Trekking in the Far West is authentic as it gets. Trails wind through a land untouched by the hand of time, past ancient orange and lemon groves and flag stoned mediaeval villages. The history of the Malla Kingdom that reigned here from the 12th to the 14th century is not readily visible today. But in a land that history has left behind, the visitor is free to experience a taste of what trekking must have been like when Nepal first opened up to the world beyond its borders. Organised tourism has so far been limited to the gentle hills and pastures of the Swami’s home, Khaptad National Park, with its snowy backdrop of peaks. But the pristine forests host abundant wildlife, including leopards, monkeys, bears and rich birdlife. For those with a sense of adventure, there is still much to uncover here – exploration that is as much cultural as it is natural.
Humla is the most remote district in Nepal, and one of the poorest. There are few tourists, and those you meet will most likely be headed to the border town of Hilsa, a stepping-stone to Mount Kailash in Tibet. The Great Himalaya Trail follows the old salt trading route to Tibet. The trail threads along towering green cliffs above the roaring Karnali, the longest river in Nepal. You’ll pass clusters of flat-roofed mud houses, encountering Thakuri women wearing heavy gold and silver jewellery, and Thakuri men leading flocks of long-haired goats up and down the muddy trail to Tibet. As you approach Hilsa and the north western border, the landscape becomes drier, and the context, Buddhist. It’s possible to turn southeast into the Limi Valley’s incredible red rockscapes and mediaeval stone villages. Beyond lies a glacial valley below the 5.000m Nyalu pass, with the aquamarine Tshom Tsho Lake providing remarkable contrast with the burnt sienna of the treeless expanses.
Rara & Jumla
The largest lake in Nepal is ensconced within its smallest national park. It’s a beautiful, calm haven surrounded by forests, and a paradise for bird watchers. The Great Himalaya Trail’s lower and upper routes make a crossroads at Rara Lake. From here, trekkers can head along the old salt route to Humla, the royal highway to the plains, or take any of several adventurous paths into neighbouring Dolpa. While facilities are still basic, the area is an adventurer’s dream – authentic culture, a wealth of natural beauty and the trails largely to yourself. As with Dolpa to the east and Humla to the west, it lies in a vast rainshadow zone. It is arid, less intensively farmed and sparsely populated with people of Tibetan origin.
Until recently, what little the outside world knew of Dolpa was gleaned from artistic and spiritual accounts from early visitors. With more trekking agencies venturing into Inner Dolpo – allowing access beyond Phoksundo Lake to the 800-year-old Shey Gompa – a truly remarkable natural and cultural experience is there for the taking (even in the monsoon!). Look out for views of mighty Dhaulagiri (8.167m), once thought to be the highest mountain in the world. In such barren terrain, the spectacle of Nepal’s deepest lake, Phoksundo, is almost beyond describing. Locals believe Phoksundo was formed when a spiteful demonness flooded a village for revealing her whereabouts to the saint Padmasambhava. The surreal sight of the lake, which hosts no aquatic life and appears to fluctuate between a turquoise and ultramarine hue – appears to substantiate the legend. If you follow in the footsteps of generations of nomads, look out for the remains of the ill-fated village below the lake’s surface.
Makalu is a rarely visited gem. It’s considered one of the toughest 8.000m peaks to climb – even the great Edmund Hillary failed twice. But the wilderness around it is just waiting to be explored by the intrepid trekker prepared to forgo the comforts of teahouse treks.
The rewards are generous. Makalu shelters 3000 species of flowering plants, 440 species of birds and 75 species of mammals. The towering granite cliffs capped with glaciers in the upper reaches of the Barun Valley have been likened to those of Yosemite – on a bigger scale! As you walk up the river valleys, immense mountain vistas will unfold before you, including the massifs of Makalu, Everest and Lhotse. The Makalu region is known for its heavy rains and snow, so hiking is best done in the autumn months of October and November. But don’t wait too long – with a major hydropower project in the works, trek Makalu now before it changes forever.
In Tibetan, ‘Kanchenjunga’ means ‘the five treasure houses of snow’, which gives you some idea of what to expect should you visit this area. At 8.586 m, massive Kanchenjunga is the world’s third highest mountain, and marks the eastern border of Nepal with the Indian state of Sikkim. The conservation area that surrounds it extends into protected areas in Sikkim and Tibet, and comprises a beautiful, unspoilt wilderness. Cascading waterfalls, lush vegetation and thousands of species of plants await those who take the long trail to Kanchenjunga Base Camp, the main route which has been described as ‘untrekked’. Unabashedly wild, Kanchenjunga is for the true adventurer within you. The remoteness of this terrain, its rugged trails, scattered human habitation, and monsoonal downpours make for a perfectly challenging beginning to the Great Himalaya Trail. Along the way, you will walk along paths used mostly by locals, as very few trekkers make their way to the wild east of Nepal. For those who do, the reward lies in more than just the breathtaking views of Kanchenjunga and its companions. Over 2000 different flowering plants have been recorded here, and you’ll see some of the richest rhododendron forests in Nepal. New species are still being discovered in the pristine forests!