Trekking in the Himalayas conjures images of beautiful, sweeping mountainscapes. It’s cupping your hand to your brow and tilting your head upward to gaze at the world’ tallest mountains. After five weeks traveling and living Nepal, most of that spent volunteering at a monastery with young monks so far, the time had come to pit myself against nature. My cousin and I teamed up with another volunteer and we signed up for a five-day trek into the mountains. We agreed that this was an ideal length of time to see beautiful mountains while also not killing ourselves from physical exertion. We booked the trek through our guesthouse, the family-run Noble Inn. This is common in Pokhara and most guesthouses have guides and tour companies with whom they work. The family running the guesthouse (which I loved) helped us pick a route that would take us to Poon Hill as our top peak. On the third day of our trek we would wake at dawn for close-up views of Annapurna South (7,273 meters) and Machapuchare (6.997 meters). Poon Hill itself is a whopping 3,210 meters — high enough to afford great views, but low enough that we wouldn’t need to acclimatize.
The three of us had never trekked in Nepal’s Himalayas. It was a bucket list item we hoped to fulfill, and with the guesthouse’s recommendations we hoped we had picked a responsible route suited to our hiking level. The Himalayas are that dreamscape, and we all hoped for beautiful vistas. The reality was different. There’s no telling the weather on any trek and we had crappy, hazy skies. But we had a grand adventure anyhow, and the mountain towns, paths, and experience still count among my favorite from these past months. I journaled every day and used that to reconstruct our five-day route. If you’re wondering if you should trek in the Himalayas, and particularly to Poon Hill, then read on as I share what it’s like every step of the way.
Day 1: Nayapul to Tikhedhunga
The day dawned cool and we were out the door early! The guesthouse is in the heart of Pokhara, what a good spot we chose. Right on time they had a taxi ready to whisk us from Pokhara to Nayapul, which was our starting point. In fact, it’s the starting point for many treks. We have a guide and porter for the next five days, Surya and Nogin Ry. They handled the logistics. The three of us, Cara, Cousin H, and I, shared a single pack so that we only had to pay for one porter. Plus, we’ll be in trekking clothes the entire time, so how much stuff do we really need? Porters carry up to 15 kilos, so that covered the three of us with us each packing a handful of clothes and toiletries.
Nogin Ry was a fun addition to our team, I’m glad we decided to use a porter. Even in the first hours we all realized he had a whip-smart sense of humor, but not in a snarky way (like mine). Having him along keeps the tone fun and light. The 45 minute taxi ride passed quickly; before long, we reached a small bridge over the river that would take us into Annapurna National Park. The only snafu was a miscommunication on timing — being Nepal, that’s often out of anyone’s control. The permit office opened late, but they eventually got around to showing up. Once we had checked in, they stamped our permits and we were on our way!
One of the funnier moments of the day was when Cara prompted Surya to tell us about the hike. He started a pretty speech about the nature, the people, and the scenery. Then Cara blurted out, “But Surya, do girls sometimes cry?”
He gave us a sideways glance. Considered for several seconds before shaking his head, “Yes Cara, sometimes they cry.”
I’m not sure the answer Cara expected; what is the appropriate follow-up. “OK, thanks Surya, glad to know I’ll be bawling soon!” Surya explained that the second trekking day is the hardest on the Poon Hill trek. We made it through the first day, so all I can do is repeat the adage in my head about the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady gets there too. Today wasn’t so bad really, it was just scorchingly hot because we started hiking at noon (thanks to the permit situation). My cousin is from the Pacific Northwest, so she found the day particularly brutal.
The hiking part of the day is good fun. Surya is a great guide. He’s teaching us Nepali as we go and he let’s me grill him on my generic, simple sentences, which I started learning at the monastery. And he also shares pieces of the catchy Nepali songs that I’ve heard tinkling repeatedly from the radios in Pharping these past many weeks. Today’s tune was Resham Firiri. It’s a folksy song about a bird that is slow and the lyrics are fairly clear. One day in, and I have the tune down, but that’s not enough — I need to understand it! So, Surya promised is slowly helping write the translation of each verse, then he helps quiz me on the vocabulary from the song. This is the most popular nationalistic song in Nepal. Our group has scored major points with the other guides as we sing/shout the chorus throughout the hours of hiking.
There was one pretty waterfall as we hiked in, but the foothills are still lowland climate and sparse. Tomorrow scares me a little, I’ll be honest. I already know that I cry when I am hiking, I am totally going to be one of those girls crying on their way up the mountain. Surya says that we have three- or four-thousands steps to ascend tomorrow. That’s a lot of steps, And I like how he says three or four thousand, as if that extra thousand that might be there is just incidental. Hah! If I get through tomorrow, nothing worse is coming — that’s a warm thought.
Day 2: Ulleri to Ghorepani
Oh. My. God. Intensity, thy name is trekking. It’s over. But it was terrible. In hindsight — now that my boots are laying limply at my feet and I am propped in a chair — I recognize that it could have been worse. Of course it could have been worse. We started hiking at 7 am and we hiked for a full seven hours to get to Ghorepani.
Our first four hours on the trail followed a vertical staircase cut into the mountain. It took hours and hours. Then, I saw a reprieve and nearly cried. It changed for several minutes into a flat stretch of level ground.
It was a tease.
After mere moments we started round two of the staircases. We hiked up vertical staircases for the final three hours. Although most of this area is too steep for villages, there must have been a few close. Several times locals scooted past us on the trail, no one out of breath or tired. We also passed a funeral procession. The family members took the long staircase downhill, toward Ulleri. The wailing widow followed behind the body. It was humbling to remember that there are people living and building lives in this remote area of Nepal, it’s not all about the trekking and the tourism and the “must see vistas.”
As for the hike itself, we climbed more than 1,200 meters straight uphill to get to Ghorepani. That’s roughly 3,900 feet! If this day was the hardest of the five then I am going to rock it for the rest of our trek. The best part of today — the esterberries! Surya pointed them out to us. He calls them esterberries but I could figure out if that is an official name (salmonberries maybe?). But they were plentiful; we found heaps of bushes of these along the way. Each time I spotted a bush, I used the picking of them as an excuse to stop hiking. But even though I was the one trailing, everyone happily picked berries and snacked on them. Since I am the slowest in the group, free-breaks without slowing down the group is a positive thing.
We also added to our repertoire of Nepali songs today. This one is a sing and echo song so it was more fun to learn as we hiked (or shout along the way, as is the case for me and my awful singing). Oh! And how I could I forget, we should have had mountain views from our hotel room today but the haze has blocked out the mountains. We’re hoping for rain tonight since hike to the viewpoint on Poon Hill in the morning. As we wandered Ghorepani waiting for dinner, my friends and I did a silly little rain dance on the basketball court — we really want to see those mountains!
Day 3: Poon Hill to Tadapani
Man, today was a great day all around. My favorite so far. Yesterday was the hardest and we worked our asses off! The payoff, however, was a great hotel, tasty food, and meeting our new British friend Hanna at our the teahouse’s fire pit. Oh, and the piping hot water! I was grateful for that because it is cold up here. I hadn’t planned to fully shower for our five-day hike because I didn’t expect finding hot water along the way. Having a speedy but toasty warm shower was a welcome end to the day.
Our morning started 4:45 am so that we could make it to Poon Hill for sunrise. The hike from Ghorepani is just an hour, but like the second day, it’s a vertical trek up the side of the mountain. I didn’t make it to the top. I cried. But since we had skipped breakfast to catch the sunrise, I simply wasn’t able to climb straight uphill like that without food. I made it 75 percent of the way and then I started to pass out, so I stopped and went to the lower of the two Poon Hill viewpoints. My friends continued to the top, but I decided to watch the sunrise over the mountains from my own little perch.
After the work to get to the top (or near the top), we were disappointed to discover that the haze had not cleared. The view was complete crapola. We could barely make out Annapurna South for a couple of minutes, then it was obscured by the haze and clouds. Cara was deeply disappointed, she had counted on that promise of spectacular views. Surya told us not to despair, we have one more day of possible mountain views if the haze clears.
Luckily for me, Poon Hill wasn’t actually our highest point on the trek, although it was our peak. As we hiked later in the day, we made it a bit higher, so I suppose I don’t feel too badly about myself for missing the morning viewpoint. After the sunrise at Poon Hill, the rest of today’s hike was mostly downhill through beautiful old-growth forests dense with damp moss and earth. The streams gurgled beside us, tinkling out music to fill the space between the snapping twigs and rustling breeze. It was the most beautiful and idyllic landscape of the trek. Not including the sunrise hike, we trekked for about six-and-half hours to make it to Tadapani.
The upside of starting our day at the crack of dawn was almost a mini day-off. We arrived around 1:30 in the afternoon and we had plenty of time to wander the mountaintop and talk our way into a game with the locals. Surya and Nogin Ry taught me how to play Cannonball — the boys at the monastery also loved this game, so I was grateful for the chance to learn. We played teams, and I sucked for the first couple of hours, but I gained Cannonball legend status when I managed to sink a near impossible shot that won the game for Surya and myself. I loved having a slow afternoon to hang out, relax, and have fun with the locals — and my Nepali is getting better!
Day 4: Tarapani to Tatopani
Ugh, we all hit a wall of exhaustion today. The trail descended for hours at a steep decline — this is nearly as hard as the uphill. Although it’s not as hard on the lungs and stamina, it jolts your knees and thighs as you keep balance. At the end we had a bit of steep uphill, but nothing too killer. All of these days of hiking for more than six hours each day though finally caught up with me and by the time we reached town, my legs were wobbly and unsteady.
The best part about Tatopani is the hot springs! The town is named over the hotsprings and Tatopani is a common spot on the circuit with hikers. When we arrived in town, we dropped our daybags and headed straight to the nearby hot-springs. Surya had been taunting us with the prospect of relaxing in the hot water baths, so we all trooped down to the river where the steamy water spurted from the earth.
The hot springs were even better than the three of us anticipated. The locals tell stories of healing life-threatening injuries in the hot, mineral-rich waters of Tatopani. Visiting has made me a believer. The three pools allowed us some space to spread, and each pool had little pipes coming out of the rocks before entering. Everyone took the opportunity to finally shower off the caked-on dirt from the past few days. And the setting — it’s killer. The walls of trees and mountains cocooned us from the outside world, but also served as a reminder of all that we had achieved in the preceding days.
After sitting in the hot water for an hour, however, my muscles were even more tired. I had to make an unsteady 45 minute trek back uphill and into town. But the verdict? Totally worth it.
Between the hiking and the hot water, we were all nearly comatose at dinner. I scarfed our dinner and headed to bed as soon as I could finagle. Surya suggested a “last day celebration party,” but I just wasn’t up for it. He has been so kind to us, so I felt badly about nixing it for sleep. It so peaceful out here. I rarely have quiet moments of the mind. One memory I will forever carry with me is the deep solitude and profound quiet of the Himalayas. Even without the pretty views we had hoped for, the pockets of peacefulness whisper throughout the mountains.
Day 5: Tatopani to Nayapul
We are done and back at the Noble Inn! What an epic five days of adventuring through the Himalayas. It’s hard to believe that the experience is over. I thought five days was the most I could handle, but I loved the cadence of life on the trek. I could have gone for a few more days, and maybe one day I will make it back to this side of the world. On the plus side, Surya banged on our shared room at dawn and implored us to run from our rooms to catch the distant sunrise. For the first time, the haze had cleared. The mountain peaks cut a fierce figure in the distance, pristine white tips jutting into the crisp morning sky. It was a happy way to start our last day of trekking.
Leaving Tatopani, we spent six hours hiking rapidly because we had to cover a lot of distance. It was easier than past days; 95 percent of it was either downhill or flat.
My cousin hit her wall today and she asked me and Surya to stop singing Nepali songs. Surya and I had bonded over those songs and the translations these past days. I am not always a happy hiker, and Surya had the patience of a saint to help me move through the tough parts with song. But I suppose it was just too annoying for my cousin. But I did miss the music. Over the days, guides would encounter us walking from the other direction and they always grinned when they heard me attacking their folk songs with wild abandon. And the kids too. Resham Firiri is one of the nearest and dearest songs for the Nepalese people, and this one proved a hit with kids and elderly alike. But I respected my cousin’s request for quiet. But I am totally keeping that song in my repertoire for as long as we are in Nepal (and heck, maybe even longer, I’m not sure I can ever get that catchy chorus to leave my brain). With my cousin leading us down the trail, we hiked back to Pokhara instead singing everything from some Hootie and the Blowfish to Journey, and heck, who am I kidding, we even threw in a bit of Madonna for good measure. No locals joined us, but the three of us knew the songs so it was a good riot to belt them out together.
Once we ran out of songs, we played Six Degrees. With all that hiking time today, we got good at tying Hollywood celebs to each other in three or four degrees instead of six. But as we played Six Degrees, the only one that totally stumped us was linking Michael Cera and Elizabeth Berkley. If you can do it without IMDb, then props to you, we never got there!
I am sad to say that the hiking part of the trip is over now. Once we arrived in town, we scurried in preparation for our Vipassana Meditation course. It starts tomorrow. I’ve wanted to take a Vipassana for a while now, ever since I read about it in Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure. I am relieved and nervous that it’s finally here. My cousin and Cara liked the idea of the course, but throughout the hike they instead dubbed it voluntary solitary confinement once I told them more about what’s required of us these coming ten days. After a hearty hike these past days, we are all now heading into ten days of silence.
Quick Tips for Trekking in Nepal
Where to Stay: We used the Noble Inn as our base around our hike and mediation course. It’s a family run guesthouse that we just loved to pieces and would recommend to anyone.
How to Book a Trek: Pokhara is command central for hiking activities in the Annapurna circuit. Depending on the season, you can often book a trek with just a few days notice. The big issue would be getting lodging at the more affordable tea-houses along the route. So, although you could surely secure a guide, it would be harder to take a cheap trek if you wait until the last-minute. Plan on a couple of weeks as a safe bet. We booked through our guesthouse because they offered fantastic budget options, and everything ran smoothly.
Trek with Friends: I knew my trekking partners, but other volunteers used Trekking Partners to find a like-minded soul. This can be a great way to find either one person, or a group if you’d like the security and company of a trekking buddy. The boards are very active and our friend had a wonderful experience matching up with another trekker through the site.
Plan Your Nepal Travels: What to Know & Where to Go: My full guide on what you should know before you land in Nepal, and how to plan various activity once you’re in the country. Full of practical advice and travel inspiration on the best activities for your time in Nepal.