Words and photos by Erin Saver
When most think of hiking in Nepal, they envision immense snow covered mountains, prayer flags strung across high passes, and meals in well established lodges along the route. The most common treks people tend to take are to Everest Base Camp, the popular Three Passes Trek, and the Annapurna Circuit. With more and more heading to these regions for adventurous travels, some have sought out less crowded alternatives like the Manaslu Circuit. All of these are grand and wonderful ways to experience Nepal, but it can be likened to visiting Yosemite National Park in California and saying you’ve experienced America. There is more to Nepal than these well-known treks. Although it may not be for everyone, there are many other ways to experience the true country of Nepal and its culture.
As a thru-hiker, I’ve come to appreciate walking the length of countries. Expanding that narrow view that can often be given when only visiting the most toured locations. Seeing all the parts that make the whole. Experiencing the true culture of various regions, and walking the full spectrum of land from busy streets, to remote villages and barren land to high mountains. My thru-hiking nature was never strongly pulled to the touristy treks, but then I heard about the Great Himalaya Trail. Although some of the route was above my skill set, it was a great starting point for a possible hike across Nepal. I won’t get caught up in too much of the details (daily detailed blog of the experience can be found on my blog, Walking With Wired), but my friends and I had the unique experience of hiking about 270mi through the eastern third of Nepal over the length of a month. The trek began near the eastern border, hiked through the Everest Region, and followed both the high and low route of the Great Himalaya Trail.
Although it wasn’t the full length of Nepal as I’d hoped to be able to do, it was incredibly unique and unlike any hiking I’ve ever done. I will say that it was well worth the time and effort to experience more than just the popular Everest Region. Since there is plenty of information to be found on the Everest Region, I want to focus on the other part of our trip that traveled through the “low route,” which took us through remote villages and experienced the true lives of the Eastern Nepalese people. It was an incredibly surreal feeling to be in the true Nepal versus the mountain treks that most travel. The experiences that most come to mind were those we saw as we hiked along paths that linked one village to another. Seeing how the paths are used like local footpath highways between villages.
Pick-up games of soccer with beautifully scenic backdrops.
Children at young ages walking to and from school in small groups without adults on what we viewed as quite challenging terrain. Women and children carrying supplies up and down steep terrain on hillside villages.
Contouring around large terraced rice fields.
Stopping at local shops where snacks, meals, and fresh veggies or fruits can be purchased.
We had a guide for a week in the beginning where it is required to pass checkpoints, and it was a great way to learn the customs and routines, but for the most-part, it isn’t necessary for travelers wanting a more independent experience. There is a Great Himalaya Trail Low Route Guidebook written by Linda Bezemer that can be found online as a free download. The low route is also described as the “cultural route” because it passes through the tiny villages in the lesser traveled parts of Nepal. To me, it feels like the real Nepal, versus the touristy one. I really enjoyed seeing how the families live and how the villages work as a whole to function.
Stepping aside for yaks carrying goods.
Porters carrying unbelievably large loads.
We tented from time to time, but there are almost always guesthouses to stay at in villages, and they have more technology than we expected. Most had solar power that allowed for electricity and sometimes even a television at night that would get signal from a small satellite dish. Many people had smartphones that may not have been used in the village, but could play movies and music that may have been loaded in a larger town. Youth would even ask us to take selfies with them as we walked in villages. One night, in what we thought was a remote village with few resources, we were kept awake for hours with techno music blasting loud enough for the whole village to hear and partying into the night. Each day and village brought new and unique experiences that deepened the immersion and authenticity of the experience.
Although there is a guidebook for this area, it is not nearly as well traveled, so locals still see non-native people as a novelty. Locals are welcoming, and many know some English, or are accustomed to the routines of hosting in established guesthouses without being able to speak the same language. Some people may be apprehensive about visiting a third-world country where they don’t know the language, but it’s amazing how much can be communicated when neither know the other’s language. Enough people travel through that there is a routine. Yes, some may prefer to have a guide as a translator and may feel safer with a guide, but it is all about personal preference.
Most of our experiences were positive, but there was a combination of things that eventually had us make the decision to personally abandon our plans to hike the full length of Nepal and stop after the Everest Region. The experiences are different for everyone, but our trio always had at least one of us sick, seemingly with a strong parasite of some kind and requiring strong antibiotics. That took its toll mentally and physically over the month of hiking when combined with the physical exertion of high elevation hiking. The stomach issues took us down a peg, but that was to be expected.
The final decision to leave was an additional concern with being unable to find trustworthy guides in areas where we felt like we needed them. As thru-hikers, we wanted to do as much as we could independently and hire where needed along the way. That was easier said than done, and in the end, just added frustration and unease to the trip. That was a lack in preparation on our end, and I would encourage anyone going to be careful with who they choose as guides, be sure it’s someone who is truly qualified, and has your best interest at heart. We learned that as Americans, we were often seen as opportunities for making money, so we were sometimes told what we wanted to hear and promised things that couldn’t be produced. That is just something to be aware of while traveling, but can be prevented by hiring a trusted guide for the entire trip, which really isn’t too costly.
In the end, I encourage people with the time and interest, to explore options outside the common treks of Nepal. It’s a special adventure that can only be experienced off the beaten path.