Tej, a Peregrine Adventures local guide // © 2015 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): From the top of Poon Hill, trekkers enjoy exceptional views of many peaks and passes, including Dhaulagiri. // © 2015 Shutterstock
To see photos from the author’s Annapurna trek and Nepal tour on Instagram, search the hashtag #TAWgoestonepal
Author's Note: I returned from Nepal 10 days before the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the Kathmandu Valley on April 25. During that time, I was basking in the afterglow of my experience, dreaming about my return and sharing my adventure in animated conversations, social media posts and more.
This is the article I wrote before the earthquake. I have chosen to leave out the disaster from this article in order to provide something that has been missing from Nepal coverage as of late: a discussion of the unique experience of trekking in Nepal, and why people dream about doing it. — M.P.
“One, two. One, two. One step, two step. Right, left,” I repeated to myself.
I was a few hours into my ascent of nature’s ultimate StairMaster, a trek in Nepal, and I really needed a mantra.
Nepal claims eight of the 10 highest peaks in the world and, as such, the many trek options visitors can take share a lack of level footing.
As a first-time Nepal trekker with limited time to burn, I chose to join Peregrine Adventures’ Annapurna Adventure. The itinerary, which starts and ends in Kathmandu, includes a five-day “teahouse trek” loop that travels roundtrip from Nayapul and peaks during a sunrise hike to Poon Hill at about 10,530 feet. Offering a healthy dose of culture, mountain views and physical and mental challenges, it’s a popular choice among groups, solo travelers and active multigenerational families.
I wasn’t sure how I would mesh with my group, given that I’m not Peregrine’s target 50-plus-year-old demographic. But the two couples on my trip were adventurous, intelligent, compassionate, open-minded and extremely well-traveled — the kind of folks who knew that they would hike the Himalayas one day. One was even back for Round 2.
Though all five of us have certainly been on more luxurious trips, we looked forward to simplifying our needs in order to reconnect with nature and experience the way people live in the Himalayas — perhaps the biggest indicator of whether clients will enjoy themselves during the trekking portion. While guests stay in local four-star hotels during the sightseeing part of the trip, they stay in teahouses during the trek. These simple rooms offer nothing more than a twin bed and a light switch (that sometimes doesn’t work) and are separated by thin walls. Amenities include one squat-style toilet and one shower for everyone to share.
The luxury Peregrine offers is in its great organization, bussing service during mealtime (which is otherwise not provided at the teahouses) and seamless trekking support by the destination management company that Intrepid Group (Peregrine’s parent company) owns. Our local staff exhibited superhuman powers regularly, from carrying our heaviest luggage items to hiking the day’s route more than once in support of clients trekking at different speeds.
The staff-to-guest ratio was 4:5, and our two porters, group leader and guide learned our individual pacing and preferences quickly. This meant I could freely venture solo, and there was always a staffer who appeared at any point where the path was unclear or where I might need assistance. It was magical.
Without affecting anyone else, I was able to photograph a lifetime supply of Buddhist prayer flags and snowy mountain peaks; meditate on a rock overlooking a babbling brook; befriend trekkers from around the world; and even get knocked over by a pony. Constant inspiration came from the changing scenery — lower elevation terraces and villages evolve into red rhodenderon forests; different peaks and passes come in and out of view; and there’s always a new local youngster greeting with “namaste.” All along the trek, locals carried out their daily lives. It was endlessly interesting, especially given the trail’s history as an ancient trading route to Tibet.
Hiking solo also sweetened the time I spent with my group. I’ll never forget our day in Ghandruk when a hailstorm kept us inside a local teahouse.
Over lemon-honey-ginger tea, my group leader Kabindra showed me melodramatic videos made by local Nepali pop stars on his cellphone, and I learned how to tease our guide Tej (taunting him with the word “kancha,” which means “little boy” in Nepali). Then, I watched as one local grandmother ground lentils by hand for dal bhat (white rice with soupy beans), the unofficial power food of Nepali trekking. I asked if I could try, received the thumbs up and gave it a whirl while one grandchild peeked over my shoulder.
This natural, casual vibe extended to all parts of the trip and allowed us to make real human connections with each other. We were also relaxed, even though the trek was probably the most difficult physical endurance challenge any of us had ever attempted.
We all admitted that we could have trained harder, yet the group member who couldn’t complete everything by foot seemed to have the best time. Sure, Kabindra supported her, even arranging a pony to transport her down the stairs to Tadapani. But she never forgot that she was living her childhood dream of exploring the Himalayas. Mental endurance and the ability to live in the moment proved more important than physical fitness for me, too.
It was a great reminder that I want to live my life fully present in order to savor the sweetest moments. I’ll never forget how much I appreciated my first post-trek shower at our four-star hotel in Pokhara, but my favorite accommodation was the $5-per-night room I had in Ghorepani.
At 4:30 a.m., when I got ready to ascend Poon Hill, the reason I had hiked uphill for seven hours the day before appeared like a real-life nightlight. Facing me was the snowy peak of Annapurna South, softly glowing in the moonlight.