We set out to familiarize ourselves with the maze of narrow, canyon-like streets of Thamel since we were at a loss as to where to begin our trek organizing process. Soon we poked our heads into Beni Handicraft, a store selling handicrafts made from repurposed trash, and met David Durkan, an energetic ex-pat staffing the shop who struck up conversation with us. We explained that we were anxious to get trekking, but had not yet researched options or decided on a route. That was all we needed to say for him to adopt us for the afternoon, sharing a wealth of knowledge accumulated from thirty years of experience in Nepal as well as snippets of his fascinating life, which he details in his locally published book Penguins on Everest, donating all profits to the NGO Autism Care Nepal.
Now feeling overwhelmed with options, we headed to a book and map store to select some printed material for more detailed research. While comparing two maps of Nepal selected from an extensive collection, a voice over Matt's shoulder said, "Don't get that one, take the other." He turned around and asked the British man why, who then responded with a grin, "Because I made it." This of course paved the way for an insightful conversation with Robin Boustead, a cartographer who has hiked, mapped, described, photographed, written books about, and otherwise promoted Nepal's Great Himalaya Trail.
The GHT is billed as the highest long distance trail in the world, running about 1,700 kilometers (1,000 miles) along the High Route in Nepal alone, but stretches from Bhutan to northwestern India in its entirety. While he waited to meet with the manager of the bookstore regarding the release date of an updated GHT map, Robin's enthusiasm inspired us to start dreaming of attempting the formidable trek ourselves. After all, we had no future commitments in our open ended journey. The limiting factors would be the arrival of winter, expense, and as we would soon learn with further investigation, a lack of technical mountaineering experience as well. Our first day in Kathmandu turned out to be an impactful one; just by wandering around we met two local experts who broadened our trekking ambitions from only the overrun Annapurna Circuit and the ever-popular Everest Base Camp. However, the full significance of our serendipitous meetings would not be realized for another week or so.
We celebrated our epic day with delicious wood-fired pizza for dinner, the first good pizza we had eaten since curiously checking out a Pizza Hut in Beijing. Of course, this was much better!
Besides taking care of travel errands such as laundry, the next day was dedicated to furthering our now difficult trekking decision. We spent the afternoon at the office of Kathmandu Environmental Education Project, a local NGO who provides unbiased trekking information through firsthand trekker accounts in logbooks, access to maps, a library, and most importantly, information on how to trek responsibly. By then, we had honed in on the idea of trekking the eastern sections of the GHT this season and saving the rest for future trekking seasons. Now we needed to find an agency to arrange the logistics of permits and a guide. We stopped in at one place listed on the GHT website as specializing in treks to the Kanchenjunga region, which would be our starting point. However, upon meeting with the agent, it became obvious that the specialized knowledge we were seeking was not there. We moved on to David Durkan's recommended company, Asian Heritage, and the owner Nilam was both personable and straight forward with answers to our questions. He said he would get back to us in a couple of days regarding the details of government issued permits and the availability of an experienced guide for that region.
With our trekking process on hold, we turned our attention towards seeing more of Kathmandu. We spent a day taking in the many sights of city life between Thamel and Durbar Square, from finding the best lassi we have ever had to watching Hindu women fondling strands of shiny beads at a dedicated bead market. By the time we actually got in to Durbar Square, the center of religious and political power of the former Malla royal dynasty, we had hit sensory overload.
We also caught up with a cycle tourer we had met at our hostel in Xining, China. William had also taken the train to Lhasa and toured with Explore Tibet to the Nepal border before cycling to Kathmandu, arriving just a few days after us. Like us, he was also in the process of figuring out his next moves for his long-term travel. Unlike us, he seemed content with the prospect of chilling in Kathmandu for a while, whereas we were already getting antsy to get out.
Our readiness to move on made our next meeting with Nilam all the more disheartening. He had consulted with a guide that had done the section of GHT that we had set our sights on. Not only was the guide already booked up for the rest of the season, but he emphasized the need for a handful of porters to get through a week of jungle without any options of a provision resupply, followed by three challenging passes over 6,000 meters (19,600 feet) high. We were not yet ready to commit to the level of logistics and expenditure required, nor did we feel we had enough experience to safely take on the technical high-altitude passes. Six days spent in Kathmandu and we were back to the drawing board.
As though it was intended to match our mood, it began down-pouring and did not stop for two days. The streets transformed into rivers and pools of the dirtiest brown water imaginable. Shopkeepers pulled their wares away from the storefronts that usually spilled into the streets. We still didn't know which trek we were doing, but we felt an urgent need to accomplish something tangible, so we decided to go shopping. We walked loops around Thamel, comparing practically identical products and prices. We were soaked to the bone before we committed to any specific fake North Face down jacket or knock-off Leki trekking poles.
We had a vague awareness that this heavy rain was unusual for this time of the year, the result of a monsoon storm that had hit India and kept going. Then, the next morning after the sky cleared, the sobering news came in the storm had translated to freakishly intense snowfall and blasting winds that settled on the highest pass of the Annapurna Circuit, killing an undetermined number of tourists and Nepali guides and porters. Some were caught in avalanches and others lost their way and presumably died of hypothermia. We tracked the news stories over the coming days, including helicopter rescue for those who were fortunate to have hunkered down in lodges to wait out the storm. With six feet of snowfall in 12 hours reported and the death toll confirmed at a minimum of 43 (but likely quite a bit higher since many bodies have yet to be recovered as I write this), the incident is regarded as the worst trekking disaster in Nepal's history. We gratefully reflected that, had we not met David and Robin, resulting in a longer trekking research process, we may have been on our way around Annapurna ourselves. One option we had been considering was cycling the Annapurna Circuit on the dirt roads that have been controversially constructed along the route in the last few years.
It was Matt's idea, likely the product of his habit of pouring over maps, but I latched on to it quickly and wholeheartedly. Why not trek from Kathmandu to Pokhara and take care of roughly the middle third of the GHT in the process? We brought our new plan to Nilam and he approved too. We would be able to hike the first month on our own, then if we were still game to keep going, he would send a compulsory guide to meet us with permits for the sections that are deemed "restricted areas" by the government. All we had to do was leave our passports and our credit card with him! We figured this was either a really great guy who was prioritizing our flexibility over his business gain, or we would soon be financing his luxury vacation to Somewhere Far Far Away...We decided to bet on the former.
That was actually the least of our concerns as the concreteness of a plan suddenly quadrupled the length of our to do list. It seemed like endless details needed to be taken care of over the next few days, everything from getting our trekking permits at a government office and meeting with our future guide, to stocking up on chocolate bars and buying a cheap emergency cell phone. One of the most pressing logistics was finding storage for our bicycles and extra gear. Luckily, a friend of a friend was willing to keep them in their storage room at their family home not far from where we were staying.
When we had met David and Robin on our first day in Kathmandu, it was both of their last days in the city before leaving for projects elsewhere in Nepal. We were still there when they returned from their work, and both kindly offered to meet with us again to discuss our specific trekking plan. When David learned that we were passing through Tipling, he called his friend Beni to come meet with us as well. She is from Tipling and is the founder of Beni Handicraft, the store selling upcycled goods made by imprisoned women where we first met David. She encouraged us to visit her parents when we arrived in her hometown.
Later that same evening, we joined Robin and friends at his favorite watering hole, Sam's Bar. While spreading out a map across the tiny bar table, he gave us the skinny on the Ganesh Himal Ruby Valley trek, the one region we still felt a little unsure about. Conveniently, he had just returned from conducting trail research there (while coping with snowfall from the same storm that hit Annapurna so hard) so his information could not have been more up to date. He even gifted us one of his last copies of the first edition of his Great Himalaya Trail guidebook!
Our last obligation was to return to Nilam his signed copy of The Great Himalaya Trail written by Gerda Paula, a German woman who through-hiked the GHT in 2012 as a charity walk for Autism Care Nepal, and friends with David Durkan as well. She wrote an account of each day on the trail. I read the relevant sections out loud to Matt, over our "goodbye to civilization" dinner at The Roadhouse Cafe, the same wood-fired pizza place where we also ate our first night in Kathmandu. Next stop was the Northfield Cafe, where we gleaned the last tidbits of information about the route ahead of us accompanied by a brownie sundae and our last organic coffee for the foreseeable future that then kept us up all night...oops. Our last day perfectly mirrored our first day; we met the same people, ate in the same places, and, after our spell of disenchantment with the process, we were once again filled with the same sense of anticipation and excitement.
The White Lotus Guesthouse owner was somewhere between shocked and congratulatory when we actually checked out the next morning, after several days of telling him "just one more day." We were more than ready to leave Kathmandu after getting stuck there for about two weeks, much longer than we anticipated. We only hoped that the thoughtful research and thorough preparation for our trek would pay off once we hit the trail.