Nepali Times
Nearly heaven


If you have only a week, and want a feel for wild Nepal, then Langtang National Park is your best bet. But, shhh, don't tell anyone. Langtang is also unique because so few people visit there, preferring the more famous trails on the Everest route or the Annapurnas.

Only a day's bus ride and walk away, the entrance to the park is remarkably close to Kathmandu. Langtang also offers pure wilderness, something quite rare among treks in Nepal because the routes are mostly along well-populated or well-travelled trails. Langtang has everything: unsurpassed scenery, forests, waterfalls and wildlife, villages and ways of life largely untouched by the outside world.

Upper Langtang is a U-shaped valley carved by ancient glaciers. The rivers of ice have receded, leaving swaths of bulldozed boulders and earth piled up on large moraines. Teetering precariously on a cliff ledge overlooking Langtang village are the blue seracs of the Langtang icefall. They do tumble down periodically, bathing the whole valley in snow dust. The east-west valley takes a sudden sharp turn to the north near Kyanjin-this is the destination and the most scenic part of the entire trek.

Mountains of the Jugal Himal range to the east, Xixapangma the eight-thousander looms to the north just inside Tibet, above you is the dominating presence of Langtang Lirung, its snowy east face so bright in the rays of the rising sun that it bathes the whole valley in the eerie golden glow of a second sun. Then to the south the jagged saw-tooth of Naya Kanga and the Ganja La pass that provides a difficult shortcut back to Kathmandu. It is difficult to imagine that we are only 32 km horizontally and about 2 km vertically from Kathmandu Valley here.

You cannot, should not, hurry through Langtang. You have to linger and savour the ambience of this magical place. Watch and live the moods of the mountains in the morning, noon, evenings and nights. Feel the rhythm of the village as the Langtangis go about with their yak grazing, cheese-making, playing with their children. You go to Langtang to tarry, to recharge your soul, and you can only do that if you hang around and not go tearing across the countryside at breakneck speed in your group's trekking itinerary.

You will be thankful when the hair-raising bus ride on an appalling road from Kathmandu to Dhunche comes to an end. The daily bus service is always overcrowded, but cheap (Rs 120). If you want to travel in style then you can hire a taxi up to Dhunche but it will set you back about Rs 6,000. You could go on to Syabru Besi, which is a shorter route, but for views Dhunche is better. It is also better to start walking right away because Dhunche has the air of a wild west frontier town. Camp near the entrance to the park. The next morning, you will find yourself walking in thick fragrant forests of oak, pine, fir and spruce, alive with birds, musk deer, monkeys and the playful Himalayan red panda. The crystal clear Langtang Khola thunders nearby, and this sound never leaves you as you ascend.

The park is not completely uninhabited. There are 45 villages (846 households of 4,500 people) inside the park. The majority are Tamangs, and higher up in Langtang Valley are Tibetans. The prime trekking season normally begins mid-October and lasts till mid-December, and mid-February to mid-April although it will still be cold at higher elevations. The rest of May before the monsoon arrives is still ideal for Langtang, but expect hefty afternoon thunderstorms and snow in the upper regions of the valley. The rhododendron season is now ending, but the forests will be alive with summer colours and scents. But even Langtang cannot escape modernisation and there are now lodges along the trail every 5 km or so, serving dal bhat, chow mein and even pasta with meat sauce and extra cheese. Langtang is where the Swiss first built yak cheese plants in Nepal in the 1950s, and the word Langtang has the same ring as Emmental in some wine-and-cheese circles in Kathmandu. By the end of the trek, you will have cheese and the more traditional Nepali churpi coming out of your ears.

The highlight of Langtang is Kyanjin, a small beautiful village, approximately 2-3 hrs from Langtang Village and the last permanent settlement before the glaciers. Kyanjin hotels are sophisticated, and designed for trekkers who have come here to attain nirvana. The rooms are cosy, the dining rooms have central fireplaces, solar heaters for hot showers. All that and a hot chocolate on yak milk while watching the sun set, and the moon rise simultaneously in one of the world's most stupendously beautiful places. Nearly heaven.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)