The Travelettes Guide to independent and sustainable trekking in Nepal
In order to go trekking in the Himalayas you don’t necessarily have to book a tour through an agency way in advance – you can in fact also arrange everything spontaneously in Kathmandu. This guide to independent and sustainable trekking in Nepal is full of tips to ensure that your trekking experience has only positive impact on you, the locals in Nepal and the environment.
“Linus, linus!” The young porter sitting across from me is grinning encouragingly as he re-fills my glass with Mustang coffee, a potent combination of Nescafé, ghee, sugar and the local wine rakhsi. By now I have learned that that ‘linus’ roughly translates to ‘please take what I’m giving to you, with no objections’. My partner and I, our guide and a few guides and porters of another team are huddled around the fire in the small kitchen of our lodge in the settlement Bhimtang at 3,710m. Someone jokes that it’s not Mustang coffee, but Bhimtang coffee and the kitchen fills with laughter while I test how near to the fire I can place my cold toes without burning them. We are all exhausted after successfully completing the crux of the Manaslu Circuit Trek: the renowned Larkya La, which takes you up to 5,106m. After rounds of bucket showers and a well-earned dhal bat, the feeling of gratitude and success settle on us as we share the warmth from the fire and the rakshi.
My boyfriend and I had arranged to spend 5 months in Nepal trekking, volunteering and exploring a new culture. Our first stop was the Manaslu Circuit: a 2-3 week trek around the 8th highest mountain in the world, passing through jungle, Tibetan refugee settlements and breathtaking Himalayan landscapes. We wanted to do the trek independently, as we like the freedom and flexibility of making our own plans. Finding up-to-date and unbiased information about trekking in Nepal, however, proved more difficult than expected, as most information is published by travel agencies who want you to book their tours. So when we arrived in Nepal, just three days before we wanted to start our trek, we were equipped only with a guidebook and the address of Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP).
At KEEP, located in Kathmandu’s backpacker district Thamel, we consulted their collection of logbooks by independent trekkers dating back to the 90s. The logbooks proved invaluable, as we quickly gathered that guides and agencies tend to overestimate most of the trekking times – sometimes, unfortunately, in the interest that you pay for their service for longer. Besides allowing us to plan an informed itinerary, KEEP also equipped us to make sustainable choices during our trek. Here are some tips for you to do the same.
As members of the outdoor community in Europe myself this was important to us. The Manaslu Conservation Area is one of Nepal’s restricted areas where it is mandatory to have a guide and the right permits. There are a daunting amount of trekking agencies who can organize this for you in Kathmandu alone. In the streets of Thamel, trekking guides join the street vendors and taxi drivers trying to get your business. Finding the right agency, especially at short notice, was an overwhelming task. We found out, however, that to be a member of KEEP, trekking agencies have to provide their guides with English courses, first aid training, proper insurance and clothing and training in eco-tourism. Choosing an agency from this list is therefore a good start. But there are of course lots of great agencies and guides around who are not KEEP members; you just need to check for a few things. Does the guide have proper first aid training? Does the guide (and especially any porters) have comprehensive insurance and the proper equipment for high altitude trekking? Are their wages fair? Making sure that your trekking agency looks after their staff well is the first step to make a trek sustainable.
Leave no trace
Whenever I spend time outdoors I try to have as little impact on nature as possible and follow the ‘leave no trace’ principles to help preserve the nature that I love so much. Yet when trekking through remote Himalayan villages I found that it gets more complicated than that. The lodge shops stocked with chocolate, beer and bins initially made it seem legitimate to leave our litter there. After all, we didn’t technically ‘carry this in’ so do we need to carry it out?
But Nepal does not have the world’s most sophisticated waste management system – and most small mountain villages have no such system at all. When my gaze occasionally dropped from the spectacular snowcapped peaks of the Himalaya to the trail, I saw waste blending into the landscape; glass bottles used as garden decorations and plastic piled up waiting to get burned. Other trekkers would joke that if you get lost, you simply follow the litter. We realized that we would have to carry out any non-degradable waste we produced, and best produce as little as possible. As we also like to go light, there was no room for carrying out bottles. Thankfully, all lodges serve delicious chai and herbal teas, and sometimes locally grown coffee! And then there’s the local wine of course… For water we brought our own bottles and used a filter or iodine tablets to purify it.
Deforestation is another big issue in the rural areas of Nepal, especially on the popular trekking routes. While I will have to admit that I am often the first to draw close to a camp fire or wood-burning stove on cold evenings in the mountains, I do think it important to try and limit the use of wood for fuel. The best way to do so is to be prepared and bring the right gear to keep yourself warm and comfy. When eating in smaller lodges we also ordered the same food and only took hot showers if they were heated by solar power (which, thankfully, is widespread).
One of my favorite things about trekking, and traveling, independently is the easy with which you can engage with your surroundings. Nepali culture is characterized by openness and hospitality, and some of the highlights of our trek was sharing tea with local villagers, hanging out in the lodge kitchens with the guides and porters, hearing their stories and trying local food. Taking the time to be inquisitive and absorb local customs deepened our experience of the region we were trekking through. Most importantly though, I was reminded that respecting and inspiring pride in the local culture is a part of sustainable tourism just as important as looking after the natural environment.
Have you ever been to Nepal for a trekking adventure?
This is a guest post by Sofie Quist.
Sofie is a student, nature enthusiast, and occasional mountain climber. She left her native Denmark after high school to seek hillier territory and have since lived in Scotland, Switzerland and Nepal. She co-runs an online forum for impartial, up-to-date information about trekking in Nepal.