Thursday, July 2, 2020

A few recent articles

Just wanted to collect a few articles I've written recently on the Himalayas and beyond..

The first is an account of my recent trek through Nepal's Mustang region. There are more tips in this blog.

If you want to visit fabulous Yellowstone National Park and want to support its commendable sustainable tourism initiatives, here are a few ways you be a low-impact visitor simply by drinking beer and going fishing.

Sunset at Ice Lake backcountry camping site, Yellowstone

Further afield, here's some basic advice on planning a trip to Mt Kailash in remote Western Tibet. This is one of the world's great pilgrimages and a stunning overland trip.

And if you are headed Tibet for MT Kailash, here are some more of my favourite places where you can still experience the old Tibet, away from Chinese tour groups.

Back to Yellowstone, here's my article on the park for the UK Ramblers Association, Britain's largest hiking organisation.

Here's a couple of articles from Wanderlust magazine. This is my overview to help choose the right trek for you in Nepal. And this includes some of the best stops along the Silk Road, from Iran to western China.

Finally if you are headed to Bhutan, here are some tips on what to see and how to build an itinerary.

Hope these are of inspiration as you start to think about possible future adventure in a post-Covid world.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Trekking in Nepal's Mustang region - 15 Things You Need to Know When Planning a Trek

Upper Mustang is one of the most stunning corners of the Nepal Himalaya. If you've ever been drawn to Tibet, Ladakh or the remoter parts of Nepal, the chances are you'll love the barren beauty, traditional Transhimalayan villages and Tibetan-style monasteries and cave murals of this former Buddhist kingdom. Simply put, it's one of the world's great treks.

But it's changing. Fast. A lot of information in print and even online is now outdated, so here are 15 things you need to know about planning a visit to Mustang now. Anything from more than a couple of years ago is now invalid.

Trekkers on the road near Ghemi, dwarfed by the Annapurna range to the south.

1) Roads The main thing to know is that there is a dirt road now from Jomsom to Lo Manthang up the western side of upper Mustang, via the villages of Kagbeni, Samar, Syangboche, Geling, Ghemi and Tsirang (Charang). Traffic is light but there are at least a dozen jeeps a day, all of which will cover you in choking clouds of dust if you are walking along the dirt road. Of less significance is that the road now continues from Lo Manthang north to Choser and on to the China/Tibet border at the Kora La pass.

Walking on a road always sucks, so you really want to avoid the road as much as possible by making the following detours. The flipside for glass-half-full types is that you can now hire jeeps to cover all or part of the journey to Lo Manthang, shifting the trip from a trek into an adventurous 4WD or overland motorbike option.

Setting off on the upper Mustang trek from Kagbeni

2) Detour to the Chungsi Cave from Samar. The footpath detour from Samar village involves some climbing, a steepish descent and then a gradual climb, but it's worth it for the dramatic scenery and for the interesting cave of Guru Rinpoche, where you can do a small kora around an earth chorten covered in votive plaques, with several naturally arisen statues hidden in the darkness. Oddly the cave is looked after by two Hindu priests. It's wild and remote, and best of all it avoids the road. Overnight at guesthouses in Syangboche.

Descending to the Chungsi Cave

Admiring the cave chorten at Chungsi

3) Detour number two is from Ghemi via an impressive set of chortens to the dramatic red Drakmar cliffs. From here a steep switchbacking trail climbs over a pass to descend to overnight in Tsirang. The next day you can head up valley to visit Ghar Gompa, the oldest in Mustang, before climbing another pass to descend to Lo Manthang. This avoids the fairly dull road walk from Tsirang to Lo Manthang via the Sungda chorten.

Chorten en route to Drakmar
Caves burrow into the red cliffs of Drakmar

4) Budget some time in Tsirang (Charang). There's plenty to see in this charming traditional village, including the 16th-century Thubten Shedrup Dhargyeling Gompa and an old fort that was once home to the royal family and doubles as a small museum.

Descending to the oasis village of Tsirang, one of Mustang's largest settlements

5) If possible budget three days in Lo Manthang. You'll need one day inside the walled inner town to see the three amazing temples restored with Italian assistance. Day two can take you on a day hike northwest to Tingar, looping around to a cliffside cave retreat and then up to the fort above Lo Manthang. Day three could be a day trip to Choser or to Konchokling. With your own transport you could even drive to the Tibetan border at the Kora La.

Rooftop view of Lo Manthang
Cliffside meditation retreat across the valley from Tingar

6) Overnight in Choser. There are a couple of guesthouses in the village of Choser, a couple of hours walk north of Lo Manthang and almost no tourists stay there, so you'll get the place to yourself. Visit the monastery and the two cave complexes above town.
Inside the Nupchokling Caves above Choser
Climbing up through the four-storey cave complex of Jhong, near Choser

7) Visit the caves of Konchokling. This isn't an easy trip but if you are not afraid of heights it's well worth it. Firstly it's a hike (or 4WD drive) up a side valley, then a switchbacking climb to the end of the dirt road. Then the real hike starts on a sometimes fairly exposed path down and then up to a ridge top ruin. The trail then drops through eroded gullies before you lower yourself down a yak hair rope to finally reach the caves. Magic.

Eroded landscape around Konchokling
cave murals of Konchokling

8) Walk back via the east valley path. Road don't really connect the east valley path. It's a wilder, more remote and much less visited section that ended up being our favourite part of the trek. The scenery is wild and the villages are stunning. Note that there is one exposed section between Tangye and Chhusang that can be a bit hairy if you are afraid of heights.

Trekker descending to Dhi

9) Spend two nights in Yara and make the day trip to Luri Gompa. Yara is a lovely village with a series of photogenic wind-eroded cliffs to the west. Best of all is the day hike to the Tashi Kabum caves and on to Luri Gompa for some stunning examples of Buddhist cave art. A teahouse offers a chance to break before arriving back at Yara. 

Sensuous eroded cliff and caves of Yara
Scenery around Yara

10) Budget some time in Tangye and Tetang villages. These are two of the most atmospheric villages in Mustang. Unfortunately most trekkers arrive late and leave early but if you can arrange things to spend at least an hour poking about, you'll be happy.

Tangye village

11) You don't need to camp. There are guesthouses in every village, including Chele, Samar, Syangboche, Ghemi, Tsarang, Lo Manthang, Choser, Yara, Tangye, Tetang and Lubra.
Advertising, Lo Manthang

12) Finish off the trek from Tetang, leaving upper Mustang via views of the Thorung La and Nilgiri peak at the Gyu La, before dropping down to the Hindu pilgrimage site of Muktinath. Muktinath has become very busy in recent years so consider overnighting in Jhong or Jharkot instead. The next day continue to Jomsom via the roadless Lubra Valley.

Scenery around Jharkot in lower Mustang

13) Hire a jeep between Jomsom and Kagbeni. It's an unpleasant walk, windy and dusty and with hundreds of jeeps headed to Muktinath. Don't do it. 

Descending the Lubra valley from Muktinath at the end of the trek

14) For a really wild expedition-style camping trek, walk from Kagbeni to Dolpo; or from Tangye over the 5595m Teri La to Nar-Phu, or from Yara to peak climbing in the wild Damodar Himal. For these you'll need full agency help.

Trekkers leaving Yara village
15) Do Your Research Before visiting the restored murals in Lo Manthang be sure to watch the following documentaries: Lost Treasures of Tibet by Nova/PBS, Lost Caves of Tibet and Sky Caves of Nepal by National Geographic; and Mustang: A Kingdom on the Edge by Al Jazeera.

Stunning Buddhist mural art at Luri Gompa

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Climbing Stok Kangri, Ladakh

I’m an incorrigible high-altitude junkie. I’m never satisfied with simply crossing a mountain pass, I always need to find a nearby peak to scramble up for a little extra boost. My lungs only really start functioning properly above 4500m and my entire lower body seems best designed to walk at a 45-degree angle. The problem is that I have no technical climbing skills, so I’m limited to scrambles that require neither rope and harness.

Headed up the gorge behind Stok

Views from the hills above Base Camp

I’ve always wanted to take that first step from trekking to climbing, so after a couple of weeks trekking in Ladakh in July I signed up for a climb of Stok Kangri, Ladakh’s most popular trekking peak. The peak is clearly visible from Leh, which makes it both accessible and madly alluring. The first two or three days take you up the valley behind the village of Stok, with an overnight at Mankarmo at 4480m and base camp at 4980m. You can climb the ridge west of the Mankarmo camp to help with acclimatisation, but the best way to adjust to the altitude is to walk the week-long Markha Valley teahouse trek beforehand, since that takes you over a 5000m-plus pass en route.

Ladakhi cooks prepare great meals at Base Camp

The climb itself starts around 1am. The mistake I made was wearing all of my warm clothes. It was freezing getting dressed at that altitude but after ten minutes of uphill hiking I was generating some serious body heat and was soon drenched in sweat under my down jacket (a bad situation as this can lead to hypothermia when the real cold sets in). As you follow the snaking line of head torches, your sensations quickly adjust to climbing in the dark, as total silence encases you like cotton wool. The only sounds are the crunch and squeak of snow under your boots and the labour of lungs heaving at 5500m.

The start of the climb, with Stok Kangri peak in the distance

Crossing the glacier on the return from the summit

After an hour you gingerly cross a glacier, then start to ascend on a mixture of rock and snow. In general there are enough rocks to not need crampons at this point. The skill is knowing exactly when to strap on your spikes. Put them on too early and you’ll be scraping around on stone. Put them on too late and there will be moments when you will feel distinctly nervous on a 45-degree snow slope without points to steady you.

View down to the glacier from near the summit, with a line of tiny climbers far below (click on the photo for a larger version)

The trail veers to the left and then traverses the ridge line. There’s nothing too scary, though there are a couple of fairly narrow sections that drop off to the left. Your fitness and more importantly your acclimatisation will decide whether or not you make the summit, but honestly it’s not a difficult climb. If you’ve timed things right you will reach the summit just as dawn's rays beam out from the horizon's orange glow. Below you to the north is Leh and the main Himalaya range, with the Nubra Valley, Karakorum range and Tibet beyond. To the south, just below you, is the Markha Valley, with the jagged Zanskar range beyond. 

Dawn on the summit

From the summit, with the Himalayan range behind

Back at base camp it's a one and a half day walk back to Stok, where you can visit the atmospheric fort and monastery before heading back to Leh, less than an hour away.

If you've always wanted to make that first transition from hiking to climbing, Stok Kangri is the perfect choice. It feels like a real summit, and a real achievement. You are on the way to being a climber.

Several companies in Leh offer guided climbs. I liked Ladakh Mitra, as they are local guys from Stok and they run the base camps that lead up to the mountain.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Returning to Nepal's Langtang Valley

On April 2015 Nepal’s worst earthquake for 80 years shook the Langtang Valley. Within seconds a kilometer-wide wall of rock, snow and ice detached from Langtang Lirung peak high above Langtang village and dropped in an unseen avalanche, picking up speed and shooting off the lip of the cliffs 300m above the valley floor, to pulverise the unsuspecting village below.

Before the earthquake Langtang was a popular stop on the Langtang Valley trek route, as one of the few actual villages on the trail, and it boasted dozens of trekking lodges. Today just one house remains from the village, cowering under the cliff that protected it from the avalanche.
The avalanche poured over the cliff that towers above former Langtang village

One solitary house is all that remains of Langtang village

Around 155 villagers were killed instantly, along with around 40 foreign trekkers and many Nepali porters and guides. As it was noon most trekkers were settling down to lunch, while many locals were attending a funeral in the village. As the avalanche engulfed the village it sent hurricane force winds up and down the valley, stripping the surrounding area of trees, killing wildlife and ripping the roofs of lodges. Multiple landslides tumbled down the hillsides simultaneously, blocking the trails down valley. 

Everest hogged all the media attention, as it always does, like a pouting Kardashian with its glacial cleavage pushed up to its chin, but far more people died in Langtang and help was slower to arrive. Locals from nearby Kyangjin Gompa rushed to the village to find their houses and families vanished under 20m of rubble; disappeared, gone without even the chance of a goodbye. Most bodies were never recovered.
Memorial to Spanish trekkers and their Nepali crew.

Memorial to an Israeli trekker

Heading back to Langtang today the devastation is still shocking, especially if you know what you are looking at. Not a single piece of wood or trace of the village remains. It takes about 20 minutes to cross the tomb-like rubble that sits atop the former village, until you finally get to a collection of prayer flags and a memorial chorten that records the names of the dead: villagers from Langtang, Gumba and Sindum; seven trekkers from Spain; four French walkers from the same family. Individual memorials to lost trekkers are visible along other parts of the trail. One Israeli trekker was swept into the river by a landslide. A team from Italy is commemorated with a cairn.

This is what remains of Langtang village

Trekkers crossing the landslide that covers Langtang village

It’s a sobering experience talking to lodge owners and hearing their recollections from the day. Many of the survivors were elsewhere, looking after family lodges elsewhere along the trail but almost everyone lost family members in Langtang, often from multiple generations. After being evacuated to Kathmandu’s Yellow Gompa for six months following the earthquake almost all have returned to rebuild their houses and businesses. What was clear to me is that the mental scars are yet to heal and that raw trauma simmers just below the stoic surface.

The lady I stayed with in Kyangjin Gomba lost her husband and two of her children. The sorrow in her face was penetrating and was the reason I stayed in her basic lodge, despite the rats scampering across the ceiling all night. Over two years after the quake, she needed all the help she could get. Many widows are facing life alone for the first time and summoning the courage to rebuild their lodges as they face the future alone.

In some ways Langtang is lucky. It has received much goodwill and donations from trekkers who have fond memories of the region. There are many, many other villages in Nepal that suffer in silence. Mixed with a lingering sense of sadness was an admiration for the self-reliance of the people here. Most were not waiting for the government to help; they knew better than that. Most were rebuilding their lodges by hand, riding out two years of no trekkers. The Langtang trail is now fully open and lodges have been rebuilt along its length.

View of Langtang Lirung from the Langtang trail

One of the five Tsona lakes near Kyangjin Gompa, Langtang

Langtang's trekking lodges are once again open for business
Panorama of Kyangjin Gompa, Tsergo Ri and Lasngshisha Kharka from Nyengang Kharka, upper Langtang Valley

So my recommendation if you are interested in trekking in Nepal is that you trek the Langtang Valley. The scenery is as stunning as it was before and the lodges are better than ever. Kyangjin Ri offers some of the finest viewpoints in the Himalaya. Adventurers can now rent camping equipment and a guide to climb Yala Peak without the need for trekking peak permits. With the opening of the Tibet border at nearby Rasuwaghadi overlanders can now combine a Langtang trek with the amazing overland trip from Lhasa. If you have more than a week you can add on a visit to the Gosainkund Lakes or the Tamang Heritage Trail for a fabulous two or three week walk.

Head to the Dorje Bakery in Kyangjin Gompa for a slice of chocolate cake and chat to Lhakpa about how he rebuilt the bakery after it was destroyed, or to lodge owners who are trying to rebuild the one clinic in the valley, or repair the destroyed monastery. And as you trek up the valley know that every cup of tea and every dal bhat you order is helping a community recover from the worst disaster in living memory. 

Memorial Chorten and Prayer Flags at Langtang village


Classic Pamiri Scenery of Gorno Badakhshan

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