Trekking from Jiri to Namche Bazaar in Nepal's Solu region is a part of the old route to Everest Base Camp and other popular destinations in the Khumbu valley, but since the building of the airstrip at Lukla, not as popular with Western travelers. Ironic, since the Solu valley is extremely well developed in terms of lodging, food and in many ways is a more interesting place than the somewhat mobbed Khumbu.
This writeup is meant to be a travelogue, but hopefully will contain useful information for anyone planning a trip to Nepal in the near future.
For those of you new to Nepal, trekking is the European way of saying "hiking, but with plenty of people around to buy food, beds and tea from" (Yes, Europeans are fond of dangling prepositions). The main thing that distinguishes trekking in Nepal from say, hiking the Appalachian Trail, is that while the landscape is certainly wild, it is not, and hasn't been wilderness for hundreds of years. The trek takes you through villages and settlements that have been inhabited for generations. If anything, rather than taming their environment, the Nepali people have learned to live within their niche in the clouds.
Note: If there are any Nepali or more experienced trekkers on e2, please correct me when I've erred in this node. I'm far from an expert on the complex patchwork of peoples and incredibly rich traditions of Nepal.
October 9: Getting to the trailhead
Getting to Jiri from Kathmandu is a piece of cake. Either get a ticket on one of the buses that make the tortuous climb--you will probably get one of the best seats for seeing the country: the roof. Remember to hold on, and stay up-wind of any vomiting. My friend Blake and I happened to arrive in Nepal during Desain, one of the largest (if not the largest) Hindu festivals. During the two-week celebration, dozens of goats, sheep and other livestock breathe their last for Durga, and all the buses are full of people heading home for the holidays. We hired a car and driver for the 10 hour drive, which cost us about $70US.
October 10: Jiri to Shivalaya
Many guidebooks will tell you that you can make Bhandar in one day from Jiri. Don't do it. Especially if you haven't spent the last few months covering 1000m ascents and descents every day. Since I spent the previous month in Morocco, my training regimen consisted of drinking mint tea, smoking hashish, and going to the Hammam. Day one kicked my ass. The only Westerners I saw who made Bhandar in one day were a pair of cheese eating surrender monkeys carrying 50kg packs and practically running up the trail in two-dollar flip-flops. They were so hard core they glistened like diamonds. They'd been in country for a month.
When you walk out of Jiri, you'll notice that you're walking down a dirt road that winds alongside a small river, with pastures to your left. Check your map. What? You don't have a map? Get one of the many good ones for sale in Kathmandu. Mine was "Khumbu Sagarmatha National Park, Lamosangu.Jiri.Lukla". On the map you'll see that the road snakes around past the trail. Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya will tell you to walk to the end of the road and then take the well worn trail that goes up into the pastures.
First of all, the road was extended since that otherwise fine publication went to press, so if you follow the road to the end, you will be on your way to Those, and will have to backtrack about an hour to find the "well worn trail". The trail is virtually indistinguishable from a deer path. Welcome to Nepal. In a week, this kind of thing won't throw you, but right now you're still thinking to yourself "*this* is a road?". We spent about two hours walking back and forth between the road and a small settlement named Sijelgaon, followed by local kids exclaiming "Hellorupee!". Finally some locals took a break from playing on a giant swing to get us on the right track. Desain is called the "festival of swings" because villagers like to erect swings on the trail and take turns pushing each other into the sky. Isn't Nepal great? Makes Christmas seem downright stodgy. The trail goes up through the pastures, and seems steep. You ain't seen nothing yet.
Incidentally, I've heard that heading to Those and then cutting across to Shivalaya is a better route, but on my first day I'm too timid to stray from the established route.
After a couple of hours you'll get to Chitre, a small village with a few bhattis and the excellent Solu Khumbu Lodge. The lodge is built on the edge of the valley, and the windy views out the back are phenomenal. This is a really good place to have lunch, and even stay the night if you are in no rush. Don't rush. AMS will kill 2 trekkers in the Solu-Khumbu area while I'm in Nepal, and those are just the ones that I heard about.
After the long climb from Chitre to Mali, there is a steep descent that is brutal to my tired knees. For the next few days, we cover more than 1000m in ascents and descents every day--this is rough, but part of the reason that the Jiri trek is such a good idea. The valleys in this part of Nepal all run North-South, but the Jiri trail cuts West-East, so every day you climb higher, but descend to sleep. The gradual increase in altitude, augmented by a healthy smoke every night will spur your body to produce more red blood cells. Once you finally reach the Khumbu, you'll be able to pass winded trekkers from the airstrip with impunity. Start practicing your pitying looks now. For inspiration, copy the looks that the locals are giving you today.
You'll see your first suspension bridge as you enter Shivalaya. These suspension bridges form part of the lifeline of trails that connect the Solu to Kathmandu. In a week or so, the sight of 60kg porters carrying 100kg of soda, rice, construction materials and everything else that's not grown or made in the mountains pounding across the narrow net of cables and boards will still impress, and so will the Swiss engineering that makes it possible.
There are a few dingy guesthouses on the near side of the river, but keep going until you get to the center of town. On the way in, I noticed a burned out building and wondered why no one was there to record my name and passport number, as I'd been told to expect. Relax. You can collapse now.
October 11: Shivalaya to Bhandar
The path from Shivalaya to Bhandar goes up, and up, and up to Deorali, a pass at 2700m. Bhandar is the first of many Sherpa settlements, and rife with beautifully carved mani walls ( remember to pass on the left). Early in the day, an wizened old man and his grandson blew past Blake and I like we were standing still. At the next bhatti, he sympathetically gave Blake a walking stick. I chuckled, but in another twenty minutes was panting and eyeing it enviously. As we came around a corner, there was the old man again, paring down a small sapling with his foot-long khukri knife. By the time I'd recovered my breath, he'd handed it to me and plunged down the path, kicking aside stones with his bare feet and leaping from boulder to boulder. I looked down at my $200US state-of-the-art hiking boots, humbled by his simple compassion.
In Bhandar there are several large guesthouses just beyond a fantastic chorten, a sort of shrine that usually houses the bones of a departed lama. Bhandar is definitely worth a look around, but after the 9 hour day, Blake and I are in no mood to do anything but sleep. Be warned, you are in the high country now, and portions are to scale with the massive peaks in the distance. We mistakenly order a large pot of milk tea, to find that it's enough to serve 20 comfortably. However, sharing tea is a great way to get to know the gaggle of porters that will no doubt be bunking down with you. Most Nepalis involved in the trekking industry know at least a little English, and Nepali is relatively easy to pick up too. A young guide turns us on to the best secret for independent trekkers: hang out in the kitchen, just like the porters. Kitchens are *the* place to be in a lodge: warm at all times of the day (fires in the main rooms are customarily not lit until nightfall), and the kitchen is where Didi lives.
Unlike the Newars and other Hindu people who live in Kathmandu, Sherpani have a long tradition of independence, property ownership and general chutzpah. If you want anything done in the mountains, talk to didi. Didi means "older sister", and is the name for any woman that is older than you, more responsible than you, or more importantly, is tending the dhal bhat that your stomach is begging for. In Nepal, get used to addressing everyone like a favorite relative. Didi for older sisters, bahini for younger women (good for getting a smile from that cutie working the fields), and dao/bao for older and younger men, respectively. When in doubt, go with didi or dao: it's a sign of respect. Especially if you're about to ask for food, directions or the name of that mountain over there.
October 12: Bhandar to Sete
It's not yet 5 o'clock in the evening and it's already cold. The sun sets very early in the mountains, and when it ducks behind the peaks, it's gone. From now on, I resolve to start the day before dawn, like the porters, because during the leisurely climb this morning, we were overtaken by an organized trekking group from Germany, and now most of the beds in town are taken. We were all settled in the dormitory of one lodge when a loud American complained that though there were 8 beds in the room, his group of four had paid for all of them and he would not allow the dao who runs the place to put us up. Apparently their packs enjoy sleeping on comfortable mattresses too. With some dismay I discover he is from Manhattan, instead of some less civilized part of the lower 48.
The owner suggests we continue on to the next village, but it's about an hour away, and when we take a vote, our legs defeat the proposal soundly. Luckily there are two beds in the loft of a nearby guesthouse, but it's so cold you can see your breath.
Later in the evening I watch the Newar family who owns the place shucking corn by moonlight. It's foggy and still, but whenever the moon peeks from behind the clouds, they all shuck furiously while the light lasts, then return to smoking and playing with the kids. The German guide from the trekking group that passed us comes down to talk, complaining about her charges: they are all middle-aged package tourists who don't seem to understand that we're in the mountains, and what on any other package vacation would be Problems to Solve are now Limitations to Accept.
A note on trekking groups:
or as Blake as dubbed them "The Daypack Hordes
". Every year dozens of trekkers are incapacitated or die as a result of Acute Mountain Sickness
, the vast majority of them in large, highly organized trekking groups that bring porters to carry all the gear (minus a small day pack for each trekker's water, camera, and other essentials), food and frequently tents. Because these tourists are generally more affluent
, they are used to being taken care of, and they are also used to having a schedule. A few weeks from now, an Australian
woman will fall into a coma and die on the way to Everest Base Camp because she ignores the symptoms of AMS in an effort to keep from being left behind by her group. Avoid large, package tours. Take the time to plan your own route, hire a guide, and travel with the expectation that you will get there, just maybe not exactly when and how you imagined. Put aside some time to just slow down and experience the mountains--don't rush to Everest
, snap a picture and then high-tail it back home--not only will you miss a lot, but you might just find yourself on an unscheduled helicopter
ride to the hospital.
The guide, Kirsten, speaks a lot of Nepali, and she's a bit curious about rumors of Maoist rebels in the Solu. Remember that burned out building in Shivalaya? We discover that is the remains of a police checkpoint destroyed by the rebels, who model themselves after Peru's Shining Path. Later in our trip, we find out that the rebels robbed a bank in Jiri the day we left, and tomorrow they will peacefully seize the pass at Deorali and refuse passage to trekkers as a show of strength. Right now the rebels seem about as substantial and mysterious as the wisps of fog curling down from the heights, but after my trip I find myself fascinated by an insurgency that is largely kept from the Western media, even though (and probably because) their objectives would disrupt the tourist industry as completely as did the Shining Path in Peru in the early 1990s. (If any noders have information about the Maoists, please /msg or email me.)
October 13-14: Junbesi
Junbesi is a large village in the middle of a high valley at 2700m, with an impressive gompa, a school and an incredibly nice, nameless guesthouse just before the center of town. We decide to rest here for a day and make a short hike up to Thubten Chhulung, a Buddhist monastery that picked up and moved from Tibet sometime in the last ten years. When we arrive at the monastery, the tiny huts where the nuns and monks meditate in seclusion are empty, save for a large white buffalo basking luxuriantly in the sun in the middle of the stairs cut into the mountain side. We can hear the sound of bells and chanting coming from somewhere in the main building, but with only the crows to keep us company, we are at a loss as to what to do. We take some pictures of the hundreds of prayer flags dotting the slopes and head back down.
On the way, we run into the entire population of the monastery returning from the marketplace across the river. Young nuns and monks are laughing and joking under their massive loads, all carried in large baskets secured to the forehead with a tump line. I've never seen so many beautiful, bald girls in one place before. Everyone is decked out in brilliant shades of maroon, yellow and bright purple. We stop and play sign-language games with everyone until an older monk approaches us and promises to pray for us at a festival later that evening, in return for a couple rupees.
Back at the lodge, a bahini brings us the best dhal bhat we've had so far. Dhal bhat is Nepali for "Lentils with Rice": you are served a heaping plate of rice and a hot bowl of lentil soup to spoon over it. Most people eat it with their hands, but in lodges you can ask for a spoon, if you're unsure about the technique. I never mastered it, but food tastes much, much better out of your own hands.
Some people complain that the relentless diet of dhal bhat, potatoes and noodles gets a bit monotonous after a while (and after another week, I begin to have nightly dreams about Korean Barbecue), but I find that dhal bhat is like the weather in the high country. You never know exactly what you're gonna get. The dhal at Junbesi is heavily spiced with pepper, garlic and an unknown combination of spices that makes it irresistable. And on the route to Namche, the dreaded plate system has not made much inroads, so eat to your stomach's (and wallet's) content.
If you're a budget traveller, you will be hard pressed to find a better value than the Solu. We have a hard time spending more than 500 rupees in a day (about $6US) between us. The situation is perfect for travelling on the cheap: the Solu is extremely well developed agriculturally, and is on a major trail from Jiri, so there is an abundance of food, clothing and other gear being carried through town on a regular basis. At the same time, the drop off in trekkers caused by the airstrip in Lukla makes competition for your rupee pretty fierce. Blake and I will often stay for free at lodges, in return for buying all our meals there. And after you've eaten, drunk your tea, and settled down in the sun, there really isn't anything else you need or would want to buy.
Note on the plate system: the plate system is the system that in almost every other part of the world is known as "buying a meal". But in the Solu, unless specified otherwise, your 50 rupees (slightly less than 0.75$US) entitles you to as much dhal and bhat as you can cram down, and didi will continue to pile food on your plate unless you forcibly restrain her. The plate system means: one payment equals one plate of food. Later in the trek when prices double or triple in response to the increased cost of carrying goods in, and the mobs of trekkers, Blake and I will curse the day the plate system was invented, and sigh wistfully at the thought of our bursting bellies in Junbesi.
October 15: Junbesi to Nuntala
A morning ascent to Ringmo (2700m) flew by: my muscles are getting in shape, and my pack no longer feels like an errant monkey jumping around on my back. The 400m descent to Nuntala was murder on my sore knees though. Make sure you stock up on pain-killers, bandages and antibiotics in Kathmandu. Medicine is cheap and prescriptions are a Western concept (though rumors circulate that Nepal gets the low-quality stuff that India can't export to North America and Europe). Especially buy bulk quantities of Cipro, an antibiotic that combats traveler's diarrhea. If I was a RPG character, I think I'd have a 3 Constitution, so Cipro becomes my best friend on the trail. Unfortunately, the water supply in Nepal is pretty basic, and most visitors use iodine and/or a water filter to ease the jarring effect on the g-i tract. Nevertheless, I spend a good percentage of my time on the squat toilet "keeping it real", as Blake and I euphemize when other English speakers are within earshot.
On the way out of Junbesi, if you have the opportunity to check out the Hydro Power Station, go for it. The high country is completely off the grid, but more prosperous villages construct small turbines for a couple of hours of electricty every night. The handmade water courses and sheds housing the works are Myst-like in their simplicity and ingeniuty. Couple that with a rugged landscape that looks like it was rendered on God's own SGI, and you'll start looking for Rand Miller to materialize, wearing cast-off SCA garb and faking a portentious accent. Up in the Khumbu, most lodges have a portable solar panel that dao moves around to grab the most sun during the day. The 20kg battery is good for a few hours of eyestrain reading Into Thin Air before bedtime. Next trip, I'll bring a headlamp.
If you're feeling really ill or your nagging kneestrain has turned into something debilitating, there is an airstrip at Phaplu that either is or isn't functional, depending on who you talk to. In either case, it's a good spot for a helicopter evacuation, though at this stage in the game it's pretty unlikely that you'd need it for anything altitude related.
October 16: Nuntala to Bhupsa
The morning walk was easy. My knee pain miraculously disappeared during the hike. I feel lucky, despite having put my hands firmly into a stinging nettle bush several times during rest stops. The Rai people in the area are friendly and outgoing, though their settlements aren't as well off as the Sherpa. Rai women wear huge gold nose studs, and cover their heads with bright fuschia or purple blankets instead of hats or scarves. I watch women drying some vegetables on the paved trail at Jubing, wondering how they manage to keep them perfectly folded despite the wind, the children, and their chores. Higher up, many of the people working the guesthouses for the Sherpa owners are Rai.
Just below Nuntala, we cross the Dudh Kosi, the Milk River, on a massive suspension bridge, racing across during a lull in buffalo traffic. The Dudh abides.
Bupsa is a tiny plateau in the lee of a ridge. A cluster of guesthouses crowd the square, but you should stay at The Yellow Top Guesthouse. It's the one with the um, yellow top. The plate system is still unknown, and you can pay for a hot shower if you like. The streams from now on are freezing cold. You can emulate the locals, who bathe partly clothed under gouts of water that pour from plastic tubes protruding from the mountainside, but you'd better have a nice patch of sunlight picked out for warming up after.
October 17: Bhupsa to Lukla
Despite warnings in the Lonely Planet guide, Blake and I decide that we'll stop off at Lukla to see about getting tickets for our plane ride back to Kathmandu at the end of the trek. This is a mistake. I'll describe the chaotic system for booking tickets and actually securing a seat on a plane leaving Lukla in my follow up node Namche Bazaar to Gokyo, but for now take my word for it. In Lukla there are dozens of good places to stay, but the prices are massively inflated and the plate system is in full effect. From here on in our daily budget is about 1500 rupees between us, which is only about 10$US per person, but a far cry from the Solu.
The trail to Lukla is exceedingly steep, and even though we are now acclimatized and in good shape, it tacked on about one and a half hours to a fairly tough day. It feels good to put down my pack. As long as you're in town, definitely check out Cafe Danphe--it's also not a bad place to stay. For those of you for whom hash is not satisfying, the Waves Bar stocks locally brewed Guinness, as well as Carlsberg, whose advertising proclaims "Probably the best beer in the world". We decide not to test the hypothesis.
Earlier today Blake and I overtook a line of about twenty buffalo being driven up to Lukla. At lunch they passed us, and just as we crested the rise to Lukla, I spotted them lying side-by-side at the edge of the trail. We hurried over to take a good look, and noticed that not only were they lying side-by-side, but each buffalo was also lying next to its own severed head. The drovers had pointed them downhill before doing the deed, so their blood would run out before they are butchered and loaded into baskets for the walk into town. Later at Danphe a guide tells me that though Buddhists here are not allowed to kill, they can eat meat if the murder is on someone else's karmic balance sheet. Also, he says with a twinkle in his eye, "Sometimes yaks fall off the trail". It's hard to believe that Buddha would fall for that trick, but what do I know?
October 18: Lukla to Monju
We rise before dawn and hit the trail, and are shocked when we make Phakding just as the sun is really starting to warm things up. Phakding is a popular place to stay the night for new arrivals from Lukla, and we grin haughtily at the sight of the brand-name festooned, ski-pole wielding camera hordes collapsing at the edge of town. I practice an air of nonchalance when I casually mention to new acquaintances that we walked in. I feel affinity with the porters and locals who regularly traverse these paths, with nary a thought of steepness or cold. I am completely full of shit. I make more money in a week than most of these people see in a year, and I'm always a helicopter ride away from safety. That didi hauling water up from the Dudh in nothing but a long-sleeved t-shirt, a skirt and a pair of flip-flops, her feet and hands red from the water, doesn't have a genuine knock-off Northface jacket stowed somewhere, doesn't have gloves, and doesn't notice the cold.
But that *was* one hell of a walk. I huddle next to the stove.
We make Monju in another few easy hours of climbing, and debate whether to get a room in one of the rapidly filling guesthouses. We could push on to Namche, but it's at 3300m, which is higher than we've slept before, so there's a chance of altitude problems. As we're facing off with a mean-looking mutt sitting in the middle of the path, we hear the sound of feet slapping against the flagstones, running downhill. We step aside to let a small crowd of excited Sherpas through, followed by a tall, blonde man carrying another trekker piggyback. We follow, interested, listening to another companion urgently asking about the nearest guesthouse with a phone.
They stop in a pasture next to one of the larger guesthouses and the blonde guy puts his companion down, who immediately spits up some pink-looking gook and collapses in a heap. Within minutes, a helicopter lands on a tiny ridge above the lodge and the trekker is loaded onboard for a valley-hugging race to Kathmandu.
We decide to stay the night.
October 19: Monju to Namche Bazaar
Just beyond Monju is the entrance to Sagarmatha National Park, and the beginning of the Khumbu valley. We're all alone on the way in, but in a few weeks we will have to fight our way through a crowd of about 50 trekkers to register with officials and exit the Park. Just as the plate system isn't widely accepted in Nepal, I've found that the concept of queueing (in America "gettin' in line") hasn't made much progress either.
The trail from Monju crosses the Dudh four or five times, and it's busy, dusty and steep. There are line after line of dzopkyo, commonly called yaks, loaded down with huge expedition bags for trekking groups as well as teams that will be using Namche as their staging point for the several 8,000m plus peaks in the area. Dozens of climbing Sherpas and porters, all identically dressed in sponsors' gear trundle across the suspension bridges, carrying almost as much as the yaks. The drivers steer their yaks with cries that sound something like "Shuh!", and menace the lazy beasts with rocks from the trail. We keep to the uphill side of the trail when being passed by yaks. A thousand pounds of shag carpet, hooves and expedition bags doesn't stop, turn or do anything very fast, and if you had horns two-feet long, you wouldn't give a damn either.
We make Namche Bazaar in two hours, amazed at the amount of daylight we have to explore. Namche is a big market town, and we are passed by Tibetan peddlers carrying massive bags of clothes, shoes and other goods from China heading in the opposite direction. The ridges surrounding the bowl that encloses the town are festooned with prayer flags and banks of prayer wheels to turn on your way up into the mountains. Namche is also blessed with a semi-reliable and powerful source of electricity, which makes the existance of *three* bakeries possible. I spend the rest of the day at The Everest Bakery, munching on something not unlike a croissant and drinking heavenly instant coffee. Tomorrow I'll find the post-office in the hayloft of a nearby barn and send postcards to everyone. But tonight, it's Miller time. Or at least Carlsberg time.
We stay at the godawful Thawa Guesthouse, where they charge you 500 rupees if you don't eat at their kitchen. Considering the number of restaurants in Namche, this seems like a crime. Blake and I make a show of being sick, gulp down a tea and piece of roti and then head out for real grub. Grizzled trekkers from Everest Base Camp and newbies from Phakding munch down on buffalo steaks and burgers, but we followed the porters up from Lukla today, and saw the swarms of flies that hitched a ride on the meat. I opt for veggies. For 150 rupees (2$US) didi heats up a cauldron as big as my torso and pours hot water into a pipe running into a tiny shed for me: my first shower in about a week. It'll be my last until Kathmandu.
Tonight I fall asleep listening to the wind and dream wild, high altitude dreams. Tomorrow we start for Gokyo.
Coming soon Trekking in Nepal: Namche Bazaar to Gokyo.