Most travelers to Nepal have visions of incredible treks they’d like to accomplish. The Annapurna Circuit, Everest Base Camp, Gokyo Lakes, are just a few examples of common routes that attract tourists from across the globe. Despite the world-renowned beauty of these routes, I wanted to travel to Nepal for the first time without committing myself to seeing the popular Nepalese sights. I wanted my experience in Nepal to be guided by local recommendations and inspired by my own curiosity. My experiences traveling to trail races across Europe – and most recently India – made me realize that getting to know locals and taking their advice often leads to an adventure that places you outside your comfort zone and better positions one to appreciate the local culture.
Finding a Direction:
Arriving alone in Kathmandu on Monday, October 16, I began my Nepal adventure. My only set plan was to meet Richard Bull, director of Trail Running Nepal, which organizes several trail races throughout Nepal. I planned to write an article about Bull’s event, The Annapurna 100, which took place on October 27, 2018. Thus, I had to come up with a plan for the 11 days I would spend in Nepal before the race.
After exiting the plane in Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu, I went through airport customs twice (I was one of many foreigners confused by airport customs), discovered my T-Mobile plan did not provide coverage in Nepal, and found my luggage amongst a large pile of bags which had accumulated in a heap of disarray to the side of one of two luggage conveyor belts. Frazzled but ready to find a way to get up to the Himalayas, I took a taxi to the city center hoping to immerse myself in Nepali culture and get a better idea from the locals of where to travel in the world’s highest mountain range.
Upon arriving in the city center of Kathmandu, I was surprised to find tourist attractions everywhere. The city center was a maze of hotels advertising free WiFi and hygienic food, grocery shops filled with Oreos and other American sweets, overpriced gift shops, karaoke bars, neon-lit dance clubs, and restaurants featuring American, Chinese, German, Italian, French, and Indian foods. I didn’t spot many Nepalese restaurants, and those I did see had hamburgers and spaghetti on the menu.
I struggled to find someone who would suggest a way to explore Nepal without buying a structured tourist package or booking through a trekking agency. Despite the appeal of being guided through some of the most beautiful land in the Himalayas for a relatively decent price, I was not convinced I should partake in the tourist experience. My ambition was to explore the road-less-traveled and venture into the Himalayas freely, each day deciding where to go based on curiosity and not a structured itinerary.
In this spirit of adventure, I left Kathmandu on a 7am bus to Pokhara, where I could meet with Richard Bull, who I hoped might recommend to me a road-less-traveled experience of Nepal. The bus travel to Pokhara took 10 hours and I somehow managed to find Bull without any cell-service.
As it turned out, I had arrived just in time to join Bull on a short expedition the next morning to scout sections of the race course for the Annapurna 100, and to talk with hotel owners in small villages along the race route to inform them about the race. I agreed to Bull’s gracious offer to let me join in his expedition. The next morning, Bull, a Nepalese photographer and videographer for the race whose name was Somdup, and I went trekking into the lower Himalayas.
Tagging along with Richard and Somdup immersed me in the Nepalese culture in a way more traditional tourist experiences of Nepal may not have provided. We first explored the village of Dhampus and trekked through dense jungle forests, banana trees, millet fields, and crossed a shaky wire bridge crossing two canyons nearly a hundred yards apart. After about 4 hours of hiking, night was approaching.
We passed near a farmhouse while trekking through a millet field and suddenly a farmer appeared from the farmhouse to warn us not to continue on in the dark. I learned later that certain Nepalese traditions forbid hiking after sundown as there may be dangerous spirits in the forest. Despite the farmer’s warning, we told him we would move quickly and reach the nearby village of Ghaleil before sundown at roughly 6PM.
Just past sundown, we arrived in the town of Ghalel and spent the night at a home stay provided by a family in the village. At this homestay, I had my first taste of home-cooked Nepalese food. We ate a classic Nepalese dish called Dal Bhaat, which was essentially a steel plate filled in the center with a mound of rice smothered in lentil soup, encircled on the edges of the plate with several types of cooked vegetables or meats such as potatoes, collards, yak or chicken. I learned that refills on rice, lentil soup and veggies are always expected when you are served Dal Bhaat and you will not walk away from the table hungry.
During our stay in Ghalel, and throughout the entire week it was peak festival season in Nepal. I had the amazing opportunity to watch the family in Ghalel prepare a goat for sacrifice and dance in the night to traditional Nepalese music. I was grateful to have been invited into such a welcoming home and share in a small bit of their way of life.
After spending the night in Ghalel, Bull, Somdup and I tackled the longest climb of the race, almost 2400 meters up through dense forests to Mardi Himal High Camp. Bull needed to turn back 1000 meters from high camp to complete additional work for the race, which left Somdup and I in charge of getting photos and video of the high camp area.
After a full day of trekking, Somdup and I arrived at a foggy 3900 meter high camp. After such a steep climb, I found myself generating enough body heat to remain in shorts and T-shirt all the way to the top. As we entered the common area of high camp, trekkers were huddled around a fire, drinking warm teas and wearing hats and wool beanies. I definitely stood out in my short-sleeved T-shirt and shorts, and it wasn’t long before I put on warmer clothes, drank a cup of hot tea and ordered Dal Bhaat.
Somdup and I decided to spend the night at high camp and wake up around 4:30am to capture the ridgeline above high camp in beautiful morning light. I learned that it’s common for most trekkers staying at a high camp to go to bed just after sunset, and wake up before sunrise, so the camp’s kitchen and breakfast table were fully active serving tea, coffee, oatmeal, omettles, chapatis, pancakes and many other dishes well before Somdup and I even awoke.
To save time, we packed our breakfast to eat later and charged up the beautiful ridge leading up to Mardi Himal Peak and the famous Machhapuchhare, also known as the Fishtail. The views were stunning. It was just about 5:30 in the morning and the mountains were black silhouettes and the sky was lit with what seemed to be more stars than empty space. The dark outline of the Fishtale and Annapurna slowly revealed their snow-capped peaks and immense glaciers as the sun rose around 6am. Somdup and I moved quickly and chased down bobbing headlights of trekkers in the distance. We took videos and photos in the magnificent shadow of Annapurna, which rises to over 8,000 meters, and approached the Fishtale on one of the most stunning ridge lines I’ve ever hiked. Somdup and I then returned to Pokhara the next day with some great footage for Bull’s event.
Remote Mustang Region:
After one evening to regroup in Pokhara with Bull, Somdup and I decided we had so much fun on our first trek together, we’d leave on another trek the following morning. We would go to the Lower Mustang region, a more remote area of the Himalayas close to Somdup’s home in Upper Mustang. Both the Upper and Lower Mustang are more remote areas for trekking and offer insights into traditional Nepalese agriculture and spirituality.
To get to Lower Mustang from Pokhara, Somdup and I took the local bus to the capital of Lower Mustang, Jomson. The bus is the most popular option amongst Nepalese to travel to this area and takes about 10 hours with one stop for tea and lunch. Quickly, I understood that this bus ride would be unlike any other bus ride I’ve ever experienced. Upon arriving at the bus stop, I observed a patient cow sticking its head near a basket of apples until after several minutes it was rewarded by the fruit vendor with an apple. Nobody seemed to give a second thought to why the cow was at the bus stop.
After departing, the bus stopped at several locations picking up as many people as possible in towns on the route to Jomson. I was lucky to have been on the bus early enough to have a seat because the aisles were filled with people sitting or standing for the majority of the ride.
About two hours into the ride, the bus driver announced we were pulling over for a tea stop. We exited the bus and were immediately welcomed with an incredible smell of fried rings– similar to donuts– known as Sel Roti. I noticed almost every person on the bus enjoyed one of these delicious rings with tea, so I made sure to partake in this tradition. We similarly stopped several hours later to pick up a fruit farmer on the side of the road who sold us pears and mangos from the region.
The first few hours of bus travel were on relatively nice paved roads, but the majority of the route to Jomson was on dirt roads full of rocks and occasional stream crossings winding atop steep canyon cliff sides. The bus constantly rocked side to side and I had to push myself back into my seat to keep from sliding out. We were stuck in mud twice and narrowly dodged the many oncoming Jeeps and buses. Most of us were on edge every time we went around a corner on a cliff side.
Upon arriving at nightfall in Jomson, Somdup and I made plans the next morning to trek a sparsely traveled shepherds’ route to the nearby agricultural town of Kagbeni, then proceed further uphill to Muktinath to see a well-known Hindu temple.
The trek to Kagbeni took us through beautiful desert hills where we encountered goat herders and looked down at an oasis of fall-colored apple orchards and grains growing above 9,000 feet. Enticed by the prospect of agriculture prospering at such a high elevation, I went into the fields to take a closer look. I watched women carrying loads of wheat on their backs, and then deposit their parcels on the ground for the to men to beat with large whip-like tools to extract the grain.
We continued up from the farms of Kagbeni to the Hindu temple of Muktinath. Many Hindus from Nepal and India travel to this temple to purify themselves in the pools of icy holy water filled by mountain streams above 12,000 feet. I watched large crowds of Hindus who ranged in age from young children to the elderly brave the cold water, burn incense, and pray near statues of Hindu gods around the temple.
From the Hindu temple in Muktinath, we realized Thorung La, the highpoint of the popular tourist trekking route, The Annapurna Circuit, was a relatively short and steep climb above us. We would have to ascend over 5,000 feet in one day to a high point of 5,416 meters (over 17,700 ft). Most trekkers of the Annapurna circuit do not go over the pass going west from Muktinath as we planned to do. The west route is much steeper and there are no places to spend the night above Muktinath to acclimatize. In our ignorance of these challenges and determination to see the pass, we committed ourselves to a six o’clock start the next morning to climb Thorung La.
After beginning our long climb, we quickly realized we were the only ones going up Thorung La from Muktinath. We would switchback atop hills only to find another steeper hill waiting for us. At nearly 10am, after almost 4 hours of fast hiking, we reached the top.
I’d never before been above 15,000 feet and suddenly I was almost 3,000 feet higher than anywhere in the continental United States. It was incredible for me to imagine one of my favorite mountains, Oregon’s Mount Hood, over 6,000 feet below me while I stood on top of Thorung La.
Excited to have reached the top, I began running. My legs burned and my lungs felt as though I was running speed intervals on a track. I passed small turquoise pools of glacier run-off and moved closer to the snow-capped peak on the south side of the pass. Exhausted and slightly chilled by the increasing winds, I was lucky to find a small hut on the pass serving tea, hot chocolate, and soup. The lone server at the hut, nicknamed the Yeti, gave us tea and hot chocolate before we descended down the more popular east side of the pass.
Somdup and I hadn’t decided how far we’d go down the pass, but neither of us were ready to stop trekking for the day. We knew there were many tea houses and hotels on the east side, so we wouldn’t have trouble finding somewhere to stay the night.
We traveled past many trains of trekking groups and Shepard’s with their donkeys ascending to Thorung La, and enjoyed scenery of beautiful scree fields and followed a river flowing down the canyon. Excited by the incredible landscape, we ran down sections of switchback and rolling hills on the walls of the canyon walls above 12,000 feet.
We passed group after group ascending from the east, and did not meet a single person going our direction from Muktinath. Almost every guide we encountered thought of us as an anomaly and stopped to ask us why we were coming from the west. They were amazed we had chosen the steep route and surprised how we’d managed to get over the pass with relatively little acclimatization.
We decided to stop at Dhaka’s around 3PM, to meet with a friend of Somdup’s and make a plan for where we’d stay the night. We planned to go down to the town of Manang, about two hours further East along the Annapurna Circuit. Several locals in the tea house overheard we were almost finished trekking from Muktinath to Manang in a single day and shared this news with their friends as if it was the story of the week. I later read that Most guides suggest the easier route from Manang to Muktinath takes 4 to 5 days, and we’d just managed to come from the harder side of Muktinath to Manang in under 12 hours. The locals asked me where I was from and how a foreigner could be so accustomed to high Himalayan elevations. I told them I wasn’t sure, but I have always enjoyed my experiences breathing crisp thin air in Utah and Colorado, and I was happy to find that same feeling on Thorung La.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Tayte’s Himalayan Adventure where he writes about The Annapurna 100.