Me-go: Around-the-World

End of The Jomsom Trek: Three Thousand Stairs


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Day 4: Marpha to Ghasa
In the morning shiva apologized for his bravado the night before and was back to his quiet self. He didn’t drink the rest of the trip, probably out of fear of losing his tip. I hadn’t thought about tipping him until other Americans started talking about it. You just don’t tip in most countries but there’s enough Americans in Nepal that the locals have come to expect it. When Shiva told me he accepted this job because I’m American and he likes trekking with Americans I put it together. He was a nice guy, but porters and guides are usually looking to Americans for a big tip and possibly a marriage proposal. At least two of his friends have gotten out of nepal that way.

The landscape starts to change after Marpha. It’s still a little windy but trees start to spring up everywhere and the path is even muddy in some places where the sun never reaches. The towns along this stretch are getting more touristy and show no signs of Tibetan influences. We also start to see more trekkers. I’m starting to fall behind Shiva, with my blisters and photo stops. I take as many photos of horses and donkeys as possible. I hear porters going in the other direction ask where we’re heading and being surprised that we’re going as far as Ghasa. I’m worried that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

Beautiful valley Sign for trekkers Animals are bridge-trained

Learning from yesterday I had vegetable noodle soup and a coke for lunch. We stopped at a cute little town after climbing up through a muddy, rocky cliff. The restaurant had rooftop seating (many along the trek do) and I missed the gang of female Maoist soldiers passing through town. Shiva explained that every Maoist has an assignment—these were promoting a cultural show—so not every soldier collects money form tourists. I hoped that we wouldn’t run into any money-collecting Maoists now that they have been accepted into the government.

I limped into Ghasa early and was the first into The Florida Guesthouse, so I managed a good hot shower. The only problem with hot showers is that the air surrounding you is not hot and the room is never sealed enough to keep the heat in. So whatever part of your body is not under the hot water is freezing. By now I’ve stopped bothering paying an extra dollar for an attached bathroom and my room is squarely under one dollar a night.

Sitting outside in the flower-filled garden I watch the other trekkers stroll into town, many are carrying their own bags. It’s always nice to have people to talk to, but once you get over ten people in any guesthouse it gets a little crowded come dinner time. After walking seven hours no one wants to wait an hour for food.

Fellow trekkers at dinner Porters singing and dancing

Taylor and Maury show up and we have a good representation of Americans from Colorado, California, Oregon and, of course, Illinois. One of the trekkers used to live and work very close to my home town and we all exchange travel stories. I’m pretty hungry after the small bowl of instant soup for lunch so I splurged for the “chicken steak.” I’ve had really bad luck with food for the past two months and that doesn’t change when I’m served a rubbery chicken leg for dinner. I ate my french fries and finished my glass of San Miguel beer.

After dinner Drew’s friend’s porter came in from the kitchen and announced a performance. Another porter grabbed a drum and he began to sing porter songs in Nepali. He was so happy, smiling and dancing and other porters joined in. Shiva promptly left the room to avoid being asked to sing. We all talked about our strategy for tomorrow’s hike and the hot springs at Tatopani.

Day 5: Ghasa to Tatopani
Downhill. I was told it was all downhill. There was some downhill but there was also uphill. But by now my definition of uphill was changing and I stopped noticing short rises in the road. Early on we passed through some cute towns with stone paved paths surrounded by walls and wheat fields. We saw more children playing outside, terrorizing chickens and hitting other children with sticks.

It was a shorter day, a little over five hours, and everyone was desperate to get to the hot springs in Tatopani. We stopped for a drink and apple strudel in front of a beautiful waterfall and when Shiva wanted to stop for lunch an hour later I made him push on. I just wanted to get there. He refused to eat unless I did, probably because he would have to pay for his food.

World's deepest gorge? Traditional Nepali game

The road became more of a small dirt track after an hour and we passed workers creating a road along the trekking route by hand. They split boulders with chisels and piled loose rocks onto the cliffs to create the edge of the road. Right now you only see the occasional motorcycle, which can only go a short distance because roads are really just dirt tracks and stone steps. But the government is slowly pushing a road into the hillside and within a year or two the entire Jomsom trek will be accessible by car. This will put all of the donkey trains out of business and change the face of these small towns.

I followed the firefighters into Tatopani and got a room on the top floor looking out onto the mountains. I was just glad to have a window after the first few rooms I was shown. After changing into my swimsuit I sat down for a big lunch and headed down to the river. The hot spring turned out to be a cement pool with a big rock in the middle. Still, the water was warm but not too hot and helped my legs muscles relax. Because the firefighters had been carrying 35 pound backpacks the entire trip they were more sore than me and covered in huge blisters. They were beginning to come around to the idea of getting a porter for tomorrow’s huge uphill climb.

Maury, Taylor and Megan in the hot spring Blisters under calluses, great!

I sat in the pool for over an hour, watching the skinny porters drink beer in their underwear and European trekkers flirt with each other. The local women who came down were totally covered in saris and I was glad I had kept a t-shirt on. When I got out there was no way I was going to walk uphill to town in only my bathing suit bottoms. I only had a hand towel so I slipped my one pair of pants on over my wet suit, hoping the huge underwear-shaped wet spot would dry by morning.

Day 6: Tatopani to Ghorepani
This is the day we had all been dreading, more than 3,000 stone steps uphill without a break, and I had to do it with wet pants. From day one Shiva had started trying to convince me that it was best if we bypassed the main route after Tatopani and headed downhill to Beni, where a road had been built to Pokhara. I insisted that I wanted to see Poon Hill, above Ghorepani, which is supposed to have the best views of the entire trip. I didn’t understand his motives, since it meant he would earn less money. The probability of him picking up a better paying gig by arriving back early wasn’t good since it was the end of the season.

After embarrassing himself with his drunken mutterings in Marpha he gave up on Beni and began to suggest I make the trip to Ghorepani in two days instead of the usual one. I was open to this, since I really don’t like walking uphill. But I had been keeping up with the other hikers—beating them even—the entire trip so far. The only reason he had for thinking I was slow was because I had made a point of telling the agency that I was a slow hiker and didn’t like uphill. Everyone else I had been spending time with, the firefighters, Drew, the other Americans, thought this was silly and I could make it up to Ghorepani. I knew I could make it in one day but I wouldn’t like it.

I started out in the morning thinking that I would probably take two days, but that it would be nice to climb up to Poon Hill with everyone I had met along the way. After half an hour through the gorge with gradual ups and downs we hit another registration post where I entered my permit information. I laughed when I saw that Maury and Taylor had passed through fifteen minutes before and naturally written “firefighter” under the occupation category. The funny thing was that everyone after them, maybe ten people, had just made dashed lines under the category, leading someone to believe that more than ten firefighters had just passed through the valley, all in a row.

After a few suspension bridges we were confronted with a steep step of stone stairs. Only the stairs are just boulders on top of one another, at varying heights and smoothness so I had to pay attention to each step I made. The path was covered with a canopy of leafy trees and the temperature cooled down considerably. The steps were pretty steep and each step took effort and, although the path curved a bit, there were no flat sections or switchbacks. This constant stepping lasted over an hour and when I finally reached the top Shiva was waiting and, for the first time, had a drop of sweat on his forehead.

Shiva had explained somewhere along the way that he preferred to hike with native English speakers because he was more likely to learn new vocabulary. I took this as a challenge and taught him words like frost and dew. He even used “dew” correctly in context later in the trek, thanks to my awesome example of “Mountain Dew.” I saw a little light go on when I mentioned the soft drink and the name’s meaning. At the top of the steep hill a boulder was covered in graffiti, including “abacadabra.” When I explained the meaning Shiva and I agreed that it really wasn’t a word he needed to know.

The firefighter's porter Shiva contemplates the meaning of Terraced valley

From the top of the hill we got a good view of the valley we needed to walk around. The mountains were covered in terraced fields and dotted with small villages. On the way up we had passed little kids walking to school, trying their luck at selling small oranges to trekkers. On the other side of the valley we ran into the older kids heading back from school (the day is split into two ages so more kids can fit into the schools). The valley was beautiful but all I could think of was Shikha, the town Shiva wanted to stop in for the night.

We arrived in Shikha around lunchtime but Shiva dragged me to the far end of town, an additional thirty minutes uphill, to his favorite restaurant. A large tour group was eating lunch and I squeezed in to order soup, fries and a coke. The food had surprisingly gotten worse the closer we got to civilization, and a lot of it was even more expensive. We had a long wait and I sat and took pictures of the kids begging nearby while my knees remembered they were attached to my body.

Kids coming home from school Girl running down to see her photo on my camera (this is the non-steep part!) Backpacks at a resting spot

Shiva was happy once he got his Nepali food and I was feeling better with the much-needed calories. After lunch we began to walk, the decision to head on having been made somewhere without talking. Within ten minutes I stumbled upon Drew and the other Americans and saw the firefighters heading off in the distance. I had assumed they were hours ahead of me and seeing them gave me the last burst of confidence I needed to keep going. So I kept walking and with each step got slower and slower until I was in the company of the porters carrying the heaviest weight. Just imagine climbing a stairmaster for over eight hours on the slowest setting and you will begin to have an idea of how I felt.

We took lots of breaks on the stone resting platforms built along the trail but the terrain only became more steep the closer we got to Ghorepani. We were in forest again and I started to get crabby with the porters laughing and joking around me. The would wait until I started out, then chase after me and coming up right behind me. If there’s one thing I learned on this hike it’s that I hate people walking behind me. Each time I had to stand aside and beg them to pass until we repeated it again a little further along. Looking around I realized that all of these porters were carrying other people’s bags, and more importantly their shower gear. Maybe I wouldn’t be the last to take a shower after all!

With numb legs I dragged myself into Ghorepani and into the second floor room overlooking a massive wall of white haze. So much for the beautiful views of the mountain range. Downstairs the other guests sat around a wood stove, drying their clothes and drinking congratulatory beers. I ducked into the outdoor shower with my coat on, because we had hiked back up to 2860 meters and even before the sun set I could see my breath. Carefully taking off my clothes and hanging them on nails I decided that I would rather have wet sandals than frostbite and saved myself from standing on the icy concrete floor. I quickly turned the faucet marked “HOT” and waited for the hot water to kick in. It didn’t. The sweat had dried long ago but I desperately need to wash my hair so I leaned forward, carefully contorting my body so that only my head got wet. Once the shampoo was over I quickly splashed some water in strategic places and threw my clothes on.

We had been going to bed early the entire trip, and most of us hadn’t been sleeping well. But this night everyone was in bed by 7:30 to get some sleep in before the early morning climb to Poon Hill. The walls were so thin that every cough was heard across the hotel. I didn’t need to worry about waking up the next morning.

Day 7: Ghorepani to Pokhara
I woke up at 4am to the sound of singing and saw a large group of hikers walking below my window with their headlamps shining in my window. Looking up I couldn’t see any stars, a sign that it was clouded over and we wouldn’t be walking up to Poon Hill that morning. I went back to sleep, not sure if I wanted it to be clouded over or not.

By 4:45 it sounded like everyone was up and I decided it was time to go. If everyone else was getting up the view must be clear and I was going to have to climb another one hour uphill to Poon Hill. While I was typing my shoes I had a sudden flash of Portillo’s hot dogs and desperately wanted to be eating Chicago-style dogs instead of climbing uphill in the dark. Downstairs I waited for Shiva with my tiny flashlight and a sour mood.

I was the picture of grumpiness on the way up. Each step brought about a flash of pain in my legs and before I was half way up the sky began to lighten. At the top I was confronted with huge crowds of hikers noisily waiting for the sunrise. We all flashed our photos, many with full-size tripods, while the sun crept over the horizon. Although the sky surrounding the foot of the hill was cloudy, the mountain range peeked out of the clouds, catching the first orange rays of the sun. It was certainly a beautiful Thanksgiving morning.

Megan atop Poon Hill at sunrise The gang on Poon Hill --Scott, Drew, Taylor, Megan & Maury Shiva and Megan

After an hour on top of the frost-covered hill we all headed down for breakfast. I quickly packed and headed out, as Shiva was determined that we could make the usual two-day trip to Pokhara in one day. Today sounded good—all downhill. What I didn’t bargain for was downhill steps, which defeated my knees in the first hour. Below Ghorepani was a wet forest with waterfalls and moss. It would have been beautiful apart from the wet rocks that I slipped around and eventually fell down. Shiva was on a mission today and ran off ahead with his porter friends, leaving me to trample over the wet rocks alone.

From here until lunch I don’t remember much. I think I went into some sort of zone of concentration trying to get downhill quickly. The entire mountain was stairs and even the open, dry stairs were horrible on my knees. This is the day I really could have used a stick or some poles because with each step my entire body weight slammed against my knees. By the time we got down to the lunch spot I was totally out of it. When the others started talking about the beautiful waterfall I just said “what waterfall?” I hadn’t even seen it coming into town.

!#@** stairs Corn storage and a rooter house

Shiva promised that we had finished the stairs and the trail would start evening out down to Naya Pul, where we could catch a taxi to Pokhara. The firefighters decided to head on to town today, much to their guide’s dismay, and I headed out before the others to get a head start. The scenery this low was lush and green but the overcast day left little inspiration for photography. It was soon clear that Shiva was full of shit when I was confronted with another hour’s worth of stairs.

The trail did eventually even out a bit, with the usual ups and downs, and fewer stairs. We followed a river down to Naya Pul past farmers hand tilling their fields. At the end of the last town we crossed a bridge and walked right into the Maoist’s booth. If the Nepalese government can’t stop the Maoists from setting up a booth at the end of it’s country’s most popular trail then I don’t have much confidence in it at all. I wanted to walk on but Shiva had arrived earlier than me and drawn their attention so I was stuck paying their “donation.” I asked Shiva to tell them I had gone up to Ghorepani and back over two days but he wouldn’t and agreed to say it had been a four day trek instead of seven, costing me a little under $6.

There's no stairs after lunch? Jerk! The gang's porters !#@** Maoists

Walking by I noticed a sign declaring “the new communist people’s government of Nepal.” I have a suspicion that The Maoists think that they are now The government, rather than just a small part of it. Considering I already paid the Nepalese government $30 for the privilege of killing my knees around The Annupurnas I was pissed to be paying the “new government” again. It was a long walk to the next town with a scramble uphill to the hill where taxis were waiting to take us back to town. Of course, they had to just get that last little hill in to put my legs over the edge.

I’m glad I headed back on day seven instead of eight, and a few of us met up at a steak house for a celebration dinner that night. It has taken the entire weekend for my legs and feet to heal enough for me to get downstairs without a death grip on the banister. Overall I am glad I went on the trip, if only to say I’ve seen a little more of Nepal. The Tibetan areas of the trek early on were a disappointment after spending time in the real Tibet and the beautiful mountain scenery toward the end was often clouded over during the trek. I think that Nepal is a magical place, but perhaps is a better place for beginning travelers than for someone like me.

5 responses to “End of The Jomsom Trek: Three Thousand Stairs”

  1. ali Avatar

    My current gig is not too far from Portillo’s. Not that I’m rubbing that in…evil heh!

    It’s fascinating…that tidbit about porters marrying to get out of the country…as that illustrates how for some travellers there’s an unconcsious wish to “find someone.” It’s a tad sad…but then that’s just my opinion. I know I probably have a bit of taht in me…the desire to fall in love on an exotic trip. But the reality is always short lived. People I’ve met who’ve gone to work at resorts in tropical areas report that passionate and short-lived relationships/marriages are rampant. And…and alcoholism…but that’s a totally different story! 😉

    It’s amazing that you and your knees survived that trip. My knees are aching just thinking of doing something like that. It’s hard enough going up and down one flight at work let alone the stairs to get to the L platforms!

    It’s always so cool to read this blog and to see your photos. But the captions on this post? Especially near the end? Funny!

    Hugs and may you and your knees recover soon.

  2. Miranda Avatar

    while you’re busting your butt in nepal, i’m sitting on my ass making holiday cookies. i feel like a lazy butt.

    sounds like your thanksgiving was a lot more interesting than mine!

  3. Claudia Avatar

    Aw, Megan, congrat’s on your trek! You did it, even though you suffered nasty blisters and painful kneees! It’s incredible how your stories become alive when we all read them! HMM, those chicago hotdogs sound good (eventhough I’ve never had one, since i’m here in Texas). Well, keep on “trucking” chica.
    Pura Vida,

  4. Lucas Avatar

    Hey, just catching up on the blog. The hike sounds great, but a 10 kg limit for a porter? Either those porters have a great union or somebody was pulling your leg… the limits I’ve heard of (Inca trail, Kilimanjaro, etc) are 20-25 kg. I’d be tempted to put rocks in my pack until it hits 15 kg just to get my money’s worth 🙂

  5. Megan Avatar

    There’s better hot dog places in the city proper, but Portillos has a joint out near me. There’s also a place called Luke’s and there’s always Dog Tracks. But those have me heading farther from Chicago, which I try to avoid.

    People always ask me why I don’t meet people on the road. I don’t know, why don’t I meet people at home? I’m certainly not intereted in any locals, because their intentions are obvious and I’m not stupid. I’ve heard more than a few tales of shady marriges in Nepal.

    I would love some cookies, even if I had to bake them myself. It’s funny what you think of as “good food” when you’ve been away as long as I have.

    If you ever come to Chicago you must try a dog. They are all beef, boiled, with tons of toppings. Celery salt is required.

    My porter definately had the lightest pack. The couple that hired a porter had him carrying both bags, which would be around 70 pounds. I didn’t feel bad at all especially because I had lots of chocolate in there so it got lighter as we went along.