Wandering the streets of Kathmandu my head swivelled constantly as I peered into shops, studios and restaurants. It was sensory overload.
I happened to look in this sari shop just as the shopkeeper was unfurling this beautiful turquoise sari for the ladies. Looking at all of all the material at their feet, and the looks on the men’s faces, I would guess they have been at it for some time!
You know, I never really thought about it, but there isn’t much in the way of refrigeration in the Himalayas. Chickens can’t breed at this altitude so they are brought in from below. We caught up to this guy about three days into the Poon Hill trek in Nepal. He didn’t smell so great but then, I imagine that after three days of hiking, neither did I.
I had expected the religious observance here to be a calm, quiet, and peaceful adherence as I understood Buddhism to be, but instead found that Nepalese practice a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism that involves bells ringing, drums beating and the sound of prayer wheels whirring.
The calm arises from the ritualistic repetition of actions and prayer. These prayer wheels are a good example; although they are literally in the middle of and intersection in the city they are, at the same time, accessible to all who wish to turn the wheels and find some peace in their busy day.
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I have to be honest. My account of this trek is rather lackluster because, well…my experience was rather lackluster. I think it suffered from expectations – my expectations were very high and I was unable to get over it when the experience did not live up to what I thought it would be. Sometimes I am able to overcome these feelings…but this time I was not.
My goal here is to give an honest account of our travels and so I have decided not to sugarcoat the experience…it is what it is. I realize how lucky we are to be in this part of the world…the mountains truly are stunning and we already talk about coming back and doing a longer trek…it just didn’t work out for us this time.
Although the Poon Hill Trek is easily done without one, we had decided to hire a guide. With my complete lack of navigation skills, and Jason having to always pay attention to get us everywhere, we thought it would be nice if, for once, J could just follow along too.
I had done some research and found that a guide/porter would cost between $12 – $15 per day and that the cost of food and accommodation on the trail should be about $25 per person per day. Seemed a little high but this was from recent forums from people who had recently been trekking on this circuit. I had also read that one should try to stay away from ‘packages’ where the guide and food and accommodation are all together…and that’s the piece of advice we didn’t heed.
We met Raj in his trekking shop where we were renting sleeping bags and a better trekking pack for me. He was very nice, spoke very good English and said he was available to guide us if we like. He answered all our questions and our only hesitation was that his was a package deal…$60 per day for both of us. Although the numbers all added up to this being an okay deal my gut told me maybe we shouldn’t agree…but in the end we did…and it’s one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy myself totally. Once we were on the trail we quickly realized that the costs were much less than we had anticipated and that Raj was making a killing. I was not mad at Raj…he’s just trying to make a living and we had agreed to the price…I was mad at myself for not listening to my gut and to the advice I had read. It’s much harder to get over being mad at myself!!
The weather was also not cooperating. It had been glorious and hot in Kathmandu, Manakamana and Pokhara in the the days leading up to the trek but, on the day we left, it was cloudy and a little cool. Good for trekking, but bad for seeing mountain peaks.
We set off from Naya Pul in the mid morning and after hiking through the village we crossed the river and started on the trail. We had 1000M to climb over the course of the day but the first 3 or 4 hours weren’t too bad at all. We hiked easily up and down, chatting to Raj and enjoying the easy pace. Every once in a while the clouds would break a little and we could get a sense that the mountains were right there, teasing us. The last hour was hard. A straight climb up 3381 steps to Ulleri, and our first guesthouse of the trek.
The guesthouse was basic, but there was electricity and a hot shower to be had so we were happy. The food was good and we spent the evening chatting to trekkers that we had seen on the trail throughout the day. I didn’t sleep well though – maybe it was the cold, or the altitude, but although I must have been exhausted sleep eluded me and I spent half the night reading.
Lack of sleep did not make the next days hike any easier. It was a relatively easy 3 hour hike to Ghorepani, but it felt like forever. The clouds hung as low as my mood and we did not see any mountains.
After some tea and a nap we attempted to climb the Poon Hill for which the trek is named. From the top of Poon Hill are supposed to be some of the best views of the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas. We only climbed half way and decided that it was too cloudy so we would try again in the morning for the famed sunrise climb.
As we returned to the guesthouse it started to rain…and it rained all afternoon and night. I took solace in the fact that I was inside next to the fire while others were still out on the trail, and still others were deeper in the mountains where, I learned later, it was snowing.
We got up at 6 the next morning to trek up Poon Hill for sunrise…it was not to be…a quick check outside confirmed that it was still raining and that summiting the hill would not be worth it…so back to bed we went.
It was still raining when we got up and ready the second time. We waited an extra hour for the heavy rain to subside and then we headed out. It continued to rain for most of the morning but not too badly. In fact, it made most of the day remind me of riding at home on a wet fall day. The forest here is of rhododendrons and bamboo rather than fir, arbutus and salal but, with the leaves on the trail, the clouds low and cool temperature, I could imagine myself riding down the long singletrack at home (just like Tzou-vember in Nepal!).
Part way through the day we decided to cut the trek short by a day. The plan had been to stay out 6 days but, with the weather not cooperating, we thought that 5 days would be enough. Unfortunately that meant that this days trek would have to be longer and so, after lunch, we proceeded to hike 3 more hours almost entirely downhill to reach Ghandruk. Now downhill might sound easier but, in reality, it is killer on the knees and thighs and at the end our legs were a quivering mess – 4 hours of uphill climbing and 3 hours of down – ouch! The clouds did break a little though and we got a real sense of how big and close the mountains are…how could they hide so easily when they are right there?
Ghandruk sits on the lip of a deep valley. We set out the next morning to descend into the valley (you can’t imagine how much my legs wanted to do this) and then climb up the other side – a tough morning. We crossed over the ridge and through one more smaller valley to end up in Dhampus, our final stop.
The views here were stunning – just what we had been waiting for. The clouds lifted just enough and, at sunset, we were treated to a fabulous show of nature. It was absolutely amazing and set us to talking about how we could possibly return one day to do a longer trek…the mountains have that effect.
If you’re considering trekking in Nepal (and you should!), Mark runs a great site that has tons of information…Trekking In Nepal...check it out!
Lonely Planet says that it would be a shame to travel directly to Pokhara from Kathmandu without making a stop along the way to enjoy the mountain views, and so we decided to break our journey and spend a night at Manakamana expecting to enjoy a serene mountain top retreat. Ummmm…..not so much.
Unlike years ago, when the only way up was a grueling 18KM hike, there is now a modern cable car system that whisked us up the almost 1000M vertical in an easy 15 minutes. The views were amazing. We were not yet in the towering, snow covered Himalayas, but the views of the Himalayan foothills were spectacular and seemed to go on forever.
The village at the top exists entirely because of the Manakamana Mandir, one of the most important Hindu temples in Nepal and, as we saw in Kathmandu, the Hindu religion is not one of quiet contemplation.
We followed the crowd up toward the temple and could hear the usual bells, shouting and general noise of the temple, but also ‘boom box’ music…strange. The square around the temple was filled with teenage kids – there were a good number of adults too, but a disproportionate number of teenagers were there…weird. The ‘boom box’ music was coming from one corner where a ‘hip’ group of kids were running a small gaming operation – a ring toss table and what looked like a raffle of sorts. It was the prizes that stood out though – juice boxes, cookies, beer, bottles of whiskey, cigarettes – and it was the kids playing these games, not the adults. It was a carnival like atmosphere with the boys wandering around trying to look macho and girls hanging about laughing and twittering behind the scarves they held to their faces.
One of the more interesting, and macabre, things about the temple is that the goddess of the temple is said to grant wishes. Many of the families that flock here come to ask for a wish to be filled…and many of them bring a goat along for the ride to sacrifice and ‘seal the deal’. There are a few special karts on the cable car for the sacrificial goats to ride up…a one way ticket. We saw many goats being led up the path but, thankfully, we only saw one that had met its’ fate and we did not see where the sacrifices were happening.
We were the only tourists there for our whole stay and we certainly got a lot of attention. There were plenty of stares and giggles but most would smile and wave back when we smiled and waved. Eating meals was interesting as we almost invariably had an audience…I guess they were wondering how and why we were eating with utensils (most of them were eating with their hands but I don’t know how to eat rice and curry with my hands!).
The village seemed to shut down after dark but we did manage to find a place to have a beer and play some cards…with an audience of course. The five Nepali boys were fascinated by our cribbage game and watched intently as they discussed it amongst themselves. We pantomimed back and forth a little bit but it was hard to communicate when we speak no Nepali and they spoke no English. I did remember a super simple card trick from long ago and so I tried it on them…the look on their faces when I picked out their ‘secret’ card was hilarious. I think I’ll learn some more tricks as it was a great way to engage with them.
With the village seemingly all rolled up for the night we headed to bed fairly early only to be woken multiple times by groups of kids finishing their night at the temple and hooting and hollering their way down the hill. Where they were going I have no idea as the cable car must have surely stopped by that time. Eventually they all seemed to have made their way down and so we settle in to sleep.
Bang, bang, bang, bang…..bang, bang, bang, bang….’Excuse me….excuse me…excuse me’…bang, bang, bang, bang. I slowly realize that someone is knocking on the door and reach for my watch…6AM. I answer the door….’Excuse me…hot water…shower!!’. What? ‘Hot water…shower’ he repeats, this time pantomiming showering. ‘Oh…Ok….thank you’ I say and close the door to return to my nice warm bed. I have no idea why it was so important for him to come and tell me about the hot water at 6AM but he seemed to think it was urgent. So much for sleeping in.
We didn’t have a bus ticket for our onward journey so we made our way down the mountain to wait on the highway to flag a bus down. Almost before we got to the highway a man was shepherding us to a small bus indicating that it would go to Pokhara. Perfect, we thought, that wasn’t hard at all.
The bus stopped in a small town about 20 minutes later and, after a few minutes the ‘conductor’ indicated that we needed to transfer to another bus to continue on. We grabbed our bags and proceeded to the second bus. As I boarded and saw the interior of the bus I knew that I was not going to like it…I should have turned around right then, but for some reason I didn’t. We headed towards the back to find some free seats for us and our bags and soon realized that almost all of the seats were dirty, torn and broken…not a good sign but, by now, the bus was moving so we just looked at each other shrugging our shoulders.
Within 5 minutes I knew I wasn’t going to stay on the bus – it was the dodgiest bus I have seen. I could just picture something terrible happening and my mother saying ‘what was she thinking, being on a bus like that?’, so we decided that we would get off at the first chance – we didn’t owe anybody any explanations and, for the money, we could more than afford to pay full fare again on a better bus.
About 30 minutes later the bus pulled into a small stop and we grabbed our bags to wait on the roadside for another bus. Our decision was confirmed when the driver proceeded to get under the bus and hammer away at something under there for a while…obviously not in tip top condition! When he had finished the ‘repairs’ everyone boarded again to continue on…I don’t think a single soul on that bus was surprised that we did not get back on.
We sat on the roadside for almost two hours waiting for another bus. It was hot and dusty but we didn’t care, we weren’t on the dodgy bus anymore. Eventually another bus came along and suited us quite nicely. It wasn’t any South American or Turkey bus with meals and drinks served aboard…but it wasn’t dodgy and that’s all we needed.
Serene mountain top retreat indeed. Manakanama was definitely an experience, and it was on a mountain top…but it was definitely not serene. We won’t be stopping in on our way back to Kathmandu!
The traffic was as crazy as I expected – our hotel owner later told us that there are no traffic rules in Nepal – basically just stay to the left and don’t hit anything. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters and bicycle rickshaws are everywhere – if the lane is wide enough for handlebars then a motorcycle will surely be speeding down it.
The smog is unrelenting – at times blocking out the views of the Himalayas. My nose is already constantly running black and there is a thickness in my throat. Many people, locals and tourists, sport masks to try and minimize the damage.
The noise is overwhelming – honking seems to be a national sport and it pays to heed them as more than once we almost got swiped by a passing motorcycle. Whistles, salesmen hawking, music and general noise round out the ‘symphony’ – it starts early, and ends late.
The colors are amazing – the dresses that the women wear, the ever-present marigolds and red dye at the temples, the bright lights of all the signs overhead – a never-ending smorgasbord of things to see.
It is fascinating. We spent the entire first day just wandering around, our heads swiveling back and forth as one sight after another vied for our attention.
We visited two temples during our stay.
The Swayambhunath Stupa is also known as the Monkey Temple due to the troop of monkeys that also live on the hill. But they were not the highlight that day. We arrived at the stupa to find a mix of Buddhist and Hindu ceremonies occurring. Circumambulating the stupa and turning the prayer wheels is distinctly Buddhist, but the other shrines and ceremonies using marigolds, red dyes, bell ringing, and rice were definitely Hindu. To which religion the rafts of yak butter candles and pots of fire to be stirred by devotees belonged to, I don’t know. There was much merriment and celebration with red-smudged foreheads and marigold petal strewn hair everywhere. It was amazing and we watched for hours as we circled the stupa again and again to take it all in.
The Bouhda Stupa is one of the largest in the world and surrounding village is home to a large population of Tibetan monks and exiles. The feeling here was definitely more serene and in keeping with what I had thought a Buddhist temple would be like. The sounds of Tibetan meditation music floated out from the music shops around the stupa, and the scent of incense permeated the air. We, again, slowly circumambulated the stupa (always in a clockwise direction) and watched as the crowd built towards sunset. By the time the sun set the path was filled with devotees, monks, villagers and tourists – a religious and social event.
After just two days in the Nepali capital our heads were filled. We headed off to Pokhara and the mountains for some natural beauty and peace and quiet.