"Let’s go to this town!" the unplanned traveller says while reading an eye catching poster in a bus station. Next day he is there. The process repeats itself several times, each time leading him in a random direction and transforming him into an oversized Brownian Particle. This is incredibly fun and interesting but unsuitable for certain locations. Travelling in the Himalayas requires careful planning due to the extreme climate conditions. Many visit Nepal for the sake of trekking or climbing. Few countries offer a better infrastructure; none offers higher mountains. Among the various areas available for such activities, the Sagarmatha Park is the most prestigious due to the simple fact it houses the highest mountain on earth.
Yet, planning doesn’t mean spending months of careful preparations. Usually that’s also a difficult process to be performed from far away, regardless how good the travel agencies, books or websites are. You need to fit the trip to your needs, and only in the site you can get accurate information about what is available and possible, and about last minute changes.
This is where Thamel – a Kathmadu’s district – becomes handy. Despite its humble surroundings, Thamel occupies a premium spot just west of the Royal Palace, north of the Durbar Square and south of Bouddhanat. Thamel’s layout is definitely complex; many alleys connect between the main roads, others are just dead ends. The maze is three dimensional, many establishments’ are located on upper floors; reaching them may demand from the traveler substantial amounts of ingenuity. I described its layout elsewhere, and now would like to put an emphasis in its usefulness to the planned traveller.
Restaurants, guesthouses, convenience stores, travel agencies, trekking and climbing services companies, souvenirs and T-shirts stalls; on each of these categories Thamel provides an incredible variety of options. It may seem unappealing, but this eclectic reality is a powerful magnet even for the most resilient snobs. Moreover, Thamel houses a significant number of second-hand English bookstores – definitely more than Khaosan Road in Bangkok – and is the recommended place for stocking up and exchanging these oddities. This is the best place for finding detailed maps of the trekking areas; many of them are not available elsewhere.
Despite the ubiquitous travel agencies offering special treks and climbing expeditions, the trekker should remember that trekking is basically an independent activity and that the Nepali teahouses scattered along all the main routes make the activity an easy and friendly one. However anything classified as "Trekking Peak" and upwards demands special permits and local guides. That’s when the agencies become useful.
Many of the shops in the area sell equipment related to climbing and trekking. They can be easily categorized into those selling inexpensive equipment produced in Nepal or in nearby China and those selling equipment brought from Europe – mainly from Germany. The merchandise in the last is substantially more expensive than in Europe, while the merchandise sold in the first would barely last one trek.
Probably the most professional place for the independent trekkers is KEEP (KATHMANDU ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION PROJECT). KEEP specializes in providing services to trekkers in Nepal within an extra-comfortable environment; much better than sitting within a cold travel agency next to the noisy street – customers are attended on the first floor. The main information services available are on the most popular trekking routes and on how to trek responsibly, giving the last issue a heavy environmental focus. They call this "minimum impact trekking." Here the trekker can plan his trek while having access to the latest and most professional information.
Walking in Nepal is different that walking in a New Mexican altitude desert or the Bolivian Amazonian Basin. There is more to a trek than walking, yet that action is at the very heart of the adventure and some attention should be given to the way it is performed while planning the adventure.
I found the same behavior in Nepal and Bolivia and concluded highlanders walk differently. Most of us would try to find the flattest path between two points. Walking around the peak is better than climbing to its summit and then descending. That’s not so in Nepal. Most paths follow the shortest possible way between two points regardless the slopes. It is tiring, but unless the trekker is ready to create new paths, that’s the only option. That means that the calculation of the time to be spent on the path in a given day should be done carefully. Walking up-and-down is slower than walking on plains.
Keeping a steady pace is the best way of covering large distances there. The best way of learning it is watching the porters for a while. The recommended speed varies with the terrain conditions, but the average speed should not cross the 2 kilometers per hour mark; it may sound slow, but keeping it for eight to ten hours per day – day after day - in a mountainous area is difficult.
A constant temptation is rushing downwards at every opportunity. That’s not only dangerous – falling down and suffering damage is a real possibility here - but also may lead to overstrained muscles. At the first opportunity, measure the time it takes you climbing a hill and then how long the descent takes. A proper pace is if the way down took 80% of the time the way up took. If it takes less, then it’s too fast.
Depending on the season and the time of the day, the trekker may encounter extreme temperatures. Cold is worse a problem than heat, since if the muscles cool down too fast after a walk, beginning walking again is difficult. Strange as it may seem, that’s the reason for the location of the porters’ teahouses along the way. They are roughly located an hour away from each other – that is if you walk like a Nepali. These simple huts are immediately recognizable: the smoke rising from them is a clear sign of their having a fire inside. Here, fire means tea. Moreover, they are always located along the way. Strange platforms next to them allow the porters to put the heavy baskets down comfortably.
The idea is walking 55 minutes of any given hour and resting the other 5 minutes next to a cup of steaming, sweet tea. No more than five minutes, otherwise the muscles cool down. No more, otherwise you get sleepy and the day is lost.
There isn’t a sadder way of spoiling the perfect vacation than climbing beyond the altitude limit where the body can get suitable amounts of oxygen from the atmosphere. The problem is that this limit is not steady, it varies as the body gets accustomed to the altitude; a process known as acclimatization. I did comment on that extensively.
Even if the traveller finds planning a trip an obnoxious activity, sometimes escaping it is unavoidable. Yet, if performed properly, let’s say in a cosy room in Kathmandu after having eaten a few momos, even that can become an agreeable activity, maybe not less enjoyable than the trip itself.