The main trekking season in Nepal is between October to early December. This is when there is a good balance of mild temperatures and clear skies. For good reason, the guesthouses and hotels in Kathmandu are usually full during this time of the year. The main trekking regions are crowded and the kitchens in the lodges work non-stop to feed hungry trekkers. Spring is another good season to trek. It can still be pretty cold, but there is often an equal chance of seeing clear skies and getting good pictures of the Himalayas. I have done a monsoon trek before. The rains normally start in June and taper off in September. That September saw a longer than usual monsoon. Temperatures were mild, but it was usually cloudy or misty. Only on rare occasions would you see blue skies and unobscured peaks.
Winter usually holds equal promise of clear skies, but most people will tell you it’s crazy to trek in this season. Snow and ice often turn many easy trails into difficult ascents and dangerous descents. For me, there is no better time than Chinese New Year. I decided to go for Gosainkund.
Why Gosainkund? Well, the classic Gosainkund trek may be punishing, but it can be done in as little as 4 days. With mountaineering gear and experience, I figured that I would be able to handle the harsh winter conditions. Treks in the Nepal Himalayas often take 12-16 days. For busy Singaporeans, this is out of the question. I’ve planned 2 trips on this visit to Nepal. One is the trekking trip to the Gosainkund lakes. The other is a pilgrimage to Lumbini – birthplace of the Buddha.
23rd Jan 2012
Another winter arrival. Kathmandu was as dusty as ever, probably even dustier. The traffic came to a standstill not long after we pulled away from the airport. There were simply too many cars, too few good roads. Nepal has come a long way since the 90s when there was not a single ATM in the country. Over the years, personal wealth of the average Nepalese has increased a lot faster than improvement in public infrastructure. Like a child that has grown too fast for his parents to afford new clothes for him, Kathmandu’s narrow streets were all bursting at the seams.
Roads, power supply and waste disposal. All these have been lagging far behind Kathmandu’s rapid growth. And growth seems unstoppable. The only solution is for public infrastructure to catch up. When and how? Nobody seems to have any answers.
But it was good to meet up with old friends. I have known the folks at Eco Trek since I climbed Mera Peak (6476m) in 2000. Porter Maduk was my guide this time. The Maduk today is still the Maduk 12 years ago – always full of wisecracks and tasteless jokes. People who don’t know him may take offence even though he’s really quite harmless.
My last visit to Nepal was in 2009 when I attempted a winter ascent of Island Peak (6189m) in record time. Back then, a Chinese “invasion” was just starting. Today, the “konichiwa” that I’ve been subjected to all these years have been replaced by “nihao”. My favourite Indian restaurant is now Chang Jiang Restaurant. According to reliable sources, the cooks are Nepalese and the food sucks.
But even as the temperatures sink towards zero degrees and power failure rendered the streets unnavigable without night vision goggles after dark, the shops were still filled with tourists responding to all the “nihao”.
Such is the inexplicable charm of this tragic and chaotic Himalayan city. A clean, quiet room in the Holy Himalaya (owned by my friend Jyoti) shielded me from all that dirt and chaos outside. The familiar loud complaints were literally a thousand miles away. Peace at last. I slept like a baby at 9pm and woke up at 5am.
24th Jan 2012
It was the second day of Chinese New Year. Most Singaporeans would be visiting relatives and friends. I was preparing for an awesome adventure. After consuming the buffet breakfast at the hotel, Maduk appeared. We boarded the jeep, picked up our porter Nukul at his home and were off to the trailhead at Dhunche.
The road was long and winding. We had occasional glimpses of the Ganesh Himal. The early morning sun bathed the deep valleys, revealing stunning, cultivated terraces. We stopped at a small town called Paitiskilo for tea, then we had our lunch break at Kalidasan. I went native and helped myself to some dhal baat with very tough mutton. For untrained stomachs, it’s never a good idea to have any meat or milk.
As we approached the Langtang region, police and military checkposts became more frequent. At some of the checkposts, our vehicle was searched. At others, our driver only had to sign his name in a register. This must have been a favourite arms supply route for Tibetan rebels.
We arrived at the town of Dhunche a little past 1pm. Unlike the other towns where we made stops for tea or lunch, Dhunche was dotted with hotels and shops selling trekking supplies. Most of the groups arriving on public buses would typically reach here in late afternoon and need to stay here for the night. Arriving early and having already had lunch at Kalidasan, we decided not to waste the daylight and headed straight for Deorali.
From Dhunche, it was an easy trek, mostly downhill until we crossed the Ghatte Khola. From there, winding flights of virtually uncountable cement steps showed the way up a sheer rock face. The manmade steps soon gave way to rock and soil. There was not another soul in sight, no yak caravans as we entered a shady, forested area. With no flat or downhill break, the trail continued to climb.
2 exhausting hours from Dhunche, we arrived at a precious ledge of flat ground at Deorali (2660m). The local inhabitants in the Langtang region are mostly Tamang people. Like the Sherpas, they are of Tibetan origin, but unlike the Everest region, facilities here are far less developed. Far fewer tourists visit the Langtang region compared to Everest and Annapurna. The usual explanation would be that long, bumpy ride to Dhunche.
I spent the night at Deorali. Tired from the day’s trek, I had a great night’s sleep even though the lodge at Deorali looked more like a farm than a lodge meant for tourists. Considering the lack of space, there was a sizable pen keeping dozens of cows.
25th Jan 2012
This freezing morning saw us ascending another steep and endless trail into the pine forest. Under the shade offered by numerous large trees, we wove our way through the snow and ice fields. After a brief rest at an army camp with warning signs for acute mountain sickness (AMS), we continued us ascent in the full glare of the late morning sun. The large pine trees gave way to stunted rhododendrons. Large patches of snow that had fallen days ago have caked into crunchy white carpets resembling crushed ice.
Unlike Deorali, Sing Gompa was a little more tourist-friendly. There was cheese factory here. There was also a Tibetan monastery from which the village got its name. The small gompa was locked when I arrived. Right in front of the gompa were 3 stone stupas. From the balcony of the lodge where I stayed, were stunning views over the valley. The dining room was over at another building. The toilet here is pretty nice and just next to my room, but the water inside was all frozen. You couldn’t flush or wash your hands. If you can also ignore the cold, everything here was nice and cosy.
Meanwhile, my gut was putting up a struggle with a bug I probably caught at Deorali. The pretty Tamang lady who made my noodles the night before and the Tibetan bread that morning had given an explanation for why she was not married. She can’t cook.
26th Jan 2012
As the altitude passed 3000m, the next morning saw a new standard for cold at Sing Gompa. An initial steep ascent brought us closer and closer to the treeline. An hour or so of steep ascent brought us to Chalang Pati. The lodges here were deserted. We continued our ascent on a somewhat gently sloping trail which might resemble a small stream if water flowed down in. Snow, ice and loose rocks filled the sunken path. Shrubs and twisted trees rose from the elevated banks. The slope was not particularly steep, but it was taxing walking on snow, ice and loose rocks. The books advised to turn back if there’s too much snow on the sunken path. We moved on, but the going was tough. Unable to hold my food down, my muscles were crying out for nourishment which came in the form of sweets and chocolates which I don’t normally eat back home.
Finally, we reached Laurebina Yak at 3900m. The first and better-looking lodge was unfortunately closed. We had to climb further to get to the next lodge, perched precariously exposed on a snow-covered slope. I could imagine what a gust of wind could do to the wind chill factor.
The lodge was very small and basic. It’s a miracle that anyone could have the energy and endurance to build something like this so far above the treeline. The timber had to be carried up. Thankfully, the toilet was inside the lodge. There wouldn’t be any need to dash across a snowfield to answer nature’s call in the middle of the night.
Laurebina Yak raised the standard for cold further. I figured it was at least -12 deg C outside and it wasn’t much warmer inside. Precious wood burned furiously at the stove in the living room. We all huddled around it. Every drink, every washing required some ice-melting. The stomach bug I got from Deorali was still bothering me. Sleep was difficult as my sleeping bag was not warm enough.
27th Jan 2012
Down jacket and leather gloves were no match for the morning cold at Laurebina Yak. I went outside to take some pictures and my ungloved hands were quickly hot by a mixture of pain and numbness. I only managed to eat 2 eggs for breakfast. We decided that staying the night at Gosainkund was unthinkable. Nukul didn’t have enough warm clothing with him. Even Maduk’s trekking boots may not withstand the cold. We packed our things and prepared for a quick touch and go at Gosainkund.
This has to be the most scenic part of the trek. The northern horizon was a panorama of stunning peaks, not as close as those on the Everest trek, but still a beautiful sight – like fangs guarding the entrance to a mystical world, Tibet.
It’s a relatively easy climb up the gentle slope, snow-covered on many parts. An hour above Laurebina Yak, was a Buddhist shrine. Lonely yet regal, it struck a commanding pose overlooking the Langtang and Ganesh Himal in the north and a deep ravine bound by vertical walls of black rock in the east.
The trail flattened with only minor ups and downs, but on the right side of the narrow path, was a scary drop to what seemed like a bottomless ravine. We were entering a sanctuary, walled off from the outside world; our attention drawn to everything within it. The peaks guarding this place were all grey, brown or black, thinly dressed in snow and ice.
We wound round and round the side of the mountain, deeper and deeper into the enclosure. Two minor lakes came into view. Then, we reached the end of the sanctuary and holy Gosainkund appeared as a giant skating rink. The frozen lake cast a strong glare in every direction. Just as the reflection brought a tinge of warmth, a gust of wind blowing over the ice would remind us to zip up our jackets.
I was fortunate. Most visitors to Gosainkund see the lake shrouded in mist. I came at the “wrong” season, but braving the unearthly cold has brought me some rewards. The skies were crystal clear. I was still struggling with a churning stomach, but I felt welcome in this harsh, magnificent environment.
We left Gosainkund that afternoon and pulled all the way back to Sing Gompa. After taking some Cipro which the locals had given me, my stomach felt much better. I thought it was going to be a boring night at Sing Gompa even though a very big expedition-supported Korean group had booked an entire lodge for the night.
I sat down next to the stove in the living room after a light dinner of macaroni soup and had a chat with Nukul. In spite of his youth, Nukul was more focussed than Maduk in any form of discussion. He had only been with Eco Trek since last October. Before that, he was working in Dubai as a security guard at a shopping mall. Why did he come back? The place was understaffed, the pay was too low and his missed his family.
28th Jan 2012
We left Sing Gompa early, descending all the way to Dhunche, quickly bypassing Deorali. The pretty Tamang lady who couldn’t cook was pleased to see us again. I just smiled and secretly wished for her own good that her cooking would improve. Nukul warned that I should not even take a drink at Deorali.
Back at Dhunche, badly dehydrated, I had a refreshing Coke with Nukul. After a hot shower at a local inn, Jyoti called and said that he had already dispatched a driver to meet us at Trisuli Bazaar and bring us to Lumbini. I hurriedly packed my things, had a quick lunch of “spring rolls” Tibetan style and boarded the 2pm local bus bound for Kathmandu. Less than an hour out of Dhunche, Nukul shouted to the bus driver to stop. He had spotted the car that Jyoti sent. We alighted and began the second part of our adventure – 400km from the birthplace of the Buddha.
© Chan Joon Yee, Knapsack Treks