NOTE: I flew out from Nepal twelve hours before the big earthquake and I left the Langtang area about three days earlier. I started three blog posts before I left: a fluffy one about Kathmandu, this long one about trekking in Langtang and another about practical information doing the trek. While it feels trivial to write about traveling in Nepal since there is so much desperation and suffering in the aftermath, I decided to put these blog posts up anyway for myself, for my own memory. I have an epilogue with some updated information at the end. If you have some new info, please share it!
If I may start by going all granola on you for a moment, there’s something to be said for being amidst such awesome nature where you can see the lay of the land where you have walked all day. Your relationship to the environment around you is intensified—or, in my case, you simply wake up to that fact.
I sat on my balcony in Thulo Syabru, a village sitting on a ridge, and saw the entire day’s walk unfold in front of me: I went steeply up from that river, then along that mountain face, crossed over that looks-tiny-from-here bridge, and came through the terraced land to get up here. I think about this small chunk of land I covered and wonder about all the other chunks of land I have yet to see and how they interconnect. It demonstrates that the resonance of a trek like this is the reason it becomes the highlight of anyone’s world trip and why we travelers return again and again to Nepal.
That’s my last deep thought, don’t worry.
I wanted to get out of Kathmandu before Nepali New Year began, so I had one day to get a permit and everything I needed. I dutifully got trekking pants and iodine pills, but I left it until the end to think about real shoes or a real jacket. When I did the Annapurna trek I was also in a hurry and I somehow bought a giant woman’s jacket. This time I accidentally bought giant woman’s pants which matched nicely with my absurdly inadequate mesh running shoes and windbreaker.
At Syabru Besi, the starting point, I thought of my friend Stephen, who is still my friend despite insisting that I didn’t need a jacket at 4000 meters. Syabru Besi is just under 2000 meters, and I was freezing already. I didn’t see anything to buy in the village, so I started the trek anyway, hinging all my hopes on dry, mellow weather.
I was freezing at Lama Hotel even in the relative warmth of the afternoon. I dreaded going higher and asked a father and son tandem coming down if I could buy a fleece or a long-sleeve shirt from them. Mark and Reed from Bellingham, Washington gave me just what I needed and refused payment. I, in return, gave away my treasured Chinese coconut sunflower seeds (the one product we can’t seem to import from China) but I don’t think they got the better of the deal.
At lower elevations my timing was perfect: the rhododendrons, Nepal’s national flower, were in full bloom. Big bursts of white, red, and pinks almost made up for the fact that nearly the entire trail is covered in horse/donkey/yak/buffalo dung. No one ever mentions that for most of the Langtang trek you are tiptoeing around dung.
Though the national park is called Langtang and the biggest village is Langtang, it’s the next place, Kyanjin Gompa, that’s the magic—if you have clear skies. In Langtang I bought yak cheese and visited a doctor at an Aussie clinic to ask how much I can ascend in one day before I put myself at altitude sickness, and just beyond I saw an enormous, magnificent griffon vulture.
You don’t really see the best of the Langtang trek until you are at Kyanjin Gompa, the last settlement. This is a video of me being overenthusiastic about my surroundings after a night of snow. I don’t see much snow and mountains in my follow-the-sun life. Cut me some slack.
Dorje Bakery is like a community center. It’s the only food business on the entire trek that I saw that isn’t a guest house as well, which causes problems because when you pay for your room (or get it free, in fact) the deal is that you eat dinner and breakfast there, too.
In the bakery I met a 20-year-old Canadian girl from Revelstoke named Jenna. She decided on a whim to go up to Kyanjin Ri, which is over three hours round trip, but she was leaving without carrying anything—no sunscreen, no hat to protect her from the intense sun, nor any water (“I can eat snow!”) That’s hardcore. That might also be dangerously irresponsible.
At Hilltop Lodge I met a nice and sweet Israeli couple who also stayed put for the day and we hung out for a long afternoon of good conversation by the fire in the restaurant. They were very kind, inquisitive, and gentle and I am belaboring the point because Israelis have a fierce reputation for being what I call scorched earth travelers; when they pass through they leave a trail of destruction and bad feelings in their wake.
Some guest houses refuse Israeli travelers altogether. I heard that on the Annapurna Circuit it is quite common. A local told me that Israelis sometimes don’t pay their porters in full when they arrive, which, if true, is the ultimate sin. Porters are the unsung heroes of the mountains, without whom nothing would exist.
Such is the Israelis’ reputation that when I was in Dorje Bakery one morning and saw a guy cooking noodles on a portable stove in the middle of the wood floor, I assumed he was Israeli, because that’s chutzpah. He was French. (Another local told me that the French are the new Israelis.) After he was done cooking he found time to insult the owners when he saw that they were less than happy about it, though they didn’t say a word. He also loudly held forth with his friends that dal baht shouldn’t cost more than 400 rupees (US$1 = 99 rupees) in Langtang, though rice and lentils have to be carried up and firewood isn’t cheap. I’d like to see him carry it all up. I hope in his next life he’s a porter, the bastard.
However, let me say for the record that all but this one French guy and all the Israelis that I actually interacted with were kind people, not one mass murderer among them. I should also say that I didn’t demand to see ID from the jackass. For all I know he could be Swiss or Quebecois, so I, as a typical peace-loving American, am just here to recklessly perpetuate stereotypes.
The Israelis had a guide. He told me that he was going to be marrying a German woman in three months. He was part of a rescue team that saved her during last year’s Annapurna disaster and in her appreciation she said she would marry him. He didn’t seem to want to get married, but accepted that his life would improve and was going along with it.
I imagine that my first marriage will happen that way: “Dude, thanks for performing the Heimlich maneuver on me. I shouldn’t have eaten that 56th steamed buffalo momo. Let’s get married. Neither one of us is gay, but in California it’s OK. Come on, before I change my mind.”
A big change is coming to Kyanjin Gompa: electricity. For now it is all solar, but a Hong Kong philanthropist named Michael Kadoorie is allegedly going to bring inexpensive electricity in three months. He built a bridge like the one above six months ago. When I asked a local why he was being generous to Nepal when there are other poor places in the world such as India, I was cut short. “India is rich!” he snapped. “Nepal is poor!”
The coming electricity should mean people will use less firewood for their adobe stoves. A man in Kyanjin Gompa explained to me that to get a bushel of firewood delivered—about 12 good-sized pieces—costs 400 rupees but then you are obligated to feed the porter dal baht (rice and lentils) twice and give him raksi, the local distilled firewater. By then, the cost has risen to over 1000 rupees. He was looking forward to electricity.
Lhakpa in Dorje Bakery doesn’t think electricity is going to be a big deal, but I told him if I come back this time next year, the sign on the roof will be blinking in neon and Xmas lights and a casino will be downstairs. He said he intended to build his own hotel—five hotels are already being built; lots of heavy rebar is being carried up at 9000 rupees per porter—but he was grappling with providing wifi. He said most travelers tell him they don’t want wifi, preferring the ambiance without, but I said those people are either lying or old and few can resist it. I was content without it, but I’m old. And I’m lying. Lama Guest House had a laptop hooked up to a battery and kids were watching horrible TV shows, destroying the mood.
I pushed myself too hard coming down the mountain. I didn’t rest enough. I am not good at pacing and I overexerted myself to stay in lockstep with a porter. Never mind that he was carrying two large gas tanks on his back and texting as he descended steeply. After hours and hours my knees became spaghetti as I stumbled into a settlement called Bamboo. I was so exhausted I slept over eight straight hours, a great rarity, which probably hasn’t happened since that Amsterdam weekend (rimshot!)
In Thulo Syabru I met an Aussie guy named Tyrone who had been in the mountains for two weeks, starting his walk from downtown Kathmandu. He was so tired of not having fruit that he walked two hours down and two and a half hours and 1000 vertical meters up just to go to town and buy a bunch of bananas! He said he spends $10 a day on the trail, always negotiating a free room in exchange for eating dinner there, but not breakfast, which is usually part of the deal. He had no immediate intention on leaving the mountains, and I could see where he was coming from; I regretted returning to Kathmandu minutes after I got back.
In the next blog post I break down everything I brought to show that you don’t need to carry so much to require a porter. For example, you really don’t need a sleeping bag. Or food. This is what makes Nepal special and unique: you can independently hike for very literally months and months without much backtracking and explore the country while always having shelter and hot food to eat. If you can handle rice, potatoes and lentils every day, even better.
While I was heartened to hear from friends I made on the trail that they survived and got out, the bad news has been a beast. Lhakpa from Dorje Bakery in Kyanjin Gompa lost his mother, I read, and he sent me an email saying many other family members died and he is suddenly homeless in Kathmandu. Tsering at Ganesh Himal Guest House in Thulo Syabru wrote to say that she and her mother both hurt their legs and her family is also homeless now on the streets of Kathmandu. The 14-year-old girl I met is from Bamboo, where this video was taken. Tyrone the fruit-loving Aussie is still missing.
Langtang village seems to have disappeared. I can’t make sense of what I see as I can’t imagine an avalanche on the scale of what the photos and satellite show here and here. From the BBC is this video and these aerial photos plus this video from a helicopter going up the river, which the trail follows. Here is an account of two girls’ story, this is a reddit from another traveler, and someone sent me this showing the mess in Thulo Sybaru. I read that the doctor I visited in Langtang village, Erin, miraculously was away on a walk when the earthquake hit.
If you are interested in donating money, Erin’s Langtang Valley Health Clinic deserves attention. This is a GoFundme concerning Lakpa of Lama Hotel and Lhakpa of Dorje Bakery. This dude has some wise words about Kathmandu getting the focus of the relief attention, but all the same, I have a contact that I trust and this is her GoFundMe link.
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