as desperate as they were amused. They were subtle declarations of "My life sucks, but I can find the humor in it," and he was magically good at doing so. He offered to show me around his home village sometime before I leave Nepal, and I hope I'll be able to take him up on the offer.

The next day was a steep descent and climb to Chomrong, the last village in the valley before the trail forked and went either up toward Annapurna Base Camp or back down around to civilization. If I was going to chose to go the extra mile, it had to be now. I could not decide. Was it a good idea to be gone from VSN longer than I'd been there to begin with? Would it be worth the extra money? Did I even have the money (no?) Would I freeze to death, 'cause I didn't pack cold weather gear? Janu egged me and insisted we press on, slowly if need be, while I made my final decision. If I decided no, we could always turn back. So on we pressed for about twenty minutes and began descending one of the longest and steepest staircases yet. The stairs twisted around the hillside and revealed an epic view of the path to "ABC." Brutal doesn't even begin to describe what it looked like. I could almost hear that Lord of the Rings thumping theme playing in the background as Frodo stared out toward Mordor in dread. I shrugged it off, climbed down a bit more, slipped, tripped, and missed a head splitting stone by mere inches. My legs quivering with every step, knees buckling, my body answered the "to go or not to go" question for me. Despite making apparently near-record time in hiking to Chomrong and being Janu's fastest trekker yet, I was far too weak by that point to survive the extra four days hiking in even thinner air than I was already putting up with. I could make it there, maybe... but would need a wheelchair for the return trip. And so, setting foot in snowy Shangri-La will remain a dream for now. (Morgan Freeman) Perhaps some dreams are best left dreamt. (/End Morgan Freeman) I'm sure I'll be back one day with bigger calve and butt muscles to finish what I started, but with the rainy season approaching and much volunteer work to be done, that day will not come soon. I did accomplish one childhood dream during the trek though: I found a four leaf clover. W00t.

The remaining two days of the trek were less blog worthy, including more of the same pretty scenery, easier walking, and a pair of Australian trekkers who insisted I go see a kick-boxing match while in Thailand during August. That should be fun. Also, there was a Nepali woman named Pupa at our final lodge who I clicked and exchanged numbers with. Hopefully we'll keep in touch. Our journey ended the next morning in Pokhara, with a brief kayak ride on the lake and a hopefully not final goodbye to Janu. I also rented the world's crappiest bicycle and braved the free-for-all Nepali roads to journey up to a monastery. Lonely Planet warns about venturing onto the roads with a wheeled vehicle: "Expect children, old men, women, dogs, cats, errant cows, suicidal chickens, and pretty much anything that moves to jump out at you without warning. Good luck." (gee, thanks) It was an exhilarating thrill ride to be sure. Also, for all the bike's creepiness, it had one feature that made all the squeaky pedaling worthwhile: An awesome bike bell. So, when passing cars honked at me for my idiotic bike skills, I could like ding my little bell back at them and thus really rip 'em a new one. It made me feel powerful. The next morning I was on a bus back to Kathmandu, and thus ended my week long flight into the mountains. The monsoon is on it's way in now, I've done nearly all the sightseeing I wanted to see, playtime is over... now it's time to get down to business and save some kiddies. Expect much more orphanage news in the posts to come, including the delivery of the donation suitcase as soon as someone gets a hold of a car.
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