It is quite easy to ruin the mountains for rest of your life. You just have to get on the plane and go to Nepal. The highest mountains on Earth - Himalayas - are so incredibly monumental that after your trip any other mountain range you will see will appear to be just a tiny knoll.
Himalayas Mountain range (which means the Snow Abode in Sanskrit) marks one of the most dramatic events in the Earth’s history. Big continental collision between India and Asia started approximately 50 million years ago, but the process has not stopped yet. The Himalayas are still growing, which is manifested by numerous earthquakes common in the Himalaya region.
Two months ago, in May, we went on a three week long trek in the Everest region (also known as Chomolungma or Qomolangma) in eastern Nepal (Sagarmatha National Park). The trek took us from a lush rhododendron forest at 2800 m a.s.l. up to the magical, but barren landscape of snow-capped peaks rising above the Everest Base Camp at 5364 m a.s.l. and Kala Patthar (5644 m a.s.l.). Surrounded by the enormous mountains you soon realize the power of our planet. It is an extraordinary feeling, a once in a lifetime experience.
Nepal is a landlocked country in Asia bordered by China to the north and India to the south. Most of the country is located within the Himalaya region except the southernmost part of the Terai lowland which is at the foothill of the Himalayas. The highest point is Mount Everest (8848 m / 29029 ft) and the lowermost point is at only at 59 m. As you can imagine, the altitude span is the biggest in the world.
Himalaya is the greatest mountain range in the world. Its length is approximately 2400 km. The western part is marked by Nanga Parbat (Pakistan) and eastern anchor is Namcha Barwa in China. The Himalayas are bordered to the North by the Tibetan Plateau and southern part is flanked by lowlands of Indo-Gangetic plains. Himalayas are home to 10 of 14 highest mountains in the world (the remaining ones are in Karakoram mountain range). Himalayas and the adjacent Tibetan plateau are sources of the major rivers in Asia, including the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra rivers. The entire mountain belt is so high that it is also affects air circulation and controls monsoonal cycles. It is also a paradise for geologists.
Geology of the Himalayas is quite complicated however in comparison to other orogenic belts, such as the Alps, it seems rather simple. The Indian subcontinent broke off and drifted away from Gondwana approximately 150 Ma and then moved northwards with extraordinary convergence speed as high as 160-180 mm per year (which is really fast in geological timescale). The continental collision between India and Asia started approximately 50 Ma and resulted in significant horizontal shortening and massive crustal thickening. It is believed that the collision was oblique and therefore occurred at different times along the southern margin of Asia. The oldest part of the collision is preserved in the north-western part of Kohistan-Ladakh region (approximately 65 Ma). Indian subcontinent then rotated anticlockwise resulting in the main “orogenic event” about 50 Ma. The diachronism of the collision is still hotly debated as some of the researches claim that the collision was more or less uniform and occurred 50.6 Ma. The entire process was also associated with regional metamorphism and magma generation which is widespread in the Central Himalaya region and across the Tibetan Plateau. Geologically speaking, the Himalayan fold and thrust belt is thrusted onto Indian Himalaya foreland and to the north is bounded by Indus-Tsangpo Suture which limits the southern part of the Lhasa block (terrane).
Nepalese Himalayas can be divided into several stratigraphic and tectonic units. Nepal is mostly located within Himalayan Fold-Thrust Belt. From south to north there are alluvial deposits of Indo-Gangetic and Brahmaputra plains, then lower hills of the Siwaliks sequence, Lesser Himalaya sequence, Higher Himalaya sequence and Tethyan (zone) sediments. Sequences are very often “pierced” by big leucogranite bodies. Also, intermountain basins, such as Kathmandu valley, are quite common. In addition to these regional sequences there are also a few very important tectonic zones, some of which are still active and responsible for major devastating earthquakes in Nepal. These are Main Central Thrust (MCT) and Main Boundary Thrust (MBT).
Nepal – When to go?
Nepal’s climate is highly seasonal and is controlled mainly by monsoon activity. Most people go to Nepal in spring (April - May) or autumn (September - November) when the weather is most stable, sky is clear most of the time and precipitation is low. Rainfall dominates during the monsoon season (June-early September) though that may change very soon as the consequence of the global warming and the changing global circulation patterns. We were trekking in May and weather was good, though sky in the afternoons was often overcast (but clear in the morning and evening). It is good to set off early morning when sky is most clear. Note that in the mountains weather may change very quickly so you should be prepared for any unexpected weather development. It is not uncommon to experience really hot weather followed by very cold temperatures a few hours later.
Nepal – How to get there?
Fortunately, is not difficult to get to Nepal. Kathmandu International Airport (Tribhuvan International Airport; KTM) has a good flight connections linking most of the major hubs in Asia. If you are travelling from Europe you can get there relatively easy via Gulf Countries (e.g. Qatar) or via India (New Delhi). From Americas it is probably easiest way to get to China or Thailand first. You can also try to get into the country crossing one of the several land border crosses. Not all of them are international so it is smart to check beforehand if the entry allows foreigners to cross.
Visa and entry regulations.
You need visa to Nepal but most citizens of most countries can buy visa on arrival (Indian citizens do not need a visa). You need 2 passport size photos and will have to fill-in an arrival card at the border. If you arrive to Kathmandu International Airport you can use of the electronic kiosks (you don’t need photo for that, there is camera mounted). You can apply for 15, 30 or 90 days visa (25USD/40USD or 100USD). Pay in the payment counter and then proceed to immigration. While leaving the country you will be asked to fill-in the departure card.
For some regions (mostly trekking areas) you may need a special TIMS card which may be arranged by local tour operator (if you go with an organised group) or in the Department of Tourism (here) when you want to trek individually (bring two passport-size photos and passport, cost: 20USD, paid in Nepalese rupees). You can buy ticket to the National Parks there as well. Please make sure you have it before you go trekking as these documents will be checked several times during the trek. For some regions (e.g. Mustang or Dolpo) you may need even more permissions but these may be arranged by trekking companies (see here). Please note, that if you want to climb over 6000 m you will have to apply for special permits.
Hiring a car and driving
No, you don’t want drive in Nepal. Seriously, you don’t want it. Nope…
Travelling in Nepal
It may be challenging. Travelling in Nepal is an adventure per se. The road infrastructure is poor, traffic is crazy and very, very slow. You can get buses or planes from Kathmandu which is the country’s major transportation hub.
For Everest Base Camp Trek the easiest and fastest way to get to Lukla, where the trek starts, is by plane (Kathmandu-Lukla). The flight lasts about 40 minutes but due to weather conditions your flight may be significantly delayed. Lukla airport is famous as one of the most dangerous airports in the world (and it may be true, runway is inclined and very short). If you do not want to fly you can get a bus to Jiri and start your trek from there but you will have to add at least 4-6 days more to the trek.
To get to Pokhara (Annapurna Circuit trek) is probably easier to take a bus, although planes are also available. Plane tickets have fixed prices (e.g.Kathmandu- Lukla roundtrip is currently about 320USD).
Buses are often overcrowded and very slow, but very cheap (just a few USD). Taxis are more expensive and very slow too (and tiny). The taxi from Kathmandu airport to Thamel is approx. 700 rupees. If travelling from Thamel it is smart to agree on a price before the ride.
As mentioned before, if you are going on a trek make sure you have TIMS card and valid ticket for national park. If you go trekking with the travel agency they will arrange these for you. Otherwise you must apply in person.
It is quite easy to find place to stay in main tourist areas such as Kathmandu (Thamel) or on the most popular treks. You can easily book anything from a cheap hostel to luxurious hotel in Kathmandu using popular websites such as booking.com. Your budget is the only limitation. If you are trekking with a tour operator, the accommodation on the trek will be arranged for you. If you trek individually you need to take care of yourself. In the major trekking areas there are plenty of lodges which offer very basic accommodation just for a few dollars per night (though there is a catch, you have to eat in the lodge) and no booking is required. During the high season lodges may be overcrowded so you may end up sleeping in the dormitories or even in the dining area. In May (when we were trekking) there was no problem with accommodation. Rooms are very basic, with just beds and sometimes dirty sheets (is good to have your own sleeping back or sleeping liner). The walls are very thin so if your neighbour is snoring you might find it difficult to sleep (take earplugs with you!). Rooms are not heated but blankets are provided above Namche Bazaar. Some lodges offer rooms with attached bathrooms, but most of them have shared bathrooms with sinks or buckets of cold water. You will have to pay extra for hot (or even cold) shower (the higher you go, the higher the price is), charging your phone and in some lodges also for WiFi. WiFi is not available above Namche, though you can buy an Internet card (600 Rupee for 100Mb).
On the more remote treks it is probably better to have a trekking company arranging the accommodation and providing a guide. In some places you can still see some severe earthquake damages (link).
Nepal is a vibrant country. Nepalese people are mostly descendants of migrants from different parts of Asia (India, Tibet, Burma, Central Asia or China). The most populous ethnic group are Chhetri, Bahun and Newar. In the Khumbu region most of the people are Sherpas. Nepalese is official language in Nepal but most of the ethnic groups have their own languages. Major religion is Hinduism but closer to Tibet Buddhism prevails (e.g. Khumbu region).The cast system still exists in the Hindu society and introduces even more complication to the entire ethnic system. Be aware, that you may not be allowed to enter some Hindu temples. When entering Buddhist temples and monasteries (Gompas) you should take off your shoes. If you want to leave a small donation (50-200 rupees) put the money on the altar.
It is hard to say if Nepal is safe place. The main tourist areas seem to be safe, although pickpocketers are common. Common sense is required. It is good to avoid large mass of people (ha – impossible in Kathmandu) or political rallies. Political system is really unstable and the country is still struggling after the civil war. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and it will take some time to improve lives of the ordinary people.
Main hazards in Nepal include traffic, floods, landslides, earthquakes, water and food. Nepal is a country with quite poor record of health system. It is recommended to have a series of inoculations before you go to Nepal, including Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, tuberculosis, Measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, varicella (chickenpox), polio and flu. Rabies is a serious problem in some rural areas, so avoid street dogs. Malaria may be a problem especially in the southern part of Nepal so it is good to have some DEET-containing insect repellents on exposed skin and probably some antimalarial drugs as well if you are going to spend time in the lowlands (Kathmandu is malaria-free). Hygiene is rather poor. Never, never drink tap water. You shouldn’t even brush your teeth with tap water for extra safety. If you are going on a trek, take water purification tablets and purify your water (bottled water is available in lodges but it is a serious ecological problem in the region, so is better to be avoided). It is also good to avoid meat, as no animals are killed in the Khumbu valley and all the meat travels into Khumbu on porters’ backs, sometimes for several days. Delhi-belly may be serious problem so take some medicines with you.
Once trekking in the High Himalayas you have to be aware of the altitude. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS or altitude sickness) is potentially lethal and unfortunately every year a few trekkers die because of it. The most important thing to remember is acclimatisation. You must not go up quickly. You may experience some mild symptoms such as headache, dizziness or breathlessness. Sometimes you may feel just fine and suddenly develop some symptoms. In the worst case scenario you may be required to go down quickly or even be evacuated. If you ascend very quickly you may develop pulmonary or cerebral oedema which may kill you. The rule of thumb is to not exceed 300 m of ascent a day and take rest days as often as required (go high, sleep low). It is probably good to follow well-established acclimatisation plans (check e.g. the Lonely Planet or ‘Trekking on Mount Everest’ guide books for details). Remember, you have to have high-altitude insurance which includes medivac/airlifting). The costs of the evacuation may be enormous and often these have to be paid up-front.
Before you go trekking, you will be able to buy Diamox in Kathmandu which helps in acclimatisation process. 10 pills cost only 2USD and should be taken twice a day. In 2015 Nepal was struck by one of the biggest earthquakes in its history. Over 6000 people died and thousands lost their houses. The devastated buildings are still seen even in Kathmandu. In more rural areas some people still live in tents provided by International Red Cross. Earthquake may happen anytime so you should accustom yourself with evacuation routes.
Last but not least – traffic. Traffic is crazy in Nepal – be aware of the cars, busses and motorbikes around you. And as always, be aware of your surroundings.
Nepal seems to be relatively safe for solo female travellers, however avoid walking alone during the night.
Language: The official language is Nepalese and there are plenty of local languages. In most touristy areas there is no problem to communicate in (basic) English.
Nepali food is brilliant, although on the trek food selection is limited to a few simple dishes (noodles, rice and potatoes with few vegetables in all possible combinations). The most popular Nepali food is Dal Bhat (a kind of curry with lentils), curry, soups and dumplings known as mo:mo:. Meal prices in Kathmandu start at 1$, but food on the trek is more expensive. Nepali beers are fantastic addition to local food.
We were using the Lonely Planet ‘Trekking in Nepal Himalaya’ (poor section about Kathmandu) and ‘Trekking in the Everest Region’ (Trailblazer) by Jamie McGuinness. It is wort having a Kindle version to save weight of your rucksack while travelling.
Books about Nepal:
There are plenty of fantastic books. My favourite is “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen.
Electricity is 220V/230V/50Hz with power sockets of type C, D and M. You can buy adapters in Kathmandu.
Always have international travel insurance which covers all medical expenses. The medical service may be painfully expensive and very often the medical centres want payment in advance.
Internet speed varies and may be difficult to get signal in remote areas.
Credit cards are accepted in most ATMs. Make sure that ATM belongs to major bank chains and are not somehow weirdly "wired". In remote areas is difficult to find ATM.
If you want change money you have to show passport.
Toilets in Nepal are very often squat type. Used paper should be thrown to the bin. Carry your own toilet paper as it is not provided in the lodges.
There are a lot of drug dealers. Smoking weed in Nepal is illegal but no one really gives a shit.