When most people think of Nepal, they think of the Himalaya – a dizzying array of sky-high peaks crowned by the formidable Mt. Everest.
Imax-like images of doomed expeditions, inhospitable environments and the toughest of explorers play like a movie reel through the mind…
While all of these images are certainly rooted in reality, we’ve learned there’s a different side of Nepal that give this country and Himalaya mountains another, more accessible (and dare I say “gentler”?) context. Have you ever heard of “Teahouse Trekking?” If you like Apple Pie, read on!
While the actual physical demand of trekking in Nepal is something to seriously consider and train for, the logistical side has never been easier, making it more open to you and me. It is now possible to hike through many parts of the Himalayan mountains, and take in all of the beauty and culture, without the need for any technical camping equipment or mountaineering skills. Instead of tents, you can stay at a vast network of Teahouses that act as lodges for people exploring the mountains. They offer comfortable (if somewhat basic) overnight accommodation, two meals and in some, a giant piece of Apple Pie. Why Pie? Great question – I’ll report back on this VERY important question.
All of that said, after learning that we could pull off a mini-expedition into Nepal without the need for a bunch of equipment, we were in! Without really knowing what we were getting ourselves into, we booked our tickets to Kathmandu and decided to kick off our year of travel with true adventure for the both of us: Trekking in Nepal. This article represents Part 1 of a 2-3 part series. We’ll follow up with articles that dive more deeply into the experience later on, including some tips on how to recreate this adventure for yourself, follow along.
HOLD UP – What is Trekking? It Sounds A LOT like Hiking to Me!
Ok, easy does it there cowboy. It IS hiking, but with a twist. Trekking is essentially a sport where you take an extended hike linked by overnights in either tents, huts, tea houses or other more rustic accommodation. It can be as simple and easy as walking along flat trails linking natural areas like lakes or beaches, or as complex and arduous as mountaineering in the world’s most remote mountain ranges. The thrill of it is being in pristine natural environments away from the hordes of people and modern technology.
There are a wide variety of trekking routes in Nepal, the first of which opened to foreigners in 1951. Before that, the network of paths and villages that make up today’s trekking routes provided the Nepalese with ways to seasonally migrate, trade and graze their livestock. These same paths are now open to travelers and provide unsurpassed views of the world’s tallest peaks as well as beautiful glimpses into the culture and lifestyle of this hearty and smiling people.
OK, so Why Start in Nepal of all Places?
Uncle Paul’s Expedition
Trekking is in our family’s DNA! When my mom was a couple months pregnant with me, my parents were hiking along the Pacific Coast of Washington state, enjoying a little pre-natal trek. Since we were young kiddos, our family was into hiking and backpacking, with my dad leading us on 5-25 mile trips into the Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges in the Northwestern US and Canada. The excitement of seeing unspoiled nature and spending time together near a high Alpine lake never left any of us.
Furthermore, my Uncle Paul was a climber, and in the 90’s he climbed Pumori, an enormous peak in Nepal situated next to Mt. Everest. I remember sitting in his living room at Thanksgiving, awestruck as he projected slides of the adventure on the wall… The crazy high peaks, the Sherpa villages fringed by colorful prayer flags and the experience of traipsing across the ceiling of Earth enticed me. Uncle Paul’s experience captured our imagination, which is ultimately drawing us there.
We Need to “Earn the Islands” !
Besides that, our original travel plan for the year was to start off in Thailand. Thailand is well known not only for its culture, but also it’s relaxed vibe and beaches, I knew we’d be doing some relaxing and heavy hanging in the hammock. In order to fully enjoy the Thai Islands, a physically adventurous accomplishment beforehand would make those days of relaxation much sweeter. Besides, after sleeping under wool blankets and eating lentil soup every day at 13,000 feet, we’ll be much more ‘broken in’ and ready for anything Thailand throws our way.
The teachers of Eastern meditative practice say that the best way to understand the mind is to sit and observe it. The simple practice of watching thoughts and bodily sensations while meditating can have a freeing and empowering quality.
Over the past year or two we’ve been interested in Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness. Northern India, Nepal and Tibet are some of the major centers for this religion and travelling there would allow further exploration of these ideas. I met an interesting traveler who did a two week silent meditation retreat where speaking was forbidden. In his words, he walked out “floating like Buddha, with a deep sense of peace and purpose”. Sounds pretty good, eh? We’ll check it out.
Exploring for Driftwood Import
As we explore, we’re looking for interesting products to feature with Driftwood Import. We’ve heard that there are professional Sherpas in Kathmandu that craft mountain-specific gear. We’ll check out their workshops.
With the devastating earthquakes of 2015, much of the country is still challenged by the cost of rebuilding basic infrastructure. If part of the proceeds could be used to support this effort, it will make a meaningful impact.
If we find anything cool that’s worth sharing, we’ll post updates on the Driftwood Import section of the website.
What’s the Plan?
There are hundreds of ways to explore Nepal and trekking is one of the most popular methods. We plan to be in Nepal for 3 weeks, first exploring Kathmandu and then embarking on a 2-week trek.
While we have done a TON of research into which trek to take, it’s ultimately weather-dependant, and our plans could be easily thwarted by a little snow. A little snow can pile up into a BIG avalanche – so we’re going to be very cautious.
The most popular treks in Nepal include the Annapurna Circuit, Upper Mustang Region and Everest Base Camp. We want to seek out a trek that has spectacular views, but is a little more removed from the typical routes. We’ll experience more pristine natural environments and culture this way.
After thorough research and talking with friends who have done this, we elected to do one of two treks: Manaslu Circuit or Gokyo Lakes. We still haven’t determined which best suits us, a decision we’ll postpone until our arrival in Kathmandu and we’ve learned about the current local weather conditions.
We’ll spend 11-15 days hiking an average of 5 hours per day, with some rest days built in, for acclimatization to the altitude. If you progress too quickly, you can get a form of altitude sickness that leads quickly to some scary symptoms that can be deadly if not quickly and properly treated.
During the day we’ll walk the trail, take in the views, visit small villages and learn about the customs and spirituality of the local Nepalese. If we take the trek to Gokyo, we’ll be rewarded halfway with an unparalleled view of some of the world’s tallest mountains including Lhotse, Pumori and Mt. Everest. The Manaslu Circuit trek is hailed as the best trek in Nepal and the “New Annapurna Circuit”. The Annapurna Circuit was known as the best all-around trek in Nepal until it’s popularity started drawing 100K plus trekkers per year and road construction along a portion of its length detracted from the experience. Annapurna is easier from a trekking perspective, A good friend recently completed it wearing flip flops (don’t try this).
Manaslu is a much more remote and difficult trek. Its path, winding around the 8th tallest mountain in the world of the same name, is rewarding from natural, cultural, and beauty perspectives.
Both of the treks are more off the beaten path relative to the most popular treks in Nepal, which promises more pristine nature and fewer fellow trekkers. These two trekking routes also don’t require any technical mountaineering, but we’ll need the right equipment to stay warm and safe, and potentially the need to hire a licensed guide.
So that’s it for now! Thanks for reading part 1 of the Trekking Nepal series of articles, and check out the next article to learn more about what we experienced on the trail, how you can pull off a trip like this yourself, and finally get some answers about the mysterious Nepali obsession with Apple Pie.