Up Poon Hill: Days one and two

First half of a five-day trek up Nepal’s Poon Hill, though at 3210m high it should really be called a mountain.

Day one: Two hours into the trek and I am fighting feelings of helplessness and TAKE ME HOME!  Because I know these thoughts won’t do me any good and I’ll never let myself turn back. Even though many people I told about my trip said I was adventurous and widened their eyes in surprise, I know I am not really the kind of hardened backpacker they envision. I like my creature comforts – hot showers, a comfy bed, fluffy blankets in an air-conditioned room. And yet I am here in Nepal, an hour’s drive from the city of Pokhara, embarking on a five-day trek up Poon Hill. From it’s peak I am supposed to see picturesque clouds and snow-capped mountain ranges; now I only see the gravelly trail and rocks of varying sizes that scatter across its path.

One of our guides Binod, who is Hindu like 80% of the Nepalese population, tells me about a Hindu myth that says the mountains will bring you happiness if you think happy thoughts. Or something to that effect, because he speaks in Nepali-accented English I strain to make out. (When he told me his name, I thought it was Vinod until he added me on Facebook later and I learnt the correct spelling.)

Bigger than the physical challenge is the mental one. The thought of five days of walking is overwhelming and so I break it down into smaller goals. I made it to lunch. I’ll make it to dinner.

Lunch for two: Banana oatmeal porridge, fried noodles and an omelette, the first of many times we would order similar combinations on the trek.

When we sit down for lunch my trekking companion Shuhui and I try to order chicken dhal bhat, but we are told there isn’t any chicken. They are also out of momos, my second choice, so I order a bowl of banana oatmeal porridge instead. As we wait for our food a rooster squawks its way into our dining area, and I learn just how loud it can crow at close range. I wonder if it knows how narrowly it escaped being our lunch. In the aftermath of the recent earthquake, where tourism took a beating, I guess it isn’t prudent for the teahouses to slaughter a chicken just to feed two girls, especially if they don’t know when their next customers will be coming by.

Back on the trail I pepper our guides-cum-porters Delhi and Binod with questions. How old are you? (45, 22) How long have you been a guide? (30 years, 6 years) How many times have you climbed this hill? They answer every question except the last. Over the years they have lost count.

Binod, who is younger and therefore more energetic, skips ahead of us easily on the trail, even though he is carrying my backpack that weighs at least 10kg. He tells me there is less tourism now because of the earthquake, but still we have company on the trail. There are large Western groups of trekkers heading to Annapurna Base Camp, a route that can take anywhere from eight to 15 days. Some are decades older than me, and I tell myself that if they can conquer Annapurna, I should at least be able to complete Poon Hill. Then there are solo trekkers, male and female alike, and couples that make me miss home.

Below us in the valley the river roars white over boulders worn smooth by time. We pass a stream that we shed our footwear to cross, the water icy cold and refreshing. I cling on to Delhi’s hand for stability all the way to the other side, and for a while the cold adds a spring to my step.

There are entire communities built around this route, owners of rest stops and guesthouses making a living off the tourism that floods to the mountains. They compete for trekkers’ attention with hand-painted wooden signs that advertise hot showers, electricity, warm blankets, western-style toilets and – even though this is hit-and-miss – wifi.

Teahouses on the trail, some of which are still under construction. It takes about six months to a year for a teahouse to be built, including the time it take for materials to be transported to the building site.

Everything sold here – beer, coke, mineral water, toilet paper –  must be carted up by hand or donkey, on the backs of the young and old alike. They walk the trail bent over, with a rattan basket strapped around their foreheads to keep it from sliding down their backs. A young man carries a basket filled to the brim with millet, one of the cash crops grown on the trail (others include tomatoes and corn), and I ask Delhi how much it weighs. Maybe 40kg, he says. Four other young men share the load of one generator. Many of the old ladies go barefoot.

They walk this trail like it is home, as much as the daily commute I used to take to MINDEF was a part of home in Singapore. I lose count of the number of times I marvel, in my head, at the differences between this and life back home, even though it does nobody any favours to compare. This is their life, and mine is just as foreign and unfamiliar.

Our room for the night at Tikhedunga Guest House.

When we finally arrive at the teahouse in Tikhedunga I am triumphant at the day’s accomplishment, although for a while that is punctuated by dismay at not having wifi, even though the signs outside promised it. The accommodation is bare-bones, reminding me that I haven’t really roughed it out since backpacking in China two years ago, and two years made me forget how these things feel. Shuhui and I lament our situation with the weary knowledge of city slickers that we are so far out of our element now because we have it good in daily life.

It takes a warm shower for a shift in perspective. Later, as the sky gradually darkens and I am bundled up in warm clothing writing in my journal, it hits me how beautiful this place is. Outside our room the lodge overlooks verdant hills and shaky suspension bridges over rushing waterfalls, and the air is misty not from the smog that cloaks both Singapore and Kathmandu, but with the clean freshness from being a bit closer to the clouds.

The sun sets early here, and it is pitch dark by 1830h. We’ll trek for six hours tomorrow, an early start leading into a steep uphill climb. Small goals: Make it to lunch, then make it to dinner.

Trekking route of the area, which includes our five-day journey to Poon Hill and back, as well as farther destinations like the Annapurna and Macchapuchhre Base Camps.

Day two: We start early, shortly after sunrise, and the 3700 steps begin immediately after we leave the teahouse. I try not to forget where I am, to stop once in a while to look out at the view behind me, but sometimes scenery and perspiration blend into one. Mentally I admonish my past self for being such a hero: Why am I doing this when I could be at a comfortable yoga retreat in Pokhara?!

A fellow trekker puts things into perspective, an Austrian man whom we met the day before, now on his third trip to Nepal. “It’s humid today,” he says, “but you look at these mountains and all is good.”

One of many breaks we take along the two-hour uphill climb

Beasts of burden line the trail – donkeys are the most plentiful, announcing their arrival by the clinking of bells around their neck, the clip-clop of hooves against stone steps, and the sound of canvas loads straining against the ropes that hold them in place. Each mule costs approximately 100,000 Nepalese Rupees, or SGD1300, and they are an investment. They carry food, gas cylinders, and construction material such as bags of concrete and granite slabs, and will deliver these to guesthouses along the trail. Each donkey can take up to 60kg on their backs, and make the five-hour journey between Tikhedunga and Ghorepani twice a day.

The latter is where we are headed, and five hours, according to our guides, is at the locals’ speed of walking. We should expect to take longer.

Donkeys carry everything from food and drinks to gas cylinders on their backs.

Oxen till agricultural plots, which are used to grow cash crops such as millet, corn and tomatoes

There are other animals too, and as I climb, I identify their droppings. Oxen leave massive pats of cow dung, each one wider than a dinner plate. Chickens poop tiny pellets. Horses wait at intermittent rest stops, offering weary trekkers the option of a ride on their backs. Behind a brick wall I hear what I think are pigs snorting, but when I lean over to take a look it is just the sound of water churning in pipes. All the animals here must labour for their keep.

Cluster of rest stops, where we have lunch and a break and a view.

Youths in Nepal, at least those that we encounter, start work young. Both our guides Delhi and Binod started trekking commercially in their teens. Donkey herders, sometimes two of them assigned to a convoy, run after their charges and each other with the energy and agility of schoolboys. They are ruddy-cheeked in the wind that grows nippier as we ascend, and look to me no older than sixteen.

As the climate changes, so does the landscape. Once past the 3700 stone steps, we trek through a forest hugged by moss and lichen, the blanket of green punctuated by streams that bubble over pebbles and rush over rocks. A light mist descends as the day wears on. We will climb to 2800m today.

First views of Ghorepani, which is probably the largest community we encounter on the trek. There is no accommodation on top of Poon Hill, so everyone summiting has to stop by Ghorepani. The village has a school, hospital, bakery and bookshops, and more guesthouses are currently being built.

 
We arrive at Ghorepani starving and for dinner we order a feast – vegetable pakoda (Fried vegetable patties, and every place does it differently), dhal bhat and chicken curry, a can of sardines I brought from Kathmandu. We even get dessert – chocolate pudding and apple pie, stuff I try to avoid in Singapore, but today we earned it.

As with every night, there is anticipation and nervousness about the next day’s trek. But as with every night, now we are here, we are warm and fed, we have wifi, and that means things are good. Also, our room has an ensuite shower with hot water and a toilet that flushes and out here, that is such luxury.

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