Trekking the Langtang Valley in Nepal independently in 2018

Deciding on which trek to do in Nepal can prove to be quite difficult considering the amount of options available. We had a trip to Nepal booked for October 2017, and after some online research we decided on the Langtang Valley for several reasons.

Firstly, we were looking for something in the region of one week duration. While Langtang offers routes that can extend virtually as long as you want, the common trek is about 6 days. Second, the landscape is  top-notch for Nepal, while at the same time being not as crowded as other more popular treks like the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). Indeed we found the landscapes to be extremely varied, ranging from rainforest, to alpine, to barrent stepe. Regarding the number of fellow trekkers, it was ideal: We were running into a fellow trekker about once every 30-60 minutes, as well as some Nepali porters carrying supplies about every half an hour or so. Additionally, the trail is easy to follow and, while the trek is phisically intense, it does not require any special training or preparation. Finally, the langtang valley was one of the most affected regions by the 2015 mega-earthquake that devastated the region. There has been (and is still ongoing) a lot of work to rehabilitate the region. However, the effects are still clearly visible, being necessary in many places to navigate the rubble of massive landslides, as well as the abandoned settlements which are beginning to slowly get repopulated. Visiting the region brings much needed economic activity and support to its inhabitants.

Packing

Obviously, packing light is a must, so only carry the essentials. Any small weight increment will take its toll given the steep climbs and number of days hiking. With that said, there are some things which are very good to have:

  • A water filtration/purification method → There are many streams along the trek where you can refill your water bottle (i found that a 0.5-1L bottle is enough per person, given the number of refilling opportunities on the way). Additionally, carrying or consuming water bottles exacerbates the problem of waste management in such remote areas. I used a Sawyer mini water filter, which worked perfectly. Water purification tablets can also be purchased easily in Nepal.
  • Trekking poles → These help immensely when carrying weight on your back and specially on the steep up & down hills.
  • Sleeping bag → While actually not completely necessary (tea houses provide blankets), it is always a good idea since cleanliness is not always top-notch.
  • Rain-jacket → While most tea houses have a fireplace where you can dry clothes in case of rain, you don’t want to trek for hours in wet clothes
  • A map of the region → These can be obtained almost everywhere in Thamel, Kathmandu. While even though it is very probable that the map will be outdated (even the ones for after the earthquake), it is always useful to have a reference.

And of course, as with any trek, comfortable clothes and some durable trekking boots which you have worn in previously. Other things which are useful:

  • If you don’t have a dedicated GPS system (like we didn’t have), Google maps on your smartphone is useful to keep track of your current location and ensure that you are going in the right general direction. However the data available on google maps is very limited and sometimes not completely accurate. I recommend to save the location of basic stops (such as villages or tea houses) along the way.  Also make sure to save the offline map of the region, so your map doesn’t black-out when being off the grid. Be sure to bring a power bank for your phone or e-book, as electricity is generally unavailable.
  • Travel insurance → The closest point to a paved road is at the beginning of the trek, thus if there is some issue a rescue operation could be very expensive. Make sure your insurance covers such activities. With that said, the trek itself is not particularly risky, except perhaps for some specific areas where you have to navigate terrain affected by landslides and you have to keep an eye on your footing. Altitude sickness at the top can be uncomfortable but it is generally not high enough to be an issue for most people.

Logistics & Preparation

Your preparations should really start once in Kathmandu. First thing is to obtain the TIMS Card and Langtang park permit. This can be done at the Nepal Tourism board (google maps link). Be sure to check the opening times beforehand, and bring cash, a copy of your passport and 2 passport photos. There is usually a queue but the process is quite quick and efficient (For Nepali bureaucracy standards).

The second thing to take care of is booking the bus tickets to Syapru Besi (The starting point of the trek and last village connected to the road network). Your hotel might be able to book the tickets for you for a small additional fee. This might be a good option as the bus stop is not particularly central. The bus stop and ticket booth is located at Machha Pokhara (google maps link), and it is recommended to purchase the tickets at least one day in advance. The price for the ticket at the booth is 600 rupees, and the buses leave quite early, at 7:30 AM. Despite what we had read online, we didn’t find any indication of “express” or VIP busses. All buses are old, messed up, stop in most villages along the way, are always totally crammed, and incredibly slow. If you don’t feel like putting yourself through this you can always inquire about taking a jeep. The journey will not be much faster (it is impossible to drive faster on those roads), but at least more comfortable. However you won’t get to meet other trekkers and bond with them by being shocked at how awful the bus ride.

With regards to accommodation during the trek, everything can be booked directly on the spot (TIP: Most tea houses will give you the accomodation for free if you commit to purchasing food from them, unless they are very full. Try to negotiate this everywhere).

Food can also be obtained at the tea houses, with the menu being the same in all of them and quite basic (noodles, momo, dhal bat, pasta…). Additionally,  the prices go up as you get further from the starting point. However they are still reasonable considering all material has to be brought up by porters. What you overspend in food you usually compensate with cheap/free accomodation. Usually 10 USD per person per day should be more than enough to cover all costs, which are basically food and tea (as mentioned, if you negotiate you can probably get the accomodation for free). Obviously there is no possibility to pay in any way other than cash (Rupees).

You should be ready for the fact that most tea houses have no (or very limited) electricity. In some cases they will have some small solar panels to power a lightbulb in your room and sometimes you can even ask to charge your phone in the host’s kitchen, however this is not usually the case. Additionally, there is generally no heating (except for a fireplace in the kitchen) or running water. Some tea houses will have a communal shower with water which is warmed by the sun, but this is not always the case. However infrastructure seems to be slowly improving.

Phone/data connectivity information is very unreliable, and it seems the situation is changing all the time. We took an Ncell prepaid card because we had read that it has the best coverage in the valley, but actually this turned out to be very far from the truth. Data (3g) connectivity as well as voice network were nonexistent from the moment we left the starting point (Syapru Besi). You should thus plan to be unreachable for the whole trek (when informing your family or friends so they don’t get too worried!).

Day 0: Bus ride from Kathmandu to Syapru Besi

The journey is nerve wracking not only due to the old and cramped buses, but also some of the worst maintained and dangerous roads on earth. While we were told the journey would take about 6 hours, it was both times more like 9 hours, due to traffic conditions, stops and everything else (for a journey of 90 kilometers!!). It is a very eye-opening experience though, if you want to experience how life is for the locals. The last 20 km are particularly difficult, on mud roads full of potholes, hugging the cliff. There is one stop around mid-way for lunch, as well as another before entering the Langtang region for checking passports, TIMS, park pass and for luggage screening. This of course without considering the countless stops to attempt to fit a few more people into the already crammed bus. The aisle will be packed most of the way (and you will have Nepalis almost sitting on top of you).

The arrival time to Syapru Besi will vary, but usually it is already too late to start the trek, and most people choose to spend the night there and head for an early start the next day. However if you feel confident you can try to head down the path and sleep at one of the first tea houses, since they will be cheaper, and probably more comfortable and scenic. Syapru Besi itself has nothing to offer, except perhaps getting to meet some fellow trekkers, and for buying some snacks or pastry at lower prices than on the trail. As mentioned earlier, try to negotiate the price for the room down (preferably to zero) by saying you will take lunch/dinner with them.

Day 1: Syapru Besi to Sherpagaon

The starting path from Syapru offers two alternative routes, which connect again at Rimche further up the valley. I suggest taking one path on the way up and the other on the way down, since they are both beautiful. The first option is to follow the Langtang river up the narrow valley. This option is slightly shorter, but also steeper, the landscape is more rain-forest-like, you get less views and there are more guesthouses on the way (this it is also a good option of you decide to advance the day before right after the arrival of the bus). It is also slightly more crowded. The other option os going up the mountains to sherpagaon. This option has more alpine landscape, you get a great view of the valley and the mountains, and you will run into way fewer tea houses and people in general.

Once you leave Syapru, after the first suspension bridge you have the choice of following the valley path (by turning right after the bridge), or the sherpagaon path (by turning left). Sherpagaon is a small village composed of about 3-5 tea houses on top of a mountain overseeing the valley. In our case we took the sherpagaon path on the way up. At the beginning it will seem you are going in the wrong direction (away from the valley), but the path quickly starts climbing up the mountainside. While there is a road for a small part of the way, the hiking trail cuts across it and is still enjoyable.

Once you reach Sherpagaon, you can stop for the day at a tea house overseeing the mountains with an incredible view of the sunset. While continuing to Rimche is certainly feasible, the view and tranquility of Sherpagaon is unparalleled.

Day 2: Sherpagaon to Ghoratabela

The second day starts with a slow downhill to the Langtang river valley, At Rimche the trail connects with the alternate path coming up next to the river from the starting point at Syapru. After Rimche you proceed uphill parallel to the river. In this section of the trek the landscape varies widely as you walk closer and further from the river in different sections, and if you’re lucky you can catch a glimpse of monkeys and other animals in the forest.

This part of the trek can be quite tough at parts, as you navigate the narrow and steep part of the valley, including long stretches of steps. You will find different small settlements along the way, with tea houses where you can stop for tea or a snack. Lama hotel is the largest of these and makes a good lunch/snack stop. Where you would like to stop for the night is up to how far you are willing to go. The nights sleeping in the valley are usually quite foggy, humid and cold, due to being stuck between mountains, so be ready for some potentially uncomfortable yet scenic weather.

Day 3: Ghoratabela to Kyanjin Gompa

This part of our trek finally brings us to the highest settlement, Kyanjin Gompa, and also the largest village in the whole trek (Langtang village use to be the largest, but it was wiped out by the earthquake). As you start progressing uphill the valley widens up and you get a dramatic view of the massive mountains on both sides. The scale of the scenery is really on a different level to anywhere else. You will pass the resting ground of Langtang village, where more than 200 people lost their lives in the landslide that buried the whole village. Slowly people are coming back and rebuilding, but virtually everyone you meet there has lost a family member.

The path after Langtang is particularly dramatic, with the path lined with mani stones, engraved with mantras, as a form of tibetan buddhist prayers. Traditionally, these walls should be passed or circumvented from the left side, the clockwise direction in which the earth and the universe revolve.

As you reach Kyanjin Gompa (3900m altitude) the valley really opens up and you get a view of the huge peaks in the surroundings, as well as some intricate buddhist shrines. A project is underway to restore electricity to the village by using the river to harness hydroelectric power. However as of November 2017 this was still not completed. In Kyanjin Gompa you will find slightly more facilities than in the rest of the trek, with a very nice bakery offering delicious cakes, pastries and breads, as well as a Yak cheese workshop.

Day 4: Day trek to Tsergo Ri (4980 m) or Kyanjin Ri (4770 m)

This day can be a rest day in Kyanjin Gompa, or you can take the opportunity to climb up to one of the nearby peaks to enjoy the dramatic landscapes. Additionally, being able to leave your luggage at the te house and just going up with the basics (water, snacks…) will lessen the burden slightly. However, this will probably be offset by the altitude sickness. At this height the effects, while generally not serious, can be intense (dizziness, shortness of breath, tiredness…).

Kyanjin Ri is the shorter trek, being closer to the village as well as lower altitude, and can be done in about 3 hours. Tsergo Ri requires more of a trek and higher altitude, but potentially more rewarding (and bragging rights for reaching -almost- 5000m).

Day 5: Trek down from Kyanjin Gompa to Lama Hotel

The 5th day we start retracing our footsteps as we head back down. While some sections will definitely be easier, you cannot underestimate the difficulty of trekking down steep hills and steps with a backpack. In our case we had an intense snowstorm our last night at Kyanjin Gompa, resulting in the landscape changing dramatically. However this is not very common, and the path is still relatively easy to follow. Lama hotel is the most common stop on the way down for the first day.

It is indeed possible to trek all the way down to Syapru Besi in one day (which is what we did), however it is very intense (11 hours of trek with very few stops, and 2400m of altitude change).

Day 6: Trek from Lama Hotel to Syapru Besi

For the last day, you continue on the trail down and after the tea house of Rimche turn left to follow the path down the valley, instead of going back up to Sherpagaon. The path is quite steep here, with lots of steps, and as the valley becomes narrower, the forest becomes denser, darker and more humid. Some of the guesthouses on the way are very nice and worth a stop, such as Bamboo tea house or Tibetan camp.

Once you reach Syapru Besi it is advisable to go straight to the bus ticket booth on the main road and book tickets for the next day, as the buses get full quickly. Then find a hotel and have a celebratory dinner for having completed your trek!

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