We were keen to get into the big mountains whilst we are here in Nepal, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. With the exception of Annapurna and Everest, many areas are restricted which means you are required to buy a permit and take a registered guide, and the costs start to add up. Initially we weren’t keen to take a guide as we felt it would detract from the experience, especially as we are so used to being self reliant in the hills. So we were leaning towards doing the Everest basecamp trek..until we read that nowadays during the autumn season the trails see 50,000 trekkers! We were also disappointed to hear that all manner of creature comforts are now available up there, including WiFi, hot showers, supermarkets…a far cry from the remote Himalayan adventure we had in mind. So after much deliberation we eventually decided on something a bit different; a trek to Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest but less well known 8000m peak, tucked away in the far Northeast corner of Nepal. Our itinerary would be a 21 day circuit, visiting basecamps under its north and south faces. This trek is supposed to be much quieter and more basic and descriptions we read of the landscapes, local culture and wildlife convinced us that it was for us. So we arranged our guide, Thakur, through an agency in Kathmandu. On first impressions he seemed quiet but confident and spoke good English, and as luck would have it he was also a knowledgeable tour guide so he could teach us a thing or two about the local area.
Below is a description of the first half of the trek up to its highest point, as the whole thing would be far too long to publish here..but I hope it gives a flavour of our journey through this amazingly diverse and unspoilt area of Nepal.
Day 1: Getting there
To make the long journey feasible we flew from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur, in the far East. We managed to get a window seat facing north which meant we had fantastic views of some of the himalayan giants peeking out above the clouds! The humidity of the eastern Therai hit us the moment we stepped off the plane. We drove past big houses surrounded by tall palms and banana trees, then we started to climb up into the himalayan foothills, and the misty tea plantations of Ilam district.
Day 2: Taplejung to Mitlung, 921m, 3hrs
We arrived in Taplejung by jeep around lunchtime. After a tasty dahl bhat, and finding some foam to pad out my rucksack straps, we finally set off on foot. It was an easy three hour downhill day, but after all the travelling we were glad to get to our first guesthouse and settle in for the evening. We had a really tasty cup of tea, laced with a kind of spicy citrusy tang…later we discovered it was fresh cardamom! This area is famous for it, and we’ve walked past fields of the plants but couldn’t see a cardamom pod in sight. It turns out they’ve recently been harvested. They dig the purple coloured pods out of the base of the stem. They smell interesting and fruity, and the taste is totally different from the hard green dried out things we get at home.
Day 3: Mitlung to Chiruwa, 1270m, 5½ hours
Today was hot, as we are still at a low altitude here. At times we got a lovely cool breeze from the river but mostly we poured with sweat. After all our cycletouring, although we have good cardiovascular fitness our legs are anything but ready for walking as we’ve essentially spent six months sitting down! So today the bags felt heavy and we realised it is going to take a while to get back our mountain form. We stopped in a beautiful spot for lunch, and the kids were fascinated by Max’s head and kept wanting to feel his bald patch! Thakur was chatting to the owner who said he can earn up to $20,000 a year from the cardamom – it’s a lucrative business! No wonder everyone’s doing it. It’s obvious that this area is more wealthy than other rural parts of Nepal we have visited too, the houses are bigger, and places are nicely painted and decorated. In the evening Thakur told us all about the life of Buddha. Then an early night, and a wonderful nine hours of top quality sleep, bliss!
Day 4: Chiruwa to Sukathum, 1576, 4½ hours
We both felt back on form today; feeling more confident on our feet and fitter. We walked past jungle camps where they were drying the cardamom, on huge nets suspended over wood fires. No view of the snowy mountains yet, but it’s cloudy. It seems nobody has told the monsoon that it’s supposed to have finished! We crossed the river and walked for most of the day on the opposite bank today, climbing up through brilliant green rice fields to get to Lelep. The trail was really well made with flagstones, and the dappled light coming through the trees made it feel really autumnal. Out on the trail it is beautifully quiet here!! And it feels so unspoilt.
There’s a real holiday atmosphere in the villages for the Hindu festival Dashain. When we arrived at our guesthouse in the afternoon they were building a huge bamboo swing. It was lovely to see the family and neighbours all congregated, involved with the building or just watching the spectacle (in Lilac it’s what we call community glue!) They made everything out of bamboo including the frame, the seat, and the rope, and even the little kids are pretty confident with a knife! Two lads shinned up the bamboo poles until they started to bend over, then they used the rope as pulley to get them to meet in the middle, where they lashed them in place with more strips of bamboo. We saw a few of these swings on the drive to Taplejung, apparently it is a dashain tradition. They killed a chicken for dinner and spilt it’s blood over the ground as an offering, to declare the swing officially open. Another trekking guide told us the swing is a symbol of how one day we will all leave the earth.
People are all drinking ‘Tungba’, local wine out of tall, decorated wooden pots. It’s a lively mixture of fermenting wheat and millet grains, which they keep topped up with hot water whilst you sip through a bamboo straw. We tried some – it’s quite nice and warming, like a sweet homemade mulled wine.
Day 5: Sukathum to Gyabla, 2730m, 7¼ hours
Today was a big day, we estimate we did about 1800m ascent, in 16km. The trail was rocky and interesting with a fun section on wooden planks over the river where the cliff was too steep for a path.
We were mostly in the jungle, following the ferocious Gunsa khola river upstream. We left it for a while after crossing a bridge when the path went steeply up to Amjilosa, our lunch stop. We spread ourselves out on the grass and dried our washing in the sun whilst waiting for our dahl bhat. Max and I got kudos from another group’s porters because we overtook and arrived just before them (of course, they are carrying 20-30kg each, and wearing flip flops!) After lunch the trail felt more wild, going through dense bamboo forest, with rhodedendrons and the occasional huge, old tree dripping with ferns and moss. We crept along the trail through this section, keeping our eyes peeled for the elusive red panda. We did see a speckled lizard and a wild chicken! Gyabla appeared just as we were starting to feel knackered, after seven hours of walking and scrambling uphill. The path passed around a little ridge and suddenly opened out into a wide flat alpine meadow. We had a full wash under the outside tap, which was freezing, and went straight inside for a steaming cup of dudh chia, (milk tea) mmm. The highlight of tonight was a tiny kitten playing around us which then fell asleep in my lap.
Day 6: Gyabla to Gunsa, 3300m, 4½ hrs
After a tasty Tibetan bread and eggs for breakfast we had an easy day. The scenery is starting to change as we get higher; we’re out of the bamboo now (still not seen any red pandas) and the landscape is more alpine. We passed through beautiful larch forest with the tips of their branches just starting to turn golden. After just 3 ½ hours we reached the peaceful Tibetan village of Phale. All the houses are traditionally built from handcut timber, and the roof planks weighted down with rocks. A few kids were playing football amongst the goats, and we saw a woman weaving brightly coloured Tibetan carpets. Then it was only another hour or so to Gunsa. It’s the district centre, so it’s a big place for these parts, but still feels sleepy and traditional with the same time-weathered, grey wooden buildings. There are hundreds of yaks and jape (a yak-cow cross that are used mainly as pack animals). Tharkur tells us people are driving their herds to lower ground now for the winter.
Day 7: Acclimatisation day in Gunsa
Starting to feel the altitude a bit now we’re at 3300m. We decided to go for a hike up to a nearby high point, at around 4000m to help us acclimatise. We brewed coffee on the stove and hung around on the top as long as we could. Then spent a lovely relaxing afternoon reading and writing in their wooden kitchen by the fire, playing cards and chatting to some fellow trekkers. We are staying in an immaculate guesthouse run by an old Sherpa man and his daughter. He has seven other grown up children who are away, one of whom is Churim dolma Sherpa – the first woman to summit Everest twice in one season. She now has her own guiding business. They’re obviously used to catering for expedition groups. It was amazing watching them in the kitchen – they had an extensive menu and managed to cook umpteen different dishes, all on a single wood stove. I wonder how many famous himalayan mountaineers have passed through here. Lots of leftover expedition stuff is on sale in the shops, including cans of decade old baked beans, and out of date russian kitkats!
I feel so rested. The only sounds here are the gentle donging of yak bells, bleeting goats and the distant roar of the river.
Day 8: Gunsa to Kambachen, 4050m 4½ hrs
Today was another fairly easy day, but we’re gaining altitude pretty fast and feeling it, so glad we could take it slower. We walked past several chortens stacked with rocks painted with buddhist mantras, past fields of grazing jape, and through more of our favourite larch forest. The pale green bearded lichen is incredible here, it hangs off the trees like tinsel. The air must be so clean now that we are five days walk away from the nearest road! Soon we left the trees and the landscape became more open and rocky. This is snow leopard country! After crossing a moraine we descended into a grassy meadow where we stopped for our instant noodles and chapati lunch. The hills around us are covered with dwarf rhodedendron bushes which give off a gorgeous autumnal smell of honey and cinnamon. Now we’re chilling in another guesthouse, hoping the clouds will lift enough to give us a glimpse of Jannu, the westernmost peak of the Kanchenjunga range. So far we saw a patch of bright, white snowy ridge in a brief gap in the mist, so close you could almost touch it. We’re praying for better weather, as in the next two days we’ll be at basecamp, standing under the north face of Kanchenjunga!!
Day 9: Kambachen to Lhonak, 4780m, 4½ hours
We got up at dawn today and walked up to a nearby viewpoint hoping for a clear view. It was atmospheric watching the mist boiling over the moraines and swirling around the sharp rocky ridges of surrounding peaks as it started to get light. But we weren’t lucky enough to see a summit. We headed north alongside the river which eventually turned into a broken, dry glacier, and now it really feels like high mountain territory. Alpine choughs were chattering about us, and we watched a huge himalayan lammergeyer soar silently over our heads. It is noticeably colder up here, and the last half hour we walked in the drizzle til we arrived in Lhonak. Above Gunsa there are no permanent settlements, only yak herders and a few simple wooden lodges that open for a few months a year to cater for trekkers. We whiled away a few hours cloudwatching on the edge of the moraine, and were rewarded with a few brief, tantalising glimpses of snow. Then spent the rest of the evening keeping warm and chatting around the stove which our host was keeping topped up with dried yak dung fuel. Earliest bedtime on record, (8.30pm!) in anticipation of basecamp day tomorrow…
Day 10: Lhonak to Pangpema (Kanchenjunga north basecamp) and back. 5100m, 5 ½ hours.
I was almost scared to get up and look outside this morning because so much was riding on the weather. It wasn’t clear but it seemed more promising, and there was a magical dusting of fresh snow down on the moraine, which somehow seemed like a good omen. All morning we walked on a high path along the edge of the glacier, so we could look down onto it and admire it’s architecture, the deep crevasses and icy green pools. As we trudged breathlessly upwards, feeling the effects of the thinner air, the cloud started to lift and we could make out the soaring snowy ridge line of Chang Himal (Wedge peak.)
Further up still, the arrestingly beautiful lines of Nepal peak and Tent peak came into view. We reached Pangpema by about 10am, and just in time for the great goddess herself, Kangchenjunga, to briefly grace us with her presence before retreating back under her shroud.
It was humbling to be standing beneath these awesome mountains, with the mist swirling eerily around them. Whilst sitting eating our lunch we planned routes up every ridge and face we could see, imagining what they would be like to climb, anticipating the objective dangers and the technical difficulties. We were dreaming..but I’m glad we are still climbers at heart! Picking a route up Kanchenjunga’s NW face looked especially complex and dangerous. In fact, few early expeditions even attempted approaching the peak from this side, and those that did were repeatedly beaten back by avalanches and serac fall before it was finally climbed in 1979 by Doug Scott, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker.
We decided to go for a little wander up the hillside behind Pangpema, to see if we could get a more panoramic view. We got a bit carried away and had to stop because we both felt dizzy at about 5400m! We could see a bit further up the Kangchenjunga glacier from our viewpoint, and had a mini adventure navigating the loose scree on the way back down.
Eventually, after eeking it out as long as we could, we had to tear ourselves away from basecamp and return to Lhonak. But the walk back also surprised us. We spotted a flock of blue sheep grazing close to the path, and the tiny, tail-less himalayan pica darting in and out of the rocks.
Back in the warm again, devouring yet another infinite plate of dahl bhat, we were tired and happy. It had been a perfect day with stunning views that we hadn’t dared wish for. And it’s not over yet because we still have the south side of the Kangchenjunga range to look forward to in the next few days!!