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Remote and restricted areas

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Treks in remote far eastern and far western Nepal are mostly restricted to two kinds of traveller, both adventurous in their own way. The majority come on organized camping treks with agencies – in fact, this is obligatory for those areas that require a permit. The minority are independent trekkers prepared either to carry tents and food and negotiate with porters, or to seek food and lodging in local homes and basic lodges. Independent travel is difficult in the west, where food shortages, relatively low population and cultural barriers can be problematic. Access is a problem on both sides of the country. In the east, Basantapur, the principal trailhead, is some 24 hours by bus from Kathmandu. Journey times to the far west by road – where there are roads – don’t even bear calculating. Flights, therefore, are worth looking into. Few cost little more than $100 one-way, though some remote areas require two flights to reach.

Far eastern Nepal

Ethnically, EASTERN NEPAL is even more diverse than the Annapurna region: Rais and Limbus are dominant in the hills, while Sherpas, Tamangs and other highlanders inhabit the high country, and Hindu castes the valleys. Makalu, Kanchenjunga and other big peaks provide stunning views from most high points. Flora and fauna are also of great interest to specialists, especially the butterflies and other insects of the upper Arun Valley, and the rhododendrons of the Milke Daada. The east is relatively well-off, so in the settled areas, especially in the region around the Newari bazaar towns of Bhojpur, Chainpur and Khandbari, food and lodging is easy to come by – making fine country for adventurous trekkers who like exploring places that aren’t written up in guidebooks. The serious mountain treks to Makalu and Kanchenjunga, however, require expedition-scale planning, official permits and agency support.

The Milke Daada
A long north–south ridge famed for its spectacular views and rhododendrons, the MILKE DAADA can be linked up with a visit to the bazaar town of Chainpur for a fine trek of seven or so days, going no higher than 3500m. From Basantapur the route heads north, initially following a rough road then continuing north on paths through the lush cloud forest of the Milke Daada, past the lakes at Gupha Pokhari (2890m). Various trails to Chainpur branch off to the west; from there you can hitch a jeep ride to the airstrip at Tumlingtar or return to Hile. Alternatively, you could head east from Gupha Pokhari to Taplejung airstrip. Both Tumlingtar and Taplejung airstrips have more frequent and reliable connections to Biratnagar, in the Eastern Terai, than to Kathmandu.

Basic food and lodging can be found along most of this route, but the absence of lodges north of Gupha Pokhari limits an independent trekker’s ability to explore higher up the Milke Daada.

Makalu Base Camp
Much of the MAKALU BASE CAMP trek passes through the wild and remote Makalu-Barun National Park and the contiguous Makalu-Barun Conservation Area. Established in 1992, the park is intended to stem the growing human pressure around the base-camp area and preserve one of the most botanically diverse and wildlife-rich areas in the Himalayas. The usual starting point is the airstrip at Tumlingtar, though a marathon road trip could get you there (and even beyond, up to Khandbari) via Dharan, Hile and Basantapur. There are alternative routes on either side of the Arun for the first three or four days, but only one route above there for the next seven days or so (for which a tent and food are required) to the base camp, so you’re obliged to retrace your steps most of the way back. The highest days take you over the Barun also known as the Shipton La (4127m), and into the remote Upper Barun valley, whose lofty beauty is often compared to the Annapurna Sanctuary.

Kanchenjunga
The most incredible trek in this part of Nepal is to the foot of KANCHENJUNGA, the third-highest peak in the world at 8586m, and arguably the most romantic. Kanchenjunga is an expensive trek because it’s officially restricted to agency-organized groups and, given its remote location in the extreme northeastern corner of the country, it involves up to three weeks’ walking, or more if you plan to visit both south and north sides. Unofficially, it may be possible to do this trek independently, with an agency organizing your permit, and porters carrying your supplies for the upper elevations – there are basic bhattis to stay and eat in lower down. There’s a Rs1000 fee to enter the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area.

The starting points are either the roadhead at Basantapur, initially following the trail up the Milke Daada, or, saving three days, the airstrip at Taplejung – which has occasional direct flights from Kathmandu but is more efficiently served via Biratnagar, in the Eastern Terai.

The trek passes deep into Limbu country, forking a few days northeast of Taplejung, one trail going to the snowy and fabulously scenic North Base Camp at glacier-strewn Pangpema, the other rollicking up and down on the way to the South Base Camp and the Yalung Glacier. (The high passes connecting the two are distinctly tricky propositions, and not to be considered without experienced guides.) Both routes offer terraced hills, wildlife-rich forests and a serious taste of unspoiled Nepali hill culture, along with fabulous views. The northern trail takes you deeper into the high mountains for longer – up to a week longer, with all the problems and risks that entails.

Far western Nepal

West of Dhaulagiri, the Himalayas retreat north into Tibet, while the foothill zone broadens, the climate becomes drier and the people poorer. The northern third of the region, left in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, receives little monsoon moisture – in every way but politically, this highland strip is part of Tibet. Jagged Himalayan grandeur isn’t so much in evidence, but there’s a wildness and a vastness here, and the feeling of isolation is thrilling. Treks in the FAR WEST are well off the beaten track: they’re a chore to get to, they require a lot of preparation and, with the exception of Rara Lake, you’ll find that very few Westerners have gone before you. All that might appeal if you’re an experienced trekker looking for new challenges, but if you’re a first-timer without agency support, forget it. That said, as roads gradually penetrate into the far west, trekking is becoming easier.

Logistics make or break a trek in the far west. Given the distances involved, you’ll probably want to fly to the starting point, but the usual problems of confirming bookings are generally worse in this area. Food and lodging are in uncomfortably short supply, so you’ll need to bring a tent, cooking utensils and at least some provisions. You should be prepared to carry it all yourself, because porters here are a fickle lot and often can’t be spared from their farmwork. Guides familiar with the area are also scarce, so don’t venture out without a reasonable command of Nepali. If you go on an organized trek you may not be entirely insulated from these inconveniences, and for this reason agencies may try to steer you towards more easterly destinations.

The treks described below are the most realistic possibilities.

Rara National Park
RARA NATIONAL PARK is the best known of the far western trekking areas. The usual itinerary is a loop that starts and ends at Jumla airstrip, three to four days’ walk from the lake; most tours take about eight days for the trip. The country is a sea of choppy, mostly forested mountains, offering only glimpses of Himalayan peaks, but the highlight is Nepal’s largest lake, a lofty blue jewel surrounded by a wilderness area of meadows and forests of blue pine and rhododendron.

To get to the trailhead you first have to fly to Nepalgunj and then from there to Jumla; flights are supposed to be daily in season, but are often cancelled. There is also an airstrip at Talcha, less than three hours from the lake beside Gumgarhi, the remote capital of Mugu district, but flights up from Nepalgunj are irregular and most people choose to walk from Jumla. The overland alternative is to head up from Birendra Nagar (Surkhet) towards Jumla, which is either a week to ten days’ walk each way or a horrendously, unpredictably long bus journey – 48 hours isn’t unrealistic – on the grandiously named Karnali Highway, via Dailekh, Kalikot and Sinja, where the ruins of the capital of the twelfth- to fourteenth-century Khasa dynasty can be viewed across the river. There are lodges in Jumla and a bunkhouse at the lake; in between, there are a few teahouses where you might be able to stay, but camping is more pleasant and certainly more reliable – especially as food can be in short supply.

Technical difficulties aside, Rara makes a fair compromise between the popular treks and the really obscure ones, and in a way combines the best of both worlds: like the popular treks, Rara is given detailed route descriptions in the trekking books, so you can do it without an organized group or even a guide, yet it’s remote enough to ensure that you’ll see few – if any – other foreigners. Starting at the airstrip at Jumla (2400m), the route crosses two 3500m ridges before reaching pristine Rara Lake at 3000m. The park is one of the best places in Nepal to see wildlife, including Himalayan black bear, tahr, goral, musk deer and the rare red (lesser) panda; the lake itself is home to many species of waterfowl. Autumn and spring are the best seasons, and Rara is particularly worth considering in May and June, when the weather elsewhere is getting too hot or unpredictable.

Dolpo and She-Phoksundo National Park
DOLPO (sometimes written Dolpa) is an enormous, isolated district northwest of Dhaulagiri and bordering Tibet, the western half of which has been set aside as SHE-PHOKSUNDO NATIONAL PARK, Nepal’s biggest. The park protects an awe-inspiring region of deep valleys, unclimbed peaks, remote monasteries and rare fauna. The best time to go is September, with May, June, October and November close behind.

Dolpo was the setting of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, and for many years the book was as close as most foreigners were allowed to get to it. It’s now open to trekking, but only by organized groups. Unofficially, it might be possible to arrange a trekking permit for Southern (Lower) Dolpo through an agency and do everything else independently. The permit costs $10 per week, and a trek there will take a week to ten days. There are some lodges in Lower Dolpo, but it’s a food-deficit area so you’ll need to bring several days’ worth of provisions. Guides and porters can be hired near the airstrip. The agency-trekking requirement for Northern (Upper) Dolpo is strictly enforced, and the permit is much more expensive.

Most people fly into Juphal, the airstrip for Dolpo District, from Nepalgunj. Flying into or out of Jumla, about five days’ walk further west, is also possible. From Juphal the route heads east to Dunai and then north, entering the park after about a day (Rs1000 entry fee) and reaching the village of Ringmo and the stunningly blue Phoksundo Tal after another two days. There are plenty of day-hiking opportunities around the lake. Beyond lies Northern Dolpo.

Humla and Mount Kailash
Tucked away in the extreme northwestern corner of Nepal, HUMLA is high, dry and strongly Tibetan. Snowcapped peaks hem the district in on three sides and shut out most outside influences, including the monsoon. It’s open only to organized groups. This area often experiences serious spring and early-summer famines, so it’s essential to bring all the food you’ll need – and then some. Most people do Mount Kailash as part of a Tibet package: you might pay $4000 per person for a 22-day itinerary which takes you on to Lhasa, with a flight back to Kathmandu; or around $3400 for an 18-day trip returning on a jeep via Kodari.

Nepal Airlines flies from Nepalgunj to Simikot (Humla’s district headquarters) most days of the week in season. The most popular trek from here heads west up the valley of the Humla Karnali Nadi, struggling over the 4580m Nara La before descending to the river again and the Tibet border at Hilsa; it’s about six or seven days’ walk. From Sher, on the Tibetan side, a jeep will take you to (and, if need be, right around) Lake Manasarowar and the starting point for the three-day-plus circumambulation on foot of sacred MOUNT KAILASH. (The Humla Karnali trail is in the long process of being turned into a road, which will one day make it possible to drive the entire way from Simikot; those who prefer to walk will still be able to take a high, northerly route via Talung Lake to the border.) In May and June, which is the best time to go, the wildflowers are out of this world.

Upper Mustang
UPPER MUSTANG, the high-desert headwaters of the Thak Khola, was closed to foreigners until 1992, and still retains much of its medieval Tibetan culture – even if its raja has now officially been deposed and Chinese goods are now pouring across the border via a new road (the border is closed to foreigners). Permits to trek in Upper Mustang are expensive, but are no longer issued only to agency-organized groups, though you will need to take a guide. It is now possible to stay in lodges – often gloriously traditional family homes – rather than have to camp.

The restricted area officially begins at Kagbeni, and most visitors fly in and out of Jomosom, just a half-day’s walk to the south. From there up the high, desertified valley of the Thak Khola to Lo Manthang (3840m), the lofty, walled capital, it’s about five days’ walk, past wind-eroded cliffs in astonishing shades of sand, rust and grey. There’s little traffic on the road, but it’s bound to increase, so consider alternative routes avoiding the road, such as hiking southwest out of Lo Manthang, for instance, via the Chogo La and Ghar Gompa to rejoin the main trail at Ghemi.

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