The Langtang region of the Himalayas, located to the north of Kathmandu, is one of the “big three” trekking destinations in Nepal, the other two being Everest and Annapurna. Sadly, the Langtang region was devastated in the 2015 earthquake (more on that in the next section). In April, I went trekking for 7 days in Langtang Valley. Unfortunately, Chiara had to stay in Kathmandu to work. I joined up with a small group organized by Chiara’s co-worker Cristina. Our trekking crew included myself, Cristina, Cristina’s roommate Ravi, Ravi’s cousin Jeroen (AKA James), and Skye (a friend of James’).
On April 25, 2015 at 11:56 am, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, causing massive damage. Over 8,000 people were killed. Thousands of buildings collapsed. Many historical buildings were destroyed. Roads were severely damaged, and landslides/avalanches caused devastation throughout the country. This was the worst disaster in living memory for many Nepali people, and the country is still recovering from the disaster.
The Langtang region was particularly badly hit by the earthquake. Over 300 people died in the park, including more than 40 foreign trekkers. Many lodges were destroyed, and the village of Langtang was completely wiped out by a huge landslide. All of the lodge owners we talked to had lost relatives in the earthquake. Our friends Della and Eric happened to be trekking in Langtang when the earthquake hit, and were lucky to escape with their lives. If you want to read a first-hand account of the earthquake, the aftermath, and their dramatic rescue you can read their blog post on the earthquake here.
The trekking industry in Langtang has been slow to recover after the earthquake. We noticed many empty lodges, despite April being one of the high-seasons. This is unfortunate, because our experience in Langtang Valley was very positive (other than the bus ride). There were relatively few people on the trail, so we could enjoy the nature in peace. The landscape was beautifully varied, changing from rhododendron forests, to alpine meadows, to snow-capped Himalayan peaks, as you climb the river valley to its source. The local Tamang lodge owners we met were friendly, gracious, hosts, and great cooks too! I highly recommend anyone planning a trek in Nepal to consider Langtang. Not only will it be a great experience for you, but you will be benefiting a region that needs it most.
Kathmandu to Syabrubesi
The bus ride from Kathmandu to Syabrubesi (the trailhead for the Langtang Valley Trek) was one of the most harrowing bus journeys of my life. As the Lonely Planet Guide so eloquently put it, “The bus ride from Kathmandu to Syabrubesi is probably the worst thing about the Langtang trek”. Due to the terrible condition of the roads, only local transport is available to Langtang, no tourist-class buses for us! Flying is not an option either, unless you are wealthy enough to afford a private helicopter. Despite the actual road distance being only 130 kilometers (80 miles), it takes over 8 hours to get to Syabrubesi, and that’s if you don’t have any problems along the way.
Our bus was scheduled to leave Kathmandu around 7:30 am. As we were sitting on the bus waiting for it to depart, a torrential downpour of rain and hail began. The roof of the bus started leaking and I had to cover myself with a trash bag to keep from getting soaked. I was thinking that surely the bus driver would wait to depart until the storm passed because the roads would be in terrible shape, but I was wrong! Ten minutes later we were off.
As we drove along the completely unpaved dirt roads, we had to stop several times to help some jeeps that were stuck in the mud. At one point, we came to a stop behind a queue of other buses, and we got out to investigate what was going on. It turns out a massive rock-slide had occurred earlier in the morning, due to the storm, and a car-sized boulder was blocking the road. We waited around for an hour before someone showed up with a bulldozer and pushed the rocks off the road. Moments later, we returned to our bus, and the caravan started moving again.
Things continued in a similarly frightening fashion for the remainder of the journey. Fortunately, I was doped up on Dramamine the whole time and wasn’t as sick as I would normally have been. We finally arrived in Syabrubesi around 4 pm and checked in to a nearby hotel for the night, before starting the trek the next day.
Shout-out to our bus driver, who handled the sketchy roads like a boss. When other drivers were stuck in the mud and unable to get out, our driver would come to the rescue and quickly get them out. He was completely unfazed by all the obstacles, and it seemed like he had been through this a thousand times before.
Trekking Day 1
The trail from Syabrubesi starts off fairly easy, climbing gradually along the Langtang River, before getting steeper between Bamboo and Lama Hotel.
Bamboo is where our friends Della and Eric were trapped when the earthquake struck. It was a sobering experience, following in their footsteps, nearly 4 years later. I found the boulder where they, and 47 other trekkers, made a makeshift camp and survived for 5 days before being rescued.
Bamboo is otherwise a charming little town by the river, and there are lodges available if you don’t want to climb all the way to Lama Hotel in one day. We stopped there briefly for tea before moving on.
We arrived at Lama Hotel in mid-afternoon and checked into a lodge at the far end of town. Everyone was pretty tired from the first day of trekking, and after dinner we went to bed early.
During our trek, the rooms were always free, the only caveat being that we had to eat dinner and breakfast at the lodge. Which was no problem at all, considering that the food was virtually the same quality and price at every establishment.
The food offered at the lodges is a high-calorie, high-energy, version of familiar staples. This is achieved by adding lots of vegetables, cheese, peanut butter, or eggs, to pasta, potatoes, pancakes, noodles, or rice. There is also dal bhat available, which is good trekking fuel because it is all-you-can-eat rice, veggies, and lentils.
Trekking Day 2
On the second day, we climbed through scenic alpine meadows and rhododendron forests until we rose above 3,000 meters, and got our first glimpse of the high Himalayas.
Immediately following the 2015 earthquake, a huge wall of rock and ice broke off from Langtang Lirung peak and, within seconds, buried the entire village of Langtang under 20 meters of rock. Most bodies were never recovered. Now the new trail goes right over the landslide, and crossing it was an eerie experience.
We could see the landslide from several kilometers away and the sheer scale of it was difficult to comprehend. The idyllic landscape of the river valley just stops, and there is a wasteland of dirt and rock that stretches for nearly a kilometer. Everyone was silent as we walked over the debris. It is haunting to know that the village and everyone in it remain entombed beneath your feet.
After you cross the landslide, you enter the new village of Langtang, which was rebuilt further up the trail. In the village is a memorial to the victims of the earthquake.
On a lighter note, the Langtang region is known for having lots of yaks. Yak cheese and yak curd are popular menu items. We were particularly fond of the yak cheese. April is calf rearing season for the yaks, so we got to see many adorable baby yaks. Also, did you know that a female yak is called a “nak”? So really, we were eating “nak” cheese, but for simplicity’s sake we can keep calling them yaks.
In the town of Langtang we were approached by a woman who was the sister of one of the previous lodge owners we met. Apparently, the lodge owner had called her sister to let her know we were coming, and to intercept us and direct us to the sister’s lodge. This frustrated me at first, because we were constantly being hassled by lodge owners to stay with them, and this was a bold move to say the least. After some debate, we reluctantly followed her to her home in the town of Sindum, which was a bit further away than advertised. However, we were all glad we did, because it turned out to be one of our favorite places we stayed during the whole trip. The sister and her husband were excellent hosts, and we even returned again on the way back. I highly recommend anyone traveling in Langtang to stay at “Me Very Happy Guesthouse” in Sindum!
Trekking Day 3
When we woke up on the third day, we discovered it had snowed several inches overnight! By the time we had eaten breakfast, the snow had stopped, and everything was coated in a frosting of pure white. We leisurely made the two hour trip from Sindum to Kyanjin Gompa, stopping often to take photos of the snowy landscape. Kyanjin Gompa is the final town in Langtang Valley, where we had planned on spending several days doing side trips.
Kyanjin Gompa has excellent 360-degree views of the Langtang Himal and Langtang Lirung peak (7,227 meters). Yak cheese and yak curd are produced locally in town. There is also an excellent bakery called Dorje Bakery with a jolly, gregarious, owner. That night we stayed at another guesthouse that was somehow related to the original lady we met in Gumba. I think we ended up staying with her extended family for most of the trip.
Kyanjin Ri is a popular half-day hike from Kyanjin Gompa. After fueling up on bread and cheese at the bakery, we hiked to the viewpoint at Kyanjin Ri (4,300 m). We managed to get some good views before the clouds started gathering. That night it snowed again, but none of it stuck around in the morning.
Trekking Day 4
The morning of the fourth day, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This was ideal, because we had planned on an ambitious hike to the summit of Cherko Ri (4,985 m), an 8-hour round trip from Kyanjin Gompa.
The hike from Kyanjin Gompa to Cherko Ri was challenging. There was quite a bit of snow on the trail, and I didn’t have crampons or water-proof boots. Also, we definitely started feeling the altitude above 4,000 meters.
After a tough climb, four of us made it to the top, James wisely decided to descend after experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness. The peak is at an elevation of 4,985 meters (16,355 ft!), the highest I’ve been yet, nearly 2,000 feet higher than Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S.
The way down was much easier, for one because we were going down, duh! And, for two, because we got to slide down the snow on our butts. We reunited with James back at the lodge, and everyone got a good nights sleep that night.
Trekking Day 5
Day 5, we took a much needed rest day, and explored the area surrounding Kyanjin Gompa. Skye and I went to see the Tsona Lakes, about 1 km south of town, while the others lounged around the bakery.
The five Tsona Lakes were a pleasant 1 km stroll to the south of town. If the weather was warmer, I would have been tempted to swim! However, the snowy landscape still made for some picturesque photos.
Return to Sindum
That afternoon, we returned to Sindum (1 hr) and stayed with our hosts from the previous night, who were very happy to see us again. They have one of the best solar showers on the trail, so everyone was excited to get clean, eat, and relax before starting our trek back down the valley.
Trekking Day 6
Day 6 was long and arduous. We decided to take an alternate route back to Syabrubesi, passing through Sherpagaon along the “high road”. That means we had to go down roughly 1,100 meters, only to have to go up another 200 meters to reach Sherpagaon.
Sherpagaon is a quaint little village, perched on the mountainside above Syabrubesi, with good views of the valley we walked through on the first day. Our lodge “Tibet Guesthouse” had hot showers, good food, and nice views. What more could you ask for? There was hardly anybody else staying in town, we assumed because of the tough hike to get in or out of Sherpagaon. However, I would recommend it as a nice change of scenery if you don’t want to walk back the exact same way you came.
Trekking Day 7
The trail from Sherpagaon to Syabrubesi was a real knee-buster, with over 1,200 meters of descent in a relatively short distance. Things got hotter and dustier as we returned back to low elevation, and I can’t say the cars and buses were a welcome sight. That night we stayed in town and bought bus tickets for the following morning. It was a bit sad coming back into civilization, but we were happy to have successfully completed the trek. Besides, the trip wasn’t technically over, we still had to survive the bus ride back to Kathmandu!
Return to Kathmandu
The bus ride back to Kathmandu was much the same as before, although this time it took a completely different route, probably due to more landslides somewhere. We did get a flat tire on the way back, so it wasn’t totally uneventful. That afternoon, we arrived back in Kathmandu safe, sound, happy, and tired after an amazing trip to Langtang Valley.