The Poon Hill Trek… in the Rain

The Poon Hill Trek... in the Rain

Poon Hill lies just inside the Annapurna Conservation Area north of Pokhara, which is 200 kilometres (and a 7-9 hour bus ride, depending on traffic) from Kathmandu. It was my idea to go, so I only had myself to curse when things got tough (and they really did).

After a night in Pokhara to recover from the horrendous bus trip from Kathmandu—which took nine hours because we were travelling on the first day of a major festival—we took a taxi to Nayapul, a bit over an hour’s drive from Pokhara. A short walk down the path is Birethanti, where a lot of treks begin and end. It is the entry point to the Annapurna Conservation Area, and where trekkers have to show their expensively-procured TIMS card (registration for foreign tourists) and trekking permit (we got ours in Kathmandu, but they can also be procured in Pokhara, or so I’ve heard).

The Poon Hill Trek... in the Rain
The views of Machchhapuchare while starting out. Photo: Elen Turner

We had been warned that every tourist that had been crowding Kathmandu  would descend upon Poon Hill, as not only is this one of Nepal’s most popular short treks, we were doing it at the height of foreign tourist season and during a major holiday for residents of Nepal. At least we wouldn’t get lost, I thought.  There were quite a lot of people starting out in Nayapul, but over the course of the trek I didn’t think crowds were a problem at all. At some points we shared the path with half-a-dozen or so others, but often we were the only people on the path for quite long stretches. This might have been down to the fact that there are actually numerous routes that can be taken on this trek. The most common one starts in Nayapul, travels up to Ghorepani and Poon Hill, and then circles back around via Tadapani and Ghandruk and back to Bhirethanti, taking around five days. We didn’t have this long, so our route started in Nayapul, travelled up to Poon Hill/Ghorepani, and then continued onwards to Tatopani, getting transport back to Pokhara from there.

I have never encountered so many rats as I have in the last few weeks in Nepal. So it was no surprise that we had a bit of rat-running-over-foot action in the night.

The first day started beautifully. The air couldn’t have been clearer—in fact we were treated to stunning views of the Annapurna range just from the taxi on the way to Nayapul. From the starting point we got sharp views of Macchapucchre, the 6997m pointy peak visible also from Pokhara on clear days, but from a different angle, so that the fish-tail shape that gives the mountain its Nepali name was even more prominent.

Our guidebook described the first two days of the Poon Hill trek as “relentlessly uphill”, and that is a very apt turn of phrase. The uphill started reasonably gently for about the first four hours, and we climbed slowly but steadily from Nayapul’s 1070m to Tikhedungga’s 1540m.

After that, the ‘fun’ began: three thousand steps which took over two hours to climb, but which elevated us by another four hundred metres just like that. My ‘companion’, who likes to think of himself as the navigator, didn’t point out to me the small spot on the map that said 3280 stone steps. When I asked afterwards whether that was a tactical move on his part he looked innocent and said I was as capable of reading what the map said as he was. Definitely tactical.

The Poon Hill Trek... in the Rain
Trekking in the rain. Photo: Elen Turner

Completely exhausted, we reached Ulleri, at the top of the killer steps, at about 4pm, and found a tea house to spend the night. The huts in this region work cooperatively, so that each hut in a particular region charges the same for a night’s accommodation and has the same menus with the same prices. Ulleri was the most expensive stop on our trek, at Rs 400 for a double room, but it was also the place with the best views, as the village is high and exposed, with views both down the valley we had walked up, and upwards to the snow-capped mountains. The quality of this accommodation wasn’t excellent, with walls that didn’t reach the floor or ceilings, meaning that the Chinese neighbours’ conversations could be heard with perfect clarity. But there was a single hot shower (an extra Rs 100) and the room was clean.

We had heard rumours that rain was forecast for Tuesday. But this was Sunday, and at about 4pm the rain started. It’s the mountains, we thought, and the end of the day. It’ll pass. It didn’t.

But. I have never encountered so many rats as I have in the last few weeks in Nepal. My (very clean and well-kept) flat in Kathmandu had a bit of an infestation for a while (and by infestation I mean I think there was only one, but it was really persistent and noisy and visible, and was haunting me and my flatmate for several weeks). So it was no surprise that we had a bit of rat-running-over-foot action in the night. Nothing that couldn’t be solved by putting the open packet of biscuits outside in the corridor.

Rising early on day two at sunrise—a bit before 6—we were treated to a very clear view of one of the Annapurnas to the north, and were up and raring to go again by 8.

Day two was pretty easy. I now have fond memories of it. We were still ascending, but much more gradually than on day one. The weather was perfect, and we actually reached Ghorepani, our destination, a good hour before we thought we would, by about 2pm. I should add that this wasn’t because we were incredibly fast, but because we miscalculated. But either way, we were pleasantly surprised when Ghorepani arrived as early as it did. We relaxed all afternoon, and huddled for warmth, because at 2860m, Ghorepani was rather cold.

And wet.

The Poon Hill Trek... in the Rain
The raging Kali Gandaki River. Photo: Elen Turner

We had heard rumours from other trekkers that rain was forecast probably for Tuesday, and possibly for Monday. But this was Sunday, and at about 4pm the rain started. It’s the mountains, we thought, and the end of the day. It’ll pass. It didn’t. It carried on for the rest of the week. In fact, the whole of Nepal was blanketed in a rain cloud. We had been told that it never rained during this season. Well, it did.

Ghorepani is the place from which one ascends the final 300-odd metres to Poon Hill, at dawn, to see magnificent views over the whole Annapurna range in the clear, early morning light. We didn’t, but I have seen evidence that the view exists from friends who started the trek a day earlier.

Bit of a dilemma over what to do on day three. Wait in Ghorepani to see if the rain passes? After all, it wasn’t meant to rain just yet! Or push on? We pushed on to Tatopani, a seven hour hike to the north, but downhill. The first couple of hours were amongst the most physically miserable of my life. My waterproofs turned out to only be water resistant (and not very at that), so after two hours I was wet to the skin. The only part of me that stayed dry were my feet, thanks to some brilliant new North Face boots procured in Thamel (yes, I did the unthinkable and bought some boots immediately before trekking and didn’t have time to wear them in, but it worked out alright). Luckily day three wasn’t particularly cold, and as we were now descending it was getting gradually warmer and warmer.

The local bus to Beni took three hours to travel 20 kilometres, and I hope that gives some indication of the state of the road.

We stopped for lunch in a very small village that had a teahouse with a brazier in the middle of the dining room, as a lot of the teahouses at higher altitude seemed to. Hanging up almost every piece of clothing we had been wearing on the drying racks around the brazier, we ate some warming dal bhat, apple pie and ginger tea, and put off leaving again until we really had to.

Still very soggy, but feeling brighter after an extended lunch stop at a tea house: now able to enjoy the views!

The rain eased from torrential to mild (and sometimes disappeared completely!) over the remaining four hours, so spirits improved. Some of the views across the mist-covered hills were mystically lovely, and the landscape we walked through changed quite significantly from what came before. The gorges were deeper, we passed through more villages, and there seemed to be more agriculture.

The Poon Hill Trek... in the Rain
Mist in the Kali Gandaki Gorge. Photo: Elen Turner

Going downhill became very painful in the final hour, when we had to descend from a high ridge down to a river valley via more stone steps. From the top of the ridge we could see Tatopani, our destination, ahead of us, but it took a long time to get to because you can rush going down steps even less easily than you can going up. And then there were a couple of scary chain bridges crossing a substantial river, and some vehicular road to follow. Day three had taken us longer than we had envisaged, because of the later start and the extended lunch and drying-out break, so by the time we approached Tatopani it was almost dark. During the last few hours of day three we encountered very few other trekkers, I guess this wasn’t such a popular route, or else everyone else was sheltering from the rain.

We had aimed for Tatopani (which means hot water in Nepali) because of some hot springs there. Our accommodation was right beside the river, to the side of which the hot springs were located, but we hadn’t realised they stayed open after dark so waited until the morning to soak our very achy leg muscles (tip for future trekkers on this route—the springs stay open until 9pm and open at 6am, go immediately! You will need it after the descent.)

The rain continued on day four, but it didn’t matter any more, I thought, because by then the ordeal was over! But not quite.

We had aimed for Tatopani rather than looping east from Ghorepani because it is on a road, so transport links are available. But it is a tiny town, so there were no taxis, no jeeps at the time we needed them, and just a local bus. We had to travel 20 kilometres to Beni, to the south, and from there get a connection east to Pokhara.

The local bus to Beni took three hours to travel 20 kilometres, and I hope that gives some indication of the state of the road. It was muddy after all the rain, potholed, narrow, steep, and most of the way flanked by a raging river down a very steep cliff. I have never been so scared in my life, not even during heavy turbulence on an aeroplane. At least in the air you can console yourself with the reminder that planes very, very rarely crash during turbulence, that the fear is largely unwarranted. I could muster no such thoughts of comfort during this bus ride, as buses and jeeps crash down cliffs and into the river all the time in Nepal. All the time. Just yesterday I read in The Nepali Times about a jeep crash on this very stretch of road, travelling to Beni, that killed ten and seriously injured six. And jeeps are actually made for this kind of terrain, whereas buses aren’t. I have a newfound faith in trekking, then, as the best way to see the sights of Nepal—it would keep you off the roads as much as possible.

At Beni, I really didn’t care how much a private taxi back to Pokhara would cost (Rs 2500 after just a little haggling) because I didn’t want to get back on that bus under any circumstances. The roads from Beni did improve, but only after some time, and while I didn’t hear of any buses crashing into the river that day, the cost for the two and a half hour drive back to Pokhara was worth every paise.

So, this non-hiker went hiking. Did she enjoy it? In hindsight, yes, though there were times she was cursing her stupidity at not obeying her natural inclinations to avoid walking uphill. Will she do it again? Only if the alternative is traveling by bus on a mountain road.

About Elen Turner

Elen Turner is a full-time travel writer and editor based in Kathmandu, Nepal. She has led previous lives in the USA, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and the UK.

Elen completed a PhD at the Australian National University in 2012, which examined the contemporary Indian feminist publishing industry. Her biggest travel dilemma is figuring out how to see all parts of South Asia that she hasn’t already visited while not neglecting the rest of the world.

She is also Pink Pangea’s content editor.

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