Walking and trekking
What can be said about Nepal that hasn’t already been gushed by everyone from hardened mountain-killers to septugenarian trekkers, except that to say it’s glorious, and go. Nepal’s mountain attractions seethe with clanging, fluttery eastern magic, and do not disappoint. Two of the world’s greatest treks in the world can be made here: the Annapurna Circuit, and the Everest Base Camp trek. The Annapurna Circuit is by far the more superior of the two from a trekking point of view, both in content, aesthetics and environment. Covering some 300km, the full trek lassoos the Annapurna massif (8,091m) and offers views of Dhaulaghiri (8,167m) and Machhupuchhare (6,993m) – or ‘fishtail’, long a shoe-in for the title of world’s most beautiful mountain.
The trek leaves from Birethanthi, and there are many variations which trim the itinerary into manageable portions, such as the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. The circuit classically tops out at 5,300m on the Thorong La pass, where it skims the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Though you don’t always feel like you are in the middle of mountain range, you do trek through a very broad spectrum of cultures and environments, offering the best all-round experience of high Nepal. But there is a big itch that this trek doesn’t scratch: Everest. The Base Camp trek is justly popular – a trek into the heart of the Khumbu Himalaya to the bottom of the world’s highest mountain. Leaving from the famous trailhead at Lukla, the classic trek (again, there are many variations) winds through sherpa villages such as Namche Bazaar, trade routes, market towns and into the white wilderness of the Himalayas, immersing the walker in this famous and grand region. Treks to Base Camp usually feature a walk to the summit of Kala Pattar, the famous viewing platform which is a must-get photo for anyone who makes the trek. Basecamp itself infamously offers no view of the mountain, but is instead a sprawling town of tents, litter, oxygen cylinders, wreckage, prayer flags, exhausted climbers, research stations and memorials huddled beneath the chaotically jagged Khumbu Icefall – the first barrier to anyone who attempts the mountain. It sounds like a madhouse, and it is – but to be amongst the melee of a climbing season at basecamp is a priceless experience and a fine way to spend time in the mountain’s sway, even if you’re not one of the ones going for the top. Most trekking companies run trips to Everest base camp, and itineraries vary so there is plenty of scope to pick to suit your ambition.
Those who want to bag a true Himalayan peak can find some extraordinary but eminently achievable challenges in Nepal also: trekking mountains such as Mera Peak (6476m) and Island Peak (6189m) are exemplary, high-altitude mountaineering expeditions which offer insurmountable views of the world’s highest mountains. Island Peak is more technical and far more shapely – named by Eric Shipton for being an ‘Island in a sea of ice’ – than Mera Peak, and concludes with a satisfying snow crest leading to a compact summit offering some fine views of Everest. Other trekking highlights of Nepal include the junglyChitwan National Park, home to fiercely endangered mammals such as tiger and rhino in their natural habitat. Times are changing in Nepal, with restrictions being proposed to restrict unguided trekking and the continuing friction within the government, but experienced in a responsible way, Nepal remains the most illustrious destination for trekking in the world.
There is plenty to do in Nepal, most of it inextricably linked with the mountains or the deep-rooted culture that surrounds them. This is all good news: the whole country is thick with mysticism, and there is nobody who can hear the rumble of a Buddhist horn or the tinkle of prayer wheels in the surroundings of the high Himalaya and not feel something stir. In Kathmandu an easily achieved highlight is the Monkey Temple, perched high on a promontory overlooking the uninspiring sprawl of the city. It’s an atmospheric place, even in high season, and there is a monastery up here you can visit and catch a glimpse of Buddhist monks at prayer and performing their charismatic dirges. There are also many monkeys here, hence the name. The city is a great place to wander browse and absorb the chaotic bustle and tussle of rickshaws, temples, holy men, taxis, food sellers and the inevitable procession of knackered mountaineers and tourists. A must for those who aren't trekking is a mountain flight, which can be had for around US $200, and will fly you alongside Everest and its surrounding peaks. Check with the operator how close you get to the mountains - all the flights are worthwhile for the views, but some get you closer to the mountains than others.
If you fancy escaping Kathmandu for a place less chaotic and closer to the mountains, head for Pokhara, at the foot of the Himalayas in the shadow of Dhaulaghiri. Here lakes and temples against a backdrop of sharp, icy mountains make for an intoxicating atmosphere.
Everest is named after a surveyor. TRUE. Contrary to myth, Everest was not named by a man named George Everest - it was named for him, by his successor as Surveyor General of India, Andrew Waugh in 1865. There was no small amount of subterfuge, either – Waugh ‘pretended’ there were no local names for the mountain, despite their being two: Sagarmartha, and Chomulungma,
Nepal was ‘closed’ until 1949: TRUE. Like Bhutan, Nepal did not particularly welcome outsiders until well after World War 2, which scuppered mountaineers who wanted to attempt the as yet unclimbed Everest from the south.
Must see and do
- See Everest preferably by trek; if you’re adventurous, from a summit; if necessary, from a plane. But see it somehow.
- Have a drink at Rum Doodle legendary climber’s haunt in Kathmandu, whose walls are covered in cardboard yeti footprints recording mountaineering exploits through the years. The walls are like a history book, and all the greats are here if you look hard enough – Hillary, Messner, Bonington, Hinkes. A shrine. www.therumdoodle.com
- Go trekking! If ever there was a country that was built for walking, it’s this one – so don’t visit without getting into the mountains. Visit one of these companies to see what’s on offer. www.keadventure.com