High on Himalayan adventure

Apr 22, 2012, 10:32 IST | Stephen Cunliffe

Having recently returned from an incredible nine-week escapade tramping to all corners of the mystical Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal, adventure travel photojournalist Stephen Cunliffe shares his pick of the country's top treks

From its spectacular mountain scenery to its intriguing Buddhist cultural flavour, the high Himalayas dominate and define Nepal. Home to the grandest mountain vistas on the planet, this tiny country boasts world-class trekking at its most accessible. Avid trekkers and mountaineers swear that Nepal’s epic mountain topography and trekking routes are among the most impressive on the planet.

Annapurna trekking
The vast majority of trekkers flocking to Nepal leave their camping gear at home and opt instead for a cushy teahouse trekking option. Nepal is, after all, top of the global charts for hassle-free trekking and nowhere more so than in the Annapurna, Everest or Langtang regions where hiking is affordable, the scenery sensational, permits and logistics simple to arrange, trails well-maintained and trekking routes easy to follow.

As seen from the Annapurna Base Camp, the spectacular amphitheatre of Himalayan peaks rising above a sea of cloud will remain engraved in your memory for eternity

For many years the Annapurna region remained the pick of the bunch. Trekkers descended to this mountainous Shangri-la, often for a month or more, safe in the knowledge that at the end of each day they could count on a friendly family-run teahouse to provide them with a clean bed, gas-heated hot shower, home-cooked meal and even a slice of warm apple pie for dessert!

National Geographic echoed these sentiments when it accorded the Annapurna Circuit Trek the prestigious accolade of ‘number one trek on the planet’. While recent road construction and the ever-increasing popularity of this iconic hiking circuit have contributed to it losing its mantle as the world’s greatest trek, the Annapurnas still remain a top-class trekking destination of astounding natural beauty.

During my most recent visit to the Annapurna region, my wife and I spent three enjoyable weeks trekking the full circuit, followed by a week hiking to Annapurna Base Camp deep inside the Sanctuary. The trip, however, got off to an inauspicious start with our first couple of days on the trail marred by the unexpected hubbub of pneumatic drills and blasting, as the Nepali government pushes road development ever deeper into the mountains.

At lower elevations within the Annapurna Conservation Area, trekkers pass through otherworldly rhododendron forests. The most extensive of these sprawling forests dominates the hiking trail between Ghorepani, Tadapani and Gandruk.

Thankfully, the construction work ended shortly after the village of Tal, and, from Dharapani to Muktinath, we savoured an idyllic week imbibing the wilderness of the picturesque Marsyangdi Khola valley and its surrounding tall, snow-capped mountains. While walking this section of the circuit, we opted for the longer and more strenuous upper route from Pisang to Braga. This fortuitous decision treated us to a hike with views to die for and traditional villages along the way. We enjoyed the area so much that we ended up staying three nights at the delightful New Yak Hotel (read teahouse) in Braga, so we could properly explore the locality by taking side-trips that included a rewarding day-hike to the frozen lake at Kicho Tal.

While it’s difficult to begrudge the indigenous populace development brought about by new roads, which will only facilitate in their previously inaccessible region, its very presence is steadily eroding the thriving trekking industry on which the locals depend for their livelihoods. The sad fact is that the time of the Annapurna trekker is nearing an end and, within a decade, jeeps and air-conditioned minibuses will ply the Annapurna circuit, as a new breed of tourists travel through this amazing Himalayan region without even breaking a sweat.

But, thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom in the Annapurnas. The road still has a long way to go and both the week-long Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) Trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary and the section of the Annapurna Circuit Trek from Manang over the 5,416m Thorong La pass to Muktinath remain safely ensconced in the mountains many miles from the nearest road-building project. The wilderness continues to beckon visitors who deem bipedal travel the key to unlocking the jaw-droppingly magnificent mountain scenery, authentic Buddhist villages and undisturbed natural beauty of the more remote regions within the Annapurna Conservation Area.

Yaks are the main beasts of burden in the Everest region where they ferry building materials, supplies and trekking equipment to remote Himalayan villages. Pics/ Stephen Cunliffe

Everest region
The Everest region has no problems with road expansion. In fact, it is so far from the nearest road that most trekkers opt to fly to Lukla airport, which lies perched atop a cliff deep inside the mountains. A scenic hour-long flight from Kathmandu deposits trekkers at 3,300m, right in the heart of the Solu-Khumbu region of northeastern Nepal.

Regardless of your fitness level, you should allow a minimum of 10-14 days for a round-trip trek through World Heritage-listed Sagarmatha National Park, via the panoramic viewpoint at Kalapatthar (5,545m) and onto Everest Base Camp. In sharp contrast to the Annapurnas, which are fairly forgiving in terms of daily altitude gains, trails ascend quickly in the Everest region and problems with altitude sickness are a real concern unless trekkers climb slowly and take regular rest days to acclimatise along the way.

The vast majority of visitors come here to undertake the Everest Base Camp (EBC) Trek. Rather surprisingly, you cannot actually see Everest from the frigid glacier where base camp is situated. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the standard out-and-back EBC trek comes a distant second to a loop trek up the neighbouring Gokyo valley. Trekkers who choose this lesser-known trail are treated to stunning views of the sacred Gokyo lakes, a breathtaking mountain panorama — including Everest — from atop the Gokyo Ri viewpoint and, finally, a steep climb over the non-technical 5,420m Cho La pass to enter the Everest valley near Lobuche.

Sitting atop Gokyo Ri viewpoint surrounded by the natural beauty of colossal snow-drenched mountains was a humbling experience. I marvelled at the raw power of Mother Nature as the ice and rock of the Ngozumpa Glacier scoured a route south below towering peaks. Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and a host more summits marginally below 8,000m appeared almost near enough to touch. Fed by melt-water from Nepal’s largest glacier, six sacred emerald lakes sparkled like a bejewelled necklace in the Gokyo Valley far below.

The serene morning my wife and I whiled away atop Gokyo Ri, without another soul in sight, was undoubtedly one of the most scenic and spectacular experiences of our lives to date.

Don’t delay
It’s a common adage that one trekking trip to Nepal is seldom sufficient. The Himalayan kingdom is addictive and its mesmerising mountains will lure you back time and again. So, don’t procrastinate; it’s high time you donned your hiking boots and headed across the border for a trekking extravaganza bar none.

For domestic air travel within Nepal, Tara Air (www.taraair.com) and Yeti Airlines (www.yetiairlines.com) are the most reliable carriers with daily flights into the key mountain towns and trekking centres. Flights are weather- dependant, so be prepared for delays or cancellations, especially during the monsoon season.

Driving yourself around Nepal is not for the faint-hearted. The winding mountain roads and crazy local drivers can make for a nerve-wracking experience. Taking the tourist bus or hiring a taxi is less stressful. Travelling by road is affordable but slow; however, it does afford visitors an opportunity to appreciate the picturesque countryside. 

Where to stay:
Nepal has developed a friendly tourist scene that caters to all budgets and preferences. In general, accommodation is clean, comfortable and reasonably basic, but also very affordable. However, there are a few five-star top-dollar options for those with rupees to burn.
Thorong Peak Guesthouse (www.thorongpeak.com), located down a quiet cul-de-sac in the tourist-orientated suburb of Thamel in Kathmandu, makes an excellent base from which to source trekking permits and information, book bus tickets or internal flights. Room rates are $20-30 per night for two people in comfortable en suite rooms.

Trekkers make use of the thriving teahouse industry centred on the Annapurna, Everest, Langtang and Helambu regions. These overnight pit stops usually come in the form of reasonably basic accommodations with an attached restaurant, serving typical Nepali and Indian dishes along with western favourites.

What to carry:
Nepal is the epicentre of the global trekking scene. Hiking through the high Himalayas requires visitors to have sturdy hiking boots, a raincoat, plenty of lightweight warm clothing and a cosy sleeping bag all packed in a comfortable backpack. Also, don’t forget sunscreen, lip balm, a hat, sunglasses, an up-to-date guidebook and map. Trekking poles, a camera and binoculars are recommended.

When to go:
For trekkers, the best time to visit is immediately after the monsoon (from late September to mid-November) when the skies are clear and mountain views superlative. The second most popular trekking season is from early March to May.

Suggested reading:
Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya by Bradley Mayhew and Joe Bindloss is an invaluable asset for visitors wanting to venture into the wilderness areas of this mountainous kingdom.

Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna chronicles the first successful conquest of an 8,000m peak and it’s a great read for trekkers heading into the Annapurna region.

Visas and Health:
Indian passport holders do not require a visa to visit Nepal. While there are no mandatory immunisations required, inoculations against hepatitis A and typhoid are encouraged. 

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