Saturday, 16 February 2008

Top 10 Coolest Treks in The Nepalese Himalaya

Himalaya means"abode of snows."
If you have been lucky enough to touch the sky from the mountain crests, the passes, or the terraced valleys of Nepal's tectonically uplifted spine, you know that it is the snows that truly rule. Running the full length of the country, the great snow-capped windswept Nepalese Himalaya is an awe-inspiring natural spectacle.
Fully one third of the Himalaya is contained within Nepal's borders,
as are the summits of eight of the world's 14 highest mountains (those over 8000 meters). Fortunately, some of the most spectacular countryside in and around this monolithic range is open to determined trekkers. From the deepest clear-blue waters of Rara Lake in the west to the high valleys around Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Everest in the center and Kanchenjunga in the east, centuries-old heel-worn furrows crisscross the ceilingless expanse and lead to gorgeous barren landscapes, remote villages, ancient traditions, and much, much more.
Here is a look at ten of the most exciting trekking opportunities in Nepal. Listed geographically from west to east and not in order of importance, this list is subject to great debate. However, no one could ever deny the majesty of any of these incomparable mountain voyages.

Top Ten Cool Trekking in Nepal
Rara Lake, Nepal
Deep in the remote reaches of western Nepal, Rara Lake is, as described by GORP founder Bill Greer,"a shimmering blue jewel set in a ring of snowy peaks." The largest lake in Nepal and also a vital habitat area for water birds, Rara Lake is at the heart of Rara National Park, established to preserve this life-giving watershed, as well as the nearby snow-capped peaks and high altitude pine, spruce and juniper woodlands. Although more trampled than in the past, the road to Rara Lake is still without any of the comfortable services available along more popular trails. Logisitically it is not an easy trek; it is hard to get to and from, and it is an organizational challenge, requiring informed guides and porters to tote the two weeks' worth of material that will keep you warm, dry and fed. It is also tough on the bones, involving several 11,000-foot passes. However, once you overcome the obstacles, the rewards are legion: few if any other trekkers, incomparable natural splendor, "untouched" villages, blissful quiet.

North of Nepal's colossal Dhaulagiri Himal and west of the great Kali Gandaki River, the Dolpo and Mustang regions have only recently been open to access by outsiders, although all treks must still be handled by outfitters. As with the roam to Rara Lake, there are few if any conveniences along the trails in Dolpo and Mustang. Which is a good thing. Trekker tea houses would be unfortunate anachronisms in these barren sweeps and verdant valleys, dotted with villages and etched by the hooves of rice-burdened yaks. Neither Dolpo nor Mustang gives you the intense in-the-midst-of-the-mountains feel that the eastern treks do but nor are they packed with the same kinds of crowds. However, as centers of Tibetan Buddhism, they are richly cultural, you will often come across functioning temples, or pass long mani (prayer) walls of stacked carved stones. Prayer flags in the the five elemental colors , blue, green, red, yellow and white, flutter from the roofs of many buildings and at the top of every pass, of which there are a few over 16,000 feet. Juphal is the airstrip from which most people begin. Walking east for two weeks will bring you to Jomsom (another airstrip) on the Annapurna Circuit. For the ambitious, well supplied and properly authorized, it is now also possible to hoof it from Pokhara through southern Dolpo.
The Annapurna Circuit is the most popular trek in Nepal. Following a loop trail beginning near Pokhara, Nepal's second city, the Circuit completely circumnavigates the Annapurna Himal and takes you within echo reach of the sixth (Dhaulagiri), seventh (Manaslu) and tenth (Annapurna I) tallest mountains in the world. The three-week undertaking is usually tackled in a counterclockwise direction from the fertile terraced midlands, or Pahar, at 3,000 feet, up the Marsyangdi River to the gray and white desolation of 17,700-foot Thorung La (pass), and then back down the Kali Gandaki River. The latter is sometimes called the deepest gorge in the world, mostly by virtue of the height of the peaks that flank it. Do-it-yourself trekker services , teahouses, guest houses and restaurants (many serving the apple pie now famous on the western arc between Jomsom's airstrip and Pokhara) can be found in abundance every step of the way; guides and porters are not needed. There are also altitude sickness (see the article about this) awareness clinics at Manang, Buddhist/Hindu pilgrimage shrines at Muktinath, hot springs at Tatopani, and sunrise Himalayan vistas (one of the best in Nepal) from Poon Hill (near Ghorapani). Be prepared to meet lots of people, but to do it in one of the most spectacular settings in the world.
Annapurna Sanctuary
The Annapurna Sanctuary trek is a 10-day adventure. It can also be an added week-long bonus undertaken by inspired hikers fresh from the adrenalin rush of Thorung La on the Annapurna Circuit. An out-and-back walk from Pokhara, its turn-around point is the Annapurna Base Camp nestled in the middle of the Annapurna Sanctuary, a depression alongside the South Annapurna Glacier and surrounded on virtually all sides by Himalayan majesty. All but one of the visible peaks rise more than 21,000 feet above sea level. The 23,000-foot Macchapuchhre to the southeast is a holy mountain that has never been summited! Although a short trek, the path is steep and sometimes treacherous, especially during or after a rain or snowfall. Like the Annapurna Circuit, there are plenty of accommodations for the unguided, self-sufficient hiker.

Manaslu and Lakya Pass
Annapurna without the swarms? Really? Yes! The Manaslu trek is a circuit trail around Manaslu (the eighth tallest mountain in the world) and its satellite peaks. Located in the Manaslu Himal just to the east of Annapurna, this area was long closed to foreigners and can now be visited only through organized outfitters. From Gorkha, the path ascends with the Buri Gandaki River valley through lush sub-tropical terrain into alpine forest and then up to the barren lands north of Manaslu. The Tibetan villages here see few westerners. The highlight of the trek is the crossing of the Lakya Pass (16,700 feet). Like Annapurna's Thorung La, the pass isn't technical, but it is still tough. And glorious. The views out to the Annapurna and Manaslu ranges are superb. The return trail descends toward and into the Marsyangdi River valley.
Langtang and Helambu
The Langtang and Helambu regions are home to the Himalayan treks closest to Kathmandu. Langtang, lying entirely within Langtang National Park, is the higher mountain hike, whereas Helambu never gets above 10,000 feet. For thin-air lovers, Laurebina pass, which connects these two areas, gets up to 16,800 feet. The Langtang trek is a two-week, slow and elegant climb out and back the length of the Langtang River valley. Through changing climates and vegetation, don't be surprised if you start by wearing shorts and finish slogging through a few inches of snow. To get to Helambu to the south, if you don't want to backtrack, try the long and tough Ganga La traverse through the heart of the park's Jugal Himal. This trail is the only section of either trek where you must be entirely self-sufficient. It eventually drops to Helambu's Melamchi Khola valley. Otherwise, back at the trail head near Dhunche, head to Laurebina Pass and Gosaikund Lake, a pilgrimage site for followers of Shiva. The week-long Helambu hike plunges into the higher temperatures and lush vegetation typical of Nepal's Pahar midlands. You could, if you wished, just walk all the way back to Kathmandu.
Not everyone has the time, drive, or stamina to make a trek into the Himalaya. This should not be a reason for feeling like you have missed out on some of the unique things that Nepal has to offer. In fact, many visitors to Nepal leave for the mountains a little too quickly and never enjoy the treasures closer at hand. Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal and major city in the Kathmandu Valley, is replete with unique buildings, temples, sites and smells. But there are also other cities and many area temples, all within easy walking distance of downtown Durbar Square at the center of Kathmandu. Patan, just to the south of Kathmandu and almost an extension of it, is considered the most"Buddhist" of the valley's three principal centers, and Bhaktapur to the east the most "medieval." Both have a feel similar to that of Kathmandu's, but without the population density and frenetic tourist pace. Of the temples in the valley, Swayambhunath (also called Monkey Temple for the hordes of monkeys living in its shadow) is the closest. A quick jaunt to the west of the capital, it is on a hill and enjoys generous views of the surroundings. The most famous temple in Nepal, Pashupatinath, cannot be visited by non-Hindus. That said, the setting, on the holy Bagmati River just to the east of Kathmandu, is very peaceful. Bodhnath, one of the biggest stupas in the world, is two kilometers through some fields further to the east, and can be visited in the same day. Changunarayan, a two-hour walk from Bhaktapur is visited by few foreigners, and Nagarkot, a town four hours from Bhaktapur, has some of the best Himalayan views in the area. There is so much more. Give the valley its due.

Sagarmatha is the local Nepalese name for Mount Everest, and Sagarmatha National Park is the protected land of the Khumbu region around this monolith and its near neighbors, Lhotse (world's fourth tallest mountain) and Cho Oyu (eighth tallest). Most trekkers in this park head up to the more famous (and much more crowded) Everest Base Camp, but there is a magical alternative; from Namche Bazar, the first village inside the park and the first night above 10,000 feet, ponder going due north to Gokyo instead of north-northeast to Everest. The turn-around point on the Gokyo trek is a small community on the shores of a small lake and just over the hill from the awesome Ngozumba Glacier. The hike up the Dudh Kosi valley is just as alluring as the Everest trek up the Lobuche Khola and has just as many services for the self-sufficient hiker. The rewards along the way are also comparable. The big bonus: far fewer people. One of the most challenging days of hiking is the day you pick your way up the gurgling, boulder-strewn southern end of the Ngozumba Glacier. And an incredible side trip takes you across its eerie lunar surface for a night at Thagna. The high point, literally and figuratively, of this route is the day-trip to the top of Gokyo Peak, a rocky, snowless lump looming over a string of high-altitude lakes. From its 17,600-foot summit, the northern and western views to the top of the world are said to be better than those from Kala Pattar, the vista mecca on the Everest Base Camp trek. They are breathtaking. Literally.
Talk of the Himalaya makes most people think of Everest, and talk of Everest brings the name Hillary to mind. Imagine then being able to spend a night at the very spot from which Hillary and so many others began their assaults of this tallest mountain in the world. Well, you can, just like thousands upon thousands before you. The trek to the Everest Base Camp is today the second most popular mountain walk in Nepal and the path beaten by so many feet is clearly marked and well catered. There is the added bonus of cheerful Tibetan towns and red-painted temples along the way. Most time-restrained vacationers fly to (and from) the airstrip at Lukla, acclimatize at Namche Bazar the biggest village in Sagarmatha National Park and then head up the Imja and Lobuche Khola valleys to the Khumbu Glacier and Base Camp shelters. Peak peepers at the turn-around point walk the nearby trail to the top of 18,450-foot Kala Pattar for a full view of the surrounding arena.

Kanchenjunga Base Camp
Kanchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world and it soars above the easternmost border with Sikkim. The trek, only possible as an organized trip through an outfitter, is an out-and-back stomp from the terraced fields, rice paddies, and neat villages typical of 3,000 feet above sea level to the mountainous base camp at 16,900 feet. After a flight to Taplejung, you head up the Ghunsa Khola valley, leaving the rhododendron, hemlock and fir forests behind, and let the mountain views dominate; spread out before you are Everest, Makalu, Lhotse and Kanchenjunga four of the world's five highest mountains. From the northern base camp at Pangpema, cross high passes still far beneath the massive bulk of the mountain to Tseram, at the foot of the Yalung Glacier. Veteran tour organizer Ben Wallace of Himalayan Travel considers this trek to be one of the best in Nepal.