The Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) can rightly be said to be ‘the mother of all trekking trails’, consisting as it does of a network of existing trails which form not only the longest but also the highest trekking trail in the world. The GHT, in total, is some 2,800 miles, traversing the complete Himalayan region. It offers fantastic views of the 14 highest peaks of the world accompanied by intriguing bio-diversity. The Nepal section is substantial, almost 1,700 km long. It begins near Kangchenjunga on the eastern border of Nepal and goes west along the deep shadows of eight massive 8,000 m peaks. These range from the bashful Makalu to the famed Everest.
The westernmost point of the GHT begins in Nanga Parbat in Pakistan and goes past the headwaters of India’s Ganges river; the complete length of Nepal below Annapurna, Everest, and Kangchenjunga; through much of Sikkim; similarly, Bhutan; finally reaching Arunachal Pradesh of India; Myanmar; and Namche Barwa in Tibet. Here are some of the more interesting sections of the Nepali section of the Great Himalaya Trail:
The Kangchenjunga region is an area of pristine forests with wild trails at the lower altitudes. It is a particularly great destination because it is relatively unexplored due to its distance from Kathmandu. November is a good time to visit this region since then you will encounter deep blue skies undisturbed by any clouds. On the other hand, if you go there in April, you’ll see lovely red rhododendrons (Nepal’s national flower) in full bloom, almost coloring the hills red. Kanchenjunga (in Tibetan: ‘five great treasure houses of snow’) at 8,586 m is the third highest mountain in the world. It delineates the country’s eastern border with Sikkim.
The Kangchenjunga Conservation Area is sparsely populated but includes large chunks of unspoiled forests, alpine meadows, and high altitude wetlands. It is inhabited by a number of exotic wildlife including the elusive snow leopard and the shy red panda (both endangered species), as well as the Himalayan black bear, the Assamese macaque, and the clouded leopard. Because it gets plenty of rainfall during the monsoon, the area is extremely rich in flora, with over 2000 plant species recorded till date.
Regarding the trail itself, it begins in Tumlingtar from where you trek through agricultural land inhabited by people of the Rai and Limbu ethnicities. Further on, you’ll come across deep valleys, again richly foliaged and as you climb higher, you reach areas lived in by people of Sherpa, Tamang, and Bhutia ethnicities. You’ll also come across the Milke Danda ridge, an area having many small lakes, and from where the view of Kangchenjunga is truly magnificent, as are the views of Makalu and Everest to the northwest. You can trek on north past the Kangchenjunga base camp at Pangpema, to Jhinsang La, which is actually GHT’s starting point in Nepal.
The Makalu Section
The Makalu Barun National Park has 25 species of rhododendron, 47 of orchids, 440 kinds of birds, and 75 animal species, including the red panda, the clouded leopard, and the Asian golden cat. Vindicating the amazing bio-diversity of the region, the forest here extend over five bio-climatic zones ranging from tropical to temperate to alpine. Trekking in this region is for the more adventurous since the area is pretty remote and where experience certainly counts. As you trek onwards to the Makalu base camp, you’ll be passing through some pretty high altitudes with Makalu (‘The Great Black’) always as the backdrop. You’ll also have excellent views of Everest, Lhotse, and Baruntse peaks. As said before, the GHT is a network of existing and new trails, which means that you can connect to the Kanchenjunga section through the remote Lumbha Sambha, and to the Everest section through another equally challenging route. However, it is easier to trek the Makalu section through the Arun and Barun river valleys.
Rolwaling and Everest Section
Everest, Lhotse, and Cho Oyu, three of the world’s highest peaks, are found here. This is also predominantly Sherpa territory. It’s an area where you can get quite a cultural experience as well and see firsthand the lifestyle of the legendary Sherpas. As for the trek itself, the trek to the Everest base camp is without doubt, the most popular trek in Nepal, which means that you’ll be able to avail of many welcome facilities, such as comfortably furnished lodges and well-stocked restaurants on the trail. However, its very popularity is a double edged sword, since in the peak season you are liable to be overwhelmed by the crowds. Nevertheless, the ‘Three Passes Trek’ will take you into Sagarmatha National Park, perhaps the highest park in the world. It has tranquil turquoise lakes and a number of monasteries, and some would say, the best view of Everest from the Renjo La. To the west, the trail carries on to the Rolwaling valley through the Tashi Labsta (5,760 m), quite a challenging trek. Skirting along the wide glaciated valley of Rolwaling, the trail passes some pretty villages like Bigu Gompa and Beding. On the way, you’ll see mighty Gauri Shanker (7,121 m).
Langtang and Helambu
Reaching Langtang is easy. There’s a convenient but comparatively secluded route that goes through spectacular scenery up into the high mountains and into the Helambu and Langtang trekking areas. One of the 108 sacred valleys (beyul) in the Himalayas, Helambu is known for its peaceful environment and so, especially revered by Buddhists. The Sherpas who inhabit Helambu call themselves Hyalmo. To repeat, the scenery is uplifting—quaint little villages, terraced paddy slopes, and forests of pine. The trail goes up to the Langtang National Park. All in all, it’s a most pleasant and restful trek. You’ll find a number of holy lakes here, among which, Gosainkunda is one of the more famous. Every year, during the full moon of August, thousands of Shiva devotees congregate here to take a sin-washing dip in its icy waters after which, they change their sacred Janai thread. Paanch Pokhari (Five Lakes) is another holy site for both Buddhists and Hindus alike.
The Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) reaches Langtang via the 5,308 m Tilman Pass—a challenging trek, no doubt. However, from you can have a view of Tibet from the pass, which should make the effort worthwhile. You can also trek through Kanja La or Laurebina La instead of Tilma pass. As you descend, you pass through another a valley of glaciers and snowy peaks, including Langtang Lirung (7,227 m), the most imposing among the lot. If you are trekking in the autumn months, you could make a halt at Langtang and look around for some of the delicious locally-made cheese and the equally mind-blowing yak curd.
Manaslu and Ganesh Regions
Trekking in this area takes you to the Tiru Danda ridge, from where you get fantastic views of Annapurna, Manaslu, and Ganesh peaks. The geographical mid-point of the Nepali section of the GHT lies in Manaslu (Sanskrit: ’Mountain of the Spirit’), which is also the 8th highest peak in the world. The Manaslu Circuit Trek is, for many people, one of the best all-round treks that Nepal has to offer. It is also the easiest way to connect to the GHT. And, the cultural experience on this trek is also worth the trip. Take a side trip on the way to reach Tsum Valley, an area inhabited by the Tsumba people who follow a strictly maintained code of non-violence. No animals can be killed here, and thus the area has great wildlife.
The villages here are simple and welcoming, and remind you of the good old days before life became so complicated. For example, Kholabensi, a particularly pretty village that has the blessings of the three peaks of Ganesh Himal, which form a majestic background. An especially famous village is Tatopani (‘Hot Water’), where people visit throughout the year to take refreshing baths in its hot spring water gushing out from many stone spouts. One of the major attractions of Manaslu is that this is one of the closet-to-get 8,000 meter mountains. Larkya La at 5,135 m is the highest point of the trek. To the east is the Ganesh Himal. This is the area where you can avail of the Tamang Heritage Trail to experience the culture and lifestyle of the Tamangs (Tibetan: ‘horse traders’), one of the largest ethnic groups in Nepal. In passing, it should be noted that Manaslu holds special interest for the Japanese since the first person to ascend its summit was from that country.
Annapurna and Mustang Section
This section, known as the Annapurna Circuit, is the most popular trek after the Everest base camp trek. This is primarily due to its easy accessibility and the stupendous views, which includes Annapurna I, the world’s 10th highest mountain. Note, however, that the Annapurnas consist of six mountains extending for some 55 kilometers, all of which are over 7, 200 m tall. Because of the high degree of precipitation here, they are specially challenging to climb. You will find some large glaciers here and deep valleys as well—in other words, fantastic views are assured. This is also where you’ll find the mysterious kingdom of Lo Manthang in Mustang, which ironically, is a dry and arid region. However, the barren landscape is offset by many lovely monasteries and blooming apple orchards. At the same time, development is rapidly destroying this trek’s character due to the construction of motorable roads and the resultant crowds. This is being combated by some innovative guides by taking trekkers over out-of-the-routine trails, such as over the high trail of Kang La and up to Tilicho Lake, which is frozen all year rounds. Still, no matter what trail you take, you will surely be mesmerized at the sight of the Kali Gandaki valley, said to be the deepest gorge in the world, and located between two great mountains, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri.
Dolpa is one of the most remote and isolated regions of the country and the lifestyle here is influenced dominantly by Tibetan culture. You can especially observe authentic Tibetan culture first hand in Inner Dolpo. The region is known for its many trading routes used since ancient times for trade with Tibet (salt trade routes); lots of charming monasteries (including the Pal Sentan Thasoon Chholing Gompa, a Bönpo gompa overlooking the azure Phoksundo Lake, built some 60 generations ago), as well as some fortresses of days gone by. Within the monasteries, you will find many monks totally engrossed in painting thangkas (detailed religious pictures).
The Dolpa-pa (people of Dolpa) practices both types of Tibetan Bon religion. This religion is more ancient than even Buddhism.
On bridges and rooftops you will observe dokpas (wooden dolls) that are believed to fend away evil spirits. On the southern side of Dolpa are green hills while on the northern side you will find an almost barren landscape. This side lies in the rain shadow of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna peaks (both 8000-thousanders). This is where you will find Shey Gompa and Dho Tarap, two villages at extremely high altitudes, and which can be reached only through high passes. This means that in winter, when the passes are covered in snow, the villages remain completely isolated from the rest of the world. This also means that the inhabitants are semi-nomadic, moving from place to place, trading all the while. The Phoksundo Lake is undoubtedly the highlight of Dolpa, its crystal clear, turquoise waters a sight that can leave even the most jaded traveler awe-struck. As far as the GHT is concerned, this section of the trail guarantees a unique cultural experience and an amazing geographical landscape.
Rara and Jumla
This region is the crossroads of the upper and lower GHT route. It can also be regarded as a cultural crossroad where you will find a fascinating mix of Hindism, Buddhism, and shamanism practices, the influence of the three religions also reflected in lifestyle, culture, and architecture.
Besides this, the focal point is Rara Tal, the country’s largest lake by far, and beautiful by any standards. ‘A shimmering blue jewel set in a ring of snowy peaks,’ is how one poetic soul described the lake. The Rara National Park consists of deeply forested hills full of blue pine, spruce, and cedar. Because the lake is an excellent wetland site, you’ll find a large variety of birds in the park, especially in April and November when huge flocks of migrating birds like ducks and cormorants swarm to the site.
Trekking here is perhaps more adventurous than in other places because of the lack of many facilities taken for granted elsewhere, especially that of porters. Situated northwest to Rara are Humla and Taklakot which you can reach trekking on ancient salt routes. Southwest lies the Indian border. However, it is to the north that the most intriguing place lies—mysterious Mugu—Nepal’s most remote and least-developed area. Here also begins the challenging high route to Dolpa. On the other hand, the lower route goes east to Jumla, an easy trek to say the least. Another intriguing site here is the Sinja valley where the earliest examples (13th century) of Nepali written script were found on its cliff walls. From the 12th to the 14th century, this was the capital of the Khasa (or Malla) kingdom and that is why, when here, look out for some tall rock pillars with inscribed images. These are known as the ‘Malla Stones’.
Humla, in the far northwestern region of the country, is one of the most culturally fascinating places in Nepal, an interesting mix of Khasa, Rajput, and Thakuri cultures. It is also the gateway to Mount Kailash, the sacred abode of Lord Shiva. Mt. Saipal at 7,031 m is the highest mountain in this region. Go to Humla between May and November for an enthralling trip that will take you straight into the middle-ages. Find yourself in Limi, a hidden valley encircled completely by mountains. Here you will observe three medieval villages that appear to be surprisingly neat and well-maintained. Here you will find that the villagers are xceptionally friendly and welcoming. At nearby Halji, you will find an architecturally captivating monastery that is 800 years old, the Rinchenling Gompa where the monks practice the ancient Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
The detour to Limi while on the final section of the Nepal GHT is worth the time and effort
The Far-West is bounded to the east by the Karnali River that thunders its way downwards from Tibet’s sacred Mt Kailash. Although the Nepali language is said to have originated here, it is as far removed from modern Nepal as the Sinai Desert is from the Pacific Ocean; no wonder it is the least developed region of the country. As you trek through the area, you are likely to meet dhamis (shamans) wearing thick white turbans and gold rings dangling from their ears. These are the ‘doctors’ for all kinds of ailments in the region, so isolated is the Far-West. While here, you will of course visit Khaptad National Park, which is famous for its unspoiled forests, gently sloping hills, and teeming wildlife. All the while, the ice-capped peaks of Nampa, Api, and Saipal hover in the background. This place is also visited by the spiritually inclined because it is in a cave here that a renowned ascetic named Khaptad Swami lived to be 110 years old, disseminating great wisdom to all who listened. During the full moon in June, every year, thousands of devotees come to celebrate the festival of Jestha Purnima at Tribeni, the confluence of three rivers, and to worship at the shrine of Lord Shiva.