A Guide to Tea House Trekking in Nepal – Annapurna Base Camp
I did my first Himalayan trek when I was thirteen years old. I was smitten by the mountains, the streams, the clear starry nights, the coniferous forests, the snow clad peaks, the mountain dogs, and the sheer bliss of doing nothing except walk from dawn to dusk. It was a most wonderful experience but also a very testing one. We stayed in tents, carried our own backpacks, and on some nights we had to sleep in our wet jeans when the interplay of rain, sun, and tent mechanics did not exactly work in our favour. Yet the views were splendid, the air was pristine, and my mental chatter fell away to make space to take in the grandeur of Nature – Who in turn put me back in touch with my own inner essence.
I always wanted to go back and do another long Himalayan trek. However, there was some excuse or the other that would crop up. I went on several shorter treks but the Himalayan trek stayed on my list as the one consistent item that I did not give up on and yet did not also actually jump in and do. For some years I blamed outward circumstances, then I used money as an excuse, then I used lack of time as an excuse, then I used my status of being a mother as an excuse and so on. However, over the years I started getting glimpses of the more ‘real’ reasons that were keeping me away from the trek I so badly wanted to go on. I was afraid. I was afraid of the cold, I was afraid of having to sleep in wet clothes, I was afraid to brush my teeth in icy cold streams, I was afraid I would get too tired to walk, and the list went on. For the next twenty seven years my yearning for the esoteric experience of walking amidst and communing with the mountains tugged at my heart. And for the same twenty seven years my fear of the cold and lack of confidence in my physical stamina kept me spinning excuses. Then I heard about tea-house-trekking in Nepal.
Tea House trekking in Nepal opened up a possibility to trek without having to stay in
tents and risk the tent giving way and wetting me in the middle of the night. I could have closed toilets and basic shelters to stay along the way and also eat hot meals without needing to carry my own supplies and do my own cooking. I could also hire a porter to carry some extra clothing and emergency supplies so that I could walk more easily with a light daypack. Sure, some may call this a ‘smaller’ adventure than doing it all on your own but if like me what you are looking for is more of communing with nature and less of the thrills of adventure then tea house trekking is an amazing opportunity for us.
I have just returned from doing the Annapurna Base Camp (often abbreviated as the ABC trek) and it has been a most exhilarating experience. Sure there were moments when I felt that my physical and mental stamina were truly being tested, and times when I was considering turning around and returning instead of going all the way to till the ABC (which is at 4130 meters). However I did land up completing the entire trek and I loved the experience. The good thing about this particular trek is that it is feasible to turn back at any point you want to (indeed we met people who had done so), and still enjoy the trek because it is extremely scenic and beautiful from day 1 till the last day. Further, because there are tea houses that have been thoughtfully spaced at frequent intervals you can choose to do the trek at your own pace which can range from 6 or 7 days to as many as 16 days (or even more). While trekking can never be completely risk-free the risks are considerably reduced in this trek because of the tea houses (or small lodges) along the way. This makes it less daunting and scary without taking away the chance to trek in serene and pristine mountains and scaling high altitudes.
I wrote this guide for people like me who want to commune with nature and walk amidst mountains but are apprehensive about things like the cold and their own fitness level. If you are an avid trekker and are used to living out of your backpack then this is not for you. However if you are someone who has been dreaming of trekking in the Himalayas, but have been talking yourself out of it then this article is definitely for you. In this, I share with you my own experience of completing the ABC trek so that you will be motivated to try it for yourself. Believe me, if I can do it – pretty much anybody can. I share with you how I trained, what I packed, and the physical and psychological tools I used to complete the trek. I also share with you the lessons I learnt, the things I wish I had known earlier and the notes I have made for myself to do this trek more easily and gracefully if I do it again (which I do think I will).
I am not an adventure seeker and I do not seek thrills. I would never go on a roller
coaster ride in an amusement park unless someone held a gun to my head. However, I do love nature, and while nature is beautiful everywhere she has a very unique essence high up in the mountains. If the snowy peaks and coniferous mountains have been gatecrashing into your dreams I want you to know that romancing them is actually accessible to you with a little bit of careful packing, psychological prepping, and fitness training. My trekking partner on this trek called me a scared kitten at one point, and I am only sharing this with you to let you know that if a scared kitten like me could do it – you too definitely can!
This is a long article but it is long for a reason. I have multiple agendas for writing this article and there is a lot that I want to share with you to do justice to those agendas. If you are someone who has never thought of trekking in the Himalayas, my agenda is to show you how beautiful and amazing it is and invite you to try it as a possibility for your next vacation. If you are someone who has been fantasizing about walking on mountain trails but had written it off as something you should have done in your twenties, I want to show you that it is not too late and that even with a moderate level of fitness you can still do it as a tea-house-trek. If you are someone who is actually planning to do the ABC trek, I want to share my learnings and experience with you so that you have more possibilities to customize it better for your needs and also avoid some of the mistakes I made due to lack of information. At the end of this article is a photo-diary of the trek to give you a pictorial glimpse of the experience although no picture can truly capture the magnificence of the Himalayan Landscape and the experience of being immersed in it.
Planning the Duration and the Itinerary of the trek
If you search on the internet you will find different tour agencies offering customized itineraries to do the ABC trek. Most of them offer 2 variations a short 7 day one with a direct route (which I don’t recommend because it does not allow for acclimatization) and a longer (and scenic) route via Ghorepani involving ten or eleven nights in the trekking zone. Overall, including transfers and stay at Kathmandu and Pokhara this agenda utilizes fourteen days. When I did my research for the trek I assumed that I had to go with the standard itinerary. However, once we started the trek I realized that the itinerary on paper was just a tentative one and there were several different ways to pace ourselves and our night stops to make the trek work better for us.
We met different people along the way (meeting co-travellers and exchanging stories and playing cards in the tea houses at night is one of the high points of this trek incidentally), and each person or group was customizing their itinerary on the go as they went along. We too landed up following an itinerary very different from the one we had printed and carried along. However because our return date was fixed we did have to work within our constraint of eleven nights in the trekking zone (tea houses). However, if I had known how flexible this trek was I would have taken it slower and kept more buffer days for us.
There is literally no downside to keeping a few buffer days. If you find that you are
actually progressing faster than your tentative itinerary you can always use the extra buffer days at the Hot Springs in Jhinu Danda, or even by the lakeside in Pokhara. On the upside, if you run into unexpected rains then you can pace yourself to take an unscheduled break in the closest tea house when it starts pouring. We trekked in mid may and we did not expect it to rain. However, from day 1 of our trek we started having torrential downpours every afternoon. After two days of walking through downpour we revised our schedule to wake up really early and start walking each day to try and reach our destination before the rains started.
The early morning starts helped us to avoiding the rain on some days, but not on all. If we had had some more buffer days we could have taken it at an easier (and dryer) pace. In the end it all depends on you and your reasons for trekking. Some people enjoy the challenge of walking in the rain. I prefer walking when it is dry and clear and the path is not slippery so I can look around instead of putting all my attention into deciding where to place my next foot. Either way, having a few buffer days just expands your options – you can use it for whatever you want. We met a young american girl who had so fallen in love with a particular spot beside a waterfall in Tikhedhunga that she broke her journey there for some days – just to spend more time by the waterfall.
Here is the itinerary we ultimately landed up following. I share it only as an example it is best if you create something similar to start with but customize it after you start trekking.
Day 1 – Pokhran to Nayapul (Jeep) + Nayapul to Tikhedhunga (trek)
Day 2 – Tikhedhunga to Ghorepani
Day 3 – Ghorepani to Tadapani
Day 4 – Tadapani to Chomrong
Day 5 – Chomrong to Bamboo
Day 6 – Bamboo to Deurali
Day 7 – Deurali to ABC
Day 8 – ABC to Deurali
Day 9 – Deurali to Upper Sinuwa
Day 10 – Upper Sinuwa to Jhinu Danda
Day 11 – Jhinu Danda to Sewee (trek) + Sewee to Pokhara (Jeep)
Where to Start and End the Trek
Our tour guide started our trek at Nayapul, which was about a two hour drive from Pokhara. However, I met people on the trek some of whom had started walking from Pokhara itself and I also met people who had taken the Jeep almost up to Tikhedhunga (the village where we spent the first night after a day of trekking). If I do the ABC again, I would take the Jeep till the road ends (quite close to Tikhedhunga) and start walking there. That way the first night’s halt can be at Ulleri or even higher and it will help ease out the second day’s walking. This time our second day’s trek was very gruelling (esp the climb to Ulleri) and we walked all day and reached Ghorepani (destination for the second night as per our printed itinerary) only by 6:45 in the evening. After that experience however we started pacing our walking better (since till then we had not realized that it was possible to deviate from the printed itinerary).
With regard to ending the trek, the official ending point on our itinerary was again Nayapul. However the final stretch from Sewee to Nayapul is along a dusty motorable road and almost everyone ends up taking a Jeep from Sewee (which is where the trekking trail turns into a motorable road). I strongly advise taking a Jeep from Sewee and it is better to plan this in advance so that you can work it into your itinerary ahead of time and give yourself that extra time to pace your walking.
In terms of travelling to Pokhara, there are three main options (all via Kathmandu) – Flight, Bus, Private car. We took a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and took a private car back on the return. However, the roads around Kathmandu were choked so badly (think of Bangalore traffic in it’s worst avatar), that I am sure I will fly next time. Private car might still work from Kathmandu to Pokhara if you leave early morning and avoid Kathmandu traffic. For the return trip I strongly suggest a flight. Also if you need to spend a night in Kathmandu, pick a hotel close to the airport (there are hotels around Boudhanath temple for example), and skip the city centre altogether.
Planning Brunch, Lunch, and Night Breaks
There are some places that typically make sense to stay the night in (for example Ghorepani, Chomrong, and ABC) since you get wonderful early morning views from there. Because of this you can work your itinerary around choosing these particular locations as some of your night breaks. Other locations can be picked as needed and you can also plan lunch breaks and even brunch breaks so that you typically reach a tea house to get a hot meal. We followed a routine of starting early after a 6 am breakfast, and then stopping once for a second breakfast (typically an omelette and tea) and then once again for lunch. Sometimes we walked a further leg after lunch but on other days we stopped after lunch if the rains were too heavy.
When you plan your itinerary do not go by distance because distances are quite irrelevant while trekking in the mountains. You will find several maps along the way (every tea house has a board map outside) that will show time estimate between various points so that you can plan your day. However these time-distances are very rough estimates (of an average twenty something trekker) and you might find that your own speed is very different. After a day or so you will be able to arrive at a ratio that you can use to calculate your own estimates between two points using the map board estimates. Do note that these ratios can be very different for climbing-up and climbing-down. For example we were taking almost twice the time during climbing-up but our timings were close to the map estimates while climbing-down. Also keep in mind that these estimates are for someone who is walking continuously without taking breaks. If you would like to stop in places to commune with nature, or take photographs or just sit and meditate then you will need to factor that into your time estimates as well.
I suggest not planning too far ahead but plan one day at a time – reach your destination for that day and then depending on your experience, your energy level, and your available buffer time left, plan for the next day. Here is a rough map to give you an idea but don’t worry too much. You will typically carry a more detailed map with you on the trek and each night in the tea house you can study the topography for the next day (and also discuss with other people who are planning their journeys for the next day). Since you will meet people going in both directions you will invariably land up chatting with those coming in the opposite direction about what the terrain holds in store.
Which Season to Trek
The most popular months for the ABC trek are April and October although the trek itself is open all year round. The tea house owners take turns to ensure that at least one tea house is open in each location even in the non peak seasons. The downside of April and October is that it is typically very crowded and sometimes people do not find accommodation for the night because the tea houses are full to capacity. We heard stories of trekkers who had to sleep in the dining hall and stories of having to wait in long lines to use the bathrooms. We trekked in May and we there was no crowd along the way and no lines for bathrooms. However, we had stormy rain showers everyday and we got clear views of the mountain peaks only during the mornings.
Apparently some people trek even during the monsoons, but some of the routes are closed at that time because of the risk of avalanches and one might have to take more circuitous paths. Even in May, we witnessed some landslides and we also saw a snow avalanche but it was far away from where we were. One of the scariest parts of the trek for me was to see that the edges of a glacier that we had walked on to cross a stream had changed shape by the time we came back to it two days later, on our way down. I would definitely not want to be walking on a glacier when it decides to reshape it’s edges.
While October and April are popular for the clear views of the mountain tops, April apparently has the added advantage of having the rhododendron trees in full bloom. In May and we got to see the last few Rhododendron flowers in bloom but only in the higher altitudes. Apparently they bloom at slightly different times depending on the altitude, but you will walk through several rhododendron forests during the ABC trek. I actually find the trees themselves very pretty and the bunches of new rhododendron leaves can easily be mistaken for green flowers because of their elegant shape.
While we are talking about flowers although May was a bit late to see the Rhododendron
display, May is still springtime in the Himalayas and there are lots and lots of other flowers in bloom all along. You will spot tiny flowers all along your path, and in between the stones that have been laid to form steps. You will spot creepers of flowers which look like they have been strung together winding their way over the branches of other trees and climbing up rocks on either side of waterfalls. You will spot flowers atop tall trees that overshadow the leaves completely to make it look like a yellow tree, blue tree or red tree.
Training for the Trek
The more you train for the trek the easier you will find it when you actually start trekking. That said, this particular trek can be paced to suit your own level of fitness. We met a young italian couple who were covering in one day about what we were covering in two or even three days. So the more you train, and the fitter you are the more you can cover in a single day. I will assume however that if you are reading this piece you are someone who wants to take it slow, and trek at a moderate pace taking in the views and communing with nature. I will also assume that you don’t mind stopping and taking breaks to refuel and rest your muscles in between. In that case you just need to be moderately fit. Our tour guide had asked us to train for about three months by walking 5 km a day. I must confess however that I did not actually manage to do this on a regular basis. My fitness training mainly consisted of a 50 min zumba workout about four times a week. Other than that I tried to walk whenever I had a chance.
If I were to do the ABC trek again, I would definitely pay more attention to my fitness
training prior to the trek. Apart from just walking I will actually practice walking in my hiking shoes, and with a small backpack on my back. There are different muscles that get used when you do that. I would also practice climbing up and down steps with a small backpack on my back. Trekking in Nepal involves a lot of climbing up and down and the muscles we use in climbing are different from the ones that we use in walking or during some other fitness routine like zumba or yoga.
That said, do remember that during your trek you will be doing nothing except walk in nature and your mind and brain will be amazingly fresh and will add a lot to your physical stamina. Your body will easily be able to do twice or thrice of what your body can do on a typical workday evening when your body is already tired due to sitting at your computer or commuting through a dusty city.
What to Pack
This is the fun part of living in the 21’st century. I was really amazed at the thoughtfulness and innovative thinking that has gone into creating clothes, backpacks, ponchos, and other trekking accessories and gear. Remember my trek as a 13 year old. We wore denim jeans, bulky gloves and sweaters, heavy hunter boots and flimsy windsheeters. This time I had quick-dry trekking pants and quick-dry t-shirts that wick the sweat off your body and they really do work. I loved my trekking boots and am ever so grateful to them to have kept my feet dry and warm even when I walked in rain and snow. I bought most of my stuff from Decathlon because there is a shop close to my house. Many people buy their trekking gear in Kathmandu or Pokhara and there are lots of shops there with good deals. I wanted to spend time exploring those cities instead of shopping so I did most of my shopping before setting out.
Do not underestimate the number of fresh socks and undergarments you will need since they are small and do not take much space. It is also better to have layers rather than one heavy jacket since you will want to peel them off gradually as you walk and warm up in the mornings. Inner wear is extremely important. Again there are very light but warm inner-wear that are specially designed for trekking and they are quick dry as well. Since they take very less space to pack, I strongly recommend taking two sets along.
A walking stick (or even two) can come very handy. My trekking partner had bought a foldable one and our guide had a foldable one as well. I used wooden sticks that I picked on the trail (I had a romantic notion of wanting to use sticks that were picked straight from nature). My natural sticks worked well for me except on the days when we crossed glaciers. However, since I was walking slow I could manage with the wooden sticks even on the glaciers and in the tricky and dangerous spots where we had to walk on the edges of glaciers my guide waited for me and lent me his stick.
Sun goggles are highly recommended, and I bought some expensive polarized ones that the salesman talked me into. However, I did not find them comfortable while trekking at all. In fact wearing the goggles gave me a headache and so I mostly trekked without them. I would suggest that you practice wearing your sun goggles well before the trek and get used to wearing them. If they give you a headache buy a different pair and test it out.
We had carried a quite a few packets of dry fruits (nuts, raisins, and dates) and these came in very very handy as snacks during the day and also as something to add onto the breakfast at the homestay. Our second most useful item was electrol sachets which we could mix into our water to sip while walking. I had also carried some cereal bars but I did not find them to be useful snacks while trekking. Next time I plan to replace them with plain chocolate bars which I saw many other trekkers munching.
It was also useful to take empty plastic bags along to separate wet, semi-wet, dirty and dry clothes inside the backpack. Wet wipes and dry tissues came in very handy as well and if you are a woman pack some extra sanitary pads since your menstrual rhythm might be different due to the high altitude. I had randomly thrown in a small packet of methi churan in the last minute and that turned out to be a life-saver for me when I felt a bit nauseous at higher altitudes.
Speaking about feeling nauseous, while it is important to pay attention to symptoms of altitude sickness, do not get over stressed by it. If you follow a gradual route (the one via Ghorepani) and take your time to do the climb your body will acclimatize itself. When we were doing the last leg of our climb (MBC to ABC) we passed a group of korean trekkers who were running down and one lady in their group was being carried by a local nepalese guide. We were told that she had altitude sickness and needed to be rushed to lower altitude. This image stayed with me when I was at ABC and kept haunting me.
When at ABC I developed a severe headache (which was most probably caused by my sun goggles which didn’t suit me and the fact that I exposed my eyes to the glare by not using them continuously). Since headache is one of the symptoms of altitude sickness, our guide kept asking me if I was feeling any of the other symptoms like dizziness or nausea. I know that our guide was well meaning but every time he asked me about it I actually felt worse. If you have been pregnant you probably know what I mean. Once you read about symptoms like nausea or dizziness it is easy to imagine that you have them. Eventually I took a paracetamol and I felt better. One of the trekkers who was playing cards with us was a nurse from canada and she told me that a lot of people also just get normal headaches at high altitudes and every headache is not a sign of altitude sickness. So my advice is that do stay informed of the symptoms of altitude sickness but please do not overly psyche yourself about it.
Guide and Porter
You can do the ABC trek either with a guide and porter, with just a porter, or by yourself. The routes are easy and it is almost impossible to get lost. We used the services of both a guide and a porter mainly because this was our first time in Nepal. If I go a second time I might probably only use the service of a porter (unless of course I trek during the peak seasons of April or October). During peak seasons a guide is supposed to be extra helpful because he can use his relationship with tea house owners to find accommodation even when it is crowded.
Some people use a guide-cum-porter but that is not a very good idea. This is because when a porter is carrying a lot of weight he is most comfortable to walk at his own pace. Thus is works well to let the porter walk ahead and reach the next destination and wait for you there. A guide will typically walk with you at your pace and so it is better not to give him extra weight to carry.
Many people advocate using a guide and a porter to help support the local economy and I think there is merit to that argument. There is an ecosystem built around trekking in Nepal and being a guide or a porter is mostly the primary occupation for those who be it.
Short Photo Diary of My trek – May 2017
Stunning views of the Mountain from Ghorepani and the views continue and only get grander as the trek continues – Dont miss the mountains that rise up from similar looking snowy clouds!
We walk through several forests, pass uncountable streams, cross pretty bridges, and dainty village meadows
Spectacular Views at ABC
And Finally Romancing the Snow Clad Peaks