Poon Hill to Chhomrong

Day 43 – Location: Nepal, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Poon Hill

12/10/12

I slept terribly, freezing cold in the night despite my sleeping bag. It was one of those nights where you wake up almost enough to take action, but then drift back to sleep. I was woken at 4:45am with a knock on the door. It was Shiba, who wanted to go earlier than 5am as everyone else was heading up Poon Hill already, where we were going to see the sunrise. It was dark outside and I donned my fashionable headtorch. We joined a line of trekkers in the dark following the narrow path up the hill. I could see torchlights leading all the way up the hill through the trees, it was incredibly busy. The stars and the moon glimmered above. We didn’t even need our torches as the queue of people had so many. We moved forwards at a maddeningly slow pace, with no room for overtaking, in about fifteen minutes reaching a little booth restricting entry, you had to buy a 20 rupee ticket entrance of which the proceeds went to the local school – fair enough. The queue wasn’t much better after the booth and I got quite annoyed (my lack of sleep not helping) as others tried to barge past, whereas I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of overtaking knowing it wouldn’t really get us any quicker up the hill anyway.

We finally reached the top of Poon Hill and didn’t need the lights any more in the dim pre-dawn light. An open space on the hilltop was full of tourists (over a hundred people) and a metal viewing tower was plonked in the middle. A little stall selling tea stood on one side and tufts of long grass and bushes covered the ground. To the north and east in the dim light the mighty Annapurnas were lined up, around six peaks in total, and completely clear of cloud, we were lucky. To the south the valleys we’d climbed petered into the distance, layered in the pre-dawn haze. Above, the sky was dark blue blending to orange at the bottom, the moon still shining brightly and the silhouettes of the mountains looking excellent against this backdrop.

Although there were a lot of people there was enough space and I managed to set up the tripod without problems. There were fewer Chinese people than at Sarangkot but those here still made a good effort at shattering the peace. Two resourceful local dogs, of a big black hairy breed you get up in the mountains, had joined the proceedings and were getting fed snacks from dog-lovers. Some ponies arrived carrying riders, presumably too weak, old or lazy to make the walk themselves.

We watched the great view as the light changed to orange across the valleys and the Annapurnas caught golden lines on their edges, minutes before the sun poked out over the mountains.

As I’d learned in Sarangkot, there was only time for a few photos before the sun was completely up.

The hills were bathed in orange, very nice. Big rays of sunlight filtered below the mountains, cut off by the hills. A light aeroplane, flying to the nearby town of Jonsom, went by, completely dwarfed by the mountains around it. As the sun got higher I wandered around taking pictures, having the usual photo wars with all the other tourists posing for photos and getting in the way of the foreground. We went up the viewing tower but it wasn’t great for photos because of the vibrations whenever anyone moved. Krishna got me a black masala tea which helped to wake me up a bit and warm my fingers; despite our layers of clothes it was freezing up here, I could barely feel my hands and ears.

View from Poon Hill tower

A few wise dogs had joined the party, getting fed biscuits by happy tourists.

We stayed until most people had left and then went down. The view down onto Gorepani was nice. At the hotel we grabbed a quick breakfast, packed and set off around 7am. The village was bustling with trekkers and porters heading out. We hiked up into the forest, towards a northern ridge, and immediately had a hard, hot climb up a big flight of steps, eventually emerging onto the exposed ridge where we could see Poon Hill and the valleys below. It was busy up here. After a rest we continued into another forest, following a twisty dirt path through some amazing trees. It reminded me of the dark woods of fairy tales with crazy twisting trunks and branches surrounding us. Through the trees you could occasionally glimpse the big mountains which were still visible above their wooded brothers.

The path went downwards along a steep forested valley, a stream rushing below. Over the stream we continued down and an break in the trees revealed an epic view over the jungle, with massive trees and cliffs surrounding us. A cable ran alongside us, slung over trees – electricity to the next village. We passed a little hydro-power shack below a long, misty waterfall.

Towards the bottom of the gorge I started getting a twinge below my kneecap and I went slower, I was wary after my dad’s permanent knee injury from this trek all those years back. We passed through a few villages and paused at a rest stop under a big cliff by the river. Around the shore the locals had stacked little towers of single rocks balanced on each other – Shibu told me it was a religious thing. We saw these from time to time for the duration of the trek, usually by streams and rivers.

The path curved round the hill and suddenly the trees cleared, giving us another awesome view down the valley which was blanketed in trees. We were really high. I could see long waterfalls crashing down the cliffs on the other side of the valley. We stopped at a restaurant on the cliffside for lunch and I tucked into another dual meal of soup and then noodles, only just enough for my ravenous appetite. We’d already been trekking for five hours.

We took a steep path straight down the hill through the jungle to a river. My knee really started to hurt and I went carefully, trying to take the impact from the steep descent on my other leg. We crossed the river and started a steep, hot climb up the other side, still in the jungle. In about an hour we’d reached the nice little village of Tadapani, which had lots of jewelry stores and a good view over another set of mountains and valleys to the north. It was only 1pm but it felt much later thanks to the lack of sleep and the hiking we’d already done. When Shibu pointed to a village in the distance across the other side of the valley and said we were aiming to get beyond it today, to Chhomrong. I groaned internally – it would be another five hours at least to get there even if we went fast. Alternatively we could stop at a village at the bottom of this valley if time was short, so we’d see how we got on. A mule train arrived and I watched the owner boot one of donkeys in the hind where he wanted it to go. The treatment of animals in Nepal can be pretty brutal, a whip, stick lash or a boot is never far away for the mules, buffalo and dogs, which is nasty to see especially when they’ve done nothing wrong.

Typical trekking snack shop

Lots of the lodges have “artistic” maps like this. The bear on the left is a true masterpiece.

The Fishtail makes a brief appearance

We wasted no more time and set off at a fast pace straight down the other side of the hill. My knee was causing me a lot of pain so I adopted a kind of crab walk to descend the steps, which took the pressure off it a bit but looked ridiculous. At least at my next rockpool outing I could blend in. We went through clearings with buffalo lounging around, and saw mud pits where they like to wallow. The buffalo were indifferent even when you walked inches away from them.

We zig-zagged down a shortcut, which didn’t have steps and was much easier on my knee, and entered a village off the tourist trail, with charming traditional houses, drying corn outside, and not a lodge in sight.

We stopped in a farmer’s courtyard to get directions, and a woman with uneven teeth chatted to my companions, her 3 young girls soon arriving in their dirty clothes, staring at us, and her husband , the farmer, showing up too. They didn’t speak English but Shiba told me afterwards that one of her daughters worked where we’d stayed last night, and she also had a story about seeing one of the elusive leopards that live in the jungle. She’d come across it on the path we’d come down, a year or two ago, feasting on a buffalo it had killed, but it ran off when she approached. It’s the first time she’d seen one in her life.

Setting off though a field path, Shiba stopped me and pointed out a thin brown snake. I never would have seen it, it just looked like a twig or dead leaf. It slithered away quickly when I tapped my stick near it. Fortunately the snakes around here aren’t too poisonous. We passed fields of cabbages, long beans and spotted a cannabis plant, which grow naturally here. Shiba said most people don’t smoke weed up here though, despite its availability. As we passed the houses, people stared from their homes or chatted with my companions as we walked by. The kids shouted Namaste (hello) and took great delight in following us, entertained by the unusual sight of a farang walking through their village. We walked past people working in rice fields as the path flattened out and wound into the forest, past steep, gushing streams and coming out by a school, back onto the main trail. It was getting a bit dark now, although it was only 3pm it was cloudy – but we still had a long way to go. We pressed on in the hopes of getting close to Chommrong, our destination, before dark.

On the other side of the valley you could see the scars of massive landslides, where whole hillsides had tumbled down, leaving rocky voids in their place. Shibu said that two years ago the quake from the biggest one had been felt miles away. The region’s prone to landslides in the rainy and winter seasons. We reached a roaring glacial river at the bottom, surging around the big rocks from the landslide, and crossed a rickety wooden and stone bridge which looked near the end of its days. We started to climb the other side, reaching the first village after an hour where we stopped for tea and I made a little donation to the local school in a donation box, and my companions chatted to some schoolgirls at the teahouse. Even a few days walk from “civilisation” the kids still wear uniforms for school. It was now about 5pm and getting dark. One of the black hairy dogs followed us up the path from the village. Krishna said his name was Tommy. Shiba told me about one time a dog had followed his group from Naya Pul around the mountains for five days, sleeping outside the lodges, and come all the way back with them!

We went by disused terrace farming, grazed on by ox and buffalo. Shibu pointed out other disused terrace fields on the other side of the valley, where nature was taking over. He explained that many people had left the mountains to work in the cities or go abroad for work, abandoning their farmland and houses. In some of the villages you could see disused houses now used only for storage or animals. We hadn’t seen any other trekkers or porters for hours, probably because it was quite late, only the occasional local on the path. We were all knackered now we’d been trekking up and down the mountains for about 11 hours!

Up here the god rays can be pretty awesome

Tommy continued to follow us as we climbed up more and more steps along the hillside, until we caught up with some local guys wearing brightly coloured caps. One of them got annoyed with Tommy’s proximity and whipped him with his bamboo cane, the unfortunate doggy yelped and ran off out of sight. I felt bad for him, he’d just wanted to come along and had been waiting for us to catch up. Dogs get treated so badly here. We didn’t see him again so he probably legged it to the next village, poor chap.

As it got dark we eventually rounded the valley to look down upon the large settlement of Chhomrong. It covered the whole hillside below, with a very long stone staircase running all the way through it. Most of the buildings had the blue roofs of guest houses and restaurants. We started the long descent past farm buildings and lodges. A dog which looked like Tommy lay outside one, but Krishna said he was different. “This one also Tommy” he said. It transpired that he called all dogs Tommy! I later learned from someone else that dogs don’t usually get named here – so Krishna was doing them a favour calling them Tommy. From now on I greeted any of that dog breed with an enthuastic “TOMMY!!!” – and we differentiated Tommys with monikers like “fat Tommy” “lazy Tommy” “blond Tommy” and “angry Tommy”.

Shibu popped into each place on the way down asking for rooms, but everywhere was full. Chhomrong is on a junction between a bunch of popular trails, including the Annapurna Sanctuary trek, ABC trek and Annapurna Circuit trek so it’s always busy, and we were arriving late at around 6:30pm. We eventually found a room half way down the hillside at a nice lodge with a great view of the valley. The Fishtail was poking through the cloud ahead, closer than ever. My tiny bedroom looked out over the path below and I knew in the morning I’d have a great view of the Fishtail from my bed.

After a hot shower with the world’s most schizophrenic hot water, and some much needed popcorn after a 13 hour trek (which is cheap and easy to get up here, as they grow so much corn), I sat down at a communal table in the cosy restaurant for dinner (lasagne up here turned out to be tagliatellie, although very nice!). My only companions were some young American students, who’d just come back from Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) and had an amazing time there. They were on a placement program in Nepal, living with host families in Kathmandu for 3 months. They said it was a crazy experience with so many weird stories about living in Nepal, but they were enjoying it. The culture is about as different from the US as you can get. They said the basic lodges on the trek were quite luxurious compared to home life in Kathmandu, especially the “nice” toilets, which were always pretty clean out here – and hot showers were a luxury too, even if you did have to pay for the hot water this far out. We chatted for an hour or two. I paid 100 rupees (a quid) to charge my camera battery – something I was having to do daily. As electricity is generated locally it’s expensive up here, on the plus side there’s normally no load sharing (power cuts) like in the rest of Nepal. In fact I was pretty happy to have electricity at all – two days walk from a road and we were still in very civilised conditions, considering.

Having learned my lesson from the freezing night before, I asked for a blanket and huddled into my sleeping bag beneath. I couldn’t get to sleep though with a dodgy tummy and the noise of people talking along the main path outside. After reading my Kindle for a while I drifted off. The Kindle was a godsend out here with its epic battery life. After 3 days being used every evening it still had three quarters charge.

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