MAPS & NAVIGATION
The best series of Nepal maps is the 1:50,000 series produced by Erwin Schneider for Research Scheme Nepal Himalaya, originally printed in Vienna. Most sheets are now published by Nelles Verlag in Munich. They cover the Kathmandu valley and the Everest region from Jiri to the Hongu valley with a contour interval of 40m. The 1:100,000 Schneider maps of Annapurna and Lang- tang have a contour interval of 100m. They’re available from many map shops abroad and at a many bookshops in Kathmandu.
The Finnish government has assisted the Survey Department with the production of an outstanding series of 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 maps covering most of Nepal, but they don’t show all the trekking trails.
Each trek account includes a general explanation of the lie of the land and cultural background, but these are not self-guiding trail descriptions. If you are not traveling with a Nepali companion, you will occasionally need to ask hoteliers or other trekkers about the correct path. If you are with a guide, they will be asking the questions as you travel.
Major trekking route is likely to be, for the people of a village, only a path from Ram’s house to Bir Bahadur’s house to Dawa’s house. In our minds we string all these sections of trail together to form a major route to some place where village people may never go.
There are many routes in Nepal that cross high passes, but only four of these are described in detail: Ganja La, Thorung La, Laurebina La and Kagmara La. These passes have the dangers of rock fall, snow, avalanches and high altitude. All members of the party, including the sherpas and porters, must have good equipment before attempting these routes. Even with the best preparation there is no assurance you can get across a Himalayan pass. The chance of snow increases during the period from December to April, although at any time of year snow on a pass might force you to turn back.
Many trekkers make the mistake of varying their route by attempting a 5500m to 6000m pass. Upon reaching the pass they discover that they, their equipment or other members of the party are totally unfit for the cold, high elevation and technical problems the pass presents. Often the problems force the party to turn back, severely altering their schedule. In the end, they fail to reach their primary goal. It is best to plan to attempt a high pass crossing after achieving the major goal of the trek – usually somewhere on the return route to Kathmandu.
There is nothing more frustrating than wandering around the hills of Nepal looking for the correct trail. It is impossible, no matter how detailed the route description, to document every important trail junction. Also, trails change for a multitude of reasons. The descriptions that follow portray what you may expect if you follow the shortest available routes, but it will be all too easy to get lost if you try to walk through Nepal using only this as a guide. Develop the habit of talking to people and asking questions.
The route descriptions are separated into daily stages, thus giving a quick estimate of the number of days required for each trek. The suggested night stops are the ones that most trekkers use. Accommodation and food are also usually available at each suggested stop if you are relying on lodges. Camping groups will find water, food for porters (and usually chhang for sherpas) and a place large enough to pitch four or five tents at each night stop.
When you trek these routes, either with a group or alone, you may find you are not stopping at the places listed here. Don’t panic. This is not a tour itinerary. Your actual stopping place will depend on your fitness, whether you or someone in your patty is sick on a particular day, the weather, trail conditions, arrangements with the porters and whether you find a place more interesting or attractive than the suggested village. Your trek should allow you the freedom to move as fast or as slow as you wish.
Any moderately fit trekker can accomplish the suggested daily stages in one day. If you are trekking with porters, their ability to cover the required distance each day will limit your progress. Porters can accomplish each stage in a single day and will almost always agree to the stages listed here, although you may have to jolly them along to be sure they do so. Porters carrying 30kg up and down hills cannot move as fast as a trekker carrying a light backpack. Other factors such as weather, steepness of the trail, sickness and festivals can turn a schedule upside down. Beware especially of the Dashain festival in October, when porters areal- most impossible to find and tend to vanish without warning.
The suggested daily stages are no more than guidelines to help you select and plan a trek and to help you understand what distances porters will agree to carry their loads each day. It is easy to alter the number of days suggested here. Perhaps you can cut a day or two off the time if you walk from first light to sunset each day, but since a trek is
a continual experience, not simply progress towards a particular destination, there is little point in rushing the trip only to get to some place that may not be as engrossing as where you are now.
At high altitudes, in order to avoid altitude sickness, you should proceed no faster than the ascent times recommended in the trekking chapters, even if that means ending the day’s walk before lunch. You can lengthen any trek to almost any degree by adding side trips, rest days and exploration of inviting-looking villages.
On most treks you can move a half-day from the night stops suggested here and avoid the largest crowds. The stages outlined are the traditional camping places used by both lodge trekkers and camping groups. Hotels in between these spots are often empty at night. If you do alter your schedule, you will also help to provide much-needed income to lodges that don’t get many overnight guests.
To help you plan a trek that uses alternative night stops, we’ve included a table with detailed walking times at the end of each major trek in the Everest Region, Annapurna Region and Langtang & Helambu chapters. After a day or so of walking you can figure out how to relate these times to your own pace and can then predict your own times between important landmarks fairly accurately.
Readers continually point out that they trekked either slower or faster than the ‘schedules’ in this book. That is the way it should be. Nobody gets a prize for completing a trek in fewer days than the route descriptions in this book, nor is there any punishment for taking longer.
Level of Difficulty
Each trek is rated according to difficulty in the Facts Box preceding each description. Treks classified as ‘easy’ are shorter walks following well-travelled trails through villages with facilities for trekkers. Most days of walking are less than six hours and ascend less than 500m.
‘Medium’ treks involve steep climbs and often cross exposed cliffs and bridges of dubious design. There are places to camp, and usually lodges, at all night stops. There may be long days that require as much as nine hours of walking.
A ‘hard’ trek may require mountaineering skill and route-finding ability. There may be long days without lodges or camping places. The classification of many treks falls between these categories. Most treks graded as ‘medium-hard’ are in remote areas where you must camp.
Times & Distances
The route descriptions list approximate walking times for each day, and more detailed times for the most popular treks are summarized in tables at the end of the trek description. The times shown are ‘tourist times’, which assume that you walk slower than the locals, who move much faster at what the sherpas call ‘Nepali time’. Most days require from five to eight hours of walking. It’s also fun to ask people on the trail how far the next village is. Hill people in Nepal use a unit of distance called a kos, the distance a person can walk in one hour. ‘Namche Bazaar kati kos laagchha? ’ should elicit a reply that approximates the number of hours to Namche Bazaar (as should 1Namche Bazaar katigantaa laagchha? ’ or ‘How many hours to Namche Bazaar?’). You’ll get an amazing variety of answers, although the common one is ‘one hour, no matter how far it is.
It is difficult to determine distance. It is easy to judge distances from a map, but with the many gains and losses of altitude – and all the turns and twists of the trail – a map measurement of the routes becomes virtually meaningless. Someday someone will take the time to push a bicycle-wheel odometer over every trail in Nepal to get accurate distance measurements. Until then, we’ll just have to be satisfied with the estimate that most of the days listed here are 10km to 20km of trekking, depending on the altitude and steepness of the terrain.
The elevations given in the trek descriptions are composites based on measurements with an altimeter or GPS unit and the best available maps. Most elevations correlate with the Survey of India maps of the 1960s except where these are obviously wrong (a frequent occurrence in western Nepal).
The Schneider map series used the Survey of India maps as a basis but refined most elevations, so we have used the Schneider map elevations in the areas they cover. Except for specific elevations shown on the Schneider maps, all heights are rounded to the nearest 10m. Peak elevations are those shown on the official mountaineering regulations of Nepal except for peaks in the Everest region, where they correspond to those on the 1978 edition of the Schneider Khumbu map.
This uncertainty over precise elevations will cause no problems during a trek. The main reason you need to know the elevation for each day, but when there are many ups and downs in a single day, some of the smallest ascents and descents are not shown. The vertical scale is the same on each chart, so it’s easy to compare treks and see the average elevation. The profiles all look rather like saw teeth because most treks in Nepal go from ridge top to river valley and back to ridge top.
Global Positioning System
A recent development in mapping is the Global Positioning System (GPS). This involves 24 satellites operating in six orbital planes at an altitude of 20,200km. These birds put out coded signals that may be received by small units on earth. A GPS unit reads the signal from at least four satellites at once and solves several sets of simultaneous equations to produce readings that determine the unit’s location (latitude, longitude and elevation) with surprising precision.
In May 2000 the US government, which operates the system, removed the error-inducing system called Selective Availability. A modern GPS unit can produce a reading that defines your position within 10m, but because of the way the system works, measurements may be off by as much as 50m.
These profiles indicate the altitude changes for the treks. The unit of scale on the horizontal axis is hours of trekking; hence each profile only gives a rough indication of the steepness of the trail and the duration of the trek. Most high and low points are marked for each day, when there are many ups and downs in a single day, some of the smallest ascents and descents are not shown.
Place Names & Terminology
The route descriptions assign many places names that do not correlate with those in other descriptions of the same route or with those on maps. The diversity occurs because there is no universally accepted form of transliterating Nepali and Tibetan names into English. Different authorities will spell the same place name in different ways. Also, a particular place may have several different names. Mt Everest, for example, is also known as Sagarmatha (Nepali), Chomolungma (Sherpa) and Qomolangma Feng (Chinese). The same applies for many village names. Just to further complicate things, in the new map series the Nepal Survey used its own transliteration system (and also a coordinate system that is impossible to relate to standard UTM coordinates).
In 1984 the government of Nepal set up a committee to assign new Nepali names to 31 peaks and three tourist places that had been known before only by English names. To avoid confusion the new names are used in the text alongside the old English names.
Many maps produced before 1960 had little ground control, and the village names on them had little resemblance to reality. This is particularly true of the maps prepared by the US Army Map Service, which Nepali mappers have traced and distributed as trekking maps in Kathmandu.
Throughout the text you’ll find references to ‘trekking peaks’. These are the 18 peaks that can be legally climbed by trekkers with a simple application and payment of a fee to the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA). Although they are called ‘trekking peaks’, each climb is a true mountaineering challenge and should not be attempted without proper preparation.
Proper geographical usage defines the left side of a river or glacier as that on the left when you face downhill in the direction of flow. This terminology is often confusing when following a river uphill: in this situation the ‘left side’ of the river is on your right. Fortunately, most Himalayan rivers travel either north-south or east-west, so it’s possible to avoid the ‘proper’ usage by referring to river banks by points of the compass, but in some cases it has been necessary to refer to the ‘true right’ bank.
Nepali & Tibetan Terms
In the route reports many names and descriptions are translated, but to avoid a lot of repetition several Nepali and Tibetan words appear throughout the text. These include names of the ethnic groups that populate Nepal’s hills: Tamang, Chhetri, Brahman, Rai, Sherpa, Gurung, Limbu, Newar and Magar.
You will encounter many Buddhist monuments during a trek. A maani is a single stone or stone wall carved with the Tibetan Buddhist prayer om mani padme hum. A chorten is a round stone monument; a kaani is an arch over a trail, usually decorated with paintings on the inside; and a Tibetan Buddhist temple or monastery is called a gompa. A chautaara is a stone resting place under a tree and usually has a shelf for porter loads.
Rivers are called, in decreasing order of size: kosi, khola and naalaa. A very large river is called a nadi, but this is a Hindi word and is almost never used in Nepal. Large rivers such as the Trisuli, Narayani and Bagmati are technically nadi, but all Nepalis refer to them by their proper name without any qualifier; thus these rivers are just called ‘river’. In western Nepal a river is often a gaad.
A mountain pass is called la in Tibetan and Sherpa and bhanjyang or laagna in Nepali. Lakes are taal, kund or pokhari and a ridge is a daanda, lekh or deorali. A high pasture is ayarsa or kharka during summer, herders live in a kharka in a temporary shelter called a goth (pronounced like ‘goat’). The local booze is either chhang or rakshi.
All those ‘aa’ words look strange, so we’ve lexiconically misspelt several frequently used words, including tal, danda, mani, kani, nala, lagna, dal and bhat.
Things That Will Change
Access to most treks continues to change, making many treks shorter than they were in the past. Trail construction, population pressures, landslides, new roads, bridges and improved trekker facilities are changing the character of many treks. Some of the important recent changes include:
The huge Russian helicopters are no longer allowed to carry passengers, but they thunder overhead carrying cargo to remote villages. Private airlines have increased their service to trekking airstrips, including Lukla, resulting in serious overcrowding in the Everest region. The frequency and quality of air services to remote airstrips will change because private airlines appear and disappear with amazing frequency.
Treks change dramatically when a road is built. The Jomsom trek starts with a drive that bypasses the old trekking haunts of Hyangja, Suikhet and Naudanda. The new road provides access to Naya Pul, then heads south and west to Baglung and Beni, offering a shorter approach to Jomsom and Dhorpatan. The road from Dumre to Besi Sahar (at the start of the trek around Annapurna) has finally been repaired, making access to this trek far more comfortable. The road up the Indrawati valley towards Helambu is being repaired to provide access for the construction of a water supply project. A new road is under construction from the south to Salieri, the district headquarters of the Solu Khumbu, and on to Phaphlu. Treks to Kanchenjunga have become less cumbersome thanks to the road from Ilam to Taple- jung, although the last climb to Taplejung is still passable only by 4WD. Western Nepal is also getting roads; there is a road planned up the Kamali River to Bhajang and beyond towards Simikot.
New roads change the relative importance of villages. Lamosangu, for example, was a major roadhead from 1970 to 1981. It lost its importance and many of its facilities when Jiri became the roadhead. Jiri’s importance will probably diminish as the road to Shivalaya and Bhandar is completed. Dumre has become a dusty truck stop now that the road up the Marsyangdi to Besi Sahar has been sealed.
Roads also bring an increase in theft. Before a road reaches a village, travel must always be on foot and nobody complains. No self-respecting Nepali will walk once a bus becomes available, but the bus fares on the new roads are expensive, and this creates a new demand for cash. For many, the only source of easy cash is theft, and the road offers a quick getaway. Be especially watchful of your possessions within a few days walk of any road.
Trail and bridge construction is also proceeding at a furious pace in the hills. Local village-development committees and foreign-aid programs have reconstructed or widened many trails. The Swiss are constructing an extensive new series of bridges. Landslides and flood damage are becoming more frequent as villagers remove the forest cover and topsoil washes away. These phenomena can alter trek routes drastically as whole villages can disappear and trails can require extensive detours to cross slide areas.
Facilities for Trekkers
The construction of lodges and the conversion of private homes into hotel facilities for trekkers is proceeding at an ever more frantic pace. New hotels spring up every week on the major trek routes. They also vanish when the innkeepers get bored or discover the costs are higher than the returns. The competition for trekker rupees is intense. Innkeepers lower their prices to attract customers, and it becomes hard to make a hotel pay its way. There are pressures for hotels to improve the way they deal with fuel usage and sanitation, so this may change the number and location of hotels before long. Both ACAP and the national park administration have removed existing hotels from places they want to preserve. The tea shop halfway up the Namche Bazaar hill suffered this fate and is now only a pile of stones, as is the settlement of Bagar at the entrance to the Annapurna Sanctuary.
Many hotels in the hills are mentioned by name. When you look for these places, you may find a hotel with a different name. There is a funny system in Nepal that allows a business to avoid tax by changing the name of the company. Often the change is minor — the Namaste Hotel, for instance, might become the New Namaste Hotel-hut sometimes the new name is quite different.
Numerous rural electrification projects are in the works, and many villages have locally produced hydroelectric power. Many villages along trekking routes, even in the most remote locations, have telephone service with facilities for both domestic and international calls. This has increased the reliability of airline operations and made emergency rescue easier to organize. You’ll now even find cybercafes in a few villages, although they are expensive.
Monsoon Rain & Winter Snow
A trek route may change because of the season. The routes described here work during the trekking season from October to May, although some high passes, particularly in Oolpo, are open only in October and November and again in May. If you trek during the monsoon, the trails may not bear any resemblance to those described in this book. Bridges can be washed away and trails flooded during this season. In early October, and again in April and May, rice is growing in the terraces along most trek routes. Many camp sites that are excellent in November and December are underwater in the rice-growing season. Hotels in high places, particularly Gorak Shep, Annapurna Sanctuary, Gosainkund and along the Ghorapani to Ghandruk route, often close in the coldest part of winter (December-February) and during the monsoon (June-September).
It isn’t easy to get totally lost in the hills, but finding the trail you want, particularly through a large village, can sometimes be a challenge. If you are on a major trekking route, most local people know where you are going. If you see children yelling and pointing, you probably have taken a wrong turn. Watch for the lug sole footprints of other trekkers and for arrows carved into the trail or marked on rocks by guides with trekking parties. It is always worthwhile to talk to local people and ask them about the trail to your next destination and what facilities you can expect to find on the way. If you find yourself going a long way down when the trail should be going up, if the trail vanishes, or if you suddenly find yourself alone, stop and ask for directions.
If you are in a less frequented area, you must ask people. Be sure to phrase the question in a way that forces them to point the way. Kun baato Namche Bazaarjaanchha? ’ (‘Which trail goes to Namche Bazaar?’) will usually do the job. If you point to a trail and ask if it goes where you want to go, most Nepalis will say yes, because they like to please you. You can often circumvent this problem by asking questions in a way that requires a choice of alternatives rather than yes or no answers.
When asking directions, ask the name of a nearby village. Many people near Jiri have never been to Namche Bazaar, but they know the trail to Shivalaya, the next village.In particularly remote areas, be ready for confusion about destinations and times. When you ask directions many people often become involved in the discussion, each having an opinion on the best route and the time involved.