There is no mountain range mightier than the Himalayas, an awe-inspiring crest of snow-blanketed peaks which lifts the plains of the Indian subcontinent to the Roof of the World, the Tibetan Plateau. In the process, it notches up nine of the world’s ten highest mountains, including the greatest of them all: Mount Everest. Needless to say, the region has made Nepal a magnet for seasoned mountaineers looking to test their chops in the world’s most demanding terrain, but you don’t need to be a pro to experience the majesty of the Himalayas up close. Even if you’re a complete beginner you can trek Nepal’s more accessible routes, including the popular Langtang National Park, and experience some of the planet’s most spectacular scenery as you go.
For many first-time Himalayan adventurers, the first port of call is Pokhara, a city in the middle of the country which has long been one of Nepal’s tourism hotspots. The appropriately named Lakeside neighbourhood, on the shores of the beautiful Phewa Tal, is as buzzy a backpacker enclave as you’ll find anywhere.
Packed with hotels, bars, restaurants and trekking shops, this is the perfect place to prepare for your first adventures in the Himalayas – and to unwind again afterwards. There’s nothing more comforting after days or weeks in the mountains than a steaming glass of masala chai and a slice of Pokhara’s famous apple pie.
Pokhara is a major gateway to the Annapurna range, which looms dramatically some 25km to the north, dominated by the fishtail-shaped peak of Machapuchare. You can barely move for trekking agencies in town, so you’ll have no problem hiring equipment, guides and porters, should you want to.
Be sure to check that your agency properly insures the people it employs. Porters, in particular, are among the poorest people in Nepal and are vulnerable to exploitation, but employing them in the right way can be helpful to them. New trekkers may prefer to join an organised trip, where everything is sorted out for you – again, this is easy to arrange at agencies in town.
There are many different Annapurna trailheads beginning just a short taxi or bus ride from Pokhara. That, combined with the area’s potential for short, easy treks – some taking just a few days – makes this the most popular destination in Nepal for first-time trekkers.
Pokhara also offers other spectacular ways to experience the Himalayas. You can warm up for a longer trek by hiking up to the World Peace Stupa, a gleaming white Buddhist monument which affords spectacular views over Phewa Tal and the mountains. For an even more unforgettable perspective on the Himalayas, try paragliding from the Sarangkot viewpoint, as giant Himalayan griffon vultures soar in thermal vents around you and the lake shimmers beneath.
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The Langtang region, north of Kathmandu near the border with Tibet, became the first national park in the Nepalese Himalayas in 1976. Today, it remains one of the best places in Nepal (and, by extension, the world) for trekking – and it has the considerable added bonus of far smaller crowds than the Annapurna and Everest regions. The shortest version of the Langtang National Park trek takes around a week, including a couple of days’ bumpy bus travel to and from Kathmandu. The trek takes in stunningly diverse landscapes, from the verdant alpine meadows and ancient forests of the valley floor to the sheer icy face of the Langtang Glacier.
Nepal is famous for the flowers which blanket the mountain meadows in spring, and this is one of the best places to see them; the changing colours of autumn are also beautiful in Langtang National Park. Animals which live in this environment include tahr goats, Himalayan black bears and red pandas. Budding cryptozoologists might also want to keep their ears to the ground for reports of the fabled yeti, long a part of Himalayan folklore, which is said to roam the mountainsides here.
The Tamang people of the Langtang region have a rich traditional culture which blends Buddhism and shamanism; you can experience it firsthand in the guesthouses and villages of the valley. Already an oppressed minority group, things got infinitely worse for the Tamangs here when the area was devastated by the earthquake of 2015. By visiting, you are directly benefitting them and helping to preserve their unique and beautiful culture. It’s not just trekking that’s on the agenda here, either – white water rafting and climbing are two alternative ways to explore Langtang National Park.
For many visitors to Nepal, the lure of Everest is irresistible. Cresting the 8,848-metre summit of the world’s tallest mountain is one of the world’s great adventure experiences – and is strictly for people who know what they’re doing. Even relative beginners, though, can take in the stunning scenery of the region on the trek to Everest Base Camp, in itself one of the world’s most iconic mountain routes.
EBC is no picnic – it takes about two weeks, and the elevation and the cold both present bigger challenges than on the Annapurna Circuit. On the other hand, the altitude means that you have to take it slow – there is no other way – and the trekking itself is not particularly challenging assuming you’re reasonably fit. What’s more, once you get to Base Camp, you might just spark the passion and obsession of a lifetime, as you gaze upwards and dream of one day coming back to conquer the world’s mightiest peak.
Well-trodden routes in both the Everest and Annapurna regions are lined with trekking lodges, often referred to as ‘teahouses’, where you can rest up for the night in a basic but comfortable room, meet the locals, and acclimatise to the altitude. The food is one of the defining characteristics of Himalayan trekking; long after you come home, you’ll find yourself yearning for the hearty comfort of plates piled high with chow mein, Tibetan momos (steamed dumplings), and the ubiquitous daal bhaat.
If you’re a first-time trekker, then you might be tempted to splurge on high-tech equipment before you leave, but there’s really no need – most of what you’ll need you can buy or rent in either Kathmandu or Pokhara. Needless to say, a pair of sturdy hiking boots is essential, as is a comfortable backpack and a sleeping bag.
Sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm are also must-haves, no matter what time of year you’re hiking, while thermals, waterproofs and gloves are also useful. A basic medical kit should contain Diamox (for altitude sickness), blister plasters, Immodium, antiseptic cream, water purification tablets and rehydration salts.
The most obvious health issue associated with the Himalayas relates to the altitude. You’ll probably read and hear some horror stories about AMS (acute mountain sickness), but in reality you’re not likely to experience anything more than common minor symptoms: dizziness, headaches and a sore throat. These will normally go away once the body has acclimatised to the altitude; it’s important not to ascend any further until you’ve stopped experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness. If symptoms get worse, descend immediately. Other than the altitude, the main health issue you’re likely to encounter is stomach problems. As elsewhere in Nepal, stick to bottled water, or that which has been properly purified or boiled.
For the vast majority of visitors, the Himalayas are relatively trouble-free. Whether you decide to brave Everest Base Camp, take your first mountaineering steps on the well-worn trails of the Annapurna, or content yourself with the occasional excursion from the creature comforts of Pokhara, the Himalayas hold the promise of the adventure of a lifetime.