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Trekking the Annapurna Himalayas … With Toddlers in Tow

I really ought to have written this post when the feelings were still fresh and my muscles were still feeling the near-agonizing burn left after our grueling trek.  I’ll start off by saying that 2 of those 5 days were quite possibly the most physically challenging of my life (documented below – my crouched body position is out of sheer necessity).  But would I do it again?  In a heartbeat.

As with most Annapurnian trekkers, we began our journey in the city of Pohkara.  The third largest city in Nepal, Pohkara ranks just behind Kathmandu in annual visitors.  Three of the ten tallest mountains in the world – Dhaulagiri,  Annapurna I, and Manaslu (locally known as Fish Tail) – are within 30 miles of the city, so you can imagine the lure of this lakeside enclave.  Most hotels and hostels boast at least partial views of the mountains.  This was the view from ours.

After our 8+ hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Chitwan National Park, we decided to take the more efficient route and book a private coach to transit from Chitwan up to Pohkara.  In the end, we paid only dollars more for a far more enjoyable ride.  After our experience arriving into Sauraha (just outside of Chitwan) having not booked a hotel, I decided that again, I’d make our travels a tad bit more efficient and pre-book rooms through Agoda.  How grown up of me, huh?  The issue with this organized, adult-like method is that you don’t know what a place is going to look like or how it’s going to feel until you’re there – which is the precise reason we often choose to fly by the seats our pants.  Based on good reviews and limited time, I chose Hotel Trekkers Inn.  It was fine, I have no real complaints, but I wouldn’t recommend it over the dozens of other good-looking hotels in the area.

The day before our trek was the big Little Explorers 5th birthday.  And it was a big day indeed.  She started her day with an Elephant Safari in Chitwan National Park and ended it being serenaded by a traditional Nepali band, shown above.

Because we had chosen a trek that was VERY much on-the-beaten-path, we decided (after dozens of hours of research and contemplation) to not go with a larger trekking agency and to do-it-ourselves (a decision that I would later regret, if even for just a moment).  Lucky for us, we befriended a guide prior to arriving to Pohkara who we decided to take a chance on.  Having read stories about tourists being scammed and about the fact that it was illegal to take a non-government registered guide into the Annapurna’s, we were just a tad apprehensive even though he assured us all would be fine.

I’ll get the negatives of our DIY trekking experience out of the way because honestly, those are not the memories I’m left with (but may be useful to someone reading this someday.  Hopefully.  Just maybe.)

1) It didn’t end up being any more cost effective, in fact, I think we paid a premium for food and lodging.

2) We didn’t end up doing the trek we thought we were going to do because of miscommunication – we intended to do the VERY commonly done Poon Hill loop trek but ended up retracing our ascent because our guide didn’t realize that I meant the loop when I said “Poon Hill trek”.  Once he filled out our paperwork for our permits, we weren’t able to alter our course and the miscommunication wasn’t realized until the deal had been sealed.

3) We BARELY were even let into the conservation area (for the exact reason stated above).  They made an exception for us and didn’t even make us pay fines.  Our guide hadn’t trekked in the area for a number of years, as it turned out, so he wasn’t familiar with new laws.  Had we fully understood this (we did, our guide did not – we went with his apparent expertise), we would have just sent our porters ahead and said that we were doing a self-guided trek, which would have been perfectly legit.

4) We were slower than we could have been had we had professional porters.  Ours were all from Kathmandu and for most, it was their first trek ever.  Despite the fact that they weren’t in-shape, trained porters, they did do a great job.  They were all buddies and seemed almost as happy as we were to be out in the mountains.

Okay, enough of the glass half full stuff.  In the end, it worked out perfectly and we had a magical experience.

Now, I’ll paint a glorious picture full of terraced hillsides, remote villages, waterfalls, masala tea, rhodendendron forests, and mountains – lots and lots of mountains.  In total, we trekked for 5 glorious days.

Day 1: Nayapul to Tikhedunga

We began our trek walking through the village of Nayapul.  Nayapul is the commercial hub of the area and lacked the charm of most the other villages that we visited.  Just past Nayapul is Birethani.  Birethani is set upon the Modi River and is a delightful surprise after walking through Nayapul.  Full of charm, I could have easily stayed for a couple of nights.  But alas, we had at least 1500 meters to climb that day, and it was already 2pm.

And so began our ascent.  We climbed up what turned out to be a dirt road that we could have just as easily hired a jeep to drive up in about 1/10 of the time.  The first stretch of the hike runs parallel to the beautiful Bhurungdi River, passing cascading waterfalls and pristine swimming holes around every corner.  About halfway through our hike, a local school had just recessed for the day, so we were able to walk through the villages with local children.  The littlest Little Explorer had fallen asleep in front position in the Ergo, so I had the pleasure of trekking up the steepest part of our hike with dead weight on my torso (something I vowed to not allow happen again during our trek).  When he awoke, a little girl I had been walking with greeted him with a piece of chocolate and went on her way.  I was told that some of the children hike for over an hour to get to school every day.  We hiked for a bit over four hours the first day, making it to our goal destination, Tikhedunga.

Though we do have photo proof that our porters did help cart the littles, they were much more willing than our children were.  They were each carried by someone other than family for about .00002% of the trek.  Looking at this photo, with Ras carrying both a bag AND a child makes me feel like the world’s biggest whiner for bitching about having to carry *just* a child.  Our porters each had one bag and most porters we saw on the trek had two – which seems insane – but at least made us feel less guilty for having them shlep our shit up a mountain.  Though the smallest Little Explorer dozed a few hours of the initial ascent away in the ergo, the bigger Explorer walked 90% of it with her own two legs.  This was no small feat; her aunt, with whom we were traveling, told her no less than 50 mystery stories to coax her little legs into walking just a little bit further.

Our guide’s first mate, who turned out to be the greatest asset, scouted the tea houses in the area before settling upon Green View Guest House.  We dropped our bags in our basic but totally acceptable rooms and headed to the dining area for a round of masala tea and beer.  As it turned out, all of the beds on our trek were more comfortable than any bed I’ve slept in throughout  Asia – they were all super basic thick foam mattresses that were soft enough for me and firm enough for the Mister.  Blankets were minimal to non-existent and pillows were lacking, but we didn’t trek four down sleeping bags across a continent for nothing and were more than happy to test out our new gear.

What we probably didn’t realize at the time, was that the meal we were about to partake in – namely, Dal Bhat, Vegetable Momos, Masala Tea, and Everest Beer – would pretty much be the extent of our sustenance for the next five days (aside from breakfast which consisted of an omelette, tibetan bread (which is basically fried bread) with honey, masala tea, and coffee).  If I had to choose four things to survive on for a month, these four might honestly make the cut.  Simple, vegetarian, and delicious.

Dal bhat is a lentil based soup that is served with a heaping mound of rice, a side of greens, some sort of pickled veggie, and often times another vegetable side dish.  It was always slightly different based on the ingredients on hand and is offered as a bottomless dish: for literally $2-5, it was ALL YOU COULD EAT dal bhat.  If we weren’t the gluttonous Americans we are, we could have easily eaten for less than $10/day each, but alas, after a long ass hike, it was hard not to treat ourselves to veggie dumplings (momos) and cold beer as well.

Day 2:  Tikhedunga to Ghorepani

The next morning we set off through Tikhedunga on what would be the most strenuous hike of my life.  In total, we hiked for almost 10 hours, gained over 5000 feet in elevation, and climbed up what felt like 2 billion stairs.  CARRYING CHILDREN nearly the entire way (save the glorious periods where my brother or sister-in-law took a beating – thanks guys!).  It was the day of the never-ending-stair-climb.  Seriously, you wouldn’t believe the amount of stairs.  Just about when you were ready to start whining though, you’d see a woman carrying a load on her back or a procession of donkeys carrying everything from cement to Snickers candybars, and realize that while you were doing this for FUN, this was their daily life.  Getting anything and everything to where they need it, required walking up and down these stairs – hundreds and hundreds of stairs.

We stopped for lunch in Ulleri, where we caught our second glimpse of the mountains we were trekking towards and powered up on, yup, you guessed it!  dhal bhat and veggie momos.  With some masala tea to put some oomph in our step, we were on our way onward and ever upward.  After a few more hours of stair climbing, FINALLY!, we entered a forested dirt trail.  Though we were about a month shy of their blooming, the rhodedendron forest between Banthanti and Nanggethanti was magical.  Who knew that rhodedendron trees could get so gigantic?!  Our intended destination on Day 2 was Nanggethanti, which would have meant we’d be done trekking by about 6pm that evening but when we arrived, the only tea house with vacancy left much to be desired and we were just crazy enough to make the push to the closer side of Ghorepani, not quite realizing what this entailed.

With a 38 pound fawn on my back (the largest of the two Little Explorers), I cluelessly set off into the forest.  What I failed to take into account was the fact that I had given away my daypack to lighten my load and had just broken off on my own, just as the sun was setting.  My niece and two of our porters were somewhere in the distance, that much I knew.  As daylight faded, I somewhat frantically trekked up that mountain hoping to find someone who wasn’t as ill-prepared as I.   As I trekked up the hill with my kid on my back, no source of light, no source of defense, it occurred to me that I was trekking through the Himalayas in the dark – a sure-fire prey.  My niece saved my arse on more than one occasion on the trek – when I found myself alone, without my daypack – which meant without food or water – she always seemed to be at the right place at the right time.  On this particular eve, I couldn’t have been happier to find her, with her food, water, and headlamp.  What we thought would take little over an hour ended up taking at least two and after 10 hours of arduous hiking, you can only imagine the pure elation we felt when we entered into the Poon Hill area – and that much closer to warm food and a bed.

Again, our assistant guide scouted out the local spots and decided on a little tea house chalet with a crackling fire and plenty of dal bhat to go around. Shikhar Guest House turned out to be a great little tea house with the best shower we came across on our trek.  We were all so spent by the time we ate dinner (which wasn’t until at least 8pm), I think we may have even left the Everest Beer off our nightly fare.  We had gained nearly 5000 feet in 12 hours and were now at about 9500, so the altitude surely wasn’t helping any.  This and we knew that we’d be waking up in less than 8 hours, around 4am, to do a sunrise summit of Poon Hill.

Day 3: Ghorepani – Poon Hill – Banthanti

A brutal 4am wakeup found us slipping out of our cozy sleeping bags and into the freezing darkness to make our final 1500 foot ascent to the peak of Poon Hill.  I put on my power suit and carried the smallest explorer the entire way, somehow battling through the altitude and exhaustion.  It’s amazing what you’re able to accomplish when you don’t have any other choice.  It wasn’t until we reached the top of Poon Hill, with two entirely miserable children, at 5am, that we realized how ridiculous of a push doing the sunrise summit was for us.  Here we are having hiked for two days – two incredibly physically challenging, exhausting days – to get to the top of Poon Hill and our kids, who have been such troopers the entire way, are really and truly falling apart at their seams just as we reach our gold.  Lesson learned: don’t do a sunrise summit with two travel weary children.  Wait until the sun is up, it’s no longer in the teens, and your children are rested and fed.

The views of the Annapurna Himalayas from Poon Hill are absolutely magestic, but I have to say that the climax of our trek was most definitely tempered while I did all I could to calm down/warm up the smallest Little Explorer.  I could have stared at those mountains for hours but all I got were minutesjjj

With the Little Explorers lured by the promise of hot cocoa and a movie, we made it back down to our tea house just before physically collapsing.  I hurt but it felt good.  I had pushed my body farther than I can ever remember doing, testing my mental and physical barriers – but my heart was still ticking and I was in the Himalayas for the love – how incredibly rewarding.  By this time, we knew that our descent would be at a leisurely pace, which surely helped get the legs moving again after a lingering breakfast that morning.  We’d have three days to do what we just did in two and we’d be going down! and not up.

We got back on the trail with the lofty goal of trekking 3 hours back to Banthanti.  After our last encounter with the magical rhodendron forest (and being saved for the second time by my snack and water carrying niece), we reached our tea house, Fish Tail Guest House, where we leisured the afternoon and evening away with our last views of Fish Tail, sipping on mass amounts of masala tea.

Day 4: Banthanti – Tikhedunga

A mellow hiking day, we spent no more than 4 hours on the trail, trekking from Ulleri back to Tikhedunga.  After our 10 hour push on day 2, combined with our steep morning ascent up to Poon Hill (and back), each stair was stepped with utter calculation, as my legs were nearly useless.  Slowly but surely we made the descent to Tikhedunga.  Our assistant guide once again found us the best tea house to hang for the night, Tikhedunga Guest House, and we all hiked down to the creek below for a refreshing dip (boys dipped their bodies, gals dipped their toes – I’m usually one to take the plunge but this water was FRIGID, flowing straight down from the glaciated peaks).  It’s well worth mentioning that at this point, you should envision me wincing with every step I took – every muscle in my calves felt as though they were about to dissolve.  For real.  I’ve never felt so sore in my life.

We shared stories with our porters and guide around a campfire that evening, until we once again remembered that despite putting in your dinner order at 6, don’t expect it to be ready until 8:30 or 9, especially if you’re outside sipping beers by the campfire – DO NOT expect them to come get you when the food is ready.  It’s a Nepali minute – we came to joke that they had to cultivate the produce for our meals after we put in our order.  There were times when you realized it just takes a bit longer when a restaurant is working to feed a crowd with a single burner stove, but there were others where there really was no explanation at all for the delay.  Most of our food was fresh and tasty – we just learned to order much earlier than usual.

Day 5: Tikhedunga – Nayapul

The final descent!  We were all well rested, well fed, and still in mass amounts of pain when we set off for our final 6 hours.  As much as I relished the idea of not having to trek up a mountain carrying the dead weight of a child, I think we were all mostly sad to be leaving the mountains.  Under different circumstances (read: without young kids and with more time), we would love to do the entire 21 day Annapurna Circuit – it’s definitely on our bucket list.

This was our first big trek through villages only accessible by days on foot and most certainly laid the groundwork for many more to come.  Generally speaking, this is the perspective I’m most interested in capturing through travel – that of authentic culture, isolated (at least to a certain extent) from globalization, in unspoiled (at least to a certain extent) countryside.  But I’m just a small town girl at heart, so I’m almost always more interested in getting away from people and things and into natural environments where my spirit is free to wander.

 

 

 

 

That Time When My Kid Nearly Pee’d on a Wild Rhino – Chitwan National Park

You see, we had arrived at the restaurant to watch the sunset over the river and eat a *quick* bite before going to the Tharu Cultural Program, around 5:00.  By the time we had to leave for the show at 6:45, we were still waiting for our food (something we would affectionately start referring to as a Nepali Minute).  So we had no choice but to leave and come back to eat after the show.  Irritated when we returned an hour later only to find out that our food STILL was not ready, we just about threw in the towel and went to bed with rumbling tummies.  Fortunate for us, we had already ordered a round of beer and had to wait it out.  Our food finally came and was a disappointment at that – almost every meal in Nepal took over an hour to arrive and almost every time was justified by its deliciousness, with the exception of this one.  Little did we know, the universe had planned it all out for us.  After dinner, the little guy announced that he had to go pee, so the Mister nonchalantly took him down to the sandy beach to take care of business.  As he lowered the pee’ers knickers, he sensed movement at close range.  As he looked beyond the tower in front of him and focused his eyes in the dark, he realized that the movement belonged to a wild rhino, not 10 feet away from them.  Carefully, he pulled the Little Explorers pants over his booty, made sure that no sudden movements or loud shrieks gave them away, and backed away slowly.

And so began the Great Rhino Hunt.  The beast grazed for a few more minutes before making his way next door (to where we were staying) and meandering DIRECTLY in front of our door to his second supper pasture.  And so we followed him.  Well, not quite followed – we went around the lodge to where we thought he’d be found.  Sure enough, there he was being watched by a handful of onlookers, grazing away.  Before long he was done with his second supper and headed back in the direction of the restaurant.  And this time, we really followed him.  As he walked back, he mistepped his way up a pathway that was blocked by a bamboo fence and we watched as he ploughed his way through it like it was made of foam.  So naturally, we too embarked up the newly bulldozed path and through the bamboo fence to see where he’d be headed next.  As we passed the restaurant, both holding a child, a man remarked, “are you really following the rhino… with kids?”.  To our defense, we were a healthy distance behind him at this point.  So far in fact that we ended up losing his path and heading back home, through the new pathway he made for us.  At which time, the biggest Little Explorer ripped her brand new down Patagonia jacket (bought with a Friends and Family discount) on the rhino-broken-fence.  And it’s at least two sizes too big for her, so now she has a wound by which to remember the death-defying adventure.

Kat[h]mandu: Dirty Air and Pure Charm

Kathmandu, pronounced somewhere between kat-mandu and kath-mandu, is the capital of Nepal.  With more than 2.5 million inhabitants, Kathmandu stretches as far as the eye can see and basically spills over into all three of the other district areas in the valley.  From the air, its low-lying, earth-toned buildings (none over 6 or 7 stories tall) look like thousands of teeny gopher holes popping out of the ground.  From the ground, its streets resemble those of highway 101 in Los Angeles, at rush hour.  Minus the highway.  Her pot-hole riddled streets are a mess.  A constant entourage of motorcycles, bicycles, cars, buses, utility trucks, rik-shaws, and the occasional stray bovine, create traffic jams galore and only the most skilled cab drivers can navigate through her hidden back alleys and avoid the worst of it.  (As opposed to the ones who drive you an hour in the wrong direction, causing what should have been your 30 minute ride to turn into 3 hours – which would have been a great city-seeing detour were it not for the fact that an hour in a car at 5pm in Kathmandu means traveling only a matter of kilometers – and then demand MORE money for their mistake.  True Story.)

Now combine the combustion engines of the bustling streets with wood burning being the primary heat source for all 5 some odd million people in the Kathmandu Valley and what you get folks, is fairly extreme pollution – i.e. dirty air.  Plateauing in the morning hours when it’s colder, the pollution is a force to be reckoned with in this charming valley.  And my perspective is urban China, which tells you that what I speak is legit.  I had read about Kathmandu’s pollution many times over before we got there but pretty much dismissed it because I know pollution.  Despite, even from my tainted/experienced perspective, it was bad.  So bad, indeed, that the first morning we were there, we invested in a couple of ninja masks for the kids to help guard their already battle scarred lungs against large particulates (though, in truth, it’s the small particulates that are of the most concern, as they penetrate deeper into the lungs).

Despite these things, when you look past the mayhem and the hazy skies, the culture and the people more than make up for it.  I’ve never met a Nepali I didn’t like.  From my first encounter in a pub in London to our 15 day trip to the motherland, they really are incredible people.  Everywhere you go in Nepal, you read signs that say, Come as a Guest, Leave as a Friend, and it’s a legit statement.  The only other places I’ve traveled that have rivaled their kindness, are Indonesia and Malaysia.  The only way I can describe it is it’s as though you can feel their hearts.  Kindness seems to just ooze out, beautifully and naturally.  The sense of community between Nepalese people is incredible (as it can be in other cultures as well, notwithstanding my own), but what is even more amazing is that they share this community with those who travel to their country.

The last Nepali insight we were given before deciding to travel to Nepal was from an American-Kiwi who had only negative things to say about the people and culture.  He even went as far as to say that he wouldn’t recommend traveling there to anybody because of the commodi-fication of tourists.  This crushed me a bit, as Nepal had long been high up on my life-list.  But boy am I glad that we didn’t heed his warning.  Now, I will say that if your experience of Nepal was in the tourist hub of Thamel in Kathmandu (where he likely would have stayed for at least part of his trip), your perspective might be a tad jaded.  This was one of the only places in Nepal where we experienced hawkers and did feel like a dollar sign; but compared to other countries in which I’ve traveled, it really wasn’t all that assaulting.    

The Kathmandu Valley has a denser proportion of UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other area its size – in the world.  Seven in total, five are found within the limits of Kathmandu proper.  By chance, our first night was spent just adjacent to one of my favorites and coincidentally also one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu, Boudhanath Stupa.  A place of meditation for Buddhists and covered in Tibetan prayer flags, this stupa is one of the largest in the world.  At most hours of the day, but mainly at dusk, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people can be found circling its perimeter spinning prayer wheels as they pass by.  During daylight, dozens of people can be seen doing repetitive sun salutations on its steps.  Declared a World Heritage Site in 1979, Boudhanath Stupa has developed as a hub of Kathmandu tourism, as evidenced by the plethora of shops and restaurants scattered about its periphery – which all add to the charm of this ancient site.  More than that, the area has evolved as a center point of Tibetan Buddhism in Kathmandu, with over 50 monasteries established nearby.

The calm of the stupa is reinforced by its protection from the bustling city streets found just outside the narrow alley ways that lead to its interior and further juxtaposed by the commercial zoning around it.  Which, for a non-practicing Buddhist like myself, combine together to create a magical environment.  I mean, I could both meditate and buy gorgeous Nepali knitwear in the same place – win-win if you ask me.

After spending both an evening and a morning at Boudhanath Stupa, I didn’t imagine that any of the other stupas in Kathmandu could compete and probably would have been content ending my tour right there.  Drawn by its resident monkey population though (and motivated by animal loving children), I knew that we couldn’t pass up a visit to Swayambhunath, or Monkey Temple, found just west of the city and erected sometime in the 5th century.  High up on a hill, Swayambhunath is awash in character and history.  Second only to Boudhanath in Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, this site is considered by some to be the most important of all Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Kathmandu Valley, but is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus.  Swayambhunath is made up of a large stupa and a number of temples and shrines (and more recently a Buddhist monastery) – all perched on a hillside with sweeping views of the Kathmandu Valley.  Throw in vendors selling beautifully crafted Nepalese made goods, the sounds of sacred chants in the distance, and birds circling high up in the air and Swayambhunath runs a close second to Boudhanath.

And of course, you can’t forget the sacred monkey population that roam within its borders.  Clearly comfortable with humans, the macaque monkeys meander freely through the pathways and jovially swing from the branches high above.  There was one vendor selling some sort of food to feed the monkeys, but contrasted to a place like the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, where the monkeys have come to rely on the constant flow of bananas being fed to them by tourists, the monkeys at Swayambhunath seemed more independent and less interested in the humans exploring their home.

Now, read any guide book about Kathmandu and it will tell you that a visit isn’t complete without experiencing its Durbar Square.  One of three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley and all UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other two found in Bhaktapur and Patan), Kathmandu’s Durbar Square dates back as far as the 3rd century.  Technically defined as the plaza in front of the ancient royal palace, it is also surrounded by stunning examples of Newari architecture in its adjacent courtyards and temples.  We had visited Bhaktapur Durbur Square the day before, so our expectations were quite high and albeit a bit let-down by what we found.  What it may have lacked in the charm of Bhaktapur, it surely made up for in dynamic chaos.  Surrounded by produce vendors and constantly awash in the sound of honking taxi horns, Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was bustling.  Also aided by the fact that we had arrived via a death defying rik-shaw ride through the city, dodging in and out of cars wasn’t how we wanted to spend our evening, so we ended up on roof terrace drinking beers and taking it in from above.  Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to brave the crowded streets again, the sun had gone down, so the rest of our tour of Durbur Square and its surrounding buildings was quick and in the dark.  As was our walk home – we definitely weren’t going to go rik-shaw riding through the streets of Kathmandu without the sun to guide us.

Mentioned above, Thamel is Kathmandu’s backpacker hub and is thus chalk full of good restaurants and shops.  In my opinion, it’s worth spending an evening/night there as a convenient jumping off point for other destinations (as there are many buses leaving nearby) and to get your fill of Nepali handicrafts, but that’s about it.  Nepal is too beautiful a country with too genuine a population to confine yourself to its most chaotic, least personable locale.

As you see, despite the dirty air, Kathmandu is full of pure charm and it is just a taste of what the rest of Nepal looks and feels like.  Fortunately, no matter how you get in or out of the country, Kathmandu will most likely be on your path at some point – when you do see her, please pick up some extra Nepalese hand warmers for me (in no less than two uses, mine have been lost).