Celebrating 50 years in the Nepalese Himalayas

Trekking through Nepal is physically challenging but well worth the experience.

Tecking in Nepal 521 (photo credit: Brian Blum)
Tecking in Nepal 521
(photo credit: Brian Blum)
We were hiking through a seemingly endless plain, actually a mile-wide dry riverbed of stone and silt large enough to handle the summer monsoon overflow of the Kali Gendaki in the rugged Nepalese Himalayas. The desert mountain walls on either side of this alpine valley were impressive enough, but with their peaks obscured by clouds, our attention focused more on the stifling sameness we found ourselves in, a disappointing contrast from the lush landscape of the lower hills we had hiked through just a day before.
Then, out of nowhere, we spied it. Like a desert mirage, the village of Kagbeni grew larger. Terraced green fields of wheat and rice served as a sort of sentry, announcing our arrival at this medieval town, with its long-since whitewashed walls, narrow alleys paved (if one can use such a term) with loosely placed stones and even an ancient monastery, all of it so out of place and yet so utterly welcome. We hauled our gear into the Nilgiri View teahouse just as the bone-chilling cold of an Annapurna evening at more than 3,000 meters set in.
We gathered around a long table where the staff nudged a rectangular tin container with smoldering charcoal under our feet (no space heaters in the mountains) and fed us a feast of Tibetan delicacies – steamed momos (a local version of Chinese dumplings) made with cheese and tuna – an odd nod to Western tastes – and thukpa soup filled with vegetables and homemade pasta made of wheat from the fields we had seen on our way in. Despite the sub-freezing temperatures, we slept well in our sleeping bags and three layers of clothing.
At breakfast, we surveyed the view: the clouds had lifted, there was snow everywhere and the 7,000-meter Nilgiri peaks the guest house was named after were visible in their full glory.
OUR TRIP to Nepal had been conceived several months earlier as my 50th birthday approached. The thought of throwing yet another party with healthy finger foods, dancing to tired ’70s pop and maybe a few mushy speeches didn’t hold much appeal. I wanted to do something physically challenging – “while I still could,” I joked – and ideally it would be with my family.
Perhaps there was also a desire to be a “real Israeli.”
Post-army backpackers traditionally flock to exotic locations like Nepal. Indeed, we met many Israelis along the trail. There are signs in Hebrew at many of the teahouses advising travelers whether this is a good place to lodge and if the hamburgers are tasty. Even establishments in the farthest-flung regions of the Himalayas serve up falafel and shakshouka.
And that’s how we found ourselves in Nepal earlier this year, on an exotic adventure that was both eyepoppingly gorgeous – to call it a fairy tale would be to lend too much credence to Disney and Aesop – and at the same time served as an unforgettable family bonding experience. Imagine three weeks together without Internet, email, or cell phone coverage; no checking Facebook or Twitter, eating three meals together every day. And ultimately, as my 20-year-old son sagely put it afterward, “we didn’t kill each other.”
The trip couldn’t have come at a better time – our kids are just on the cusp of relegating their parents to the dustbin of perpetual embarrassment. Another year and the older two (our daughter is 17) wouldn’t accept such a travel offer, even an all-expenses paid one. We still have a few years before the same fate sets in with our youngest, who turned 13 a month before the trek. (The trip also served as an alternative bar-mitzva party for a kid who would rather hike than dance the Macarena).
OUR ITINERARY took us first to Kathmandu, the dilapidated though endlessly fascinating capital of Nepal, with its small temples and stupas inextricably mixed with marketplaces and malls, before we began the trek itself which, aside from some unseasonably bad weather, went off with nary a hitch.
We chose to hike in the Annapurna region, the most popular trekking route in Nepal. While the more intrepid adventurers head out for the full Annapurna “circuit,” which makes a horseshoe loop around the mountains, including through a 5,400-meter yearround snowy pass, our itinerary was more modest – essentially half the circuit from the lakeside town of Pokhara to Muktinath, reaching a “mere” 3,800 meters and ending with a death-defying 30-minute plane flight back to the start, barely skirting the highest Himalayan peaks.
After seeing innumerable pictures, we figured there was no way that the real thing could live up its promise.
It did, with incredible vistas that stretched for miles; pillowy soft terraced fields surrounded by those snowcovered mountains with peaks over 7,500 meters; timeless villages filled with chickens, water buffalo and the occasional yak-cow hybrid (I nicknamed them “caks” or, better, “yows”); not to mention the villagers in their colorful clothes that were not being worn in some calculated display to extract “special funds for the hydroelectric project” from us naïve tourists.
The specific trek we hike was divided into two main parts: the lower hills, which are green and filled with thick forests, often with beautiful rhododendron flowers; and the alpine region in the higher altitudes where Kagbeni is located, seemingly unchanged since its establishment in the Middle Ages, and which remains part of a pilgrimage path for Buddhists and Hindus (although these days, most of the pilgrims travel by jeep). The landscape at times reminded me of certain regions of the Negev.
DESPITE MY initial misgivings, I found the alpine landscape the more stunning, but this may have been because we had uniformly clear views, as opposed to during the first half of our trip, which was beset by rain.
One unexpected benefit of the weather: a chance to meet some of the villagers along the way who opened their homes without question when the hail started to hit. Because these weren’t part of the network of tourist-savvy teahouses, their one-room shacks were, at least to our Western eyes, authentic, as were the wrinkles on one elderly owner’s face as she regarded us looking entirely non-Nepalese in our garish plastic ponchos.
We would have loved to learn more about their lifestyle, but sharing no common language, we were reduced to blowing up balloons (which my wife had thought to bring) for the children who were not yet jaded enough to demand sweets or money along with our gift.
We did find common language with the many Israelis we met on the trek. The most dramatic moment was when we hauled into the village of Tatopani (famous for its natural hot springs) and were besieged by a group of 15 bicyclists who were on an tour organized by an Israeli-Nepali joint venture, ElNepal.co.il (the company also runs more standard walking treks, jungle safaris and white-water rafting). I was torn – on the one hand, it’s great to mingle with folks from home; on the other, sometimes you just want to get away from where, as the theme song from Cheers famously goes, “everybody knows your name.”
We hiked two well-known routes with a short connecting segment. From Kathmandu, we flew to Pokhara and drove to our starting point of Phedi, no more than a backwoods Nepalese truck stop. From there we hiked a route that is mostly used by trekkers heading up toward the Annapurna Base Camp. At the moderately sized village of Landrung, we left our base camp companions and turned west toward Gandrung, then continued to Ghorepani.
Ghorepani is the jumping-off point for Poon Hill, famous for having “the best view in the world.” But with a departure time of 4 a.m to catch the sunrise and a rapid 400-meter climb to the peak, our two boys were the only members of the family to soak in the view; the rest of us peacefully slept in (the boys reported that it was indeed the highlight of their trip).
From Ghorepani, we joined the classic “Jomsom trek” route, descending over 1,000 meters to Tatopani. In the morning we rented what was described to us as a jeep (it was more like a flatbed truck) to drive to Jomsom and Kagbeni, with a stop in Marpha for apple pie (the most amazing we’ve ever eaten). We finished our trek with a two-day round-trip hike and jeep ride to Muktinath, then flew out from the rickety airport in Jomsom (the only town we encountered with an ATM and free WiFi).
IF YOU are considering a trek to Nepal, be aware that you will have to balance the mind-boggling scenery with some very tough conditions. We did OK with the hiking itself – many of our days were short (four hours of walking) and, since we went as a private group with our own guide, we took many breaks. It was the accommodations that got us.
The Annapurna region is dotted with “teahouses,” which are essentially flimsy “Motel 6”s with outdoor corridors between rooms and a shared bathroom at the end of the hall (more often than not a non-flushing squatter). While making it easy to find a place to stay (you just show up; prices are fixed), these quasi-hotels seem to have been thrown up in a hasty attempt to capitalize on the trekker trade. Walls are no more than plywood and the windows (if they aren’t broken) sport substantial gaps in the seal.
Temperatures in the mountains can get very cold at night – approaching freezing above 3,000 meters – and the rooms offer no insulation (and certainly no heat).
The result was the experience of camping outdoors, albeit with a bed (if you can call it that; we slept on the thinnest mattresses imaginable). We hunkered down in our sleeping bags with a blanket or two on top and multiple layers of clothing.
Add to this the need to do laundry every day or two (we tried to pack light but, given the cold conditions, our two pairs of underwear and socks never seemed to dry fully) and the scant hot water in the showers (sometimes we had to use a bucket of boiled water twice to clean up), and by the final days of the trek we were torn – we didn’t want our vacation to end but at the same time we were ready to get back to civilization.
In some locations, there are more “upscale” rooms with an attached bath and shower, and our guide tried his best to use his connections to score us these digs (we actually got them five out of our 11 nights), but even in these “luxury” rooms, the toilets were clogged and the floors were invariably flooded. Note to travelers: bring Crocs.
On the more positive side, the food was truly fabulous.
It’s mostly vegetarian in the mountains; our mainstay was garlic soup, which is supposed to help with altitude issues. We ordered it at least twice a day.
The menus are standardized across the route and cater more to Westerners than the locals, so at every stop you have the same mix of “potato roasty” (a potato crust covered with yak cheese), chow mein or fried noodles, pizza, momos and the ever-present “dahl bat.”
Dahl bat is served on a circular metal plate (like an Indian thali) with a generous scoop of white rice in the middle and several small silver bowls around the sides containing dahl – lentil soup which you mix with the rice – curried vegetables (usually potatoes and cauliflower), spinach greens, a spicy pickle sauce and crispy lentil bread. The best part: unlimited refills. Many native Nepalese eat nothing but dahl bat, twice a day for their entire lives. The cost: a paltry $2 a plate.
In addition to the dahl bat, we almost always ordered hot lemon with ginger – not tea but freshly squeezed lemon and ginger mixed with boiling water and lots of sugar.
Even though we stopped to eat three times a day, we still got hungry along the way. A plentiful supply of various bars – Cliff, candy and granola – brought from home kept us stoked for when that midmorning sugar and carb calling came aknocking.
On the trek, we didn’t have to worry about money at all. We had paid our trekking agency in advance and our guide found the accommodations and took care of all the meals. All entrance fees and permits were covered, as were our guide, porters and their insurance. Yes, you can save money by going a la carte – and most of the Israelis we met were hoofing it on the cheap – but I highly recommend the “all inclusive” plan – it’s much less stressful to be able to order as much as you want for meals. Want a dessert of apple fritters (fried) or apple pie (Did I mention there’s a lot of frying going on in the mountains)? It’s all included.
SOME TREKKERS go solo or bring along a porter who carries their bags and knows the route, but I’d advise you to hire a guide. Our guy – Pasang, an authentic Sherpa who spoke four languages and dabbled in flipping real estate back in Kathmandu – was just fantastic. He was right there to help me the time I slipped down a tree trunk (and flipped over – ouch!) We’d find him more often than not in the kitchen at the teahouses, serving as our personal waiter. And of course he knew the route – important, as the trails are not always well marked.
Before the trek, our daughter had expressed her concern about traveling with porters who would schlep our heavy bags. It would be uncomfortable to watch, exploitative at worst, she predicted. Don’t feel guilty. Our three porters seemed to enjoy the whole trip and became part of our extended Himalayan family. They got paid (well, by Nepalese standards) and didn’t suffer terribly from the 20 to 30 kilograms they each carried on their backs. (Or at least they didn’t complain.) As for health in the mountains, while there were some upset stomachs from too much spicy food, for the most part we stayed healthy by avoiding local water and uncooked vegetables. Our constant companion on the water front was a “SteriPEN,” a $50 device that uses UV light to destroy the DNA of the microbes in the water; you still ingest them but they can’t reproduce.
Every night, we SteriPEN’d 10 one-liter bottles of water (imagine a pint-sized Star Wars light saber inserted into a plastic bottle) to the amusement of our porters and other guests. (If they knew how much money we were saving by not buying bottled water, they might not have laughed so hard.) Another health-related tip: bring lots of toilet paper. There ain’t any in the mountain toilets. If you run out, you can buy it on the trail but it’s much more expensive.
PHYSICALLY, THE trek was quite a challenge. My wife and I pride ourselves on being in good shape (we both exercise regularly), but we were usually pulling up the rear, with our teenagers bounding ahead. The terrain – at least in the first part of the hike – is mostly up and down 900-year-old stone steps, and the incessant climb was tough – especially as we got to higher altitudes where I was gasping for breath.
Our hardest day – from Gandrung to Ghorepani – involved an ascent of about 400 meters in the morning, which we then lost with a knee-crunching and disheartening descent of equal distance, followed by an additional 600-meter climb in the afternoon.
As we finally reached our teahouse at over 2,900 meters, drenched with sweat and a driving rain that sent us running for cover when it morphed into unholy hail at a point on the trail at which there was no magically-appearing village shelter in the cards, I was drained in an entirely unfamiliar way, far different from the 10-kilometer runs in which I periodically participate.
My 20-year-old had another take. “Finally, we got a real workout!” he barked triumphantly. I managed a wan smile. Yes we had and, tired or not, I had fulfilled the goal I had set for my 50th birthday – to do it “while I still could.”
We all agreed that the dahl bat seemed especially tasty that night.
‘The largest Seder in the world’
Over 1,000 Israelis from all over Asia converge in time for Passover to Kathmandu where the local Chabad organizes what’s billed as “the largest Seder in the world.” These mostly young, tie-dyed, dreadlocked Israelis with multiple piercings come together in a luxurious dining room at the Yak and Yeti Hotel, about a 30-minute walk from the decidedly downscale Chabad House.
The results are mixed. With a congregation of only nominally interested Sabras, the Chabad rabbi races through the Haggada as though it’s a “greatest hits” album, speed-reading the entire story in under 50 minutes, including “breaks” for the most popular songs (the Four Questions, Dayenu). Nevertheless, the atmosphere is surprisingly tolerant – there are participants snapping photos throughout the meal and others smoking in the lobby (although the latter is permitted by Jewish law on the holiday). There’s even a raffle (top prize: a bungee jump from the tallest bridge in the world).
The food itself is kosher, but far from plentiful. Imagine a plate of seven bitesized chicken nuggets for a table of nine. Fill up on the shmura matza or, better yet, eat before the meal. There’s no hametz (leaven) in dahl bat! – B.B.