Nepal: The Poon Hill Trek

We sat at the back of the travel agency in Pokhara feeling excited, but relaxed. The manager was a large, soft spoken man who had confidently answered all questions the day before about the trek, and although five days sounded like a long time, and 3,210 m sounded like a big climb, he had put our minds at ease.

He sat silently on his phone, listening to the ringing tone, waiting for our driver to answer. The map of Annapurna mountain range was under the glass top of his desk, our forms & paperwork pushed to one side so that he could take us through a last minute refresher of the route. Our guide, Ajit, sat silently by his side. We had only just been introduced, and were keen to make a good impression considering we would be following him for the next five days. We all smiled politely at each other in silence.

Our driver answered the call. After a few words in Nepalese, the manager hung up and told us the he would be here to collet us in five minutes. With that he stood, and explained that he needed to take his daughter to school, and that Ajit would take care of us from here on. He shook our hands, and told us not to worry, that everything would be fine. He wished us a good hike, and promptly left. It hadn’t really occurred to me that there was anything worth worrying about until he mentioned it.

Kathmandu Valley from the plane

The countries the Gabs and I are visiting consist of the humid and the tropical. Nepal was an outlier that I hadn’t fully thought through. On our first day in Kathmandu we had decided that we were underprepared for the cold (especially for the mountains), and so had gone out and bought these beautiful hand woven Nepalese cotton hoodies. They each had a thick fleece lining and traditional Nepalese detailing, and we wore these proudly now whilst looking at the desk map again with Ajit. It was then I realized that our Nepalese guide was wearing an orange North Face puffer jacket. (Waterproof, windproof & probably about a tenth of the weight of our hoodies). We looked like massive tourists.

As we were getting into the car, another guide kindly helped us with our rucksacks. He also wished us a good hike as he closed us in. The car drove off, and we both looked at each other, suddenly feeling a little nervous. We flew along the wide dusty central highway, before turning off and snaking up a steep road which took us up one side of Kathmandu Valley. This road continued the zig zag higher, and higher until we passed over the top of the ridge and along mountain roads away from Pokhara.

The streets of Nepal

The road was completely lined with makeshift houses at first. But they eventually began to thin out, and you were able to see glimpses of the view through the space between them. Our driver seemed familiar with the route, and had no issues with taking corners at speed, regardless of the rock face to one side, and the choice between wooden shack or steep drop on the other. He only eased off the accelerator when we came across a Nepalese ‘actibump’ (a speed bump that is a ditch dug out of the road, rather than a raised bump), or when he rolled down the window to spit out of it. As the window went down, we felt how much colder the air was already at this altitude.

We followed the road higher until we were unable to see the bottom of the valleys we drove along. Above us was blue sky, and below us was a white mist. Wooden huts still were dotted along the road, with people squatting by fires or herding goats here above the clouds. Regardless of their primitive lifestyle, you would still see the villagers using smartphones. It got me thinking about the priorities people now have – to cook by a fire next to the road, but to have an iPhone 5. It reminded me how I had been repeatedly stunned that India has a space program, after seeing the conditions that so many of its citizens have to endure.

As we turned a corner, we saw tens of colorful paragliders silently floating above us. Ajit explained that this was a famous area for paragliding, and that people keen on the sport came from around the world to jump from the top of the valleys. Our driver stopped, and went into a makeshift shop. We watched as the bright parachutes glided down towards us, then next to the road and eventually below us, out of sight. We asked Ajit if he had ever given it a go, to which he replied that he would be too scared to. We agreed.

Crowded with paragliders

It was here that the fairly smooth, paved road ended. What followed was miles of dusty, dirt track littered with rocks and holes. This only marginally slowed our driver however. We drove in a Suzuki hatchback, which was the common taxi in Nepal. It’s a vehicle not exactly designed for this terrain, but this doesn’t deter the Nepalese taxi drivers. They all have the same plan, which is to stick some rally lights on the front of the car, slap on a few Adidas stickers, add a roof rack, and then push the vehicle the absolute limit. We bumped our way along the track, turning sharply left and right to avoid the larger of the rocks. In England, if you pass over a bump which scrapes the bottom of the car, everyone winces at the noise. In Nepal, no one bats an eyelid as long as the vehicle keeps moving forwards.

The mopeds which are usually commonplace on all roads in Nepal had now given way to the odd dirt-bike. As we turned a corner, we were confronted with how hazardous roads this poor can be. One of these dirt bikes was on its side in the middle of the road. Its mirror knocked off, and bodywork bent. Its driver stood on the side of the road, hobbling in circles in pain – while other bikers stood and watched him trying to walk it off. It started to make sense why all cars had religious symbols on their dashboard, and hanging from their rear view mirrors.

We eventually arrived at the start point of our trek – a small village nestled into a high valley. We were exited to both start the trek and to get away from the Suzuki. We walked for next few hours with flat shelves of farmland stacked up either side of us. This was mostly done in silence until we caught up behind a group of Chinese hikers – one of which took quite an interest in us. He noticed that we doing the trek in casual trainers and wasted no time in telling us what a bad idea it was. In stark contrast to us, he was fully kitted out with military grade rucksack and combat trousers. He even had a water bottle holder on his belt with ‘U.S. ARMY’ printed across it. Without us needing to ask too many questions, he proudly rattled on in a thick accent about how many treks he had done in China, and how difficult they had been, and how much weight he was carrying. As he talked, I noticed he was also wearing what looked like the official U.S. Army boots. I asked where he had got them, he laughed and said, ‘made in China’.

Water Buffalo being used to plow the raised fields

We continued upwards through farmland for the rest of the day, until we arrived at the village we would be spending the night. Each night we stayed at a different, ‘tea house’ which is effectively a very primitive Bed & Breakfast. These varied greatly – some have hot water, some have large dorm rooms with multiple beds, some have electricity, some have a fireplace. As a rule, we tended to blindly trust Ajit’s choice of where to stay. He had told us before that he had done this trek over 20 times, so we assumed he must know the best spots. (Later we suspected that he just stopped at the places where his mates were).

Tea House No. 2

We woke the next day prepared for what we had been told would possibly be the most difficult leg of the trip. At around midday, we would reach an incline consisting of 3500 consecutive stone stairs. This would lead to our next tea house, and our base from which we would get up before dawn the day after, to ascend further to Poon Hill and watch the famous sunrise over the Annapurna Mountain Range.

As we hiked that day, it struck me how green these mountain routes were. It was far from rocky passes I had pictured. The farmland had turned into woodland, which sometimes subsided enough that you could see how high you had climbed – but mostly our assent consisted of walking up paths through Nepalese forest and over icy cold streams. Eventually we came across the foot of the stone staircase, and so stopped for a minute to prepare ourselves. The stairs hadn’t been what I imagined either. They were stacked flat stones, all of different heights and widths, some crumbling and some too shallow to be able to get your foot on. I pointed this out to Ajit, who laughed and said that everyone keeps saying there are 3500 of them, but he’d never counted.

3500 Steps + Obstacles

The rest of the day was spent monotonous putting one foot above the other, until your calves burned. Every hour or so we took a break to take on water and catch our breath. I would consistently get so hot climbing that I would take off my jumper to cool – but the air was so cold that after about a minute of standing still, your sweat would get so uncomfortably chilly that you would quickly get dressed again. This transition to hot and sweaty, to icy cold would continue for the next 3 days. During one of these breaks, we asked Ajit about the peculiar name, ‘Poon Hill’. He explained that ‘Poon’ is a particular Hindu cast of people – and that the “hill had been named for them”. Still not satisfied, we asked why he kept referring to a 3,210m high mountain as a hill – to which he replied that the Nepalese don’t consider anything under 5,000m a mountain… “It’s just a viewpoint”, he said bluntly. This took the wind out of our sails a bit. To give you a reference, the tallest mountain in the UK is Ben Nevis, which stands at 1,345m tall. I explained this fact to Ajit, who laughed and asked if people were proud when they climbed it? I described the ‘Three Peak Challenge’ to him, whereby people attempt to climb the three tallest mountains in the UK within 24hs. I did this to try and make us sound more capable, but the fact that our three tallest mountains can physically be climbed in such a short time only made Ajit laugh more.

We had made good progress up the staircase, and arrived at the village at the top with still a couple of hours of daylight left. It had become so bitterly cold that all we did for the rest of the day was stay wrapped up in bed fully dressed, and huddle over a noodle soup. Gabriele doesn’t do well in the cold, and she would become ill from this afternoon onwards. It doesn’t help that the tea houses are wooden constructions, full of gaps and cracks. The thin curtains moved with the cold breeze in our bedroom as it crept round the edges of our closed windows. Tired, cold and slightly delirious, we were slurping on our soup until Ajit interrupted us by indicating out the window behind us. The clouds roll so quickly through the village that visibility would change every 10 minutes, sometimes you could see hundreds of the stairs we had ascended below us, and sometimes you couldn’t even see the hut next to ours. We turned now to see that the cloud had cleared enough that we could see the peak of Annapurna 1 looking down at us. At 8,091m, it instantly became clear why Poon Hill was just a hill to the Nepalese. The snow covered peak cut sharply into the sky with a slightly terrifying beauty. My immediate thoughts were of the insanity people would need in order to climb it.


Annapurna 1 from our window

The alarm went off the next morning at 4:30. Getting out of bed, putting on every item of clothing we had and heading out into the dark was torture. We walked in single file behind Ajit up more stone stairs and along winding paths, following the light of his head torch. As we walked, we slowly met more and more groups of hikers who had stayed in the village – and were also on their way for this morning’s sunrise. The village had seemed very quiet the afternoon before, but I suppose everyone had been huddled in bed like us – because now we were part of a long line of hikers all illuminated by torch and moon light. The line moved at a steady pace, and almost in silence, other than the clatter of hiking sticks, and a constant coughing & sneezing.

We had started the accent in complete darkness but by the time we reached the summit, the sky was a deep hazy orange. This highlighted the dark shadows which were the peaks of Annapurna 1 (8,091m), Annapurna South (7,219m), Machapuchare (6,993m), Dhaulagiri (8,167m), & Manaslu (8,156m). There are only 14 peaks in the world over 8,000m, 8 of which can be found in Nepal, and 3 of which were in front of us. The summit of Poon Hill was less spectacular. It consisted of a plateau covered in weary hikers taking photos and fidgeting to stay warm.

Center Left – Annapurna South (7,219m). Far Right – Machapuchare (6,993m) AKA. Fish Tail

We took our own photos and admired the sight of these mountains becoming clearer by the minute, as the morning slowly got brighter. Suddenly the very tip of Annapurna 1 began to glow bright yellow – this steadily rolled down the side of the peak as the sun rose enough to catch the east face of the mountain from over the horizon. The light slowly spread to the entire range, highlighting the shape of each sharp rock and crevice. As the sky turned bluer and the dazzling yellow faded to a softer sunlight, you could see the snow being blown violently from tips of each peak, leaving a white trail drifting away from their tops, as if they were burning. Without a doubt, one of the most incredible views I have ever seen.

We walked for the rest of the day along the ridge of a valley covered in ancient woodland. We kept the mountain ranges to our left and a steep drop into mist on our right. We were above the clouds, and so had clear view of the peaks until we eventually started to make our way down the valley and into the mist. The next two days would be spent climbing down stone steps and sliding down dirt paths. The relentless impact on our joints of stepping down those stones meant that any uphill came as a welcome rest. In fact, my left knee has still not fully recovered some 3 weeks later.

All the prices in the tea houses are 2 to 3 times more expensive than you would find in Pokhara. I assumed at first that this was because you didn’t have much choice up in the mountains – you either paid their price or went hungry. Later we came to appreciate the logistical nightmare it was to keep the small restaurants and shops stocked. Due to there being no roads, everything bought and sold had to be carried up the hills by either mule, or Nepalese porter. They have a unique method of transporting the goods, which was to bag everything together and then wrap a strap from the bag around their forehead. They would then march up and down the slopes in convoy, with the bag on their backs and their heads down (now and then stopping for a cigarette). At one stage of our decent, we heard a loud banging & rattling behind us. We turned, and quickly got out the way as a line of porters with bags came thundering down the stairs. With that amount of weight on their backs, it easier to jog down the hill then it is to take the steady impact of each stair one at a time – so the porters decent in almost a controlled fall.

The head strap method
Porters in convoy

Our last night was a comfortable one. It was noticeably warmer now that we had descended, and the narrow forest tracks had given way to wide paths through farmland. Our final Tea House was also a lot more welcoming, with the whole front of it being covered in flowers. We celebrated our last night with a bottle of homebrewed Raksi. It’s a traditional clear spirit made with fermented millet, which tastes like vinegar. By the nature of it being homebrewed, its percentage can range from strong, to dangerous and is always unknown. The more I drunk it, the better it got…We shared this with Ajit as a parting gift. He had been mostly a man of a few words during the trek, but now became a lot more talkative.

We asked about his job as a guide and he explained that he was hoping start training next year to qualify him to lead expeditions higher into the mountains, as he can currently only guide up to a certain height. He told us stories of crazy Russian hikers who would always go against his advice and take the dangerous routes. When he would inevitable need to rescue them, their apologies would fall on deaf ears, as “sorry means nothing in the mountains”, he said. A situation can turn bad very quickly at altitude, with medical help sometimes being days away – and accidents are always assumed to be the guide’s fault. I asked if he wanted to climb any of the big 8,000m mountains, he shrugged and went on to explain that the Nepalese considered a lot of peaks in the territory to be sacred – and that summiting them can be seen as disrespectful. In particular, one of the ‘smaller’ peaks that we had seen, Machapuchare (6,993m) is a very holy mountain. It’s colloquially known as ‘Fish Tail’ mountain due to the flat, vertical shape of its peak. It had been a highlight for me because of how dramatic and ominous it looked. It turns out that it’s so holy, because it’s never actually has been successfully climbed – although many had died trying. Regardless of how impossible the task looked, it surprised me to find out there were mountains that hadn’t actually been summited yet! Ajit went on to tell us that Annapurna 1 (8,091m), the second largest we had seen, has the highest fatality rate of all the 8,000m mountains. Around 35% of those who attempt to climb it lose their lives doing so. An expedition to climb one of these mountains is something that can take years of planning and be a huge expense. With Ajit having a wife and daughter at home, I got the impression he had responsibilities that outweighed his desire to climb so high. 

It’s unfortunate how easily you can become accustomed to beautiful scenery. Our first couple of days had been full of appreciation and photos. Now on our last day we spent most of the time looking at the path just in front of us. Eventually we walked into a village that looked familiar, and realized that we had completed the five day loop which is the Poon Hill Trek. As we hobbled towards the road to wait for our pickup, we passed fresh faced tourists all starting their own journeys up the mountains. We laughed to ourselves at their ignorance and enjoyed the bumpy ride back to Pokhara, which now seemed a lot more comfortable than it did on our way up.



Also while in Nepal, we visited the following:

  • Thamel district in Nepal, hub and stopover for travellers from all over the world 
  • Pokhara, the cosy lake town that is a base for all the Annapurna range treks 
  • Nagarkot, a small village in a great location overlooking the Kathmandu valley but also offering a glimpse of Everest in the distance 
  • Bhaktapur, the historical city which, even though greatly affected by the damage of the 2015 earthquake, also has the most amount of temples and ancient buildings that survived it 

RHYS AND GABS’ NEPAL HIGHLIGHTS:

  RHYS GABS
Food Dhal Bhat (Unlimited
Curry Refills)
Chicken C Momos (Fried
Dumplings)
Drink Raksi Lemon Tea
People Ajit Mountain Nepali Children.
Famously cute, you can buy
calendars of them.
Place Poon Hill Nagarkot’s views
Experience Crossing slack bridges
over huge valleys.
Swimming in hot springs
Culture Shock People willing to endure the most crowded busses I’ve ever seen. Women making fire on the side of the road – and then cooking there and then.
Other Yack cheese smells like vomit Thamel district in Kathmandu, both incredible and cheesy

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