Tea House Trekking in the Himalayas
November 19, 2014 – November 28, 2014
Hiking the Himalayas
Our first stop in Asia would be Nepal for a month of exploration in the Himalayas. The world’s tallest mountains have always been a dream to see, and now we were actually going to be hiking amongst some of the peaks. We would be spending eleven days doing what is known as Tea House Trekking to the Annapurna Base Camp. Popular hiking routes are dotted with small Tea Houses where one can stop to relax and refresh and even stay the night, making trekking on these long high elevation trails safer and easier, and accessible to hikers of nearly any skill level.
After another long layover in Doha, Qatar, 13 hours, where we were not so lucky to score a free hotel room this time due to the promotional rate we paid, we finally arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal. I’ve always dreamed of seeing the Himalayas and now we were going to spend over a month in Nepal and two weeks actually trekking through the foothills of the tallest peaks in the world. One of the first things we noticed is that you can’t really see any mountains from Kathmandu. The capital city is too far away and the sky’s too hazy with pollution. The air pollution was another big surprise, thinking of Nepal and the Himalayas brings to mind images of pristine mountain ranges and skies filled with cool clean air. Only on the clearest of days can you see hints of the mountains in the distance.
We spent two days in Kathmandu, planning our trek and buying some gear that we would need. For anyone who is a fan of outdoor gear in general Kathmandu is a shoppers paradise, shop after shop filled with brand name gear on the cheap. Most of it is knock offs, there’s apparently shops in town that specialize in making brand name labels and the other materials are easy for manufactures to get a hold of. The fake gear doesn’t mean its bad however and pretty much everything we saw looked just as good as the originals. I just wouldn’t buy anything that is a safety concern like climbing gear, but jackets, shirts, pants and things of that nature all look and feel just as good as the original. We purchased two sleeping bags, they say they are good to -20 C but they pack as small as a football, so we doubted they are actually good for -20. As we would be returning to Kathmandu two more times in Nepal I’ll save more on Kathmandu for a future article.
After Kathmandu we headed west to the smaller city of Pokhara. This lake shore town with views of the Himalayas on a good day is the starting point for many of the most popular trekking routes in Nepal. Here in Pokhara we rented some more gear, and better alternative to buying we found out, you can rent a sleeping bag for as little as 70 cents a day, we rented another sleeping bag, in case the other two which promised to be -20 degree bags could not deliver. Krista would take the real sleeping bag and I took the two fake ones figuring I could stuff them together and sleep in both if I needed too. We also rented two trekking poles for 60 cents a day for both, we each took one, they turned out to be very helpful for the downhill bits.
Tea House Trekking
There are various routes all around the Annapurna Range and all are very popular with tourists, as a result tea houses, essentially minimalistic hotels offering simple rooms and hot meals have sprung up everywhere, just about anywhere on the trail you are rarely more than an hour from shelter, hot tea and a warm meal, occasionally even a hot shower at the nicer places. So you need not pack a tent or a significant amount of food or cooking gear unless you really want to. Hiring guides and/or porters to carry your stuff is common on the trail, we elected to go by ourselves and just purchased a good map to keep costs down. The trails are generally well marked and there’s always other trekkers and villagers around to ask directions if you are unsure where to go.
Annapurna Base Camp Trek
There are many options for trekking in the area varying in location, difficulty and length, from one or two days or up to 30+ days. We elected to go for the popular Annapurna Base Camp trek, a 8-12 day trek to the Annapurna Mountain Base Camp at 13,537 feet. We left most of our stuff in our hotel’s storage room in Pokhara and loaded our packs for only what we would need for what would turn out to be an 11 day trek. A short taxi ride from Pokhara took us to the trail head at Phedi around 9am where we began our journey into the mountains.
The first couple days of our trek were not what most would envision as hiking in the Himalayas. As you are mostly walking through small villages, often on gravel roads through jungle forests filled with monkeys. It is however a great way to see small village life in Nepal as you walk passed small farms and schools in the foothills far from the big cities. Having plenty of time and not being in a rush we took our time and only hiked for around 4-5 hours each day. Seasoned hikers who don’t waste any daylight hours could easily get from the trail head to the base camp in three days or less but we had the luxury of time and didn’t want to get worn out quickly. We stopped for the first night in the small village of Tolka.
The Tea Houses
The Tea Houses, really just small family run hotels, a large home which rents out a handful of rooms to guests and has a kitchen large enough to feed everyone, are very common, and very cheap. The typical price of a room is 300 Nepalese Rupees or around US $3.00 a night, but if you agree to eat your meals there you can usually negotiate your rate down to just US $1-2 a night. The meals are more expensive around US $3-5 per person and where the Tea Houses really make all their money, so the rooms are easily negotiable. While there were plenty of rooms available everywhere we went, the worry of hiking somewhere late in the evening and not being able to find a room was another reason we choose to stop early each day, usually by 3pm. This only really becomes an issue during peak hiking seasons and in the smaller villages. The prevalence of accommodation options along the trail makes setting your own difficulty level and schedule incredibly easy and convenient.
Hot Springs in the Himalayas
Another surprise was the existence of hot springs in the Himalayas, not being a particularly volcanic range, at least to our understanding we were not expecting to find anything like a hot spring but when we purchased our trail map in Kathmandu the sales clerk alerted us to its existence and told us we should be sure to check it out, so we packed our bathing suits. The hot spring along the trail we visited (as there are several) was in the small village of Chinu, a 20 minute walk down to the river revealed several small pools filled with piping hot water with views of the river and monkeys playing in the trees. If you want the village sells cold beers to take down with you.
As we progressed the villages became more and more remote, the gravel roads turned into proper hiking trails and the mountains loomed higher and more magnificently above us with each passing day. By the time we came to the village of Chomrong on our third day the mountains were offering great views of what was to come ahead.
Annapurna Base Camp
After 5 days of hiking and 3000 meters of elevation gain we arrived at the base camp, altitude 4130 meters(13,537 feet), and the best mountain views since our Huayhuash trek in Peru. Despite being just a few days before Thanksgiving the weather was surprisingly clear, there were only patches of snow along the trail and the during the day the sun was actually quite hot. At night however the temperatures plummeted and the extra layers and sleeping bags we brought came in handy. We had great sunset and sunrise photos and at night we went outside to see one of the clearest and most star filled skies we’ve seen on this trip. Only the night sky on the Bolivian Salt Flats was better.
Sunset and Sunrise at Annapurna Base Camp
Staying for sunset and getting up in the cold for an early sunrise is popular if you stay at Annapurna, and is indeed the reason most decide to stay the night there rather than just visit for a few hours and begin to head back down. Sunrise was beautiful, but if the clouds are cooperating we thought sunset was better.
It turns out walking downhill is much faster than walking uphill and we made great time leaving the base camp. We took a different route back so we could go to Poon Hill, a view point above the town of Ghorepani, which was known for great views and also so we wouldn’t have to backtrack as much along the same trails.
Ghorepani and Poon Hill
It took four days to reach Ghorepani on Thanksgiving Day and shared our Thanksgiving meal with Stephanie an American we met. They were fresh out of stuffed turkeys so we had to settle for vegetarian curry. The next morning early, we hiked up Poon Hill with our headlamps on in the dark for the popular sunrise view of the mountains. Unfortunately the day we were there it was completely clouded over and we couldn’t see anything.
After Poon Hill we again took to the trail and headed back down the valley towards the main roads in order to catch a bus back to Pokhara. Our final night, in Birethanti, we met an American lady on her third trip to Nepal, who gave us all the fixings for smores! Although we found it difficult to roast marshmallows in Nepal, we very much enjoyed a taste of home with some snacks of Hershey’s chocolate and graham crackers.
After our trek we spent a few days relaxing Pokhara. Tea House Trekking turned out to be a great way to experience the Himalayas. It is a wholly different style of hiking than what we were used too. With lodging and hot food available constantly along the trail it is easy to see why it is so popular, it has opened up Himalayan trekking to those of all skill levels. If you have the time you can make the trip as long or short as you like.