Highest elevation: 12,565 ft (3,830 m)
Lowest elevation: 8,054 ft (2,455 m)
By the time we had wrapped up communication with my family regarding my grandpa's passing, we left Thulo Syabru late morning in the heat of the day, sweating our way downhill to a dramatic suspension bridge leading to the lowest reaches of Langtang Valley. The jungle-like vegetation provided some relief from the sun, but the humidity persisted as we now began our climb up the river. We enjoyed a proper picnic next to a waterfall, a spread of nak cheese, a loaf of bread from a local bakery, veggie and potato momos, and the last of our Cadbury chocolate hauled in from Kathmandu.
Given our late start, we snagged the last of four rooms in an intimate lodge nested in the forest near Rimche just before it was fully dark. We sat in the kitchen and sipped raksi, a moonshine commonly made of fermented millet or other available grains, while observing the dal bhat preparations conducted by various family members sitting on the floor. After dinner, we chatted with Karma, their charismatic thirteen year old with an impressive command of English who would be returning to boarding school in Kathmandu at the end of a holiday break for two Hindu festivals, Daisan and Tihar. Since their family is Buddhist and of Tibetan heritage, the time off from school is comparable to Christmas break for Jewish kids.
When Karma mentioned that he wants to be an artist, I dug out my watercolor pencils and paper for him and his two younger cousins. The cousins both drew helicopters and helipads, leading to a suspicion that perhaps boys in Nepal want to be helicopter pilots when they grow up kind of like American boys dream of being professional sports players. On the other hand, Karma drew a detailed rose surrounded by a heart, which he gifted to me the next morning, convincing Matt that he had a crush on me.
Since we would return to this spot after going up and down the valley, we took the opportunity to leave our camping gear and a few other extras behind. We continued up the forested trail, loving the new lightness of our packs, and it began to drizzle. When we finally decided it would be smart to put on our rain jackets, it stopped as soon as we got our packs back on and started hiking again.
Shortly after taking our jackets off, a local woman with a young child looked particularly excited to see us as we approached. She greeted us enthusiastically and explained that she had been looking for us. We were a bit taken aback and confused until we figured out that she owned a guesthouse further up the valley. Yesterday, we stopped her nephew on the trail to inquire about some strange looking structures underneath an overhang cliff that turned out to be honeybee hives. Matt also asked him for a recommendation of where to stay and he gave us the name of his aunt's guesthouse. After we parted ways, he apparently went a step further and called his aunt to alert her to potential customers. She had walked several hours down the trail just to meet us, thus guaranteeing we would stay at her place and not get snatched up by another recruiter. This was our first insight into how competitive this trekking area gets for the opportunistic business of independent trekkers.
We now had a spontaneous guide and porter since she insisted on carrying my pack as well. When we asked her how long to her place, not sure we wanted to hike so far in one day, she responded, "One house." Hmmm... We were flying up the trail and making good time except for the tea stops that we normally pass up. To be polite, we agreed to a cup at her sister's place and also ordered a delicious "apple pie," more like a fried apple-filled doughnut. Then not much further along, we met her brother at his lodge, who insisted we take a rest, which really meant buying some tea from him.
We were well hydrated by the time we got above treeline, having walked from summer, through fall, to winter all in one day. Just as strange, we watched a family of langur monkeys playing on the boulders of the rocky slopes, far from the lush forest we associate with monkey habitat.
We finally reached her guesthouse and met her husband, son, and daughter. It was a new place and quite nice. Instead of relaxing (or beginning dinner preparations), she fretted about whether another group of tourists, whom she had been harassing in good nature throughout the day, would succumb to other lodging temptations. She claimed that she rarely got business because most trekkers push on to the larger town just past their "suburb" community.
The next morning she took it a bit too far, insisting that she make a reservation for us at her sister's lodge at the highest village of Kangin Gompa. We said we would take a look but did not want to commit to anything until we got there. She then gave us a small plastic bag and asked us to deliver it to her sister. When Matt started to open it to see what was inside, she told him not to. Of course, as soon as we left, we opened it to find a half-eaten mostly rotten apple. This was clearly a ploy to make us feel obligated to go to her sister's place, which had the exact opposite effect on us.
Before reaching Kangin Gompa, a village that is not really a village but a large collection buildings that are either guesthouses or other tourist-oriented businesses, we had heard several sob stories and pleas to stay at such and such lodge. We were dreading even walking in to the town at that point, so we headed directly to a guesthouse set apart up on the hill next to the town's namesake monastery and settled in. Without our backpacks to incriminate us as new arrivals, we then enjoyed walking around the town. Upon dutifully delivering the half-eaten apple to the sister, she informed us that she had kept the best room open for us in anticipation of our arrival. We explained that we did not ask for a reservation to be made and left before any more weirdness could occur.
Despite the amazing view of mountains lining the valley to be had from Kangin Gompa, the next day we made an all-day walk further up the valley in search of more. We crossed paths with a team of scientists researching glacial retreat and other effects of climate change, particularly exciting because we had visited their Glacier Documentation Center the day before. Staffed by local women, the intent of the small room of displays is to share results and raise awareness among trekkers and the local communities. Climbing to the top of an old terminal moraine as our turnaround point, we got a distant glimpse of one of the glaciers under study, surrounded by beautiful snowy peaks of course. Hiking at top speed on the return, we witnessed the full show of sunset as we approached town.
Since we had hiked for eight or so hours on our "rest day," we opted for one more day actually relaxing (translation: doing laundry by hand and actually taking a shower) before heading down the valley in a single long push. We stopped at a nak cheese factory and bakery where profits benefit community projects, and while chatting with the baker, discovered he is also the brother of the pushy sister! We prepared to blow by her place, not wanting to have the conversation about not staying with the apple sister, but of course she was perched on a bench right along the trail waiting to snag passing trekkers. Surprisingly, she did not bring it up, but rather encouraged us to stop for some fresh curd (nak milk yogurt). There must have been a big batch delivered because we were offered the same at every lodge all the way down the valley. We finally caved in at her other brother's place and the two bowls we ordered were indeed fresh and delicious.
In the lower valley there seemed to be the opposite problem regarding lodging. As we walked through a concentration of guesthouses called Lama Hotel, we were completely ignored. The lack of recruitment could only mean one thing: the town was totally booked up. Rimche was no different. Even our favorite little place that had held our excess belongings was full. We were offered sleeping space in the kitchen, but instead opted for setting up our tent for the first time on this journey, falling asleep to the sound of the rushing river and waking up to birdsong and the owners chasing monkeys out of their vegetable garden.
The highlights of Langtang included trekking through a progression of ecotones as we gained elevation up the valley, conversations over dal bhat dinners with interesting travelers from the US, UK, Switzerland, Germany, and Israel, and picnic lunches of local cheese and bread. The volume of foreign trekkers and the subsequent competitive dependence on tourism was both fascinating and challenging to deal with. On the one hand, catering to tourists with nice lodges and treats made the trek feel very comfortable, but the forwardness and at times aggressiveness of the proprietors also made us feel like we were just walking wallets. Was their friendliness genuine or just a necessity for their business to survive? I believe we encountered plenty of both depending on the situation.
After repacking our full load of gear, we were ready to split off from the Langtang trail and see what the Tamang Heritage trail had in store for us.