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The Trek – Langtang, Gosainkund & Helambu

1 Dec

Langtang Lirung

How about a video game called Nepali Busdriver in which you’re asked to steer a packed bus at alarming rates of speed along beat-up, narrow, winding roads (portions of which aren’t paved) from Kathmandu to a small town in the Himalaya near the Tibetan border while a few passengers discreetly hurl into small plastic bags which they then toss out the windows? You’d also have to contend with a few dodgy chaps riding the roof and rummaging through unlocked backpacks for valuables and an engine that at times requires the insertion of a six foot long pole into some unknown part located below the bus near the drive shaft in order to get the ignition to catch. And of course it’s all soundtracked with what I think is Nepali folk music cranked to eleven and piped through blown out speakers. I’m guessing playing such a game would be a bit more enjoyable than actually experiencing it for the 7.5 hours it took me to go the 117 kilometers from Kathmandu to Syabrubesi. That’s right… 7.5 hours to cover roughly 73 miles which should give you some idea of just how manic the topography is in this part of Nepal and just how precarious the roads can be. And that’s actually a marked improvement from the 10-11 hours this journey reportedly took only a year or two ago when the pavement gave out far shorter of Syabrubesi than it does today. Challenging travel conditions aside, it was a good chance to experience the joys of travel Nepali style. I had quite a nice chat during the trip with a Nepali schoolteacher sitting next to, and sometimes on, me and I’m glad I didn’t journey by private 4wd vehicle which is what some hikers choose to do.

Syabrubesi was to be the jumping off point for a two week trek that would take me up the Langtang Valley, into the high altitude meadows above the treeline around Kyanjin Gompa, and then part of the way back down the valley before veering off near Thulo Syabru in order to pay a visit to the sacred high altitude lakes of Gosainkund, after which I would continue up and over the 4500 meter pass at Laurabina La and then down into the rolling farmlands of the Helambu valley just north of Kathmandu eventually winding up at Sundarijal from where it is but a 30 minute taxi ride back into Kathmandu.

Bridge from Syabrubesi

Leaving Syabrubesi, the trail makes a steady ascent along the Langtang Khola (River) passing through forests of bamboo, pine and rhododendron in which a decent number of these dudes are at play…

Langur Monkey

The trekking route I followed is known in these parts as a teahouse trek which means there are very basic teahouses and lodges spaced out along the trail and thus there is no need to lug tents, stoves or food along, although a toasty four season down sleeping bag is essential especially at the higher altitudes, or at least it was when I went in late November and early December. Rooms are rustic and become increasingly so the further up into the mountains you go as almost everything must be lugged in by porters. Most are made of wood and stone with creaky wooden floors and wooden interior walls with peepholes aplenty. The beds come equipped with the slimmest of mattress. In fact, I’m not sure you can call a two inch thick cushion a mattress. One of the benefits of trekking solo is that there were almost always two beds in my room and thus I’d double up the mattresses thereby doubling up my comfort. To be honest, I was so blissfully tired most days, that I probably would have slept well were there no mattress at all. Here’s a shot of a typical room along the route…

Teahouse Bedroom

Food is also very basic. Think eggs, potatoes, lentils, curry, noodles, yak cheese, vegetables and chapatti bread. Dal bhat is far and away the most popular meal in these parts and the Nepali guides and porters working on the trail seem to happily eat it for lunch and dinner almost every day, and I certainly ate my fair share as well. It’s basically rice, soupy lentils and vegetable curry along with some pickled peppers for a little kick, and it looks like this…

Dal Bhat

I spent my first evening in Lama Hotel which is a small cluster of teahouses perched aside the Langtang Khola. Shortly thereafter, you catch your first glimpse from the trail of the snow capped high altitude peaks that await further down the line. Here’s my first good look at mighty Langtang Lirung…

First Glimpse

The following day takes you into Langtang which is an actual village as opposed to a cluster of lodges existing solely for the benefit of trekkers. Here’s Langtang with Tsergo Ri and Langshisha Kharka (I think?) in the background…

Langtang

It’s filled with interesting houses with intricate wood carvings along the doors and windows. The villagers raise cattle and yak and a hybrid of the two which may or may not be called yows. Yakkity yak…

Yakkity Yak

Most of the people living along the trekking route are Tibetan or Tamang, the latter of which is an ethnic group whose dress, religious beliefs and language have much in common with the Tibetans which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise seeing as how close the Tibetan border is. In fact many of the peaks visible along the trail are located in Tibet. I’m told the Tamang are allowed to cross the border on a limited basis and journey into Tibet much as they have been doing for hundreds of years along the ancient trade routes in the area. Unfortunately it’s much more difficult for western trekkers to do so as the Chinese require that you do so with the support of a licensed tour guide and in a group of no fewer than 4 of your compatriots. Bummer.

But enough about Tibet and back to Langtang… I was greeted at my chosen teahouse with a toasted yak cheese sandwich and a cup of hot black tea when I pulled in around 4 pm. Not too shabby of an afternoon snack, particularly when it’s accompanied by this view…

Langtang

I headed out early the following morning, and when I say early, I mean early… at least by my standards. There isn’t much to do at night and thus most people are happily stowed away in their sleeping bags by 8 or 9, if not earlier, which means they’re also stirring at first light. Breakfast for me was my usual… bad instant coffee with a breakfast chapati which the author would assemble using the following components – 1 yak cheese omelette, 1 chapati and 1 dollop of green chili hot sauce. Since the chapati and the omelete are usually cooked in the same pan, they are roughly the same size which is of the utmost convenience. Place omelette on chapati, add green chili sauce (king of condiments in Nepal) and fold over taco style for a thoroughly satisfying breakfast treat.

Coffee and breakfast chapati finished, I hit the trail which continues along the river heading further up the valley…

The Trail out of Langtang

Around noon, I pulled into Kyanjin Gompa which is surrounded by several spectacular peaks including Langtang Lirung (7246 meters).

Kyanjin Gompa

I would rest my head here for a full three nights so as to give me ample time to explore a few of the fantastic day hikes in the immediate area. And I wasted no time getting started as I ventured off that afternoon into the Lirung Valley for a walk through some gorgeous high mountain scenery in the shadows of Langtang Lirung, Kimshung (6781 meters) and Yanja Tensji (6575 meters).

The Lirung Valley

The following day I headed further up the Langtang Valley to a splendid viewpoint near Langshisha Kharka via a trail that mostly hugged the Langtang Khola while passing through a couple of small clusters of yak herders huts.

Further up the Langtang Valley

Apparently these are summer pastures for many of the yaks that winter further down the valley. It was a superb hike and aside from a few packs of porters heading the opposite direction, I saw no one else the entire day save for an older Japanese man who was camping out near one of the huts for a few days and taking photos. Here’s a yak herder summer home…

A Yak Herder's Summer Home

I had avoided listening to my iPod up until this point in the journey which is a bit surprising given my proclivity for soundtracking many of the experiences in my life. I thought the sounds of nature would do me good and foster a bit of deep thinking while trekking. However I broke out a little music for this particular day hike and I could not have been happier with what Sigur Ros did for the experience. The tunes might be written in Iceland with that landscape in mind but they sure as hell play well in the Himalaya. Here’s me playing along to Festival on my trekking pole guitar prior to lunch…

Air Trekking Pole

And here is the view from where I hunkered down for a lunch comprised of a big block of yak cheese, two slices of not very good apple pie from a small bakery in Kyanjin Gompa and plenty of icy mountain water from the Langtang Khola…

Langshisha Kharka

The following day was the literal high point of my trek as I ventured up to the top of a peak known as Tsergo Ri which maxes out at 4984 meters and makes for a very formidable day hike from Kyanjin Gompa. Here’s me and Tsergo Ri…

Me and Tsergo Ri

While pausing for a breather on the way up, I was treated to a spectacular avalanche on Langtamg Lirung which was a stark reminder of the danger lurking on these beautiful peaks. Check it out…

Avalanche!

Going it alone might not have been the best option but I didn’t really have a chance to connect with anyone else beforehand. Fortunately I wasn’t the only one on the trail or peak that day as I shared them with a crew of Germans, a pair of Argentinians, a girl from Hong Kong, a pack of boisterous Korean businessmen and a couple of Nepalis. Everything went smoothly but it was nice knowing that help was available if needed. But that’s not to say it wasn’t a challenging ascent as it most certainly was. The altitude was no joke even with the decent acclimatization I had earned for myself by that point in the trek and there was quite a bit of scrambling over loose rock or scree near the top…

The Final Approach

But it was worth every step and the view from on top was tremendous.

Summit!

I have some good video from up there which I’ll post at some point. Until then, a still shot or two from the summit will have to suffice.

t View Facing North (I Think)

Summit View Facing North (I Think)

Summit day was also Thanksgiving and we had a grand feast back at the teahouse that evening with turkey and all the trimmings, lots of friends and family, the Detroit Lions losing on TV and a Lazy Boy in which I could nap it all off.

True or false?

The shot of dal bhat above is my actual Thanksgiving dinner and, as you can see, there aren’t any slices of turkey or mounds of stuffing and mashed potatoes on that plate. And there certainly wasn’t any pumpkin pie for desert. Nor were there any friends or family or even other trekkers as I was the only guest at my sad little teahouse. It was actually quite the bummer. I was stricken with the strongest case of homesickness I had felt up until that point in the trip and it didn’t seem to be the least bit alleviated by the thrill of the hike earlier that day. I attempted to treat it with a couple of hot cups of raksi (a cheap smoky rice liquor popular in the mountains) which I shared with a Tamang porter who joined me and Camu (the owner of my teahouse) around the cooking stove in the kitchen that evening. I tried to explain the whole Thanksgiving thing to them but they didn’t really understand anything I was saying and talking about it just made me miss it more so I stuck to my raksi…

Raksi Round the Woodstove

Things did improve later that evening when Camu’s nephew paid us a visit and livened things up with a few dances and poses for the camera…

The Entertainer

Looking on the bright side, I suppose there’s no danger of Thanksgiving 2012 becoming indistinguishable in my memory from the many Thankgsivings past and those yet to come. Nevertheless, as one of my buddies from Tampa advised me, I need to do a better job of making sure that I’m around lots of turkey and stuffing (rather than dal baht) on each and every Thanksgiving hereafter.

The following day I headed back down the valley via the same trail and spent the evening at Lama Hotel once again.

Back Down the Valley

The View Back Down the Valley from Atop Tsergo Ri

Midway through the next day, I veered off that trail, and picked up another that rose steeply to the village of Thulo Syabru and required us to cross this bridge…

Bridge to Thulo Syabru

Bridge to Thulo Syabru

Along the way I was fortunate enough to again cross paths with a Nepali fellow I had met earlier on the trail. Santosh is an interesting dude… a musician and an aspiring animator. He was out there trying to get some experience trekking in the area in hopes of someday finding work as a porter or guide. He was tagging along with a couple of his friends who were portering for a French party. While they were each lugging 40 kilos worth of a French party’s gear, Santosh had but a very small backpack and his guitar.

It was great hanging out with him and his mates on the trail and in Thulo Syabru that evening where we drank tea outside and had a bit of a jam with his guitar, my harmonica and a couple of shakers. One of the guides plays in a Nepali folk band and he picked a few traditional tunes on Santosh’s guitar with most of the Nepalis being happy to sing along. It was very cool.

Eventually the jam dissipated with some of the guys drifting off and others heading inside to watch professional wrestling (which, strangely enough, seemed to be very popular in Nepal) on the only TV I saw on the entire trek. That left just Santosh and me outside on a small patio on the steeply terraced hillside on which the teahouse was perched.

“Do you like Bad Company?” he asked me in his heavily accented English.

I don’t.

“Why yes. I do.” I said.

Turned out to have been a very good answer for had I been truthful, I might never have known just how surreal it could be to sit outside sipping tea under the stars in the foothills of the Himalaya as an earnest young Nepali man serenades me with a well rehearsed rendition of Feel Like Making Love played without the slightest hint of irony.

Surreal indeed.

I went inside to watch professional wrestling as soon as he was done just in case he really did feel like making love.

I parted ways with my Nepali friends the following morning and journeyed on through some beautiful forest and farmland before ascending steeply to this spot on a ridge where I paused for some hot tea and a warm chapati with peanut butter…

Lunch Break

There were a series of gentle ascents and descents along the trail that afternoon as it wound its way through more woodland just beneath the ridge line. It made for some thoroughly enjoyable strolling and the only other people I saw were two young Tamang boys who came tearing down the path deep in the forest on beautiful horses using nothing much in the way of a saddle and looking 100% dialed in with their mounts. We exchanged shouts of “namaste!” as they galloped by and disappeared beyond the next bend in the trail. It was awesome.

I arrived in Sing Gompa (3330 meters) in the early afternoon and checked myself into this gem of a teahouse which was one of the nicest I encountered on the trail…

Sing Gompa Teahouse

I made my decision based mostly on how comfortable it looked around their woodstove and somewhat on the fact that they claimed to have a western toilet rather than the squatters that mostly populate these parts. The latter turned out to be a rather dangerous proposition but more on that later. I was spot on in my assessment of the lounge area and lucked out in that I had splendid company around it that evening despite there being only one other guest staying the night – a German named Moritz who has been guiding treks and climbs in Nepal, India and Pakistan for the past 20 years. He was doing the same trek I was doing, but in fewer days time as a means of building up his endurance and acclimatization which he told me had lapsed while he was recovering in Stuttgart from a dual case of dengue fever (also known as breakbone fever which has to be one of the coolest names out there for an illness) and giardia, both of which he had acquired in Nepal while guiding treks. He had some fascinating stories and, best of all, he spoke fluent Nepali and was happy to translate in order to include me in conversation with the extended family that ran the teahouse. They joined us around the stove that evening for a chat and a few mugs of raksi. They seemed to get a real kick out of how well he spoke the language. It was a fireside chat of the highest quality. Here’s the fireside scene…

Fireside

As for that western toilet, well, here it is…

The Westerner

The seat was not bolted on and the flush didn’t work so you still had to wash it down with the scoop and bucket which is no small task at higher altitude in the early winter when the water in the bucket and waterlines freezes. But what was worse about that temperature in this context was what it meant for the bathroom floor since the entire room served double duty as the shower. Now the bathroom water line was frozen and inoperable and thus I probably should have let any thoughts of getting clean go at that. But knowing that it would be my last chance to wash up for a few days (showering is not really an option further up the mountain), I indulged in a hot bucket shower that afternoon. It’s exactly what the name suggests it would be. You’re given a big bucket of hot water and a scoop to bathe with as best as you can. It’s actually not too bad of a set up all things considered. What I didn’t realize was that the drainage was too bad of a set up and thus a good bit of my bucket shower water remained on the tile floor until nightfall at which point it did what water does when it’s really cold. I awoke around 1 in the morning with my teeth floating and strolled down the hallway and into the bathroom without realizing that I was stepping onto a veritable ice rink. My yak wool socks apparently don’t double as crampons as I nearly went head over heels into that vaunted western toilet. I was fortunate enough to catch myself before sustaining any damage. But you can bet your bottom dollar that if I had taken a header and hurt myself, I’d be telling you about a yeti attack or an avalanche or a Sherpa ambush rather than icy bathroom tile and a midnight whiz.

I didn’t put in a full shift of walking the following day as it seemed advisable to spend the evening in Laurebina Yak to better acclimatize rather than pushing on to Gosainkund the same day. The final push up towards Laurebina Yak (3920 meters) was no joke and had me fairly winded by the time I rolled up. These, dudes, on the other hand, were almost sprinting up the same stretch that had me staggering…

Fit Dudes

Knocking off early and sleeping a bit lower down the mountain turned out to be a great decision as the views from Laurebina Yak are absolutely brilliant and that afternoon they were all the more brilliant as a thick wave of low laying clouds rolled into the valley below making for some of the most amazing views of the entire trip.

Off in the distance in the picture below and going from left to right are the four main peaks of the Ganesh Himal and a series of supposedly unnamed peaks in Tibet…

Ganesh Himal

That afternoon I made the steep climb up to a stupa perched above the teahouse just off the trail to Gosainkund where I spent some time soaking it all in…

Stupa Above Laurebina Yak

It was definitely one of the best afternoons of the trek. And with sunset views like this, it should be easy to see why…

Beautiful Peak

I pulled into Gosainkund just prior to lunch the next day with a couple of Germans I met as I was leaving Laurebina Yak. They’d been living in Bahktapur and teaching German for the past few months. And one of them was toting a yak skull around with him which he found somewhere near Kyanjin Gompa. It made for some quality flair on his backpack. Here’s the stretch run into Gosainkund…

The Trail to Gosainkund

The are several lakes in the Gosainkund area, all of which are considered sacred by both Hindus and Buddhists, with Gosainkund itself being the biggest and most sacred. There are four or five teahouses clustered together in one corner of the lake. And that’s mostly it for man made structures… aside from a Shiva shrine, a few ramshackle shelters for pilgrims and the hundreds of cairns of varying size assembled by Buddhist pilgrims (and trekkers… or at least this trekker) in and around the lake.

Gosainkund

And yet every year in August some 20,000 or so Hindu pilgrims make the difficult hike into the area for the full moon festival of Janai Purnima, and many of them apparently do so with what would seem to be woefully inadequate clothing and gear. Some sadhus make the trek barefoot wearing nothing but a robe and carrying nothing but an alms bowl. One such holy man was camped out by the lake during my stay there and did nothing but sit quietly in meditation or sleep the entire time I was there. He slept outside with nothing but a few threadbare blankets to protect himself from the elements. With not a stitch of fleece or goretex activewear in sight, he clearly wasn’t privy to what Patagonia would have you believe is essential for a high altitude adventure.

Gosainkund

I was told that many hindus believe that dying in a place as holy as Gosainkund is good for the soul and increases ones chances for being released from the cycle of rebirth. Thus some pilgrims willingly expose themselves to the dangers of hiking and sleeping at such altitude without properly acclimatizing and without adequate gear in hopes of suffering a fortuitous death. In fact, Moritz told me that some trip organizers in Nepal who cater to pilgrims actually boast about the fact that they have had deaths occur on their trips in the past as a selling point for prospective pilgrims. I guess Brahman doesn’t distinguish between suicide missions and accidental deaths when it comes to trekking in the mountains.

The Trail Out of Gosainkund

The Trail Out of Gosainkund

I made it out of Gosainkund alive which I suppose was detrimental to my chances of breaking the cycle of human suffering. And what better way to drive that point home than with a bit of human suffering caused by food poisoning. It hit me and a couple for other unfortunate trekkers the morning of our departure. It wouldn’t have been that bad had I not been trying to cross over the highest pass of the trek on that day. The Laurebina La tops out at 4610 meters. Crossing it from Gosainkund and enduring the thigh and knee busting descent down the other side would have been demanding in good health. With a queasy stomach, no appetite, cold sweats and general malaise (I love that word… malaise), it made for the longest and most difficult day of my trek. Poor me. I nevertheless managed to soldier on to a rat trap of a teahouse in Gopte. After first politely declining a marriage proposal and several creative trade offers for my headlamp from a Tibetan woman working at the teahouse, I stumbled into bed where I slept the sleep of the dead for a full 12 hours. I woke up refreshed, hungry, still in possession of my headlamp and ready for the remainder of the trek during which I felt mostly tip top, at least until I was back in Kathmandu where I learned firsthand what sort of havoc giardia can wreak on your gastrointestinal tract. Here’s the view looking back to Laurebina La (the low point of the saddle formed by the range) and the ground I covered from there in a day and a half…

Looking Back to Gosainkund

From Gopte the trail makes a series of steep ascents and descents before finally starting to descend for good at which point it runs though forest and farmland in the foothills of the Himalaya and passes through several interesting Tamang villages.

Helambu Terraces

There were still some beautiful views of big peaks but they were off in the distance and not nearly as impressive as the views to be had when you’re up there rubbing shoulders with them.

Peaks in the Distance

Some of the forests are beautiful but, again, they can’t really compete with the scenery earlier in the trek. It was the villages and villagers that were the most interesting of the sights for the final two to three days of trekking. Here’s a home in Khutumsang…

House in Khutumsang

I ended up in Sundarijal after a full two weeks on the trail and quickly caught a cab back to Kathmandu where priority number one was a very long hot shower. When you’re looking like this after 2 weeks on the trail, it’s not hard to see why a hot shower would have been such a high priority…

Hot Shower Please

Priority number two? Parking it at the bar at the K Too Steakhouse to eat a steak sizzler (which is a poorly cooked steak of questionable quality served with tomatoes and french fries on what would appear to be an ancient Chili’s fajitas serving skillet), drink a few cold Everests and watch Liverpool bring home a win in the EPL on the strength of an absolute cracker by Captain Fantastic. Not a bad way to welcome yourself back to civilization, or at least what passes for it in Kathmandu.

The trek was absolutely spectacular and probably the high point of my trip. In fact, it’s one of the best things I’ve done in my close to 40 years of life. It took me through what is without a doubt the most beautiful mountain scenery I’ve ever seen. It was great how the inconsequential concerns and worries with which I’m often preoccupied fell to the wayside in such mind-blowing scenery when the only imperative each day was to enjoy getting myself safely from Point A to Point B under my own power. And more often than not, successfully doing so provided me with a strong sense of achievement and a feeling of complete satisfaction with a day well spent. It would be awesome to have that same clarity of purpose and sense of accomplishment in my daily life back home. Are there teahouse treks in Los Angeles?

Trekking Break

For anyone reading this who might be considering doing this trek, or any other trek in Nepal, I’d certainly encourage you to go for it. And should you have any questions about my experience with the trek, feel free to contact me through this blog. I would also recommend taking a look at Lonely Planet’s Thorntree message board as it was very helpful to me when I was planning the trek, and my trip as a whole.

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