Before I’d arrived in Nepal the research that I had done on the different hikes available led me to the Khopra Ridge trek in the Annapurna region. For me, it seemed to tick all the right boxes: it was less popular, less commercialised, supported local communities and offered some of the best views in the region. So as I finished my first trek in Nepal in Langtang Valley, my thoughts immediately turned to Khopra Ridge and once I’d arrived back in Kathmandu, I began planning.
Khopra Ridge begins in Nayapul, the same starting point as the ever popular Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek, except that it branches left and runs almost parallel to it. Instead of running through a valley to an open amphitheatre like the ABC trek, it climbs up to Khopra Danda, a single community lodge perched right on the edge of a ridge with exceptional views of two of the highest mountains in the world.
The trek is part of the Annapurna Dhaulagiri Community trek, a brain child of Mahabir Pun, ‘the man who brought internet to rural Nepal’. Mahabir is a local man to the area who, after contacting the BBC in 2001, managed to begin a project with the help of international donors to establish high speed wireless internet connection to many of the villages on the trek. Since then he has also worked on sustainable livelihood projects, one of which was to establish a community trek, where trekking lodges would be community-run with all money going back into local schools and health clinics.
Mahabir also has a restaurant in Thamel, Kathmandu called Mahabir Dai’s restaurant, which operates as a not-for-profit and I visited it for lunch before leaving for Pokhara. They have maps and information there for those interested in supporting his projects or doing the whole community trek (Khopra Ridge is just a section of it).
I left for Pokhara from Kathmandu on the tourist buses that leave every morning at 7am just outside of Thamel. The buses are all lined up along the main road, numbering up to 30 in high season. Tickets can be purchased the day before from any hostel or tour agency. The trip takes around 8 hours.
Pokhara is Nepal’s hippie haven where people get lost for days or even weeks wandering by the lakeside and eating at one of the many cafes along the 4km strip of tourist shops. Lakeside is practically just a more laidback version of Thamel, with similar bars, souvenir and clothing shops and trekking gear rentals and agencies. It has some incredible restaurants and I spent most of my time their eating my way down the street. Still, after a few days, I was keen to leave Pokhara behind and head into the mountains, which were just visible from Lakeside on a clear morning.
Where I stayed
In Pokhara, I stayed at one of the nicest hostels I’d stayed at in a while and it seemed more of a flashpackers even though it was one of the cheapest in town. At Gauri Shankar Backpackers, for 500 rupees (AUD$6) per night I got a bed in a four bed dorm. It had a great garden area to chill in, the beds were huge and comfortable, the rooms were more like hotel rooms converted into dorms, excellent WiFi and helpful staff (basically a dream hostel).
In Pokhara, it took me a day to organise everything for the trek. I walked the 2km to the ACAP Office (near the Tourist Bus Park) where I got my Trekkers Information Management System (TIMS) card for 2000 rupees (AUD$25). I also arranged my Annapurna Conservation Area park fees there for 3000 rupees (AUD$38). You have to know your rough itinerary, have plenty of passport photos and have your travel insurance information with you.
I hired a sleeping bag from Yak and Yeti Trekking shop, just 200m from Gauri Shankar hostel. I paid 150 rupees per day (AUD$2) for a -20deg down bag, although he first asked for 200 so prices are negotiable. The staff weren’t the friendliest, but the sleeping bag was fantastic (possibly too warm!) so I couldn’t complain.
I packed everything I needed into my 30L backpack again, with the sleeping bag taking up half the space inside, but I knew I could get by with very little.
I purchased a Round Annapurna map, which covered the entire National Park rather than just the section I was doing. I already had plans for more trekking in the area so I knew I would need it again and due to the unpredictable weather at the time I thought my plans might change part of the way and I wanted to have a map with all of the trail possibilities. The maps go for around 350 rupees (AUD$4.50) anywhere in Pokhara.
The starting point, Nayapul, was not too far away and with frequent public buses and jeeps plying the route, you don’t need to pre-book a ticket.
Day One: Nayapul to tirkhedhanga
Being confident I was a quick walker and would knock the first day out fast, I relaxed in the morning in Pokhara, had a leisurely breakfast and hadn’t even fully packed yet. By the time I was ready to leave it was 10am and I made my way to the Baglung Bus Park where the buses to Nayapul leave from. I managed to find one just as it was leaving the station, but of course they stopped numerous times before leaving Pokhara itself.
The bus trip was two torturous hours of windy, bumpy roads and I was glad when the conductor finally motioned for me to get off. It was past 12pm and so I sat down for lunch in Nayapul before setting off. There was a signpost on the main road pointing down to the village with ‘Annapurna Base Camp trek, Ghorepani, Poon Hill’ written on it.
Just 1.5km past Nayapul I came to Birethanti where the ACAP checkpost was and I had to show my permit. The trail branched off to the left and climbed gradually along the dirt road to the small village of Tirkhedhanga. I stayed at the very first lodge on the trail as the lady was pretty nice and offered me a free bed.
Distance: 9km Time: 2.5 hours Ascended: 500m
Day Two: tirkhedhanga to ghorepani
I was following the same trail as the ever popular 3 day Poon Hill trek up to Ghorepani and so I passed many people along the way. It’s marketed as an ‘easy trek’ and it attracts every man and his dog who want to get a glimpse of the Himalayas from Poon Hill. However, it’s certainly not that easy, and to get up to Ghorepani required 3200 rocky stairs for the first part of the way.
However, after getting the stairs done by around 11.30am and stopping for a fresh juice at a teahouse, the trail became more gradual as it continued to climb up to Ghorepani. I began to catch up to all the large trekking groups who’d left much earlier than me in the morning (I’m more of a 9am start kind of gal) and it was frustrating as the trail wasn’t wide enough for me to pass them. I needed a bell that the yaks wear so people know that I was coming!
The sky was turning grey and I was pushing to make Ghorepani before the rain. Just as I came into the large trekking town with countless high-rise lodges, the thunder began to sound. I found Sunny Hotel, a place that had been recommended to me for its awesome views from the dining room, and made a beeline for it. The lady said I could have a free room and device charging as long as I ate there. I spent the afternoon watching the rain and hail pour down from inside the warm dining room as other trekking groups started to roll in. I noticed the lady was charging those trekkers 500 rupees for a bed! There’s always advantages when trekking on your own.
Distance: 10km Time: 4.5 hours Ascended: 1380m
Day Three: ghorepani to dhankharka/ chisitbung
The main reason people haul themselves up the steep stairs to Ghorepani is for a sunrise view from Poon Hill. It’s often said to be the most beautiful view of the Himalayas, but that’s mostly because it’s more accessible for people and in reality, there are much better views if you only walk a few more days. On this morning, I woke up to the sound of rain and decided I wasn’t going to trudge up to some viewpoint with hundreds of other people to see absolutely nothing and I made the right decision. Many people walked back down disappointed, but I was lucky to have more chances ahead of me to see some of the highest peaks in the world.
The rain subsided after sunrise and I headed off for the day, after stopping at a shop to buy some new earphones (yes, I’d broken another pair). Not far down the track, I saw a faint trail heading off the to the right and a small sign saying ‘Khopra‘ and so that was my cue to leave the main trail behind and start the real trek ahead of me.
Now that I was off the main trail, I was supposed to be following blue and white painted markers to know I was on a ‘minor trail’. However, a couple of kids yelled out to me as I passed and they said, “Here!”. They pointed to a trail that ran through their house and so I followed it, a little dubious at first. I checked the trail marked on the Maps.me app on my phone and it seemed to be correct, so I thanked the kids and kept following it. Eventually I came out at a river and crossed a suspension bridge before a steep, short climb to a village called Swanta.
From Swanta, the blue and white markers reappeared and were relatively consistent from then on. The trail undulated through a forest, moving away from the sights and sounds of civilisation. I came across three American trekkers also without a guide on their way down and I stopped to talk to them about the trail conditions up to Khopra. After not seeing anyone since I’d turned off the main trail, it was a relief.
I made it to a small single lodge called Evergreen and judging by my phone it was only a steep 1.5km up to Chistibung, which I estimated would take one hour. The sky was dark in the distance but I figured I could beat the weather to the top. Not long after I set off, however, it started to rain and then hail and then the sound of thunder and lightning came overhead. At first, I thought to myself that it wasn’t too bad but I should’ve touched wood, as soon enough hail and snow came pelting down covering the trail in front of me in a blanket of white.
I thought I mustn’t be far away but when I looked at the Maps.me app it still said 580m to go, which doesn’t seem far but in that moment it seemed like kilometres. I kept trudging on, climbing up and up through the forest, stopping every 20m to check I was still on the right path. The lightening scared me the most, I could see the flashes of light above me, it seemed so close. Every 30 seconds a loud clap of thunder would ring in my ears and I would duck my head in a sort of natural reaction. I held myself together and then couldn’t any longer. I had tears in my eyes and I was hyperventilating, from the exertion and the fear. I was practically running from tree to tree for some form of shelter even though I knew it was wrong with the lightening overhead, but it seemed logical. I checked my phone, 200m to go, c’mon I just had to get there. I pushed upwards, almost running, until I caught a glimpse of a lodge ahead, relief.
I heard a voice, “Quick, come in here,” and I practically dived inside to escape whatever was out there, the storm. I heard a girl say, “You’re safe now,” and at the time, they were the sweetest words I’d ever heard.
I sat in the teahouse, stunned, relieved, staring into nothingness. I didn’t even bother to eat lunch, I had no appetite despite the energy I’d expended to get there. It was only 1.30pm but the lodge manager put the wood fire heater on anyway, I needed the warmth. For the rest of the afternoon I sat by the fire reading a book with another couple of hikers, a girl from Poland and guy from India, who were also on their way up and had been stuck there avoiding the bad weather. The weather report looked promising for the next couple of days though, so I went to bed hopeful that my trek could only get better.
Distance: 10km Time: 5 hours Descended: 450m Ascended: 900m
Day Four: dhankharka/chistibung to khopra danda
I stepped outside in the morning to find a crystal clear blue sky and warm sun. It was like the day before had never happened. There was apparently a two day window of good weather, and although I initially thought to skip going up to Khopra Ridge, I decided to go for it. I left just before 9am and followed the trail that was still covered in a layer of white ice from the storm the day before. It was a steep trail that gained 200m in elevation for every 1km and I stopped more often than usual to catch my breath.
The views got insanely good as soon as I’d left the tree line near Chistibung and I was walking through snow and gazing at snow capped mountains around me. After the trail reached its highest point (3600m) it began to snake around the ridge to where the community lodge was and I could see Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world, in front of me. The ridge must have got heavy snowfall overnight as the trail was completely gone and I just knew I could see the lodge around the corner and had to get to it. I cautiously moved forward, using my walking pole to stab the snow in front of me to check for solid ground. A few times my foot fell through up to my knee but otherwise, it wasn’t too bad. I stumbled into the lodge to discover I was the first one to arrive and the two managers greeted me. It was only 11.30am and I, along with the couple who’d been in the same lodge as me the night before and just behind me, enjoyed the incredible view from the ridge all afternoon that included Dhaulagiri in the distance and Annapurna South right in our face.
As the sun began to set, the temperature dropped to below freezing and we were inside the dining room staying warm. A large German trekking group arrived as well as another couple of people who arrived late and soon the lodge was full. Of course, as the lodge was part of Mahabir Pun’s community trek it had WiFi available and some of the best WiFi I’d found in Nepal, all the way up at 3600m! The dining room was a noisy affair with 15 German trekkers and their full team of porters and guides, and us few independent trekkers. By 8pm, however, people slowly started heading to bed.
Distance: 3km Time: 2.5 hours Ascended: 650m
Day Five: Khopra danda to dobato
I rose just before the sun at 5.45am to a cloudless sky and clear view of the mountains. Wrapped in all the clothing that I had, I waited until the sun rose and boy, was it an unbelievable sight. I had seen photos of the Himalayan peaks lit up a bright orange as if on fire as the sun hit them first thing in the morning, but to see it with my own eyes was something else. A memorable sunrise if there ever was one.
There is a side trip to Khayer Lake from Khopra which takes you up to 4600m and is an apparently exceptionally beautiful place, however, the trail was closed at the time due to the snow and impossible to reach.
So after breakfast I headed back down to Chistibung again, making it down in only 1.5 hours. From there I turned left, instead of following the same trail I had done on the way up, and headed for Dobato. The trail undulated through forest before descending steeply down to a river. I knew then that I would have to climb steeply and regain almost all the elevation I’d just descended.
On the way up to Bayeli, the trail turned to heavy snow again and I slowed down as I found myself slipping and cursing my way through it. I arrived in Bayeli and knew I needed a rest so stopped for some lunch there where some other trekkers had a similar idea. From there it was 2.5km to Dobato on a fairly flat trail, but the snow continued and really made it hardwork. By the time I got to Dobato, thick cloud had rolled over the mountain and I’d had enough snow for one day.
Dobato was busy with trekking groups and guides and I took the opportunity to ask some guides about the upcoming weather report and conditions on the trails. I had originally planned to link up with the Annapurna Base Camp trail in Ghandruk but they all warned me against it, the weather was turning bad again and the risk of avalanches was high, with one already killing a trekker and his guide just a few days before. So it looked like my trek in the Annapurnas was ending very shortly.
Distance: 11km Time: 6 hours Descended: 800m Ascended: 600m
Day Six: Dobato to ghandruk
I was up again before 6am, this time to head up to Muldai Viewpoint at 3640m where there was yet another exceptional view awaiting me. It was a steep climb up from Dobato but heavily packed with deep snow and ice. A walk that would have usually taken me 20 minutes maximum took nearly 45 minutes as I cautiously scrambled up to the top. The sun had well and truly risen by then but the view was pretty incredible.
Dhaulagiri was in the distance, Annapurna I was right in front of me, along with Macchapuchare (or Fishtail) and even Manaslu was off to the far right. The Annapurna region’s most exceptional panorama. There was only a handful of people sharing the hill with me and I stayed to soak up the view despite the freezing air. On the way back down, I slid parts of the way, as there was simply no grip on the slippery ice and only some protruding trees to grab on to.
I was back for breakfast and then left at 9am to head down further. The snow continued for an hour and that was enough to frustrate me. However, as soon as it thinned out and the dirt trail was visible again I was flying along at a good pace. It was a foggy morning lower down and I wanted to make it to Ghandruk before the rain in the afternoon. I made it to Tadapani, a major trekking junction and popular place for short hikes, by 11.30 and was already so hungry I ordered a dal bhat for lunch. When the lady came around for any refills, I said yes to all of them.
Tadapani was a busy place, and I saw more trekkers than I’d seen in total for the last few days all dressed in their crisp new trekking gear. As I continued down to Ghandruk the trail was crowded with people heading up (it’s an alternative route to Poon Hill). Eventually I was down in the mossy forest area again with blooming rhododendrons, meaning I was back in a much lower altitude.
I picked a guesthouse in Ghandruk and the rain rolled in not long after. The weather was not looking very good and so I reluctantly planned to head back to Pokhara and try a different trek elsewhere in the region instead.
Distance: 12km Time: 5 hours Descended: 1420m
Day Seven: ghandruk to kimche (and back to pokhara)
From Ghandruk, the only way to get back to Pokhara was to walk back along a dirt road to the start of the only motorable road in the area and hope to catch a bus or jeep leaving. So I headed off and just 1.5km out of Ghandruk I found a group of jeeps waiting. When I asked how much they wanted 1000 rupees (AUD$12) per seat. It was expensive but I knew that was because they were specifically for tourists rather than locals so I kept walking.
Another 1.5km down the road I arrived in a town called Kimche and I asked for buses to Pokhara. A man said I had to wait and one would come through within an hour. I sat to wait and judging by the dead quiet town I figured I could be waiting for a long time. Five minutes later a jeep pulled up full of locals and the driver asked if I wanted a lift for 400 rupees which was the same price as the bus and I couldn’t say no to that.
Distance: 3km Time: 1 hour Descended: 360m
Accommodation was pretty standard across the whole trek, a basic room with a single bed and shared bathroom. The first couple of nights I got a bed for free but after that I was charged around 200-300 for a room (AUD$3-4). In Ghandruk, I paid 500 (AUD$6). WiFi was available for free in Ghorepani, Khopra Danda and Ghandruk and hot showers were widely available but for a fee.
Menus were almost identical with numerous variations on three basic staples, pasta/noodles, rice and potatoes. Dal bhat as always was the most cost effective choice, with free refills. Prices didn’t change as much as expected, even as I got higher. A dal bhat with chicken was 650 in Tirkhedhanga and rose to just 750 for a veg option at Khopra.
As mentioned above, red and white markers are used in the Annapurna Conservation Area for main trails and that is what I followed up to Ghorepani and again from Tadapani down to Ghandruk. Blue and white is used for minor trails which includes Khopra. Other than the first section from Ghorepani to Swanta, the markers were pretty consistent and meant that having a map was unnecessary, although having Maps.me working on my phone was vital especially with the snow obscuring parts of the trail. The lodge owners and guides I met were always helpful to answer any questions too.
Permit and park fees: 5000 rupees (AUD$65)
Sleeping bag rental: 1200 rupees (AUD$15)
Snacks: 1000 rupees (AUD$12)
Meals and accommodation: 11,200 rupees (AUD$145)
Transport (to and from): 600 rupees (AUD$8)
Total: AUD$245 for six nights, seven days