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Trip Report rkkwan's Nepal trip Sept 2016 - Annapurna Base Camp (and more)

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In Sept 2014, a friend, my wife and I went to Nepal for the first time. Visited Kathmandu, Pokhara and then did a 4-day Poon Hill Trek which turned into 5-day. The long-winded trip report is here:
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/rkkwans-nepal-trip-sept-2014-kathmandu-pokhara-poon-hill-trek.cfm

Pictures here: http://rkkwan.zenfolio.com/nepal1409

Exactly two years (and one big earthquake and one Indian blockade) later, we went again to the area. Instead of Poon Hill, this time we did a 8-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp with the same guide we used two years ago. But before getting to the trekking part, which I will post in a day-by-day fashion, I will first do some comparisons of Kathmandu and Pokhara between 2014 and 2016.

Kathmandu Airport

The expansion of the domestic terminal is complete. New check-in areas, but the waiting room for the gates is the same. Same chaotic baggage claim process, but at least it's now done under a nice roof, instead of under a hut. Same old shuttle buses for Buddha Air, and in fact I got stung by a bee on one. And same disgrace in the international terminal departure area.

Hotel Mum's Home

We stayed at Mum's Home for one-night on our way to Pokhara, and had a room for the day before heading back to HK at end of trip. Same hotel as 2 years ago. Same people, same breakfast; rooms and facilities just as fresh and good. The microvan for airport pickup/dropoff is nicer. [Last time, not sure if they had their own van or outsourced.] Main difference is cost. Triple room was $80 with one-way airport transfer in 2014. Now it's $38.5 and $45 for our two stays respectively. The other way to airport still costs US$8.

Kathmandu and Durbar Square

On the drives between airport and Thamel (where most budget tourist hotels are), traffic seems less than 2 years ago, which is not a bad thing at all. We feel that there are more motorcycles, however, and most of them are very new models.

Unless one goes to Durbar Square and surrounding older area, there is absolutely no sign whatsoever there was a massive earthquake 18 months ago in the city. Newer buildings all standing and there is no rubble to be seen anywhere. In Thamel, more new hotels have been completed, the streets are less dusty and some re-pavement done.

Walking through the narrow streets between Thamel and Durbar Square, we started to see some older buildings being supported by beams on the exterior. Also a few new buildings being built. Shops are as lively and busy as before.

Durbar Square on a Saturday afternoon was lively and bustling, again with lots of people around. The palace museum is open, and so is the courtyard for the Kumari House (which we entered). No rubbles for the collapsed temples; just their bases remain and warded off. Other standing structures are being supported by beams and courted off. Some are determined as safe with "Safe Zone" signs where people can again sit around the platforms. The entrance fees are now RS1,000 (about US$10) which we find extremely reasonable now.

We just missed the big Kumari Puja by two days, which ended this time while we were still in Pokhara. The two big Bhairava still there and the White Bhairava again exposed to be seen.

Food cost is constant from 2014. Last time, we ate at a rooftop restaurant at Durbar Square in Patan, and a Newari set with raksi (the super strong rice liquor) was RS800 (about US$8). Exact same price at the Kasthamandap roof top restaurant in Kathmandu this time. And in other areas, the same set was RS350-400 as before. In USD, things are 10% cheaper as 1USD = RS95 in 2014, but RS105 in 2016.

From the roof top, we could see Swayambhunath at a distance. The big white stupa stands nicely in the sun, with the surrounding structures collapsed. On our flight to Pokhara, I saw the even bigger Boudhanath after taking off (just like last time), and the upper part was covered in scaffolding.

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Anyways, to conclude, outside of Durbar Square, there was really little to remind us of the earthquake. And our experience is actually slightly better than in 2016. If you were planning to go to Kathmandu and postponed/cancelled due to the 2015 earthquake, there is really no reason not to go NOW.

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    Thanks Kathie. Pictures will have to wait a bit.

    Actually, it was not quite 17 months since the earthquake when we visited in early Sept, as it hit April 25, 2015.

    And want to add that while we did plan to return to the Annapurna area after our last trip, we were thinking more like 5 years. The earthquake actually sped it up as we believe the best way to support their economy is to VISIT IT!

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    Kathmandu-Pokhara

    Like last time, we flew on Buddha Air to Pokhara, which is at the foothill of the Annapurna range, and back. We chose Buddha Air over Yeti or Smirik because of their larger 50-seat ATR 42-320s. In 2014, we paid US$105 each way; in 2016, we paid $71 and $76. On our return flight, all airlines were booked full on Sept 16. Fortunately, our hotel manager was able to book us on an early flight on Sept 17 on Buddha despite being sold out on their website.

    Flights for the 90mi/150km took about 25 minutes. We considered but declined taking the bus back on the 120mi/200km route - somehow, that trip could take 6-8hours. Just too brutal and unreliable with the heavy rain on the previous days.

    Hotel Silver Oaks Inn

    Last time, we stayed at Hotel Dream based on Trip Advisor reviews. This time, our guide booked us at the Silver Oaks, which is similarly (highly) rated and similarly equipped. But Silver Oaks is significantly closer to the Lakefront Rd and Lake Fewa. Unfortunately nearby hills block the view to the Annapurna peaks from its rooftop. In 2014, we paid US$60/night for a triple room with breakfast; in 2016 we paid $40.

    Their rooms are all a bit different. Room 201 which we spent 3 nights after our trek was bigger than the one we had earlier. And we found that the room across the hall, 208, has a fridge. As usual, electricity supply is a main problem in Pokhara. At the Silver Oaks, the following are supplied by back-up power: wi-fi router, one light in the bathroom and one light in the main room. Meaning A/C, ceiling fan and all power socket are off when there’s no power from the utilities. During our stays, Silver Oaks did run their backup generator a few times when the length of power outage went for too long. And luckily, it wasn’t too hot during all our time there so we were never too uncomfortable. And we have learned to always plug our chargers in to top off our phones and cameras whenever there is power.

    Several breakfast sets were included. “Continental” with two eggs, toast, potatoes; pancakes; two types of Indian; porridge; and so on. Meat cost extra and we never found that necessary. The Indian sets take some time but very tasty. Laundry cost RS100/US$1 per kg, which was cheaper per weight than at Dream 2 years ago. Probably even cheaper if we bring them outside, but we were lazy.

    Food & Drinks

    There were some hits and misses during our stay in Pokhara. In chronological order:

    1. Byanja. Our guide took us there for lunch on the Lakeside Road. Popular new restaurant with standard fare in Pokhara - pizza, pasta, cocktails, etc... It was decent, but not the cheapest. About average.

    2. Pho99, which is a chain with Kathmandu and other locations. Somehow I wanted to have some non-Nepalese food before our trek. Various Vietnamese items were okay, but the beef and the soup in the pho was below par.

    3. Rosemary. A Kathmandu restaurant with a new branch in Pokhara. On the same side street as our hotel, this is a real gem. Excellent Asian and Western food and dessert, excellent service, very comfortable seating around a courtyard. So nice we ate dinner there two nights in a row.

    4. Fewa Paradise. In 2014, we spent hours here by the lakeside. This time, we found service lacking during lunch, food so so, and just didn’t have the atmosphere anymore. A shame.

    5. Paradise, which is next to Fewa Paradise. Food very good with generous portions, but they kept us in the main building near the roadway for lunch and not in their lakeside garden. So, we ate our lunch and went somewhere else for drinks.

    6. Bamboo Bar. Furthest north of the various bars/cafes by the lake. Very comfortable under a huge roof. We spent longer than we had planned there as we had to wait out a huge monsoon downpour. Our virgin drinks were tasty.

    7. David’s. It’s a tiny restaurant on the same side street as Rosemary and the Silver Oaks. Walked by there many times and decided to have dinner there for our last night in Pokhara. Extremely inexpensive, good tasting. Just don’t be in a hurry, though there really shouldn’t anything to hurry about in Pokhara.

    Pokhara 2016 vs 2014

    As expected, there are fewer tourists this time in Pokhara, both western and Chinese. Restaurants and shops on the main Lakeside Rd are less busy, though all still open. What’s unexpected is that there are many more hotels completed AND being built! And there are lots of new houses being built in the non-tourist parts of town, and business there are booming. It is actually quite strange.
    Our guide says there are even more paragliding companies now, as it is a “must-do” for the Chinese tourists, though we don’t see too many of Chinese in town this time. So, I don’t know if I would still recommend this top activity for Pokhara.

    Another strange thing is that while on the Annapurna Base Camp trek we saw tonnes of Koreans (about 75% of the trekkers are Korean, by my estimate), we only saw a few in Pokhara. Seems like they all stay in their designated hotels arranged by their Korean trekking companies and hardly wander in the city. We don’t see any sign in Korean in Pokhara, unlike Chinese everywhere (in 2014 and 2016).

    One thing that remains constant is the power outages. It was absolutely ridiculous in 2014 and same in 2016. How can a top tourist city in a country not able to provide one of the most basic service in any semi-modern civilisation. At least this time the outage is a bit more consistent - don’t expect any between 5-7p.

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    Reallyvenjoying the detail.

    We took a tourist bus in both directions between Kathmandu and Pokhara. An epic 11 hours going due to a landslide, and 7 hours on the way back. Glad we did the bus, but never again.

    Highlights of Pokhara for us were dawn at Sarangot, the clean air as opposed to the filthy smog of Kathmandu, the wonderful scenery, and spending a few days in traffic free Bandipur.

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    We gave ourselves 2+ extra days to get back to Hong Kong from Pokhara in case we got stuck in the mountains for whatever reason, but we actually completed our trek in 8 days as schedule, so there was time to spare.

    We definitely weren't trying to save money, as the flights weren't expensive. Rather, we though about seeing the scenery on the ground through the Gurkha region. But that idea was very brief as 1) we heard some horror stories from a couple from Canada or Scotland (I forgot); 2) the continuous rain; 3) my friend got sick AFTER getting back to Pokhara.

    We were thinking about 2 nights in Pokhara after our trek, then one night in Kathmandu before flying out. But with all PKR-KTM flights booked through on that Friday, we ended up spending 3 nights in Pokhara and then paid for a day-room in Kathmandu.

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    Preparations for ABC Trek

    Just to recap what happened when we went to Poon Hill in 2014... We weren't planning to use a guide, so we got our Trekker's Information Management System (TIMS) and Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) Permits in Kathmandu ourselves. When we got to Hotel Dream in Pokhara, the people there highly suggested we hired a guide (and you cannot just hire a porter alone) and suggested Ramchandra Subedi. He took care of us then, and we decided to use him again for our longer trek to ABC. I scanned our passports and emailed those and passport photo JPEGs to him and he took care of our permits, which saved us a lot of time and running around.

    Ram would also arrange the porter (who turned out to be a neighbor of his, making his first trek to ABC), as well as the Silver Oaks hotel for us, along with transportation to/from the trailheads.

    Being arrogant after our successful Inca Trail trek last year, and that we had been to the area before, we really didn't do much preparation other than buying a new headlamp (which saw little use, unlike in Peru) and the excellent Osprey Kyte 66L backpack to replace our older one. Boots, poles, etc are mainly the same we'd used for Nepal in 2014 and Peru in 2015. For altitude sickness, we again took Diamox - starting on evening of Day 2 of our hike till Day 7 - covering the days we were at 3,000m/10,000ft and the day prior. We didn't have problem before and we didn't have problem this time.

    One thing we could have and should have better prepared ourselves is rain gear. Early Sept is near the end of the rainy monsoon season, but we still got rain every day and at times very heavy, with water rushing down the trails. Gore-tex - whether for jacket, pants or boots - and various rain covers for backpacks and camera bags have their limits and the rain AND duration exceeded them. In short, we were very wet along with our stuff. We should have gotten huge ponchos that cover everything, and either protect our boots better with gaiters or simply switch to sandals when needed.

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    Route

    Unlike Inca Trail where one basically has to cover the trip with our group in 4 days (generally), there is a lot more flexibility for the Annapurna area for both time and routing. A lot of people would do Poon Hill + ABC in 10 days; and for ABC alone, quickest would be 5 days while one can also spread it out to 10. We read various blogs and found 7 days for ABC is about average on the shortest route roundtrip from Naya Pul (4 days up/3 down), so we planned for 8. Ram designed a route that started from Hemja, which is closer to Pokhara, rather than from Naya Pul or Phedi, which gave us two fairly easy days at relatively low elevation as warm ups. And that also means not taking the exact same route to/from, with other mountain viewings.

    Day 1: Hemja (1,070m/3,510ft) to Dhampus (1,650m/5,410ft)
    Day 2: Dhampus to Landruk (1,565m/5,135ft)
    Day 3: Landruk to Chhomrong (2,170m/7,120ft)
    Day 4: Chhomrong to Himalaya Hotel (2,920m/9,580ft)
    Day 5: Himalaya Hotel to Annapurna Base Camp (4,130m/13,350ft)
    Day 6: ABC to Bamboo (2,310m/7,580ft)
    Day 7: Bamboo to Jhinu Danda (1,780m/5,840ft)
    Day 8: Jhinu Danda to Naya Pul (1,070m/3,510ft)

    Because there is quite a range of cost for guides and porters in the region, the subject is a bit sensitive. Please contact me directly if you want to know our cost. But I would say that even though it is possible to go without a guide, I highly recommend one for two main reasons. First, even though one can read everything about the route and distance and elevation, etc on the internet, the actual trek may surprise you. For example, who would know that Day 5 (most elevation change, at the highest elevation) is actually much easier than Day 4? And what to do when there is landslides blocking the trek? Second, a guide should know all the teahouses on the route and can call and notify them ahead. At ABC, getting a private room can be a problem in high season, and in fact, we were luckily one to two days ahead of a lot of Koreans.

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