Experiencing Langtang After The Earthquake

Features Issue 184 Mar, 2017
Text and Photo By Heidi Hagenlocher

A trek during the cold season to an area devastated by the quake brings its own memorable and unexpected rewards.

On the best of days when I have cycled up the steep incline next to the Summit Hotel without being muscled to the wall by a passing truck, I feel like I have conquered the only hill that matters. Sadly, this feeling is temporary. The next day, I surrender to the gasps brought on by those pesky dust particles and dismount at the sharpest turn. Sigh. Weaving through stop-start-stop traffic daily has not made me fit.

Usually,I would agree that trekking is not for someone like me, since I have barely enough perseverance to cycle uphill for two minutes. But this is Nepal. Where else in the world are you going to get better mountain views? Every tourist coming to this land bursting with natural beauty needs to do a trek. The length and elevation reached does not matter, as long as you see those white-capped peaks.

My first trek was to Poon Hill in late May. My fondest memory of that trek was shivering under a blanket in the chiya shack near the viewing area as I prayed for the clouds to part. The pasal owner kindly refused payment for our second cup of hot chocolate.After three hours, we gave up and walked back down without seeing the famous 360-degree view. Be warned: don’t wait until pre-monsoon season to climb Poon Hill if you would prefer not tophotoshop the Annapurna range into your trekking selfies.

Why should I put myself through that pain again? I can occasionally get mountain views in the Kathmandu valley without blisters, lower back aches, and the fear of altitude sickness. If I was going to make the effort to go trekking, I wanted to visit a place where I would be guaranteed a pristine mountain view.

Mainly due to scheduling reasons, my friends and I chose to go trekking in mid-December. We were warned by friends and trekking guides to prepare for cold weather. High season for most treks in Nepal is during the months of October, November, March, and April. Were we going to freeze without any mountain views to show for it?

We wanted an easier trek, since none of us had done strenuous exercise regimes to prepare. We also preferred a short trek since our goal was to be back in Kathmandu before Christmas. In the end, it was a choice between Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) and Langtang Valley. Most trekking websites describe the Langtang trek as ‘easy/moderate’ and ABC as ‘moderate’. But, is a trek in Nepal ever easy? I always need to remind myself of which climb is considered difficult here—Mount Everest!

Given our trek criteria of short, easy, and beautiful, we would have immediately chosen Langtang Valley if we were going before 2015. Post-earthquake, we were unsure. The village of Langtang was destroyed by an avalanche, moments after the 7.8 M earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015. More than half the community’s population of 400 was killed.

Every time I talked about trekking with guides or seasoned trekkers, they would describe the beauty of Langtang. But, was it a good place to go trekking after the community had experienced so much heartbreak? One trekking guide I met in Nagarkot urged me that trekking in Langtang was the best way to show care and support for the community. He explained that people would prefer to work instead of receiving handouts. Since the community had previously thrived due to tourism, it would only recover well if tourists returned to the area.

We decided that if we were going to Langtang Valley, we needed to find a knowledgeable guide who had been there recently.A friend recommended Sam Poon, the owner of Above and Beyond Trekking in Jhamsikhel. He turned out to be a knowledgeable and friendly guide. When we met him, he revealed that he has been involved in the tourism industry for more than 22 years. He started working as a porter when he was 17 years old (at a time when there were no weight limits for porters) and completed his training to become a guide in 2004. He eagerly agreed to join us, and explained that he needed to breathe fresh mountain air again.

Day 1: Kathmandu to SyabruBesi—One request Sam made was that we rent a jeep instead of traveling by bus. My housemate had already described the road to Langtang as the ‘scariest road I have ever been on in Nepal’, recollecting the hairpin turns on steep hills,with no trees to stop your fall on the way to the ravine below. In 2014, a bus carrying passengers heading to Langtang Valley drove off the road and plunged into a ravine on the way to SyabruBesi—14 people died, including tourists from Israel and Spain. I slept for most of the jeep journey to SyabruBesi, thanks to the help of anti-nausea pills. I only noticed those hairpin turns on the return journey to Kathmandu. 
We went for a walk with Sam once we reached SyabruBesi, where we saw that some earthquake-damaged homes had already been rebuilt,and other homes were in the midst of being repaired. An elderly woman invited us to admire her newly rebuilt home and drink tea with her. Tea is always sweeter when shared with new acquaintances, isn’t it? At night, I kept my fleecywinter hat on and remained cozy in my minus-10 sleeping bag.

Day 2:SyabruBesi to Lama Hotel—We wore too many layers on our first day of trekking, anticipating the cold. The sun came out by mid-morning, and we had to remove our windbreakers and sweaters before we reached our first chiya spot. Even in December, we felt hot while walking uphill along the trail. This was the first time I had carried my own backpack on a trek, and I realized that I would stay toasty warm day and night because of its weight and contents. With a few lengthy stops for daalbhaat and chiya, we reached Lama Hotel close to dusk, and stayed at the Jungle View Hotel. This was not the finest rest stop on our trek, but I enjoyed viewing thousands upon thousands of stars while I brushed my teeth outside.

Day 3: Lama Hotel to Mundu—Some people have told me that Day 1 is the hardest day of trekking. I disagree. Day 2 was the worst in terms of pain and thoughts of failure. A new trekking path had been made after the earthquake, since parts of the previous one was destroyed by rocks and rubble. We kept pressing on, walking for almost nine hours, awestruck by the valley’s beauty. Just like the previous day, we remained hot carrying our backpacks—no snow or ice in sight. 
I wore my headlamp as it was already dark when we reached the remains of Langtang village. Even though my feet ached, Sam urged us to continue walking. Fearing another avalanche, he did not want us to spend the night there. We finally stopped at Tashi Lodge in Mundu (a small community close to Langtang village). Sam told us that a few families had relocated from Langtang village to Mundu because they felt safer there. 
I found out later that while our team had been feasting on macaroni and warming up next to the woodstove, Sam had been sitting in the kitchen with the teahouse owners, a friendly Sherpa couple.He listened to them talk about their close relatives who lost their lives in Langtang village. 
For Sam, he also remembered friends and teahouses (Eco Lodge, Tibet Lodge, Paradise Lodge) that he used to stay at in Langtang village, wiped out by the avalanche. He recollected an incident pre-earthquake,when one of his clients had experienced altitude sickness at a rest stop near Langtang village. The owners of Eco Lodge organized a horse to take his client back to their lodge to rest. This was just one memory that demonstrated the helpful nature of the families of Langtang Valley.He reassured me that he enjoyed trekking, but he felt sad when he returned to the valley.

Day 4: Mundu to KyanjinGompa—We were thrilled when we arrived at our destination within three hours. The only snow we could see in KyanjinGompa was on the top of the mountain peaks. The dry ground was perfect for a day hike to acclimatize to the higher altitude. We removed our hiking boots and climbed up steep yak trails in our sandals until Sam felt we had reached a high enough point for acclimatization, and then we returned to the village.
While we did not experience snow, rain, or clouds, clear skies are not guaranteed in December. Sam told us that it is important to check with teahouse owners and find out weather forecasts before going to Langtang in the winter months. He has experienced snow in April and January on past treks, and while it is possible to climb up TserkoRi peak (the highest point for trekkers on the Langtang trail), if the snow is not too high, an already steep climb becomes dangerous when the rocky ground is slippery. 
One reason to book a trek during the winter months (even when snow is a possibility) is for the peaceful environment. In KyanjinGompa, we once again had an entire trekking lodge to ourselves. We drank tea in the kitchen with the Tibetan owners, and played card games together for hours after dinner. Sam reminded us that if we had chosen to trek during peak season, this experience was highly unlikely. If you ever stay at Trekker’s Lodge, order the potato momo. Itwill satisfy your cravings for deep fried deliciousness.

Day 5: TserkoRi Peak—Our day hike to the highest point of the trek, approximately 5,000 meters above sea level, was where we recognized how out of shape we were. Sam had hoped we would complete the round trip in five hours,but it took us closer to nine hours to do it. I felt that we had failed to meet his expectations, but he remained positive and encouraging. TserkoRi Peak is difficult to summit. The steep ridge has caused many trekkers to turn back before they have reached the halfway point. 
We stayed at the summit just long enough for a few group photos and video clips. It was tempting to stay longer, given that not a single cloud was blocking our 360-degree view of the Himalaya. I wore my winter hat to block the wind, but once again the sun kept me warm. We knew our time was limited if we were going to reach our teahouse before dark, so we headed down the ridge. I was not able to walk fast because I constantly wanted to stop, admire the view, and take more photos.
Normally, people stay in KyanjinGompa for two to three nights in order to do day hikes to Langtang Glacier and LangtangRi, as well as TserkoRi Peak. While our entire trip was eight days, Sam told me that our trek would have been more enjoyable and relaxing if we had given ourselves ten days to do it.

Day 6: KyanjinGompa to Rimche—One aspect of the Langtang Valley trek is that, once you have reached KyanjinGompa, trekkers turn around and do the same trek back to ShyapruBesi. I enjoyed this, because we had an opportunity to greet all of the families we had met along the way uphill. We met a few trekkers from Scotland, but otherwise we were only sharing the path with donkeys carrying supplies. The way downhill is faster than uphill, of course, but it is still tricky because of the rocky ground at points where there have been landslides in the past. We arrived at our teahouse in Rimche close to 5 p.m. We were pleased that we made it before dark this time.

Day 7: Rimche to ShyapruBesi—Our last day of trekking included walking through a breathtaking forest where we discovered monkeys relaxing in the trees, wild chickens, a variety of birds, and a deer grazing on the other side of the ridge. It only took us five hours to walk downhill to ShyapruBesi—plenty of time for Sam to purchase fresh vegetables from some villagers along the way. Our jeep driver was already waiting for us when we reached ShyapruBesi. He greeted us with gifts of freshly picked oranges, one fruit we had not found on our trekking route.

Day 8: Return to Kathmandu—I forgot to take the anti-nausea pills on the return journey to Kathmandu. Since I was wide awake, I can also recommend hiring a private jeep for the journey. It is scary when you realize how close your vehicle is to sliding down the edge of a precipice.

Given the stunning mountain views and kind hospitality of every person we met, I’m thankful that it is once again possible to do the Langtang Valley trek. If you get a clear weather report, don’t wait for high trekking season. Start greeting people with TashiDeleg and go!