Table of Contents
- The highlight of my trip to Nepal was the Annapurna Foothills Trek. Here’s my experience doing the trek and a guide on how you can do it yourself.
- An Introduction to the Himalayas
- Day 1: Short hike to Birithathi – 3km
- Day 2: Full steam ahead to Ghandruk – 14km hike
- Day 3: Arriving at Dhampus in the darkness – 18km
- The Last Stretch of the Annapurna Foothills Trek
- Day 4: An easy descent to Phedi – 8km
- How to Do the Annapurna Foothills Trek
The highlight of my trip to Nepal was the Annapurna Foothills Trek. Here’s my experience doing the trek and a guide on how you can do it yourself.
It’s almost late evening by the time we arrive in Nayapul, the starting point of the Annapurna Foothills Trek. After a hectic eight-hour drive from Kathmandu, we have dodged the random fires and riots of election day in Nepal and made it safely to the Himalayas. But now that we’re here, the sky is painted with flashing rays of purple and vermillion light and the sun is slowly setting beyond the horizon.
Rugged trekkers adorning scruffy fleeces and worn-out hiking sticks flash us wide grins as they walk past us. “Enjoy the trek,” the hikers call out to us as they reach the end of the trek and head back into civilization. The group of French hikers look exhausted but they’re all beaming with an infectious sense of joy.
Our first day on the trek is about to begin and it’s starting to get real. I begin to feel my excitement growing alongside my nerves. Granted, I’ve done many multi-day treks in life, this can’t be too much of a challenge — or can it?
There’s only one way to find out. Ready or not, it’s time to hit the trail.
An Introduction to the Himalayas
This is the Himalayas, home to the planet’s highest peaks (including the highest, Mount Everest) and some of the maximum, remotest, and most rugged and difficult trekking terrains in the world. This massive mountain range covers three quarters of Nepal, making it one of the best destination for trekkers.
Numerous treks criss cross the Himalayas, but arguably the most popular routes are the Annapurna Circuit Trek and the Everest Base Camp Trek. Both of which reach up to altitudes of over 5,000m and take an average of 25 days to complete. Sadly I don’t have the time (nor the fitness level) and so I opt for the four-day Annapurna Foothills Trek as part of my G Adventures Nepal Adventure tour.
With 16 peaks over 6,000m (19,690 ft), Annapurna is a section of the Himalayas in north-central Nepal famous for its magnificent panoramas, rugged scenery and isolated mountain communities. Even though we’ll barely reach the mid-section of Annapurna, we will be weaving our way through the rice paddies and pastures of the foothills, visiting isolated mountain communities and observing different ancestral customs and traditions — this promises to not only be a visually superb expedition but also a culturally rich one.
Day 1: Short hike to Birithathi – 3km
When we finally leave Nayapul on our first evening, everyone in the group is exploding with excitement. We are all trotting along at a fast pace, whisking through villages, hopping over running streams and climbing gradually up the gentle slopes.
The first part of the trail is surprisingly busy and populated — clusters of wooden houses flank the trail, with temples and monasteries in the far distance. Warm and welcoming local women pop out of their houses to say hi while children play on the sidewalk.
In the village, we follow a steep trail made out of flat rocks stacked together to form a stairway. We wind past concrete huts and tin-roofed shacks, with lush green banana trees and thickets of bushes grow wildly around it. Once we leave civilization behind though, the trail starts to flatten out and morph into a wide, dusty gravel road that runs alongside a water channel that seems to trundle down somewhere deep in the mountains. It looks as though we are finally heading into the mountains.
After only an hour and a half, we cross a swinging rope bridge and come to a tiny village called Birithati. We’ve only gone 1.9 miles (3km) so far, but our guide BK announces that we’ll be sleeping in a teahouse here for the night. Slightly disappointed, we all want to continue; but even the gods tell us it’s time to stop as the sky darkens and the temperature drops.
Our teahouse for the night, Evergreen Lodge, is a basic, two-storey building with million-dollar views of the surrounding mountains. Dinner is a simple affair of dhal bhat (rice and lentils), Nepal’s favorite dish, and ice cold Everest beer (the only appropriate drink in this setting). Meals come at an extra cost, but my mind is put at ease as BK explains, “Everything you buy here goes directly to the locals, we always make sure that our tours contribute to the local communities.”
By the end of dinner, my new group of friends are swapping stories, laughing and joking like we had known one another for years. I find myself surrounded by a great mixture of interesting characters from different walks of life: a hilarious American lacrosse instructor who spin the globe and came to Nepal by chance, a pair of doctor buddies, a group of three Aussie young nurses, a family from Belgium, and so on.
Just when I think it’s time for bed, our porters pull out their musical instruments and the tranquility of the night is suddenly replaced by infectious folklore music. Even BK breaks into traditional dance and drags us up to the center of the dining hall with him. Our first night on the trek ends with a comforting stream of laughter and warmth.
Day 2: Full steam ahead to Ghandruk – 14km hike
Before the sun even has a chance to peek its head over the mountains, I am wide awake. The first thing I see when I open my windows is the looming mountain, standing high and mighty before us. The sky over Birithati is tinged with a pre-dawn glow, outlining the silhouette of the mountains around us.
The hike ahead of us today is going to be long one. We are just slightly above 3,543 feet (1,080m) above sea level and Ghandruk, our destination, sits at 6,300 feet (1,920 meters), which means we’ll have to scale around 2,950 feet more (900m) in just one day.
With no time to waste, we set off just as the first light of the day appears. The early morning air is crisp and filled with birdsong and to every side we’re surrounded by green pastures and terraced rice fields. Wave-like paddies fold seamlessly into shamrock green forests, the patchwork pattern they create sprawling for acres upon acres. The trail is empty, without any other trekkers in sight but villagers are already hard at work on their fields and waving at us as we call out, “Namaste!”
Two hours later, we round a bend and find an outrageous view of Mount Machhapuchre, a mountain so holy that it’s off limits to climbing. Its double summit resembles the tail of a fish, hence the name meaning “Fish’s Tail” in Nepali language. Machapuchare has never been climbed to its summit. The only attempt was in 1957 by a British team who climbed to within 50 m of the summit, but did not complete the ascent; they had promised not to set foot on the actual summit. Since then, the mountain has been declared sacred, and it is now forbidden to climbers.
By this time, the sun is already high above our heads. We peel off our layers of fleeces, leaving our t-shirts on, and bask in the glorious sunshine. Our walk continues up a gradual uphill slope, with the Machhapuchre mountain guiding us like a lighthouse. To make sure I’m not exerting too much on the first day of our trek, I make sure to keep to a slow and comfortable pace, making regular stops and chatting along the way.
After passing several waterfalls and streams, we eventually reach a point where a series of rocky steps begin. “To be precise, there are 8,000 steps here,” warns BK as we prepare ourselves for the steep climb, “we’ll take a break half way for lunch, but we’ll be walking these steps all the way to our destination.”
What follows is two hours of grueling stair-climbing as I huff and puff up the trail whilst porters race past us. The climb is brutal but it’s the feeling of pushing my body and my mental strength that keeps me going. The higher we climb, the harder it seems to get — maybe it’s because of the altitude, perhaps it’s the heat, but no matter what, I know I have to keep going.
Once in awhile, I remind myself to look back and take in the beauty. It’s not everyday that I get to see such impressive landscapes from a vantage point like this. The stunning gorge plunges vertically beneath us, blending seamlessly into the emerald waters of the raging Modi Khola river which flows from north to south between the Annapurna and Machhapuchre mountain ranges.
Panoramic views of Ghandruk begins amid networks of terraced farmland leading to the beautiful slate roofed village houses bordered by spectacular rhododendron forest to the west. By the time we reach our lunch spot, Kimche, the river and farmlands are so far beneath us that I can’t help but feel a sense of achievement.
Day 3: Arriving at Dhampus in the darkness – 18km
It’s 7am by the time I leave the warmth of my sleeping bag and head down to the breakfast table on the open porch of Breeze Teahouse. The view before us comes as quite a shock to my system: three snow-capped peaks – Annapurna South, Himchuli and Macchapuchre – stand before us, so close that they almost feel like they’re within reach. Surrounding us in all directions are looming mountains, lime green rice fields and straw huts — reminding me that I’m in the Himalayas.
As we sip chai and finish up our roti, the sun slowly rises above the mountain peaks, casting its rays upon the mountains and blanketing everything in a golden glow. The white snow on the mountain peaks sparkles under the bright sunshine, while a deep sapphire blue clouds the lower half of the mountain where the sun has yet to reach. The setting is ridiculously beautiful and almost unreal – like an image I’d conjured before the trek. This is, without a doubt, my favorite spot on the trek.
After piling up our bags and pulling on our hiking boots, it’s time to start a long day of walking. The hike ahead promises to be brutal as we will hike down all the way to the bottom of the Modi Khola gorge then scale up to over 6,900 feet (2,100m) above sea level to reach Deurali before descending down to our destination of Dhampus at 5,250 feet (1,600m).
The initial part of the trail is easy enough: we putter down the stone paths with much caution but little physical strength, zigzagging through the village of Ghandruk, past dry rice terraces, wheat fields and water buffalos. The descent is easy and comforting, it even gives me time to take in the view around us and stop to chat with ladies who are out drying millet. “Kecha!” I call out to them, only to find them bursting into fits of laughter at my incomprehensible Nepali.
Children baring tanned skin and ragged clothing wave at us as we pass, chanting namaste namaste in a sing-song manner. We even come across a family who seems to have bought a new water buffalo and are trying to drag it back home. There are at least ten of them, but no one seems to know how to get the big beefy creature moving.
Down and down we go, until we’re almost at the bottom of the Modi Khola gorge where the emerald river rages on. A steel suspension bridge decorated with colorful Tibetan flags leads us over to the other end of the gorge, where an infinite series of stone steps await. Sadly we’ve come to the is the part I hate most: the ascent.
“The most important thing is to go slow, this is not a race,” BK said at the beginning of our trek.
I keep his words in mind as I put one foot before the other, step by step, one at a time. Locals who walk past us on their way down kindly give us words of encouragement, “Go go go,” one young Nepali girl says to me as she runs downhill. Our porters on the other hand are racing up the steps at a pace far too quick for me to keep up with. I’m embarrassed by my own poor physique but amazed by the strength and tenacity of our porters, who are way faster despite the heavy load on their backs.
One of the porters, Sudarshan, falls back to make sure I’m fine. Seeing that he’s still got a heavy load on his back, I pick up my pace to make sure he does not get bogged down by me. With the little English he speaks and the little Nepali I’ve learned from them, we chat about life in Nepal. The 49-year-old native has a wife back at home in the Kathmandu Valley and they have three grown-up children together – the oldest working in Dubai and the youngest still studying in university. He supports his entire family with his salary, but sadly, he has to retire in just one year.
As BK shares with me, G Adventures only allows porters to work until 50 years of age. Thereafter, if the porter can work in the office, they will continue to employ him. Many porters inevitably suffer from back and neck problems due to the load they carry on a daily basis — Raju, another one of our porters, suffered from serious altitude sickness one time and had to be airlifted for urgent treatment. Thankfully he recovered and is now back on the trek. Because of such problems, G Adventures makes sure that the porters do not carry more than 20kg of load each and receive enough rest on the trek.
The Last Stretch of the Annapurna Foothills Trek
After what seemed like an eternity on the steps, we finally reach the end of the steps where a cute charming village, Tolka, stands. From here, the view is dizzying – terraces of multi colors ranging from daisy yellow to lime green fold ever so elegantly along the slopes of the gorge, creating immaculate wave patterns that resemble a dragon’s tail. The landscape remind me of Sapa in northern Vietnam and Longsheng in China, but the mountains around us affirm that we’re in the Himalayas.
A lunch spread of Chinese chow mein, Nepali pizzas and the quintessential dhal bhat almost sends us into a food coma, but there’s no time to rest: we need to keep walking if we wanted to get to our teahouse before dark. Thankfully, there are no more steps to climb; in their place is a wide gravel highway that slopes gently downhill. The descent and smooth gravel surface quickens my step and I can’t help but skip downhill. And as we move as a group, we find ourselves falling more and more into step with life on the trail.
Three hours later we find ourselves heading deep into a misty cloud forest, walking beneath lichen and moss covered trees. It seems like a completely different world here —far from the lush green vegetation that we’d been surrounded by in the past few days. I find out later that the rhododendron forest here is regarded as one of the largest rhododendron forest in the world and it can be a spectacular place when the flowers bloom in spring.
Emerging from the forest, we finally find ourselves in the village of Dhampus, famous among tourists for the breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. But by the time we reach our teahouse, the last ebb of the sunlight has already faded into the distance and there’s no view to behold. It no longer matters to us though — we’re just thankful to have made it to our destination.
A cold shower later, all my exhaustion is washed away and I’m ready to celebrate. Our porters pour me a round of raksi (Nepali rice wine) and we huddle over the campfire, in the warmth of the shed. I’m not sure if it’s because of my Asian blood or the camaraderie that comes with trekking together, but I feel an affinity with the porters who seem to share an equal liking for my company. That night, we drink, laugh and dance until it’s time to hit the sack.
Day 4: An easy descent to Phedi – 8km
Our last morning comes and we’re all standing out on the rooftop terrace waiting for the sun to make its appearance. The sky above seemed too cloudy at first, but with a bit of patience, we’re rewarded with an outrageous view. Streaks of electric pink light slowly pierce through the clouds, eventually revealing the ball of fire in its full glory. Within seconds, the sun lights up the entire sky and landscape in vermillion and fires the chilly morning air with warmth.
Streaks of electric pink light slowly pierce through the clouds, eventually revealing the ball of fire in its full glory. Within seconds, the sun lights up the entire sky and landscape in vermillion and fires the chilly morning air with warmth.
We’re all so flushed with excitement at the phenomenal sight that we almost forget it’s our last day on the trek. The hike today is a short and easy walk from Dhampus down to the village of Phedi where we’ll be picked by our driver. With a heavy heart, we start our descent down gently sloping steps, through more rice fields and tin-roofed huts. The five miles (8km) to Phedi seem to pass in a blur, and suddenly, we reach the end of our journey.
The range of emotions I’ve experienced on the trek is extraordinary: from the feeling of immense exhaustion on our first long hike to the overwhelming sensation of empowerment at being able to push myself harder than I thought I could go. At the end of it, I can’t help but feel a certain sadness that it’s over.
The trek may have been a short one, but it’s given me a peek into life on the trail in Nepal and I know for sure one day I’ll be back.
How to Do the Annapurna Foothills Trek
I did this short 4-day Annapurna Foothills Trek with G Adventures, as part of a two-week trip around Nepal. If you are traveling around Nepal independently, I would recommend asking around when you’re in Kathmandu. Most local tour operators run guided Annapurna Foothills Trek with meals and homestays included.
This quick trek through the Annapurna foothills is the perfect introduction to the stunning scenery of the Himalayas if you’re short on time. It’s ok suitable for those who don’t think they have the physical fitness to pursue long treks like the Everest Base Camp Trek, but still want to experience the spectacular Himalayan mountains.
Despite it being a short trek, you must have a good level of fitness to take part in this trek. You will be walking at high altitudes every day and it will be physically demanding. In the months leading up to your trek, try walking with your daypack, climbing long staircases. Undertake regular aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, swimming or cycling. The more preparation you have done in advance, the more you will enjoy it.
Suggested Packing List: Backpack (10 – 15 liters), sleeping bag (if desired– sheets & blankets are provided), hiking poles, rain pants, plastic rain poncho, trekking boots, sandals/flip flops, thermals (socks, t-shirts, sweater), windbreaker, hiking trousers, shorts, wool hat/beanie, gloves, sun hat, sun block, sunglasses, flashlight/torch, camera (with extra batteries & memory card), personal medications, reusable water bottle, water purification tablets, toiletries (toothpaste, soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toilet paper, towel)
Disclaimer: I traveled to Nepal with G Adventures as one of their Wanderers in Residence, but as always, all opinions expressed above are our own.