Stepping on Footprints: Trekking in Nepal

Features Issue 82 Jul, 2010
Text by Ivan Sada

When one walks, one is brought into touch first of all with the essential relations between one’s physical powers and the character of the country; one is compelled to see it as its natives do. Then every man one meets is an individual. One is no longer regarded by the whole population as an unapproachable and uninteresting animal to be cheated and robbed.” —Aleister Crowley

Referring to an old Lonely Planet guide-book’s language lesson, a trekker asked an old ex-British army veteran somewhere in the Everest region, “Namche Bazaar kati ghantaa laagcha?” The man replied, “Aru due tin rumaley mile?” The reply did not make any sense to the traveler. He had asked how many more hours it would take him to reach Namche bazaar and he was told that it would take him another two to three ‘handkerchief miles’. The visitor was wearing slippers, his feet were full of blisters because his walking boots were not broken in when he started the trek, and he needed medical attention. Seeking an explanation, he asked the old man again what he had just said. And in broken English the old man replied, “You wet a rumal (handkerchief). Cover your head with it and walk. Once it dries, that’s one rumaley mile (hanky mile). Repeat that three times and you will reach your destination.” Alas, the trekker had a long way to travel because it was monsoon and his handkerchief was not going to dry very soon. That was how distance was calculated in the hills, once upon a time.

History of trekking in Nepal
What we consider as trekking trails in Nepal evolved from old trade routes, as the country has always depended on trade and traders. Generations of porters have carried foreign goods to remote hill villages from the cities of Nepal, Tibet and India. Seasonal local migrants, people moving between the colder Himalayan regions and the warmer climates of the Terai to the south, also use the same trails, and people traveling for weddings, funerals, festivals, pilgrimages, school, on government or military business, made the trails popular. The locals depended entirely on the trails for their sustenance and livelihood, as they still do.

Nepal was closed to the outside world before the 1950s. The only foreigners who visited the hills of the country were some illegal entrants like Japanese explorer Ekai Kawaguchi who came to Nepal in 1899 with the purpose of secretly entering Tibet, which was then closed to foreigners. There were also unlawful entries by secret map makers, called pundits or specialists, who were sent into Nepal by the Survey of India without the consent of the government of Nepal. It was only in 1949 that a fully authorized trekker, a Brit named W/.H. ‘Bill’ Tilman, entered Nepal with permission from the then maharaja.
In books on the history of trekking, Tilman is considered the initial pathfinder for many popular trekking routes, including Everest, Helambu, Kali Gandaki and Muktinath, Annapurna and Langtang, including some challenging high passes, such as Ganjala and Tilicho (near Tilicho lake). Another early visitor was Maurice Herzog who led a French mountaineering expedition up the lower Kali Gandaki valley to Annapurna-I in 1950, and Edmund Hillary who trekked the Everest region in 1951, before joining the British Mount Everest Expedition of 1953 on which he and Tenzing successfully summited.

After the post-Rana political settlement (1951), King Tribhuvan visited Calcutta (Kolkata) in India, where he met Boris Lissanevitch, a White Russian former ballet dancer, who was operating a popular night club. Boris convinced the king that foreigners were interested in visiting Nepal and would actually pay for the experience. Boris was soon invited to Kathmandu where he established the famous Royal Hotel (where the Election Commission office is now).
The first visitors were a couple of aristocrat ladies who flew from Patna (India) to the capital in an Indian Airlines Dakota (DC-3) and were accommodated in the newly established hotel. The airport was known as Kathmandu Gauchar (cow field) Airport, now Tribhuvan International Airport. The ladies were charmed by Boris and the exotic kingdom of Nepal, and their experience, perhaps, accounts to be the first tourism example that helped establish the industry. The original Royal Hotel and its Yak & Yeti Bar became the meeting place for mountain climbers from the 1950s until 1971, when the old hotel was closed. The old Royal Hotel and Boris and various notables around Kathmandu (Nepalese royalty and other elites, as well as several foreign expatriates and a few early mountain climbers) also featured in the popular early novel about Nepal, The Mountain is Young, by Han Suyin.

Colonel James O.M. Roberts also shares the limelight in establishing the trek-tourism industry in Nepal. ‘Jimmy’, as he was usually called, spent years in Nepal attached to the British residency, had accompanied Tilman on his first trek, and had participated in other mountaineering expeditions. In 1964 Jimmy Roberts founded Mountain Travel and escorted a group of ladies into the Mount Everest region. His travel agency was the first of Nepal’s trekking companies and became the inspiration for the adventure travel industry.

The highest and youngest geographical marvels and wonders of the world are the chain of hills and mountains of Nepal. They encompass a region of immense geographical significance, deep religious and cultural traditions, and an amazing and complex diversity of inhabitants.

Walking around the mountains in Nepal will take a traveler through a country that has captured the imagination of explorers and mountaineers for centuries. It is not only for the sheer glory of achieving a goal of conquering the elusive that they traveled, but because they knew that braving the elements would also allow them to meet people and cultures whose lifestyles had not changed in generations.

Why Trek?
Luckily for visitors, there are still only few roads extending deep in the hills. Though this is rapidly changing, the only way to truly experience the remote regions is by doing it in the slowest and most intimate manner–by walking. A trek in Nepal is a unique and worthwhile mountain holiday and the best way to do that is on foot. And although it requires more time and effort, the rewards are greater, as each step provides new and intriguing viewpoints on the spectacular beauty and the unique cultures encountered. The origin of the word ‘trek’ is ‘Afrikaans’ meaning to travel by wagon train. Its use for hiking in Nepal, however, has changed all that and today, the majority of outdoors people in the world think it is analogous with hiking in Nepal! By the end of the day, a trekker perceives his experience as an entity rather than highlights strung together by a ribbon. For the romanticist, each step follows the footsteps of Hillary, Tenzing, Herzog and other Himalayan adventurers.

Walking or trekking in Nepal is different from most mountain walks, hikes or climbs elsewhere in the world, but there are only few that offer a true wilderness experience. Isolation is a crucial element of any wilderness experience, but in Nepal it is not possible to get away from people completely, except for short times at extremely high elevations or in extremely isolated places. Instead, trekkers walk up and down steep hills through remote villages where life is remarkably diverse and unusual.

They encounter farmers raising crops, shepherds herding livestock, and will reach herders’ huts and villages that might be totally uninhabited in some seasons. On some trails a trekker may go for long stretches and never meet a soul, except for communing with the stillness. There are many places with no electricity, telephone, airport or hospital, though most district headquarters towns and communities on important trekking routes have basic infrastructure. That is the beauty most mountain walkers seek, to be away from urbanization and connect with Nature.

Trekkers in Nepal can do much on their own. It is neither complicated nor expensive. As a trek requires walking for several days, trekkers need provisions and lodging along the way, but they need not worry much about that in Nepal. They can arrive unannounced at small inns, guesthouses (often called ‘tea houses’) or hotels in the hills and still be lodged and fed. They can either rely totally on local facilities or travel with an entourage that carries all of its food and tents. Or they can have everything pre-arranged, including fancy meals and hot showers. The hotel facilities are well developed along major trekking routes. Many of them to cater to basic Western standards of taste and hygiene, but one must be aware (if not traveling in a group) that in more remote regions, the local-style inns (bhattis) can be crowded and dirty, and may serve unhygienic, monotonous food. Nevertheless, it is an experience many backpackers opt for, because it takes one to the heart of the mountains and their residents.

Some visitors mistake trekking for climbing a mountain in Nepal. Though conquering an Himalayan peak can be an attraction to some, trekkers need not have such a goal to enjoy walking in the hills and mountains, because while walking they see some of the best landscapes and most diverse societies of Nepal. The terrain changes dramatically from tropical jungle (in the Terai) to high, glaciated peaks in the space of only 100 miles. The beauty and attraction of the Nepal Himalayas radiate not only from the mountains themselves, but also from their environs. Nepal is a country of friendly people, picturesque villages and an amazing variety of cultures and traditions that seem to exemplify many of the attributes that are lost in developed countries.

Trekking in Nepal

Three to seven days is a short trek, and an average trek is about two weeks. A long trek may take 30 days or more, and each walking day will take a trekker further into the hills. But unless there is an airstrip near your destination, you will also have to walk the same distance to get back. Trekkers must choose a destination that fits their available time and strike a balance between the period of good weather (in the area that they wish to visit) and the crowds that the weather attracts.

The best trekking season is October to May, with October and November recognized as having the best weather. This is the all round high tourist season. During this time, air flights and hotels are fully booked, and trails in the hills can be busy. The nights are cold in the mountains during autumn high season, but the bright sun makes for pleasant daytime walking. The mornings are usually clear but the clouds build up during the afternoons; then, at night, they disappear to reveal spectacular starry skies. The spring season starts from March to April and is regarded as a perfect time for average treks.

A trek in Nepal can be structured with two things in mind. First, supplies and accommodation are readily available, as there are people living even in the most remote areas. Second, there are inexpensive professional and non-professional laborers available to carry loads, to work as guides, and to assist as camp staff. Carrying a light backpack, stove, freeze-dried food and tent does not make much sense while trekking in Nepal, as fresh food and good lodgings are readily available. An important factor to consider is: do not trek alone, because your backpack might disappear into thin air while you rush off the trail into the bushes, though these are isolated cases in Nepal. Every trekker should have a companion in case of injury or sickness or other problems. Though quite infrequent, almost all robberies, disappearances, deaths or incidents of violent crime in Nepal have involved trekkers traveling alone.

Walking the hills and mountains can demand a great deal of trekkers physically, especially when encountering serious changes in elevation. There is hardly a level stretch of trail in the entire country. For example, while trekking the approximately 185 mile (300km) track from Jiri east across the hills and mountains to Everest Base Camp and return, the total gain and loss of elevation is over 65,600 ft (i.e., more than 20,000m). That route is popular, but it involves many seriously steep ascents and descents. The daily gain on some treks may approach 2,500 ft (close to 800m) over a distance of 9 or 10 miles (15km), although 4,000 foot (1200m) ascents are not unknown.
Most treks across Nepal’s mid-hills, however, are far less exerting, usually no more than 1,500 ft (450-500m) gain in a day. Any trek can be strenuous, but if you pace yourself and do not overdue it, especially at the start, long days and distances can be comfortably sustained. On a typical trek, it usually takes three or four days to ‘warm up’ and feel comfortable on the trail; after that the walking goes more smoothly (and less painfully, if you’re not in top shape to begin with.) Most trekking agencies expect their clients to walk no more than 5 hours in a day, and rarely expect them to exceed 2,000 ft (600m) in elevation, except (perhaps) when crossing high passes. On long, steep and unrelenting descents, one must be careful to remain limber to avoid serious knee problems.

Approaches to Trekking
Lodge Trek
Most trekkers enjoy a lodge trek (sometimes called a ‘tea house trek’) because it gives you the freedom to sit, stay or walk anytime and anywhere. You can take advantage of the local trekking lodges for accommodation and meals. It gives you the advantage of operating with a bare minimum of equipment and resources, and it can be relatively in expensive, depending on where you stay and how carefully you budget for meals and drinks. Nonetheless, even lodge treks can become expensive, especially in the more remote areas and at high altitudes, where prices reflect the longer, higher transport costs.

As you do not have to worry too much on arranging accommodation and food, you can move at your own pace and set your own schedule. You can even make side trips, which are not possible with organized group trekking that follow a set itinerary. On a lodge trek, you can spend as much time as you want bird-watching, or taking photographs, and visiting interesting places off the main track, or you can simply linger in the mountains, knowing you have a nearby place to stay for the night. You are free to alter your routes and change your plans to visit other out-of-the-way places that you’ve heard about. You also get the opportunity to see how the people in the hills live, work and survive, and may be able to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of the local language.

For example, in Manang District on the popular Annapurna Circuit Trek, while the vast majority of trekkers are determined to cross the 17,769 ft (5416m) Thorung Pass, a more leisurely lodge trek allows for deviation from the main trail. Day trips can be taken from the lodge of your choice to the Ice Lake high up on the north side of the valley, to Milarepa’s Cave (a Buddhist holy site) on the south side of the valley opposite the town of Braga, or to the picturesque lake directly beneath Gangapurna Peak a short walk farther up the valley. In fact, high altitude medical experts (at the Himalayan Rescue Association outpost in Manang) recommend that before crossing the pass, each trekker should go high and back once or twice and only then do the pass in several day stages.

The only drawback of the lodge trek is that you have to find lodging and places to eat daily, so you must trek in inhabited areas or on the better known routes. You may also have to revise your daily schedule to reach a certain lodge in time for lunch or dinner or to reserve a room for the night. Although most trekkers are not deprived from staying for the night (as the locals consider guests to be gods in disguise), during the busiest season you may find yourself sleeping on the floor in the dining room or elsewhere when the rooms in the lodge of your choice are fully booked. One solution is to start out earlier in the morning and stop earlier in the afternoon, before the crowds arrive.

Camping Trek

If your interest in the Himalaya was kindled through books such as John Hunt’s The Ascent of Everest, Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna and James Ramsey Ullman’s American on Everest, you still have the opportunity to experience this delightful way to travel in Nepal. Many Nepalese trekking agencies cater to the classic style of trekking, which is to camp in tents and employ guides to escort you, porters to carry your gear and perhaps a Sherpa or two to oversee the whole arrangement, set up camps, cook and serve the meals.

This style of trek follows a tradition and a routine that the earliest Himalayan trekkers and mountaineers developed and refined over many decades. On a camping trek arranged through a reputable trekking agency, you will feel very much like those famous mountaineers approaching the high peaks. The only thing that you need to carry, however, is a light rucksack with water bottle, flashlight (torch), camera, sweater and windbreaker and perhaps a few power bars for light snacking along the way; and, if you are a bird-watcher, a pair of binoculars and a bird book.

(Trekking agencies always assign someone from the camp crew to watch the tents, adding to your safety, convenience and comfort.) The tent also gives you the freedom to go to bed whenever you want. You can retire immediately after dinner, or linger around the campfire to read or hear folk tales of the mountains, or sit awake to watch the moon rise and the starry sky appear. Or, just sit in wonder listening to the sound of mountain silence (interrupted, perhaps, by the cry of an owl in a nearby forest or the crack of an icefall off some distant peak). As guided treks provide enough tents for clients and the support team, alike, camps need not be set up near villages. This allows you to trek comfortably to remote regions and high altitudes.

Organized Trek

When Jimmy Roberts organized the first trek in Nepal, independent trekking was a logistical nightmare. There were no lodges, nor email, fax or telephone facilities. And, some of today’s most popular trekking trails were not yet on the maps. In fact, there were no trekking maps. Most trekkers, therefore, joined group camping treks organized by adventure travel companies abroad, a tradition that has carried over to the present day. Those companies work with local counterparts and do most of the preparations for you. It’s each trekker’s responsibility to enjoy all the comforts they provide.

Many trekkers still travel on group treks organized abroad, but it’s also possible to arrange an organized trek directly with a local company after you arrive in Kathmandu. An organized trek can feature staying in lodges or camping in tents (or a combination) and the size of the group can vary from a couple to more than 20 people. The organized trek is under the control of a sardar (trail boss), who is responsible for arranging accommodations, whether at a lodge or camping area, ensuring a full complement of porters every day, and arranging meals. If there are fewer than three trekkers, the sardar will also serve as guide; with a larger group there may be several guides. On a camping trek the trekking crew will also include a cook and kitchen staff.


We all walk, but walking is not as easy as we may think it is. Those who walk for days on end just for pleasure may seem to others to be eccentrics, romantics or health freaks. But, it is they who see the real beauty of Nature. They are the ones who encounter the unseen and unheard of. They are the ones who, by far, return the richer and the healthier, mentally, physically and spiritually, from the outing.

There are many reasons why so many people enjoy trekking the hills and mountains of Nepal. Some trek with some form of spiritual ambition, some want to expand and test themselves physically, and some wish to experience other cultures and their beliefs. A few may even go all out on trek as a way to escape the realities of life, only to find reality again in another form. Perhaps stepping in the footprints of the unknown travelers ahead of you on the trail will reveal abundant secrets about yourself, about nature, about others, and about Nepal, secrets enough to cherish for a lifetime.

“In a world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.” -Aleister Crowley                    

Some facts and figures used in this article are taken from Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya by Stan Armington. We thank Jyoti Adhikari, Chairman of Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (4442773) for providing us the photographs and new destination information, and Bidur Dongol, Proprietor of Vajra Book Shop (4220562), for providing us the maps from Shangri-la Design.