Introduction : The Annapurna Region of Nepal?
The Annapurna area in west-central Nepal is renowned for its array of mountain peaks and stunning scenery, making it a sought after trekking region for international tourists. It possesses one of the worlds deepest gorges, the Kali Gandaki gorge lying between the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Mountain Ranges. The region varies from the subtropical lowlands to the south and extends up through extensive temperate forests of giant rhododendron trees into dry alpine steppe in the north. Throughout, a wide range of wildlife and vegetation can be found (CREST, 1995).
The Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) of West Central Nepal.
Acknowledging the special nature surrounding the local area, the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) was formed in 1985, and constitutes the largest protected area in Nepal, spreading across the Manang, Kaski, Myagdi and Lamjung districts.
Trekking around the Annapurna Region.
The diverse and contrasting landscapes are a highlight for travellers, a multitude of treks are available, both in length and difficulty. Generally, all treks commence with a plane trip to either Pokhara, the second largest Nepali city, or further north at Jomsom for the longer treks.
For those wishing to pit themselves physically against challenging terrain, the trek to ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) is an extremely popular choice, while round trips taking in the northern areas through Mustang are longer and require greater physical resilience. A Shorter circuit to Poon Hill still provides a physical challenge, while rewarding trekkers with a stunning panoramic view of a number of the Annapurna Mountains at sunrise.
Livelihoods of Nepalese in the ACA.
The Annapurna area is the most popular tourist destination in the Nepal Himalayas. The Conservation area is home to over 100,000 local Nepalese, who rely on it for their livelihood. Recognising the need to protect their unique environment, while still providing a sustainable income for their communities, a tourism model surrounding trekking as evolved.
However, despite increases in tourism, most people still rely on traditional agriculture and farming for their survival, and this is a major destination thematic for travellers to the region. Buffalo and cattle rearing are common on the more accessible locations, yaks in the higher altitudes, and goats and sheep in areas where fodder is not sufficient for the larger animals.
The Poon Hill Trek in Annapurna : An Overview.
(Annapurna Conservation Area Project, n.d.)
The Poon Hill Trek commences by progressively climbing up to Ghorepani, before circling around through Ghandrung and circling back down towards Pokhara. While there is plenty of ascending, and descending sections that over extended periods that can be "tiring" for those less fit, and "trying" on those that are, the trail is for the most part enjoyable to traverse.
The main trails are generally well looked after and the steps formed with large flat stones from the surrounding area.The trail is considered appropriate for people of moderate fitness, and anyone contemplating it should embark on a sensible walking regime for about a month before commencing the trek. Obviously, how arduous the trek is depends on how much time walkers give themselves to cover the distance, but generally travellers should give themselves plenty of time, as often there are changes that necessitate longer days.
What to Expect on a Himalayan Trek.
While some set off early, mostly trekkers amble off after breakfast, around 8.00 am in the morning and end anywhere between 3.00 -4.00 pm in the afternoon, with roughly an hour for lunch. The pace is generally leisurely, and there is plenty of time to take in sights and places of interest along the way. Quite often there are formed seats at various distances, particularly up steep inclines where travellers can catch their breath.
That being said, unless visitors are staying for a full day at Ghorepani, the day will start prior to 4.00 am where there is a one to one and a half hour walk up to Poon Hill itself to await the sunrise. Most visitors will not leave for several hours afterwards, and the walk downwards to Tadapani is one of the longer walks, and travellers can expect approximately ten hours being on their feet. This is offset by the higher altitude parts of the trail stretching across eye-catching areas of rhododendron forest, spectacularly highlighted when in flower.
The Never to be Forgotten Poon Hill - Annapurna
The crowning moment is obviously the early morning view from Poon Hill itself, and for that moment the appreciation of being surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in the world overtakes the significant number of people (several hundred) on the hill itself. Incredible views can be had from just about anywhere, and a friendly atmosphere develops with everyone sharing in the collective experience. A small stand provides early morning coffee for those in need, and a steel viewing tower placed centrally in memory of Major Tek Bahadur Pun ( whose part in Annapurna is discussed in a subsequent article) provides exceptional views.
As the sun slowly rises over the mountain peaks and moves across the Himalayan topography, the sense of light and shadow is overpowering, providing viewers with an exceptional sight.
The Return Section of the Poon Hill Circuit
The return section of the circuit also provides impressive sights, not least a variety of more individual views of the Mountains themselves, especially from Ghandruk. Coming into the lower landscapes, the importance of farming to local communities comes to the fore and is perhaps more apparent than on the trip up because of its absence in the higher reaches of the trek. The activity around harvesting is notable, and visitors are made only too aware of the hardship that living within the Himalayan region brings. Thoughts and perspectives correspondingly divert to a more cultural aspect, rounding out a great travel experience.
Using a Guide on Himalayan Trekking Trail.
It should be noted that while it appears to be a singular trail on most maps, it is actually a network of trails that intervene and interconnect with each other.
The trek itself can be organised as fully independent travellers (FIT), the extra cost of having a guide and Sherpa is well worth it. For those FIT travellers without a guide, it may well seem as though they are getting great experiential travelling, but the reality is that their lack of local knowledge, along with language barriers will definitely preclude a good number of great things that can be seen and done. If the trip is all about ticking the boxes on a self imposed “bucket list”, then saving a bit of money may seem worthwhile, but a good guide will enable travellers to get much closer to the local people, allowing visitors to be introduced, and to learn about their host communities and way of life.
A Sherpa in the Himalayan Mountains is Essential.
Similarly, having a Sherpa is essential, although it doesn’t take long to see that trekkers have a diverse view on using porters.
There are the serious trekkers, usually carrying on to ABC, who are insistent on carrying their own substantial gear, and where their aim is to accomplish the physical challenge. Conversely, there are the “Tourists” who really have just done the trip as a casual fun excursion and they see no reason why a Sherpa shouldn’t carry along their 20 kg plus suitcase on their back. Often excursionists are ill-prepared both in the possessions that they have bought, and the preparation they have personally carried out.
That is not to say that Sherpas are not capable of carrying incredible weights and there are reports of a number having carried 30kg-40kg loads. Excessive loads do take a toll, and physical breakdown and injury are not uncommon. Most responsible trekking organisations limit their loads to 20kg, and provide weighing facilities to ensure this.
Book the Whole Trip with a Reputable Operator.
A major reason to book the trek through a reputable travel operator, is so that accommodation can be organised ahead. The best tea houses get booked out quickly, especially during peak times, and those not in the know will be left with the lower quality facilities and may be required to trek on later into the day to even find somewhere to stay. Further, If arriving late the evening meal may have finished and trekkers can be left hungry.
Be Reasonable with the Amount of Gear you Take.
For travellers taking on the Poon Hill Trek, the amount of gear should not be too much, and excess luggage should be stored back at their hotel before embarking on the walk. Trekkers should also take on an amount of carrying themselves, as it provides a feeling of contribution, while keeping close items they may want, or need on the go. There is little reason why trekkers should need a Sherpa to carry any more than 10kg each, meaning that one Sherpa between two people is reasonable. On top of this male trekkers are generally quite capable of carrying 5 kg in their own personal pack, while females somewhat less than this.
Nepali Tea Houses.
An integral part of the creation of trekking trails in Nepal has been the development of Nepal “Tea Houses”, which are small locally run hotels that provide basic accommodation and meals. Known as Bhatti in Nepalese, they are an essential part of trekking and eliminates the need to bring tents, sleeping bags, and food supplies. For travellers they also provide a great place where travellers can mix with and gain a better understanding of the local people, who are usually only too willing to talk about their lives.
Generally, along the more popular routes, there are local associations of tea house owners, and these govern the minimum standards that owners must adhere to, along with menu items and prices that owners should charge. Mostly accommodation is basic, with shared bathrooms, although a number will have rooms with private bathrooms. Generally electricity is available, and an intricate system of wifi aerials ensure that guests have at least limited internet.
Meals are simple and will surround a limited selection of rice and noodle dishes, along with the ever-present Dhal Bhat (rice and lentils). For travellers the traditional meals form an essential part of the trekking experience and should be embraced, although as always there are those that crave the European meals. In regard to drinks, tea is generally always available.
A Reflexive View of the Experience.
Perhaps Nepal is not on the radar for many travellers, and it is not an easy country to travel through. Further, it is not clear how many tourists arriving in Kathmandu, actually go on to do a trek in the mountainous regions such as Annapurna, but the Himalayan mountains are certainly a large part of the drawcard. The Poon Hill experience is a great example of the easy accessibility of trekking for most travellers if they are prepared to do a bit of groundwork first. For those who do, it will sit beside the most memorable travel adventures that they have undertaken.
As with all great experiences, a holistic approach should be taken and an appreciation of the whole journey should be taken on board, rather than the apogee that merely ticks off an item on a "bucket list" of personal achievements.
CREST. (1995). Tourism for Mountain Community Development. Case Study Report on the Annapurna and Gorkha Regions of Nepal. Series No. 95/11: Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies.
Kelisi. (2007). Nepal with selected towns, village,rivers and peaks. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6335925.
UNDP. (2014). Nepal : Human Development Report 2014 -Beyond Geography: United Nations Development Programme, Government of Nepal National Planning Commission,. Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/nepal_nhdr_2014-final.pdf