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Nice Trek, shame about the guide

When a Nepali acquaintance (for lack of a better word) found out that a friend and I were planning to go hiking in Nepal, they gave us their dad’s number and said we should call him when we reached Kathmandu. He would help us out, they said.

It seemed a generous offer and when I and my hiking partner landed in Nepal, and after we had fought off the hoard of tour operators at the airport all promising hiking expeditions and pressing their business cards into our hands, we gave him a call.

We met him – I’m going to call him ‘Joe’ – for tea at one of the guesthouses in Thamel, Kathmandu’s bustling backpacker district. He seemed please to see us and – what luck – he was, he said, a hiking guide who had spent a great deal of time in the hills and mountains around Pokhara, Nepal’s second busiest tourist area after the capital and a hiking hotspot.

Nepal is rightly famous for its hiking. The mountain scenery is often breathtaking, even on the simplest hikes. Buddhist prayer flags hang in long lines on hill tops, framing snow-capped mountains, before you descend into green valleys and terraced villages. It’s a world away from the clamour of the capital.  I bought our tickets and the next day the three of us flew to Pokhara to begin our expedition.

On arriving, the first thing to do was to get a porter as my partner’s rucksack was enormous and she had made perfectly clear early on that there wasn’t any way she would be walking with it for six hours a day.

The size of our respective rucksacks had been a source of some disagreement. She appeared to have packed enough stuff to equip a small army or hike continuously for the rest of her life. I, on the other hand, was travelling light. She asked me if I intended to spend all my time in the hills in just a pair of shorts. I laughed dismissively, but when we reached Pokhara I realised in my bid to travel light I had left almost everything I needed behind and was grateful that she had brought all the things we needed.

On the other hand, I had at least  packed more sensibly than Joe. He had been wearing a suit and tie when we met him in Kathmandu and he appeared intent on wearing it while we were hiking too.  With great reluctance he was eventually persuaded against it, but that was the only concession he was willing to make. He insisted on doing the hike in a pair of smooth-soled black dress shoes. I questioned whether they were really suitable, but he told me he knew about hiking. These were perfectly good shoes and they had a six-month guarantee.

It soon became clear, or at least clearer, that it had been a little while since Joe was last in the mountains. He struggled away at the back of our group, every few minutes calling for us to stop and take his picture as he posed, breathless, in front of a mountain.  Once he berated me for not framing him in the middle of the shot.  “I know about taking photographs,” he told me. “The best photograph has me in the centre. Take it again.”  Then in the evenings, while my partner and I tried to stick to our budget, limiting ourselves to dhal bhaat (the low-key Nepali equivalent of an Indian thali), Joe would sit back, order a chicken sizzler, and stick it on our bill.

Having said all that, he never charged us for his guiding ‘expertise’ and, while I had mixed feelings about bank-rolling what was clearly his holiday, he was always good company when we sat down, exhausted, each evening.

Eight days later, when we got back to Pokhara, he changed back into his suit and tie, bought a new pair of shoes and gave us a message for his daughter – he loved her very much and all was fine back home. Then we parted.  You don’t need a guide to enjoy hiking in Nepal, and it will certainly be cheaper without one.

• Kathmandu is full of tour operators, some better then others, but you don’t need any of them to really enjoy your hike. Fly straight to Pokhara or Jomsom and organise your hike from there. Ask in your guesthouse if they can hook you up with a porter – the porter’s know the routes anyway so cut out the middleman. There is also some good hiking to be done straight from Kathmandu.

• Nepal has been an excellent hiking destination for a long time and with a bit of research, you could consider doing the simpler routes on your own. The trails are well known, often signposted and there are plenty of maps and guide books tailored specifically to hiking in Nepal.

• If you can, avoid peak season which runs from about October to the end of November. The hiking routes can get quite busy and you’ll save some money if you’re away from the crowd. The flip side is the weather – peak season of course has the best conditions.

• Pack appropriately, whether you have a porter to carry your gear or not. Even if you are staying in lodges, you may well want to take a sleeping bag and remember the temperature can drop pretty significantly at high altitudes.

• If you do decide to go without a guide, make sure you’re comfortable with the difficulty of the route you choose. In some cases, a bit of experience may well be a good thing.

The things you do need:

My hiking partner was from India and Joe was of course Nepali. As the only Westerner in the trio, my air ticket to Pokhara was the most expensive at about $180 for a return flight.

Nepal has several domestic airlines and all of them have offices in Thamel.  You also need a hiking permit, which you can get either in Kathmandu or when you reach Pokhara, the price varies depending on the amount of hiking you plan to be doing and, like the flights, it is more expensive if you’re from the West. It records your planned entry and exit points, so if you’re the one who is dealing with it because the man you’ve just flown to Pokhara as your guide wants to stay in bed, then it’s worth being clear what those are.  Also if you’re a westerner you need a TIMS card (which is free) so that people know what to do if something happens to you while you’re hiking. You get this in the same office you get the permit. If you’re from a country in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – such as India – it turns out you don’t need a TIMS card … although quite why not was never made clear to us.

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