Nepal revisited

Trekking to the base camp of Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain .

Text & photos: Erik Pontoppidan, Copenhagen, Denmark


Music: L. Sobczak: Follow the wind

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View from Pang Pema to the world's third highest mountain Kanchenjunga (8.835 meters).

At the end of the sixties, I was trekking in Nepal. The travel route to "the roof of the world" went by land by the so-called "Hippie Trail" with trains and buses through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Kathmandu in Nepal. I planned everything myself and started my trip on a cold night in February 1969, entering the train "The Baltic Express" at Copenhagen Central Station, heading for the former East Berlin.

After the crossing of several mountains, high plateaus, deserts and countries, I arrived to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, about one month later. However, the main purpose of my travel was the realization of my dream of trekking in the Himalayas. This dream came true - and THAT experience influenced the rest of my life.

After my first visit, I kept dreaming about returning to Nepal and trekking there again in order to feel the smells and sounds and get close to the world's highest mountains once more. Very few, who have been trekking in the Himalayas, avoid being strongly influenced by all the exotic impressions, you get out there.

In autumn 1989, 20 years later, I got a chance to visit Nepal again. However, compared to my first trip, this one became very luxurious. In 1969, I arranged everything myself and virtually lived on rice during the whole strenuous trekking. This time, we brought a number of porters and sherpas, who arranged all the practical things and showed us the way. But anyway, this trip became incredibly exciting, too. It was arranged by the danish travel agency Marco Polo Tours, and we were a group of 14 danes, who trekked up to the foot of the world's third highest mountain Kanchenjunga in eastern Nepal.

Left: Trekking up through the long and deep Ghunsa-valley. Right: Sunset and moon rise at the pastures of Lapsang, close to Kanchenjunga. The mountain to the left is Ratong (6.678 m). The pass to the right leads into the neighbouring country of Sikkim.

The Himalayan Foothills

After a couple of days in Kathmandu, the group flew to the town of Biratnagar in the eastern, flat lowlands, close to the indian border. Here, we entered 2 landrovers and started the drive for the mountains as far as we could get by vehicles. After 8 hours' drive, we camped at an altitude of app. 2.000 meters outside the village of Hile, close to the place where the road is replaced by a walking trail.

From here, the real expedition started. It took us 2 weeks to reach Kanchenjunga base camp at Pang Pema at an altitude of 5.200 meters, very close to the place where the borders of Nepal, Tibet and Sikkim meet. But reaching the mountain wasn't the only purpose of the trip. The trek through the foothills was a great experience, too. During the first week, we walked through an area of villages totally unspoilt by tourism. We followed a ridge at an altitude of 2-3.000 meters and sometimes entered the dense rhododendron forests. Below the forest line, there were small villages inhabited by the Rai and Limbu tribe. Unlike other trekking routes in Nepal there were no hotels, guest houses, begging or souvenir sale. Instead, the locals stared at us unstrained, especially at the camps. And no doubt our dress, equipment and habits were a source of wondering in their minds - not to speak of our motives to walk here voluntarily!

On the way through the Himalayan Foothills we met people and villages totally unspoilt by tourism.

Trekking along the ridge, we had an almost permanent view of Makalu (near Everest) and - further east - of our destination: The enormous Kanchenjunga massif, which in spite of the distance of about 50 km seemed very impressive and attractive. After 4 days along the ridge, the trail dropped steeply down to 750 meters at the town of Dobhan. The descending route led us through a very picturesque landscape with decorated houses, fruit trees and rice and millet fields.

After Dobhan, we followed the main route up to Kanchenjunga. For the next 10 days, we walked along the Tamur and Ghunsa rivers and slowly ascended through the river valleys from 750 to 5.200 meters. During these 10 days, we constantly had the roaring sound of water in our ears. Passage was sometimes difficult because of landslides, and not all the water crossings had bridges.

Close to the world's highest mountains

Finally, we reached the sherpa country, where "the capital" in these areas is Ghunsa, at an altitude of 3.400 meters. After one day's rest here, we really encountered the high altitudes. During the next 3 days, we ascended from 3.400 meters to Pang Pema (5.200 meters), which is the name of Kanchenjunga base camp (the place of the main camp for expeditions, who intend to climb Kanchenjunga). The landscape spread out, the views extended, and suddenly the real high mountains of the Himalayas were pretty close.

We were lucky about the weather. Most of the time, the ice-covered seven and eight thousanders rose crystal clear against the dark, blue sky. Some of the group tried to climb a 6.000'er, but none of them reached the top because it was covered with ice and nobody had brought an ice axe. At night, lying in our sleeping bags, we could hear the avalanches thundering down from the heights. Star-gazing up here was incredible - I think that the star view from outside the Earth's atmosphere might be something like that.

One of the views you never forget! After a cloudy afternoon, the clouds disappear just before sunset, revealing a seven thousander at a very close distance - here the Jannu Peak, close to Kanchenjunga.

It took us 2 days to return to Ghunsa, but the biggest challenge of the trip was still ahead: If we didn't want to walk the same way back through the long Ghunsa valley, it was nescessary to cross the Lapsang Pass at an altitude of 5.200 meters. For many in the group, this turned out to be the hardest trek so far. We made a soft start from Ghunsa up to the pastures of Lumba Sumba, at the Yamatari Glacier. Here, we camped at an altitude of 4.400 meters on a grass meadow between purling water courses and yaks. The next day was really the tough one! For 12 hours, we walked and climbed between boulders and broken stones. Close to the pass the trail vanished, and we really appreciated our guides and the good weather.

From the top of the Lapsang Pass, it was down and down on the other side! First crossing another sea of boulders and broken stones, later crossing pastures and meadows to the edge of the Yamatari-glacier, where we camped. This camp, only a few kilometers from Sikkim, was one of the most beautiful of the whole trip. We had the view of ice-covered peaks on all sides except through a small valley to the south, where you could look down to the Himalayan Foothills. At sunset, che clouds were usually covering the rhododendron forests and the foothills like a blanket so you felt like sitting in a plane. To the north, you could walk through an area with meadows, pastures, small lakes and yaks, and about one hour's walk from the camp, you could watch Kachenjunga from a very close distance, this time from the south. It was a fantastic place!

At the Gurung tribe

We had a resting day in this camp, and after that, we started trekking back to civilization. Initially through dense forests along the Simbua River, the next day crossing two ridges to Yampoudin, the first major village after Ghunsa. We celebrated the arrival in "town" by drinking plenty of rice brandy. Some of us went for a night trip in town later and visited a necromancer. I didn't join that trip, but those who did told that it had been incredibly exciting, and they returned to their tents very late at night! Lucky enough, the following day was a resting day, where everybody relaxed or washed their clothes.

Rice harvesting at the Gurung tribe

The rest of the trekking days took place in inhabited areas most of the time. We had chosen a route used by very few trekkers, and that could obviously be felt and seen in the villages: Still no begging or souvenir sales, only couriosity and friendliness. We were now walking through the country of the Gurung tribe with their beautiful clay houses. Plenty of people were working in the fields with their water buffalows and oxen, finishing the rice harvest. Useless to say, that a lot of films were shot in this marvellous area!

Finally, after many days, we reached "civilization" - in this case defined as a village from where it was possible to drive on by vehicle. We had ordered a small bus from the village of Phidim for the transport out of the mountains. This transport became a 14 hour drive by roads making wheel tracks in Denmark seem like excellent highways. The minibus was fully loaded and drove slowly for hours on the bad road with its furious motor in the first gear. Our sherpas, porters and cooking team entertained us with their local songs most of the time. At dusk, we got a glimpse of one of the big tea districts in Nepal at Illam, where the tea bushes covered the waving mountains to the horizon.

Back in Kathmandu

This was about 1 / 1.000 of what we saw and experienced on the trek - and I haven't even described the whole trip. Before and after the start of the trekking we stayed in the Kathmandu valley and saw a lot of things. In Kathmandu, I tried very hard to find the small hotel where I lived in the spring of 1969, when I visited Nepal for the first time. I finally found it after a long time. In the old days, 20 years ago, it was a countryside hotel, but now it was squeezed between 2 tall luxury hotels, and the building wasn't even a hotel any longer. It was used as a kind of clothing factory, where nepalese workers were making clothes for the poor inhabitants of the town.

Kathmandu HAS become a modern town with all the good and bad consequenses of that, but the Kathmandu valley itself and the old part of the town are absolutely worth visiting. And the mountains of Nepal with its hundreds of villages and numerous tribes and languages will still keep their peace and tranquility for many many years.

The Swayambhunath-temple (better known as the Monkey Temple) is situated on top of a hill west of Kathmandu and is the oldest temple in the Kathmandu valley.

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