The Undercover Unicorn in Nepal
Kathmandu, Pokhara, Poonhill Trail, Nepal
Finalement!!!!After a very long school term, nearly 3 months,with not one single break-not a 3 day weekend, not a rain day…nothing, alas, breathing I sigh of relief I packed my bag for a 2 week adventure starting in Nepal and ending in Thailand. Knowing that my time in the UAE and my flippant travel adventures would slow down afterwards, I knew that this 2 week break would have to be used optimally. I thought about flying to Singapore and making my way overland through Malaysia and into Thailand for 2 weeks. Happy with this plan my friend Nicole decided to derail it with 2 words, Trekking and Nepal. YES!!!! She wanted to do it for a week and then head off to Georgia. Knowing I still wanted to see Thailand, I told her I would definitely come along for Nepal but then we would go off in different directions. People in the UAE always ask where you’re going for whatever holiday and that’s how Andrea, and Cat ended up joining us. And for Thailand Amy, Cat and I made up the dream team.
Packing a 55 litre pack for a 2 week trip to 2 very different destinations is an artform. I went full minimalist for Nepal: Quickdry everything; 2 pairs of leggings, 2 tank tops, 2 long sleeve shirts, 1 sweater, 2 quick dry underwear, 2 liner and hiking socks, 1 bra, and 1 set of sleep clothes, hiking boots and flipflops.
Honourable and necessary mentions; energy bars,beef jerky, buff, earplugs, tiny quick dry towel, deck of cards, a sleeping bag liner and finally the literal Holy Grail of mountain trekking; a Grayl water bottle that filters and purifies your water in mere seconds. Seriously if you travel get this water bottle. You can fill it up anywhere (even a stream if you’re desperate) and you will not get sick. 3 out of 4 of us had this miracle bottle and 3 out of 4 of us did not get sick…can’t say for sure it was her water but it definitely wasn’t ours. As of now (2017), as far as I know, you can only buy this in the USA but they ship internationally, we each paid about 75$ each including shipping and while it was an expense, I did not regret it for a moment and continue to use it on every trip.. Everyone on the mountain, including our guide were always rather curious about how we would walk up to any tap, fill, plunge and drink immediately with big happy smiles on our face. The only thing is that is doesn’t hold a ton of water but because you can fill it up anywhere it’s not a big issue. If you’re worried about needing more water, depending on where you’re going, you can fill up another bottle with filtered water from your Grayl and carry 2.
Now I know that for a 5 day trek with 1 day at the end of it with only these items for clothing sounds pretty nasty but the plan was to wash things in the afternoon when necessary and our expensive quick dry clothing would be good by morning…I washed my underwear everyday but being on a mountain, basically in a fucking cloud meant nothing would dry properly. I really could have spared the room and weight for a few more pairs of underwear…so that’s my advice cause even though by the end of it all my clothes felt gross, clean and dry panties would really have helped. I went commando every night. My friends were afraid of being cold on the mountain at night so they rented a sleeping bag but I decided to tough it out with the teahouse provided blankets and my sleeping bag liner…in this circumstance I was right. The blankets provided by the teahouses were thick and so cocooned in my sleeping bag liner I was a snug little bug.
If you’re a hardcore trekker with time and places to train, carry your own pack, if you live in a desert coastal city without so much as a sand dune to climb; relying on rigorous gym sessions and trekking up your 33 storey apartment building twice a week…hire porters, you will be happy be unencumbered to roam and you will have given 2 deserving and lovely people a job for a few days.
On March 24th the 4 of us took different flights into Kathmandu, Nicole and Cat arriving early afternoon, myself arriving around 7pm on a direct Etihad flight (Thank you Mikey) and Andrea getting delayed, stuck in a storm, etc, arrived at 1am…sick as a dog. I met up with Nicole and Cat in our Kathmandu hostel, Pariwar BnB. They were playing cards and I was restless, full of excitement for the days to come. Not long after my arrival Kathmandu experienced a magnificent hail storm, we stood looking out on the tin roofed terrace watching huge white balls of ice pounding down on the roof and coming onto the terrace, meanwhile poor Andrea’s flight was stuck in a thunder and hail storm, circling the area waiting out the storm the whole time she’s thinking ‘this is when I die’. She did not die…
We had not booked a guide for our trek having discovered that if you try to book online they will charge you double the price than if you’re in country, literally, Pariwar told us 500$ each via email but upon arrival told us 250$ or so each. Every other agency we contacted online gave us the same exorbitant quote. I knew it was exorbitant because I research the shit out of this stuff and adding up the actual cost of hiring guides on site, I knew it was far less. We had decided that if we couldn’t find a guide in time we would go it alone since the trek we had decided on was very popular and well marked. Turns out we would have been all right doing it on our own but having Hira with us made it way better, much easier and safer. So Nicole and Cat arranged our guide for the Poonhill trek through Pariwar and we met our guide in Pokhara after an early morning, 25 minute flight on Yeti airlines. We were on a medium size propeller plane and as we came through the clouds over Pokhara we looked out and saw the iconic peaks of the Himalayas and the Annapurna range. This was one of those moments where I think, never in my life would I have ever thought I would see this in person, this can’t be my life. I don’t think I was alone in this sentiment.
Hira, our guide, we’d soon discover, is one of the kindest, most genuinely caring people you will ever encounter…I’m certain of this because no one can be more than this guy. And give him credit because stuck with 4 crazy and independent women for 5 days didn’t seem to faze him and he seemed to find us a curious and amusing bunch of weirdos. In fact every night after dinner he would actually elect to hang out with us while we talked about our bowel movements and other fun facts, always making sure we had enough rum and hot chocolates, or Everest beers.
Let’s talk about Everest beer for a minute, it must come from the heavenly glaciers of Everest itself because it is crisp, delectable, memorable and tastes of accomplishment. I’m not one to talk about beer…is it alcohol..I’ll take it! But Everest beer is something to taste, don’t talk to me about lagers and pilsners, and hops, and barley, I don’t give a shit. Just drink Everest.
We met Hira in Pokhara and he took us to a hotel to eat breakfast and pick up some rental sleeping bags and then we climbed into an SUV and drove about an hour to Nayapol where our trek would begin. The road to Nayapol is a mixture of city and mountain landscape and as we traveled overland I was increasingly excited and nervous about what our next 5 days would look like. Disembarking from the SUV, we were off on a road through the town and then over a bridge and eventually a dirt road open to the sun beating down on us. After 2 hours of flat and uphill sunny road, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch and mine and Cat’s first Everest beer; the discovery was made and we would never look back! Poor Andrea was feeling pretty bad, sicks with a nasty chest cold, she was having a tough time but trooper that she is, just kept going. 20 or so minutes uphill from lunch we left the road and this would be the last time we saw a road for 4 days. Trekking up stone step paths, through small villages, over suspension bridges I could already surmise that this place was magic. Finally when we were ready to throw our packs in the river and collapse, we made it to our first teahouse only to be told that we were on the top floor…sigh, legs shaking, we made it up there. This became the running joke of the trip, we would pass teahouse after teahouse but ours was always the last one at the highest point and our room was always up more damn stairs. After we changed into our night clothes, we went down to the yard which over looked rice terraces and small villages, we were in Tikkhedunga for the night.
We soon discovered that a giant group of very loud Chinese tourists would also be staying the night. Now normally I wouldn’t be too specific about the nationality of people I find unpleasant but here I feel it lends to understanding. This group made so much noise that evening while we were trying to gaze peacefully around at the views and chat about our first day, they were yelling from the balconies across the courtyard at each other, they never acknowledged us in a friendly or otherwise manner and proceeded to horque and hack phlegm balls from the depths of their chests. Having been to China I knew this was a thing, but having travelled extensively, personally I try to be very conscious of not offending the local hosts or the other travellers of varying nationalities, I found their behaviour to be callous and insensitive. The kicker was when, at 5:30 am they started singing in the room next to us and Andrea and I without even thinking about it reacted with “Shut UP!” To be fair, our alarm wasn’t set till 6am. As politely as we could, we asked Hira if we would be subjected to this every night and he assured us that they were not stopping in the same places as us afterwards, clearly he sensed our disappointment at having our peaceful “back to nature” trek hijacked by a roudy group. You do not trek through mountains for 5 days to listen to raucous people horque phlegm around. That first evening, after carrying our pack for 4 hours and listening to Hira describe the following day, we conceded to hire porters. None of us had been able to train enough to carry packs uphill for 8 hours and we figured that if we tried we would not enjoy it much and after all we were on vacation. Hira arranged for 2 porters to meet us the following morning. They were brothers (or cousins) from a nearby village, young guys (early 20’s max) and they came with smiles and great energy. Hira told us they didn’t get too many jobs like this and that they were actually from one of the mountain villages so it was their chance to go home and see friends. We asked if they would be ok with all of our stuff and Hira said that it was nothing, they grew up on these mountains. Still every single porter I saw on this trip amazed me and some kind of worried me. The general rule is that they don’t carry more than 20 kg but some of these guys were carrying the contents of my entire bedroom in giant body bags strapped to their heads, wearing sandals.
Day 2: We had literally thousands of stone steps to climb from the very second we stepped foot from our teahouse. It was clear after about 2.3 seconds that hiring porters was the smartest thing we could have done and also that I am not a morning workout person so immediately climbing for 2 hours straight right after breakfast was the absolute worst way to start the day. But no matter, the views were stunning and when we finally reached Ulere after 2 hours, sat down and had a cup of ginger, honey and lemon tea while overlooking the path we had just climbed and some incredible vistas, it all felt worth it. Only 6 more hours to go until Ghorepani!!!
Sounds from our trek:
- Fake crying
- The ‘fuck fuck fuck’ crow/bird echoing sentiments of thousands of trekkers past
- The melodic singing birds in the forest outside Ghorepani
- The bells of the horse/donkey/mules- “get out of the way!”
- Slapping tables playing Egyptian Rat Screw Fuck (card game)
- Squishy Mud
- Horqueing phlegm
- Questionnable sex sounds and/or whipping
- The sound of a non-flushing toilet
- Trekking poles on stone
- Overhearing obnoxious, mundane conversation as you try to overtake them on the downhill
- Women talking about bungalows
- People trying to figure out what photo to print/post
- “Cat stop crop dusting us”
- So many giggles as a result of poop/fart jokes
- Conversations about wedgies
- Amazing satirical songs: “I don’t think you’re ready for this Yeti, because my bag exceeds the recommended dimensions for this plane” (Beyonce’s Bootylicious) in reference to not being able to carry our packs on Yeti air.
Smells from this trip:
- Cat’s farts as she crop dusts everyone behind her
- Nicole’s sandals
- Wet clothes
- Questionable bathrooms
- Nepali Wine
Day 2 continues, it was nothing short of brutal. The guide book says Poonhill is an easy to moderate hike…it is not. Having hiked before, used to dirt/rock paths, walking up thousands of stone steps where you cannot control the size of your step is exhausting,like doing thousands of elevated lunges! The saving grace of the day was when we entered the jungle and there was a reasonable mix of uphill, flat, and downhill. Although downhill when you know you just have to go up again is pretty annoying. The jungle was amazing and suddenly, it being afternoon and a reasonable hour to exercise, I had loads of energy a sprang through the forest like a fairy on acid. I was in good company as I concluded that this must be where fairies and gnomes carve out their existence away from our modern and uninspired world. I swear they were going to pop out and sing us a song until Cat farted and it scared them off.
Approaching Ghorepani it started getting colder and harder to climb. At long last we see the sign “Welcome to Ghorepani’ and we sigh in relief, but of course Hira informs that “this is lower Ghorepani, we stay in upper Ghorepani, you only have 10,000 more steps to go!” Well maybe more like 200 steps but true to the joke, our teahouse was way, way up. On this day a hot shower was in order..not a hair shower though, I didn’t want to get the chills. They had a roaring fire in the lodge where we were able to wash and dry some of our clothes. This is where Hira introduced us to rum and hot chocolate and this is where Andrea crashed. After hacking up a lung for 2 days, she let go in our room and came down only to eat. Really I commend Andrea for trooping along on the mountain for 5 days feeling like shit..she had some meds with her but she still suffered, had it been me I might have stayed in Pokhara.
That night I ate Chicken thukpa which was a delicious spicy stew, liked an amped up version of chicken noodle soup.
Day 3: Ghorepani to Poonhill Peak, Downhill and some uphill to Tadapani
Wake up, it’s 4:30 am…what the fuck kinda vacation is this? An hour and a half up more stone steps to Poonhill. My stream of consciousness that morning: is it worth it? they have to pass back through here for breakfast, maybe I won’t go, maybe I’ll keep sleeping… Get your lazy dumbass up, take your telephoto lens it’s gonna be worth it. You came all this way get up and see the views. I swear to whatever god that if I climb all this way and it’s cloudy, I’ll curse something, i’ll make a damn voodoo doll of the cloud gods and i’ll stick pins in it. Andrea! Wake up, how’re you feeling, you up for it..ok if she’s up for it, I better be.
I can’t lie, about 2 minutes in I was dying, I couldn’t get my heartbeat and my breathing to work together, I thought I was having a heart attack but to be honest I think it was anxiety about climbing again. I am simply not a morning workout person, my idea of exercise at that hour is to groan loudly in child’s pose and begrudgingly roll out of bed for work. But Alas, after much heavy breathing and little breaks, with every painful step, every insane heatbeat, panting, sweating, all the tabarnaks (Quebec swear word) at every turn revealing more steps_ “MORE FUCKING STEPS! TABARNAK!!!!”I made it to the top just in time to watch the sun rise and the clouds roll away revealing snowcapped mountain peaks.
It was super cold up here at this ungodly hour but every single person was smiling, drinking cocoa out of a very sustainable metal mug. (if they can hand wash cups at this elevation in the middle of nowhere wtf is our problem in the land of dishwashers?)
We made our way back down to Ghorepani for breakfast, pack up and head out to Tadapani. What fresh hell is this? Uphill for hours more, it feels like we had to summit again, and again, and again.
Finally Hira tells us it’s all downhill from here and we go down. Andrea, discovers a new fear..going down stone steps, this after her injury in Malawi a few months earlier, so she is slow, so is Nicole, I say slow but I mean cautious. Cat who had been powerhousing up for 2 1/2 days crop dusting everyone, even takes care on the downhill but for some reason I bound down hill like I’ve been doing it my whole life, not a twinge of fear, fast as can be. We pass by some of the most ridiculous vistas, we meet our spirit horse which is basically an undercover unicorn, he/she follows us for a time, we take the best photo of our group yet.
After a few hours of this beautiful landscape we stop at a village for lunch. During lunch it starts raining and we watch as everyone puts on their purple, pink, and yellow rain ponchos over their packs and it is nothing short of hilarious,they look like hybrid caterpillar human bugs. Throughout lunch we’d been freezing so when it was time put on our suffocating ponchos it was a relief to feel our body heat fill up this plastic tent and warm our bones, even thought it was only sprinkling and we took them off after 10 minutes.
At some point Hira informed us that the last 45 minutes was uphill..sigh we did, and started up precarious stone steps that never wanted to end. The upside of this was the fact that we legit thought we were entering Rivendell and the fact that we were shamed into moving faster by porters carrying twice their body weight made us move a little faster.
Tadapani appeared through the fog and we were delighted to find a secluded little village of teahouse and craft vendor stalls full of colourful offerings. It was so cold but thankfully our teahouse had a roaring fire going.
This was the night Cat and I decided to stay up late, drink loads of beer and play cards with anyone and everyone. Nicole pooped out early and Andrea, still feeling like shit ate dinner and went to bed. Cat and I met some lovely young German women who taught us to play a Nepali card game that their guide had been cheating them at for a few nights and then we had political ethical conversations with a Dutch Turkish man who had been at the previous guest house with us. As a Canadian we are constantly mistaken for Americans which does not bother me most of the time except lately because everyone wants to discuss Donald Trump and while I genuinely feel devastated for my American friends, this man does not concern my day to day and I DO NOT want to discuss him while vacationing on a Himalayan mountain so far removed. Actually please don’t talk to me about him at all, he makes me want to vomit.
Day 3: On this day we decide to take a shorter way to Nayapol…I think Hira was disappointed, but we all liked the idea of having a short hike the next day and just chilling for a bit. We head downhill for 3-4 hours to Ghandruk. My billy goat kicks in and I bound down the mountain, surpassing everyone on the way and I don’t stop until I get to upper Ghandruk. Not sure where exactly we are headed I stop to wait for the others who are about 20 minutes behind me. During the trek I stopped, took tons of photos but I absolutely relished the idea of being alone in the most magical green world I have ever seen. Every time I heard people getting close to me I bounced away, I just wanted to be alone. There was a time where I used to be afraid of being alone in nature because the feeling was so unfamiliar but for the first time in a long time I craved it, I didn’t feel uncomfortable even being in the middle of a place I’d never been before, it was all so natural. I wanted to stay in that green solitude forever, prancing around discovering new shades of green and textures of moss that seemed to work its way into my soul, that made me feel alive in every limb through the gray haze that is my life as a teacher in the emirates, this was where I found my being tingle back to life. I hated knowing that people would still expect better than my best and that nothing I did was ever good enough. I hated leaving that world, I hated knowing I would have to go back to reality eventually and wake up everyday knowing that there was a better world out there but I couldn’t belong to it.
We got to Ghandruk by noon (at the latest) , we washed clothes with the expectation of having a fire to dry said clothes but also knowing we had more hours here for them to dry. I kept one set of dirty but dry clothes, sweet Cat lent me some clean underwear she didn’t need because she packed more than enough underwear unlike me who had 2 pairs. No fire, nothing dried but one more day downhill to Pokhara all would be well. We sat in the teahouse lodge using the wifi (first time in days) and drinking Everest beer irresponsibly. Nicole was gung-ho about seeing Ghandruk so she set out with Hira to investigate and she had a fabulous time but upon returning she started to feel ill and retired to bed early. This happened to be the day that Andrea started feeling better, it’s like the universe needed balance and I was a little worried about Cat and I on our future adventures; were we next? We stayed up late that night making inappropriate fart jokes and thinking we were the funniest people on the mountain, we obviously were because everyone seemed very serious and went to bed early.
Waking up the next morning, I could feel my calf muscles were tight as hell, so I laid in bed flexing my feet before getting up, I rolled out of bed, put my feet on the chilly floor and attempted to stand up, pain shot through the back of my legs but I managed to stand up. Andrea did not flex her feet before arising and when she jumped out of bed she nearly collapsed in agony. As tough as the uphill was I didn’t get a single sore muscle but going downhill, as easy as it was, obliterated my calve muscles. 6 hours downhill today, can my calve muscles take it..only time would tell. Breakfast was had and sadly Nicole was unable to eat anything, we set out downhill from charming Ghandruk.
After about 30 minutes Cat and I were well ahead of Andrea and Nicole, there was a point where we started singing and dancing downhill and forgot to stop and wait for the others. Arriving at a beautiful waterfall, we decided to stop and wait for our friends.
After about 20 minutes we started questioning people if they had seen our friends or not. No one had seen them, a guide asked us if we had our guide’s phone number..we did not. What was the company we had used..no idea…where had we just stayed..ummm Ghandruk..not helpful. He concluded that we were dumbasses and should follow him into town and we would figure it out from there. Two minutes later we see Andrea waving at us from a lower trail. Pauvre Nicole had collapsed over a table and could not go on, this was the moment we realized how smart and lucky we were to have a guide like Hira. He arranged for a Jeep to pick up Nicole at that town (this was moment we reached the first road in 4 days) and take her downhill but he said she would have to wait for a few hours for us to reach the bottom if we continued trekking. Not wanting her to wait, Cat and I decide to walk the road instead of the trekkers trail until the Jeep came and they could pick us up on the way down.
We had a good hour or 2 of walking until the Jeep found us and we proceeded down a terrifying mountain descent in a jeep with an able but sweaty driver; clearly he was less enthused than we were about this ride. When we got back to Nayapol we waited less than 2 minutes for our other Jeep to arrive and he proceeded to drive for 2 hours through some of the most dense fog in existence.
Arriving in Pokhara, everyone searching for an ATM, getting coffee and meds for Nicole (they knew what she needed at the pharmacy) clearly not the first person they’d seen suffering this way. Hira told us at this point that he was from Kathmandu, had come off a trek, jumped back on a 6-8 hour overnight bus ride to meet us in Pokhara and was getting back on a 6-8 hr bus ride back to Kathmandu after 5 days trekking…wow! I don’t know if I could ever respect or appreciate a guide as much as I did Hira. If you ever need a trekking guide in Nepal, please call Pariwar BnB and request Hira. If you need porters, ask for Sunhil and Saga. I honestly did not want to leave Nepal, but had a flight out to Bangkok.
We checked into our hostel in Pokhara and I had made a mistake..checking in the day we were supposed to leave but they were so nice, changed our reservation and accommodated us in a neighbouring partner hotel. The owner of Kiwi Hostel told us that only one flight had left that day and he was worried it would be the same for us the next day. We tried to dry some clothes in our room and head out for food and drinks. It poured while our clothes were hanging out and we broke down and paid for the hostel to dry our clothes. We found a fancy place for drinks that night and spent down time there. The restaurant had a very Nantuckett vibe and definitely hosted one of the cleanest bathrooms we’d encountered in Nepal. Andrea and Cat went to bed but our clothes were still drying so I went downstairs and conversed with some other trekkers, some just done, some about to embark. I wrote in my journal and waited for our clothes. The next day we set out for the airport, hoping like hell that the fog would lift soon and we would get a flight to Kathmandu.
The airline told us that things were delayed, ‘don’t worry though we’ll get you to Kathmandu somehow today by plane or overland by 6 hr bus.’ We hit up the airport cafe, finding some Kama Sutra cards which entertained us for about 10 minutes; we wrote in our journals, drank coffee and ate some food.. Went downstairs inquired about our flight…another hour or so they said…back upstairs..beer fridge discovered, sat out waiting for the sky to clear, more beer, Nicole still not feeling well forced to put up with our tipsy butts. Cat and I bust out the script we’d been working on and do an animated reading of said script while drinking tall cans, people staring. Six hours later ‘hey it’s your turn to get on the flight’…the clouds have lifted we can see the Himalayas again…time to go to Kathmandu.
Andrea buys us all yeti keychains… wait some more, buy another beer, time to get on the flight..I have a full beer, no matter on Yeti air. The 25 minute flight feels like 6 hours. We’re in Kathmandu now, so hungry, we get some food, go shopping and LOVE everything. I haggled down some earrings set with Lapis Lazuli, coral, and turquoise. The guy from Pariwar who booked our guide helped us out with our desire to be less drunk and little more not sober. We head to an alley bar, drink too much. Feeling the effects of not being drunk and not being sober, I set out on the Kathmandu streets admiring and wanting to touch all the cashmere with a little too much enthusiasm. The mandala paintings engrossed me, the song bowls made me want to cry, and pretty things were just too much!