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Saturday, 14 June 2014

Trip Report for Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT trek in May 2014

Photo: approaching Chharka La
Our Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT group arrived back to Kathmandu a week ago having successfully completed the traverse from Juphal through Upper Dolpo to Jomsom in the Kali Gandaki valley. This trek visits a very remote region of Nepal and as a result requires detailed logistical planning and organisation. It is not possible to purchase much food in this area due to the poor harvests so most of our supplies have to be brought in from Kathmandu. The road head is five days walk south of Juphal so the crew and porters walked in with all of the group kit and food before our group arrived by flight to Juphal airport.

The other challenge for trekking in Upper Dolpo is selecting the right time of year in order to get good weather and conditions for crossing the high passes. We organised our first trek to Upper Dolpo as a recce in late April 2010, this trip went well and our group arrived to Jomsom however our second group in May 2012 was unable to cross Kang La to Shey due to too much snow. As a result of our abortive trek in 2012 we decided to make a number of changes to our organisation to increase our chances of making the traverse in future years. We decided to bring only porters to carry group gear and no (or only very few) ponies as these pack animals will not be able to walk through deep snow or icey trails.

Photo: pass to Shey
We also decided to charter a Twin Otter plane from Pokhara to Juphal rather than relying on schedule flights from Nepalganj further to the west. There are various issues with transiting via Nepalganj airport including an overall lack of aircraft in west of the country making this connection rather unreliable. If there is poor weather and delays then Pokhara is a far nicer place to stay with good hotels compared to the sticky, humid climate at Nepalganj.

As there is always some risk of delays with flights to STOL airstrips like Juphal due to bad weather etc we decided to add one more buffer day into the itinerary so there are now two buffer days to cover possible delays waiting for the flight to Juphal. There are also three rest days and one buffer day included within the trek itinerary. The other change we made from 2012 is to delay the start date by two weeks to May 8th in order to increase the chances of snow melt on the passes.

Photo: crossing Saldang La
For our Upper Dolpo trek in 2014 we had on board a strong team of leaders and crew with good knowledge of this region having trekked here on several previous occasions. Ade Summers was the western leader, Chandra Rai was our Nepali Sirdar and Saila Tamang was cook and all of them had joined our recce with me back in 2010. We also decided to recruit a guide from Dolpo region as having this local knowledge would be invaluable as well as helping to co-ordinate with local villagers and explaining more about the Dolpo-pa culture to the group.

Photo: inside Shey gompa
In fact as it turned out there was deep snow on Kang La again in 2014 however the guides found an alternative pass and successfully arrived to Shey on schedule on May 19th. I have included feedback below from one of the group, Martin, with his comments about this crux section of the trek: “When we couldn't cross the Kang La because of snow, having a dynamic and committed leader, as well as a guide with local knowledge, made all the difference in finding alternative routes through and making the trip a success.”

Our Upper Dolpo to Jomsom trek visits a remote region of Nepal and I gather our 2014 group only saw one other trekking group between Phoksumdo Lake and Jomsom. Instead of following Upper Dolpo Circuit we headed further north to an area very close to the Tibet border. This itinerary came out of our recce trek in 2010 where the plan was to traverse to Kali Gandaki valley however we had not finalise the route until we were on the ground and in the field. While on trek our cook Saila told us about the trail he followed several years back with Stan Armington (author of Lonely Planet guidebook to Nepal) so we decided to follow his advice and recommendations.

This remote trail heads north of Saldang village to Tora Sumna then south-east through Nisalgaon and Shimengaon villages and ending up to Tinjegaon. This trail follows the Panjyan river and is one of the most stunning beautiful valleys I have seen in Nepal with many blue sheep grazing on the slopes high above the valley floor (and no doubt snow leopards too). From our 2014 group Martin and Maria with extensive experience trekking in Himalaya and all around the world summed up their experience with Martin saying “The trip was culturally fascinating, very scenic, and remote” and Maria commenting that “the best part was the remoteness and variety of scenery.”

Photo: Panjyan valley
Photo: Tora Sumna
This group enjoyed excellent weather throughout most of the trek with only some precipitation in the afternoon at Chepka on first day trekking and later on after crossing of Sangda La pass when it started snowing on their arrival to camp. As mentioned earlier we carefully planned the start date of this trek in order to maximise our chances of success. On balance I think the dates we chose are optimal as by delaying later on into May there is a risk of more cloud delaying flights to Juphal and also more precipitation on the trek. We plan to keep the same dates for our Upper Dolpo trek in May 2015.

Photo: view from Muri La
I gather the flights from Jomsom via Pokhara to Kathmandu went with no delays and on evening of June 6th the group were eating steaks together at KToo steakhouse and having a celebratory beer (or two) in Sams bar. I would like to congratulate and say well done to the group for completing this trek along a section of The Great Himalaya Trail from Juphal to Jomsom.

Of course I would like to say a huge thanks to Ade Summers, Chandra Rai and Saila Tamang as well as our Sherpa guides, Bishu and Gopal, who all worked hard to make this trip a success. I have copied some comments received below from the group about the leaders and crew:

Ade worked hard to make everything run well.” and “Excellent crew, Chandra and his team were endlessly helpful and I don't know where Saila got all the fresh vegetables from in such a remote area. The man is a magician....”.

And Harry's summary of the trip was as follows: "Trip met and exceeded my expectations. Before the trip I knew Upper Dolpo was special but its more than that. The cook and his assistants were exceptional. Ade is a top guy, faultless. Worse part of the trip was leaving Dolpo, the best part was viewing Shey Gompa for the first time (gave me goosebumps), The Dolpo pa. Every day was great!"

The Mountain Company is organising Upper Dolpo trek next year with same leadership including Ade Summers so please get in touch soon if you would like to join this group.

Roland Hunter

Monday, 2 June 2014

A recce trek around Kathmandu Valley in December 2012

This is a rather belated trip report for a recce trek I did back in December 2012 around the Kathmandu Valley Rim in Nepal. Over the years I had visited the viewpoints of Dhulikhel, Nagarkot and Namo Buddha located on the hills around Kathmandu however this time the plan was link these places together on a six day walk.

I was interested in doing Kathmandu Valley trek as several of our Sherpas guides had recommended this trail due to the variety of landscape, friendly villages and of course the Himalayan views. Also these areas are quiet with few trekkers as most people tend to leave quickly for the mountains and never get the opportunity to enjoy what is closer at hand in the Kathmandu valley.

Photo: terraced fields, ochre farmhouses and Himalayan views
The idea was to walk around Kathmandu Valley while staying at high quality hotels in order to set up a new trek for The Mountain Company. I also wanted to incorporate into the itinerary visits to religious and cultural places including World Heritage site of Changu Narayan; the Newari towns of Bhaktapur and Panauti; Namo Buddha monastery and Kali temple above Dhulikhel. In this blog I will discuss some of the highlights of this trek however if you are interested in the detailed day by day itinerary I suggest you read our TripDossier for Luxury Kathmandu Valley trek.

I walked this trek in December as this is one of the best months to do Kathmandu Valley trek with a high chance of clear mountain views. The weather is colder at night in December however as we stay in hotels this is less of a consideration especially as some of the hotels like Vajra Farmhouse in Nagarkot even have a cosy fire in the bedroom. Kathmandu Valley is a good choice for the winter months when it will be getting very cold higher up in the other trekking regions like Everest and Annapurna. Of course you can do this trek in Spring and Autumn although it would be best to avoid this trek from late May when the temperatures will be very hot and then over the summer months of July and August when it will be rainy during the monsoon.

Photo: near Nagarkot
An advantage of Kathmandu Valley Rim trek is the highest sleeping altitude is at Lakuri Bhanjang with an altitude of only 2,000m. To put this into context Lakuri Bhanjang is 800m lower than the airstrip at Lukla which is the starting point for the Everest Base Camp trek. Being lower in altitude means there is unlikely to be any issues with high altitude sickness and as mentioned above it will be less cold than other treks such as Everest Base Camp. The other advantage is there are no internal flights within this itinerary, an increasingly important consideration for many people these days given the poor safety record of the aviation sector in Nepal.

On the first day of the trek we left Kathmandu by car driving beyond Bhatkapur and was dropped off at Changu Narayan temple. This is a beautiful pagoda style temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is known as one of the oldest in Nepal. After a visit to the temple and museum we started the trek up to the popular hill resort of Nagarkot. The trail follows a ridge south of the Tilkot Reserved Forest with views down to Sankhu in north and Bhaktapur to the south. After several hours we joined the road winding up to Nagarkot and at this point you have the choice to walk off the road through fields or take transport up to Nagarkot.

Photo: walking to Nagarkot
It is worth pointing out for our Luxury Kathmandu Valley Rim trek we send a private car or minibus with driver to transport your luggage to the next hotel on the itinerary. It is possible on most days of this trek to get picked up by the vehicle at several places along the trail if you prefer not to walk the whole way to the hotel. Your guide will brief you each evening on the distances and timings for the next day’s walk and also the options for vehicle pick-up along the way. This was one of the reasons that Kathmandu Valley Rim trek is a good objective for families with children or people with a lower fitness level.

In Nagarkot we stay at Vajra’s Nagarkot Farmhouse, the main building with restaurant is a renovated old Newari house and the mountain views from here are superb from Mount Manaslu to distant Mount Everest in the east.
Photo: view from near Nagarkot
On the second day we followed the trail through forest up to the main Nagarkot bazaar and beyond to the view tower. We were lucky to have a cloudless day and as we walked along the path to Rohini Bhanjang we could see the mountains of Gauri Shankar, Menlungtse, Everest, Numbur and Karyolung far to the east. It is worth mentioning that Mount Everest is very distant from Nagarkot however through binoculars the familiar black summit is certainly visible. At Vajra Farmhouse I purchased a poster “Profile of the Himalayas from Nagarkot, Kakani and Pokhara”, I would recommend getting a copy too as this helps identify the names of the mountains visible from the main viewpoints of the Kathmandu valley.

Photo: farmhouse seen from Kathmandu Valley Rim trek
The walk from Nagarkot to Dhulikel is one of the longer days on our Luxury Kathmandu Valley Rim trek itinerary and we arrived to Dhulikhel town late afternoon. Most groups will be picked up by the support vehicle in the town for the short drive to Dwarikas’ Resort in Dhulikhel. This place is simply superb and has so many wonderful touches as one would expect from Dwarikas. In fact several of our private groups have requested to extend their trek to include two nights at Dwarikas Resort rather than just one as included in our standard itinerary. Dwarikas is expensive however if you have the budget then it would be well worth considering staying one of two extra nights at this property.

Photo: view from Dhulikhel
The third day is from Dhulikhel to Namo Buddha where our groups stay at the wonderful Namo Buddha Resort. I have stayed at this property a number of times and it is one of my favourite places in the Kathmandu valley. The accommodation is in private cottages in their beautiful grounds filled with lush vegetation and flowers. The resort is close to Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery located at the sacred pilgrimage site of Namo Buddha, if you like you can walk up in the afternoon to have a look around this monastery.

Photo: view from Namo Buddha Resort
Photo: private cottage at Namo Buddha Resort
Photo: monastery at Namo Buddha
On the fourth day is the walk to the lovely village of Baltali and I remember when we arrived we met a group of woman in high spirits on their way to a festival while singing and dancing. Baltali is a traditional village and is very scenic with large terraced fields and ochre painted houses, this area is known for growing oranges and in December you will see the fruits ready for harvest. I was not surprised when Baltali was recently included as one of Lonely Planet’s Top Five“World’s best multi-day treks…without high altitude”. We stayed at the Baltali Village Resort located on top of a hill overlooking the village.

Photo: festival in Baltali village
Photo: view from Baltali Village Resort
On the fifth day we walked from Baltali to the main road head at Khopasi village where we picked up our vehicle for the short drive to Panauti. This is a Newari town with many temples including Indreswor one of the oldest in Nepal. This is a fascinating town to walk around although the temples are in a poorer condition than the better known Newari town of Bhaktapur. 

Photo: Indreswor temple in Panauti
After lunch we continued our drive along a road climbing up towards Lakuri Bhanjang. We stay at the wonderfully situated Summit Village Lodge (operated by same company that runs lodges as used in our Everest Luxury Lodge trek). The whole of Kathmandu is spread out far below and the Himalayan views can be seen rising to the north above the city. We were lucky to see a deep orange sunset in the sky that evening.

Photo: Summit Village Lodge at Lakuri Bhanjang
Photo: sunset from Summit Village Lodge at Lakuri Bhanjang

On the sixth day we walked downhill to Bhaktapur where we stayed at Hotel Heritage located only a short walk from Durbar Square. This is one of three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If you are visiting Kathmandu it is well worth staying in Bhaktapur for a night or two as after mid afternoon the places is much quieter when the tour groups go back to their hotels in Kathmandu.

Photo: Nyatapola temple in Bhaktapur
Since I walked this trail in December 2012 we have now had five groups successfully complete this trek and we have received very positive feedback as copied below:

“I only have good feedback for you regarding the tour. Everything worked out very well for us. The length of the tour was just nice, not too short and not too long. The sights and scenery we got to see were awesome. I was also impressed with the hotels/resorts we stayed in. I must mention Lakpa Sherpa who was an amazing guide. He really took good care of us. Overall I'm very pleased I joined the tour and I have to say I had a really wonderful time. I have and will be recommending The Mountain Company to my friends who are interested in making a trip to Nepal. Thank you!” June Koh (Malaysia)

“Yes we got back safely having had a really good trip, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. It was what we wanted - a 'walking holiday'. We loved walking through the villages etc. and staying at contrasting places. The weather was wonderful and of course the views were amazing. We never met any other 'walkers' which was a real bonus. We think that this a suitable holiday/trek for reasonably fit people of our age group (Late 60's). I hope that this feedback is of use to you, and we would recommend this trip to others.” Keir and Ruth Woodward (UK)

If you are interested in joining our Luxury Kathmandu Valley trek on one of our fixed dates departures or on a private trip then please get in touch with us. It is worth pointing out we can tailor this itinerary if you would like to stay in different hotels or prefer to spend a few extra nights along the way.

Roland Hunter

The Mountain Company