Eastern Nepal, particularly the eastern section of the Great Himalayan Trail (GHT), had lured me for a while. And explore I did, venturing into the region a total of three times in 2023, each journey adding more trails to my map.

Tentative route. Moving east (Kanchenjunga Conservation Area) to west (Makalu Barun National Park).

First Trip: May 2023

Sijan, a close friend of mine, having gotten into grad school, was fulfilling a vow to visit Pathivara 3,794 m (Nepali: पाथिभरा देवी मन्दिर, Limbu: Mukkumlung), perched on a hilltop in Taplejung. We set off by car from Kathmandu, with her mom, traversing the newly built hilly highway and the under-construction Tamor corridor. One interesting encounter on Pathivara hike was with human porters charging Rs. 200/kg for pilgrims unable to walk the trail themselves. The sight of elderly couples being carried up the path underscored their devotion.

Second Trip: Monsoon Mishap (July 2023)

This trip aimed to visit the Kanchenjunga North Base Camp (KNBC) and then traversing west to Makalu Barun National Park. This time with Srijan, a highschool friend, and a fellow guide at Himalayan Adventure Labs. Relaxing beforehand in my hometown of Bharatpur, Chitwan, I flew the familiar route – Bharatpur (208m) to Kathmandu (1,400m) to Bhadrapur (91m). However, flight delays plagued both legs, forcing me to catch up with Srijan and Vivek (fellow guide and operations head at HAL) at Kathmandu airport for a later flight to Bhadrapur.

Srijan and Sudeep at Taplejung, picture just before leaving for the trail.

Our budget-friendly accommodation near Bhadrapur turned out to be a noisy, dungeon-like hotel next to the highway. As we prepared to leave, I noticed a blister-like shape on my right thigh. Recognizing the importance of addressing such issues near medical facilities, we skipped the morning jeep ride and instead spent precious time visiting two hospitals. Thankfully, a doctor diagnosed it as insect-bite dermatitis and prescribed medication. With a doctor’s blessing, we finally headed off to Taplejung.

Taplejung town itself has seen significant development, with most of the trail from there to Sekathum now a road. We opted for the old, poorly maintained trail from Tapethok, following the west side of the river. This path eventually led us astray into a field of cardamoms, a major cash crop in the region, price reaching unto $20/kg. Fun fact: Nepal is the largest producer of large cardamom, accounting to 68% of the global production followed by India and Bhutan. The lush monsoon landscape provided a pleasant backdrop, but the lack of proper acclimatization started to take its toll as we neared KNBC. Headaches intensified with altitude – a classic sign of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Despite reaching Lhonak, pushing further seemed unwise yet we decided to walk towards the base camp. At this point Srijan also began showing symptoms of AMS, and just 2.5km short of KNBC, we made the tough decision to turn back.

Yaks of Lhonak. Srijan as a chief guest.

Descending to Ghunsa, my AMS worsened, raising concerns about potential High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). The first two symptoms of HACE – fatigue and ataxia – mirrored my condition on top of the existing AMS symptoms. After careful consideration in Ghunsa, I made the difficult decision to forgo the western leg of the trek and call for a helicopter evacuation. Completing the trek in six days, compared to the usual ten, was a textbook case of inadequate acclimatization. Without clients to prioritize, I had taken more risks than usual, a decision that proved unwise. It was a somber Heli ride to Kathamdnu. Once in Kathmandu, with some rest, and plenty of oxygen I recovered in a couple of days.

Heli ride back to Kathmandu 🙁

Third Time’s the Charm (September 2023)

Determined to finish what I started, I booked a flight to Suketar airport in mid-September. Unfortunately, bad weather forced the plane to return mid-air. Back in Kathmandu, I secured another ticket to Bhadrapur and boarded a north-bound jeep. This time, I started the trek at Taplethok. In Amjilosa I met with a team of botanist from the Department of Plant Resources who were doing plant survey in the area. I proudly showed them ‘Natural History of Kanchenjunga‘ a book I had with me, by Joseph Dalton Hooker. Joseph was a British botanist and explorer in the 19th century. He was a founder of geographical botany and Charles Darwin’s closest friend.

In Gyabla, I stayed at Chungi Sherpa’s Namaste Hotel. Here, I learned that monsoon floods had washed away the bridge after Nango La which connects with the trail to Olangchung Gola. With Chungi’s brother as my guide, we took a detour from Gyabla. The overgrown trail clearly indicated infrequent use. Battling leeches, we reached Olangchung Gola after dark and in the rain. We stumbled upon our accommodation and (un)intentionally woke Cheten Tashi Sherpa and his wife. Relief washed over me as we hung our leech-laden clothes on the balcony and settled in for a steaming bowl of noodle soup beside the warm fireplace, sharing the space with a gracious house cat.

Trading village of Olangchung Gola.

Gola, once a bustling trading hub between Tibet and Nepal via the Tipta La (5094m), is now a quiet village as the border is closed since the onset of Covid-19. I decided to stay for an extra day, exploring the village and letting my clothes dry for the next journey. The grip of Nepali bureaucracy was inescapable. I was at the local police station, using non-existent internet, forcing me to rely on non-functional connections to update my team and government officials regarding agency permit renewals. For a moment, it felt like I never left Kathmandu!

Chungi’s brother offered to extend my stay with a party invitation, which I politely declined and made my way out of Gola following the Tamor Nadi. This section from Gola to Tipta La has a road built with Chinese (aid), but the bridge at the junction of Tamor and Dingsamba rivers had been swept away by the monsoon. So I had to walk upstream towards Tipta La for the river crossing.

Leaving Gola.

I saw another traveler across the river, waved at him. A moment later a local came down the road, we chatted for 30 seconds; he was accompanying the trekker to the bridge. As we were greeting each other goodbye, he handed me a fresh cucumber, saying it was of no use to him as he was heading back to the village. I was pleasantly surprised, and thanked him for his generosity before pressing on.

At the first trekkers’ hut, I came across Simone, an Italian guy I saw earlier, who set out to walk the GHT. He had too much Tibetan bread and offered me some, which I politely declined as I had a fair share of mine. Later, I found out that he was carrying all his gear for technical passes, and his backpack weighed close to 30 kgs! We exchanged inreach addresses and Whatsapp numbers.

First trekker’s hut.

As dusk approached, I saw a yak herder’s hut across the stream. Too lazy to set up my own camp, I decided to take shelter there. When I went inside, it was spacious but empty, with only the yaks around the hut. I waited, and when a guy came in, I apologized for entering his hut. He simply replied with “kehi bhaena” – no worries. That misty evening, we chatted by the firewood about life, Sonam Sherpa’s (from Simbuk village, next to Mewa Khola) woes with lumpy skin disease that caused the deaths of his yaks We had sheep sukuti (dried meat) with bhat (rice), though I was tad bit worried about the disease. I listened to his story about traveling to the Middle East for work but returning due to illness.

Sonam dai’s abode. And mine for the night.

 

Sonam and Sudeep before bidding goodbyes.

The next day, Sonam dai accompanied me to the trail, and we waved goodbye, wishing each other and his yaks good health. Although the weather was overcast, the landscape was pretty amazing. The trail was not exactly clear on the approach to Lumba Sumba, so I checked the GPX tracks (of past trekkers) on my phone, which was helpful. Once at the pass, I took a quick picture and headed west towards Thudam. On the way, I saw another yak herder’s tent and asked if I could lie down for a bit (fatigue had set in by now). I rested for 15 minutes while sipping hot tea before moving on to Thudam.

Second trekker’s hut before Lumba Sumba.

 

Selfie at Lumba Sumba pass.

The house I crashed in at Thudam was bustling with people celebrating the end of a local NGO’s lumpy skin disease vaccine drive. The evening was loud with constant chatting over the kitchen fire, accompanied by alcohol, dancing, and picture-taking. Despite the noise, I was just glad to have crossed the first section of the trek. I was served warm food and finally had a bed to crash in, albeit only after the party ended.

The trek from Thudam to Chyamtang stands out as one of the most difficult sections for me. Sketchy sections featuring cliff drops and a narrow, half-meter-wide trail tested my nerves. Leeches (monsoon brings the best out of them) were relentless, forcing me to push through without even a water or snack break. Reaching another village just at dusk, I arrived in Chyamtang. Arriving felt like a homecoming. Junk food, coke, a bed, and a break from the wilderness – pure bliss.

Looking back at Chyamtang.

The next day in Hongong, I teamed up with Mingmar Bhote to navigate the challenging section around Malun Pokhari, a notorious spot for trekker disorientation. Unable to locate a trail or bridge to cross the Khorlakharka Khola, we took a detour. A quick lunch at a herder’s hut and we continued to spend the night ahead in a cave. Finding crossings at the onset of monsoon proved tricky. Sometimes, we were reduced to crawling on all fours across a single, slippery log.

Mighty Mingmar!

For the next couple of days, we slept in caves, ate plenty of buckwheat and somare (fermented cheese), battled the rain, foraged wild mushrooms, crossed numerous rivers and streams, and traversed bear territory. Finally, we merged with the Makalu trekking trail. Our trek concluded in Num, where we said our goodbyes with promises to catch up again soon. Mingmar took a jeep to Barun Dovan, requiring a one-day hike back to Hongon. As for me, a jeep ride delivered me to Khandbari. The next day, a short jeep ride to Tumlingtar airport brought me back to Kathmandu and the normalcy of daily life.

Second cave camp.

Notes:

After the trek, I stumbled upon this blog, “A WALK ACROSS MAKALU-BARUN” by Alton C. Byers. Byers attempted a route connecting Saisima with Hongu Khola and across to Khumbu. He and his team were following the path taken by climber/cartographer Erwin Schneider in 1956 and American adventurer Jack Cox in 1995. Both parties became lost in the dense forests down by the Hongu river channel and resorted to boiling and eating their boots, belts, and leather namlos for survival. Byers’ team were also lost on their approach to Hongu Khola and had to resort to short helicopter ride to get across. After comparing Byers notes with paper maps from Himalayan MapHouse (HMH), I believe they were tad south from where the actual trail is (based on paper maps from HMH), if there is one.

Near Khauma dada. The weather cleared up as we exited the Makalu Barun NP.

Gallery below.

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