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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.





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