The streets of Kathmandu are bustling with traffic today as the spring climbing and trekking seasons get underway in the Himalaya. Over the next few days, hundreds of mountaineers and backpackers will descend on the capital of Nepal before setting out for the country’s legendary hiking trails and unmatched alpine settings. For many, this will be a trip of a lifetime, taking them on a grand adventure into the very heart of the Himalaya. And for a select few, it is the chance to stand on top of some of the highest mountains on the planet.
For most of these visitors, the first stop on their journey is to the Thamel District of Kathmandu. This popular tourist destination is home to most of the city’s hotels and it is a great place to grab that last piece of gear you need before heading out into the mountains. Gear shops line the streets in this crowded and noisy part of town but not all of them are completely honest about the products they sell. In fact, if the deal on that North Face jacket or sleeping bag that you’ve had your eye on seems too good to be true, it’s probably because it is actually a cheap knockoff. Sure, it may survive the trip but don’t expect it to perform well or hold up over time.
After a day or two in Kathmandu, its time to head out to the Himalaya themselves. For those traveling to Everest, that mans a short flight to the mountain village of Lukla and the infamous Tenzing-Hillary Airport, named after the two men who first successfully summited the world’s tallest peak. Others will depart KTM for Pokhara, a city that grants access to the Annapurna Trekking Circuit and three of the highest mountains in the world – Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna itself.Most trekkers will spend a couple of weeks hiking through the Himalaya, spending their days on breathtakingly beautiful trails and nights in local teahouses. Those quaint inns offer comfortable accommodations, tasty food and shelter from the frequently changing weather. A trek to Everest Base Camp takes roughly 10-12 days to complete depending on the selected route and speed. The entire journey is a blend of adventure, culture and Buddhist spirituality that also just so happens to take place in one of the most spectacular settings on the planet.
For the climbers the journey is a much more difficult and demanding one. Their arrival at Base Camp is just the start of their adventure and over the following six weeks or so, they’ll spend most of their time acclimatizing to the altitude, honing their mountaineering skills and moving up and down the mountain. They’ll push themselves to the absolute physical limit, all the while keeping their eyes on the weather, just to get the chance to stand on the summit for a few brief – but glorious – minutes.
Traditionally, the climbing and trekking seasons begin as the snows of winter recede and end with the arrival of the Monsoon in early June. During those few brief months, the various teahouses and base camps will be crowded with mountaineers and adventure travelers who share the camaraderie of the trail. It is an experience unlike any other and one worth taking for those who enjoy their travels to be off the beaten path and bit more active.
Widely considered to be one of the best trekking routes in the entire world, the Annapurna Circuit wanders through the Himalaya, deftly mixing cultural experiences with breathtaking views. The trail ranges in length between 100-145 miles depending on which route a hiker takes, meandering through numerous tiny mountain villages along the way. Passing by the Annapurna Massif, the trail rises to a height of more than 17,700 feet as snow capped peaks tower overhead.
Recently, filmmaker Gerardo Sergovia sent five weeks walking the trail with a group of friends capturing more than a terabyte of video footage in the process. He has managed to distill all of that footage down to this one four and a half minute clip that does an amazing job of capturing the splendor of the Himalaya so well. If you love the mountains, you won’t want to miss this video. It may even inspire you to want to make the trek yourself.
Trekking in Nepal has long been a staple of adventure travel and one of the more popular trekking routes is the path to Everest Base Camp. Every year, thousands of hikers make the pilgrimage to the tallest mountain on the planet just to soak up the culture and landscapes of the Himalaya. It is a beautiful and challenging hike that will certainly leave a lasting impression on all who go.
This year, adventure travel company Discover Outdoors has teamed up with non-profit Kids of Kathmandu to organize a special trek to EBC that will be used as a fund raising program to help a local orphanage in Nepal. The trek, which takes place September 26 – October 13, is limited to just 12 to 15 participants. Those wishing to take part can choose to either pay $2995 of their own money or commit to raising $9000 in funds that go directly to the orphanage. Once the $9000 goal is reached, the trip is completely free for the participant.
All of the funds raised by the charity trek will go towards the installation of solar panels at an orphanage in the town of Bhaktapur. Like many places in Nepal, the village is prone to rolling blackouts and long periods without electricity. The solar panels will help alleviate this problem by providing power for the children living there. Those who elect to help raise funds for this project will also be given the opportunity to visit the orphanage and meet some of the children whose lives they are impacting.
More information on the trek can be found on the Discover Outdoors website including a full itinerary, tips for planning for the trek and details on fundraising efforts. Learn more by clicking here.
Thirty-year-old Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki had to be evacuated from Mount Everest yesterday after suffering severe frostbite to his fingers, toes and nose. He had spent the past six weeks climbing one of the most difficult routes on the mountain, but was turned back from the summit due to poor weather conditions.
Kuriki had been attempting one of the boldest climbs on Everest in recent memory, going up the seldom-visited West Ridge alone and without the use of supplemental oxygen. He launched his summit bid last Wednesday after spending several days in Camp 2, located at 6500 meters (21,300 feet), waiting for the weather to improve. At the time, forecasts had indicated that high winds would drop in velocity, allowing access to the top of the mountain for a limited time, but even though he was able to climb as high as Camp 4, at 7920 meters (26,000 feet), Kuriki was never able to go higher.
On his descent, high winds and very cold temperatures likely contributed to the Japanese climbers frostbite, which was exasperated further by his decision to not use bottled oxygen. His numerous days at altitude were also likely contributing factors as well. A rescue helicopter was able to evacuate him from the mountain, taking him directly to a hospital in Kathmandu, where the extent of his injuries is still being evaluated.
Unlike the spring climbing season, in the fall Everest is practically deserted. This year, in addition to Kuriki, there was only one other team on the mountain. The unpredictable weather in the autumn makes it much more difficult to climb as well, and while in the spring there were more than 500 successful summits, it appears there won’t be any this fall.
When a midlife crisis hit Lisa Napoli in the wake of turning 40, she needed a break from L.A. and her job as a reporter for the public radio program “Marketplace.” A chance encounter with a good looking guy led her to a volunteer opportunity at Kuzoo FM in Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, famous for measuring its citizens’ well being by the Gross National Happiness metric.
Tourists weren’t allowed into Bhutan until the ’70s and the country had no airport until 1984. Even today, it’s difficult and expensive to get there, which is exactly why it’s considered by some to be a Himalayan paradise with an intact Buddhist culture that hasn’t yet been overrun by tourists. We talked to Napoli, who is now working on a biography about the late Mrs. Joan Kroc, about her experiences in Bhutan, tips for prospective visitors and why Bhutan is worth the hassle and expense.
Authorities in Bhutan were considering lowering the daily minimum travelers have to spend, which might have opened up the floodgates for a lot more Western tourists, right?
The tourist tax is there to keep a huge volume or tourists out. The least you can pay is $250 per day and you have to book through a tour operator. But tour operators lose $65 of that $250 in tax to the government. So they have to pay the hotel, the guides and the transportation off of the $185 that goes to them.
A lot of people want to skirt that visa by volunteering or doing something else but Bhutan doesn’t care about that. They make their money from the tourist tax. It’s the second highest revenue generator for them, behind hydroelectric power.
So when the government started talking about lowering the daily rate the tour guides freaked out because they have a hard time arranging the tours for the $185 a day they get. Only 27,000 outsiders got their butts into Bhutan last year so the tour operators were not happy about the idea of taking the tourist visa away or lowering the rate.
Does Bhutan cap the number of tourist visas it issues each year?
No. There’s a misperception from 25 years ago that only a certain number are let in each year. When they opened the gates to let tourists in, they were worried that everyone would want to come but that wasn’t the case. McKinsey Consulting told them they could get 100,000 tourists a year but they can’t do that because there’s nowhere they could put 100,000 tourists in Bhutan.
And what does that $250 a day buy in Bhutan these days?
You don’t get to specify exactly where you want to go or where you’ll stay. You can specify how you’d like to focus the trip, trekking or culture or whatever but you don’t set the exact itinerary per se. Unless you go the super high-end route and stay at the Amankora, which is a $1,000 per night hotel.
So let’s say my wife and I had two weeks to visit Bhutan, how would we do it?
You’d probably want to go through India or Bangkok. Bangkok’s airport is nicer, it’s fabulous. Druk Air, the only airline that flies into Bhutan also just started service from Singapore as well. The flight from Bangkok runs every day through Dhaka or Calcutta. You fly into Paro airport, which is one of the world’s most dangerous and beautiful airports.
If you have two weeks, you’d spend a few days in Paro seeing the beautiful sacred Tiger’s Nest Monastery. That’s the sacred monastery that’s the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan. That’s a beautiful place. After that, it depends on what you want to see. There’s no Disneyfication of Bhutan yet but where you go depends on your threshold for tolerating really crummy roads and your interest in being on the trekking circuit instead of in a car.
Will the $250 per day cover all my expenses? What kind of hotel can I get for that lower end package?
It’s going to get you an OK hotel. They’ve been working to upgrade all the hotels but it’s still variant. But the $250 a day will cover everything except the stuff you’ll buy and your drinks and alcohol. But it’s awkward for a lot of people because you have to wire the money to the tour operator up front.
Most tour operators, other than the very big expensive ones, involve wiring money to some strange place. The plane ticket alone from Bangkok to Paro is $800 round trip.
What sort of Americans visit Bhutan?
Mostly wealthy travelers. But it’s a different sort of wealthy traveler than you might find in, say a 5-star resort somewhere. A lot of the people who go have been almost everywhere else in the world and they want to go someone where not a lot of tourists go. Then you have people who are interested in Buddhism or people who are interested in hardcore trekking.
You also run into Japanese tourists and Indian tourists because Indian tourists don’t have to pay the tourist tax minimum.
So Bhutan isn’t cheap and it’s not easy to get to. What’s the upside of making the effort?
If you want to see a place that looks nothing like anywhere you’ve ever been before and see it before it’s developed, you’ve got to go. If you want to see the Himalayas in its pure state, without endless tour buses, you have to see it. I’ve been in super remote villages there were the people have never seen a white person before. Most people under 35 speak some English, they’re taught English in school.
I’ve been six times now and my experience has been different from normal tourists because I wasn’t staying in hotels. But for someone with a sense of adventure, there’s nothing like it.
From reading the book, it sounded like you weren’t very fond of the food in Bhutan though.
From my perspective, the food was terrible. But if you stay in hotels, your experience will be different because they’ll cater more to foreign visitors in how they cook. I had an authentic Bhutan experience. I was a guest in people’s homes who weren’t used to visitors.
So were you forced to eat some really nasty stuff?
I just learned not to eat. I carried food with me or ate before I left the house and tried to be polite. The food is difficult because it’s red-hot chili peppers stewed with processed cheese served under red rice. I don’t eat processed cheese under any circumstance in this country.
What you have to remember if you go to Bhutan is that people aren’t used to Western tourists. That’s one reason why my book is very unpopular in Bhutan because I talk about the place in a way that they’re not used to. If you want the resort experience, it’s not the place to go.
Why don’t they like the book?
I get some nasty mail. I get mail from people who read the book and are dying to go to Bhutan but can’t afford it. I get mail from people who are reading the book who are going there and people who were there already and think I don’t understand Bhutan, and ‘how dare I write that book.’ And then I get mail from people who don’t like that I refer to it as the happiest place on earth since they kicked out these Nepalese refugees.
What advice do you have for people who want to visit Bhutan but don’t want to take the tour?
There is no mechanism for volunteerism there; most people like me just luck into it. There’s a small need for certified teachers but interaction with the outside world there is relatively new. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help people get visas there and I just can’t do it. But that’s what’s charming about Bhutan.
Should people base themselves in Thimpu, the capital, on a trip to Bhutan?
No. You want to get out and see the country and nature. It’s too big to just do day trips though. For example, the first READ Global built library in the country is 250 miles from Thimpu and it takes 13 hours to get there.
When did you take your first trip to Bhutan?
2007. In the book, I chronicle three trips to Bhutan but I’ve been there six times over the last five years.
Hopefully your publisher is paying for that?
Nope. I got an advance for the book. I didn’t go intending to write a book. I was burnt out on my world and I had this opportunity because I’d just sold an apartment so I had some cash. So I took the time off work and went to work for free (in Bhutan) at my own expense. But I was so dazzled, I had to go back and see it again.
So I went back for two more weeks and volunteered again. Then we sold the book in March 2008 and I went back to Bhutan and got a visa for two months and then went back again six months later and then went back again right before my book came out and spent time in the eastern part of the country.
You worked for NPR and then quit your job eventually after visiting Bhutan, is that right?
I was working for a National Public Radio show called “Marketplace.” I quit once I got my advance because I just couldn’t do that job any more. I was done so I quit in 2008. I was fortunate that my agent sold the book for enough money that I didn’t have to have a job for that period of time and recently I’ve been working part time at a public radio affiliate in Los Angeles.
But I have an uneasy relationship with the news business and don’t really like being part of it, so I contribute arts segments to make a living. My intention was to leave L.A. but I fell in love.
With a guy from Bhutan?
No. I fell in love with a man from Ethiopia who lives here in L.A. He asked me to moderate a panel at the library here, that’s how I met him.
You wrote in the book that you were suffering from a midlife crisis. Did going to Bhutan change your life?
Yeah, I wrote a whole book about it. It completely changed my perspective on things. I tried to get people to think about media and the impact of how we perceive ourselves and the world and materialism, all the themes I wrote about in the book.
A lot of people go off to travel when they’re having a midlife crisis. Is Bhutan a good place for people to discover themselves or make some big change in their lives?
You can find enlightenment on the subway. Your perspective can change anywhere. If you look at my book it’s about my perspective shifting because of this radically different place I went to, but that can happen for anyone anywhere. Not everyone can go to Bhutan and have the same experience I did there.
The whole lesson for me in returning to L.A. is trying to figure out how to get as comfortable as possible here and making myself feel the same way I felt when I was in Bhutan.