Day 1: Kathmandu to Syabru Bensi
The day began at 5:45 AM, backpack shouldered and apple in hand, searching for a taxi to the Maccha Pokhari bus station in northern Kathmandu. I was to meet my friend/guide, Pemba, and get on a jeep to Syabru Bensi, one of Langtang’s few access points.
We traveled to Syabru via the Pasang Lhamu Highway, which splits from the road to Pokhara and was only built a few months ago. I’m not really sure what people did to get to Syabru prior to this, but it definitely was not as fast or easy.
I use the word “easy” loosely, of course. Very loosely.
We followed the road, clung to the steep mountains hundreds of feet above the Trishuli River that carved its way down the valley. I came to learn that should we follow the Pasang Lhamu Highway and the Trishuli River some 45 minutes past Syabru Bensi, our destination, we would come to the Nepal-Tibet border (and one of the few border crossings). Of course, I as a foreigner and Pemba as a Tibetan-Nepali would not have been able to cross that border (or come near it) as it is currently occupied by China.
The drive took close to seven hours, winding our way through dirt finer than flour, occasionally crossing rocky rivers that were already eroding the brand-new road and passing through construction sites of several Chinese energy projects. At one point, we had to exit the jeep just as the passengers of the bus ahead of us did so that our respective vehicles could make the boulder-laden ascent, free of the extra passenger weight. We hurried down the road in a crowd of Nepali and Tibetan travelers, making sure to keep up with our van and to stay ahead of the buses rapidly closing the gap behind us.
When we finally arrived in Syabru Bensi, all that was left to do was to find our beds for the night and prepare for the next day. The day’s excitement was mainly confined to the drive, and the quiet night in Syabru left me to ponder the coming 15 days. That’s more than double my previous longest time spent on trail, so I was feeling anxious.
Day 2: Syabru Bensi to Khangjim
We set off early in the day for a nearby village called Khangjim, which is where my friend is from and where his parents still live. However, our destination wasn’t exactly Khangjim, but rather the Tibetan refugee camp on the hill above it. The path wound uphill, beginning in a village where I was shown the former Tibetan school that is now a pile of rubble thanks to the 2015 earthquake. The Langtang region is where the earthquake hit the hardest. All that remained of Pemba’s school was a single wall, with chipping sky-blue paint and a chalkboard once used to teach English to local Tibetan kids.
To be honest, the hike up was in forest and was not the most interesting of days. The first day of a trek is generally wooded, full of previews to the mountains that await us. The day became much more interesting upon our arrival in Khangjim. We climbed the last hill above Khangjim and came to his parents’ home, a one-room, tin-roofed building overlooking the valley. They brought us inside and told us to sit. Benches lined the right wall in such a way that you could look out the window at Ganesh Himal while you sat. On the far wall was a wood-burning stove. Opposite the benches was a wall-sized shelf of assorted cookware. His parents gave us each a plate of tingmo, a type of steamed bread, and potato curry, both of which were very good.
After eating, my Pemba and his father left to relocate a cattle shed to a new location. His father hefted a huge bundle of bamboo onto his shoulders and started further up the rise to the fields. I offered my help but was told, in Tibetan, something to the effect of “stay out of the way.” He pointed to a nearby rock. I sat down. He gave a thumbs-up, and I contented myself to take photos of the endeavor instead.
When the shed came close to completion in an amazingly short period of time, I left to take photos of the area before we were invited in for lunch. Pemba’s mother offered to make me something different, but it felt wrong to ask that of her, so I made sure she would give me whatever she gave her son. This got me a bowl of flour with hot water poured over it to make a kind of wheat sludge. Lesson learned.
The day wound on. Once his father was finished with the shed, Pemba and I went for a hike to a viewpoint above the village. We returned for dinner, where his mother had prepared shyakpa, a stew of thick noodles made in the same way as tingmo, and potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables. I had never seen it before, but it’s on the menu of every guest house in Langtang under the name “Sherpa Stew,” and it’s incredible. Though, guest house shyakpa all falls short of what I received in Khangjim.
After dinner, we retired to an extra space for the night, and went to sleep.
Day 3: Khangjim to Sherpagaon
We awoke early. Waiting for us was a stack of chapati, a kind of flatbread common in Nepal and elsewhere. As we ate, another guy popped into the kitchen. As I came to learn, it was Pemba’s cousin who would accompany us to Sherpagaon, our next stop. Pemba’s father is Tibetan and fled as a refugee at age 10. His mother, however, is a Tamang from Sherpagaon where her brother still lives with his family. The Tamang people are the largest Tibetic ethnic group in Nepal. Most of Langtang is Tamang.
We left together as a group of four. I spent most of the time talking with Ang, Pemba’s cousin. We were about the same age, though Ang told me he had been in a Buddhist monastery from the age of six until he was 18 or 19, just a couple years ago. As we walked, he shared his story of adjusting to life outside the monastery, how he came to manage a guest house in Sherpagaon, and his plans for its future. Pemba told me the two of them had only met for the first time in a guiding course a year or so ago.
We continued on for several hours until Sherpagaon came into sight, a small collection of blue-roofed buildings clinging to the side of a steep, terraced mountain. When we arrived, I left to walk around to give the family time to catch up. Later that night, after dinner, they came to me with a surprising proposal:
“Want to go hunting?”
Normally I’m pretty anti-hunting, but I was intrigued and am never one to turn down a potentially fun story, so I said yes. They each grabbed slingshots and headlamps, beckoned me to follow, and took off up the mountain. The next several hours consisted of fast climbing, bird calls, stones sent whipping through the leaves by slingshots, and using headlamps to search for forest hens in the cloud-covered forest. It didn’t take long to be several hundred meters above the village. Each time we thought we saw a bird, we’d shine our lights in the tree while those of us with slingshots tried to drop it from the branches. In the end, though, nothing was caught and we slowly descended back to Sherpagaon empty-handed.
Once returned, we ate dal bhat on a terrace outside, stars illuminating the snowy peaks of Ganesh Himal across the valley. When the clouds descended and covered Sherpagaon, we went to bed, though an intense altitude-related ear pain kept me from sleep until nearly sunrise.
Day 4: Sherpagaon to Tangshyap
After leaving Sherpagaon, the landscape begins to change. The path slopes upwards, following the rising valley floor to meet the snowy peaks that loom on both sides. For a long time, we walked alongside a wide river through the forested valley floor. Clouds obscured most of the peaks, though enough was visible to hint at what was to come. To be perfectly honest, not a lot happened on this trail. It was peaceful. We walked for four or five hours, stopping often to relax and enjoy the surroundings: pine trees, wildflowers, mountains, and a roaring river below.
Once we arrived in Tangshyap, we bought tea and rice and rested for the long day that was to come next. I spent a long time near the fire, talking to other trekkers and sheltering from the sharp wind that was howling down the valley. In the corner of the room was a large shrine built around a portrait of the Dalai Lama. Pemba explained that every Tibetan household has one.
When I asked why this was the first we had seen despite having been in Tibetan country for days, he told me that due to China’s massive influence on Nepal, certain Tibetan practices are illegal. Celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday and keeping shrines to him, two practices that have become common and important to the Tibetan diaspora since the 1950-1959 invasion by China, are just a couple examples. Tangshyap is just far enough removed from Kathmandu that the police have very little influence there.
Day 5: Tangshyap to Kyanjin Gomba
I awoke to the sound of heavy rain on the tin roof above my head. We decided to wait out the rain instead of hiking through it, and went back to bed for a couple hours. Up until this point, I had been saving my camera battery for more dramatic landscapes. However, when the rain stopped and the clouds cleared, I begrudgingly went to get it.
Once the clouds had receded and the rain stopped, we set off in a hurry, hoping to make good progress before any more rain came. The path to Kyanjin Gomba turned out to be the most difficult day yet, though there was nothing exceptionally difficult about it. Just a steady uphill and cold wind, getting colder and steeper the closer we came to Kyanjin Gomba. Nonetheless, it was easily the best day as well. We left behind the tree line completely, moving across an alpine tundra between the granite walls on either side.
On the way, we passed through the ruins of villages annihilated by the earthquake, and near-ghost towns such as Langtang that were just barely hanging on and still rebuilding. At the entrance of Langtang village was an ornate Tibetan-style temple. Inscribed on the plaques of the temple were thousands of names. It was a memorial to earthquake victims, one of the many we saw in Langtang on both the Helambu and Gosaikunda side. A handful of American names, maybe a dozen French, and hundreds and hundreds of Tibetan names.
We continued on slowly, the altitude starting to slow us down as the atmosphere thinned. The path became much steeper as we got within a few kilometers of Kyanjin Gomba, and our progress slowed. Kyanjin Gomba is at an elevation of 3,800m (12,467ft). Prior to our arrival there, I had spent maybe 16 hours at that elevation months ago, so it was not the easiest of days. Nonetheless, we came to Kyanjin Gomba, our arrival marked by several large Buddhist temples. I came to learn that gomba means “Monastery,” and there is still a functioning monastery in the village despite the harsh environment.
We unloaded our gear upon arrival and took a walk to get acclimatized. Kyanjin Gomba is the largest village on the trek after Syabru Bensi, though it was nearly devoid of trekkers. Still, the brightly-colored buildings set against the snowy mountains was a rewarding sight after a difficult day.
After a few hours walking about in the cold, we went back in for dinner. While eating, a large German group flung open the door with a bang and bought nearly every beer in the lodge. They were returning from the summit of Tsergo Ri, a 5,100m (16,732ft) mountain in the valley that was our goal for the next day. After eating, I left the lodge. I had been carrying a slightly-too-large-for-trekking tripod in hopes of a clear night to make my star photography debut. I hiked about a kilometer out from the village onto a ridge and spent some time experimenting, but came away with one decent-quality, albeit grainy, photo (which turned out to be the only one of the trek).
When the cold became too much and the clouds obscured the stars, I went back to my room to shiver myself to sleep. We were planning to head up Tsergo Ri the next day. Since there was a large group ahead of us, we were happy to have a path already carved out for us.
Of course, nothing is easy and the mountain had other plans for us. But hey, the adventure doesn’t start until something goes wrong, the mantra I repeated in my head for much of the days to come.