Nepal: High and mighty in the Himalayas

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In Nepal even the foothills are big, as Jeremy Laurance discovers on a trek through the stunning landscapes of the Langtang valley

For those contemplating a walk in the Himalayas, it is worth stating the obvious: that these are big mountains. And big mountains mean big foothills, which in turn means it takes a long time to reach the high peaks. It's all part of the experience, but once you get up there, you may find (as I did) that it is time to turn around and come down again.

Having walked in the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Dolomites, my wife and I first had to decide where in the massive Himalayan range – stretching 1,800 miles east to west – we should go. The most popular treks are to Everest base camp (for the name) and around Annapurna, said to be the most stunning of all Himalayan peaks. We chose instead the Langtang valley, about 120km north of Kathmandu, because it offered an extraordinary variety of landscapes at a height where altitude sickness was unlikely to be a problem (the route rises to a maximum of 4,250m). In addition, Langtang is much less visited than Everest and Annapurna – and our proposed route would also leave us time to see some of Nepal's other attractions, all within two weeks.

We left Kathmandu – a riot of colour, noise, clogged streets, dogs, rotting vegetation, sweet incense and soothing temples – under a milky sun and followed a pot-holed road to Nuwakot. It was mid-October, and a few faint rain clouds were blowing through, the last vestiges of the monsoon. The road hugged the forested hillside, and I peered over at neat rice paddies, terrace on terrace falling in waves to the valley floor.

We had opted for a private trip – driver, guide, porter and the two of us in a 4x4 – rather than join a group trek, which provided us with flexibility over when and where we stopped, and also meant that we had more personal attention.

As we passed a police checkpoint up in the clouds, it suddenly began to feel chilly. There were several of these stops as we travelled north, conducted by bored but polite young men in uniform, filling in dog-eared ledgers with passport numbers and names. The country has had a difficult few years, and the Foreign Office still warns of "isolated incidents of bomb attacks, shootings and political violence across Nepal".

You don't get anywhere in a hurry in Nepal, but happily there is always plenty of activity at the roadside to keep you engaged. And amid the chaos and noise on the roads, the serene good nature of the Nepalese triumphs each time. It took us five hours of driving to cover 70km in order to reach our destination. The Famous Farm is a magnificent timbered house with its own organic farm and wonderful views across the Trisuli valley.

Our guide Hemraz was a sensitive and eager 29-year-old on his first outing as a trip leader. He led me down the hill at Nuwakot to see the palace built in 1762 by Prithvi Narayan Shah, Nepal's unifier. Dusk was falling. The seven-storey building of warm red local stone, with elaborately carved struts and latticework over the windows, glowed in the evening light. All was quiet: a knot of soldiers stood smoking; children played nearby. Close by, Taleju temple, which was built before 1491 by the King of Nuwakot, is believed to be the oldest place of worship in Nepal. I rang the bell, spun the prayer wheels and watched as the sun turned crimson.

Next day, the road grew more spectacular, as it wound its way up steep-sided valleys, the terraces falling away far below, green on green, every square metre of non-vertical space in use. The road also deteriorated. We were jolted, rattled and rolled for over five hours under a leaden sky, past poor villages, damp in the mist, children, dogs, chickens by the roadside.

Syabrubesi, which marks the head of the valley, was the start of our trek. It felt like the Wild West – one dusty street of ramshackle buildings plied by buses from Kathmandu, lorries en route to China and 4x4s carrying tourists. We were shown to our rooms in the pleasant Hotel Sky, about the standard of a hostel in the UK. "Don't expect this standard higher up the trail," Hemraz warned us apologetically.

Sunshine greeted us next morning, and my spirits lifted with the clouds. At 6.30am, as we ate our porridge, knots of walkers were departing. Ram Krishna, our porter, bound our bags together, hoisted them on to his back and with a toothy grin set off. As it was peak season, he needed to get to Lama Hotel – our first day's destination – by early afternoon to reserve a room.

Half-an-hour later we followed, past another police checkpoint, across the footbridge, through the village where cows lay in sheds under the houses and up onto the track. For the next two days we followed this narrow track as it climbed through the cloud forest beside the tumbling Langtang river. Porters carrying improbable loads overtook us. We played leapfrog with a bunch of Koreans, wearing silk scarves and masks.

Lama Hotel was a collection of teahouses: huts with corrugated iron roofs, each with a couple of wooden beds and foam mattresses, a squat toilet and a shed labelled "Hot Shower" (you were lucky if you extracted a trickle of luke-warm water). The mist came down, dusk fell and by 7pm it was cold. We gathered, a dozen of us, around the wood-burning stove in the dining hut, puffed up in our down jackets, and peered at the menu over a glass of beer, making sure to savour every drop in the knowledge it had been carried here on someone's back.

A column of sweet-scented juniper smoke rose from the kitchen next morning, as I ate pancakes with honey before setting off. The valley began to open out; moss and lichen covered the trees, ghostly in the pale light. Across the river, the hillside was cloaked in yellow and green. The sun emerged and I removed my jacket, revelling in the warmth which lasted all day. By 4pm, as we arrived in Langtang village, at 2,400m, thick mist had descended – and with it the temperature.

The Tibetan influence was evident in the carved wooden sills and shutters of the houses and the vivid embroidered tunics of the women squatted by a stand pipe, washing pans in the freezing cold. A yak swinging its skirt loomed out of the mist and uttered a sound midway between a grunt and a growl. I needed my thermals in my down sleeping bag that night.

At 6am the sun hit the peak of Langtang Lirung, at 7,227m the highest in the valley, lighting it like a celestial spire. Outside yaks were grunt-growling again, and columns of blue juniper smoke filled the air.

We set off into the widening valley and the mountains were, at last, magnificent – a dramatic array of snowy peaks set against the blue sky and the ringing air. We passed women hoeing in the fields for potatoes, children shouting "Where you from?" and the Mani walls, built of stone tablets carved with the names of the dead, which stand guard outside the villages. Beneath fluttering prayer flags, giant prayer wheels built over streams spun ceaselessly. Tamang herdsmen drove their yaks down the track across the scrub and boulders.

It was an easy four-hour walk to Kyangjin Gompa, the last habitation in the valley, which consists of about 30 teahouses at 3,500m, all clustered together. Here, for the first time, I felt the altitude – a sensation of never having quite enough air in the lungs or oomph in the legs.

All the teahouses serve the same menu, fixed by the local community, consisting of simple but remarkably tasty vegetable dishes and beer. After lunch of Dal Baht – the staple meal of rice and lentils – I went for a short walk. Like a 90-year-old I shuffled my way up a hillock, panting hard, and there, over the crest, was the Langtang glacier – or rather its empty trench carved out of the rock. The glacier itself had retreated half a mile in a couple of decades, drawing back into the mountain.

We woke the next morning to a white-out: the first snow of winter had fallen two months early. We took small steps, pausing for breath every few yards. We set out with a gang of other walkers – all trudging slowly, dragging their limbs – but at the top we were magically alone: just lines of prayer flags and a stunning 360-degree view. The cirque behind the village formed by Langtang Lirung was perfect, the retreating glacier all too clear and the vista extraordinary.

Another 6,000m peak stood before us like a shrouded figure with outstretched arms at the head of the valley, and a surge of peaks fell away to the west, framing the blue-shadowed gorge up which we had come.

And then it was time to set off down again. The snow peaks gleamed and we were leaving – all too soon. The view of the mountains above Kyangjin Gompa was more spectacular than any I had seen. But it is not only their scale that counts. It is the journey to see them, in one of the friendliest nations on earth.

Back in Kathmandu, we relished the comforts of the Hotel Shankar and treated ourselves to a change from Dal Baht in the restored and spotlit Garden of Dreams. We spent a day touring the sites, including Bhaktapur with its impressive medieval temples and, finally, paid a two-day visit to the Chitwan game park, a five-hour drive south.

It is impossible not to feel happy in Nepal. My curiosity might have been stimulated rather than satisfied – but that was a good thing. I could begin planning my return.

Travel essentials: Nepal

Getting there

* Walks Worldwide (0845 301 4737; www.walksworldwide.com) has a 13-day Langtang Himal Lodge Trek, from £560 per person, or £785 including the Chitwan extension. It includes transport, 10 nights' accommodation, some meals, a Kathmandu sightseeing tour, the services of an English-speaking guide, porters and national park and permit fees. Flights to Nepal are not included but can be booked on request.

* There are no direct flights between the UK and Nepal. The main connections to Kathmandu are via Delhi on Air India (020-8560 9996; airindia.com) or Jet Airways (0870 910 1000; jetairways.com); via Doha with Qatar Airlines (0870 770 4215; qatarairways.com); or via AbuDhabi with Etihad (0870 241 7121; etihadairways.com).

Red tape and more information

* British passport holders need a visa to enter Nepal. You can get a 15-day visa on arrival for $25 (£16.70); see nepembassy.org.uk.

* "Remain vigilant, avoid demonstrations, and stay in close touch with your tour operator," advises the Foreign Office.

* Nepal Tourism: welcomenepal.com.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
News
Williams says: 'The reason I got jobs was because they would blow the budget on the big guys - but they only had to pay me the price of a cup of tea'
arts + ents
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee