The Ghandruk Loop: An hors d’oeuvre to the best hiking in Nepal
“I can’t work it out…”
“It smells like…donuts?”
“Meat!! Stir-fried with soy sauce!”
Skeptical side-eye ensued.
<takes a sip>
“No, I swear…it’s donuts!”
Furrowed brows circled the table.
From one bowed head to another, a continuous worm of confusion. Eyes trained like lasers on the small glass of steaming hot liquor on the plastic clad table; black as the Himalayan night, the thinnest of oily sheens refracting the fluorescent light of our tea house. There was only one thing for it…
“Nima-dai!! What is this…?!!”
Humidity and temperature sweaty bedfellows in the 90s.
30km of hiking.
1000m of torturous ascent and descent, not once but twice.
Leeches. Monkeys. Recalcitrant mules. A tidal wave of earthworms.
The funky stench of confined bovines seductively teasing our olfactories, under the misapprehension that Nepali dung was sweeter than Australian.
Muttered curses, of damp and muscular distress, swallowed by the mists like the multicoloured prayer flags that had graced our every step.
And yet, this was what we had asked for. It’s what we needed! When the question had been asked, every one of us had passed over that box labelled ‘Culture’, instead, taking the plunge and boldly ticking ‘Adventure’.
For most of us this was our first taste of Nepal, and if the Annapurna circuit is Everest’s entrée, then the Ghandruk loop is its hors d’oeuvre!
A tantalizing morsel; not too heavy, not too light. Challenging, and yet accessible to anyone with an average degree of fitness and a willingness to take it slow. The perfect introduction to trekking in the Himalayas and some of the best hiking in Nepal!
Day 1 – Pokhara-Nayapul-Birethanti-Ghandruk
The alarm still echoing rudely in the caverns of my mind, I sleepily donned a shirt and pulled apart the window blinds.
We had arrived in Pokhara late the previous night, bullocking our way up the long road from Kathmandu, starting under sun and finishing in heavy monsoonal rain at the doors of the Glacier Hotel and Spa. With no chance to view our surrounds I was curious as to what would greet me…
OMFG. A splendid view indeed!
I still vividly remember a similar experience in Hobart more than 12 years ago, when I looked out from my hotel room, pre-job interview, onto the snow-dusted cap of Mt Wellington.
Similar in spirit, and yet this took things to a whole new level!
Naturally, my eyes were initially drawn to the streets and people below. A rooster belatedly crowing. The rough strains of a sarangi lilting on the air. The voices of army cadets singing in unison as they stomped along the lake’s edge under the first rays of the morning.
And then up.
Clean air, monsoon’s gift and a welcome novelty after the dust of Kathmandu. Surrounding hotels and apartments haphazardly heaped like dusky lego blocks.
And higher still.
The drab, olive green of the tree-clad hills silhouetted against a blinding white backdrop of cloud. A light blue haze hinting at another hot, humid day to come.
I turned back to my room thinking the show was over. But then, out of the corner of my eye I couldn’t help but notice an inconsistency in the cloud. An unexpected regularity and definition within the glare.
With focus came clarity, realization like a bolt of lightning.
That’s not cloud…that’s a @#$%’ing mountain!!
Piling into our minibus, after enjoying an impromptu performance of the famous Nepalese folk song ‘Resham firiri’ , all eyes were on the soaring peak of Machhapuchhre (the Fishtail) as we wove our way through the suburban streets of Pokhara and up into the Himalayan foothills.
Surprisingly, in this world of natural conquest, it has never been climbed (officially, anyway). Nearly 7,000m high and with an unmistakable profile, Machhapuchhre has deep religious significance to the people of Nepal. Shiva, Hindu deity of transformation and destruction is thought to live at its peak and in recognition of this the King Mahendra Shah placed a prohibition on climbing the mountain in the late 1950s.
It’s nice to know some corners of the world are still off-limits to human ambition!
An hour later and we were in the tiny village of Nayapul, a popular starting point for many trails in the Himalayas such as the famous Annapurna Circuit, Poon Hill, Annapurna Base Camp, Mohare Hill, and of course, our own Ghandruk loop!
Sunscreen was a priority, with a quick spray of DEET around the boots in the vain hope that it may deter my hiking nemesis…leeches…and we were off, under the watchful eye of our trekking guide Nima from Royal Mountain Travel.
Glossy tourism brochures and travel blogs are bursting at the seams with glorious photos of Mt Everest and the snowy mountain tops and valleys of the Himalayas. So, it may be with some surprise that visitors to Nepal find the lower climes to be hot and humid for much of the year. We had even started and the sweat was pouring off us by the bucketload! Weight loss at it’s finest 😀
Other than the occasional small climb, the first two hours of the hike were relatively flat, initially crossing the Modi Khola (river) by suspension bridge and then following its milky white waters upstream.
Despite the oppressive heat and threatening storm clouds, our legs were fresh and we were in Nepal dammit!! The smiles on the faces of the many children we encountered made for great memories, literal and photographic, and spurred us on in our exertions.
Lunch was at a great tea house in the village of Syauli Bazaar where we refueled on Nepal’s famous dal-bhat.
There’s a famous saying in Nepal, “Dal-bhat power, 24 hour”!! As we were to find out in the following days, there is so much truth in those five words.
A mountain of rice (bhat), lentil soup (dal), spicy pickles (achaar), chicken in curry sauce, curried vegetables (tarkari)…And the best thing about it? Unlimited refills!! As you find yourself halfway in to your dal-bhat you’ll no doubt also find the waiter at your elbow, politely asking if you’d like some more bhat, or perhaps more dal.
With dal-bhat in their bellies it’s no wonder every Nepali we met seemed to be wearing a smile 😃
And then the climb began in earnest.
Three hours of relentless, thigh-sapping, calf-burning climbing. Step by step, up the side of the valley and into the clouds. Initially fearing the deluge, we quickly realised how refreshing the rain could be, reveling in its ability to take the edge of the interminable heat.
Thankfully, for most of its length the trail is extremely well made, with slabs of slate providing a solid, leech-free path on which to walk. It did get slippery in the wet, but we much preferred that to the muddy, leechy alternative! At times the trail joined the wide dirt road that wound its way up the valley, but even then it never got overly messy, so long as you could avoid the occasional mound of mule poop.
For so much of the day we had been walking in the gloom. Knowing there wasn’t far to go, a small sense of despondency had filled a tiny corner of my soul, selfish prat that I am!
Where were these glorious mountains about which we had heard so much, and tantalisingly glimpsed that morning? Was I going to be forced to take a sneaky photo of a postcard and try and pass it off as my own…?*
I could hear excited voices from up ahead and around the corner of the hill, and as I approached I understood why. A tiny window had opened into the green, blue and white. Slowly moving across the hills like a spotlight, and yet still too fast for my liking. I needed time to change lenses!! It lasted mere minutes, but it was enough for me to snap this one image of the looming Annapurna South.
The lucky buggers ahead of me had allegedly glimpsed the elusive Machhapuchhre (with photographic ‘evidence’ that I still claim must be photoshopped…!), but even if it rained for the next 48 hours this shot made it all worthwhile!
Under a canopy of brightly coloured prayer flags (one for each of the elements in nature!) we finally arrived in Ghandruk Village.
Putting our feet up was priority number one, but first Nima wanted to show us the local Gurung Museum. A good thing as well, because it was utterly fascinating to hear him tell of the history of the Gurungs; their fierceness in battle against the British, their marriage traditions (she WILL cry to show how sad she is to leave her parents), and that seemingly universal love of homemade alcohol!
I even managed to find a leech crawling up my hand. How it got there I will never know. But there is now one less leech in the world.
At last, drinks were drunk. More dal-bhat consumed. And despite the best attempts of the local canines, you could nearly hear the sound of heavy eyelids falling shut across the tea house.
Length – 10km
Duration – 7 hours
Leech count – 1
Snake count – 0
Day 2 – Ghandruk-Landruk-Pothana
After 7 hours and more than 10km of hiking the previous day, you’d think we’d be doing everything in our power to get a good night’s sleep, right?
Yet the promise of sweeping Himalayan vistas, glowing under morning’s first light was too great a lure for half a dozen of us (fool)hardy souls to ignore. Huddling together on the rooftop of the tea house and squinting through bleary eyes that would much rather remain closed, we waited patiently. Hoping, urging, cajoling the drizzle to cease and the clouds to part.
Nope. We should have stayed in bed. Mother nature was at her capricious best, and if anything the clouds thickened, and drizzle became drops…
Where our first day was all uphill, our second began with a descent. Back down the very same valley wall we had climbed the day before. By the time we broke for morning tea at the base of the famous hallucinogenic honey cliffs of the Kaski district our legs were quivering like royal jelly and desperate for some variation.
Be careful what you wish for!
Up, up and up…another 1000m climbed, yet in half the time it took us the first time around. Strangely, it didn’t feel so bad. The first signs of acclimatisation? Or the onset of heat stroke? Either way, the views back down and across the valley were stunning.
And yet despite the landscape painted before us, it was again the locals of the region going about their daily chores, working the land and eking out a living that made this such a special journey.
The young boy and his feathered opponent, spinning across the soil and living out his kung-fu dreams; the elder, squatting at the cliff’s edge and despite her advanced years still doing her part to support the village; the mother, one eye on the battle royale playing out behind her back, the other on her herbs.
In some ways it’s no different to our own way of life back home, and yet the simplicity, the connection to the land, transform these everyday activities into something special, both memorable and first-world photogenic.
It had taken us three hours, but as we passed through Landruk the trail finally leveled out as it hugged the contours of the rainforest-clad range, and we continued on to Pothana, where our tea house, and the source of our confusion awaited…
“Nima-dai!! What is this…?!!”
Nima walked over to our table and glanced down at the mug of dark liquid, still steaming in the cool night air.
“Yes, but what’s in it? How is it made? We can’t work it out!”
Nima turned to one of our porters and a Nepalese verbal tennis match commenced. We thought it was a simple enough question. Clearly not!
You see, it’s name was not enough. We had deduced that ‘Mustang’ referred to the remote region of far-north Nepal that extended up and onto the Tibetan plateau. Desolate, isolated, and ridiculously beautiful by all accounts.
The ‘coffee’ bit…? Well, when people are throwing ideas such as soy sauce, donuts and beef steak into the mix, you know it isn’t your regular cup of Nescafe!
At last, it became clear.
First, a dollop of butter in the pan and bring the heat up.
Then, (and this is why our tastebuds were so confused!) add some rice and fry it in the butter.
Pour into a glass and top up with the local rice wine ‘raksi’.
Finally, add a spoonful of coffee powder for that wonderful caffeine kick!
Sounds delightful, right?
‘Nasty’ seemed to be the common consensus, but in cooler conditions I could see how it might appeal. Yes, I’m being kind, but clearly someone up in the icy heights of the Mustang with more than a few centuries of history behind them thinks otherwise, so who are we to judge?! 😀
With the mystery solved, we again crashed for the evening…sunrise on our mind…
Length – 12km
Duration – 8 hours
Leech count – 1
Snake count – 0
Day 3 – Pothana-Phedi-Pokhara
Our last morning, and we were determined to wake up bright and early to catch this elusive sunrise!
The incessant drumming on the tin roof told us we didn’t even need to get out of our beds to look out the window. It was a washout!
A disappointment for sure, but having spent more than few years of my life living in some of the driest corners of Australia, that sound is like the sweetest symphony and is a sure-fire way to the best sleep EVER!
The descent to Pokhara was bitter-sweet to many. Having tested our bodies to their limits, leaning on each other for support and sharing our life stories as we went, a sense of kinship had evolved. Physically we were feeling good as well, and if anything we were just getting warmed up. Another day or two of hiking would have been perfect, but it wasn’t to be. Pokhara, Kathmandu, and our obligations to the Himalayan Travel Mart were calling, and it was a call that could not be ignored.
It was only a short hike, relatively speaking, at three hours or so. Nima was again in his element, showing us which ferns could be dug up and used as a water source, telling us stories of both Buddha and the Hindu gods, educating us on the history and modern-day intricacies of the caste system…so much knowledge in a man that never had the education we were all so privileged to receive as children.
Self-taught, and with vast life experience, he is a shining example of how mindset, passion and a deep-seated desire for self-improvement can overcome the largest obstacles. It was truly an honour to listen to his stories and perspective on life. If you’re reading this Nima, thank you!
With the sound of horns, trucks and people becoming louder the further we descended and the closer we got to Phedi, and the emergence of large groups of day-trippers exploring the many trails that criss-crossed the region, we could feel the experience waning, diluting, fading.
We weren’t the first to have explored the Ghandruk loop and we certainly won’t be the last, but our eclectic team of travel blogging trekkers was absolutely unique, and it is an experience I only wish I could have shared with Karen 🙂
Length – 7km
Duration – 3hrs
Leech count – 0
Snake count – 0
🙂 🙂 LIKE IT? PIN IT!! 🙂 🙂
Interested in doing the Ghandruk loop yourself…?
The trail is in great condition and you could easily do this on your own, basing yourself in Pokhara (the Glacier Hotel and Spa was like an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle!) and then taking the bus to Nayapul, or perhaps even staying the night in Nayapul and starting early. Do make sure you check with TAAN though, to make sure you have all the relevant permits before you start.
But…having completed the trek with Nima it was clear that to have done it alone would have meant missing out on so much valuable cultural, historical and social insight that you simply can’t extract from Google or a guide book.
Similarly, porters aren’t essential as it isn’t the toughest of treks. But being able to offload some of our non-essential gear did lighten the load, keeping us fresh and making it a little easier to appreciate our surrounds.
There are many trekking companies in Nepal, however Royal Mountain Travel is the company we were working with and they should be at the top of your list. Extremely professional, supremely knowledgeable, and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet!
This map will give you a good idea of where the hike is located in Nepal, and the route we took over the three days.
Interested in other hikes around the world…?
From Scotland to Japan, here are some of the most wonderful hiking experiences we’ve encountered on our travels:
- Scotland (Isle of Skye) – The Quiraing
- Tasmania – The Needles
- Argentina – Laguna de los Tres
- Japan – Shiratani Unsuikyo
- South Korea – Mt Namsan ‘The Museum Without Walls’
- Tasmania – Cape Hauy
To Ian, Marissa, Juno, Steve, Bruce, Heidi, Norbert, Arushi, Nima, our trekking guides and our porters, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
We began as strangers, we became a team, we finished as family 🙂
To the numerous Nepalese and other tourism organisations that made this adventure possible, I also extend my most sincere thanks. Without your support this could never have happened:
- Himalayan Travel Mart and the International Travel Bloggers and Media Conference;
- Nepal Chapter of PATA
- Nepal Tourism Board
- Turkish Airlines
I look forward to meeting many of you again one day, because as they say in Nepal, “Once is not enough!“.