In previous entries I described the first four days of the trek. Most of that time was spent away from main trails. It was an interesting experience of trekking as it was 30 years ago, away from all the modern crowds of trekkers and all of the things that go with them on the busy trails. But now we were joining up with the standard trekking route to the Annapurna Sanctuary.
The most famous viewpoint in Nepal is undoubtedly Kala Pattar in the Khumbu region, with its famous view of the southwest face of Mt. Everest. The second most famous viewpoint is probably Poon Hill in the Annapurna region. Although it is only about 10,000 feet high it is at the end of a long ridge approaching the high peaks of the Himalaya. It is surrounded on three sides by incredible mountains. To the north and east are a spectacular view of the Annapurna Range while to the west is the Dhaulaghiri Range. A thousand feet below is Ghorapani, the largest village in the region. It is where the trekking routes for the Annapurna Circuit and the Annapurna Sanctuary diverge so everyone passes through it. It is customary to stay there overnight and hike up Poon Hill in the darkness to watch the sunrise on the surrounding peaks.
Because of the unusual route that we had taken, we approached Poon Hill from the opposite direction and were camped in a saddle about 400 feet below the summit. Tasi suggested that we leave around 4am to give ourselves an hour to reach the top well before sunrise. I opted for just a quick cup of tea and we were off by 4:10 am. As on the rest of the trip it was quite warm so it wasn't that hard to get an early start. Since I had gone to bed at 7 pm the previous night it was about time to get up anyway.
Tasi knew the way and it was easy to follow him and the trail with my headlamp. It only took us about 40 minutes to reach the top of Poon Hill. There were about two hundred people there and more were arriving all the time. There is a lookout tower on the very top. We went up in tower but it didn't really offer a better view. The summit was quite broad and there were no trees so the view was about the same everywhere. Probably the only advantage of the tower was that you didn't have a bunch of people in the foreground of your pictures.
Free enterprise being what it is, there was a "Starbucks" on top. One of the locals had a stand set up and was selling hot tea, coffee, hot chocolate and even Coke as well as some pastries and candy bars. It was a little more expensive than usual but I had a Coke anyway - it had been four days since I'd had one after all. He certainly seemed to be doing a brisk business. Probably does even better later in the year when it gets colder.
It gradually began to get light and it was a beautiful clear morning. The view of the peaks was spectacular. Sunrise didn't make for the best photos but a half hour later with the peaks fully lit with early morning light was quite a sight. In my next life I probably won't get up quite so early to hike up Poon Hill. I took over fifty pictures total although most of the long exposures that I tried as it was just starting to get light didn't turn out very well. But I did get some good photos. The view of Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri are quite amazing.
Finally I had taken enough pictures and it was time to head down the hill to Ghorapani. It was a good trail but there was a steady line of people going down. I had expected people but not this much of a crowd. I can get the same thing at home any Saturday afternoon on Orchard Road. It made me really appreciate the past three days and the quiet, peaceful approach that Tasi and I had made up the hill from the south that morning all by ourselves. The east side from Ghorapani must have been a solid line of people going up. It probably looked cool in the dark though with the line of lights heading up the hill.
Ghorapani had quite a few lodges and more were being built. There was a bookstore. You could buy all kinds of things that trekkers might need. I was impressed that you could even buy SD memory cards there. I even found a "spa" that Sandy might like. It offered massages - just the thing for a tired hiker after a tough day on the trail.
Tasi and I stopped at a tea house for breakfast. I had a piece of apple pie, which is probably more common in Nepal than it is in the US. They seem to offer it everywhere. It was pretty good too. Or maybe I was just really hungry by then.
They had phone and internet connections in Ghorapani too. I was hoping to surprise Sandy by calling her from the middle of the trek. I had told her I would be compeltely out of communication while I was in the mountains. But that was another thing that had changed in the seventeen years since I had last been on a trek in Nepal. Unfortunately the phone lines weren't working that morning, apparently not an uncommon occurrence. So no surprise phone call to Sandy. It would be two more days till we would get someplace where I could try to call. Oh well, it had been a good idea. It's the thought that counts, right?
After breakfast we started up the trail leading out of the village. It climbed up a ridge on the other side of the valley. For a while it was in forest which was ok. It was cool. After an hour or so we started to hit clearings and again the views were great. The Dhaulagiri range was very prominent. After a few hours and several thousand feet of climbing we finally reached an open ridge top which was just spectacular. On a local summit we stopped for a rest and enjoyed the view. There were prayer flags and a stall selling drinks (a theme along this really popular section of the trail). There were lots of other people there catching their breath and enjoying the scenery.
Two ladies were trying to take their picture so I offered to take one for them. They sounded American but it turned out that one was a Singaporean who was living in the US. I told her that I was an American living in Singapore. Small world. They were from Seattle.
At this point a man came up the trail who looked like he was really struggling. His face was red and he was drenched with sweat. He was really huffing and puffing. He dropped his pack and sat on the rocks next to me. He turned to the Nepali who was with him hopefully. "This IS the top, isn't it?" His guide replied "Yes sir." That seemed to make him a lot happier. He definitely looked to be exhausted. But after a minute he looked further along the trail. He saw that it went level for maybe a hundred yards than climbed up to the next higher point on the ridge line that we were following. He pointed to the steep slope ahead and said "If this is the top, what's that?" "That's another top, sir." was the reply. Welcome to Nepal! It wouldn't have been nice for me to laugh at his plight but it was tough to keep a straight face.
The trail followed the ridge for a while, going up, straight, down, up again but trending up. But the great views made it wonderful walking. Eventually we crossed the ridge and dropped into a valley which followed a river down the other side. We reached the small village of Deorali and took a short break. Time for a Coke. I decided that I could get spoiled on the main trail. It was amazing to see that as small as the village was, it had totally converted over to tourist services. There were stands selling souvenirs. Most buildings were small lodges or tea houses offering drinks. Tourism is really the only chance the hill people have to make any money. Food and lodging I can understand. Although some of the souvenirs looked interesting, I couldn't really see buying something and then carrying it around for two weeks. I guess some people figure that's why they have porters.
A trekker stopped to wait out of the way while I was taking a picture of the main street. While I was fiddling with my camera I got to talking to him. He was a Mexican, about twenty and traveling with a group. We sat together at the tea house while we had our drinks. One of the women in the group was an American expat living in Mexico. She asked right away if I was voting for Obama. I answered that I was. It was interesting. I met a lot of Americans and the election came up quite often - it was only about two weeks away. And every single American I met was was a strong Obama supporter. Kind of surprising. Not quite the 5% spread that there was in the popular vote. Sarah Palin probably explained it when she said that Real Americans don't get passports.
The trail continued down the river which fell in a series of cascades, rapids and waterfalls. We ate lunch at a lodge in another small village by the river. Then it was further down the river until, you guessed it, we turned off and climbed up the side of the canyon to reach the ridgetop again. At a low point in the ridge (thank goodness for that) we reached the town of Tadapani. There were several lodges there and more people selling souvenirs. We camped in a small field right behind one of the lodges. This time we didn't have the village kids watching us. Instead there were three young Korean women trekkers who watched the whole process of putting up the camp. The entire time they were peeking into all the bags, pointing, talking among themselves and giggling. Apparently they had never seen trekkers who camped before. Or maybe they just through my clothes were funny. Weird.
I cancelled our normal afternoon tea. As soon as camp was set up I grabbed my bag, dug out some clean clothes and headed for the lodge. For 50 rupees (about 65 cents) I got to take a hot shower. Ok, it was a public shower and it could have been cleaner and I should have brought flipflops to wear in the shower, but still it was wonderful. Afterwards I felt like a new man.
Since I was all cleaned up I decided on a tour of the town. That took less than five minutes. I looked at the souvenir vendors set up in the center of the village. I talked to four of them. The conversation went as follows. "Hello, where are you from?" "From USA." "Nice country. Want to buy something?" Word for word. Exactly. Four times in a row. I guess they all studied from the same English phrase book. It's like deja vu all over again.
Most villages in Nepal have some sort of public fountain in the center of the village where water is piped in. People come there to get water to take back to their homes, to wash their dishes, to wash themselves, and to wash their clothes. But here someone had a carcass they were cleaning up. They had just slaughtered a cow and it was in several pieces scattered around which they were busy washing. That validated my decision at the beginning of the trip not to order hamburgers at any of the restaurants along the way. I figured I could wait till I was back in Singapore and go to McDonald's. Oh yeah. I was showing cultural sensitivity too by not eating beef in a Hindu country.
On the way back to camp I noticed some kind of commotion in the trees. About 50 feet away there were some monkeys high up in the trees. Tasi told me that they were called lemur in nepali, but they are not the animals that are known as Lemurs in English. After a while they disappeared. Cool to see in the wild. In Singapore you sometimes see wild monkeys in the park but they can be really obnoxious about stealing food. These were much better behaved.
That evening the clouds partially cleared and I had a spectacular view of the mountains. The trek was going well.