General info > Going abroad > Independent trekking in Nepal

Independent trekking in Nepal

chris on bridgeAround ten years ago we trekked in Nepal with Explore Worldwide, joining a group of twelve or so visiting the Annapurna Sanctuary. The trip was very well organised and the walk itself involved a large party of porters and guides carrying our tents and food all the way up to Annapurna Basecamp. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, but it’s a relatively expensive way of trekking in Nepal and not everyone wants to trek in a group or with such a large entourage. This year we did it differently, taking a flight to Kathmandu and thereafter organising everything ourselves.

This was as much out of necessity as a desire to do things differently, as we were meeting our daughter Frances and her partner Paul halfway round their Annapurna Circuit trek and couldn’t therefore be entirely sure of our itinerary. The plan was to meet them as they came over the high Thorong La pass from the Manang valley into the Mustang valley and from there complete the rest of the Annapurna Circuit with them. We were accompanied by our other daughter Jo, who has a dodgy knee from a skiing accident, so flexibility in how far we walked each day and even whether we caught a bus instead was very important to us. 

path to chitreFortunately the main trekking routes in Nepal pass through rural areas that are relatively highly populated. Apart from the very high passes there is usually a village or some sort of settlement every mile or so. The people of the area generate valuable extra income for themselves supporting trekkers with guesthouse and restaurant stops. The guesthouses, often called ‘teahouses’, are quite basic affairs with simple bedrooms, toilet facilities, showers and dining rooms where you can get a filling lunch, evening meal and breakfast. Staying overnight is cheap – a double room typically costs between £1 and £2, on the understanding that you buy your meals in the same establishment. Some rooms have ensuite bathrooms while in the cheaper ones you’ll need to share communal ones. Meals are quite reasonably priced and more or less fixed across the region. You can have a good evening meal for a few pounds and breakfast consisting of eggs or porridge, say, for a couple of quid. Things get a little more expensive if you want alcohol, as the bottles have to be carried up on foot in many places. A litre bottle of beer can cost you between £2.50 and £3. All in all you can eat and sleep pretty well for between £10 and £15 a day.

Trekking routes in Nepal are generally well marked. With a map and a willingness to ask for directions if stuck it’s not necessary to have a guide, though many agencies will urge you to hire one. You can also hire a porter to carry your baggage, which makes the steep and long uphills and downhills a little less strenuous. The argument for using a guide and porter, apart from making navigation and bag carrying easier, is that the money you pay them goes back into the local economy and is therefore a ‘good thing’. There are, however, drawbacks. You lose out on flexibility and the ability to choose your stopping points. 

marpha guest houseThere is also some suspicion – not entirely unfounded – that guides encourage you to stay in the teahouses where they get the best kickbacks, not where you get the best facilities or service. In one village some of the more scrupulous teahouse owners had clearly had enough. On a rock near the entrance of the village they had painted a warning: “If you wanna better stay for night never listen your guide/porter. Find yourself.” Charmingly bad English, but the sentiment was serious. We made our own decision on arrival simply by whether the guesthouse owner greeted us with a cheery smile - we were never disappointed.

If you do hire a guide or porter it’s vital to check out the agency you are booking through, to make sure they are competent, honest and also properly equipped for the role (there are terrible stories of porters succumbing to hypothermia because neither their agency or their clients ensured that they had suitable clothing or footwear). 

red lodgeWe decided not to hire a guide or porter. By being ruthless with the amount of spare clothing and other items we carried we cut down our rucksack loads to a minimum, bringing them in at less than 6kg weight (a summary of the stuff we took can be found below). This is quite possible to do on a teahouse trek as there’s no need to carry food or much drink. Everything can be bought on the way. It’s advisable to have a lightweight sleeping bag or sheet liner; while some of the guesthouses provide clean sheets, blankets and duvets you can’t guarantee you’ll get what you need. As for the contribution to the economy argument, we decided to do our bit by stopping regularly for cups of tea and snacks, and not skimping on our teahouse meals. We also bought the odd souvenir and put money into the collection boxes for the local schools (there’s little or no government support for education).

Where we trekked

mustang viewThe route we took is sometimes promoted as the Jomsom/Muktinath trek. It takes you up into the lower Mustang valley, with a visit to the religious site of Muktinath at around 3800m, and a trek in or out (depending on how you organise it) following the final 6 or 7 days of the Annapurna Circuit. Mustang itself remains a ‘forbidden kingdom’, which can only be visited on payment of a $500 permit for 10 days trekking with an organised group. The Annapurna Circuit route lies just outside this high cost trekking region but gives a taster of the barren but impressive Mustang environment. Further down, on the way back to Pokhara, the environment becomes lusher, with rhododendron and bamboo forests, impressive waterfalls and abundant wildlife. 

kagbeniAfter flying into Kathmandu we travelled by road to Pokhara, a busy lakeside resort, from where it is possible to catch a morning flight up into the mountains to Jomsom. It’s a dramatic flight in a small turbo-prop aircraft carrying about 20 people. From the plane you can trace your entire route back to Pokhara. From the tiny Jomsom airstrip we walked for three hours to the ancient village of Kagbeni. The following day saw a long slog up to Muktinath where we found Frances and Paul and a return to Kagbeni.

Kagbeni is a delightful village built around a 500 year old mud and stone built palace. The ancient passageways through the old village take you back centuries. There’s also an interesting monastery, recently opened to visitors for a small fee. Tibetan influences are all around, with prayer flags streaming from every rooftop. The Red House Lodge where we stayed even has a temple, or gompa, right inside it, complete with an enormous centuries' old buddha and ancient murals. The owner's great-grandfather was a well-known lama and had his rambling house built around the giant statue.

marphaOur path took us back through Jomsom to another village dominated by its monastery, Marpha. Marpha is the centre of the region’s apple-growing industry. The locally produced apple juice is delicious. The following day we saved a couple of days’ walking by catching a bus to Tatopani. The new road through the valley is highly contentious. It allows farmers to bring in fertilisers and equipment and provides a route to market, but at the same time it is hugely damaging to the environment, having created great scars across the hillsides, with the rubble thrown down often obliterating the old trails. Calling it a road is pushing it; in reality it’s little more than a rough track with little decent engineering in its construction. Several guesthouse and restaurant owners we spoke to see it as highly detrimental to their longterm prospects, with some justification. Already online blogs are urging people to avoid this part of the Annapurna Circuit, perhaps by catching a plane out from Jomsom or by taking a bus along the road itself. If this sentiment gathers momentum it will be a great shame. The Annapurna Conservation Project (ACAP) is doing its best to mitigate the effects by setting up alternative routes along the valley, usually on the opposite side of the river to the road. 

bus from marphaThat said the bus ride was pretty exciting, jolting along a rough dirt track with hair-raising drops to the valley floor and the constant threat of landslides. At one point we thought we would have to abandon the bus and walk the rest of the way as the road was blocked by a massive waterfall. In the end, by unloading all the passengers and working their way tentatively across the torrent, our journey could continue.

From Tatopani we climbed for a day and a half through villages and terraced fields to Ghorepani. Here the standard thing is to climb Poon Hill, some 1000ft above Ghorepani, for sunrise over the Annapurna and Dhaulaghiri ranges. We arrived at lunchtime so had to make do with a daytime vista, which was still stunning. From Ghorephani we descended to a village called Ulleri, perched on the side of a steep hillside. In the morning we descended the supposed 3800 stone steps (we weren’t going to count or argue with the assessment) to the valley bottom. A few hours walk – very hot and sticky through the mid-day sun – brought us to the main road. A taxi took us back to Pokhara.

Requirements for trekking

annapurna rangeTo trek in the Annapurna region you need a couple of permits, which you can buy in Kathmandu or Pokhara for around $40. There are checkpoints all around the circuit where you need to show your permit and have your passage recorded. This ensures that people don’t overstay their welcome and also helps in searches if someone does get lost. You can buy the permits yourself but it’s easier to get an agent to buy them in advance (for which they’ll charge a small fee). You’ll need to provide a photocopy of your passport and a passport photo. See about the agent we used below.

If trekking independently you’ll have to carry a certain amount of equipment and clothing. The following is by no means definitive but it’s what we took on the trek and gives an idea of what may be required.

A 30 – 45 litre rucksack was perfectly adequate. We fitted everything we brought from the UK into these rucksacks and were able to take them on the flights to Kathmandu as hand luggage. This is a great advantage as there may be little time for flight connections, in our case in Delhi.

Waterproof dry-bags should be used to split up your gear and keep it dry. It’s useful to have a spare one in which some clean clothing can be left at your hotel in Pokhara for collection after the trek.

If you don’t mind being a bit smelly you can survive on two or three changes of clothes – lightweight trekking trousers, shirts, socks and underwear. Clothes can be washed in your room on the way and, on hot days, hung on your rucksack to dry while walking. We kept ourselves clean-ish with the help of some flannels called Wemmi Wipes that come as tiny tablets and expand into a decently sized resusable cloth. They're biodegradable so once one has done good service it can be disposed of with a clear conscience. A tube of eight tablets saw us through.

path to chitreBe prepared for any sort of weather. We took a fleece for colder evenings and lightweight wet weather gear. A good tip, emulating the Nepalis themselves, is to buy an umbrella as you enter the lower, wetter regions of the walk. It will cost you about £3 and is better than any posh Goretex jacket for keeping out the downpours (the rain comes straight down in Nepal, not sideways on the wind as in the UK). You can give your umbrella away at the end of your holiday as you probably won’t be allowed it on the flight.

For footwear we took the same sort of boots as we’d use for fell walking in the UK. In my own case I tried out a new pair of Zamberlan Steep GT boots which did the job perfectly. In the evenings it’s nice to have something else to slip into. A pair of Crocs, weighing only 60g, were ideal, doing good service in Kathmandu and Pokhara too.

There is electrical power in most of the valleys but it’s intermittent. So it’s a good idea to have a head torch to find your way back to your room, read by or stumble to the outdoor toilet.

We carried a basic first aid kit, with a few bandages, antiseptic wipes and medicines like paracetemol and immodium just in case. It’s vital too to check that your travel insurance covers you for the altitudes you are climbing to. If you get altitude sickness or need evacuation for any other reason a helicopter is very very expensive (one local ranger suggested up to $6000). Even with the insurance the helicopter company will ask for a credit card before despatching – it’s not like mountain rescue in the UK, sadly. 

making waterClimbing up and down steep valley sides means you consume a lot of water. Water can be bought in 1 litre plastic bottles at all the teahouses but it’s discouraged as the villagers have no way of disposing of all that plastic. The Annapurna Conservation Project have set up a brilliant scheme whereby you can buy treated water (for around 30p a litre) at safe water drinking stations. However using these alone would mean each person carrying 2 or 3 litres to see them as far as the next station. We used the drinking stations as we felt it important to support them but also filtered our own water using a Lifesaver water filtration bottle. The bottles cost around £100 to buy and for that you can filter 4000 litres, turning any water source, even if it is muddy and contaminated, into clean safe water. We used the device to ‘make’ water from guesthouse and hotel taps and the running water taps found at regular intervals along the trail. If you filter everything you consume – even the water for brushing your teeth – you stand a much better chance of avoiding those embarrassing stomach problems.

For night-time we had a couple of very lightweight Snugpac sleeping bags, with opposite zips so they could be joined together when we got a double bed (or were able to push the two single beds together). The Snugpack Traveller bag has an integrated mosquito net which proved quite useful on one night in Pokhara when one of the little beasts decided to come and annoy us (note that much of Nepal is too high to be in a malaria zone but if you visit the jungle at Chitwan, as we did for a couple of days after our trek, you need to take appropriate precautions).

Finally we took a small digital camera and a pair of lightweight binoculars. These came into their own for watching monkeys near Ulleri and bird-watching in Chitwan. It’s also a good idea to take some evening entertainment – a pack of cards or some dice, and maybe a paperback. There’s no TV!

Travel within the country

It’s quite possible to turn up in Kathmandu and book all your travel and hotels when you arrive. But you risk not getting the bus or flight you want, so in general it’s best to organise at least some of it in advance. We booked our Pokhara – Jomsom flights, our taxi and bus transfers to and from Pokhara, and our jungle visit to Chitwan before arriving. We made the booking through Himalayan Magic Adventures, an agency based in the popular Thamel area of Kathmandu. Nirmal Nakarmi, the owner, took all the instructions by email, booked the tickets and hotels, and even turned up personally at Kathmandu airport to greet us and hand over the tickets. We paid him on arrival. At the end of our trip he also made sure we got back to the airport on time.

It’s essential to leave plenty of leeway in your travel plans. Don’t expect, for instance, to be able to get a domestic flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu and guarantee to catch your international flight out of Kathmandu on the same day. Flights are frequently cancelled or delayed by hours because of weather or because, well, this is Nepal not the UK. Our arrival into Kathmandu was delayed by 24 hours but, because we had left a day’s grace before the Jomsom flight, we were still able to catch it, albeit with a gruelling 8 hour night-time taxi ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Likewise our bus trip from Pokhara to Chitwan nearly fell foul of a Maoist strike (politics in the country is fairly fraught), only avoided by the tourist buses being offered a police escort out of town. 

greenline busInternal flights are around the $100 mark, say for travelling between Kathmandu and Pokhara if you decide to go by air. Our Jomsom flight was a little over $80. Buses can be very cheap but you may not get a seat. On one occasion we were offered space on the roof, which we declined. We booked a Greenline tourist bus between Pokhara and Chitwan and then back to Kathmandu. This is many times more expensive than a local bus but at less than $20 who’s complaining? For this you get air-conditioning, a booked seat and a decent lunch at a stop-off lodge half-way. You can get to and from the trail starts by taxi. You’ll find a line of them waiting at the bus stop ready to offer a bargain. We paid about £7 for a taxi from the end of the trail to Pokhara, a distance of around 35 miles. The driver is likely to be a maniac, mind.

Overall it’s good to have a travel agent in Nepal who can help sort out any difficulties in travelling within the country. We found Nirmal through an online recommendation. You just want someone who obviously cares about your enjoyment and safety during your stay, and that’s what we got. If you do want a more organised trek with a guide and porter, perhaps if you decide to go into Mustang proper or if you are heading for higher altitudes, Nirmal can organise it for you. See below for contact details.

Money

The Nepali currency is the Nepalise rupee. At the time of our visit broadly speaking 1 rupee equalled 1 pence, which made calculations simple. Many of the guesthouses accepted sterling, although they preferred rupees or even US dollars. Nirmal was happy to be paid for the advance flight and hotel bookings in sterling when we arrrived.

There are ATMs in Kathmandu, Pokhara and even in Jomsom, though it’s best not to count on them working. Our card was declined in Kathmandu, which may have been because of a power cut at the time. Apart from a withdrawal from the ATM in Jomsom we survived on the cash we took out with us, which included $200 for emergencies. We were able to exchange sterling to rupees in Kathmandu, Pokhara and Jomsom. You might consider taking some US$ traveller’s cheques, just to be sure.

When to go

The high tourist season for trekking is October and November. The weather is good but that is balanced by the greater numbers on the popular trekking routes, with guesthouses getting booked up and lots of traffic on the paths. Except for the very high passes it's possible to continue trekking into December. After winter late February offers some possibilities before the main spring trekking months of March and April. By May it's generally getting too hot unless you are up high.

Getting there

You won’t get a direct flight to Kathmandu from Britain. Ours was with Virgin Atlantic via Delhi and cost around £650 return. The price varies according to the time of year (the principal trekking months are November, December, March and April, so for those you should book early to get the best deal). The Virgin flight was very comfortable and took a bit over 8 hours to Delhi. You don’t need an Indian visa if you are simply on transit to Kathmandu – Virgin staff escorted us through the airport to and from the Kathmandu flights. The connecting flight to Kathmandu, in our case with Jet Airways, is about an hour and half. Do check that your flights connect on the same day – if you have to stay overnight in Delhi you may well need a visa.

Other things to do

After days of the same menu during the trek – we tended to stick to vegetable curries and egg dishes as any meat was rather chewy – we splashed out on a steak in Pokhara. The recommended place is the Everest Steak House, on the road alongside the lake. The steaks were superbly cooked and huge. Don’t feel shy of ordering the ‘half steak’ dish which is actually more than adequate.

In Kathmandu we revisited the Old Thamel House restaurant. We were pleased to find it hadn’t changed in ten years. You can sit in the courtyard and watch a dancing display or in the loft of the 200 year old house on floor cushions round a low table. The food is traditional Nepali fare. It’s best to book in advance as it’s quite popular. 

chitwan elephant safariWe thoroughly enjoyed our two night stay in Chitwan at the Elephant Safari Lodge, appropriately called because it is just across the river from the elephant breeding programme centre. Facilities were basic but then the entire visit cost just over $60 per person, including all meals, the rooms and a packed schedule of activities. These included a two hour safari on the back of an elephant, a trip down the river in a dugout canoe, a jungle walk, a visit to a traditional Tharu village and to the breeding centre plus ‘elephant bathing’. This turns out to be not so much elephants being washed in the river as elephants washing you in the river – great fun. The young staff at the lodge were incredibly attentive and enthusiastic about the jungle wildlife and environment. It is all somewhat touristy but at the end of a trek it’s good to unwind to a few simple distractions. Hot though – you need your sun hat, sun lotion and insect repellent. Our visit was booked with Himalayan Magic Adventures(see below for contact details).

On this occasion our visit to Kathmandu was fleeting. The Thamel area is a vibrant place, packed with restaurants, hotels, travel agencies and outdoor equipment shops selling not at all genuine ‘The North Face’ and ‘Columbia’ gear. There are fascinating temples, gardens and old towns in and around the city. Look in any guidebook to pick the ones you fancy visiting.

David Stewart

Useful link:

Himalayan Magic Adventures
Nirmal Nakarmi’s email address: n2@vianet.com.np. Telephone 00 977 1 4 26 25 24