Someone's knocking at the flimsy wooden door. They creak down the hall to wake the others who are climbing Poon Hill for sunrise. In this trekking lodge, the same as in most trekking lodges, every cough and every movement is amplified along the floorboards and through the thin wooden walls.
We gather downstairs, trickle outside, and hike up the steep trail that winds up Poon Hill, in darkness and in silence. From the summit of Poon Hill, the entire southern wall of the Annapurnas comes into view.
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In the western sky, Dhaulagiri, a Tibetan word meaning "the rock that stands alone", juts out sharply from the surrounding mountains to well over 26,000 feet. The Kali Gandaki River valley, the deepest valley in the world, cuts deeply between the two mountain ranges. Dhaulagiri catches the sun's rays first, with the Annapurnas in shadow as brightness swells behind them. Soon the Annapurnas' snow-covered peaks shine brilliantly in the early-morning sunlight.
On the way down Poon Hill, Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags flap in the breeze around a small shrine. The winds carry the prayers up to the Himalyan heavens.
Back at the Hotel Snow Land, Kaji, Pete and I pack up, breakfast and head out.
Pete's on the left, and Kaji's on the right.
Today's trek is all downhill, past Gurung and Poon villages, some of the Hill people of Nepal, to the Kali Gandaki River and the hot springs at Tatopani ("Tato" means "hot", and "pani" means "water").
Kaji's warm smile is so welcoming, so unaffected. He was a porter for five years before he became a guide, and has experienced their plight. He explains that large, well-funded expeditions can afford luxuries that far exceed necessity. Unscrupulous expedition organizers save money on porters by hiring half as many porters and ladening each with twice the load they should carry. These porters are often Tibetan refugees who speak little or no English. The expedition guides prefer porters who don't speak English so they can't communicate with those paying for the expedition, for if they could, the outside world would know more of their situation. In large expeditions, the porters travel separately from the guides and clients, widening the communication gap.