Nepal: High and mighty in the Himalayas

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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.

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