I arrived in Nepal in mid-October, fresh from India, and excited by daydreams of snowy crags, Tibetans and prayer flags. I had no plan, no itinerary, and no goal except for one – to lose myself in the mountains. And so, with my 28th birthday around the corner, and the solitude of the snowy peaks calling my name, I went trekking. I did 10 days through Langtan Valley and Gosainkunda. No guides, no porters, no group. Just me.

Let me start off by dispelling any doubts… Doing this trek by yourself is not only possible (everything possible in Nepal after all), but it’s an epic adventure that grants you the gift of roaming free in one of Nature’s most spectacular playgrounds – the magnificent Himalayas. The 10 days I spent there flew past, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I’m not trying to discredit the value of a good team of guides and porters. They’re there to make sure that clients have an awesome experience, while ensuring their safety and happiness along the way. All of the guides and porters I chatted to along the way had their client’s comfort and well-being as top priorities. However. Being stubborn, with less regard for my safety than I should have, and with a taste for exploring places that leave people far behind, I set off by myself.

Part 1 – Langtan Valley

“You alone? No guide? No friends? Strong girl”

Gearing up

Trekking along the major routes in this area is super comfortable. Physically challenging of course, but with the trail lined with guesthouses all conveniently kitted out with solar power, a comfy bed, hot shower, and chance to charge batteries was never far away. In fact, I’d say I experienced better facilities trekking in the middle of nowhere than staying in many other places in Nepal! It’s hardly a fight for survival. My only concern was staying warm without any specialised hiking gear. My friends and I have a history of being very caution-to-the-wind, colourful and on the Bohemian side – declining to take proper gear (hula hoops trump waterproof jackets any day!) and piling on layer upon layer of something borrowed, tie-dyed or totally inappropriate until the cold is fended off.  But, having just finished reading ‘Into Thin Air’ by John Krakauer, frostbite didn’t sound all that appealing, so I rented a good down sleeping bag and jacket for the trip. Even though there’s no snow at the time that I went, temperatures around end November dip below zero in the evenings. So I wanted to be prepared!

Top of Rinjani, Indonesia in 2015
Top of Rinjani, Indonesia in 2015

Here’s what I had with me:

  • Down jacket and sleeping bag
  • Two pairs of socks, leggings and t-shirts
  • Comfy clothes for the evenings
  • Extra food and snacks
  • Basic toiletries
  • Super basic first aid (plasters and painkillers…)
  • Wool gloves, a beanie, and a cap for daytime
  • A sleeping mat
  • Innov8’s Trailroc 246 trail running shoes

That’s it! Everything fitted nicely into my Karrimor 35l backpack. There were a few things I missed and will definitely take next time:

  • Sunblock and shades
  • Lip balm (severe dryness from exposure!)
  • Extra pair of long socks
  • A notebook for scribbling, or a book to read
  • A headlamp or torch (the solar setups aren’t always reliable, and stumbling to, and fumbling around in a pitch dark outhouse at night no fun)
  • A scarf for warmth and exposure protection (I ended up using my spare set of pants as a face warmer…)

“You going Langtan?”

Day 1 – Kathmandu to Syabrubesi (1450m)

7am sees me backpacked and ready at Maccha Pokhari bus stand in Kathmandu. As sun rays pierce the dusty haze of the derelict skyline, groups of Nepali men cluster around tea stands for the morning ritual of a chiya and chat. I stand around with them, waiting, warming my hands on a small plastic cup of ultra sweet tea and answering the usual questions – Where are you from? What’s your name? Where are you going? Are you married? Why aren’t you black? (I’m from Africa, after all) Do you know A B de Villiers?

Promptly at 7:30, my bus pulls in. Having extracted my life’s story, and assured that I love Nepal just as much as they do, and I’m ushered towards the right bus by the friendly tea drinkers. The bus ticket cost NPR450 for the ‘deluxe’ ride and took about 8-9 hours. You can go ‘super deluxe’ for 100 rupees more, or take a shared jeep or a private taxi. Regardless of how you choose to get there, it’s a bumpy, terrifying and beautiful rollercoaster ride along a sheer cliff edge, up into the valley. This bone crushing trip will make the hardiest of backpackers wish for the comforts of a taxi. With shocks long gone, but the sound system undefeated, the bus hurtles around hairpin bends and cannonballs over gigantic potholes. I brace myself with my legs and hold on for dear life to avoid slamming my head into the ceiling of the bus. As we charge through a ditch, passengers become airborne as one as we’re knocked off our seats. And yet somehow, with Nepali pop singers wailing high pitched love songs over the speakers, a few people manage to doze off, draped over seat backs and over each other.

bus-route
The bus route ahead

Syabrubesi is a dusty, hotel-lined truck stop town. Brightly painted trucks proclaiming ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’ and ‘King of the road’ and ‘See you!’ pass through here on route to China. I stay the night at Village View guesthouse, the cheapest place I could find at NPR100 per night. There’s wifi, hot water and great dal bhat.

Day 2 – Syabrubesi to Lama Hotel (2480m)

The next morning, eager to leave the bustle of Syabrubesi behind, I check and tighten all my various straps, clips and zips, and hit the road at around 7:30am or so. Suddenly, finally, it’s all happening, I’m in the mountains! The walk to Lama Hotel is relatively flat to start with, cruising along the Langtan khola, the pale blue, icy river that would accompany me for most of my trek up the valley. The path winds slowly upwards through sections of forests, across hanging bridges creaking under the weight of prayer flags, over a couple of landslides, becoming steeper and steeper and soon leaving me breathless.

At the teashops in Domen and Bamboo weathered old Tamang ladies in Tibetan skirts, headscarves and puffy Northface jackets call out hopefully:

“Namaste! Where you come from today? You look tired, take rest. Tea? Lunch? Room?”

tibet-guesthouse
Tibet Guest House in Lama Hotel

These shrewd mountain women shrink with age, their earlobes laden with heavy gold and turquoise rings and colourful hand-woven cloths tucked into the back of their skirts. But they are all kind, welcoming, eager to please and always willing to negotiate. Being on a budget, the owner of Tibet Guesthouse in Lama Hotel lets me sleep in the dining room (next to the heater, super cosy!) for free, shares his lunch with me, and even gives me a sampling of green from this garden.

Day 3 – Lama Hotel to Langtan Village (3541m)

Today was quite a short day’s walk. The trail is nice and level in long sections, and the valley starts to open up and expand beneath your feet. Setting off in the crisp early morning, what is first only a distant peak shining brilliantly in the morning sun peeks out from behind the forest treetops. As you ascend past the forest, you step into a hall of great snow-capped mountains, the river sparkling on your right, and with a sky above so blue it’s almost indigo.

first-view
First glimpse of snow!

I arrive at Langtan Village early in the afternoon. Massive rock slides had borne down on the village from both sides of the valley. Walking through the rubble, damaged buildings, and ghost foundations of houses that used to be you can really see and feel the impact of the earthquake. There’s a memorial wall that commemorates those who died in the disaster. It’s really a sad place.

Day 4 – Langtan Village to Kyanjin Gompa (3900m)

This was also a relatively quick walk, with some level parts. It was one of my favourite days going up so far though! There’s a lot to see along the way, the trail winds over a crystal little stream that’s iced in parts. A few beautiful shrines and gompas line the path, all shining and golden, hung with prayer flags, and intricately hand painted.

kyanjin-gompa
Kyanjin Gompa

Compared to Langtan Village, Kyanjin Gompa is bustling city. Many of the Nepali style older buildings have survived, and the town is bustling with trekkers, guides and lodge owners. Things you can find only at Kyanjin Gompa! A hotel with a rooftop with a view of the valley, a few awesome day treks in the area, a glacier, and a proper bakery with chocolate cake.

Kyanjin Ri

Because I arrived at Kyanjin so early that day I decided to check out the walk up to Kyanjin Ri. Chilling at 4773m, it’s only a few hours climb, but up an unrelenting hill, where, even walking with small baby steps, I was left breathless by the altitude at every turn. But I got myself up there! You first reach the top of a smaller hill, with a big shrine, but in the distance you’ll see the top of Kyanjin Ri, another good hour’s quad crunching trudge to the top. But when you’re there! The views are absolutely spectacular, you can see the peaks of all the mountains in the area, and enjoy the feeling of triumph for getting yourself all the way there.

kyanjin-ri
Top of Kyanjin Ri (4779m)

Day 5 – Walking the upper Langtan Valley

The next day was my birthday, so I started my day off by treating myself to coffee and carrot cake from the bakery. My plan for the day was to follow the trail out of town and walk further up the valley for the day. After the previous day’s hectic uphill missions, I was looking forward to a chilled day of scenic exploring (No sitting around doing nothing, either!). The trail is abandoned, I passed the entire day in the valley and only encountered 2 people and a whole lot of yaks.

langtan cover
Upper Langtan valley, with yaks

The walk is really really nice, I strolled in the sunshine, surrounded by towering snow-topped cliffs, stopping for snack breaks and taking my sweet time. It’s possible to go up to about 8 – 10km up into the valley, making it a perfect day out. That night I meet two German climbers who were enjoying their first warmth and non-dehydrated food in 10 days. We celebrate my birthday with gigantic Nutella momos.

Day 6 – Back down to Bamboo

Because I only had 10 days, and I wanted to include the Gosainkunda loop in my trek, I powered back down to Bamboo the next day. Bamboo is the closest rest stop to the split in the trail that leads up to Gosainkunda, and that steep hill wasn’t something I wanted to add on to that already long day of walking. But the decent goes fairly quickly, and soon I find myself back in the warmer, foresty area, with daylight to spare. The lady at the guesthouse recognises me from a few days ago, and she agrees to give me a good price on meals in exchange for one of the cheap, unused rooms off to one side. That night I sit and chat with the group of porters who accompanied the big group of elderly Japanese trekkers. The husband of lady who runs the place is old, jolly, nearly incomprehensible when he talks, and pretty drunk. He hands out tumblers of Rakshi to the portes and the tourists, and it’s not long before everyone is singing, clapping and dancing.

Day 7 – Up to Dursagang

To be continued in part two :)