There’s no doubt about it, Nepal is opening up, with new areas being explored by trekking agencies every season as the government makes more permits available to encourage tourist income into poorer regions of the country. While the busy Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit treks still feature highly on the so-called ‘bucket lists’ of unimaginative backpackers (ie. things to do before they ‘kick the bucket’), more adventurous trekkers are finding quieter places to explore where the scenery is every bit as breathtaking.
Here are five such places I’ve been lucky enough to find over the last few years.
Naar and Phu
At the village of Koto, four days into the Annapurna Circuit trail, a river branches north through an amazing narrow, wooded gorge squeezing between sheer cliffs on a path which at times is hewn deeply into the rock. One part of the trail even passes underneath a waterfall. A day of walking through this magnificent corridor brings you out onto the desert landscape of the Tibetan plateau at the foot of Kangguru, a 7000m dome of snow, and it feels like you’ve crossed the Himalayan divide. This is the restricted area of Naar and Phu, close to Nepal’s northern border with Tibet, speckled with abandoned Khampa settlements. Two mediaeval villages can be found here, and walking through them feels like stepping back in time. North is Phu, with its peaceful monastery sitting on a hill above the village, and west is Naar, nestling underneath the north face of Pisang Peak. Three or four days of exploring in this remote region are guaranteed to relax the mind, and to cap it all off you can cross the 5322m Kang La pass back onto the Annapurna Circuit, and see the entire northern sweep of the Annapurnas, arguably the finest view in the Himalayas.
The Hongu Valley
Between the popular Khumbu trekking peaks of Mera Peak and Island Peak is one of the loveliest valleys in Nepal, the Hongu. In three amazing days of walking you can hike through rhododendron clad high altitude hillsides, pass a lake with a large sandy beach, wander through snow-laden Scottish moorland, pass a wide pebble-dashed plain formed by the Hongu river, admire the white walls of Kali Himal and Baruntse across the valley, look up at the black cliffs and icy summit of hemispherical Chamlang thousands of metres above, be awestruck by the massive black rock wall of Lhotse at the top end of the valley, with Everest peeping out behind it, and arrive at the glacier lakes of Panch Pokhari underneath the Amphu Labtse pass. The pass itself is one for climbers, involving ice climbing, rock scrambling and an abseil down the other side. What a fantastic place, and if you’re lucky you may not see a single other trekker.
You can read more about trekking in this region in my ebook Islands in the Snow.
Tamang Heritage Trail
An easy day’s bus drive north of Kathmandu is a quiet corner of the Himalayas involving a week’s worth of easy, relatively low altitude trekking among lush green valleys and hillsides. The Tamang Heritage Trail is beginning to develop as a tourist trek with a difference. Instead of tea house accommodation, like on the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp treks, this one specialises in homestay accommodation, an opportunity to stay with a family in a typical stone and wood carved cottage with communal kitchen, dining room and sleeping areas. Other highlights are the peaceful Hindu lake of Parvati Kund, the elaborately carved and painted houses of Gatlang, hot springs in Tatopani, and the viewpoint at Nagthali, looking out across the mountains of Langtang. If you want to extend your trek you can even walk back to Kathmandu via the sacred lakes of Gosainkund and terraced hillsides of Helambu.
You can read the story of my own journey to this area carrying out a reconnaissance trek for an adventure travel company in 2007.
Running parallel to the Annapurna Circuit’s Marsyangdi valley, the Manaslu Circuit’s Budhi Gandaki gorge is a far more narrow and dramatic river valley, at times converging to just a few metres wide as steep wooded cliffs rise up on either side. Many parts of the trail are hewn into cliff faces and climb high above the valley floor on remarkable rock staircases. It starts off at low altitude, 600m in Arughat, and rises through different climate zones to a high pass, the Larkye La at 5160m, before dropping back down again as it circles 8163m Manaslu through Buddhist country of stupas, gompas and prayer walls.
Much quieter and less developed than its famous neighbour, I wrote about it in more depth in my post Is the Manaslu Circuit the new Annapurna Circuit?
Makalu Base Camp trek
Another trek which begins almost at sea level before rising through climate zones until you stand right underneath one of the highest mountains on earth, the Makalu Base Camp trek is a tough one, but thoroughly rewarding, and Makalu is a staggering, terrifying mountain to gaze up and contemplate if you’re a mountaineer. The trail begins at Tumlingtar at 400m, rises up through a ridge of rice terraces, drops again to cross the warm and humid Arun valley, then passes through bamboo forest, rhododendron forest, juniper clad moorland, and over a couple of high passes before arriving in the very different Barun valley to continue its journey to base camp. The Barun valley part of the trail begins in pleasant green meadows, but quickly rises into an alpine zone of long ridges of lateral moraine.
This is a camping trek, but there are a couple of tea houses at base camp, where you can give yourself neck ache staring up at the black rock of Makalu nearly four vertical kilometres above you. It’s also worth boulder hopping up the Barun Glacier for an extra day beyond base camp to see the eastern side of Everest, a view of the world’s highest mountain that few people get to gaze upon. I passed this way on an expedition to Baruntse a couple of years ago, and wrote about the trek in detail in my diary The Tomb of Chewang Nima.
I’m only scratching the surface here. The desert land of Dolpo, forbidden kingdom of Mustang, the mountains of Rolwaling, Kanchengjunga Base Camps, and the lakes and forests of western Nepal, are all places I’d love to trek in at some point in the future, all of which are starting to gain tourist numbers. It’s one of those countries I go back to again and again, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon.