Teahouse Trekking in Nepal's Langtang Region
A Lazy Hiker's Paradise
For 15 days (July 25, 2000 to August 8) I've been sauntering in the Langtang region of Nepal, which includes the foothills of the Himalayas just north of Kathmandu, as well as a few high-altitude ponds
Ive spent years of my life backpacking and canoeing in wilderness areas all over this planet, yet it never occurred to me to try to try to capture these experiences with camera and pen. What counted for me was the adventure itself, and I felt that writing about it and taking endless photos would somehow turn an intensely personal experience into a public event, thus robbing it of its significance.
Two things prompted me, this one time, to record some experiences, reflections, and images which occurred to me along this trek. For one thing, my friend Dr. Sangita Rayamajhithe editor of Across Magazineasked me to do so. For another, this hike turned out to be one of my best hikes ever, and writing about it may entice a few people to go to the mountains.
Let me start by trying to count the rewards of trekking in general, and of teahouse trekking in Nepal and the Langtang region in particular.
To begin with, there is the search for beauty; one goes to nature for the same reasons one goes to an art museum. For some of us, a blooming wild primrose is just as beautiful as the Mona Lisa.
Then there is the general feeling of well being, of exhilaration even, that comes with exercise, wholesome food, and fresh mountain air.
We are, moreover, children of the wild. Yes, many of us have been citified to the point where this innate bond to nature is dormantbut not extinguished. Our species was formed, until comparatively recently, in wild places, and there must be something immensely pleasant in renewing and rediscovering our ancient roots.
Thoreau's views of wilderness strike a responsive cord in at least some of us. We go to nature for spiritual renewal, for recharging our over-civilized batteries. City life is too harried, too concerned with immediate tasks, too preoccupied with spending and earning. In pristine natural settings, the pace is slower. You have more time to be with yourself, to reflect upon your life, to understand some things that you only vaguely perceived before, to contemplate your relationships to other people, to ponder about the meaning of your own personal journey here on earth. Amidst the beauty and calm, you can draw lessons from your past actions and make resolutions regarding future ones. By the end of this hike, for instance, I understood my relationships to my adult children better than ever before. I understood, for the first time, that the worst aspect of some divorces is not the break-up of the relationship between the parents, but the impact it has on the children; often, the childrens lives are diminished by their parents attitudes towards each other.
Wilderness, for some people, is a catalyst for creative thinking. Somewhere along this trip, I came up with tentative ideas for two inventions and with a solution to a research problem, a solution which escaped me until then.
But let me try to capture the specific rewards of hiking in Nepal. To begin with, the mountain region of Nepal is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful wilderness areas on earth. Besides such usual perks as forests, meadows in full bloom, waterfalls, and gushing rivers, there is here, first and foremost, the backdrop of the magnificent Himalayas, the highest and most impressive mountain chain in the world.
English-speaking westerners in their own land usually speak of backpacking, not trekking. In their own country, westerners often carry their own supplies, thus acting as both sightseers and mules. Now, this is not the way some earlier wilderness lovers went about their business. John Muir, in virtually all his escapades, merely carried a rope (to which a faithful mule was attached), not a 20 kg backpack. And he did it for a reasonyou have to be pretty strong to carry that much weight all the time and still enjoy yourself. Backpackers are willing to pay that price, obviously, but for this aging trekker, at least, this is a heavy price. In Nepal, most people, on the other hand, hire a porter (for about $5-10 a day) to carry their supplies.
And even if hikers haul their supplies themselves, on the established routes their load is lighter for they need carry neither food nor tent. If they are willing to put up with fleas, they need not carry a sleeping bag either; for, scattered along the paths there are small settlements which provide the weary hiker with decent board and lodging. Besides lightening the trekker's or porter's load, teahouse trekking saves the hiker the headache and time of daily setting up and packing a tent, reading with a flashlight, and of preparing 2-3 meals a day.
For most people, the cost of trekking in Nepal is a pleasant surprise too. For instance, one night at a friendly Dhunche lodge cost me Rs20 (20 Nepali rupees, or 28 U.S. cents). For excellent dinner and breakfast I paid Rs300 ($4.17). It may get a bit more expensive as one travels deeper into roadless areas (where everything must be brought in on the back of porters or pack animals), but the cost always remains in this range. You could perhaps manage Europe on $5 dollars a day, thirty years ago; you can still do so, today, in Nepal.
This delightful arrangement also gives trekkers more time to interact with local people, to study their vanishing customs, ways of life, and legends. In a world that is becoming increasingly homogenized, it is refreshing to run across people who still weave their own garments, still wholeheartedly embrace their traditions, still take their relationship to other people, animals, and wild things, for granted.
On the trail, one hears again and again of people who have been in many wilderness areas elsewhere, but, after discovering the wonders of teahouse trekking, are drawn back to Nepal. I feel that something like the constellation of factors touched upon above explains their lifetime fascination with this land. The wilderness and the cultures are as beautiful and diverse as one might wish. And, despite the daily showers (in the monsoon season), despite occasional encounters with leeches, fleas, altitude sickness, xenophobes, and treacherously slippery trails, trekking in Nepal is a lazy trekker's paradise.
As if all this is not enough, there are specific rewards of going to the Langtang region. On clear, comparatively unpolluted days, residents of Kathmandu get glimpses of the permanently snowy Langtang range. So, for them, going to Langtang is like going home. As well, tucked among these mountains there is the high-elevation (4,385 m / 14346 ft) Gosain Pond, sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, and others. Hindus, for instance, say that Lord Shiva swallowed a deadly concoction which threatened to destroy humanity, an act of self-sacrifice that brought him indescribable pain and led him to the Himalayas in search of relief. There he created the breathtakingly beautiful Gosain Pond, and lied down in it, to cool his burning throat. On each anniversary of that day, he returns to the pond, some Hindus believe. One does not have to be a Hindu to look upon a trek to that enchanting pond, especially just before its alleged birthday, as a sort of a pilgrimage. Thus, one goes on this trek not simply for all the usual reasons, but also to respond to Langtang's and Gosains calls.
Here now is a chronological photojournal, interspersed with a few more musings and tall tales.
|The road from Kathmandu to Dhunche (Dhunche is one
starting point of hikes into the Langtang region).
For newcomers to the Nepali countryside and transportation system, this ride is a memorable event all by itself. There is of course the majesty of the scenery, but that is not all. This one-lane dirt road (bottom right of photo) must accommodate a two-way traffic, so it's fascinating to watch the hairy and extremely competent maneuvers of the two drivers on the few occasions when one vehicle meets another. One adaptation involves the frequent use of a deafening horn to warn drivers who may be on the other side of the curve. As well, most Nepali drivers have at least one young assistant, who, through a system of whistles, taps, and jumps, plays an essential role in assuring the survival of both bus and passengers.
On the negative side (for me, not for the imperturbable Nepalis), there was the incessant drone of Indian pop music. In my next trip, I resolved once more to bring along a tape of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and convince the driver to play it.
|At the police checkpoint, close to Dhunche.
I jumped off the roof quickly take this photo. It's actually more pleasant to ride the bus on top than inside. Up there, its not as crowded and cramped, and the panoramas are less one-sided. Moreover, if the bus ends up travelling sideways to the riverbed 1,000 ft below, rooftop passengers may be able to part company in a hurry.
This incidentally is not the same bus we started with. Fifteen days before our arrival, a landslide washed away a section of the road. So the Kathmandu bus turned around at that point, and we crossed over to a new bus, which was already waiting for us when we arrived. It felt so good to walk on my own two feet, I kept walking uphill for more than an hour, until the new bus finally caught up with me.
A few numbers tell the story of this ride perhaps better than anything else. It took us about 10 hours to travel the 120 km (75 miles) distance from Kathmandu to Dhunche. Even allowing for frequent stops, the average driving speed is about 15 km (9 miles) per hour!
The trail from Dhunche to Bamboo (and all the way up beyond Kyangjin and Langshista) follows for the most part the Langtang River gorge. The river itself, in most sections, is one continuous set of noisy rapids. Shoes with good traction are a mustduring the monsoon season the trail is slippery, traversing heights and waterfalls.
|A weaver, hamlet of Bamboo (about 6 hours from
She makes such belts for herself and for tourists. A 2.5-meter (over 8 ft) belt takes her 20 hours to make, which her husband then proceeds to sell for about Rs250 ($3.50). Taking the cost of materials into consideration, her hourly wage for this is about Rs10 (14 cents). She wove for hours on end on our way up, and was still at it on our return a few days later.
She learned to weave this pattern in Tibet, on a trip to buy wool.
|Hot shower, hamlet of Bamboo.|
|A Tamang girl and her sister, hamlet of Bamboo. Even
though she cherished the chocolate I gave her, and even though her sister asked for
nothing, she shared it with her, half and half.
Besides chocolate, they don't have pistachios hereand they sure like them!
A passerby can hardly avoid the everlasting comparison between city and country. Who, after all, is happier, the multitude of city dwellers or the few people who live in the midst of this thin mountain air and unsurpassable beauty? These country folk are the owners of riverfront property, perhaps unaware of their good fortune. They are certainly more self-sufficient than city people, often growing some of their food and weaving some of their clothes. Their existence is less complicated than ours; no one, for instance, would ever say that theirs is a life of quiet desperation. Their adult children do not merely tolerate them, but seem to genuinely love and respect them. But, before idealizing their way of life, we must realize that the majority of people here are perennially engaged in back-breaking, monotonous labor. One occasionally runs across sick people whose health is at risk because of poverty and lack of medical facilities, not because their condition is untreatable. They are often at the mercy of corrupt officials and landowners. Even for the few privileged ones, educational, intellectual, and economic opportunities are scarce. Not too many of them can open-mindedly reflect about the meaning of life or question conventions and authority. When TV and city ways finally and inevitably cross their paths, they would leave them perplexed, with a vague longing for these other ways, for the seemingly lost opportunities of their lives.
Casual conversations leave no doubt that many of them would have moved to the city if they could, and virtually all would have given a great deal to have their children attend a school in Kathmandu. I for one, and as much as I love nature, as much as I enjoy being with these friendly people, would only trade places with them for a few months, at most, not for a lifetime.
An episode along the Langtang river captured for me one environmental dilemma. This is a conservation area, where logging is prohibited. But as in Costa Rica and other poor countries, the wonderful laws are not always followed. At nightfall, one of the trees suddenly came crushing to the ground. Within about 10 minutes, and with the help of some eight people, no trace of that tree was left. Toddlers carried twigs to the gushing Langtang River, while the adults chopped and hid the trunk and branches.
It turned out that they needed to add a flat area to their land, to accommodate tourist overflow in the season (it seemed strange to me, talking about an overflow, when I was often the only visitor in an entire village). To create this flat area, they had to remove one tree. To avoid being detected by the authorities, they did so at dusk, stealthily, and with lightening speed.
This brings home an old lesson. It's not enough to put conservation laws on the book, nor even to try to enforce them, although this by itself makes a tremendous differencewhat I saw was probably the exception, not the rule. Conservationists need also win the local people to their side, by educating them to the importance of conservation and to its spiritual and economic benefits to their own lives. Conservationists must also be active on such seemingly unrelated fronts as family planning, education, and political corruption. In conservationas in nature itselfeverything is connected to everything else.
This also says something good about tourism, for without it, the government wouldn't have cared for the trees. Tourists are also the mainstay of the local economy, with the obvious result that people in tourist regions are overall better off than people in other rural areas of Nepal.
Many pundits I know lose much sleep wondering whether globalization is real or a passing fad. Signs such as this one, so far away from the nearest road, as well as endless conversations with locals here, Mexico, and Guatemala, convince me that indigenous ways of life, and rural cultures and traditions, are slowly crumbling under the weight of western technology, products, and ways of thinking. Cultural diversity is daily diminishing on this planet. For better or worse, if western civilization survives another century, it will likely swamp and overrun local cultures.
This of course is another reason for travelling in out-of-the-way places now, before the cultures, and perhaps also the forests, animals, and some other natural attractions, vanish.
On the way to Langtang, on the third day, somewhere around the 3,200 m (about 10,000 ft) mark, the familiar altitude headache got hold of me. The last few hourssans backpack of coursewere the most difficult moments of this trip. I had to stop about every 10 meters, to catch my breath. So I decided to stay in Langtang Village (3480 m / 11,417 ft) two nights, and then in Kyangjin (3,900 m /12,000 ft) for another two. This suited my plans anyway, for I came to this wilderness to enjoy and recreate myself, not to run as if chased by a rhinoceros. This rest paid, for I was able to take leisurely hikes on these days and get to know people. Moreover, the headaches and weakness never returned, even at the higher Gosain Pond (4,385 m / 14,346 ft) and Laurebina Pass (4,600 m / 15,100 ft).
|A man carrying a 60-kg (132 lbs) load (almost his body weight) of construction logs to Kyangjin (background) from Langtang. This fairly gentle uphill climb of about 500 m (1640 ft) takes about 3 hours and earns him Rs200 ($2.78).|
|Yaks in Kyangjin. I got too close to suite the white
one, hence his frown (and grunts) of displeasure. There was a wall just beyond the
uneasy photographer, eminently hoppable.
At this elevation, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower barely grow, and that's about it for horticulture. Rice and corn must be carried in.
|Wild primroses and other flowers in bloom, a few km up the Langtang River (about 4,300 meters / 14,436 ft) from Kyangjin. The wild flowers in this season are one compensation for the all-too-frequent rain, fog, and mist.|
We had to retrace our steps for a couple of days, to take the turn to the Gosain Pond. Our lodge in Syabru Village was a few feet away from a government school. After changing and taking a bucket shower, I went over and watched for about an hour a Class 5 English lesson. As on former hiking occasions, this was an interesting experiences which threw some light on Nepal's problems. The young and friendly teacher read the text, word for word (including instructions of what to do), and the children recited in unison. It reminded me, in every way, of Vicente Riva Palacio century-old parody of Mexican education, "The Good Example" (double click your mouse now to read it). I couldn't help myself, and asked the teacher if she would give me 30 minutes to demonstrate a teaching style aimed at engaging the youngsters, motivating them, and emphasizing understanding. She graciously consented, and I think both she and at least one child genuinely enjoyed this other way of instruction. Some of the children probably needed more time to adjust to the idea that learning is not something you mechanically read about in a book, but something that directly touches your life and mind.
With a little bit of good will, I think, teaching could be vastly improved in this (and any other) country. One has to train teachers by examples of good teaching. One has to provide genuine literature (the kids I interviews have never seen, and didn't possess, a single children's bookonly stunting textbookssoon, the internet will be able to bridge the gap, even in remote regions). The process could work like a chain reaction, totally bypassing schools of education (which are based on the mistaken premises that you can teach how to teach, and that process is far more important than intimate familiarity with the subject matter). One can train teachers in Kathmandu, in the Department of English, let us say, and then send them to rural villages to conduct hands-on workshops.
|A beautiful forest on the trail to Sing Gompa (3,350 m /
11,000 ft). The photo doesn't capture what our eyes didthe tree at the center
is loaded with some 15 langur monkeys (white dots at the center of photo) belligerently
looking our way.
Among the rocks one often sees pikas busily going about their business. They resemble gerbils, but are about twice their size, furry, brownish, and fun to watch.
|This child is carrying a 15-kg (33 lbs) load to Sing Gompa.|
|Sing Gompa has a Buddhist monastery, but no monks. I
stayed here two nightsthe food at the Red Panda Hoteland the
Englishwere too good to say goodbye to in a hurry.
Removing a leech from my leg, I kiddingly asked someone if he cared to eat it. This led to an interesting recipe, which I hope is real. Somewhere in the Ganesh Range region, I was told, some Gurungs and Sherpas send their livestock to graze in leechy pastures. When the animals return, the villagers remove the blood-gorged leeches, place them in bags, boil them (which coagulates the blood and hardens the corpses), rinse with cold water, cook, slice, and serve with barley dough.
|For the first ten days or so, the snowy peaks were hidden beyond clouds; I actually began to doubt their existence. But as we left Sing Gompa and neared Gosain Pond, the mountains came through, silent and clear. It's hard to describe that feeling, waking up after 10 days of fog and seeing this. This view alone more than made up for the annoyances of this hike.|
|Mountain ranges' basking in sun and clouds.|
|A lonely Stupa on the way to Gosain Pond.|
|A 74-year-old Buddhist pilgrim a couple of hours away from Gosain Pond. Both of us were puffing and using canesand as happy as Krishna among the gopis.|
|Another Buddhist pilgrim.|
|And finally, the pond. It is surprisingly small,
almost entirely enclosed by mountains, and more beautiful than I expected. It took
me about 30 minutes to leisurely circle it. No sign of Lord Shiva yetIm
11 days shy of full moon and his expected arrival date. Would have loved to stick
around and see the festival, but have promises to keep in Kathmandu.
I tried swimming in this freezing water, to the amusement of the locals. Lasted about 10 seconds, and was chilled for hours afterwards.
Joined the puja of the Buddhist pilgrims I saw earlier. The 74-year-old smiling pilgrim was chanting from a text, happily though, as if playing, not as if performing a boring ritual. I was warmly accepted, and treated to a bit of alcohola merry puja. They were even happier than I was, having struggled harder and having reached a religious (and not just a spiritual), temple.
Gosain Pond drains into a deeper pond, just south of it. Hindus call it Bhairab Pond (Bhairab to Lord Shiva is What Mr. Hyde is to Dr. Jekyll). Some local Tamangs call it Nag (snake) Pond, though. They say that one day a shaman came and saw a snake lying at the bottom of the lake and decided to show the people what a great shaman he was. He told his wife that his mission depended on her faithfully beating her drums, no matter how frightened she may become. She promised to oblige, and diduntil he emerged from the pond with the terrifying snake. At this point, she let go of the drums and decamped for her life. The snake then took to the lake again, with the poor shaman in toe.
That's why the Gole people, who are said to live far away from Nag Pond, in the lowlands, believe that, if they come to either Bhairab or Gosain Ponds, they would get sick and cold. This encounter between shaman and snakeand the snake who still resides at the lakewill make them dizzy and give them headaches (these are, more or less, the symptoms of altitude sickness) if they visit Nag Pond. So these people never come to Nag and Gosain Ponds.
The Tamang who told me this story says that he heard it from his Shaman in Bharku. This Tamang believes that even now there are in fact two snakes in the waters of Nag Pond, which he sees at timesthey come out now and then, he says, and fight. A victory of the white snake brings good luck; of the black, disaster.
My informant says that one resident here saw the two snakes fighting, which the black won. Two days later her child died, even though until then he was perfectly healthy.
The Tamangs have, as well, their own legend of the origins of Gosain Pond. It is not nearly as touching or elegant, however, as the Hindu one.
|The southern exit from Gosain Pond. This site is called Trishul Dara, and it is here that Shiva's trident (Trishul) brought forth Gosain's cool waters.|
|Back to the tree line. As you go down from the Laurebina Pass (4,600 m / 15,100 ft), the mercury (of both barometer and thermometer) rises, the plants grow taller, and the streams turn into rivers. But it is not straight downhill from the pass (it never is in Nepal)for every two meters going down, there is one going up.|
|A rhododendron forest at about 10,000 feet. Like the more familiar bushes of North Americas Pacific Northwest, these trees flower in spring.|
|A typical village scene in Gulphu Bhanjyang (2150 m / 7050
ft), an exceptionally friendly village.
The Korean shoes I bought in Tamel by now are uselesstractionless and holey. Thank God I brought along American sandals.
|Finally, the descent to the Kathmandu Valley (Sundarijal). Once there, a pleasant one-hour bus ride (not a roller coaster, this time), a brief taxi ride, and the journey is sadly over.|
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