LANGTANG AND GOSAINKUNDA
A two-week trek in the Nepalese Himalayas
Near Gosainkunda — A Buddhist stupa looks west over the Ganesh Himal at sunset. At far left, the Manasulu range hides in clouds.
I had been wanting to hike the Himalayas for a long time, but the opportunity didn’t present itself until early last month – December 2014. My friend Nate and I were both in Asia, and had a few unplanned weeks over the holidays. We decided to head north and spend them in mountains of Nepal. Our original plan was to do the 20-day “Three Passes” trek to the base of Mount Everest in Sagamartha National Park, but we changed our itinerary at the last minute due to an unforeseen injury: Nate fell off a motorbike and broke his thumb. Nate’s surgery gave us a 14-day time window in which to hike, so we opted to save Everest for another day and make the trip to the Langtang himal.
Langtang is a 660-square-mile national park located about seven hours’ drive north of Kathmandu. It’s the most easily accessible trekking area in Nepal, but is often shunned by tourists in favor of the more glamorous Annapurna and Sagamartha (Everest) ranges. As a result, it’s quiet, peaceful, and less developed – but, locals assured us, no less beautiful – than its popular counterparts.
The main park surrounds the Langtang River, which cuts through a valley to its source in the high mountains. At its end lies a series of tall peaks and glaciers, popular targets for mountaineering expeditions. South of the valley, a series of steep hills and high passes leads to the Gosainkunda area, where a yearly festival takes place next to a series of sacred Hindu lakes. Further south still is Helambu, a lower-altitude region full of beautiful forest trails. Our trek will take us up the primary Langtang Valley and then over the hills to Gosainkunda, topping out at an altitude of around 15,000 feet.
Our winding route through Langtang National Park. Our trip started in the rural village of Syrabu Bensi; we finished nearby in the hilltop hamlet of Dunche.
"The trek starts off with a bumpy jeep ride to Syrabu Bensi, a small town at the base of the Langtang Valley."
Nate is hiking in a cast, so we choose to hire a porter to carry his bags. Through our hotel, we meet up with Mim Tamang, a 33-year-old guide from the Kathmandu area, who agrees to the job. Mim is a fun and cheerful companion. By the end of the trip, we’ll be affectionately referring to him as “Mim Dai” (“Older Brother Mim”). He helps us out right off the bat by looking over our proposed itinerary – it checks out with him – and expediting the processing of our park and trekking permits. By the morning of December 13, we’re ready to go.
The trek starts off with a bumpy jeep ride to Syrabu Bensi, a small town at the base of the Langtang Valley. The dirt road winds over mountain passes and through tiny farming villages, skirting precarious cliffs on the way. We arrive in Syabru Bensi late, so Mim finds us a hotel there to stay the night.
Woken up the next morning by rain pattering against our window, we check the weather to discover that a light drizzle at the head of the trail will turn into deep snow further up the mountain. After consulting Mim, we decide to wait out the storm in Syrabu Bensi for one more day.
We will later find out that this storm, which will blanket the Langtang area with one to two feet of snow, will hit Everest even harder. Had we stuck to our original plan to visit Sagamartha National Park, we would have been trapped in chest-deep snow mid-hike, likely necessitating emergency evacuation via helicopter.
Syrabu Bensi — Mist shrouds the peaks surrounding Syrabu Bensi, Nepal. These clouds lie at the tail end of a storm that will sweep through Nepal’s himal, delaying our trek and necessitating emergency evacuations at Everest.
Thulo Syabru — Our guide, Mim Tamang, poses for a photo during a break on the trail. Mim is a Kathmandu native and an experienced guide, having led treks in virtually all of Nepal’s national parks. This is his fourth time in Langtang.
Up the Valley
The next morning, we set out. The route we’ve chosen is scattered with guest houses and restaurants, so we don’t need to bring a tent or any cooking gear. These rest stops are small, Nepalese family homes with extra rooms for rent to travelers. Many villagers live their whole lives in the mountains, making their living by serving tourists during the high season. In the low season, when the weather is too cold or snowy for Western trekkers’ tastes, they retreat into their homes to weather out stormy months.
"At night, guests huddle near the stove to keep warm, their wet shoes and socks heaped in piles by the heat."
Each guest house is centered around a small woodstove. At night, guests huddle near the stove to keep warm, their wet shoes and socks heaped in piles by the heat. Starting around 5pm, travelers write down orders from small plastic menus as the owners cook up dinner in the small kitchen. The food is almost exclusively vegetarian and mostly fried. Chow mein, spaghetti, pizza, spring rolls, and momos – Nepalese vegetable dumplings either steamed or fried in oil – feature prominently on every menu. Western comforts, such as candy bars, biscuits, and even beer, are also available – for a steep price.
In October and November, the best months for trekking, these lodges are all full and visitors sometimes have difficulty finding an empty bed. We, however, are hiking in December, when most tourists have deserted the trail due to cold nighttime temperatures. Lodge owners come outside to greet us as we pass, urging us to stay at their guest house over others further down the trail. According to Mim, Langtang National Park residents pay extremely high taxes to the Nepalese government. These levies can often represent most if not all of their profits during the high season, so low season customers are extremely valuable. Billboards in villages, the sides of the guest houses themselves, and even rocks and boulders throughout the trail are bedecked with spray-painted advertisements for lodging.
Near Sing Gompa — A guest house, shuttered for the winter, advertises seabuckthorn juice to thirsty trekkers. This drink is made from berries that grow in Nepal’s high valleys.
Riverside — A guest house manager cooks a spaghetti lunch along the trail. Chefs cook on clay stovetops heated by firewood and dried cow dung.
Near Sing Gompa — Writing on a trailside boulders points hikers towards the small town of Woodland. As traffic drops off in the low season, guest houses – and even whole villages – compete fiercely for trekkers’ business.
At the beginning of our journey, we ascend through the gently-sloping Langtang Valley, following its eponymous river through a forest. At first, the hiking reminds me of trails back in the States, with dirt paths leading around pine trees and boulders. As we climb higher, the landscape becomes more varied. We walk through woodlands coated with soft green moss, then sparse patches of thin, leafless trees shooting skyward.
"Porters carry 100 pounds or more on multi-day trips to the high mountain towns, only earning $5-10 daily after paying for necessities like food and lodging."
Once in a while, we pass a Langtang local toting goods up the mountain to supply lodges. Porters carry massive loads on their backs – building materials, firewood, glass windows for hotels, and even bags of cement. These workers carry 100 pounds or more on multi-day trips to the high mountain towns, only earning $5-10 daily after paying for necessities like food and lodging. Amazingly, most bear their burdens happily; the compensation, they say, is substantial compared to the pittance one can earn in the rest of the country, where the average monthly salary is about $60.
The first day is a long one – seven hours of constant but gentle uphill – and we end it, as many trekkers do, in the tiny hamlet of Lama Hotel, around 8,100 feet above sea level.
Bamboo Village — Nate wanders through a forest of tall, thin trees. Patches of these trees appear frequently between Syrabu Bensi and Langtang Village.
Lama Hotel — The sun sets behind tall tree stocks in the forest surrounding Lama.
Rimche — A porter carries a pane of glass up the valley towards Langtang Village. With no roads in the area, food, water, and construction supplies must be toted in multi-day treks from Syrabu Bensi. Many laborers carry 100 pounds or more on their backs during each trip.
Rimche — Moss clings to rocks and trees along the trail. This moss lends a matte green glow to everything around us.
Lama Hotel — Water rushes down the Langtang River. Our trek follows this river up through the valey it carves in the Himalayas of central Nepal.
We wake up the next day to light snow – the tail end of the storm that had stopped us on the first day of our hike. Visibility is low, but the paths are still walkable, so we decide to hike out the day as planned. As we ascend, the greens of the forest fade into whites. Trees melt away, and snow envelops us on all sides. We trudge through the storm for a few hours, careful not to slip on the icy through-ways that have emerged in place of well-trodden forest paths.
Through the snow, a small mountain outpost materializes. A few buildings sit next to a battered stone wall. On the other side, a suspension bridge hangs over a cliff. As we walk through the tiny town, the clouds open briefly, revealing towering peaks on all sides. We have unknowingly passed into the mountains.
Lama Hotel — The freezing Langtang river races down the valley. In the background, lingering clouds shroud the surrounding hills.
Near Langtang Village — Clouds open up over a small village. This is the first glimpse of open sky we’ve seen during the long hike from Lama Hotel to Langtang.
Near Langtang Village — A suspension bridge leads over a gap in the trail towards the Langtang himal. Similar bridges appear throughout our hike, easing the constant ascents and descents.
We continue our ascent, stopping for a night in the small village of Langtang, around 11,100 feet in elevation. Waking up the next day, we find that the storm has passed. The sky is crystal clear, and will remain so for the rest of our trip.
The final leg of our valley ascent takes us to the 12,500-foot-high village of Kyanjin Gompa. Nestled at the base of Langtang Lirung, the valley’s highest mountain at 23,700 feet, Kyanjin is a beautiful town. Its rolling hillside is adorned with dozens of hotels and restaurants, many advertising such Western treats as apple pie and donuts. Further up, a pair of stupas cling to the high hillsides overlooking the valley. And on the west side of the village, a monastery adorned with prayer flags sits directly under the Langtang range.
"Kyanjin is a beautiful town. Its rolling hillside is adorned with dozens of hotels and restaurants, many advertising such Western treats as apple pie and donuts."
As the highest town in the valley, Kyanjin serves as a base camp for a number of different side-trips in the area. Many travelers choose to ascend Kyanjin Ri, a nearby summit at 15,700 feet, for sweeping views of the Langtang range. The more adventurous tackle Tsergo Ri, an even higher peak at 16,500 feet.
Nate and I choose to walk up the valley further, away from civilization. Our goal is to reach Langshisha Kharkha, a base camp located far up the valley where mountaineers begin ascents of 21,100-foot Langhisha Ri. Mim warns us that there are no hotels or restaurants past Kyanjin, so we ask the owners of our guesthouse to fry up some momos for us to pack for lunch.
Our trip up the valley takes us even further into an alpine dream world. Due to the recent storm, our path is completely covered with snow, as are the surrounding peaks. The sun, already scorching through thin air, reflects blindingly from every direction. Soon, I’m hiking just in a t-shirt. We find our way blocked by meltwater and ice from the recent snowstorm, but manage to make it far enough up the valley to see Langshisha Ri and its adjoining glacier.
That night, we return to Kyanjin Gompa, cold and wet, and sip steaming cups of chai tea as we dry our boots next to a roaring woodstove. The stars outside are bright in the clear mountain air; outside our guesthouse, the Milky Way blazes over the peak of Langtang Lirung.
Kyanjin Gompa — The Milky Way shoots over Langtang Lirung. With little light pollution from the surrounding villages, the stars are exceptionally bright.
Kyanjin Gompa — The hamlet of Kyanjin sits nestled between the curves of the Langtang Valley. At left, the mountains bend north towards Langshisha Ri.
Kyanjin Gompa — The Norling Hotel, our home in Kyanjin, lights up at night. Guests relax in a restaurant on the top floor, where a warm woodstove burns overlooking the town.
Langshisha Kharkha — A view back towards Lantang Lirung on the path to Langshisha Ri. The recent snowfall has coated the mountains in reflective powder. Our trail itself is about a foot deep.
Over the Hills
After spending two nights in Kyanjin Gompa, it’s time to embark on the second leg of our journey. Our introduction to Langtang had us follow a river up the park’s central valley. Now, we will scale the walls of the valley itself to explore the heights near Gosainkunda.
After a quick trip back down to Lama Hotel – much faster now that we’re no longer toting our heavy packs uphill – we veer east to the hilltop town of Thulo Syabru, threading relentless switchbacks as we descend to about 5,600 feet and then climb back up to 7,200 feet. Our journey sees us cross a beautiful suspension bridge, then climb through cow pastures and dirt roads to reach our ridgetop destination. As we ascend, mountains previously hidden by the valley’s curves begin to emerge. When we break into view of Thulo Syabru, the mighty peaks of the Ganesh Himal reveal themselves in the background.
Near Thulo Syabru — The Ganesh Himal range looms over the ridgetop town of Thulo Syabru. Near center, a Buddhist stupa lies at the base of the town.
Near Thulo Syabru — Nate and Mim cross a suspension bridge on the route to Thulo Syabru.
Near Thulo Syabru — Clouds streak the sky behind a tree-lined ridge. The valley is formed by a series of these ridges folding into the mountains.
Thulo itself is a metropolis by Himalayan standards. Myriad guest houses, restaurants, monasteries, and farms dot its ridgetop perch. Shop owners come out to greet us as we approach, waving us inside and offering us Western treats such as Snickers and Twix bars. “For you, my friend,” they chant, “good price!”
As we’re settling in to our hotel, we’re lucky enough to hear the owners chatting with a porter who has stopped by to sell them yak meat, which he has been toting in a plastic barrel strapped to his back since Kyanjin. We convince the chef at our guest house to buy some meat on our behalf and cook it with the night’s meal. The yak meat, heavily spiced with salt, cumin, and turmeric, reminds me of taco seasoning – a delicious taste of home and a welcome reprieve from the otherwise monotonous mountain food.
"The trek to Sing Gompa is a brutal 3,300-foot ascent through mountain paths, cow pastures, and forests – many of which are covered in deep snow or meltwater."
The next day is the most difficult of our trek. Our next destination is Sing Gompa, which lies further up the hilly ridges surrounding the valley. It’s a brutal 3,300-foot ascent through mountain paths, cow pastures, and forests – many of which are covered in deep snow or meltwater. The climb takes about three hours. By the end, I’m muddy and tired, drained by the quick transition to thin air.
But the views from Sing Gompa are more than worth the effort. From Thulo Syabru, we crested a hill and followed a ridge up along the other side of the mountain. The huts of Sing Gompa are nestled in an indent in this ridge that overlooks a hillside facing directly west. As we arrive, the sun is just starting to set, throwing orange and blue wraiths through the sky. I spend the evening in a farmer’s pasture overlooking the glowing mountains.
Sing Gompa — The sun sets behind the hills surrounding the Gosainkunda area. At 3,300m, seas of clouds lie both above and below.
Sing Gompa — A rickety fence encloses a farmer’s pasture. In the background, rays of sun shoot through the valley.
The next day brings us to Laurebina, another hillside depot even further up the cliffs on which Sing Gompa lies. The views from the top are breathtaking. Laurebina sits on a high crest unobstructed by parallel ridges, offering a 270-degree view around the surrounding mountain ranges. To the north lies the Langtang Range, dominated by behemoth Langtang Lirung towering over Kyanjin Gompa. To the west is the Ganesh Himal, a series of peaks that lie across Tibet's southern border. And far in the distance behind it, we can see the Manalusu and Annapurna ranges, their 25,000-plus-foot peaks bathing in clouds.
"We hike further up our ridge, eventually running into a small Buddhist shrine and stupa, where we decide to stay until sunset. The view is nothing short of spectacular."
The hike to Laurebina, although exhausting due to the altitude, is quite short – so Nate and I decide to spend the afternoon exploring. We hike further up our ridge, eventually running into a small Buddhist shrine and stupa, where we decide to stay until sunset. The view is nothing short of spectacular. As the sun goes down, light rays slice through the mountain air and fall on jagged peaks. The stupa blazes orange in the fading light.
That night is the coldest on our trip. Freezing Laurebina winds howl outside our guesthouse, pouring in through cracks in our dilapidated windows. I sleep in full hiking gear – thermals, down jacket, hat, gloves, and two pairs of socks. In the morning, our water bottles are frozen solid.
Near Gosainkunda — The shrine over Laurebina glows orange in the sunset, the peaks of the Langtang Himal behind it. Prayer flags twist around and inside the shrine.
Laurebina — The blue roofs of Laurebina peer over the Ganesh Himal. With no protection from wind on either side, the town is bitterly cold once night falls.
Laurebina — A stand of prayer flags flutters on the Laurebina hillside. Langtang Lirung stands in the background.
The final leg of our trip takes us around a precarious ridge to Gosainkunda, a lake located high in the mountains at 14,400 feet. Hindu myths tell that the god Shiva created this lake: according to legend, gods and demons unwittingly released the deadly poison Halahala from the ocean when searching for the nectar of immortality centuries ago. Shiva, realizing that Halahala was so toxic it could destroy all of creation, ate the poison to save the world from destruction. Afterwards, he rent the earth with his trident to create Gosainkunda, from which he drank to quench his burning thirst.
"Seemingly solid ground frequently gives way to treacherous drops, and our trekking poles sink all the way into tall drifts."
The Himalayas must have been warmer back then; during our visit, the lake is entirely frozen over. Its surface is dotted with the footprints of brave – or foolish – tourists who have ventured out onto the ice.
Our last adventure in the mountains is a three-hour side trip around the lakes up to Laurebina Pass, a 15,100-foot trail leading over the mountains to Helambu. It’s the most difficult ascent we’ve tackled yet, with gusting winds and hip-deep snow. Seemingly solid ground frequently gives way to treacherous drops, and our trekking poles sink all the way into tall drifts. We turn back just before gaining the pass, our soaked feet getting too cold for comfort. Afterwards, we warm our stinging toes with Nalgene bottles full of boiling water back at camp.
We complete the return trip to civilization in one knee-crunching day of downhills, traveling from 14,400-foot Gosainkunda to 5,800-foot Dhunche in six hours. The trail is a retrospective on the trip so far, taking us back through deep snows, high ridges, dense forests, and farming villages. The descent is made easier by the thought of steaming beef momos and chicken curry awaiting us.
After Dhunche, the rickety bus ride back to Kathmandu is bittersweet. Away from spectacular beauty, towards a hot shower – so it goes. We’re glad to be returning to the comforts of civilization, but already couldn’t be more excited for the next adventure.