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?
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.
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.
Need to Know
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.
Royal Guest House
AM/PM Organic Cafe
Old Lan Hua Chinese Restaurant
Busy Bee’s Bar and Restaurant
The Langtang Trek in northern Nepal offers an incredible opportunity to live among Tibetan refugees and spot red panda and snow leopard (though reports of sightings were infrequent and dubious) in the foothills of the Himalaya. Unfortunately, getting to the start of the trek can be a bit of an…adventure:
Despite the thirteen (!) hour bus ride that involved getting stuck in a landslide inches from certain doom, countless delays at military checkpoints and every kind of weather, we made it to Syabru Besi and the start of the trek. Phew.
Day 1: Syabru Besi (1300m) to Lama Hotel (2300m)
Day 2: Lama Hotel (2300m) to Langtang (3300m)
Day 3: Langtang (3300m) to Kyanjin Gompa (3800m)
Day 4: Rest day in Kyanjin Gompa
Day 5: Descend to Lama Hotel
Day 6: Descend to Syabru Besi
The first two days of this trek came as advertised, with two kilometers vertical gain they were challenging but possible for anyone with a moderate level of fitness. Things were made worse for us by persistent rain and fog, and an equally persistent illness that we both contracted on the aforementioned bus ride from hell. So we were rewarded with exactly zero mountain views for our entire ascent up the valley, but isn’t hiking long distances about delaying gratification anyway?
We’d scheduled a rest day in Kyanjin Gompa, which wasn’t entirely necessary for resting purposes but provided an opportunity to explore this mountain village and its surrounding peaks. Tired of walking and both still feeling a bit under the weather (pun very much intended), we chose to take a pony ride! After inquiring with our host (who advertised “HORSE RIDING AVAILABLE”) he responded,”You want horse ride?” with some surprise, then “Ok, I go catch horses” [emphasis added].
After the initial embarrassment of trotting around awkwardly on a horse that felt too small to carry my weight I realized “Hey self, you’re riding a horse in the Himalayas. Enjoy it!” And then I did. When I learned my horse (I dubbed him Joey Chestnutt and Christina’s Poopeater) was nearly as old as I am I felt better about trusting him not to fall off narrow mountain pathways with me teetering on his back. I hope he enjoyed his well-earned reward of cabbage afterward. Ya done good, Joey.
If we were feeling better we would have climbed one of the smaller peaks around the village, like Kyanjin Ri (4200m) or Tsergo Ri (4800m), but instead we played cards, drank tea, and visited the local yak cheese factory and Buddhist monastery. For a town that’s a three day walk from any kind of road, there’s kind of an amazing amount of things to do. I almost expected a movie theater or mini-golf course to pop up around the next corner.
During one of our many tea stops we met a Kiwi dude named Warren who was planning on staying up in Kyanjin Gompa and living amongst the yaks for a week. He was taking his time to do all the day hikes in the area (some more than once!) and relax in his mountain retreat. This was something we wished we’d thought of before shoehorning this trek into the last week on our Nepali visa. Food was only slightly more expensive than Kathmandu and accommodation was actually cheaper. We would have enjoyed the opportunity to unplug, unwind, and soak in the local culture for a few more precious days.
The walk down was painful on the knees and feet, but not physically challenging. Some real warriors tried to descend from Kyanjin Gompa to Syabru Besi in one day, but that felt excessive and punishing on these old bones. We split it up into two days and were grateful.
Needless to say, we took alternate transportation back to Kathmandu. The knock-off Indian Landcruiser driven by an eighteen-year-old and packed with eleven people felt positively secure, and a bargain at $6, compared to the rickety old bus on one-lane mountain roads.
If you’ve only got time and effort to spare for a short, easier trek in Nepal, Langtang is a good choice. Immerse yourself in the Tibetan culture and mountain wildlife, and leave a little extra time for relaxing in the Himalaya. If we could do it again, we would’ve stayed a few more days in Kyanjin Gompa, and maybe linked this trek with the Gosainkunda Trek, which over an additional three or four days walking takes you back to within an hour drive of Kathmandu.
Trekking to a guest house is such a treat! In New Zealand, we were carrying our food and stove and sleeping in huts. In the US, we would carry our food, stove, tent, and end the day by eating noodles on a log before retiring to our tent. In the Nepal though, we show up empty handed to a guest house and order a plate of fries. Some trekkers complain that guest houses crowd the trail and detract from the whole get into the middle of nowhere aspect of trekking. But we love them. We love them for the hot food and warm beds and conversation with local people.
“When did you kill this chicken?” I asked the cook at the guest house in Chiule, along the ABC trek. I was sitting in the kitchen, watching them cook dinner.
“Today,” he tossed the chicken into a massive wok and glanced out into the yard at the remaining chickens, pecking in the grass.
“How did you kill it? Cut the head off?” I was half making conversation and half curious as I didn’t see any sort of dangle the chicken upside down set up.
“No knife, too dangerous. Throw a rock at his head.” The cook answered while shoving the chicken bits around with a spatula.
I gasped and laughed almost choked on my tea. You see, without the guest house, you’d never know that another culture kills their chickens with a rock to the head.
The folks on the mountains eat and serve what they grow (with the exception of Snickers, noodles and canned tuna). People grow rice, millet, potatoes, cabbages, and carrots above 3,000 m. They make Yak cheese and simple stovetop breads like chapati and fried Tibetan bread. Since both the Langtang trek and the Annapurna Base Camp Trek are in similar climates, the menus at the guest houses serve similar dishes, with the exception of meat. The Langtang region is Buddhist and doesn’t eat or serve meat. The menus feature fried noodles, veg fried noodles, egg veg fried noodles, potatoes, veg potatoes, egg veg fried potatoes, rice, veg fried rice, egg veg fried rice. You get the point.
“Dal Baht Power, 24 Hour” is what the locals claim. Dal Baht is a Nepali set meal of dal (lentil) soup, white rice, curry vegetables, and pickle that varies slightly from place to place. On the ABC trek the dal was a thin yellow soup and in the Langtang region it was brown and thick. The pickle isn’t a pickled cucumber, but any kind of vegetable, usually a tomato in a spicy vinegary sauce. The dal delivers your protien, rice fills you up, curry gives you nutrients and spicy pickle keeps the whole thing from getting boring. It’s no wonder the porters eat it for every meal. We ate from the same menu for 18 of our 30 days in Nepal and often stuck with Dal Baht. After awhile, we did get tired of the same options. Do I want potatoes again? Not really. But that’s not the point. The food is trekkers food. It’s hot, nutritious and filling. And just when you start to get tired of the menu, someone whispers rumors of chocolate cake in Kyanjin Gompa or real pizza in Chhomrong and you pick up the pace.
We found an older copy of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal while staying at Alobar 1000, our hostel in Thamel, a touristy district of Kathmandu. After flicking through different treks, we settled on the trek to Annapurna Base Camp because it was longer than anything we had done, but had guest houses where we could sleep and eat. There was a significant elevation gain and the base camp itself was an exciting destination. While planning, we went back and forth on whether or not to take a guide. We had read on So Many Places’s blog that it was not necessary, but we decided to go for it anyway. We liked the idea of supporting the local economy and it made us feel safe as we were trekking higher and longer than we had been before. Our guide, Pradeep, is a nephew of a friend of a friend, which is typical of Nepali business. If I can’t help you, I’ll find you someone who can. Pradeep took care of all of the details: obtaining our permits, renting gear, booking bus tickets, and choosing guest houses. All we had to do was walk, snap pics and decide what to eat at meal time. The following are a few excerpts from our trekking journal to Annapurna Base Camp.
Day 1 | 5pm | Landruk
Zach: Lunch at Pothana (1890m) after 90 minutes of walking up stone steps and trails. Very hot at times, but great in the shade. Cooler than Pokhara, but definitely still summer. It’s great to walk to villages rather than campsites. Paying a few bucks for fried noodles and veg versus eating in the dirt makes life a lot more enjoyable. No, it doesn’t feel like a backcountry adventure, but it’s great in its own way. We thought New Zealand did it best with their hut system, but Nepal has it beat!
Christina: I just pulled my big toe nails off. They had been dead for awhile and one day of hiking was enough for them. Wrote some post cards and am trying not to write all of my them, but it is hard because it is so beautiful and exciting. We have views of the Himilayas to the north and rice terraces to the south. Tried a glass of roksi, the local wine made from millet. It was horrific. Smelled like rubbing alcohol and I couldn’t finish the glass. Also had our first dal baht experience, which was a solid meal: lentil soup, rice, greens and pickled veg.
Day 2 | 3:30pm | Chhomrong
Christina: Zach’s muesli this morning was so good. Served with warm, sweet milk. I had Tibetan bread with honey, which wasn’t enough for a meal, but tasty and I supplemented it with peanuts from my backpack. Highlight: Nepalese tea (similar to chai). Amazing. Hiking today was killer. Stairs for hours, but passed the time learning Nepalese from Pradeep. It is really challenging to learn just by sound. We were walking single file. Pradeep would say a word, I repeated it, then passed it back to Zach.
Day 3 | 4pm | Bamboo
Zach: Great morning walking. Day began with a steep descent out of Chhomrong and steep ascent to Sinuwa. Long break there, then a few hours of awesome forest walking while white gibbons jumped from tree to tree around us. They are very photogenic animals. I was particularly struck with the beauty of the wild forest. Theres a special kind of order to the completely unordered chaos of old growth. This walk has everything. Pheri betew-la (See you later!)
Day 4 | 1pm | Machhapuchhre Base Camp
Christina: It has been on and off raining all day. The clothes we washed yesterday are soaking wet because of the rain and heavy fog. Not a huge deal, except that I have no dry underwear. After hiking for four hours, we decided to stay at Machhapuchhre Base Camp instead of continuing to ABC. Everyone going out into the rain looked miserable. Lunch was amazing- a huge pile of fried potatoes, egg, greens and yak cheese, followed by a Snickers and pot of masala tea.Didn’t even realize how hungry I was, which is a sign of altitude sickness, so even better that we chill here. Side note: Even though this is the Annapurna Base Camp trek, I think I prefer looking at Machhapuchhre. It is so steep and so fierce. Not as tall, but that’s ok by me. We can still be friends.
Zach: We’ve met a lot of awesome people on this trek. David and Eva from Australia, Andy and Sam from England, Lindsey and Cody from Chicago via Mongolia. Just caught a glimpse of Annapurna South, Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) and surrounding peaks for about 15 min before the fog rolled in again. Some people have been waiting three days to get a glimpse of the mountains. All the more reason not to rush. Go slowly. Soak it in.
Day 5 | 6pm| Annapurna Base Camp
Christina: This morning was SPECTACULAR. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. We hiked a whopping 90 minutes to Annapurna Base Camp. We had a great photo sesh with Eva, David, Pradeep and Lok. Just as we snapped our last picture, the clouds and heavy fog crept back in. We considered hiking down to Duerali this afternoon, but decided to stay, play cards and enjoy the rest day. It’s not like we’re going to have a chance to come back to this amazing camp in the sky.
Zach:We were just visited by a herd of sheep and goats at Annapurna Base Camp. The shepherds are coming down from the hills for the winter They trek up in the spring and by the time they head down (with help from the monsoon) the grass has regrown in their steps as they return. Pretty cool to see exactly how these shepherds are mimicking nature. Bucks and rams are mixed in with the herd, they “rotationally graze” the valley, and live amongst the herd for months at a time. They don’t own the land, but they use it and manage it. Simple. Why does it have to be so complicated?
Day 6 | 4pm | Himilaya
Zach: It’s amazing how much shorter this trail feels heading down. Knees and toes hurt, but we’re both holding up really well for six days in. This was the first day in awhile that I felt like I earned my dal bhat at lunchtime. Not complaining, the short days were great and we avoided AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).
Day 7 | 7:30pm | Chiule
Zach: Harder day agin into Chiule. When we reached town, cheers of joy were shouted. I’m so glad we hired Pradeep. Having a guide basically means not having to worry about any of the little details or decisions that would be difficult or create tension between Christina and me. Everything from the bus tickets to where we eat lunch is already settled. On top of that, Pradeep is knowledgable, patient and so kind that his attitude inspires the same behavior in the rest of us. It’s been great sitting around the table with David, Eva, Pradeep and Lok trading stories about traveling and trekking. At ABC we sat around for hours spinning a yarn and laughing. That has been a huge and unexpected benefit of this trek.
Day 8 | 8:30pm | Ghorepani
Christina: What started off as a really challenging day turned out to be a really fun one. Early on, I was ready to throw in the towel. The trekking was uphill all morning in the humid jungle, stopping every 15 minutes to check for leeches (I found 3 and freaked out each time). The day turned around though when we stopped for a break and saw a newborn mountain goat, wobbling around on its 10 minute old legs. From there, the day just got better. We hiked along a ridge covered in wildflowers, through gorgeous groves of trees into Ghorepani and got in just as the rain started. We ordered beers and chips, our first of the trek, we splurged on some wifi, I skyped mom and dad and posted a few pics. Mom met Pradeep and Lok on Skype. They said “Namaste from Nepal,” and “You are always welcome to come visit our Himilayas,” which was really heartwarming. It sounds silly to miss wifi after just a week, but makes a huge difference to be able to share and be in touch. Especially when you can Skype from the middle of the Himalayas.
Day 9 | 3:30pm | Uleri
Zach: Beautiful trail from Ghorepani to Uleri. Lovely undulating countours along the riverside with a gradual descent. The trail was well formed and wide enough to walk two abreast; a trail made for chatting. Among other conversations, Christina and I discussed the similarities between Nepali trekking trails and Kiwi tramping tracks. The consensus was that they both get an A, but Kiwis have a decidedly more hands-off approach. Where in Nepal, there are bridges and stairs, in NZ there would be fords and scree slopes. I think I prefer the heavy hand.
Day 10 | 4pm | Pohkara
Christina: Our morning trek from Uleri to Birethanti was easy, light hearted, and calm. We sailed down steps as fresh faced trekkers going the other way were experiencing their first dose of steep stone stairs. Our “Namastes!” were cheery even though we were a leaving mountains that I knew we would not see again for a long time. 10 days was the perfect length of time to be in the mountains. From Birethanti, we took the most harrowing taxi ride I have ever experienced back to Pokhara.
Zach and I decided that we want to spend as much of the rest of our time in Nepal in the mountains as possible. After a few rest days, we are going to go to the Langtang region and headed out on another trek, this one for just a week. Zach and I looked at our budget last night. We are over what we expected to spend in Nepal, but kind of said the hell with it. The trek will cost us each an extra $300, which is nothing for another amazing, big mountain experience. We also decided to hire Pradeep again. Bring on round 2!
Gunung Rinjani is a 3,726m (12,224′) active volcano on Lombok Island in the Indonesian archipelago. The eruption that created its massive caldera is thought to have started the little ice age more than 800 years ago. It last erupted in 2010, with lava flows and smoke that spread 12km. And every day, hundreds of people climb it. Last week, we were two of those people.
It’s not that hiking Rinjani seemed dangerous. But these things never do until something terrible happens. And that’s just the beginning. I fully acknowledge that I’ve been jaded by of our recent year exploring New Zealand, but I just don’t think that the payoff in beauty was worth the considerable effort, expense, or risk of hiking Rinjani.
We’re neither ultra-marathoners nor first-time backpackers. We’ve put plenty of miles on our boots and like to think that we can hang with some seriously difficult walking. We’ve finished longer and more remote walks in the United States and down under. But Rinjani was, without a doubt, the hardest walk we’ve ever done.
There are a few options when booking this trek: one, two, or three nights camping on the mountain. We chose the two night option because we figured there was no reason to rush, but three nights seemed excessive. On our first day we were picked up at five in the morning and ferried first to Senaru in a taxi for two hours, then hopped in the back of a truck for another hour over to Sembalun. From Sembalun we began a gradual ascent through some cow pastures and over some rolling hills.
It was a hot day and the sun was beating down on us, so even though the walking wasn’t hard, it was unpleasant. But more unpleasant was the massive amount of trash littering the trail. We couldn’t walk more than a few feet without seeing something tossed aside by another hiker, and the areas where people stopped to rest were positively filthy. Aerosol cans, candy wrappers, many, many wads of toilet paper, and almost as many petrified logs of human excrement were in high concentration along every bit of the 50km trail. It was gross.
After lunch we began climbing steadily through the forest up sandy slopes and, seven hours after we began, we reached the crater rim and set up camp. It was a hard day, but nothing truly out of the ordinary. The walking was boring and the scenery average, but the view of the lake that filled the caldera at the rim was satisfying. We went to sleep with the sun setting over the other edge of the massive crater, tired from the early wakeup and steep ascent.
While day one was a hard warmup, day two was the backbreaker. Those making the summit push woke at two o’clock in the morning after a cold and uncomfortable night and set out with headlamps to make the summit by sunrise. After a 1000 meter vertical climb up a loose scree field we reached the top, though we were joined by about 200 other hikers. It wasn’t exactly the pristine and spiritual moment I’d envisioned. To deal with the cold, a group of trekkers were even burning plastic bags at the summit! Great idea!
Just after dawn we descended back down to where we’d camped the previous night, had a quick breakfast then continued the descent down into the caldera. One of the coolest things about Rinjani is that it’s central crater is filled with water, creating a massive freshwater lake at 2000m. There’s also a natural hot spring bordering the lake. I love hot springs (who doesn’t?!), so I was particularly excited about this part of the trek. Unfortunately, this was another experience ruined by the disgusting amount of trash everywhere. There was rotting food, used underwear, and pretty much every other nasty thing you can think of spoiling this fantastic natural wonder. The locals that were soaking there didn’t seem to mind, but I can’t imagine ever getting used to that scene.
After lunch at the lake (which was of course filled with garbage) we began the trudge up the other side of the caldera, back to the rim. The walking in this part of the trail was actually quite enjoyable, with a long and interesting traverse along the side of the crater walls. At times we were scrambling hand over hand and at others walking lazily along the crater wall. If the rest of the trail were built like this my tune would be completely different. As fun as this part was, it came at the end of a fourteen hour day of walking, so I was pleased to stumble into camp.
Day three began with a very steep descent down slick sandy soil and sharp volcanic rock. After a few hours of pain it leveled off a bit and the jungle popped up to shade us for a more reasonabley graded descent. We reached Senaru and our transport on the other side after about six hours walking, relieved to be finished.
So we’d spent 27 of the previous 72 hours walking through a terrible combination of steep ascents and descents, endless loose sand and scree fields, and poorly cut trails straight up the mountainside when a few switchbacks would have made good sense. Miles of pain are part of backcountry hiking, but this had the added element of frustration. With every two steps forward on the loose rocks and gravel, we slid backwards one, and every step down felt unsteady, ready to blow at any moment.
Further, hiking Rinjani isn’t cheap. Even though the trail is well marked and getting lost would be a feat in itself, it’s forbidden for foreigners to hike without a guide. And the guiding companies require use of their porters. I’ve never walked with porters carrying my food, tent, and water before, and though it didn’t sit well for me I understand the system. The mountain is their moneymaker and we’re supporting the local economy. As our porter friend Hero put it “In Senaru, you work in trekking, or you don’t work.” The porters were very nice and did exactly as they were asked, I just don’t like being strong-armed into paying $200 for a service I don’t want.
And where is that money going? The guiding companies are clearly making out ahead here. The local bosses running the show were well-dressed and drove fancy cars, while the porters sweating up and sliding down the dusty mountain with eighty pounds on their shoulders (and wearing flip-flops!) wore tatters and were over the moon for our modest tip. Did I mention that one of our porters was missing an eye?! This seems exploitative at best and criminal at worst, and I’m an accomplice. Don’t make the same mistake.
There are more things at play here and I won’t belabor the point. The mountain is clearly struggling to support all this activity. The summit was so crowded with people celebrating their accomplishment that I thought I might get shoved off a cliff. Erosion is a pending disaster on the many loose slopes. But these seem trivial now, as I consider all the other things at play here.
Rinjani is a unique mountain in that people with no technical alpine skills can summit a fairly high peak. It’s just being mismanaged by the government and exploited by a few small groups of people. If someone in power cleans it up, adds some simple toilets, regulates the guiding companies, and cuts down the number of trekkers per day, it will be worth climbing. In the meantime, don’t be a party to the crimes being committed on it every day.