View from Khopra Ridge, Nepal

There are loads of blogs and sites advising you on “everything” you need to know before embarking on a big hike through the Nepali mountains. I attempt here to offer a few things from my (albeit limited) personal experience that you might not find elsewhere. Of course, there will be some overlap, but hopefully only for the important stuff that probably deserves a second mention!

Here’s what I cover below:

Buying your TIMS cards and other permits: the truth(s!)

Firstly, the easy part: for each region, you need certain regional permits to trek. These are easy to find from quick searches, or by visiting the permit office in Kathmandu (at the Tourist Service Center, Adwait Marg, Kathmandu 44600) or in Pokhara (ACAP Office, ACAP Office, Pokhara 33700).

Tips for the permit office: Be sure to arrive at the office during opening hours (they close for lunch and close early on Fridays). Bring a note of your passport details and insurance documentation. You are also advised to bring lots of passport photos but you can get them done for free in the office while you’re there (and won’t get punished for smiling or wearing a hat!).

But do you need a TIMS card? We were told by blogs, chats, guidebooks and officials that we were required to buy a TIMS card for each trek we attempted, yet various other sources said there was no need. The truth, it seems, is not that simple.

While officials at one permit office insisted that TIMS was mandatory, an official at another office admitted that it is only required in principle. They said that you are supposed to buy it but also that nobody will stop you visiting the mountains without it. They then argued that TIMS is not just a permit, it is your way of checking into and out of the mountains, which could be helpful for your safety (and is standard safety practice in more modern hiking regions of the world). However…

Our TIMS cards were checked when starting our Khopra Ridge trek but I can’t say if they would have stopped us if we hadn’t had  them with us. And nobody checked us for TIMS on our Langtang-Gosaikunda trek.

From what we heard from other trekkers, it seems you probably can trek without a TIMS card. But should you?

If pushed, I would argue not. We paid for TIMS cards (2,000 NPR each) for each of our treks as a kind of access payment for the conservation and administration of the mountains and their many trails. That said, who knows how much of that money actually goes into sensible spending on the people and places that need it? Probably not much. It does pay for a lot of paperwork (and the staffing to produce it) and let’s be realistic, it’s not an information management system for tourists because:

a) It’s on paper, not in an online system, so I doubt anyone could check up on you if you were in trouble.
b) We didn’t sign into to any locations (e.g. guesthouses) along the trail.
c) Nobody cared to ask for our TIMS when we were leaving the mountains.

So, for all the officials know, we could still be up there, wandering about, lost in the woods. Nobody will know if you don’t return, and because nobody checks your passage along the way, they wouldn’t be able find your last location if anyone raised the alarm.

I suspect the better way to find a loved one if they have gone dark is to ask to speak with the guesthouses on the trail, as the guesthouses know each other and are in regular contact by phone. They might remember who has recently stayed. Along with that, perhaps the Nepali military would be worth contacting, as they have stations throughout the trekking areas. But don’t quote me on this, I’m not a mountain guide.

Ultimately, is it worth risking getting turned away from the mountain because you were too cheap to contribute to their system?

To hire a guide or not?

In some trekking areas, such as Manaslu, it is mandatory to hire a guide. But in most it is not. So should you?

The short answer is that it’s up to you, depending on what you want to get out of the trip.

Most of the people we met on the mountain, of all ages and experience levels, hired a guide and most hired a porter too. We didn’t hire a guide or porters for either trip (to Khopra Ridge or Langtang-Gosaikunda). Here’s why:

Without a Guide:

  • Firstly, we followed only well-established trekking routes so there was little chance of getting lost (it would have been really hard to lose the trail where we went).
  • But our main reason was that we just wanted to do it by ourselves. We didn’t want to feel any burden on needing to make conversation with anyone, or sticking to their pre-planned schedule and choice of accommodation, and we enjoyed the daily challenge of figuring out our route, finding a place to stay, ordering food and so on.

That said, we met at least three people who lost the trail at some point, one of whom wandered the woods alone for eight hours before finding the path right by where they started (I can’t imagine how they managed this). And we are told that the guest always gets final say on where to stay, what to eat, etc. so you can refuse the pre-booked itinerary that your guide sets up.

With a Guide:

For any kind of travel experience, the quality of your guide can really make the experience, and rarely break it. A poor guide, who is hard to understand or get along with, might be an annoyance but probably won’t ruin the trip if you have the positivity and independence to make the most of the trip anyway. While a good guide can elevate the experience into the adventure of a lifetime.

The obvious major advantages of having a guide are:

  • They can enrich your understanding of the surrounding environment, and be a conduit for interacting with the local people, culture and ecosystem.
  • They keep you safe and, well, guide you. A good guide knows to spot and manage the symptoms of altitude sickness and other ailments. They know the routes. They know the dangers of mountain environments. They are a deterrent from the (extremely low) risk of being mugged or worse.

Is it a Guide, Porter or Porter-Guide:

  • Guides know the mountains, speak adequate levels of your required language, and take responsibility for ensuring you have a safe and enjoyable trip. But they are not required to carry any of your luggage, that’s a porter’s job.
  • Porters carry your shit for you. There is a common load limit, which you should discuss with your guide or agents. Many porters don’t speak foreign languages and shouldn’t be expected to be hosts for your experience, although there are lots of exceptions to this statement – you might get lucky.
  • There is a hybrid role of Porter-Guide, who is generally less experienced or professional than a full-blown guide but is working their way into that role. Porter-guides carry some of your load for you but their load limit is lower than a porter. We were advised by a highly experienced trekker to book a porter-guide, although he was probably also (correctly) guessing that we are cheapskates who don’t like to spend much and don’t mind carrying most of our own load.

General Considerations regarding guides and Porters:

  • You don’t need to book them from your country, unless you’re tight on time. It is generally advised to wait until you get to Kathmandu or Pokhara and shop around. Not only can you expect to spend less, you can meet the people who are going to be living with you for the duration of your trek.
  • A few people we met told us that their main reason for hiring support was that they wanted to contribute to the local economy and give gainful employment to this hard-working community. Okay, fair enough. Although in every case they told us this without prompting, as I suspect they looked at us with our heavy loads and felt the need to morally justify themselves.
  • We’re proud of ourselves for carrying our own gear (18 kg for me and 10 kg for Maeve) but it’s hardly a good reason to avoid hiring support. And if you want to, you can still lug your kit while being led by a guide. It’s not going to make you much fitter, it’ll slow you down, and it might ruin your knees.
  • Most guides are men but there are female guides in Nepal that might be worth checking out.

Tips for Guesthouses on the Trail

On our two routes, I was surprised to find that we hardly walked an hour without running into a place to eat and sleep. There are major hubs, where many guesthouses (I’m also calling them “lodges” here, same thing) are clustered together, as well as lone buildings at convenient spots in between. They vary in quality but are generally all the same in their general offering. Below is some advice that will be irrelevant if you’ve hired a guide but could be handy if not.

  • We didn’t book any accommodation, we just rocked up to a place in the afternoon and asked for a bed. We only had an issue once – at Dhankharka, aka. Chistibang because the rains had forced a load of trekkers down from Annapurna and Manaslu. In that case we were forced to continue ascending for another 600 m and squeeze into the Khopra Community Lodge, which was packed. If you’re worried, ask the owner of your current guesthouse to call ahead for you and book a room.
  • Most rooms are free. There can be a nominal fee of about 500 NPR but that is often waived anyway. But you are expected to eat your meals in the lodge. That’s where they make their money. However, there is often a charge for more extreme accommodation (i.e. at higher altitudes) or fancier places with rare luxuries like hot water or thick mattresses. In these cases you can still expect to pay less than 1,500 NPR (for two people in a twin or double).
  • Make sure you get served. At a couple of our earlier lodges, we ordered some dinner and waited for ages for it to show up, as we watched loads of young men running in and out of the kitchen, bringing food to the other trekkers around us. It took us a while to realise that guides and porters tend to help out in the lodges. They take their guests’ orders, and help to cook and serve, taking the strain off the lodge owners. After we learned this, we made an effort to ensure the owners knew we were there and had placed an order.
  • To order food, find the order book and write you order in clear English, along with the time you want to eat, and your room number at the top. Then hand it to one of the owners. This is what the guides do anyway. It’s standard practice. And don’t be afraid to poke your head in the kitchen and ask to come in. Most lodge owners are happy for you to help yourself to water, write in the book, or warm yourself by their stove.
  • Talk to guides and porters at your lodge. Many of them are very friendly, speak European languages and are happy to dispense free advice. We met some wonderful people, some of whom we are keeping in touch with for future visits. In a couple of exceptional cases, another tourist’s guide or porter went out of their way for us, such as by leading us on a shortcut, in which case we gave them a few hundred rupees in thanks.

Cash and Budget in the Mountains

If you’ve done any research at all you should already know that you need to take all the cash for your trip with you when you leave the city. On our two routes we only saw an ATM once (in Kyanjin Gompa) between the main departure and arrival towns. We weren’t the only tourists up there who got pretty nervous towards the end as our cash began to run out.

So, how much should you budget? Although a room in a mountain lodge was typically only 500 NPR or free, we spent plenty on food. Three meals a day cost us about 1,800-2,800 NPR per person per day.

As a general rule, as you climb higher, prices go up and quality goes down. For instance, we spent our first night on the Langtang-Gosaikunda trek at Hotel Evening View in Thulo Shyaphru. The delightful owners waived their normal 500 NPR room fee and we paid something like 1,400 NPR each in total for our dinner and breakfast. The place was pristine clean and warm, with comfy beds and attached bathrooms with how showers and western-style toilets. Contrast that with our highest-altitude stay on that trip, in Gosaikunda, where a noisy, rickety wooden lodge with smelly keyhole toilets and costs us about 4,000 NPR each (with an additional third meal, as we arrived in the morning).

We appreciated having sleeping bags. We didn’t need them at lower elevations and they were weighed on us every step. But they gave us comfort in the freezing conditions of the higher lodges, which sometimes included a filthy, lumpy duvet that wouldn’t have kept us very warm, and in many cases didn’t provide any covers at all. That said, many lodges have spare blankets, if you don’t want to lug a sleeping bag up with you, but they come in varying degrees of cleanliness and you might be depriving porters of a cover if the places is busy. You can always ask to sleep in the dining hall by the stove but it’s likely to be shut off in the night anyway, and you’ll be on a hard bench with lots of snoring porters and guides.

Toilets and Hygiene

If you insist on being an out-and-out hygiene freak, I don’t advise trekking in the Himalaya at all above around 2,500 m. Accommodation and hygience are basic. But if you’re uncomfortable, I urge you to put your worries aside and embrace the experience. The Simple Life is bliss once you commit to it. And we met people of all ages who were just getting on with things and not making an issue of it.

Get into the habit of using the bucket and jug in the toilets, if you don’t want to go through your toilet paper too fast. But you can buy toilet paper at most lodges too, even at high elevations. I suggest you bring your own soap, as many places don’t have any. Beyond that, just embrace the cabbagy smells and get stuck in!

You can wash your clothes as you go, which saves you from carrying too much stuff. You’ll just need to bring your own laundry soap and be prepared to have freezing hands for a wee while. If you’re moving on the next day you probably won’t have time to dry your clothes in the sun but there are drying lines over the stove in the lounge area of the lodges.

You can get cheap gear in Nepal

We purchased some expensive, fancy-brand clothing and trekking gear back home. That was a treat for ourselves and we’ll use it for years to come. But it’s not necessary. You can buy or hire your gear in Kathmandu or Pokhara. In the tourist areas of each city (Thamel in Kathmandu or Lakeside in Pokhara) there are dozens of trekking shops. You can’t miss them. Some offer better advice than others and the prices can vary wildly so take time to shop around. However, the goods are pretty much all the same. You will see endless supplies of outdoor gear brandishing the logos of your favourite western brands, like North Face and Patagonia, and looking somewhat indistinguishable from the real thing. Of course they’re fake, low-grade Chinese knock-offs. But does that mean you should avoid them? I argue not. In most cases they will still keep you warm, or shaded, or whatever. They might not last far beyond your visit to Nepal but they also won’t cost you much.

I’m happy with the way I did it: I spent an eye-watering sum on a basic range of high-end gear from real western brands, and then I spent an almost trivial amount in Nepal on spares and non-life-or-death alternatives. For instance, I bought a real Nalgene bottle for about £20, which has been through hell with me and still has several years left on it, and I bought a fake one for 400 NPR. I also bought a fake “Columbia” wide-brimmed hat for 400 NPR which performed fine but probably won’t come on many trips with me.

What Else? Well, a Few Things

  • Build windows of time into your plans. Be flexible on your trekking itinerary. You might need time before you leave to find a good guide, buy your passes (which may have to be done in person) or – as was very much the case on our recent visit – you may have to wait for the weather to improve. In the first few days of October this year, hundreds of tourists had to delay their treks, were sent down from the mountain by their guides, or had to be rescued by helicopter – all because the annual rains were unseasonably late in finishing.
  • Eat Dal Bhat! There’s a reason the guides and porters tend to eat the classic Nepali dish Dal Bhat. Not only does it offer a range of high-energy food (curry, rice, lentils and pickles) but you also get endless free refills of any part of the dish. Yes, this is standard. If someone doesn’t offer you top ups (often very quickly after serving) ask for it.
  • Air your footwear and clean your feet at lunchtime if you want to extend the time before either (and therefore both) get smelly and remain so for the rest of the trek.
  • Don’t underestimate the sun. It’s hot at lower altitude, and cool but potentially more exposed at altitude.
  • Use and download all your potential regional maps before you depart so you can access them offline. Although you should never rely on apps, or on technology that can break or run out of charge, throughout Central America, Africa and Asia, in some really far away places, has never failed to locate us or correctly navigate us along the trail. Honestly, it blows my mind.
  • Which mobile SIM card is best? If you buy a Nepali SIM so you can make local calls and get mobile data without paying exorbitant roaming rates, I recommend Nepal Telecom (aka: NTC, or Namaste) over the other major player, Ncell. Maeve and I bought one of each to test them, and we lost count of the times I got coverage from my NTC SIM while she got none from her Ncell SIM. Also, I suggest you figure out how to purchase more data or call packages before you set off on your trip because it can be fiddly. You can buy top-up cards from vendors in towns (but unlikely on the mountain) and you’d end up paying commission on those anyway. Instead, download the NTC app and/or visit their website and go through the whole process of buying a new package once before departing. Otherwise you could get stuck at any point, as I did (e.g. by not being able to confirm my purchase because I had WiFi access but no mobile signal to receive the OTP confirmation).

And errrrr…

Phew, I think that’s it.

Of course, any feedback is welcome, especially if you think I’m full of shit.

Otherwise, go, get out there, get up into the roof of the world. There is nowhere else like it. It will stay in your soul forever.