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On and Off the Beaten Path in Nepal

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When you leave somewhere and go to a new place, you can either feel comfortable and complete with your experience or incomplete and wanting for more. Circumstances vary, but for all the places we’ve visited on this trip I can confidently say I’ve been ready to go when the time has come. Everywhere, that is, except Nepal.

We’ve just left Kathmandu after staying in the country for a month, and we feel like we could easily have stayed for twice as long or more without growing bored. Some places are just a great fit, and for us Nepal was that place.

Why go to Nepal?

Simply put: trekking. Sorry New Zealand, but the best trekking (or hiking, tramping, walking, whatever you call it) in the world is in Nepal. The country was essentially built on walking, as a large part of the population lives in rural mountain villages with no road access. Trekking is just business as usual. Some of these local trails have been converted to tourist routes, but there are plenty of routes that are still literally off the beaten path.

Guided vs. Unguided?

With much of the tourism industry built around trekking, Nepal has no shortage of excellent guides at very reasonable prices (around US$20 per day). And taking a guide is a great way to go. A good guide will help you with everything involved with trekking, from booking buses to renting gear and making sure you’re safe and healthy along the route. Our awesome guide, Pradeep from Nepal Para Trek, even taught us the basics of the Nepali language along the trail!

We loved our experience with a guide and it made the Annapurna basecamp trek very easy for us, logistically at least. That said, you probably don’t need a guide. On our second trek, Pradeep was unavailable so we went alone and it was a much different experience. We were able to connect more closely with the local people along the trail because we were forced to interact with them during mealtimes at teahouses. My strong recommendation is to take a guide on your first trek so that you can get the basics down, then go unguided on your second trek for more of an adventure.

Teahouse vs. Camping Trek

Most trekking in Nepal is from village to village, and you stay in simple teahouses run by local families that provide your meals. This, as you might expect, is awesome. The other option is to camp, with porters carrying all your food and equipment. As far as I can see the only reason to go on a camping trek in Nepal is if there’s something you absolutely HAVE to see where teahouses don’t exist (Kanchenjunga Basecamp, for example). But why be so picky? Relax, enjoy yourself, and sleep in a real bed in a teahouse. It’s cheaper and unique. You can camp anywhere in the world but few places have the kind of trekking infrastructure that Nepal does.

What’s staying in a teahouse like?

Kyanjin Gompa Guest House

Kyanjin Gompa Guest House

Rooms are simple, with thin foam mattresses and heavy blankets. We brought rented sleeping bags ($1.50 per day) with us at the recommendation of our guide and were thankful. Nights at high elevation get VERY cold, even when it’s scorching hot in Kathmandu. Warm showers are sometimes available, usually at a small cost ($1.50-$3). I usually took a cold shower or skipped it because my long hair takes about a week to dry in the damp mountain air.

Accommodation is cheap (from free to $3), and the food is good. We spent about $15 per day on food, which included a lot of rice but very little beer, which gets expensive ($4-6.50, 600ml) because it has to be carried up the mountain.

Other Pursuits

While trekking is where Nepal is best, there are certainly other things to do. If you’ve got the funds go rafting or kayaking on what some say are some of the worlds top ten whitewater opportunities, or live in the lap of luxury for a fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere.

Shopping in the charmingly chaotic Kathmandu neighborhoods of Thamel and Old Town is fun for a little while, but most of the shops begin to look the same after a day or so, because, well, they are all the same. A recurring joke with our trekking buddies when discussing the location of anything in Thamel was, “Was it between the big knife store or the hemp t-shirt shop?” There are many bargains to be had though, with t-shirts from $4 and knock-off North Face down jackets around $25.

Kathmandu Bro Smiles

Need to Know

For any trek you’ll need a TIMS (Trekking Information Management System) card and permit for the area. TIMS cards can be purchased in Kathmandu and cost $31, and permits are usually purchased at the local National Park Office you’ll be trekking in; most cost around $20. Permits to climb peaks or hike in some areas can get very expensive (up to $500), but if you’re on a normal tourist trail that shouldn’t be an issue. Maps are available in most towns for $3-$5. Look for a map with a scale around 1:50,000 to be useful.

Tourist buses go between Kathmandu and Pokhara daily for $6, but for more obscure trips you might have to take a terrifying and uncomfortable local bus. Look for the possibility of a private jeep if available. They’re more comfortable and similarly priced to the buses.

Oh yeah, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Nepali people, who are lovely and welcoming and excited to share their country with you. It’s a melting pot of Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese cultures that’s really unique and quite fascinating. Most people speak good English and are eager to chat, though some in Thamel may just be trying to sell you fake jewelry or hashish. As usual, be on guard, but don’t be scared to talk because someone might be after your rupees, you can always say no and walk away.

I could go on for days about Nepal, but this should get you started on any journey there. If you have any specific questions we’re happy to help! Just ask in the comments or email us.

Recommendations:
Kathmandu:
Alobar 1000
Elbrus Home
Himalayan Java
Roadhouse Cafe

Pokhara:
Royal Guest House
AM/PM Organic Cafe
Old Lan Hua Chinese Restaurant
Busy Bee’s Bar and Restaurant

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Gallery: Milford Track

Last week, Christina and I walked the Milford Track. Dubbed “The Finest Wok Walk in the World,” we had high hopes for this trip. After 53.5km of tumbling waterfalls, epic vistas, and misty mountains fit for the finest of wizards, let’s just say that our expectations were totally exceeded in every way. Here are a few photos from the trip:

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The Liverpool Hut Fiasco

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The plan was to hike to the Liverpool Hut in Mt. Aspiring National Park. It’s a 6 hour hike: 4 hours along the Matukituki valley then 2 hours up the mountain. What was supposed to be an early departure from town turned into a 2pm start time. We packed some booze, the board game Risk, and a delicious dinner. When we crossed paths with the warden of the Mt. Aspiring Hut around 4pm and told him that it was our intention to go for the Liverpool Hut that night, he suggested we reconsider our plan. We still had 5 hours of walking ahead of us and the last two were quite steep. It would be dark when we arrived at the hut.

Our initial reaction was, this guy is like 80 years old and is underestimating our ability. Side note: In the states, the park rangers often overestimate the time and skill level required to complete a hike. On the east coast, we look for descriptions that say strenuous because that is where the interesting hikes begin. In New Zealand though, the time estimates are accurate, and strenuous means you will sweat your ass off.

Walking along the Matukituki valley

Walking along the Matukituki valley

We continued past the warden in silence, quietly walking and mulling over the plan.

“We could do it. It would be like 9pm when we get there, but we could do it,” Someone said.

There were a bunch of yeah, mmhmm, I think we coulds from the group then a moment of silence. The woods are going to get dark a lot earlier than the valley though. I mean, we have headlamps, but do we really want to be faffing around in the woods at night when we could be playing Risk in the hut?

Dominating the world, from the comfort of the woods

World Domination.

We called it quits after two hours of walking and started setting up the board game at a communal table in the Mt. Aspiring Hut. Throughout the evening, we ate all of the bacon, drank all of the Jameson, gobbled down massive quantities of chocolate, and played the game of world domination with two Israeli guys who discussed their strategy in Hebrew before moving pieces. By midnight, we were too drunk to care about the pitch black night’s sky, positively littered with stars.

Oh my god, look at the stars!

Mmhmm, I’m going to bed. Where’s the water?

Hydrating

We woke the next day at 10 and set out around 11 for the Liverpool Hut. We left our packs where we had stayed the night before and brought only our lunch and water bottles, which we refilled in the streams that ran off the glaciers above us. The beginning part of the hike was all photo ops and river crossings until we got to the base of the mountain, which seemed to form a 60 degree angle with the valley floor. Hand over foot we climbed, assisted by roots that served as ropes, up the thousand meter ascent. Two steps forward, one step up, stopping frequently to enjoy the views and catch our breath. Boob sweat, back sweat, sunscreen in your eyes, we climbed. No one could be bothered with pictures. An hour and a half later, we spotted the little red Liverpool Hut that we had seen in pictures at the car park. Hut! the first person called, Hut Hut! the second in line shouted back. But still, it wasn’t close. We stopped for lunch on the trail with a great view, but not at the hut where we intended to be. Fuckit, let’s eat.

Group shot

After lunch we split up. A few of us went on and some started the descent. The hut was on a ridge, 30 minutes from where we first spotted it. It was there for a reason. That ridge had the best view of Mt. Aspiring of anywhere in the valley. It was stunning and only confirmed my suspicion: we will be doing this hike again. I need to stay in that hut and sit on the porch, with a cup of coffee in hand, watching the sun come up over  Mt. Aspiring. It was 3pm when we arrived at Liverpool Hut. We stayed for 10 minutes, knowing that we had a 5 hour trek back to the car, an hour drive back to town, and no more food. The walk out was gorgeous, but I had shaky legs and kept thinking about how far we had to go.

As soon as we got cell service, we phoned in an order for burgers for pick up. We took them home, sat on the floor and unwrapped their beautiful, greasy paper before attacking them like a pack of wild dogs.  Twas a phenomenal hike, executed in entirely the wrong way.

 

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Gallery: October Adventure

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Hiking Mt. Somers

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If the Mt. Somers hiking trail isn’t one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” I’m excited to see what’s made the cut.

We began our hike, or “tramp” in the local lingo, at the Sharplin Falls parking area, near Staveley, about an hour from Christchurch. Our route was Sharplin Falls to the Woolshed Creek Hut (bypassing the Pinnacles Hut), where we’d spend the night, and then to Woolshed Creed parking lot the following day. We met an affable Czech named Jan overnight in the hut, and he graciously provided us a ride back to our car.

Our first day was the longer of the two, with five hours on the trail broken up by a leisurely lunch at the Pinnacles Hut. The morning featured a steep climb up to 800 meters followed by a wonderful jaunt along Boyers Creek. Due to spring runoff, the creek was more like a raging river, taking parts of the track down with it and slowing our progress, but the challenge of hopping from rock to rock along the riverbed with our packs did nothing but add to our enjoyment. We climbed out of the river valley and into the sub-alpine bush above and arrived at Pinnacles Hut for lunch around one o’clock. At our stop there, I learned that the rock formations directly behind the hut (the “Pinnacles”) are home to some excellent sport climbing routes. As I salivated over the lines, I concocted a plan to return with ropes and gear for an extended stay at Pinnacles Hut.

The weather turned worse as we departed the hut, with rain changing to sleet and eventually, snow. We felt two worlds away from our humid morning jumping from around in the creek bed, but again, the journey, and its attendant challenges, are the point. As the weather continued to decline, the terrain eased and we hurried our pace, eager to dry off in front of a fire at our day’s destination. A few hours and several frigid river crossings later, we had arrived, hanging our soggy socks behind a crackling fire.

I’ll reiterate Bill Bryson’s point from A Walk in the Woods: besides the beautiful scenery and physical rewards, hiking’s appeal comes largely from deprivation and then return of basic comforts. As I sit in front of that fire, warming my frozen toes, I felt tremendously fortunate to have simple warmth.

As we patted ourselves on the back for our decision to bring our camping stove, we enjoyed a simple vegetable soup and chatted over tea with our new Czech friend. I discovered that he was also a rock climber in need of a belay partner, so we exchanged contact information and discussed the lines at the crags we’d gawked at on the way in. Tired from our long day fighting the wind on the trail, we turned in early to read a few pages of our book before nodding off to a restful sleep.

We awoke to find our fire burnt out and a strong chill in the air. The hut sat down in a deep valley, so while the sun was shining on the hilltops, it hadn’t yet reached the few inches of snow that accumulated overnight lower down. The cold motivated an early start, so we were on the trail again before eight o’clock. While the signs outside the hut indicated it was a three hour trip to the end of the track, we hustled through it in half that and were back at our car and relaxing in the Staveley Village Store, drinking hot coffee and snacking before 10am. This was backpacking at its most luxurious.

New Zealand’s backcountry huts provide an unprecedented and unequaled level of comfort, especially compared to those I’ve visited in the northeastern United States. They’re equipped with wood stoves and firewood, sleeping mats, sinks with clean running water, and, most importantly, four walls and a roof. The shelters in the United States are simple platforms with leaky roofs, open on one side to the elements and, if you’re lucky, near a running stream or fire pit. New Zealand’s backcountry huts are the Ritz-Carlton to the United States’ Motel 6.

Tickets to stay in one of the country’s extensive system of huts ($15 per person or $120 for an annual pass) are available at Department of Conservation offices, many visitor’s centers, in the general stores at each end of the Mt. Somers Track. The Staveley Village Store is worth a stop anyway for a delicious savory brioche and a cup of coffee after a few snowy and windy days on the trail.

This hike came recommended by a few different guide books (Fodor’s, Lonely Planet), so I had high expectations. Despite (or possibly even because of) the weather, it exceeded all my hopes. The terrain was challenging but not difficult while changing from lush forest to rocky alpine terrain. There were exciting river crossings and comfortable huts spaced relatively close together. At the beginning of December we’re scheduled to hike the Heaphy Track, which is part of the “Great Walks” system. These are the most popular tramps in the country, and come with special (higher) rates and an online booking system. If Mt. Somers didn’t qualify as a “Great Walk,” I’m excited to see what has.

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