Saturday January 26, 2013
By CHN’G SIEW NGOH
Those who want to experience the magical mountains of Nepal may want to consider a less crowded alternative to the Everest and Annapurna trails.
NEPAL boasts some of the best walking trails on earth,” shout the travel guidebooks. But which part of this Himalayan country should trekkers go for?
The Lantang (& Helambu) region is the third most popular trekking destination in Nepal, after Annapurna and Everest. It may not have the world’s highest peak to boast of, but it has its own charms. It’s no longer just a “bridesmaid” but emerging as a beauty in her own right.
Lantang has been playing second fiddle to Annapurna and Everest for years, but it’s now gaining popularity, thanks (or is it “no thanks”?) to the crowding of trekkers in the Annapurna and Everest regions.
There are several treks one can do in Lantang, ranging from a few days to two weeks or longer; from relatively easy ones to more challenging and strenuous ones, such as crossing the Ganja La (Pass) at 5,106m. New lodges and guesthouses are being built while the existing ones are undergoing renovation to cater for the increasing number of trekkers.
As the announcement came over the PA system that we would be landing shortly at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, a wave of excitement washed over me. It had been six years since I last visited Nepal, how time had flown by!
As I stepped out of the plane, I felt a sense of “homecoming” when the crisp mid-morning breeze brushed against my face. Outside the airport, I saw a familiar face waving at me frantically from across the road. He was Krishna, our guide.
After the initial exchange of greetings and the introduction of my travelling partner, KV, we left the airport for Thamel, the touristic nerve centre of Kathmandu, with more shops than the narrow streets and alleys seemed able to accommodate.
The screeching of tyres and the incessant car tooting reminded me that I was in a country where drivers used their hands on the horns more than their feet on their brakes!
I had come for a seven-day trek in the Lantang region, about 120km north of Kathmandu. Krishna invited us to his office and soon after, informed us that due to other commitments, he was not able to be with us on the trip.
“Milan, the young man you met just now, will be your guide,” said Krishna.
My face froze with disappointment.
“Why ...? Aren’t you supposed ...?” I protested mildly.
“Milan is a nice guy and a good guide, perhaps better than me,” he said.
That evening, we retired to bed early, thinking of the following day’s long and reportedly crazy journey to Syabrubesi (1,420m), the starting point of our trek.
Crazy bus ride
Friends who had been to Lantang had discouraged me from going.
“It’s a crazy eight-hour rough ride from Kathmandu to the starting point,” one of them had told me. But my mind was set!
Early next morning, we took a cab to the bus stop and waited for almost an hour before the bus arrived. We finally left at 7.45am. The bus was terribly crowded. The roof was overloaded with luggage and 20 or more pairs of legs were dangling from the edge. (Note: For a more comfortable ride, pay more and take a jeep!)
As the journey continued, more people boarded the bus each time it stopped and hardly anybody got off. The luggage on the aisle became make-shift seats for the additional passengers.
The road was narrow and in generally poor condition. At times, the road was steep and winding, on the very edge of sheer cliffs. Each time the bus careened downhill or negotiated sharp bends, I would say a silent prayer that the passengers on the roof would not fall off! Newton’s eyes would have popped out had he seen how the Nepalese people defied the theory of gravity!
We finally arrived in Syabrubesi at 5.15pm. It may have been crazy and rough, but we survived – intact! We ended the long day with a simple dinner of fried noodles with eggs and a nice hot shower.
The next day, it was time to take out our walking sticks and trekking boots and start walking. Our destination was Lama Hotel at 2,380m. Soon after we started off, we came to the first of the several security check-posts but there were no hassles.
There were a lot of up-hill stretches over stone-steps. After over eight hours of waling, with a lunch stop and pit-stops in between, we were in Lama Hotel.
The following day, we headed for Lantang Village at 3,500m. The trail was generally easier than that of the first day.
Gradually, the steep and narrow tree-lined trails gave way to open trails with stunted trees and shrubs. It was another long day with seven hours of trekking but the scenery was beautiful. We also had the first glimpse of snow-capped mountains and that uplifted our spirits.
Walking along the trail from Lantang Village to Kyanjin Gompa (3,800m) was a relatively short trek of about three hours. We were surrounded by bare mountains and at this altitude, there were no more trees and the shrubs were getting sparser.
On day four, we headed for Kyanjin Ri (Peak) at 4,773m, the highlight of the trek. We started off at about 7.30am. Initially, the climb was steep and sandy, then the trail gradually flattened off before it started to climb steeply again.
As I was enjoying the slow walk, gasping for air in between, I saw some prayer flags flapping against the wind in the distance. I asked Milan if that was where we were heading to. He nodded his head and said “yes”.
I couldn’t wait to get there. I hastened my footsteps a little and soon I was on the narrow ridge leading to the peak.
A few more stops and a few more gasps of air later, I was finally standing atop Kyanjin Ri. The wind was very strong and the prayer flags were flapping ferociously.
The view was spectacular and spellbinding. I was charmed and entranced by the sheer size of the barren mountain range. And looking at the boundless vista, I was once again reminded how minute and insignificant humans are.
Overcome by hunger, we took out our packed lunch – chocolate bars, bananas, apples and hard-boiled eggs. Though cold from the weather, hard-boiled eggs never tasted so good!
Our indulgence was broken by gusts of cold wind and soon we started to feel the chill. Wow, we had been on the peak for a good 50 minutes, and it was time to descend.
The following day, we trekked for about eight hours from Kyanjin Gompa to Lama Hotel, losing 1,420m in height.
The initial cold-warm-cold-warm weather made me feel very uncomfortable and at times, my legs refused to budge! Two days later, we arrived in Dhunche (1,950m), thus concluding our seven-day trek.
Krishna was absolutely right. Milan was not only a good guide, he was humorous and caring, too. His jokes and comedic actions often helped us forget our tiredness and made the never-ending trail seem shorter.
Back in Kathmandu, Milan invited us to his home for dinner.
With a few simple and basic utensils, his wife whipped up an extremely delicious meal – spicy fried chicken, vegetable, dal bhat and more. As night fell, the temperature outside plummeted but we were warmed by the hospitality, the sumptuous dinner and the infectious, boisterous laughter from their two-year-old daughter.
In all, we had a good and enjoyable trek albeit a short one. The weather had been extremely good. (The best time to trek is between October and May; trekking permits are required.)
During one of those moments when my legs refused to budge, I said to myself, “I am going to hang up my trekking boots and walking stick after this trip.” But after making it to the top, I was thinking of returning again.
Yes, the Himalayan Range is breathtaking and spectacular, and the country is so magical that it can easily be “love at first sight”. With Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia flying there, what are you waiting for?